The mother of all power outages

Never in history have more humans been more dependent on man-made energy. It powers our homes, keeps the lights on and appliances humming, and runs the heating and cooling systems that prevent us from freezing or sweltering. Even more crucially, energy powers the technologies that keep hospitals, airports, communications and countless other essential systems functioning. Sometimes, of course, a lightning strike, felled tree or faulty transformer causes temporary, localized power outages, leaving us in the dark, helpless, and hoping it doesn’t last long enough to freeze the water pipes or spoil the food in the freezer.

But what happens if the lights don’t come back on?

This is the nightmare brought to life in Pulse Attack: The Real Story Behind The Secret Weapon that can Destroy North America. The new book by Sun Media national columnist Anthony Furey is a frightening examination of the risk of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices being used as weapons, by terrorists or hostile states, to attack the United States and Canada. If it sounds like another sky-is-falling exaggeration in the same league as global warming apocalypticism or the latest imminent catastrophic microbial epidemic, consider this: no less an authority that former CIA director James Woolsey has warned that a single high-altitude detonation of a nuclear bomb could produce an EMP that would plunge the U.S. into darkness for 18 months, causing mass panic, starvation and chaos.

An electromagnetic pulse is a short but immensely powerful burst of energy which can cripple electrical grids and all the technologies and systems connected to them. EMPs can and do occur naturally, as lightning or solar flares, for example, sometimes resulting in minor, localized damage to electronic technologies. But a weaponized EMP, likely generated by a nuclear bomb detonated high above the earth on board a missile or satellite, could do more damage than almost any other weapon known to man. Chances are you would not even be aware of the detonation. But suddenly, your cell phone and laptop would stop working. So would your car and every other vehicle on the road. Your home would be powerless, as would hospitals, schools, airports, and all the electricity generation infrastructure. Government, including police and the military, would be incapacitated, and society would rapidly descend into a savage struggle for survival.

Furey, a Canadian political journalist and commentator who has also written for Postmedia, Time magazine and the New York Daily News, is a thorough and credible reporter. He has taken complex technology and dense government reports about the subject and distilled them into a readable story for a mass audience.

Apparently it was no easy task to pry information about EMPs from North American governments. Furey relied heavily on Access to Information requests, but was constantly stonewalled in those efforts. Of the numerous U.S. and Canadian government agencies he badgered for information, he writes: “The answer from them when it comes to EMP weapons all was the same. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Furey says the difficulty obtaining this information from government, particularly Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, stemmed not so much from a reluctance to provide it, but rather from vast ignorance of the subject. Following his ATIP requests, Furey received several calls from public servants asking for more information, indicating a general lack of knowledge about EMPs with the bureaucracies.

He found similar government ignorance, disinterest and outright obstruction In the United States. In the chapter titled “The Greatest Story Never Told,” Furey discusses the persistent efforts of Maine legislator Andrea Boland to raise the alarm about EMPs. In 2013 Boland successfully shepherded a bill through the state legislature that was intended to ignite a public conversation on EMPs and the damage they could cause, and aimed to identify ways state governments could respond to EMP attacks.

Little came of it due to interference from the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC), the self-regulating body for power companies, which used its political clout to effectively shift responsibility for EMP protection to the federal government, where it still languishes virtually unaddressed.

Despite these setbacks, Boland has continued to push for action to defend against EMPs. In an interview with the author, she expressed cautious optimism that the threat will eventually be taken seriously: “I don’t expect big things to happen fast because there’s so much threatened by this vulnerability, but I’m hoping that we have progress on it.”

The military and security establishments are understandably focused on other threats facing North America, such as potential nuclear, chemical, or biological attacks. And some experts contend that the impacts of EMP weapons are still largely unknown and grossly exaggerated. But the major powers have been working on nuclear and non-nuclear EMP weapons for decades. The old Soviet Union famously set off a high altitude nuclear explosion over Kazakhstan in 1962 to produce an EMP that fried radios, power lines, and generators over a wide area. The U.S. did the same over the Pacific that year, knocking out radios, phones and streetlights 900 miles away in Hawaii.

According to the EMP Commission, an agency created by the U.S. Congress to investigate and monitor the threat, a single large high-altitude nuclear explosion over North America could cripple the continental energy grid, and the resulting social chaos, disease, and starvation could kill 90 percent of the U.S. (and Canadian) population.

So defence planners and strategists are very much aware of the possibility of an EMP attack, and given the enormity of the U.S. military budget, Furey argues, there is no reason to neglect preparations in this area. It has long been known electronic devices can be protected from EMPs by enveloping them in metal insulation or wire mesh, a simple and relatively inexpensive security solution. “The EMP Commission’s research concluded that protecting the grid for the United States would cost the government $2 billion,” Furey notes. “For perspective, the U.S. federal budget for 2016 was $3.5 trillion.”

Furey closes with a stark indictment of government inaction on the looming EMP threat. “This is a danger to national security,” he concludes. “As North America does nothing, the black swan descends.”

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