If the Lights Go Out: The Electromagnetic Pulse Debate - a Low Risk, High Impact Event

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William Rankin
Essay Abstract: 
Although we may live in an age of continued nonproliferation, the United States electricity grid is nevertheless vulnerable to attack from an antagonist regime. One such attack is the nuclear electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. The EMP is an energy phenomenon produced from the detonation of nuclear weapon above a target location. Although the EMP may not result in immediate, mass deaths, it can completely shut down a civilization by destroying the electrical grid network. This essay explores the debate regarding why the U.S. Congress has not taken measures to update or harden the electricity grid, in particular against a nuclear electromagnetic pulse. It investigates the deliberation involved in quantifying the EMP as a low risk, high catastrophic event, starting with the EMP discovery and nonproliferation during Cold War, through debating uncertainties during the 1990s, and into the role of politics on legislation today. This essay explores risk analysis, measuring probability when faced with uncertainties, and attempts to explain how a nuclear EMP is different from any other catastrophic event.