Survival in the Age of EMP

There are only a few things that could paralyze the entire country.  An all-out atomic attack from Russia would kill half the population or more and destroy much of the infrastructure.  The remaining population would be in far suburbs, small towns, and rural areas.  This sort attack is considered unlikely because it is not in Russia’s interest, given that we would return the favor in spades.

A more probable scenario is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack.  Such an attack is executed by exploding a single nuclear bomb 300 miles above Kansas.  It would hit most of North America with EMP.  There would be no blast damage, since the bomb explodes in airless space 300 miles away.  The gamma rays released ionize the upper atmosphere and create several types of electromagnetic pulses due to freed electrons interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.  The result is likely to destroy the electric grid beyond repair for years, because large distribution transformers would be destroyed.

Such an attack would also create widespread damage to computerized equipment.  Today, most all infrastructure is controlled by computers.  An EMP attack could take out the water, sewage, food distribution, ATMs, credit cards, transportation, etc.  The result could be to place much of the population in desperate circumstances.

The EMP is a threat well understood by the military, as well as by forces hostile to the United States.  The last nuclear tests in near outer space took place in the 1960s: one American test and three Soviet tests.  Severe electrical disruption took place, particularly from the Russian tests that were over land.  The American test was over the Pacific Ocean.

In the 1960s, semiconductors and computers were in their infancy.  Now computers are everywhere, and semiconductors have features smaller than the wavelength of light.  The small features may make the transistors more fragile under electromagnetic attack.

An EMP attack is within reach for Iran, North Korea, and perhaps a terrorist organization.  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.  There are lots of ways to harden our infrastructure against EMP at reasonable cost, but the government isn’t doing anything, and the Obama administration is studiously ignoring the matter, perhaps because it might make the administration’s Iran policy look dangerous or interfere with its clean energy boondoggles.  Our nuclear forces have long been hardened against an EMP.

How could a terrorist organization engineer an EMP attack?  They would have to buy or make a lightweight atomic bomb that has plentiful gamma ray emission.  Leaving off the heavy metal casing, which serves to increase yield but absorbs gamma rays, accomplishes the goals of lightness and plentiful gamma rays.  Such a bomb might weight 200 pounds.  A long-range missile is large and heavy and probably feasible only for a nation state, like Iran or North Korea. However, a relatively small and cheap commercial sounding rocket can carry 200 pounds to a height of 300 miles.  Such a rocket can be carried in a truck and assembled someplace near the center of the country.  No precision guidance is necessary – only a fusing device to detonate the bomb at the correct altitude.  The equipment could be smuggled into the country in containers or offloaded from a freighter at night.  A terrorist organization might have surreptitious help from the likes of Iran.

If the EMP scenario is not bad enough, it is possible to bring down the grid for an extended period of time by physical attacks on large transformers and natural gas pumping stations.  The transformers are prone to explode due the great amount of energy passing through them.  Natural gas is highly flammable.

The consequences of grid and computer failure could be horrible, especially because we are totally unprepared.  The electrical grid could be hardened at reasonable expense, but nothing is being done.  Without electricity for months or years, civilization collapses.  The food chain cannot operate without electricity to power the factories.  Transportation, assuming cars and trucks still run, cannot operate without fuel.  Without refineries and pipelines operating, 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 factories that make drugs will be idle.

This new war scenario gives another reason for individuals to store food.  The possibilities of a corn and bean diet become interesting when food storage is considered.  Mormons have long been encouraged to store a year’s supply of food.  The California Earthquake Authority suggests having a 2-week supply of food.  The State of Florida suggests having a 3-day supply of food.  The nation as a whole has several years’ worth of food stored as grain and soybeans on farms and in grain elevators.  Most of that bulk food is normally fed to cattle, exported, or processed into other products.  There are also 90 million cattle that could be eaten.

The problem is distribution.  Grocery stores don’t store large quantities of food and are often cleaned out in hours when a hurricane threatens.  The long food chain has to operate to process and distribute food.  That food chain depends on equipment, transportation, the financial system, electricity, etc.  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 affects all of North America, so help from outside would have to come from Asia or Europe, and other than for small quantities of critical items, it would have to come by boat.  Hopefully, by the time the boats arrived, someone would have figured out how to get the container cranes working.  How many people or organizations have thought about how one would buy (or sell) things when credit card terminals, bank computers, and ATMs don’t work?

It is possible to create a complete diet with corn, soybeans, and perhaps a daily vitamin pill.  Corn is deficient in the essential amino acid lysine.  Soybeans, on the other hand, have plentiful lysine, so a diet combining the two provides all essential amino acids – a complete protein.  At the prices paid to farmers, it would cost only about 15 cents a day for the ingredients to feed an adult for one day.  Bought retail in bulk, the ingredients might cost 50 cents a day.  The resulting diet would be similar to the food eaten by poor people in Mexico.  Corn can be made into hot cereal, hominy, or tortillas.  Soybeans can be prepared for consumption in many ways.

It is dangerous to store large quantities of liquid or gaseous fuel.  A possibility is to use corn for fuel, as it burns well and has high heat content.  Cooking stoves that burn wood or corn are available.  Since the government is not doing anything about an EMP, it may be a good idea for individuals and organizations to make their own plans for emergency food supplies.

What should the government be doing?  It should be hardening critical infrastructure, especially the electric grid and the fuel distribution system.  It should have emergency plans to keep water and sewage working.  It should be aggressive in dealing with countries and terrorists that might engineer major attacks.

The Foundation for Resilient Societies is trying very hard to wake up the government to the danger of an EMP attack.  Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona is also trying.

Norman Rogers writes about global warming, energy, and other topics.  He has a website.  He is not connected with the Foundation for Resilient Societies.

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