EMP: A Real Threat to the United States

Published October 26, 2015

While the world’s governments spend billions of dollars a year trying to prevent or mitigate a probably imaginary change in global temperature a century or more in the future, a very real threat is going largely unnoticed. An electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP), executed by exploding a single nuclear bomb 300 miles above Kansas, could paralyze all of North America.

There would be no blast damage, because the bomb would explode in airless space 300 miles above Earth’s surface. The gamma rays released would interact with the upper atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field to create several types of electromagnetic pulses. Likely there would be great damage to all types of computer equipment. Very high voltage transformers essential to the distribution of electricity could be damaged beyond repair. This would disable the electric grid for a year or more.

A natural EMP can also be created by a solar storm. There were natural EMPs in 1859, 1921, and 1989. A natural EMP does not harm computers, but it does put the electrical grid transformers at risk, possibly causing a loss of electricity for years.

Today almost all infrastructure is controlled by computers, which means an EMP could take out water and sewage systems, food distribution, ATMs, credit card networks, transportation, and other elements of modern life. Much of the population could find themselves in desperate circumstances.

The U.S. military and forces hostile to the United States understand very well the damage an EMP could do. The last nuclear tests conducted in near outer space in the 1960s, when semiconductors and computers were in their infancy, resulted in significant electrical disruption. Now, computers are everywhere and vulnerable semiconductors have features smaller than the wavelength of light.

The capability to launch an EMP attack is not far off for Iran, North Korea, and perhaps some terrorist organizations. These entities are not necessarily rational and may not be deterred by threats of retaliation, assuming we can even identify the source of the attack. Our nuclear forces have long been hardened against an EMP attack, but most basic infrastructure is not. There are reasonable ways to harden our infrastructure against the threat of an EMP, but the government isn’t doing anything. 

Threat to Electricity, Fuel, Food

The nation’s electrical grid could be hardened at reasonable expense. Without electricity for months or years, civilization collapses. Refineries and pipelines are vulnerable, and without them there will be no fuel. If it is winter, people will be burning their furniture for heat. People dependent on drugs to stay alive will die because the drug manufacturing facilities will be idled.

The nation as a whole has several years’ worth of food stored as grain and soybeans on farms and in grain elevators. The problem under this new war scenario is distribution. Grocery stores don’t store large quantities of food and are often cleaned out within hours when a hurricane threatens. The food processing and delivery system depends on equipment, transportation, the financial system, electricity, etc., to function. When there is an earthquake or hurricane, massive help is quickly mobilized from outside the affected area, so food storage needs are small. An EMP attack would affect all of North America, however, so help from outside would have to come from Asia or Europe. Other than for small quantities of critical items, it would have to come by ship.

Policy Implications

The American people are more concerned about the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran’s nuclear program than they are about climate change, according to a 40-nation Pew Research Center survey conducted in spring 2015. The Obama administration nevertheless seems intent on ignoring real threats in favor of hypothetical ones.

The nation’s critical infrastructure, especially the electric grid and fuel distribution system, must be hardened. Emergency plans must be put in place to keep water and sewage systems working. Political leaders should be aggressive in dealing with countries and terrorists that might engineer major attacks.

The Foundation for Resilient Societies is working to wake up the government to the danger of an EMP attack. In addition, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) launched a congressional caucus to focus efforts on the threat of an EMP, and as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security he shepherded the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act through the committee to empower the Department of Homeland Security to harden and protect our critical infrastructure, including power production, generation, and distribution systems, against an EMP. Their efforts deserve serious consideration. 

Norman Rogers writes about global warming, energy, and other topics at Climateviews.com.