The EMP Threat to Canada

Posted By October 22, 2015 No Comments

Canadians may be even less aware than the average U.S. citizen of the existential threat posed by a natural or manmade electromagnetic pulse (EMP).  An EMP is like a super-energetic radio wave, caused by a solar storm or by the high-altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon or by non-nuclear radiofrequency weapons that can black out electric grids, in the worst case for months or years, or perhaps permanently.  An EMP induced protracted blackout would collapse all the critical infrastructures–for example, transportation, communications, industry and commerce,  food and water–that sustain modern civilization and the lives of millions.

The U.S. Congressional EMP Commission estimated that a nationwide blackout lasting one year could kill up to 9 of 10 Americans by starvation, disease and societal collapse.

Canada, unlike the United States, is not usually thought of as the primary target for attack by terrorists, Iran, North Korea, China or Russia.  But where EMP is concerned, Canada and the U.S. are in the same boat, because they are literally wired together, both nations living off of the North American Power Grid.

Moreover, Canada has some unique characteristics that make it potentially more vulnerable to EMP than the United States, yet also more easily protected.

Natural EMP

The sun can cause a natural EMP, called by electric utilities a Geo-Magnetic Disturbance (GMD).  Coronal mass ejections traveling over one million miles per hour strike the Earth’s magnetosphere, generating geomagnetic storms every year.  Usually these geo-storms are confined to nations at high northern latitudes and are not powerful enough to have catastrophic consequences.

Canada is more susceptible than the United States to natural EMPs or GMDs because it is located at a higher northern latitude, where geomagnetic storms are more common.  In 1989, natural EMP from the Hydro-Quebec Geo-Storm blacked-out half of Canada for a day causing economic losses amounting to billions of dollars.

Most worrisome is the rare solar super-storm, like the 1921 Railroad Storm, which happened before civilization became dependent for survival upon electricity.  The U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimates that if the Railroad Storm were to recur today, there would be a blackout of the North American grid with recovery requiring 4-10 years, if recovery were possible at all.

The most powerful geomagnetic storm on record is the 1859 Carrington Event.  Carrington was a worldwide phenomenon, causing forest fires from flaring telegraph lines, burning telegraph stations, and destroying the just laid intercontinental telegraph cable at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

If a solar super-storm like the Carrington Event recurred today, it would collapse electric grids and life-sustaining critical infrastructures worldwide, putting at risk the lives of billions.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in July 2014 reported that two years earlier, on July 23, 2012, the Earth narrowly escaped another Carrington Event.  A Carrington-class coronal mass ejection crossed the path of the Earth, missing the planet by just three days.  NASA assesses that the resulting geomagnetic storm would have had catastrophic consequences worldwide.

Recurrence of another Carrington Event, expected roughly once every 100-200 years, is overdue.   NASA estimates the likelihood of such a geomagnetic super-storm is 12 percent per decade.  This virtually guarantees that Earth will experience a catastrophic geomagnetic super-storm within our lifetime or that of our children.

 Radio-Frequency Weapons (RFWs)

Radio-Frequency Weapons (RFWs) are much less powerful than nuclear weapons and much more localized in their effects, usually having a range of one kilometer or less.  Terrorists, criminals, and even disgruntled individuals have already made localized EMP attacks using RFWs in Europe and Asia.  Probably sooner rather than later, the RFW threat will come to North America.

Reportedly, according to the Wall Street Journal (March 12, 2014), a study by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warns that a terrorist attack that destroys  just 9 key extra-high voltage (EHV) transformer substations (out of a total of 2,000) could cause a nationwide blackout of the United States lasting 18 months.

Canada is probably more vulnerable than the U.S. to nationwide blackout by Radio-Frequency Weapons, because Canada has many fewer EHV transformer substations.  Accordingly, an attack on fewer substations may more easily trigger a chain reaction of cascading failures that overwhelms all or most of the EHV transformers, causing a rolling blackout that engulfs the whole of Canada.

RFWs can also pose a significant threat to nuclear reactors by damaging control systems that could conceivably, in a worst case scenario, result in a meltdown of fuel rods in cooling ponds or within the nuclear reactor itself.  Steam explosions and the release of radioactive contamination could result, as happened with the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, because they were blacked-out for several days, with no electricity to drive cooling pumps, following a tsunami.

Canada has 18 nuclear power reactors at three locations.  All of these are in the east, located near major population centers.  Radioactive contamination from fuel rods undergoing meltdown will follow prevailing winds and weather patterns–in the case of the Canadian reactors the weather moves eastward over populous areas–creating radioactive plumes covering potentially thousands of inhabited square miles.

According to the U.S. 9/11 Commission Report, one of the targets originally considered for attack by jetliner on September 11, 2001 was a U.S. nuclear reactor.

Canada is no stranger to terrorist plots against the power grid and nuclear reactors.  In August 2003, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested 19 suspected terrorists in Toronto, some of whom allegedly conducted ground reconnaissance against Canada’s Pickering nuclear reactor and also conducted flight training, overflying Pickering.

Months before the Toronto arrests, a reliable source with information on Iran’s support of international terrorism, alleged there was a terror cell in Toronto planning to hijack a jet to crash into the Seabrook nuclear reactor, located about 40 miles north of Boston.  The plotters allegedly hoped to create a radioactive plume that would contaminate New England.   This alleged plot, that might have been part of a more ambitious “12th Imam Operation” meant to eclipse and surpass in destruction the 9/11 attacks, is detailed in the book Countdown To Terror by then Rep. Curt Weldon.  Weldon was Vice Chairman of both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. Congress.

Canada’s “homegrown” terrorists who might think about attacking the power grid could get help from their nearby U.S. counterparts in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Buffalo, New York that are known recruiting grounds for terrorists.

Radio-Frequency Weapons might well become the weapon of choice for terrorists, instead of hijacked jetliners, for attacking nuclear reactors and power grids, if only because they are easier to obtain.  They can be built by an individual with some knowledge of electronics, using design information available on the internet, and parts available from any electronics store.  Powerful EMP generators, intended for industrial use as a diagnostic tool, but useable as a weapon of mass destruction, can be purchased mail order by anyone.

RFWs offer significant advantages over guns, bombs, or crashed jetliners for attacking electric grids.  EMP fields can cause widespread damage of electronics, so precision targeting is much less necessary.  And unlike damage from guns, bombs, or a crashed jet, an attack by RFWs is much less conspicuous, and may even be misconstrued as an unusual accident arising from faulty components and systemic failure.

Some documented examples of successful attacks using Radio-Frequency Weapons, and accidents involving electromagnetic transients, are described in the U.S. Department of Defense Pocket Guide for Security Procedures and Protocols for Mitigating Radio Frequency Threats (Technical Support Working Group, Directed Energy Technical Office, Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center):

–“In the Netherlands, an individual disrupted a local bank’s computer network because he was turned down for a loan.  He constructed a Radio Frequency Weapon the size of a briefcase, which he learned how to build from the Internet.  Bank officials did not even realize that they had been attacked or what had happened until long after the event.”

–“In Russia, Chechen rebels used a Radio Frequency Weapon to defeat a Russian security system and gain access to a controlled area.”

–“In the late 1980s, a large explosion occurred at a 36-inch diameter natural gas pipeline in the Netherlands.  A SCADA system, located about one mile from the naval port of Den Helder, was affected by a naval radar.  The RF energy from the radar caused the SCADA system to open and close a large gas flow-control valve at the radar scan frequency, resulting in pressure waves that traveled down the pipe and eventually caused the pipeline to explode.”

–North Korea used a Radio-Frequency Weapon, purchased from Russia, to attack airliners and impose an “electromagnetic blockade” on air traffic to Seoul, South Korea’s capitol.  The repeated attacks by RFW also disrupted communications and the operation of automobiles in several South Korean cities in December 2010; March 9, 2011; and April-May 2012 as reported in “Massive GPS Jamming Attack By North Korea” (GPSWORLD.COM, May 8, 2012).

Nuclear EMP

The EMP Commission found that virtually any nuclear weapon–even a primitive, low-yield atomic bomb such as terrorists might build–would suffice to make a catastrophic EMP attack.  The electric grid and other civilian critical infrastructures have never been hardened to survive EMP.

The iconic EMP attack detonates a single warhead about 300-500 kilometers high over the center of the U.S., generating an EMP field over all 48 contiguous United States.  Such an EMP attack could be made by a missile or nuclear-armed satellite.  North Korea and Iran have both apparently practiced this scenario, orbiting satellites on the optimum trajectories and altitudes to evade U.S. National Missile Defenses and, if the satellites carried a nuclear weapon, make an EMP attack.

Canada would also be affected by this iconic EMP scenario.  A nuclear warhead burst 300-500 kilometers high over the centre of the U.S. will cover most of Canada with an EMP field too.

Another EMP scenario detonates a nuclear weapon 30 kilometers high anywhere over the eastern half of the U.S., which would collapse the Eastern Grid.  The Eastern Grid generates 75 percent of U.S. electricity and supports most of the national population.  Such an attack could be made by a short-range Scud missile launched off a freighter, by a jet fighter or small private jet doing a zoom climb, or even by a meteorological balloon.

North Korea and Iran have also apparently practiced making a nuclear EMP attack using a short-range missile launched off a freighter.  Such an attack could be conducted anonymously to escape U.S. retaliation–thus defeating nuclear deterrence.

Canada would be affected by this scenario too.  Collapse of the Eastern Grid would no doubt set in motion cascading failures, far beyond the EMP field that would reach into Canada, probably causing a protracted blackout of at least Ontario and Quebec, the most populous provinces.

In another scenario, an adversary makes an EMP attack on the U.S. National Missile Defenses in Alaska.  In yet another scenario, U.S. missile defenses fail to intercept a nuclear warhead until it is near or over Canada, and then the warhead is salvage-fused for EMP attack.  In these scenarios, Canada inadvertently becomes the focus of a nuclear EMP event.

In still another scenario, during some supreme international crisis between the U.S. and a nuclear-armed adversary, the adversary deliberately makes a nuclear EMP attack on Canada as a demonstration of its resolve, to deter the U.S. and “de-escalate” the crisis.

Protecting Canada

The EMP Commission recommended an “all hazards” strategy to protect North America by addressing the worst threat–nuclear EMP attack.  Nuclear EMP is worse than natural EMP and the EMP from RFWs because it combines several threats in one.  Nuclear EMP has a long-wavelength component like a geomagnetic super-storm, a short-wavelength component like Radio-Frequency Weapons, a mid-wavelength component like lightning–and is potentially more powerful and can do deeper damage than all three.

Protecting the electric grid and other critical infrastructures from nuclear EMP attack will also protect against a Carrington Event and RFWs.  Moreover, protecting against nuclear EMP will also protect the grid and other critical infrastructures from the worst over-voltages that may be generated by severe weather, physical sabotage, or cyber-attacks.

Canada is fortunate in that it is, after China, the second largest generator of hydro-electricity in the world, and depends for most of its electricity (64 percent in 2010) on hydro-power.   Hydro-power is the most resilient means of generating electricity, least vulnerable to EMP.

Thus, Canada should be able to relatively inexpensively protect most of its electric power by EMP hardening its hydro-electric plants.

Highest priority probably should be given to EMP hardening Canada’s 18 nuclear power plants, which pose a potential radioactive hazard to populous Ontario.  The CANDU nuclear reactors, designed in Canada, can also be re-wired to safely operate through a blackout, instead of shutting down, thereby keeping the lights on in Ontario.

Protecting Canada’s hydro-power, which generates 64 percent of the nation’s electricity, and nuclear power, which generates 15 percent, would secure 79 percent of Canada’s electrical energy–more than enough to survive and rapidly recover from an EMP catastrophe.

Nonetheless, it would be wise to protect the coal-fired plants (13 percent of Canada’s electricity) so they will not explode from an EMP.  Coal largely powers Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan.

Natural gas pipelines and power plants (6 percent of Canada’s electricity) should be EMP hardened to avert gas explosions and firestorms.

This article was originally published in the first edition of The Mackenzie Institute magazine “Security Matters”.  Please click here to view the magazine.