Let’s Worry about a Real Threat

power gridThe electric grid is a stellar achievement of civilization. Without the grid, modern civilization would collapse. In the U.S., thousands of electric generating plants are interconnected by thousands of miles of transmission lines. Electricity is generated as it is consumed.

These days, there is a lot of tampering with the electric grid. People who wouldn’t know a generator from a turbine are suddenly making no small plans to reform it. We now have good electricity and bad electricity. Good electricity is generated without emitting carbon dioxide (CO2). But that rule is not rigid, because nuclear electricity, and hydro electricity, if it involves a dam, are both bad electricity, even though they don’t emit CO2.

I’m not making this up. I’m repeating the California legal definition of renewable electricity.

Ironically, the evidence is overwhelming that adding CO2 to the atmosphere is highly beneficial. CO2 makes crops grow better with less water. A touch of global warming, all that we can possibly expect, is also beneficial, especially compared to global cooling.

Large corporations, Google being the prime example, have devised ways to turn the government subsidies for wind and solar electricity into a profitable business. It’s not just about making money. These crony capitalists, raiding the U.S. treasury, and making 14% on invested capital, can pretend to be champions of the environment and to be fighting global warming. They are really fighting for tax credits.

The Obama administration is catering to Democrat constituent groups ‚Äì the global warming crowd and wealthy environmental foundations. The sales pitch of these organizations is give them money now, to stop global warming, and future generations will rewarded with a better climate in 100 years. A lot of people who don’t have the excuse of dementia fall for this.

The scientific credibility of the global warming has fallen to near absolute zero in the face of the 18-year failure of the Earth to warm. The science behind global warming may have collapsed, but the beneficiaries of government subsidies – scientists and crony capitalist developers of renewable power – are still promoting the theory that is their golden egg-laying goose. Scientific societies, supposed seekers of scientific truth, have fallen so far in promoting global warming as to make the greediest industrial unions look principled and honest by comparison.

The executive branch of the government has become extremely powerful. By regulation, or even veiled suggestion, the formerly free economy can be made to do whatever the president wants, no matter how stupid or bizarre. Big companies are especially subservient to the whims of the agencies that regulate them. Utilities are eager to turn the electric grid upside-down, according to the dictates of crackpot environmentalism, because the executive branch tells them to do it. The Obama administration is trying to please influential groups, including scientists, that are perverting science for money. There is no hint that the administration cares or even knows what the scientific facts are.

While this bizarre tampering with the grid continues, a real danger to our national survival that threatens the destruction of the electric grid is ignored. That threat is an EMP or electromagnetic pulse. An EMP can be created naturally when a solar storm on the sun ejects a cloud of particles that strike the Earth. An EMP can also be created artificially by exploding a nuclear bomb above the atmosphere at an altitude between 30 and 500 miles.

A high-altitude nuclear explosion destroys nothing physically and makes no sound – only a bright flash. Without air, there is no medium to transmit physical shock and noise. But a high-altitude nuclear explosion creates a terribly dangerous electromagnetic pulse. An EMP was observed from various high-altitude American and Russian nuclear tests conducted before atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons was banned.

The EMP created by a nuclear bomb consists of three separate pulses, called E1, E2, and E3. A natural EMP, generated by solar activity, generates only the E3 pulse. The E1 pulse is an extremely abrupt electromagnetic shock, which makes its way into unprotected computers and electronic controls, destroying the delicate transistors. The E2 pulse is similar to lightning bolts striking simultaneously over a wide area. Devices not protected against lightning are likely to be damaged. The E3 pulse creates movement of the Earth’s magnetic field. This shifting of the magnetic field induces huge currents in long electric transmission lines. The result can be the destruction of large transformers, an essential part of the electric grid.

In 1989, a solar storm of modest strength caused the Quebec electric grid to collapse. More powerful solar storms can be expected.

When a nuclear weapon is exploded, it emits intense heat, a flux of neutrons, and gamma rays. Gamma rays are in the same family as X-rays, but far more energetic. It is the gamma rays, striking the atmosphere below the explosion, that create the EMP. The gamma rays interact with the atoms of air via the Compton effect. Gamma rays strike electrons and strip them from their atoms. The electrons are violently accelerated toward the Earth below, achieving speeds close to the speed of light.

Electrons have a negative electric charge, while the nuclei of the atoms they are associated with have a positive charge. When the electrons are attached to an atom, the atom has a zero net charge. But when the gamma rays strip the electrons from the atoms, and send them careering downward, an overall separation of negative and positive charges takes place. It is this rapid separation of electric charge that generates the EMP. There are whispers that super-EMP bombs will have greatly enhanced gammy ray emissions.

A single nuclear bomb, exploded 400 miles above Kansas, could wipe out much of the electronic and electrical infrastructure of the USA. Automobiles, trucks, and railroad engines might be so electronically damaged as to no longer operate. In any case, fuel would be difficult to obtain due to lack of electricity and due to destruction of the electronic control (SCADA systems) of refineries and pipelines. Electricity could be absent for months or years. The novel One Second After is a fictional account of what happens in a small town when an EMP strikes.

Don’t be in an elevator when an EMP strikes. Most likely the emergency systems designed to get you out of the elevator won’t function. All the elevator service men will be overwhelmed by calls to every elevator in the city. Their vehicles may be disabled. When every system fails, someone often has to hike up to the top of the elevator shaft ‚Äì 100 stories in some buildings in Chicago ‚Äì where the equipment is located and gently lower or raise the car by releasing a manual brake. Hope that your building people know how to do this. In the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist attack, some people were stuck in elevators for 11 hours, in spite of the best efforts of the New York Fire Department.

Should emergency supplies and a chemical toilet be stored in elevators? The real solution is to harden elevators and their emergency power supplies against EMPs.

It would be handy if every large building had a stock of essential equipment, such as two-way radios, stored in EMP-proof metal containers.

A few thousand massive transformers that are critical for the operation of the electrical grid would likely be destroyed by an EMP attack or even by a very strong solar event. These transformers are manufactured at only a few factories in the world and may take years to be delivered, even when there is no disaster. The transformers are sitting ducks for any terrorist regime that wants to turn off our electric grid for years. Do Iran and North Korea come to mind? The good news is that the transformers could be electrically protected at reasonable cost. The bad news is that nobody is doing that.

In Switzerland there are nuclear shelters for the entire population. Industries in Israel are a source for handy devices like blast valves that protect underground shelters from explosive overpressure. These countries face up to threats. But in the USA we ignore potential disasters, like EMPs, for which we are ill-prepared.

Critical military systems have long been hardened against EMPs. Nuclear-capable countries, including rogue states like North Korea and Iran, are well aware of the military possibilities of EMPs. Massive retaliation is not a realistic response to an EMP attack, especially considering that it may be possible to hide the identity of the actor who launched it. An EMP attack kills no one directly and destroys no buildings. An EMP attack could be launched using a primitive intermediate range missile launched from a civilian freighter ship near the American coast. Even terrorist organizations, with covert help from a hostile state, might be able to manage the logistics involved. What good will our thousands of hydrogen bombs mounted on missiles be in that situation?

Bills have been introduced in Congress to harden essential national systems against EMPs, but due to lobbying from the electric power industry, these bills have been defeated. The industry is obviously short-sighted and reactionary.

Apparently utilities are willing to slavishly obey mandates to change everything to prevent imaginary global warming because the executive branch tells them to do it. But in the absence of marching orders from Obama, they are content to resist modest measures to prevent an unholy disaster. Lobbying against EMP protection is lobbying in favor of death.

The U.S. government EMP Commission studied the issue for years and in 2008 generated an extensive report. Many prominent citizens have called for action on the EMP threat, including James Woolsey, former CIA director.

An EMP is an asymmetric threat. A small and weak enemy can strike a devastating below against the United States. Thus, it is a tempting weapon, especially for terrorists or terrorist regimes. Defense against EMPs is not an all-or-nothing situation. Even minor measures could make a huge difference in the recovery from an EMP attack. For example, hardening the capital equipment of the grid; thinking ahead how the grid can quickly support small islands of electricity; hardening the means of transportation (cars, trucks, and trains); making sure that water, food, and fuel can be accessed when pipelines and the electrical grid are not working; hardening SCADA systems that control much heavy infrastructure; hardening the cell phone network; and much more.

Many of these measures will be inexpensive. For example, the EMP Commission tested cars and trucks and discovered that they are already fairly resistant to EMPs. Inexpensive measures, such as adding ferrite collars to the wiring, might make them very resistant to EMPs.

We have an administration in Washington that cares only about politics ‚Äì how to manipulate public opinion and placate various constituencies. Scientific facts and military threats are subservient to all-consuming politics. The president’s science advisor, John Holdren, has a long record as a left-wing loon masquerading as a scientist. The secretary of energy appears to understand science, but he follows the political party line. The Republican House and Senate are pathetically weak and mute. They have no stomach for challenging the all-powerful executive branch.

If there is an EMP attack, the politicians will no doubt be blaming someone else. They may have to send their statements by pony express.