We live in the shadow of the sun, which gives us, well, shadows, but also bathes us in huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation. Luckily for us, the earth has a magnetic field as a shield against cosmic rays; thanks to it, the human race survives solar storms and other cosmic phenomena.
The sun is a natural source of electromagnetic radiation, but there are un-natural sources as well. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has given us the potential for ending society, not just from physical blasts, but also from electromagnetic pulses.
A nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) is a burst of radiation created by the detonation of a nuclear weapon high in the atmosphere. Higher up, there are less blast effects on humans but more severe effects on certain equipment. The flood of electromagnetic energy can produce surges that instantaneously damage electrical grids and electronics, perhaps permanently.
What experience do we have with nuclear electromagnetic pulses? Precious little. In 1962, the U.S. tested a 1.4 megaton device 240 miles over the South Pacific (“Operation Starfish Prime”). It unexpectedly affected street and traffic lights 1000 miles away in Hawaii. There were other surprises, as well: 6 satellites were damaged by the radiation, which spent months in space due to the high altitude of the detonation. All eventually became inoperative. Concern over these effects resulted in the 1963 ban on nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere.
The military has since taken measures to “harden” strategic defense systems against NEMPs; little has been accomplished, however, to protect civilian infrastructure in a nation increasingly dependent on the grid and delicate electronics.
The consequences of a successful nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack could, therefore, be devastating, knocking millions off the grid in an instant and causing widespread chaos. Even though a detonation 300 miles up in space won’t kill people from the blast, you can imagine the challenges related to keeping society stable and people healthy in the aftermath.
Once upon a time, a nuclear EMP was considered to be an event with a very low likelihood of occurrence, but recent advances in weapons technology by the saber-rattling regime of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea begin to make even skeptics realize that NEMPs may become a major concern in the near future.
The rogue nation is now able to send an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as far as the U.S. capitol. Although they are not yet perfected, these missiles carry a significant payload and have the capacity to deploy decoys that might confuse our missile defense systems. In addition, North Korea has been successful in launching satellites that currently fly over U.S. territory every 46 minutes. At the rate that they are advancing, North Korean satellites with the ability to carry low-yield nuclear weapons may soon be a possibility.
To be honest, we don’t have a clear picture of the effects of a NEMP on heavily populated areas. Some believe that the risk to the electrical grid and electronics is overblown. Others, however, feel that an unprotected grid struck by an electromagnetic pulse event could take years to restore in worst-case scenarios, and cause widespread civil unrest and panic even if a limited event.
Who’s in charge of protecting the grid?
Regardless of your estimation of the severity of NEMP attacks, you probably would agree with me that there should be someone in charge of protecting us against them. Despite this threat, and 15 years of recommendations from a national EMP commission to harden civilian infrastructure, we still have no definitive oversight body with any real regulatory or funding power to protect the grid. What we’ve done instead is disbanded the EMP commission entirely, allowed needed legislation to die in committees, and left our energy corporations and utilities to make their own decisions. These organizations, and the private North American Energy Reliability Corporation, are more concerned with protecting the grid from the more common natural disasters than nuclear ones.
The EMP commission estimated that it would cost at least 20 billion dollars to harden our civilian infrastructure against EMP attacks. I believe it’s money well spent, but funding alone isn’t enough. Responsibility for grid protection must be assigned to a single body; one that can oversee, not only security, but also recovery in the aftermath of an attack.
We tend to react to disasters after they happen rather than take measures to prevent their consequences. This is bad policy for the medic, and worse national policy when it comes to hurricanes and wildfires; it’s disastrous when it comes to EMPs.
Joe Alton MD
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