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Electromagnetic Pulses and Your Utility

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Tom Walski, Ph.D, P.E, Senior Product Manager, Water



Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs) are short bursts of electromagnetic radiation. While small EMPs can occur normally, large EMPs can interfere with or even destroy electric power supplies and electronic equipment. EMPs can occur naturally from solar flares or lightening, or they can be created by human threat actors. They can be produced by high and low-altitude nuclear weapons; geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) caused by coronal mass ejections; and by small portable devices employed to produce electromagnetic interference (IEMI).

Extreme EMPs are rare, but there have been incidents where solar flares have interrupted power grids or communication systems. During the 1960s when atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted, they were known to cause disruptions hundreds of miles away from the source. I wasn’t particularly concerned about EMPs until the war in Ukraine began and I realized that a bad actor could wipe out the power grid over a large area, or even a continent, by detonating nuclear devices in the atmosphere.

While typical EMPs can interrupt power and communications for a short time, extreme instances can cause such extensive damage that power may be out for weeks and electronic devices may need to be replaced. Such losses of power can cripple water supply, food supply chain, communications, transportation networks and health care, potentially leading to societal collapse.

Devices can be protected from EMPs by placing them inside of a Faraday cage which is a metal enclosure that spreads the charge around the cage, thus protecting devices inside. There are also military grade surge protectors that can reduce the impact of EMPs coming through power lines.

So how does a water supply system protect itself? If the EMP is sufficiently large, not much. However, the impacts can be mitigated by using surge protection and Faraday cages. Surge protection is good practice, if only to protect against moderate EMPs.

Bentley OpenFlows software can also help. Given a potential threat, water system operators, engineers and managers can simulate the impacts of the event and perform planning to provide resilience to the system or mitigate an event once it occurs. A model can provide quantitative information to drive emergency planning exercises. Once critical components are identified, protective measures can be installed.

It’s important to learn about EMPs. A good place to start is CISA (The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency).


For a deeper dive, look at “Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Protection and Resilience Guidelines for Critical Infrastructure and Equipment,”


Another good source of information is the EIS Council which provides training and technology for utility organizations.


Water utility managers, engineers and operators should not wait until there’s a bright flash in the sky to think about EMPs. The time is now (several years ago would have been better).

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