How Long Could the U.S. Go Without Electricity?

Ted Koppel's latest book explores the effects of EMP weapons.


The power is still out, and things are getting scary.

The house is so cold you can see your own breath. Some of the food in the refrigerator is good, but there's no way to cook it. The water is still running, barely, but it smells bad and tastes worse. The grocery store is open, but it's only taking cash—which you can't get, because the banks are closed. But it doesn't really matter since the shelves have been picked clean anyway.

You went to work on Monday, but after a couple of hours the boss sent everyone home. Come back when the power comes back on, she said.

That was nine days ago.

The family has been warming up in the car for short stints, and you've been charging your cell phone, but the gas gauge is now sitting on Empty. The gas station closed because there's no power to run the pumps.

The emergency numbers you've called are busy or not answering. Nothing on the radio but static. No wi-fi. Your neighbors are just as clueless as you are.

Somebody better get the power back on soon, or you and your family are going to be up the creek.

But suppose they don't. Then what?

* * *

This cheery scenario is the subject of a recent book by Ted Koppel, Lights Out, which discusses the possibility of a major blow to the nation's power grid—either through a cyberattack or an EMP. An EMP is an electromagnetic pulse caused by a high-altitude (as in 30 or 40 miles) detonation of a nuclear warhead. A sufficient blast over Ohio could fry circuits on the Eastern Seaboard down to Florida and as far west as Omaha, Nebraska. A cyberattack would have less far-reaching effects—unless it were either a coordinated, distributed assault or hit nerve centers hard enough to cause a cascading power failure.

Koppel explores the likelihood of such an event. The experts he interviewed, including former heads of Homeland Security,  rate the chances everywhere from minute to almost inevitable. He asks how effective such an attack might be. The answer to that is: It depends. He also asks how well prepared the country is to cope with a long-term, widespread power failure. The answer to that is: Not one little bit.

Experts in the utility industry contend that fears of a nationwide blackout are overblown. Dominion, Virginia's chief supplier of power, will be spending $500 million to harden its critical infrastructure.

The industry spends billions on cybersecurity. There's no way for an outsider to hack into the control systems, they say. Cyber-security experts seem rather less sanguine. Hackers always find a way—just ask Target, or Sony Pictures, or the Office of Personnel Management or countless other major institutions that have the resources to guard against cyber-infiltration, but couldn't stop it. A terrorist or foreign power that hacks into a power company's network might be able to wreck its hardware, just like the Stuxtnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israel wrecked Iran's uranium centrifuges.

* * *

An EMP attack, which would affect not just power companies but electronic circuits everywhere, is equally feasible—so feasible that more than a decade ago, Congress established a commission to examine the issue. Its findings are not exactly reassuring. They point out, for instance, that a successful EMP attack does not require an intercontinental ballistic missile. As one commission member testified to the House Armed Services Committee in 2008, "such an attack could be launched from a freighter off the U.S. coast using a short- or medium-range missile… Iran… has practiced launching a mobile ballistic missile from a vessel in the Caspian Sea."

The effects of such an attack, the commission says, "could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the Nation." Why? Because every major system of our high-tech society depends on electrical power, and lots of it. And while most of those systems have safeguards against failure and emergency plans if failure occurs, the commission's 2008 report notes that their recovery plans "generally depend on the proper functioning of the rest of the national infrastructure." So, for instance: Even if power companies could find enough replacement transformers—and that is not at all clear; large transformers are usually custom-built by foreign suppliers and take more than a year to arrive—how would they get the replacements delivered?

Or take food: "Tractors, planters, harvesters, and other farm equipment are fueled by petroleum products supplied by pipelines, pumps, and transportation systems that run on electricity," the commission points out. "Food processing—cleaning, sorting, packing, and canning of all kinds of agricultural and meat products—is typically an automated operation, performed on assembly lines by electrically powered machinery." Food distribution needs refrigerated warehouses. Grocery stores need to be able to send orders for more. How?

Yes, the military has large stores of supplies—for itself. It can't feed half the country. People would get desperate, fast—and local law enforcement likely wouldn't be in much better shape than the rest of us.

On the bright side, many people wouldn't have to worry about starving because they would die first from the lack of clean water. "The water infrastructure is a vast machine, powered partly by gravity but mostly by electricity," says the EMP commission. Without energy to run purification plants, pumps, sewage treatment, and so on, "local water supplies would quickly disappear… People are likely to resort to drinking from lakes, streams, ponds, and other sources of surface water. Most surface water, especially in urban areas, is contaminated with wastes and pathogens and could cause serious illness if consumed." Medical care, however, is likely to be hard to come by—which means even minor injuries, such as a cut that gets infected by tainted water, could become life-threatening very quickly.

* * *

It's nice to think this is all very far-fetched silliness—a bad script for a late-night movie on an unwatched channel. Let's hope so. We've gone decades now without a nuclear attack, after all. A look around the world, though, suggests people  should take the possibility seriously—and think about how to manage by themselves. Because if an event of that magnitude did occur, help might not come for weeks. Or months. Or years.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.