Chambers: Lights out: The pulse that could do us in

Chambers: Lights out: The pulse that could do us in

April 24th, 2014 by By Mike Chambers in Opinion Columns

It's almost a B-movie script; a renegade nuke is set off by North Korea above Kansas, or a massive solar flare slams into Earth, or a coordinated terrorist attack focuses on the power grid. Regardless, the result could be catastrophic - the resulting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) could fry electronic components that make modern life in America possible.

More than 100 nuclear power plants could go Fukushima (including Sequoyah and Watts Bar in the Tennessee Valley); water purification and pumping stations would go idle. There would be no power for hospitals and no operating gas stations. There would be no residential power, no transportation, no food distribution -- no civilization as we know it.

If you want to read a page-turning novel, based on known facts and extrapolations of the somber scenario, read "One Second After" by William R. Forstchen, William D. Sanders and Newt Gingrich.

Some estimates say that after an EMP, up to 90 percent of Americans could die within a year.

Former House Speaker Gingrich told members of Congress last year that an EMP attack "could be the kind of catastrophe that ends civilization -- and that's not an exaggeration."

Peter Pry, a former CIA officer and head of a congressional advisory board on national security puts it this way: "This gets translated into mass fatalities, because our modern civilization can't feed, transport, or provide law and order without electricity."

A paranoid fear similar to the Y2K computer scare of 1999?

Maybe not.

When an April 2013 sniper attack on an electric substation in San Diego threatened an entire portion of the power grid -- some say a "test run" by terrorists -- communications lines were cut and there were no fingerprints on shell casings.

Meanwhile, Iranian freighters have been observed conducting missile firing tests. According to Pry, quoted in the Washington Examiner, "Iran recently purchased Russia's Club-K missile launcher, which can be hidden in tractor-trailer-sized cargo boxes." A nuke could then be put on a freighter and launched without fear of retaliation by doing so anonymously.

Meanwhile, some scientists have said we are overdue for a repeat of the so-called "Carrington Event" in 1859, when a massive solar flare fried telegraph lines around the planet.

In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences looked at the possibility of a solar flare and its effect on the planet, especially North America. Not as apocalyptic as the EMP coalition fears, but still not good: a solar flare two-thirds the size of the Carrington Event could knock out power for 130 million people.

Scientists say we just missed a major hit last year.

Gingrich, Pry and others say the answer is simple: Install Faraday cages to protect sensitive electronic components and stockpile transformers that would be needed to replace those knocked out by such an event, whether caused by man or God.

Cost? Roughly $2 billion, eventually rising to $10 to $20 billion if all electric infrastructures were protected. Sounds like a good jobs program to me.

The House passed the GRID Act in 2010, which would have protected 300 of the nation's biggest transformers (we have few spares -- mainly made in Korea -- and it could take up to two years to build replacements). The measure died in the Senate.

Gingrich and his allies are now appealing to states -- Maine has stepped up to the plate -- to do the job.

In the meantime, it may not be a bad idea to have provisions -- food, water sources, lighting, necessary medical supplies, protected communications, at the very least a plan of action -- in place should the unthinkable happen.

The Boy Scouts motto applies: Be prepared.

Mike Chambers writes from Lookout Mountain.