Pre-empting an EMP

Dear Prime Minister Taro Aso, I’m writing to urge you to initiate measures that would protect Japan in the event of an EMP attack.

EMP is an acronym for electromagnetic pulse. This phenomenon was first discovered in 1962 when the U.S. detonated a nuclear bomb high above the Pacific Ocean that had the surprising effect of disabling most electronic circuitry within range of the explosion. (The Russians found the same effect during their nuclear tests.)

Nuclear explosions emit gamma rays and an enormous pulsed current of high-energy electrons, creating a massive electrical field and sending voltage spikes and current surges through power lines and communications cables. The energy of this pulse reaches everything in line of sight of the detonation. The higher the altitude of detonation, the wider the area affected.

A nuclear bomb detonated at an altitude of 80 km above Tokyo would disable virtually all electronics and communications in the Tokyo area, including Yokohama and parts of Chiba and Saitama. The worst-affected facilities would be the electrical power transformers that control the electrical power grid. With these disabled, the greater Tokyo area — with a population of over 30 million — would be completely without any electricity. (Note: The surge of an EMP mainly affects electronics that are connected by wire or cable to a power source, so it is thought that cell phones might not be affected. But this is only speculation. Cell phone networks run via relay transmitters that would also probably be made inoperative.)

Since any modern nation’s infrastructure depends entirely on electricity, the consequences would be devastating. Refrigeration would fail, rotting food. Railways would cease to operate, water pumps would stop working, computer systems would be down, and all lighting and heating would of course come to a halt. TVs, radios, computers — all would stop. Money couldn’t be withdrawn from banks because ATMs would cease to function, while banks couldn’t operate either since their systems run on electricity. Cars would still go, but not for long because petrol pumps wouldn’t work.

And here’s the worst part: the effects are permanent on all electronics until the affected circuits are replaced. Replacing them is possible, but the companies that carry out such services couldn’t do so for a long time because they also rely on electricity.

And yet such an event could be prevented by a relatively simple program of protecting the electrical power grid through EMP-hardening. Once that system is protected (and unaffected by an EMP attack), all other infrastructure can be recovered. Achieving this would not be too expensive — U.S. estimates put it at about $2 billion.

Is this EMP scenario far-fetched? Not with an aggressive, nuclear-armed North Korea firing missiles over Japan. And for a modest $2 billion, Tokyo will be protected from a catastrophic attack that would otherwise take years — even decades — to recover from.

The first task is to protect the electrical power transformers. It’s worth spending the money. Let’s do it soon.

Koshigaya, Saitama

Submissions to Hotline to Nagatacho should address issues that affect your life in Japan or be in response to government policies. Please imagine you are actually writing to a government official — be it a local school board head or the prime minister himself — to bring attention to an important matter. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp

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