I attended a luncheon at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on the topic of the danger posed to our infrastructure by an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) nuclear detonation in the air over our country. It was a back to the future feeling as this was a serious concern during the Cold War, but it is a major concern now for a couple of reasons. First is the increasing dependence of our society on high tech circuitry to run vital infrastructure and basically everything, and second because of proliferation in countries like North Korea, and Iran.
Cliff May. who was last seen squashing Jon Stewart like a bug, hosted author William Fortschen to discuss his book One Second After his book about the aftermath of an EMP attack. Mr. Fortschen noted two tests of the EMP effect, the Soviet Test 184 and the US Starfish Prime as background on the subject and you can watch what EMP does to a Ford Taurus here.
An EMP attack would take place with a high altitude detonation of a relatively small nuclear device, close to the size the North Koreans are testing. It would generate gamma radiation that would likely take out the power grids and pretty much anything with integrated circuitry. It could literally takes us back to the 1800's in a few seconds. None of the systems that run our country i.e. power, water, hospitals, mass transit, are hardened in a way that would let them survive such an attack. There is currently a bunch of stimulus dollars marked for upgrading the power grid and a call was made to use that to include hardening to the upgrade.
A nuke is not the only type of pulse that could wreak havoc on our systems, the sun could take us out as well.
"Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather," points out Biesecker. "The great geomagnetic storm of 1859, for instance, occurred during a solar cycle of about the same size we’re predicting for 2013."
There is lots of good cause to make sure our systems are not vulnerable. There were also calls for continued missile defense development to ensure our enemies can't just lob a missile up over the center of the country and shut us down. The problem is that Iran is already testing their ability to shoot missiles vertically off of cargo ships which just about no missile defense system would shoot down. All in all it was a group of problems that we haven't had to deal with for a while, but that we ignore at our peril.