Peter Vincent Pry — executive director of the task force on National and Homeland Security — is on a mission to educate people about the dangers of an electromagnetic pulse attack.  

Pry’s recent stop on his educational tour was the Joint Legislative Emergency Management Oversight Committee where, on Feb. 15, he warned lawmakers about the real dangers of an EMP attack. Pry has a long history of experience with EMPs as the former chief of staff of the EMP commission.  

The threat is very real, he said. 

EMPs are bursts of electromagnetic energy which can disrupt or seriously damage electronic equipment. These bursts are not visible to the naked eye and don’t cause physical damage to people, but they can wreak havoc on an electric grid.

“It has so much energy when it couples into electronics it will destroy them,” Pry said. 

An EMP burst could cause a widespread, protracted blackout and bring the United States to a standstill if it hit the right target. Pry said if an EMP burst hit a major civilian electric grids then anything that requires electricity would be shut down.  

“We estimate that a nationwide blackout that last a year could kill up to 90 percent of our population through starvation, disease, and societal collapse,” Pry said. “Everything that depends directly or indirectly on electricity, none of that would work. In effect you would be subtracting technology from the equation of our modern electronic civilization.”

An EMP burst could come from a natural source such as a solar flare or from an unnatural source like a nuclear detonation.  

“You can make something like a geomagnetic storm with a nuclear weapon by detonating it at very high altitude above the Earth’s atmosphere,” Pry said.

Pry said there is a concern that North Korea could detonate a nuclear weapon with one of their two satellites as it passes over the United States. The detonation would generate an EMP field covering the entire country, Canada, and much of Mexico and cause the destruction of our electronic civilization.

It is possible the United States wouldn’t even know who launched the EMP attack because hundreds of satellites are orbiting the Earth. A satellite isn’t necessary for the attack either. A short range missile launched off a freighter could do the trick, too.  

Pry said Americans need to start taking this threat seriously. That includes preparing by hardening the electric grids, in part by employing surge arresters to stop an EMP pulse from running through the entire grid.

If the federal government is unwilling to commit the resources, then, Pry said, the states should act. Russia and North Korea, he said, are preparing for such an attack. We aren’t.

“We have been trying to get Congress for years to harden the electric grid because there is no excuse for being vulnerable to these threats,” Pry said. “The Department of Defense has known for 50 years for how to protect its systems but we never did that for the civilian power grid.”  

Pry said hardening the grid isn’t that expensive either and estimated protecting the entire country would cost at least $2 billion to $3 billion dollars. But the amount of protection is going to vary from state to state depending on their individual infrastructure, but Pry said every state’s legislators should look at protecting their local grids.

“We are an electric civilization,” Pry said. “We can’t survive without electricity.”