EMP: The Potential Disaster That Gets Ignored

The subject of EMP isn't covered in the mainstream press very often. And while The Economist isn't exactly mass-market, it isn't fringe either. The disaster that could follow from a flash in the sky

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is an effect of nuclear weapons. Detonate a nuclear bomb high in the atmosphere (40 km or so) and the result of pumping large amounts of gamma rays into the ionosphere is an EMP. Other things can generate similar effects on varying scales.

ON MARCH 13th 1989 a surge of energy from the sun, from a “coronal mass ejection”, had a startling impact on Canada. Within 92 seconds, the resulting geomagnetic storm took down Quebec’s electricity grid for nine hours. It could have been worse. On July 23rd 2012 particles from a much larger solar ejection blew across the orbital path of Earth, missing it by days. Had it hit America, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have destroyed perhaps a quarter of high-voltage transformers, according to Storm Analysis Consultants in Duluth, Minnesota. Future geomagnetic storms are inevitable.

An EMP would have similar impacts.

High voltage transformers are not something you order from Amazon. They take time to build, they are not commodities, and there are very few people building them. Without them, you would have NO electric power – except what you are able to generate on your own.

No electricity means no heat in the winter, (bet your oil-burner uses electricity to run,) no refrigeration. ATMs, electronic cash registers, computers, and the internet all stop working. Electronics in vehicles stop working, as do fuel pumps at gas stations. Which means goods delivery – including food – stops. Water treatment and pumping stops. Elevators stop. And it isn’t just that computers and smart phones stop working for a time. They are toast, and won’t work again. Same for the electronics in your home thermostat, refrigerator, oven, car, solar-power charging system, etc.

The expense of installing surge-blockers and other EMP-proofing kit on America’s big transformers is debated. The EMP Commission’s report in 2008 reckoned $3.95bn or less would do it. Others advance higher figures. But a complete collapse of the grid could probably be prevented by protecting several hundred critical transformers for perhaps $1m each.

The costs of not doing it, versus the cost of doing something seem to be the sticking point. That and who would pay for it.

The article isn’t long and is worth a look.

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