On February 22, a Defense Select Committee produced a report urging members of the British Parliament to invest in developing technologies to harden space systems and ground infrastructure against damage caused by electromagnetic events. The 96-page report, titled “Developing Threat: Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP)”, focused on the potential for damage caused either by the detonation of a nuclear device in space by a rogue nation, or sudden increases in solar activity.
In terms of understanding and protecting against space weather, the report praised “recent intensifications of efforts to forecast space weather,” adding that it “is important that the UK continues to contribute effectively to international efforts to improve forecasting.” It also recommended that “the Government and the National Grid work together to assess the cost and effectiveness of available technologies” to protect ground infrastructure from space weather.
In regards to nuclear detonations, the report states that “certain states such as Iran could potentially pose a realistic threat in the future, even if it does not currently so, if non-proliferation efforts are not successful. […] It is therefore vitally important that the work of hardening UK infrastructure is begun now and carried out as a matter of urgency.” It went on to criticize the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) on its stance on the dangers of detonation-induced EMPs, claiming “an appearance is given that the MoD is unwilling to take these threats seriously.”
The danger posed by a stratospheric nuclear detonation stems not only from the destructive pressure wave that would occur in the atmosphere, but from the resultant EMP which could burn out electrical systems and disrupt civilian utilities. The incapacitation of a city’s electrical, clean water, and sewage systems by space weather or EMPs could “rapidly [make it] very difficult to live in cities. I mean in a couple of days,” said Tory MP James Arbuthnot, head of the Defense Select Committee.
As an increasing number of ground systems rely on satellites for normal operation, the threat posed by EMP events (and other antisatellite technologies) is gaining more and more public attention. It has even received mentions in pop culture: in the highly-successful James Bond film “Goldeneye”, a nuclear detonation-fueled EMP was to be used to destroy London’s electrical and banking infrastructure.
In late 2009, Avi Schnurr, head of the US-based International EMP Council, advised the British parliament and the Defense Select Committee on the dangers of high-altitude nuclear detonations. Schnurr’s warnings prompted the investigation into the UK’s infrastructure and the commissioning of the report released today.