Guilty Knowledge: What the US Government Knows about the Vulnerability of the Electric Grid, But Refuses to Fix

On January 21, 2014, Fox News aired a segment describing the vulnerability of the U.S. bulk power distribution system, popularly known as the electric “grid.” The report described various dangers that could cause the grid to fail, possibly catastrophically. These range from physical and cyber attacks on its subsystems to space weather and a high-altitude nuclear detonation unleashing intense electro- magnetic pulses (EMP) that could afflict the grid across vast areas.

Fox solicited a comment from the Department of Defense about these threats and their potential to imperil the very existence of the United States—and a large percentage of its present population. This was the Pentagon’s response: “The Department is unaware of any increase in the threat of a deliberate destructive use of an EMP device. Further, any reporting to the contrary by those without access to current threat assessments is both reckless and irresponsible.” guilty-knowledge-web-buy_nowAt the very best, this statement suggests that the Defense Department is ignorant of a yawning danger to the civilian critical infrastructure—upon which the military also heavily relies.

At worst, it is actively and purposefully misleading the American people who will die by the tens of millions when one or the other of these threats eventuates. In fact, a blue-ribbon commission convened by the Congress to examine the EMP threat concluded that, if the power went out and stayed off for more than a year in large parts of the United States—a prospect it found was plausible—as many as nine-out-of-ten Americans would perish. Even if it actually were the case that EMP threats are not intensifying— something that is highly debatable in light of evidence in the public domain about the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons, ballistic missile and satellite programs—one thing is clear: U.S. civil society has been for many years so dangerously vulnerable to the take-down of the nation’s electric grid as to invite enemies to try to exploit our vulnerability.

Moreover, even if no enemies acted on this opportunity to bring about, in the oft-stated words of then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “a world with- out America,” there is another menace that is certain to do that, somewhat later if quite soon: a massive geo-magnetic disturbance (GMD). Such a powerful GMD would distort the earth’s magnetosphere, unleashing what are known as E3 long- duration electromagnetic pulses that would, all other things being equal, be con- ducted by power lines into the backbone of the grid: the nation’s high-voltage trans- formers, seriously damaging if not destroying them. In other words, the vulnerability of America’s grid does not have to become any more severe to pose a mortal danger. To pretend otherwise—and to encourage the public to believe a false narrative—is what is truly “reckless and irresponsible.”

In the interest of ensuring that the rest of us have ready access to this knowledge, the Center for Security Policy has compiled in one short reference book–Guilty Knowledge: What the US Government Knows about the Vulnerability of the Electric Grid–the executive summaries of these eleven studies.

Our hope is that this compendium will make clear the abundant evidence distilled from authoritative sources that confirms America has a problem: We are at risk of unprecedented catastrophe from long-duration disruption of the electric grid—unless we take practical, near-term and relatively low-cost steps to prevent it. Equipped with this guilty knowledge, we hope you will recognize and act upon the duty to yourself, your family, your community and your country to ensure that the steps needed to make our grid resilient are taken, before it is too late.

Highlights from the Reports in Guilty Knowledge: Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack (2004)

“Several potential adversaries have or can acquire the capability to attack the United States with a high-altitude nuclear weapon- generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP). A determined adversary can achieve an EMP attack capability without having a high level of sophistication.” “The electromagnetic fields produced by weapons designed and deployed with the intent to produce EMP have a high likelihood of damaging electrical power systems, electronics, and information systems upon which American society depends. Their effects on dependent systems and infrastructures could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the Nation.”

Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack (2008)

“When a nuclear explosion occurs at high altitude, the EMP signal it produces will cover the wide geographic region within the line of sight of the detonation. This broad band, high amplitude EMP, when coupled into sensitive electronics, has the capability to produce widespread and long lasting disruption and damage to the critical infrastructures that underpin the fabric of U.S. society.” “Because of the ubiquitous dependence of U.S. society on the electrical power system, its vulnerability to an EMP attack, coupled with the EMP’s particular damage mechanisms, creates the possibility of long-term, catastrophic consequences.”

Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, A Report of the National Research Council of the National Academies (2008)

“The Carrington event is by several measures the most severe space weather event on record. It produced several days of spectacular auroral displays, even at unusually low latitudes, and significantly disrupted telegraph services around the world…. While the socioeconomic impacts of a future Carrington event are difficult to predict, it is not unreasonable to assume that an event of such magnitude would lead to much deeper and more widespread socioeconomic disruptions than occurred in 1859, when modern electricity-based technology was still in its infancy.”

The Final Report of the Congressional Commission On the Strategic Posture of the United States (Excerpts) (2009)

“We note . . . that the United States has done little to reduce its vulnerability to attack with electromagnetic pulse weapons and recommend that current investments in modernizing the national power grid take account of this risk.”

Intentional Electromagnetic Interference (IEMI) and Its Impact on the U.S. Power Grid, Metatech Corporation (2010)

“It is clear that the biggest threat is against the civil infrastructure, shutting down the control electronics associated with the power grid, the telecom network or other parts of the critical infrastructure…. The modern civil infrastructure is very dependent on computers, which operate at logic levels of a few volts. So an intentional interference can occur at a few volts in critical circuits, causing logic upset.”

High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System. A Jointly-Commissioned Summary Report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the U.S. Department of Energy’s November 2009 Workshop (2010)

“A class of risks, called High-Impact, Low-Frequency (HILF) events, has recently become a renewed focus of risk managers and policy makers. These risks have the potential to cause catastrophic impacts on the electric power system, but either rarely occur, or, in some cases, have never occurred… Examples of HILF risks include coordinated cyber, physical, and blended attacks, the high-altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon, and major natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, large hurricanes, pandemics, and geomagnetic disturbances caused by solar weather.”

Large Power Transformers and the U.S. Electric Grid. Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, U.S. Department of Energy (2012)

“Large Power Transformers (LPTs) are custom-designed equipment that entail significant capital expenditures and long lead times due to an intricate procurement and manufacturing process…. Because LPTs are very expensive and tailored to customers’ specifications, they are usually neither interchangeable with each other nor produced for extensive spare inventories…. The average lead time for manufacture of an LPT is between five and 16 months; however, the lead time can extend beyond 20 months if there are any supply disruptions or delays with the supplies, raw materials, or key parts. The United States has limited production capability to manufacture LPTs.”

Buy Guilty Knowledge at Amazon. Guilty Knowledge About the EMP Coalition A group of the country’s top experts on this threat and what can be done to mitigate it have joined forces under the leadership of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton’s Director of Central Intelligence, R. James Woolsey. The goal of this EMP Coalition is to raise awareness of the extreme peril associated with the sort of powerful electromagnetic pulse that could be caused literally at any time by space weather or a hostile power. The Coalition also seeks to ensure that practical, cost-effective and readily available steps are taken as soon as possible to protect the grid. The EMP Coalition is working to:

  • Engage the nation’s electric utilities and their customers-including, notably, those whose businesses depend critically upon reliable supplies of pow- er–about the imperative of eliminating our vulnerability to EMP and instituting the hardware and other changes necessary to do that.
  • Assist executive branch officials and legislators at both the federal and state levels to create the necessary statutory and regulatory environment to make the present bulk power distribution system and any future “smart” grids resilient against EMP.
  • Develop grassroots support for such measures and empower citizens to help.

To find out more about the EMP Coalition and how you can assist its vital work, go to