“A failure of imagination” is how some experts described the intelligence community’s inability to foresee and interrupt the 9/11 plot. But it might as well describe America’s apparent disinterest in preparing for a potentially bigger threat – an EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, a nuclear capability that North Korea is believed to be pursuing.
An EMP is a short burst of electromagnetic energy, specifically gamma rays, that all nuclear explosions produce to varying degrees. A large EMP triggered over the United States from a ballistic missile or a satellite orbiting at the right altitude could fry unprotected electronics from coast to coast, rendering electric grids, cellphones, banking and financial institutions, automobile computers, railways, air traffic control, and airplanes themselves, useless. Food would rot in refrigerators and in farm fields, with no means of transporting agricultural products to population centers.
But for all the Mad Max predictions that a EMP strike would cause, there are some who dismiss the threat.
“It’s not real and it’s something out of a James Bond movie,” says John Tierney, the executive director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “The general consensus is it’s not a real threat imminent by any stretch of the imagination.”
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, chief of staff for the Congressional EMP Commission, vehemently rejects that assessment. “We’re constantly cleaning up after these guys,” he said.
“We have information, data from actual high altitude nuclear detonations that were conducted by us and the Russians back in the 1961-62 time frame, that did things like knock the lights out in Hawaii,” Pry said. “But most dramatically what the Russians did when they triggered a series of high altitude EMP tests that destroyed electric grids and critical infrastructure at Kazakhstan, then an industrial area, an area larger than Western Europe.”
Pry describes what he calls a nuclear “taboo” that allows the United States and many of its Western allies to cavalierly dismiss the threat.