August 14, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Day to Remember Before We Die

Without warning, the lights went out. It was Aug. 15, 2003. A cascading power failure plunged the Northeastern United States and Canada into a massive blackout. For more than 55 million people, it was an object lesson in what life is like without electricity.

Luckily, the lesson was short-lived. Most services were restored within 24 hours.

But what if the lights had not come on the next day? What if more than just the lights had gone out? What if every major component of electro-infrastructure, from GPS satellites in space to the Internet in cyberspace, had been fried? What would life be like?

William Graham, chief science adviser under former President Reagan, offers a chilling description of the consequences in the documentary film, "33 Minutes."

"Medical services wouldn't be available because they need electric power. Telephones wouldn't work. The traffic lights would stop working. Big traffic jams. Transportation would be shut down.

"Electronic fund transfers wouldn't work so you wouldn't get your paycheck. You wouldn't be able to use your credit card.

"Food stocks would run out very quickly. Everything we know about life today that makes it convenient and efficient would be shut down." Graham said. "There would be a real challenge to keep our population even alive let alone strong and viable."

Unfortunately, this nightmare scenario is a real world concern.

The lights in America might go out -- forever -- via either of two routes. One is the result of high-altitude nuclear air burst delivered by a ballistic missile. The blast effects of the explosion would dissipate in space. But the electromagnetic radiation (often called an electromagnetic pulse or EMP) released would propagate downward in a massive bloom, creating huge power surges that might burn out electrical systems.

No one understands this danger better than Graham, who led a congressionally chartered commission that studied EMP threats and the danger they posed to U.S. critical infrastructure.

This is far from science fiction. Indeed, the experts and eggheads agree that the danger is very grave and very, very real. The EMP commission reports represent the consensus view of Washington's defense and intelligence communities, as well as the government's nuclear weapon labs.

Moreover, five other commissions and major government studies independently reached the same conclusion.

It gets scarier. Nuclear weapons are not the only possible source of catastrophic EMP damage. Mother Nature might also do us in.

Radiation from a massive solar event -- think last Tuesday's epic solar flare, only bigger and directed toward Earth -- could do the deed as well.

This danger was described in "Severe Space Weather Events -- Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts," a 2008 report from the National Academies.

Its conclusion: "Modern society depends heavily on a variety of technologies that are susceptible to the extremes of space weather -- severe disturbances ... driven by the magnetic activity of the sun."

Yet rather than moving to address this vulnerability, Washington is slipping into reverse. We need a missile defense system than can shoot down a ballistic missile carrying an EMP weapon.

Yet the president has slowed -- in some cases, canceled -- key parts of the missile defense program. Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department, created to prepare the nation for catastrophic threats, has done virtually nothing to develop a national extreme space weather emergency plan.

The Heritage Foundation has tagged Aug. 15 as "National EMP Awareness Day." We're encouraging our leaders to set aside some time that day to think about the day after an EMP event.

Let us hope they then spend more time -- and a lot of effort -- making sure this one nightmare that does not become a reality.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Examiner