Wednesday, September 3, 2008

William Graham warns about EMP dangers ("Oceans 11" didn't get it right)

William Graham has an important commentary on p A14 (“Voices”) of The Washington Times, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008, called “Invisible Nuclear Threat”, link here.

The specific concern of this piece is a hypothetical attack on the nation’s electronic infrastructure with an Electromagnetic Pulse, emitted by a nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude. Such a device could be launched from a ship off the Atlantic or Pacific coast without bringing any materials through Homeland Security at any of the many ports along the coasts. (Obviously, the same concerns apply to the coasts of Europe, Asia, and all technologically advanced countries.) Graham believes that Iran, rogue groups from Al Qaeda or associated with A. Q. Khan or possibly connected to the “scandal” reported recently in Switzerland, could conceivably launch such a device. The instability of Pakistan in view of Musharraf’s resignation could mean that a device their could go loose and be used this way, or that devices could be made overseas from loose nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union and then deployed this way. Both Joe Lieberman and Bill Richardson, among others, have mentioned subtle nuclear threats in speeches in the political conventions; as a whole, the Democrats have been as attentive in commenting on this peril as the Republicans.

Right after Labor Day in 2001, on September 4, 2001 (Tuesday) as I recall, Popular Science had a print article about this problem. I remember picking it up in a Walgreens store near work, and showing it to coworkers (computer programmers) who, to my surprise, had heard of the issue. And this was exactly one week before 9/11. The Popular Science article, which (as I recall) offered clever speculation about how conventional (non-nuclear) devices could be fabricated for this purpose, talked about Faraday cages and suggested that such an attack could occur on the ground. That idea was used as a plot point in the film “Oceans 11” (premier Dec. 7, 2001), with a fictitious ground blast that turns off all power in Las Vegas so that the thieves can pull off their “smash and grab job”. In fact, an EMP device could be effective over a significantly wide area only if detonated in the air at some altitude, but such an incident really does happen, all computer files and digital magnetic information (like floppy disks) would be fried, although optical disks (compact discs) would not. Power would fail quickly and most automobiles would not run (ironically green-friendly electric cars could be the most vulnerable in the future). All personal computers would be ruined. It is hard to imagine how the nation could recover its electronic infrastructure after such an event if it happened. Shortly after 9/11, some news media (especially ABC) presented speculative stories on these possibilities, but gradually the issue has been forgotten.

The Washington Times article implies a cultural vulnerability of the west: people are very “dependent” on (digital and electronic) media as a form of personal expression, with less satisfaction on personal relationships that in former generations society could have imposed on them. Patriarchal values, which structure personal relationships in an authoritarian pattern, are very central to some of radical Islam (our “enemies.”)

This commentary's "subject matter" does suggest a future History Channel “Mega-disasters” program. I don’t recall that this series has covered this possibility yet. It probably will. Here’s a good beginning for a fictitious screenplay (perhaps for HBO). The power goes out while someone is on a desktop computer (assume he doesn’t have a UPS). He tries the battery laptop. It doesn’t boot. He tries to start his car. It doesn’t start. Slowly, the neighbors congregate.

The Times says that William Graham, a physicist and engineer, was a science advisor to President Reagan and was former head of the Office and Science Technology Policy. He should not be confused with Graham T. Allison, a political scientist who has also often written about nuclear weapons (and who is discussed on this blog).

Picture: Amish country in Pennsylvania, not technology dependent

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