How Vulnerable Is The US Power Grid To EMP?

Survivopedia EMP attackWhile the Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear war has never really died. Instead, it has become the leopard who changed its spots. Rather than being the old leopard, who was bent on mass destruction and deaths, this newer version of the leopard is a more selective killer. It doesn’t takes lives, but rather takes away much of the means of supporting life in a modern culture.

This new attack I’m referring to is of course an EMP attack. As the calculus of nuclear warfare has changed, our biggest risks are no longer thousands of missiles hurled across the ocean, but rather one or two select weapons, designed to create the most effective attack possible.

Part of this is due to where the current nuclear risk is coming from. No longer are we trying to stare down the now defunct Soviet Union, but facing off against poorer countries who have a severely limited nuclear arsenal to use.

{adinserter emp}In some cases, we’re not even talking about countries, but merely terrorist groups which can only produce one small nuclear device.

For them to get the most bang for their buck, they have to think in terms of EMP.

However, these new enemies aren’t doing us any favors.

While they might not be able to incinerate whole cities in the blink of an eye, they are able to eliminate one of the most important parts of our infrastructure just that fast.

How Much the U.S. Power Grid Could Handle?

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) evaluates all aspects of our country’s infrastructure every four years and creates a national report card.

The latest report card was issued in 2013 and gives our overall infrastructure a D+. As part of this, they gave Energy a D+ as well, citing problems with our aging electrical grid, as well as a lack new power plants and refineries coming on line. When we talk about the grid, it’s referring to both the means of producing, as well as distributing electricity across the country.

EMP effect on power grid

An EMP’s three stage attack will utterly destroy any part of the grid that is within line of sight of the explosion. If that explosion happens to be high enough over the central part of the country, it will wipe out the grid for all but the eastern and western seaboards.

If it goes off over Washington, DC, which would make more sense, it could take out the grid for everyone living east of the Mississippi River. That is our largest population area, as well as holding the nation’s political and financial capitals. Putting those two cities out of business would bring a large part of the country to a standstill.

I call it a three stage attack, because one nuclear blast above the atmosphere actually produces three pulses of energy to attack the grid. Parts of the grid which may survive the first pulse will be weakened by it and could then easily be destroyed by the next pulse.


A key element of any EMP attack is that the explosion must happen above the atmosphere, so that all of the explosion’s power can remain as electromagnetic energy, instead of being converted to a shock wave. If the explosion happens in the atmosphere, the force of the explosion will be converted, vastly reducing the EMP produced.

To most people, this means that the nuclear device must be delivered by a rather sophisticated missile; however, that isn’t true. Scientists have successfully launched balloons which reach 120,000 feet, well into the stratosphere, which puts them about the minimum necessary altitude for an EMP blast.

While designing and manufacturing a balloon which will carry a payload that high is a technical challenge, it is nowhere near the technical challenge of designing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).

A 100 Years Paycheck

carringtonThe destruction by such an attack would go far beyond our grid.

The electromagnetic pulse would also destroy pretty much all electronics, from radios to computers.

About the only electronic devices which wouldn’t be destroyed would be simple devices (like electronics with very short conductor lengths), if they are turned off and unplugged when EMP strikes.

Of course, without electrical power, they would be useless.

The effects of the EMP would decimate our society’s ability to function at all levels; industry, commerce, education and the government.

The only things which would still be functional would be some government and military computers which are in electronically hardened shelters.

In such a circumstance, it would be unreasonable to expect that the government would be able to provide disaster relief and assistance. The computers and systems which government agencies depend upon would be out of order.

This wouldn’t just affect the government, but businesses of all types. It would be as if the country was instantly thrown back 100 years, without any time to prepare to live in that way. All the data stored in our computers, which we all depend upon, would be inaccessible.

Video first seen on securefreedom.

While the government has been giving the effects of an EMP attack considerable study, they have not yet begun to implement the necessary changes which would allow us to live through the EMP with minimal impact upon the government, let alone society. So if an EMP were to occur, the results would be devastating.

Experts agree that recovery would take one year to build and replace all the damaged equipment. Of course, the damage may make it take even longer than that, as the companies which would need to build the equipment may not be open for business.

One serious concern is that if the recovery couldn’t be accomplished fast enough, or it might never happen.

The longer we would be forced to go without our electronic systems functioning, the more of it would deteriorate to the point of no longer being repairable.


 This article was written by Bill White for Survivopedia.

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Bill White is the author of Conquering the Coming Collapse, and a former Army officer, manufacturing engineer and business manager. More recently, he left the business world to work as a cross-cultural missionary on the Mexico border. Bill has been a survivalist since the 1970s, when the nation was in the latter days of the Cold War. He had determined to head into the Colorado Rockies, should Washington ever decide to push the button. While those days have passed, the knowledge Bill gained during that time hasn’t. He now works to educate others on the risks that exist in our society and how to prepare to meet them. You can send Bill a message at editor [at]

Latest comments
  • Actually, the USSR did not die but merely morphed. Additionally, the EMP threat is simply a different version of the neutron bomb (as it was called). The EMP takes out the electric grid so that society collapses. People are not prepared and die in droves. The neutron bomb attacked the human body killing people in droves. In both cases the ultimate prize is not the person but the property.

  • You say, "An EMP’s three stage attack will utterly destroy any part of the grid that is within line of sight of the explosion." Please support that assertion. I never see any footnotes to a source that demonstrates that capability scientifically and mathematically.

    • I've tried to get this info from you twice before through private channels with no response. TIA for your disclosing the research you've done for posts on this subject.

    • I read recently that is the sun were to do what it did in the 1900s it would kill everything on earth due to nuclear reacters boiling off. If this is true -- the nuclear sites are the first they should work on.

      • Again, I need solid footnotes or detailed copy to evaluate such an assertion. BTW, seeing as nuclear reactors are designed to go off line and be self-sustaining during a malfunction or even complete shutdown from full load, I'm not sure how even the "sun" scenario could be true. Don't believe ever thing you read! Verify.

        • Osito,

          Hey, this is Cache. I obviously didn't write this article, but I have written others on this topic. Please understand that because Survivopedia posts articles daily, constraints exist as to how much time and effort any given writer can afford to invest in a particular article so not all writers can afford to spend the time to answer questions and thoroughly document source info and research, but I will make time because you seem to be earnest in your desire to learn, I take survival very seriously and consider EMP to be a threat that is almost impossible to understate. I'll provide some links that will help you research EMP. I contributed to the current revision of Blackout USA and will start work on a more advanced EMP survival ebook or book next week after I get the project I'm currently working on to where it needs to be by the end of the week. Here is a link to Blackout USA if you're interested in it:

          Here are a couple of my past article that explain a little about the three-fold effect of a nuclear high altitude EMP (expressed as E1,E2 & E3) as opposed to a geomagnetic event such as a solar storm (which would only cause an effect similar to the E3 component of an EMP caused by a high altitude nuclear detonation):

          Wikipedia does a decent job of explaining the difference between the E1, E2 & E3 components:

          In my opinion, Dr Peter Vincent Pry is one of the best qualified experts on the subject and certainly one of the loudest voices calling for EMP preparedness at all levels. He has authored a couple of books on EMP and how politicians and utilities companies are fighting EMP preparedness out of greed and ignorance. Dr Pry created EMPact America which is an organization dedicated educating the public and politicians about EMP and effecting change to protect against it. Check out the site. They have an excellent online magazine/newsletter that is very well-documented.

          Dr William R. Graham is probably the world's foremost authority on EMP. He was present at the Starfish Prime nuclear test and was the chair of The Commission To Assess The Threat To The United States From Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. I'll include a couple of links to the unclassified results of the committee's findings and his testimony before congress, his bio and let you take it from there, fair enough?

          Hope that helps, if I can be of further assistance, just let me know.


          • Hi, Cache. I understand the constraints that could be placed on a poster. The problem is that past threats have been over-hyped. So, it is absolutely necessary to provide enough info to make an independent verification of the math and science. As you may know, the scientific community has only recently discovered that they have misunderstood the nature of lightning. Electromagnetic fields in our atmosphere are still poorly understood.

            All I asked for, repeatedly, is a link or footnote. I don't think that is too much to ask.

            Thank you very much for the links you provided. I truly appreciate your effort.

        • Over 104 nuke sites in the USA "some" were fitted with turbines to run off residual steam
          to pump water for cooling.
          Sadly on average most all these plants have 2 weeks worth of diesel to run these back up generators
          your so fond of for cooling and water circulation.
          Fuel is not indefinite.

          After that runs out there is a 3 to 7 day grace before most the water evaporates/ boils away.

          Then were going to have all kinds of fukushima events and a large die off world wide.

          Two on our west coast will kill the majority here.

          I don't need proof, look it up your self.

        • After Fukashima happened in Japan and the US took a good hard look at emergency preparations it was discovered that many emergency diesel generators for the nuclear power plants in the US had approximately 8 hours of fuel available.

  • Whether an EMP comes from a high altitude nuclear explosion or as a result from a massive corona mass ejection makes little difference: Depending on how powerful the event might be, the effects would be the same. But the worst of this, which Bill apparently neglected to mention, is what a grid shutdown of any sort would do to the hundred-plus nuclear reactors located in the US (or the 450 in the world). Given that it takes anywhere from 7 to 20 years to decommission (shut down) these reactors, literally everyone of them would go into meltdown the minute they no longer have power (including generators if they'll still run a maximum of about 4 days on stored diesel). Think 100 Fukushimas.

    • I'll bet there may be some reactors that would go critical, but almost every reactor I have knowledge of can handle a self-sustained shut down from full load. They aren't limited to "4 days of diesel". BTW, Fukashima flashed because the water for cooling was disrupted. A foolish design error not applicable to all reactors...maybe not any by now.

  • Great article Bill. Relating to the tests done in the Bikini atolls (Starfish) the tests we done to study the effects of s nuclear device above, and under the sea.The above sea test had some suprising results that the military was not expecting, the reason today, for all military equipment to be shielded for magnetic and static waves. In fact, over 160 miles away in Honolulu telephone lines and switchboards, and even old 1960's points ignition cars failed to start.If you can imagine the damage a pulse of that size (small compared to the Carrington event of 1859) would do to our sensitive cell networks, land based computer hubs, airlines, transportation, fuel,energy grid control,hospitals, nuclear plants, its a step above catastrophic.The understanding of the science ,on the part of Congress is just not up to par to protect the American people. For more good info I recommend the site , which soon will be coming out with a movie.If anyone has any specific questions on this please feel free to contact me at [email protected]

    • I looked at the link in your post. Sheesh! It's just a guy trying to hype a book and movie. I looked at several of the selections for basic information to the left hand side of the page. First, I looked at "What is an EMP?" It says that a nuclear detonation 200 km above the earth would be more destructive than a coronal mass ejection from the sun, because it is so close. A high school physics student wouldn't buy that one! I then looked at the "official government approved executive report" (the only attempt at substantiating a claim). No supporting documentation. In fact, I have more personal knowledge about EMP's than were cited as the bases for the report. I'm not saying that EMPs are not a concern, but without supporting documentation, we are dealing solely with guesses and histrionics. This is my field, and from what I know, the math doesn't seem to support the level of disruption anticipated. Please change my mind. Provide scientific and mathematical modeling for the stated effects.

      • Osito,

        Our vision of reality changes every time we comprehend a law that is new to us. Each time our vision of reality hopefully becomes a little clearer. I imagine you are referring to the announcement in the mainstream media in May that solar wind triggers lightning on earth.

        There are two pools of scientific knowledge. Military scientists of many nations are privy to information about electromagnetic energy that has been understood, but classified for quite some time. Mainstream science is welcome do study and do the math and come to it's own conclusions with whatever resources it is able to muster and has now progressed to the point that EMP resulting from nuclear detonation at an altitude greater than the middle stratosphere is amplified a thousand fold by the Compton Scattering effect as the earth's magnetic field lines are heaved out of place and snap back, re-radiating and scattering EM energy.

        In the early nuclear tests, scientists understood that "radio flash" (what the British first called EMP) would result from nuclear detonations regardless of altitude and it behaved as they expected at low altitudes. But during the Hardtack Yucca shot, which was lofted by a balloon to sufficient altitude to make use of the energy stored in the earth's magnetic field. It maxed out the equipment in place to measure the effect and was discounted as an anomaly. Much more extensive measurements were taken (by multiple nations, some covertly) in the Starfish Prime shot in July of 1962 in the South Pacific during the Fishbowl series of tests. It knocked out a microwave relay link and streetlamps almost 900 miles away in Hawaii.

        The Russians carried out their own high altitude test in Kazakhstan a short time later and installed fuses and measuring equipment along a section of telephone line. The long conductor parallel to the earth's magnetic field acted as an antenna, conducting the E3 component of the EMP resulting from the detonation. The E1 & E2 components even disabled diesel generators in operation that lacked microelectronics used in most generators and cars today. Relatively small, primitive nuclear fission weapons are capable of destroying our large step up and step down transformers that power the electrical grid. They are custom built, require a 3 year lead time and electricity to manufacture. That's why mortality estimates are so high. No grid, no fossil fuel refinement, no just in time inventory, distribution, etc.

        Since that time, military science's understanding of nuclear HEMP and how to create it efficiently has deepened profoundly. They also understand how to shield against it, but the best information is still classified, top secret or sensitive compartmented.

        If you read the work of Dr's Pry and Graham, you'll undoubted understand, but you I urge you to read beyond the "official" unclassified that have been thoroughly sanitised and dumbed down for consumption by congress and the voters they have been highly adulterated by politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists from the power industry who are looking out for their own interests. Read what they've published in EMPact America on their own dime.

        Or check out Jerry Emanualsen's site:
        He does a pretty good job of documentation. Better yet, read the book he co-authored with Don White. (Not to be confused with Bill White, the author of this article.)



        • Thank you again Cache. Your efforts at getting me this information is invaluable. I really do need to dig into these sources. Just as a point of information, did you know that the U.S. stationed Naval personal within 100 miles of every above-ground nuclear test, from Alamogordo until the early 1960's? I was a consultant for the DOD for much of my career and interviewed several of the Naval observers. Did you know that Russia tried to build a non-nuclear EMP device (for conventional war use) in the very early 1950's? Or that the U.S. perfected such a device by the early 1960's that was 20x to 50x more effective? Also, did you know that there is no primary scientific research being done by the military? The DOD hires scientists and engineers to work on their various projects.

          • Osito,

            I am constantly studying and I'd like to hear about your experience from your unique perspective. I have some similar insight from a slightly different perspective. If you're willing, please contact me at [email protected]

            Yes, I'm aware of some of the early and continuing non-nuclear man-made EMP research. I know that it's been used to test all kinds of equipment, including autos, even in unclassified or declassified projects, although much of the methodology in published tests is poor due budgetary constraints, lack of experience, expertise or both. Add to that the fact that there are just so many variables involved, secrecy (sometimes justifiable), disinformation, special interests and the great variation in opinion on the matter becomes justifiable to a degree. I haven't heard of any tests exceeding field strengths of 50K volts/meter

  • I realize I'm a year late to this party, but couldn't leave this phrase alone:
    "one year to build and replace all the damaged equipment"

    One year is a pipe dream. The huge transformers aren't made in this country anymore, and we don't keep back-ups on-hand. It takes 18 months to build one from start to finish - much longer than the "one year" you quote above.

    The Chinese currently have the (very few) transformer manufacturers tied up in renewing five-year contracts, buying them for the massive (empty) cities they're building in both China and Africa. So not only would we have to wait 18 months for new transformers to be built, we'd also have to wait for a manufacturer's contract to end or hope that China would be kind enough to put their order on hold so we could get one or two made. One or two isn't going to do it.

    We're looking at three years, minimum, before small sections of major metropolitan areas come back on-line. More like five years. The entire country? Ten years or more. There are too many transformers to replace, not enough supply in the entire world to replace them, and millions of miles of antiquated lines, switches, and equipment that cannot simply be manufactured and then installed at the drop of a hat.

    Just considering the problem of getting enough technicians on-hand to replace *one* section of line and its transformers, when the technicians will have to leave their family unprotected to do it, will have no fuel to get there and back home for the daily work, and trying to figure out what to pay him with when the chaotic situation has made civility and the currency both ancient concepts... well, it's laughable. Now imagine trying to get enough of them to re-install and re-wire the entire country, when they're busy trying to garden for the first time in their lives and fighting a daily battle over procuring enough water to keep their children alive.

    One year? Only in fantasy land.

    • I would have to agree that at our current state of readiness, if our largest custom-made transformers were damaged, repairs would take several years in a "best case" scenario. They are custom built and until a few years ago, the US lacked any manufacturing in country. It is really impossible to say how long it could take with any certainty because we have never restarted the entire electrical grid. There is no precedent for doing it or instruction manual detailing the process.

      This is the problem with complicated man-made systems. The processes by which we engineer them engineer fragility right into their very fabric.

  • While an EMP pulse from a hostile Nation is not as likely as some people might think, a strong solar flare is a very likely occurrence in the future.
    Even as a liberal Democrat strengthening and fortifying our electric grid should be an enormous priority. A low budget movie Blackout shows how quickly things start to fall apart by day 4. One of the scariest movies I have ever watched. Just like Cujo, what is real can be far more frightening then silly made-up stories.

    • If there is one thing that mankind has proven, it's that we aren't very good at accurately predicting the future. Taleb says that you can verify this by opening any history book ... they read basically as long lists of events that we failed to predict. So all we can reasonably say about what some leader will or won't do is that we can't accurately predict what people will do.

      From what we know about solar about solar flares, I would agree that we should get prepared for another because it's likely just a question of time.

      Yes, there are a few good movies that explore how North Americans might respond to a protracted blackout and another just came out. We have engineered fragility into most of the systems that keep us alive and there is definitely a cultural sense of foreboding into response to what we have done. Most folks probably couldn't describe it succinctly, but I think that large numbers of them have a general sense that something will eventually give ... as evidenced by the rapid growth of everything survival. The market couldn't support a single magazine in the 80's ... now there is a new TV show every couple of weeks or so.