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Colin A. Hanna

Colin A. Hanna

Let Freedom Ring, USA


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Let Freedom Ring

What is an Electromagnetic Pulse?

by Colin Hanna

What is an electromagnetic pulse, and what threat does it pose to the United States? Last week there was an event in Washington that attempted to answer those questions. It was sponsored by the newly established EMP Coalition, co-chaired by former CIA Director Jim Woolsey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Other participants were Ambassador Henry Cooper and Dr. Peter Vincent Pry. Ambassador Cooper led strategic arms control negotiations with the USSR under President Reagan and served as the Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization under President George H.W. Bush. His is currently the Chairman of High Frontier, an organization dedicated to protecting the United States from nuclear attack. Dr. Pry served on the Congressional EMP Threat Commission, as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee and as an analyst in the CIA. He is now the Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, a congressional advisory board dedicated to national resiliency in the face of EMP and other threats.

An electromagnetic pulse may be generated by unusually strong solar flares or by the closest thing to a solar flare that man has yet created, a nuclear blast. Such a pulse can instantaneously destroy electric circuits ranging from those in small handheld devices like smartphones and tablets to the increasingly complex circuits in automobiles, trucks and aircraft, to those in the giant transformers that power our national electric utility grid.

An example of the sun inflicting localized EMP disasters is the 1989 Hydro-Quebec geomagnetic storm that blacked out eastern Canada, causing billions of dollars in economic losses. A recent study by Lloyds of London estimated that if a similar geo-storm struck the east coast of the United States, 20-40 million Americans might be blacked out for — now hear this — as long as two years. The largest known geomagnetic super-storm, the 1859 Carrington Event, would collapse electric grids and life-sustaining critical infrastructures everywhere on Earth, putting at risk the lives of billions. Back in 1859, there were no electric circuits, so the enormous Carrington geo-storm storm didn't cause the damage then that it would today.

Scientists estimate that the world is overdue for another Carrington Event, and the Sun has already entered an intense solar activity phase that will last through 2013.

Mr. Woolsey warned that an EMP catastrophe may also be imminent from terrorists and/or rogue states armed with nuclear weapons. A single nuclear weapon detonated at high-altitude over this country would collapse the electric grid and other critical infrastructures and endanger the lives of millions.

Most electric utilities in the United States have thus far not acted to protect themselves from EMP, even though the costs of doing so are modest. That's because it's seen as a national defense issue, which is a U.S. government responsibility. But former CIA Director Woolsey did identify a bill that is stalled in Congress that would offer a measure of protection at quite a low cost. It's called the Secure High-voltage Infrastructure for Electricity from Lethal Damage, or (SHIELD) Act.

Ambassador Cooper warned that, given our nation's current state of unpreparedness, if a natural or nuclear EMP catastrophe struck today, blacking out the electrical grid and other critical infrastructures for a year, as many as ninety percent of the American people could perish from starvation, disease and societal collapse.

It doesn't take a very sophisticated guidance system to send a missile our way and explode an EMP-producing nuclear device at a high altitude above us. No one would die from the blast, but it would produce the pulse that will fry millions of electric circuits. Ambassador Cooper warned that North Korea may already have the capability to make a catastrophic EMP attack on the United States.

All panelists endorsed the SHIELD Act, urged that the Department of Homeland Security develop a new National Planning Scenario focused on EMP, and encouraged other states to follow the example of Maine, not wait for Washington -- but pass state initiatives to protect their electric grids from EMP now. The estimate per-electric-company customer to implement the SHIELD Act? Less than 25 cents per year.

The EMP Coalition has posted video of the panel discussion at I encourage you to view the video, educate yourself on the issue, and then ask your Member of Congress to co-sponsor the SHIELD Act and get it on the floor of the House of Representatives. We must protect our nation against the threat of an electromagnetic pulse to the extent that we can, and the most basic level of protection can be obtained for less than one-tenth of one cent per-day per-citizen.

Colin Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring, USA and a commentator on American Radio Journal.