MPs warn of EMP risk to infrastructure IT

By Andrew Charlesworth
22 Feb 2012 View Comments
Space shuttle

The House of Commons Defence Committee has today published a report warning of the dangers posed by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the IT that controls the UK's major infrastructure.

The report, Developing Threats: electromagnetic pulses, predicts an EMP event could disable everything from water supplies and the national grid to communications networks and road traffic controls.

Further reading

It recommends that utility and other infrastructure CIOs plan to harden their IT to survive an EMP attack.

The focus of the report is mostly around the risks to infrastructure of a rogue nuclear state detonating a nuclear weapon some 25–500 miles above the ground.

The EMP from this would ‘fry' the computers that control vital infrastructure, such as electrical power grids, water and sewage supplies, road and rail traffic signalling systems, GPS navigation and other communications networks.

"The potential impact of such a weapon could be devastating and long lasting for UK infrastructure. The government cannot therefore be complacent about this threat and must keep its assessment of the risk under review," states the report.

Although it would unlikely cause the immediate loss of life associated with a conventional nuclear attack, a high-altitude EMP attack would severely disable the nation for many months while IT and computerised controls were replaced.

Non-nuclear EMP weapons exist with ranges from kilometres to metres.

The report also highlights a similar danger to computerised infrastructure from Carrington events – massive solar flares which bathe Earth in EMPs, named after Richard Christopher Carrington who in 1859 observed the most intensive solar storm on record.

In a report to the Committee, the National Grid estimates that the UK would be without power for two months in the event of Carrington-sized natural event.

In March 1989 a smaller solar flare caused disruption to power grids in Canada and New Jersey.

The report recommends that the government and IT leaders with responsibility for infrastructure should plan to replace the most critical components with EMP-hardened chips and circuits which would be resistant to such attacks.

"It is therefore vitally important that the work of hardening UK infrastructure is begun now and carried out as a matter of urgency," reads the report.

However, the report doesn't attempt to cost the process of hardening.

Hardened electronic and electrical components are widely used by the military in equipment built to enter theatres of conflict, such as military aircraft avionics and battle-field communications systems.

However, the Committee's report levels heavy criticism at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for ignoring the issue.

"The reactive posture described by the MoD appears somewhat complacent… an appearance is given that the MoD is unwilling to take these threats seriously," say the report's authors.

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