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Senate Homeland Security Hearing Discusses Nuclear EMP Threat from Iran and North Korea

On Wednesday, July 22, 2015, the Full Senate Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Senator Ron Johnson convened a hearing entitled Protecting the Electric Grid from the Potential Threats of Solar Storms and Electromagnetic Pulse. Testimony was heard from former CIA director Jim Woolsey, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission director of Energy Infrastructure Security, Joseph McClellan, and Christopher P. Currie, the director of Homeland Security and Justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office among others.

According to Senator Johnson, the government has known of solar and nuclear EMP threats for over ten years yet nothing has been done. He stated at the outset that,

“We are going to be debating a nuclear deal with the state of Iran. We already know we have North Korea with a nuclear weapons capability and ballistic missile technology. We know Iran has those exact same ambitions. … so this is a threat that is real and that we need to acknowledge.”

The hearing highlighted the government’s failure to implement key recommendations of the 2008 bipartisan EMP Commission that represents the government’s best consensus assessment of threats to the U.S. electrical grid from both solar EMP and a High Altitude Nuclear EMP attack (HEMP). Both threats could cause long term power outages across major parts of the U.S. grid that would lead to a break down in food and water supplies and other critical infrastructures, which in turn, would lead to catastrophic societal break down and major loss of life to the U.S. population. According to Mr. Currie, the GAO will release a full report on the failure to implement security mitigation for the threats outlined in the report later this year. The main reason he gave is that there is not an entity with a clear role for implementation of mitigation at DHS.

Understanding of the nuclear EMP threat largely centered around Iran and North Korea. Several witness explained that the solar threat is a matter of probability, 10% each decade but threats from rogue states are a much more simple matter of decision and capability. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire cited intelligence estimates that Iran will have ICBM missile capability as early as this year. She stated that, “Yes the SCUD would be the most primitive form but they are also working on more advanced forms that could deliver these weapons and have the same effect.” In regards to Iran, former CIA director Woolsey state that, “Iran is explicitly genocidal with respects to both us (U.S.) and Israel.”

Senator Johnson, who is a leader in the Senate on electrical grid security, found consensus from the expert panel on the seriousness of the threat, the government and the electrical industry’s failure to mitigate known vulnerabilities, and on the existence of affordable mitigation technologies. When the senator asked if there were mitigations that could be installed now, physicist Richard Garwin, who also testified, replied, “Yes, neutral current blocking devices.” Such devices would constitute a part of mitigation that is possible now. Senator Johnson and the panel of witnesses discussed cost issues about such devices at length.