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Does America have a sufficiently hardened electrical grid?

For 44 long years, the Cold War marked a turbulent period in the world’s political climate. Throughout this time, the anxiety of impending nuclear annihilation was an ever-present threat. In fact, if it wasn’t for a cool-headed Russian by the name of Stanislav Petrov, I might not have even been born to write this very article (and you might not be here reading this article).

During the height of the Cold War, in the year 1983, US–Soviet relations were approaching breaking point. Petrov, a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, received an alert from the Oko nuclear early-warning system of a single missile attack. However, Petrov wasn’t buying it.

Why would the Americans only fire a single nuke?

Soon after, from his bunker in Moscow, Petrov detected four more incoming missiles on the computer. Petrov, however, wasn’t convinced. Petrov deduced—correctly, of course—that the computer was making an error. It would be hard to tell for sure until the ground radar corroborated the satellite’s detection, and Petrov made the fateful decision to hold fire. The ground radar would only give them a few fleeting minutes to scramble a counterstrike, so Petrov waited anxiously. Four more missiles appeared, but he again refused to prepare the launch of a counterstrike, once more correctly deducing that the Americans would send way more than five nukes if they were making a pre-emptive strike. He would later be vindicated (and, unfortunately, reprimanded) for his efforts, and the problem would later be confirmed to be a system malfunction caused by a rare alignment of clouds and sunlight (in addition to the orbital trajectory of the satellite). Petrov died in May 2017, living a modest life with no reward for his calm resolve.

While it makes for a harrowing (if not heart-warming) story, you might be wondering what this historical incident from 34 years ago has to do with America’s electrical grid. Well, during the Cold War, the Soviets were known for using military aircraft that were powered by vacuum tubes rather than solid-state transistors (for example, the MiG-25, which was produced up until 1984). While vacuum tubes were an outmoded form of providing power, they had a strategic advantage in combat: resistance to an electromagnetic pulse (AKA an EMP).

Depicted in films such as GoldenEye (1995), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and War of the Worlds (2005), an EMP causes electrical havoc with unprotected (AKA ‘unhardened’) electronics. While its effects are routinely exaggerated in cinema for dramatic effects, a powerful EMP can be catastrophic. It is even possible to chain multiple explosively pumped flux compression generators together for a chain reaction. However, the most likely risk of an EMP doing major damage to electronic infrastructure would be from the EMP created from a nuclear blast.

Aside from the explosion and fallout that would radiate from a nuclear explosion, an EMP can also be initiated from a nuclear blast. Most notably, an American nuclear test called ‘Starfish Prime’ was conducted on July 9, 1962, which involved a high-altitude W49 thermonuclear warhead inadvertently sending an EMP more than 900 miles (1,450 km) to the coast of Hawaii, disabling many electronics on the island. While street lights and phone links were knocked out (and burglar alarms tripped all over the place), the damage would be much worse today, especially if such an event were to take place on a larger scale.

More than 150 years ago—in 1859, to be precise—a large-scale event did, in fact, occur. Referred to as the ‘Carrington Event’, an extraordinarily powerful solar flare caused electric shocks to telegraph operators all over America and Europe. Of course, technology back then was much more primitive, so widespread chaos simply wouldn’t be a fair comparison to the complete horror we would face today if a similar event occurred.

Regardless of whether a major EMP event occurs naturally or artificially, it is clear that a substantial EMP event in America (or any civilised region) would be a huge disaster, causing mass power outages and hundreds of millions of deaths in America alone, with some estimates putting the casualty count at more than two-thirds of America’s population within a year of the event (with some estimates as high as 90%). Much of this would have to do with critical food and water shortages.

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that America plans to harden its electrical grid; the bad news is that it won’t be ready until at least 2020.
 

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