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President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order aimed at protecting the nation's critical infrastructure from electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), which can disrupt technology and could potentially create widespread blackouts.
The order calls for a government-wide policy to: improve understanding of EMPs' potential effects, strengthen critical infrastructure and improve national response plans. The order also calls for public-private coordination and federal research into improving EMP resiliency.
The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents investor-owned utilities, hailed Trump's efforts at protecting infrastructure. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in 2016 began to study how EMPs could impact the grid; that study and its recommendations are expected next month.

 The utility sector has been watching EMPs as a threat for years, finding no easy solution to the pulses which could result from a natural event — such as a large sun flare — or a malicious attack that could involve detonating a nuclear device overhead.

In a statement, Energy Secretary Rick Perry called EMPs "a threat to our national security and energy security" and said the order "sends a clear message to adversaries that the United States takes this threat seriously."

The order clarifies federal agency roles and responsibilities, takes steps to improve information sharing between the government and private industry, and directs federal agencies to coordinate, in preparation for an EMP event.

The order also calls for identifying critical infrastructure at greatest risk from EMPs, improving understanding of the pulses' impacts, improving response plans and strengthening critical infrastructure to withstand the possible impacts.

EEI Vice President for Security and Preparedness Scott Aaronson applauded the order and the President's "ongoing focus on protecting critical infrastructure."

“How an EMP may impact critical infrastructure is an extremely complex issue that cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution," Aaronson said. He added that "sound policy should be informed by sound science," pointing to EPRI's upcoming report, which is expected to include recommendations for "mitigation approaches and investments."

The order comes about a month after a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official testified that a high-altitude nuclear detonation could have "potentially severe" impacts on the electric grid.

"Consequences of a successful nuclear EMP attack ... may include long-term damage to significant portions of the Nation’s electric grid," said Brian Harrell, assistant director for infrastructure security at DHS, told a Senate committee.

Harrell also said, however, that the intelligence community "currently has no specific, credible information indicating that there is an imminent threat to critical infrastructure from an EMP attack."

That fearsome weapon? An electromagnetic pulse. Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board, described a scenario in which an adversary could detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere over the United States, which would in turn generate an EMP that would cause catastrophic damage to the nation’s electricity grid, resulting in long-term, national power outages.

It is, indeed, a frightening scenario—and it isn’t the only threat to the nation’s electricity grid. U.S. critical infrastructure is also vulnerable to cyber and physical attacks. The risk of such attacks is real, and, in some cases, growing. But don’t run out and stock your bomb shelter with whale oil just yet. In fact, odds are you have far more to fear from nut-obsessed squirrels than nutty extremists when it comes to the reliability of your electricity.

That doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern. Infrastructure has always been a target in a time of war, both to erode military capabilities and to bring political military capabilities and to bring political pressure to bear. The United States is fairly transparent about the locations of some major military and intelligence facilities, and key economic nodes are easy to pinpoint as well. The Sept. 11 attackers, after all, went after a military target (the Pentagon) and an economic one (the World Trade Center). In addition, most U.S. military bases are connected to civilian electricity grids, as are any economic targets, an interdependency that is well known. In this age of electricity, the grid is what the military calls a “center of gravity.”

It is, indeed, a frightening scenario—and it isn’t the only threat to the nation’s electricity grid. U.S. critical infrastructure is also vulnerable to cyber and physical attacks. The risk of such attacks is real, and, in some cases, growing. But don’t run out and stock your bomb shelter with whale oil just yet. In fact, odds are you have far more to fear from nut-obsessed squirrels than nutty extremists when it comes to the reliability of your electricity.

So, how worried should Americans be about such attacks? As with most things, it depends—specifically, it depends on the threat.

First, there’s Pry’s scenario. An EMP attack resulting from a high-altitude nuclear detonation seems a possible but not very plausible scenario. An adversary looking to carry out such an attack on the United States would need ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. The missiles either need to be capable of an intercontinental launch or have a platform that can both move within range of the U.S. homeland undetected and launch a missile.

There are actors that either have or are seeking to acquire the capability to launch such a weapon (for instance, North Korea), but it is important to consider this threat in the context of the likelihood of an attack. The consequences of launching a nuclear strike on the United States would be severe, to say the least, so the motives of a potential adversary would be a key question.

Moreover, if an adversary did want to start World War III and was not deterred by the formidable U.S. capability to respond to such an attack, the grid might not be the best target. It is not a certainty that such a detonation would cause a prolonged, widespread, and devastating power outage; indeed, some manufacturers of industrial control systems and transformers report that their equipment has been tested and proven robust to such an electromagnetic pulse. Nor is it clear that the electric grid would be the ideal target for such weapons. And for that matter, there are other, easier ways to attack the grid. Frankly, the development of more discrete EMP weapons that can be used against specific military targets is probably more worrisome from a national security point of view.

Second, there’s the possibility of a remote cyber attack, which is uncomfortably easy to carry out if the target is a website or business software. Those types of attacks can cause significant damage to a company or even a country, but are less likely to result in physical damage to equipment in the grid. In part, this is mechanical equipment that has been engineered to withstand physical challenges, partly just because of the inherent danger of dealing with high voltage electricity. Furthermore, although these systems do generally have communications links, they do not tend to be outward facing—in other words, they’re not connected to the Internet. It may be possible to breach these communications links into physical equipment, but it is not easy and often requires both knowledge of the system and physical access. Even Stuxnet, a very sophisticated computer worm, required someone at the Iranian facility to plug in an infected flash drive, according to Symantec.

If neither EMPs nor cyber weapons are the clear and present danger for the electric grid, who or what is the biggest threat?

National outage reporting data suggests that enemy No. 1 is Mother Nature. According to the Department of Energy, severe weather accounts for the majority of outages; in 2014 there were 87 outages resulting from weather-related issues. Most of these hazards are what the national security world calls “low-consequence, high-probability” events, meaning that they occur frequently but generally cause little damage on a case-by-case basis. The effects tend to be fairly short in duration and limited in the number of customers affected. A number of weather events in recent years—hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, storms on the eastern seaboard, tornadoes in the Midwest and Southwest, and wildfires in the West and Southwest—have caused higher-consequence electricity outage events. While such high-consequence weather events—in terms of lives lost, economic costs, and duration—may not be as frequent, they are not unheard of, either. In 2012, for example, Superstorm Sandy resulted in more than $50 billion in damage, 147 deaths, and knocked out power to more than 8 million people—in a few cases, for months