Developing Threats: Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP) - Defence Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Nature of the threat

1.  The risks posed by space weather are known and significant, though there is argument about the likely extent of their impact: a severe event could potentially have serious impacts upon UK infrastructure and society more widely. It is essential that this hazard is sufficiently recognised and addressed by the Government and relevant civil bodies. (Paragraph 28)

2.  We recommend that work proceed as a matter of urgency to identify how seriously a future Carrington event would affect the UK infrastructure. It is clear that more modelling is required to establish the likely effect of a major space weather event on the National Grid. This should be independently validated and compared with the results of observations of Grid behaviour during space weather events. (Paragraph 29)

3.  On the basis of the evidence received, it seems likely that at present only those states with a known nuclear capability would be able to utilise an HEMP weapon. However, certain states such as Iran could potentially pose a realistic threat in the future, even if it does not currently do so, if nuclear non-proliferation efforts are not successful. Non-state actors could also pose a threat. While the risk may at present be low, 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. It is therefore vitally important that the work of hardening UK infrastructure is begun now and carried out as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 42)

4.  While existing non-nuclear EMP devices may be crude and limited, the fact that viable devices could be produced by non-state actors is a cause for concern. Even localised damage could have the potential to disrupt activity, especially if combined with other forms of attack. (Paragraph 47)


5.  We are pleased to note the recent intensification of efforts to forecast space weather. Its effects will not respect national boundaries, and it is important that the UK continues to contribute effectively to international efforts to improve forecasting. (Paragraph 55)

6.  The Government must ensure that sufficient funding and resources are available and that the UK has sufficient access to up-to-date monitoring information. Monitoring space weather is a vital tool, both in terms of providing warning periods for potentially large space weather events, and in terms of understanding the risks more fully. (Paragraph 56)

7.  It is clear from the evidence we received that there are both risks and benefits associated with hardening equipment. Nor is the cost clear. We recommend that the Government and National Grid work together to assess the cost and effectiveness of available technologies and if necessary coordinate further research into this area to establish whether retrospective hardening of equipment is appropriate, given the assessed level of risk to infrastructure from space weather and EMP disturbance. We would expect any such retrospective hardening to be carried out during routine maintenance of equipment in order to minimise the cost. (Paragraph 64)

8.  The potential effects of a Carrington size space weather event or a high-altitude nuclear EMP weapon would have specific and potentially devastating impacts upon the electrical grid and other aspects of electronic infrastructure, which play an absolutely critical role in UK society. It is therefore vital that the UK electrical grid is as resilient as possible to potential threats such as these. The various Government departments involved must work with National Grid to ensure that its backup procedures and equipment are sufficient to meet the reasonable worst-case scenario for a severe space weather event. Consideration should further be given to the practicability and cost of establishing resilience against the event of a wide-spread loss of transformers, such as could be created by a HEMP weapon. This might be also an area in which other relevant Committees of this House might like to look at in greater detail in the course of their work. (Paragraph 65)

9.  Although our Report concentrates on the military aspects of these threats, we hope that the evidence we have taken will also inform and influence discussions between governments and throughout industry. Such discussions are needed urgently, to consider the development of agreed standards for protection and resilience across all infrastructure and supply industries, and to explore the possible need for legislation to ensure that these standards are adopted. (Paragraph 66)

The MoD and EMP

10.  We note the MoD's assurance that the Nuclear Firing Chain is designed and maintained to assure the UK's ability deterrent and retaliatory action should the UK be subject to a nuclear attack. (Paragraph 76)

11.  EMP disturbances pose a serious risk, not only to civil infrastructure, but to military systems and ultimately national security. There must be a clear line of responsibility within the MoD; an appearance is given that the MoD is unwilling to take these threats seriously. The Government must make clear in its response to this Report exactly where lead responsibility in relation to EMP disturbances lies within the MoD. (Paragraph 78)

12.  The MoD has access to a great deal of scientific information regarding nuclear and non-nuclear EMP devices. While there is an understandable sensitivity to such information, the MoD must make sure that where security considerations permit, relevant information is shared with civil infrastructure providers that may be at risk. (Paragraph 80)

13.  The reactive posture described by the MoD appears somewhat complacent. Prior wargaming and planning is required to assess the likely involvement of MoD resources in dealing with the consequences of EMP events. (Paragraph 82)

Satellite security

14.  Security of satellites is a matter of growing concern as our reliance upon such systems and the sheer number of satellites in orbit increase. The Government must consider the long-term security of satellite technology and ensure that national interests are protected where we rely on other nations for data, such as GPS. In the event of very severe space weather, even hardened satellite technology might be at risk of degradation. The MoD cannot therefore rule out the loss or degradation of satellite based-communications systems, and must plan for this eventuality. (Paragraph 86)

Responsibility in Government

15.  We are very concerned that there appears to be no one Government Department identified to take immediate lead responsibility should there be a severe space weather event. It is not good enough to say that that will depend on where the greatest impact fell. We support and reiterate the recommendation of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that the Government must urgently identify the Lead Government Department for space weather events as a matter of priority. We expect the National Security Council to play a major role in this. (Paragraph 92)


16.  The consequences of EMP events must be addressed specifically: generic civil contingency plans which address blackouts and temporary loss of electronic infrastructure caused by a range of events are not sufficient. Space weather is a global threat and may affect many regions and countries simultaneously. This means that there is scope for mutual assistance, but also that there is no safe place from which it can be assumed that help will come. It is time that the Government began to approach this matter with the seriousness it deserves. (Paragraph 97)

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Prepared 22 February 2012