“The scenario is apocalyptic: The United States plunges into darkness after its electrical grid goes down— not just for a few hours or even a few days, but a vulnerable power system could take 18 months to recover, so long a period of time that millions would die.
The reason? An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack come from a terrorist group or rogue state using a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere.
It sounds like something out of the most dystopian of Hollywood disaster movies.
But news that North Korea recently launched four missiles that traveled 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan has heightened concerns among those who have warned that an EMP attack that could essentially vaporize the U.S. energy infrastructure.
“I think this is the principal, the most important and dangerous, threat to the United States,”said James Woolsey, former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995.
“If you look at the electric grid and what it’s susceptible to, we would be moving into a world with no food delivery, no water purification, no banking, no telecommunications, no medicine. All of these things depend on electricity in one way or another,” Woolsey said in an interview with the Union-Tribune.
Others acknowledge the grid needs to be bolstered but are not as fearful of a potential doomsday.
“I’m not on knife’s edge,” said Rob Manning, vice president of transmission for the reseach sector of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). “EMP is a real threat, as is any number of of things that we deal with on a daily basis. So all we can do is try to understand those threats greater and create ways to mitigate them or recover from them effectively.”
What exactly is an EMP?
A short burst of electromagnetic energy, an EMP can occur in nature but with the dawn of the Atomic Age, U.S. and Soviet military officials and scientists soon learned EMPs can also be created when they tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military exploded a nuclear weapon high above an atoll in the Pacific that unexpectedly resulted in an EMP that blew out street lights and knocked out telephones in Hawaii, some 900 miles away.
The abrupt surge of energy is not believed to harm humans physiologically but the pulse could create massive currents that would blow through power lines, destroying electrical transformers and damaging power plants.
While EMPs from outside sources have been popularized in films such as the 1995 James Bond movie “GoldenEye” and “The Matrix,” Mother Nature can deliver her own knockout blow.
In 1859, a powerful, geomagnetic storm known as the Carrington Event produced auroras around the world and caused telegraph systems in North America and Europe to fail.
Today the anxiety comes from an enemy initiating what’s called a “high-altitude EMP” by attaching a nuclear weapon onto a satellite, then detonating it as the satellite passes over the center of the U.S., inflicting the most possible damage.
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