America’s Great Vulnerability – Threat by EMP, Part I
Most would argue that technology has brought us, as a society, great wealth and advancement. Think about where we are today compared to where we were just 20 or 30 years ago. Information flows nearly instantaneously from one end of the globe to the other, and this easy access to information helps us to simplify our lives. We can buy and sell stocks with the click of a mouse. We can research and run product comparisons without leaving our seats, and receive products at our doorstep within days. Businesses have incorporated computerized automation into their production lines and into their delivery systems, making them far more efficient and profitable. Technology has also enhanced our medical system, aiding surgeons, for example, in complex procedures, minimizing human error and fostering medical success. But is there a flip side to all this technological advancement? Some will argue that the more complex a society becomes, the more susceptible it is to catastrophic failure and collapse. Particularly troubling to American society today, with such great dependency on its technology, is the threat by EMP, or ElectroMagnetic Pulse.
What is an EMP?
An electromagnetic pulse is a transient phenomenon where there is a short burst of electromagnetic energy, associated with a rapid acceleration of charged particles. Such energy can induce currents in sensitive electronic equipment, either causing interference or, if severe enough, permanent damage to said equipment.
One natural source of EMP you might be familiar with is from a lightning strike. The current surge resulting from a localized lightning strike can possibly damage computer systems along with their peripherals, which is why it is so important that you use properly rated surge suppressors and not simply take power directly from an outlet. Of course, if the EMP is energetic enough, no amount of surge suppression will be adequate and other methods will need to be employed to protect sensitive electronics.
Another source of natural EMP that could be quite serious is from our sun, in the form of a coronal mass ejection(CME), directed at planet earth. CMEs have the potential to damage circuitry on orbiting satellites and interfere with telecommunications, but in some rare instances, the CME can be quite severe, causing devastating effects here on the ground. Such was the case in 1859, with a solar storm referred to as the Carrington Event.
EMPs do not necessarily need to be natural in origin. They can also be man-made and used as an instrument of war. Recent news highlighting the tensions rising between the United States and North Korea instilled fear among some that a high altitude nuclear blast might be employed to decapitate the US. North Korea actually has satellites which fly over US airspace, and these satellites if properly equipped with nuclear fuel and detonators could result in a high altitude emp blast.
With the rhetoric rising between the two nations, one could read the headlines “Exclusive – Congressional Expert: North Korea Satellites Orbiting US Could Be Used for a ‘Surprise’ EMP Attack” (Breitbart), “North Korean EMP Attack Would Cause Mass US Starvation Says Congressional Report ” (Forbes), or “North Korean Satellites ‘In Ideal Position’ For EMP Attack to Take Down Aeroplanes” (Express, UK). Such doom and gloom headlines are rooted in fears of unknown North Korean capabilities, and while they may be used for US war propaganda purposes, they nonetheless underline the serious nature of an EMP attack and the fact that the United States is completely unprepared should one occur.
The Carrington Event
On September 1, 1859, British astronomer, Richard Carrington, was using his telescope to project an image of the sun onto a screen. As he was dutifully creating a sketch of sunspots that he was monitoring, he noted “two patches of intensely bright and white light” which had erupted from the sunspots. After about one minute, the intense activity of the sun had ceased. What Carrington had witnessed was a CME, or Coronal Mass Ejection, which results when the sun’s magnetic flux momentarily breaks but then snaps back or reforms. The resulting action is a release of plasma, energetic particles, along with X-rays, which at least in this case were sent hurtling in waves towards planet Earth.
The approximate distance between the earth and the sun is 93 million miles (146 million km), and most CMEs take approximately 3 to 4 days to reach earth. This exceptionally strong CME took a mere 17.6 hours to transit and perturb the earth’s magnetic field. The geomagnetic storm arrived with a vengeance, turning the night skies a brilliant crimson, as auroras could be seen as far south as Cuba.
Fortunately for both Europeans and Americans at this time, technology was in its infancy. There were no electrical grids to fry, neither bank accounts nor any other critical information for that matter was maintained electronically, drinking water, and wastewater removal did not rely upon the use of electric pumps, food production was decentralized and localized and did not require long distant transport, and nuclear power plants did not require pumps to prevent them from melting down.
The one area which was impacted a great deal during this Victorian era was communication, because of the common use of the telegraph, which was used as a means to convey news as well as to conduct commerce at a distance. On that fateful day, field-induced currents surged through the telegraph lines, creating widespread disruption in communication. Telegraph operators reported being shocked as arcs jumped from the circuitry to their bodies acting as grounding points. Some stations reported fire outbreaks after chemically treated telegraph paper caught fire.
An interesting discovery was made when it was realized that some telegraph stations continued to transmit even when disengaged from its power source. Prior to this time, the cause of auroras was unknown, and it certainly wasn’t seen as an electrical phenomenon. The Carrington Event made that association clear.
This Time Around Could Be Much Worse!
NASA published a 132-page report entitled Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, which asked the question: “Did you know a solar flare can make your toilet stop working?” The report reveals that our power grid upon which we rely so much to carry out daily tasks would be most vulnerable to an EMP event, be it natural or man-made. Transmission lines act as antennas where rogue currents would be induced and spread, and these currents are capable of melting copper windings of transformers which forms the basis of power transmission systems.
To make matters worse, utilities have joined distant grids to form a mega-grid, so that low-cost, long-distance power transmission is possible. Consequently, when a small portion of the grid goes down, this failure can propagate to a much larger area, impacting hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. Note also, when large distribution power transformers meltdown, they are not easily replaced. These transformers are imported for the most part, and it could take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to get a suitable replacement. If multiple transformers meltdown simultaneously, which is possible with a large-scale CME, this could cause a huge nightmare. Computer simulations, for example, indicate that if an EMP were to occur over southern Canada today, over 300 extra high voltage transformers would be at risk and conceivably permanently damaged by the event, and this could impact more than 130 million people in the Pacific NW, Upper Midwest, and Northeast.
Furthermore, the National Academy of Science filed a report of the debilitating impact of another Carrington-style event. The report claimed: “The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on.”
As if from a post-apocalyptic disaster flick, loss of potable water, sewage disposal, refrigeration, and power would be bad enough, but the loss of one or more nuclear power plants due to inadequate cooling would make a bad situation even worse. But how likely is this to occur? Nuclear power plants are designed to shut down after sudden interruption of their output so that there is no damage to the plant’s core. Automatic emergency diesel engines turn on the moment power is lost to the plant, and these engines pump water into the reactor to reduce heat, while control rods are dropped into the core. Primary and secondary containment structures are in place to contain the fuel, should the pumps stop running and the fuel become exposed. This, in turn, should help to prevent a core meltdown.
Most power plants carry enough diesel fuel for about seven days, but as we discussed above, a Carrington style EMP or High Altitude Nuclear EMP attack could kill the grid for months to several years. Getting more diesel to the plant in the event of a large-scale EMP event could be near to impossible logistically.
Spent fuel is another area of concern. Each nuclear site has one or more areas for storing spent fuel rods, rods which are no longer useful as a source of nuclear energy and which must be replaced by fresh fuel rods. These spent fuel rods are contained in an area referred to as a spent fuel pool, and even though the rods are no longer usable, they are still very radioactive and continue to produce heat. Only over prolonged periods of time does the heat subside, but by that time, new spent rods are added to the pool. So these pools must also be continually cooled.
Unlike the case with active rods, the spent fuel pools are not placed in any radioactive containment structure, and these pools are typically housed in large industrial buildings which vent to the atmosphere. So if there is any prolonged power outage, there is a significant likelihood that the water coolant will boil away, leaving exposed rods to catch file and to vent radioactivity into the atmosphere.
We have built a very sophisticated societal construct that requires flawless operation of all of its parts to continue and expand. Falling short of this goal can have serious consequences. We have moved very far from our roots where we grow and catch our own food, and where we are able to fend for ourselves against the elements. Instead, we rely on the 2% to grow our food and to feed us. We have eliminated redundancy so that if one aspect of our survival should falter, there will be nothing there to replace it. Instead, we have chosen a path of high specialization, computerized automation, one which involves long logistical supply chains, so if a chink forms in one part of the chain, the following operations will suffer as a consequence.
We are open and vulnerable because our government has failed to harden our electric grid and anything from a natural event, such as CME, to a man-made premeditated act by an enemy of our republic, can bring us to our knees virtually overnight, with millions perishing in the aftermath. A threat by EMP is quite real.
There are things we can demand our government do to protect us and there are things we can do to protect ourselves and our families should such an unfortunate set of events occur. But this is a subject of a different post. There have been CMEs that have occurred subsequent to the 1859 event, but they have paled in comparison in severity, and so their consequence has lacked the gravity of that which has been described in this paper. Let us pray that our luck continues moving forward.