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

3  Resilience

48.  The Government's approach to mitigating the effect of an EMP attack and the EMP-like effects of space weather is three-pronged:

Prior warning is given, either through forecasting or the collection of intelligence, enabling appropriate action to take place, for example switching off vulnerable satellite systems;

Infrastructure is hardened where appropriate, this is especially critical with military infrastructure;

We prepare for these events although the Government's approach to civil resilience management is to plan for the consequences of potential civil emergencies no matter what the cause. Contingencies are in place to react to large scale loss of electronic infrastructure with the restoration of the National Grid being a priority.[41]

49.  The key to successful mitigation of EMP events, whether natural or made-made, is successful forecasting both of the likelihood of such events and of their probable effects. The Government explained that "The UK has significant research resource available. The civil sector focuses on the effects of space weather whereas the military sector covers both space weather and its possible EMP effects".[42]

Forecasting space weather

50.  Given that space weather cannot be prevented, efforts are being made to improve forecasting in order that pre-emptive action may be taken. As Research Councils UK told us "Warning and prediction of space weather events is one of the most important ways of mitigating effects. Essential systems can then be put into safe mode, but this may not always ensure survival".[43]

51.  Space weather forecasting is in its infancy. Research Councils UK told us that "the UK has a long and successful heritage in relevant solar observations [...]. However, forecasting space weather is very difficult and it is still at an early stage often considered comparable to weather forecasting in the 1960s".[44] National Grid told us that CMEs can take 18 hours to three days to reach Earth. Forecasting models are used to decide on their trajectory and timing. NASA issue forecasts of arrival time giving a six hour window. However, these forecasts are frequently inaccurate, with the arrival time being many hours early or over a day late.[45] Nonetheless, witnesses told us of encouraging progress in the last few years, at least in terms of awareness.[46] We received evidence of a number of organisations active in the field of space weather and of their co-operation. Dr Kerridge of the British Geological Survey said:

There has been a great acceleration over the past year in the way we have addressed this problem. The event about a year ago, which Mr Schnurr led, led a few of us to sit down and say, "How can we better organise ourselves to address this problem?" As a result of that, in October 2010 we began something that we have termed the Space Environment Impacts Expert Group. At the same time, there had been developing through the Met Office, the Ordnance Survey and the Environment Agency a Natural Hazards Partnership. Those two things have developed quite quickly to look particularly at space weather and other hazards. Each of those has the support of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. So the latest development is to advise on the national risk assessment for the space weather and other hazards and to provide advice to the Government Office for Science.[47]

52.  Sir John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser, told us of another initiative:

I might add that there is a rather awkward acronym SEIEG, which stands for the Space Environment Impacts Expert Group, led by Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, with the British Geological Survey, British Antarctic Survey, QinetiQ, SolarMetrics and the Met Office as members. That group is working closely within the Cabinet Office's orbit. In my role as Chief Scientific Adviser, I have met the group and provided a critical-friend challenge to some of these things. It is fair to say that there is a fair bit of work in progress.[48]

53.  Significant in this context is the joint announcement by President Obama and the Prime Minister following the presidential visit. Professor Kerridge said:

Following President Obama's visit, there was a joint statement from the Prime Minister and the President[49] indicating that we were going to enhance the collaboration on space weather in all aspects: monitoring, prediction, assessment of mitigating measures and so on. That is active at present. In particular, one of the things that has been taken forward is an agreement between the Met Office and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to co-operate on providing 24/7 cover for prediction and warning of space events. That is active. The aim is to enhance that; that is very much the view of the Prime Minister and the President that it should be done. That is active engagement, primarily at official level at the moment, but also for our organisations.[50]

54.  There have been two Infrastructure Security Summits, the first in Westminster in September 2010 and the second with wider participation from industry (as well as by the Chair of this Committee) in Washington in April 2011. Both led to further research work by industry providers on the likely effect of severe space weather. The next one is due to be held in the UK in the spring of 2012. All such evidence of international co-operation is encouraging in view of the transnational nature of the space weather threat.

55.  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.

56.  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.

Protecting civil infrastructure

57.   The management of disruption to electricity or telecommunications in the event of severe space weather is for the suppliers themselves, with some Government assistance. As the Government evidence said:

Successful management of a major electricity supply emergency requires effective communication and cooperation between industry and government. The wider consequences of an incident could be mitigated by the choices that industry is able to make, and some of the practical aspects of managing an incident could be assisted by the activities of government. The National Emergency Plan for Downstream Gas and Electricity (NEP-DG&E) sets out a framework for industry and government to work together to manage a major supply emergency.[51]

58.  Charles Hendry told us that a letter had been sent by National Grid and the Department of Energy and Climate Change in October 2011 to all energy providers seeking industry support further to develop collective understanding of the impact of a severe space weather event on the GB electricity system. He explained:

The purpose of the letter that one of our directors in the Department wrote to the energy companies and others at the beginning of October—it was a joint letter with National Grid—was to increase greatly their active engagement in this work, to make sure they understand the urgency we attach to it and to say that we need their active engagement in ensuring that the strategy being prepared for early next year reflects their needs.[52]

We congratulate DECC and the National Grid on this initiative to involve the energy companies.

59.  Chris Train of National Grid explained how mitigating measures could be taken:

In terms of naturally occurring space weather, we have a set of operational mitigations in place, which start with the better forecasting of space weather and increased understanding about the likelihood and any timing of impacts. We have a number of operational measures that we can put in place, such as de-loading vulnerable transformers, spreading generation around the network and manning particular sites.[53]

Should a storm exceed National Grid's worst planned-for scenario, however:

In conjunction with Government, National Grid would consider a controlled shut-down of the network. National Grid has a well developed Black Start Policy.. Training exercises are regularly held on Black Start, and generating units are at all times scheduled for Black Start capability.[54]

60.  The Grid has also recently increased the number of spare transformers it holds.[55] Even so, National Grid estimated that in the case of an event of the size of a Carrington-sized event there was a 91% chance that an area of the United Kingdom would be without power for two months or more while a damaged transformer was restored or replaced.[56]

61.  The protective measures described apply to space weather events. National Grid said:

Research to investigate options to harden the UK system, rather than relying on operational procedures as is appropriate for solar events, would be needed to mitigate this threat. But given the size of the undertaking, and the subsequent cost of procurement and installation, this is beyond the resources of any one commercial organization, or group of organizations, and would need to be pursued at national level.[57]

Strengthening the systems

62.  Current planning is based to a large extent on pre-emptive action, such as shutting down equipment as a precaution, and on restoring service after damage has, despite these precautions, been done, though new systems are being built to a higher standard. National Grid described the development of technologies whereby new equipment can be made more resilient to space weather events. Charles Hendry, Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, for instance told us that "since 1999, all the transformers purchased by the National Grid have been ones that can stand the high electricity currents that might be caused by such activities".[58] (It should be noted that since 1999 the worst-case scenario has been revised upward.)[59]

63.  We were also given examples of how equipment might be hardened retrospectively. While such retrospective hardening of the system might appear to be an attractive proposition, witnesses agreed that there was a risk that hardening one component of the infrastructure might simply move the problem on to another section of the system, and what was appropriate in the US might not be so in the UK. Chris Train said:

Hardening in itself is actually quite a challenge. There is talk of putting capacitance in the earth in order to block the GICs, but this is unproven. There are some difficulties peculiar to the design of the transformers in the UK compared with the US, which actually means that this would need a very close look at before such measures were considered. On the capability actually to roll that out, it would take an incredibly long period of time to do that. Once you harden an asset, all you are doing is moving the problem to the next asset.[60]

He argued that the exercise was unproven in terms of effectiveness and "would need proper research to determine whether it would be effective. Intruding in the asset causes other problems as well, so you might be mitigating the potential for a very rare event and triggering a more frequent event".[61] Avi Schnurr agreed that further testing was needed.[62]

64.  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.

65.  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.

66.  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.


67.  It is obvious that the continued availability of telecommunications systems would be important in the event of a severe space weather event or HEMP attack causing widespread national disruption. Such evidence as we received on the effect of these on telecommunications was relatively encouraging.

68.  The Government told us that while "telecommunications and electrical power distribution infrastructures are mutually dependent", public, fixed line, systems at least were relatively robust, having arrangements "that enable them to continue to function for up to five days in the event of the loss of grid-distributed electricity".[63]As with the electricity grid, "telecommunications infrastructures are owned and operated by private sector organisations who are best placed to respond to and recover from a major telecommunications incident". It is also the case that the fixed-line structure uses optical fibre for most lines, and this is highly resistant to space weather. Nonetheless:

Government has worked closely with the owners and operators [...] through the Electronic Communications Resilience and Response Group to facilitate restoration of services in the event of a major incident affecting networks. The procedures that are in place are subjected to an extensive annual test conducted over several days.[64]


Core telecommunications networks are highly resilient when viewed against the planning assumptions from the National Risk Assessment.[65]

69.  In an EMP emergency, the Government would be heavily dependent on telecommunications during mitigation and restoration measures. We were assured that, if telephone lines were down, an alternative means of communication was available to Government through hardened, military, satellites.[66]

Advice to the public

70.  A severe space weather event, let alone an HEMP, would severely disrupt the life of the UK, as suggested by Peter Taylor of Ethos Consultancy.[67] We asked the Government witnesses whether there was anything businesses or families could do to protect themselves. John Tesh told us:

The answer is that there is, but it does not yet reflect our current understanding of the possible impacts of solar weather on businesses on the ground, as it were. We have something called the national risk register, which we published for the first time in 2008, with an updated version in 2010. We intend to update it further in the next three months, by the end of January next year; at that time, we expect it will reflect new risks that have emerged, on which we did not have material to include in the last one. That will include the effects of solar weather.

The purpose of the risk register is to provide an indication to people of the kinds of things that can disrupt their lives. In the first instance, it has been designed to be readable by people who are running small and medium-sized businesses as much as by people who run the big corporate enterprises and the national infrastructure. It is also designed to provide part of the background to the Government's initiatives on community resilience, so it should include common-sense advice on the kinds of things that you need to keep in your cupboard in order to deal with the impact of the sorts of things that happen all the time and which you cannot do very much to prevent.[68]

41   Ev 20 Back

42   Ev 1 Back

43   Ev 31 Back

44   Ev 29 Back

45   Ev 26 Back

46   Ev 21 and 32 Back

47   Q 19 Back

48   Q 79 Back

49   "Prime Minister and President Obama strengthen collaboration",, 25 May 2011 Back

50   Q 79 Back

51   Ev 24 Back

52   Q 94 Back

53   Q 37 Back

54   Ev 27. A 'black start' is restoring power following a shutdown of part or all of the National Grid. One key element in this is the ability to restart some (but not all) power stations to operation without drawing power from the grid. The other power stations can then be restored using power from the grid. There are a number of other technical elements that are needed to ensure that power stations and grid come back on smoothly. Back

55   Ibid. Back

56   Ev 26 Back

57   Ibid. Back

58   Q 94 Back

59   Ev 25 Back

60   Q 37 Back

61   Q 39 Back

62   Q 43 Back

63   Ev 24 Back

64   Ibid. Back

65   Ibid. Back

66   Ibid. Back

67   Ev 63 Back

68   Q 91 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 22 February 2012