Just what might happen if the Iranians got their hands on a nuclear weapon? Would they fire it at an Israeli city, causing tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties? Or would they use it as a geopolitical weapon, seeking to dominate the Middle East and forcing the hand of Western powers, either subtly or by overtly threatening death and destruction to those who fail to heed their dictates?
While political scientists and world leaders have debated the likelihood of those two possibilities, there is a third plausible scenario: The use of a nuclear weapon by Iran to carry out an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against Israel, the US, or Europe. Such an attack could cause severe damage to the electrical grid in the targeted nations, to the extent that the routines of daily life — centered around the use of electrical power — could be halted, for a short or even long period of time.
An EMP is an above-atmosphere level detonation of a nuclear device that produces enough radiation to wreak havoc with electrical systems. The blast produces a very brief but intense electromagnetic field that can quickly induce very high currents in electrical devices, shorting them out. The stronger the electromagnetic field — the “pulse” — the stronger the current, and the more likely electrical devices are to “blow out.” It’s akin to a power surge that shorts out your refrigerator or TV when too much voltage surges through the electrical outlet… on a whole other scale.
While there is much speculation as to what exactly an EMP would do to electrical appliances and digital devices — scientists have differences of opinion over how badly they would be affected (the world hasn’t really experienced a direct EMP blast yet, so much of the speculation is based on educated guesses) — the far-greater concern is what an attack would do to the electrical infrastructure in a targeted area. If an EMP strike is large enough, or there are enough such strikes, the blasts could knock out power plants, electrical substations, and other sensitive equipment, causing a massive power failure that may take weeks or months to overcome. Data centers housing servers would likely be badly damaged as well, as would be communications systems.
The EMP issue is hardly being discussed in Israel, said Dr. Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University. “There isn’t much discussion of it right now, but when the discussion does begin, there is no doubt that it will focus on the balance between how much it will cost to deal with, versus how likely such an attack may be,” she said.
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