"One Second After" What?

  • Posted on: 28 January 2012
  • By: TedG

The book our group is reading now, One Second After, is a fictional account of a true phenomenon. It’s a story about what happens in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion detonated in the upper atmosphere that creates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). This pulse wipes out all electronic and electric capability in the United States. Can you imagine what that would be like? Just think of all the things we would not be able to do – communicate by phone or radio, use lights, drive cars. It’s mind-boggling.

So is this phenomenon a real possibility? It is. In fact, the federal government established an EMP Commission in the early part of the 21st century under an authorization granted by title XIV of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 (as enacted into law by P.L. 106-398; 114 Stat. 1654A-345). The Commission was charged with assessing the threat of an EMP attack on the United States and with identifying any steps it believed should be taken by the United States to better protect its military and civilian systems from EMP attack. The EMP Commission was reestablished via the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 to continue its efforts (www.empcommission.org).

But what is an EMP? According to that virtual treasure trove of information, Wikipedia, an EMP is an abrupt burst of electromagnetic radiation that usually results from certain types of high energy explosions, especially a nuclear explosion, or from a suddenly fluctuating magnetic field. The resulting rapidly changing electric fields and magnetic fields may couple with electrical/electronic systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_pulse). U.S. scientists first became aware of EMPs during nuclear tests that began in 1945. Word of them spread further in 1981 after William J. Broad published a series of three articles about nuclear electromagnetic pulse in the journal Science. In 1962, a 1.44 megaton nuclear bomb was detonated 250 miles above the mid-Pacific Ocean. The EMP produced by that explosion caused electrical damage in Hawaii, about 898 miles away from the detonation point, that knocked out about 300 streetlights, set off numerous burglar alarms, and damaged a telephone company microwave link. A similar test conducted that same year by the Soviet Union over Kazakhstan induced an electrical surge in a long underground power line that caused a fire in a city power plant.

USA Today did a story in October 2010 that laid out two scenarios for what could happen after an EMP. One was a nuclear explosion scenario, the other a naturally-caused event resulting from solar activity similar to what occurred in March of 1989. On March 9, 1989, the sun generated a blast of high-temperature charged solar gas that struck the Earth three days later. The geomagnetic storm resulting from the blast “made the northern lights visible in Texas and induced currents in Quebec's power grid that knocked out power for 6 million people in Canada and the USA for at least nine hours” (www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2010-10-26-emp_N.htm).

It’s an interesting thought exercise for us, and an even more interesting story to read. Let’s hope it remains that way rather than a real-life experience to endure.