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Think Sandy Was Devastating? Nuclear Attack a Real Risk, Experts Warn

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Hurricane Sandy ravaged large parts of New York City and New Jersey, flooding streets and homes, washing away piers, cutting down trees and power lines, forcing people to flee their homes, scrounge for food, line up for gas and search for power to charge their cell phones.

While metro New York residents are looking forward to a return to normalcy, some national security analysts are warning that what Americans in the Northeast experienced temporarily could be the merest foretaste of what all Americans can expect if action is not taken to prevent a full-blown assault on vital U.S. infrastructures.

Indeed, while surveys show most Americans thought this week’s U.S. presidential election was all about the economy, these voices are saying the threat from countries like Iran or North Korea may restore foreign and defense policy to voters’ top concerns.

At issue is the danger of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, a plausible nuclear threat that has gotten no attention in the recent campaign.

Whereas military planners used to focus on nuclear weapons deployed against a major U.S. population center, which would take a fair amount of sophistication to target precisely, the new worry concerns a nuclear explosion detonated at high altitude.

A rogue band of terrorists or nuclear rogue state like Iran may be in a position to launch a single nuclear payload into the atmosphere above the United States, and thereby incapacitate every electric system in the U.S. Hospitals would be without power, banks could not transfer funds electronically, people could not use credit cards or cell phones.

The Obama Administration is currently developing an executive order on the issue of cybersecurity.

Concern over an EMP attack prompted the U.S. to set up in 2001 a commission to study the nature of the threat, the vulnerabilities of U.S. military and civilian systems and the capacity of the U.S. to recover from an attack.

Its 2008 official report warned: “An EMP attack potentially could disrupt or collapse the food infrastructure over a large region encompassing many cities for a protracted period of weeks, months or even longer. Widespread damage of the infrastructures would impede the ability of undamaged fringe areas to aid in recovery. Therefore, it is highly possible that the recovery time would be very slow and the amount of human suffering great, including loss of life.”

The commission’s 2004 official report stated that “…some potential sources of EMP threats are difficult to deter—they can be terrorist groups that have no state identity, have only one or a few weapons, and are motivated to attack the U.S. without regard for their own safety. Rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran, may also be developing the capability to pose an EMP threat to the United States, and may also be unpredictable and difficult to deter.”

Indeed, Iran recently announced its intention to project its naval power off the U.S. coastline in the next few years, making vivid the possibility of ship-based EMP assault. A fresh Congressional Research Service report issued last month by a naval analyst warns of a lower-level worry – that the Chinese military is working on electromagnetic systems to disrupt U.S. warfighting capabilities. The purpose of these “low-yield EMP warheads” would be to disable U.S. aircraft carriers in a future conflict over Taiwan.

But the bigger danger that has EMP activists concerned, is of a single, crude nuclear device with a primitive missile device of the kind Iran or Iranian-sponsored terrorists could deliver.

A bipartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to forestalling the danger of the EMP threat called EMPACT America has organized around this issue.

Also, Congress is considering the Shield Act (H.R. 668), which would empower the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to protect the national electric grid by ensuring there are enough extra-high-voltage transformers to survive and recover from an EMP attack. That bill was referred to a subcommittee last year and has yet to receive a full hearing.