Report: U.S. not prepared for EMP attacks

Congress and the Bush administration are largely ignoring the threat of a major electromagnetic pulse attack that could shut down large portions of country's economy by disabling computer systems, power grids and communications, according to a report from the Heritage Foundation.

An electromagnetic pulse is a high-intensity burst of energy that disrupts, shuts down and in some cases permanently disables electronic systems in a distance of hundreds of miles. It occurs when a nuclear weapon is exploded at high altitude, and non-nuclear EMP-producing weapons can cause similar damage on a smaller scale.

The Homeland Security Department has not directly addressed the threat of EMP attacks in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, the report released Oct. 20 states. The threat should be incorporated into national planning and preparedness, it recommends.

The next president must take steps to safeguard the nation’s electrical systems, power grids and computer systems against such threats, wrote Jena Baker McNeill and Richard Weitz, the authors of the report.

“An EMP attack on the United States could irreparably cripple the country. It could simultaneously inflict large-scale damage and critically limit our recovery abilities,” they wrote. “Congress and the new administration must recognize the significance of the EMP threat and take the necessary steps to protect against it.”

The report recommended more research to assess the risks of EMP problems more fully and to identify details about the likelihood of various types of EMP attacks. It recommends a comprehensive missile defense system to defend against a nuclear weapon strike.

Meanwhile, a research project at the University of Maryland is developing technology to protect information technology equipment and power grids against the effects of an EMP strike.

Instant Access Networks LLC and Frostburg State University Professor Hilkat Soysal are teaming to create protected microgrids that could provide electricity to a community following a disaster. The microgrids are shielded by a patent-pending technology that insulates them from the effects of an EMP attack.

The shielding, developed by Instant Access Networks, also can be used to protect network nodes, data centers and communication centers, according to a press release dated Oct. 9.

The work is being supported by $165,000 through the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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