(A previous version of this article appeared in USA Today.)
The saturation of society with modern electronics, while certainly a good thing overall, gives us an Achilles heel. The more dependent we become on such electronics, the more vulnerable we are to societal chaos if a substantial portion of them fail simultaneously. It is said that an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, could cause such a failure.
An EMP is generated by a nuclear explosion, or by a smaller-scale “e-bomb.” If a terrorist or rogue nation detonated a nuclear bomb a few hundred miles above the United States, the resulting shock wave could damage or disrupt electronic components throughout the country. The consequences could be catastrophic. Our life-sustaining critical infrastructure such as communications networks, energy networks, and food and water distribution networks could all break down.
EMP was a prominent concern during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. That concern is rearing its head again, now that it appears we are headed toward cold wars with Iran, North Korea, and other third-world regimes bent on acquiring nuclear weapons such as Venezuela. The possibility of terrorist groups getting a hold of nuclear missiles adds to the danger.
Some of the literature on EMP gives the impression that such an event would fry every computer in the country, that planes would fall out of the sky, and that society would be thrust back into 19th century technological backwardness. Such claims may be far fetched, but EMP is nevertheless a deadly serious issue.
Fortunately, protecting electronics and critical infrastructure against EMP is doable. It involves enclosing every electronic component with a metallic cage that blocks out electromagnetic waves.
Sound impossible? Actually, electronic components already enjoy some form of shielding against electromagnetic interference. Federal Communications Commission standards require it. Such shielding is designed to prevent everyday electromagnetic radiation from entering and/or exiting the device. Your computer contains this shielding, from metal housings down to the little metal coverings soldered to your motherboard, to electrically conductive gaskets that seal openings. There even are housings the size of rooms or buildings that protect sensitive equipment inside. Without electromagnetic shielding, many electronic devices would not work properly.
However, most existing shielding may not be enough to protect against EMP. While U.S. military standards often require electronic components to be protected against EMP, commercial standards do not. And while our power grid is shielded against things such as lighting strikes, it is not tested for protection against EMP.
Upgrading to shield against EMP would entail using more robust shielding materials, especially for the cords, cables and/or wires that connect devices to external entities such as power supplies or networks. Cables and wires act as antennas through which an EMP travels directly into a device.
To what extent would an EMP destroy electronics in their current configurations? Certainly not 100 percent. Not all electronics are connected to cables or wires. And many of those that are connected may only temporarily be disrupted or not be disrupted at all, thanks to the existing shielding against electromagnetic interference. But an EMP that is powerful enough or that is close enough could ruin many electronic devices such as computers.
Unlike what was depicted in the 1983 movie The Day After, automobiles may keep functioning after an EMP attack. The electronics within automobiles enjoy robust shielding because of the harsh electromagnetic environment on existing roadways. Aircraft have even stronger electromagnetic shielding, so they likely would not fall out of the sky. “Some of the (aircraft’s) equipment may not work, but the propulsion and control system usually is pretty robust,” said Dr. William A. Radasky, president of Metatech Corp.
Radasky, one of the world’s few experts on protecting electronics against EMP, thinks that most electronics would undergo only a temporary disruption in the event of EMP. “You may just have to restart the computer and everything would be fine,” said Radasky. But a temporary shutdown of a control system for a critical infrastructure system, he said, would be “troublesome.” And if just 1 percent of all electronics failed, havoc could ensue. “Just think about the power outage in August of ’03 when a couple of wires hit a tree,” observed Radasky. “That was a single failure, propagated over a huge area. Now imagine, at the speed of light every place in the United States, some portion of electronics failing. Now you have a very widespread problem.”
The only way to know the extent to which an EMP would knock out electronics is to conduct testing with EMP simulators.
Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, most EMP simulators in the United States have been closed, according to Radasky. And the few that remain open are for military use, not civilian use.
The Department of Homeland Security should set up civilian EMP simulators, and encourage – or require – those in charge of our critical infrastructure to upgrade their facilities and conduct tests to assess EMP vulnerability.
It would be wise to follow Switzerland’s lead. According to Radasky, that country during the Cold War hardened some of its critical infrastructure against EMP, such as water works. “They felt that if there was high-altitude burst over Europe, they were going to be affected whether they were a combatant or not.”
It is a thorny question as to whether the FCC should revise its standards to require electronics manufacturers to build in EMP protection. This could be prohibitively expensive for the manufacture of individual components. But businesses and government agencies should install EMP protection at the system level. (This also would provide protection against other electromagnetic disturbances such as lightning.)
One positive development is the increasing use of fiber optic cables. Most of them do not contain metal, so they are invulnerable to EMP, according to Radasky. The more common they become, the less exposed systems are to EMP.
But the Achilles heel remains. Our dependence on electronics grows larger as a new era of nuclear cold war draws closer. It behooves us to protect our electronics against EMP.
Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.