We asked an expert: ‘What exactly is an EMP, and how much damage could it do?’ His response was terrifying.

By: Benjamin Weingarten

In light of nuclear negotiations with Iran, the general conflagration in the Middle East, Russia’s march and a whole host of other chaotic situations worldwide, recently we sat down with an expert on national security, foreign policy and in particular nuclear proliferation, John Wohlstetter, to discuss the gravest threats to the American homeland.

Wohlstetter, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and London Center for Policy Research, two conservative think tanks, recently released an updated edition of his book on this very topic, “Sleepwalking With the Bomb,” and delivered a speech earlier in January titled “Rethinking the Unthinkable Why Failures of Imagination, Projection, and Strategy Court Nuclear Catastrophe” that piqued our interest.

During our interview with Wohlstetter, we had the chance to ask a very basic set of questions about what is potentially the most devastating of all weapons that could be launched at the market homeland: Electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Wohlstetter’s five minute primer, which you can find below, covers (i) What exactly an EMP is, (ii) How much damage it could cause in a worst case scenario and (iii) How an EMP attack might transpire:

What would the doomsday scenario of an EMP attack against an America whose infrastructure is not currently protected look like?

In a worst case scenario the detonation would be over Dorothy’s Kansas, in the center of the country. And at 300 miles altitude, you would have a circle, 360 degrees, with a radius of 1,470 miles…that covers the continental United States lower 48 states.

And in a worst case, you could see within a year 90% of the population die, as you don’t have electric power, nothing works, you can’t even get food to market. It would be catastrophic beyond belief.

And if you do it over the Eastern seaboard, you could center an explosion at a lower altitude, say 20-30 miles up over Pennsylvania. And you would cover about, if you centered it there…375 miles…And what you would do with that is take down the Eastern interconnection which supplies 70% of the country’s electric power.

Given that our infrastructure is not protected against this attack today — an infrastructure that Wohlstetter argues could be hardened for a figure of around $10 billion — are there at least contingency plans in place?

If the Congressional panel that looked at it was correct, in a worst case…you could see 90 percent or 100 percent of the network taken out. And if that happens, you can’t recover. It’s not like out of a disaster like a hurricane where you have edge recovery — communities that bring in supplies, rebuild for you, house people who have been displaced as happened after Katrina for example. You don’t have that edge recovery. In the case of the network, there are some transformers in big systems that take several years when you order them to bring them in and put them online. And…at least on what is know publicly, we do not have an adequate supply [of them]. [Link ours]

During the interview, which you can find below, we also had the chance to discuss several other critical topics including:

  • The biggest threat to American national security today
  • Why the nature of the threat of a nuclear weapon is far more worrying today than during the Cold War
  • The knock-on effects of a nuclear Iran
  • The strength (or lack thereof) of America’s missile defense system
  • How an EMP could be launched above the U.S.
  • Why the concept of mirror imaging is essential to understanding America’s foreign policy failures
  • And much more

Rethinking the Unthinkable Why Failures of Imagination Projection and Strategy Court Nuclear Catastrophe by…


Note: The link to the book in this post will give you an option to elect to donate a percentage of the proceeds from the sale to a charity of your choice. Mercury One, the charity founded by TheBlaze’s Glenn Beck, is one of the options. Donations to Mercury One go towards efforts such as disaster relief, support for education, support for Israel and support for veterans and our military. You can read more about Amazon Smile and Mercury One here.


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1 thought on “We asked an expert: ‘What exactly is an EMP, and how much damage could it do?’ His response was terrifying.

  1. Regarding the damage to the power grid: I disagree somewhat with the worst scenario usually presented by EMP crowd. I don’t deny massive damage or serious ongoing problems. Where I disagree is that I have more confidence in the people who maintain the system and more knowledge of the components in the system then the prognosticators do. Most of the components of the grid are quite robust and aren’t going to simply “burn up”. The power lines will indeed receive a jolt of electricity that will burn ot discreet components but not the lines themselves. That is because the excess power will burn out the weak links thus stopping current flow and ending the damage. Therefore most if not all of the power lines will be right were we left them before the EMP hit. The transformers are even safer. You would not believe how robust a power transformer is. They don’t wind it with wire like your home transformers the winding are thick copper straps. Ironically (for the EMP crowd) a transformer will limit sudden massive peak current flow because it is an inductor. But that isn’t what will save them as much as two other factors: 1. Their weak link is the external conection, a very strong EMP will simply burn it out like a fuse saving the transformer. 2. They are encased in a metal box which acts like a faraday cage preventing them from being affected by any EMP once the external link is severed.
    Furthermore the linemen and the shop crews are well trained, smart and experienced. They can fix almost anything in their system right at their utility repair facilities. If you ever wonder what happened to the “can do” people who helped us win WW II I can tell you spend some time with your local electric utility repair crew and you will not wonder anymore.

    One last point (or this will get too long): You will hear about the massive and complex specialty transformers made in China that EMP touters will bring up. They equate this to potential disaster as these burn up in the EMP pulse. Well… The trut is something different. There are some of these new transformers but not a lot. Almost every power facility in the U.S. is still using the transformers that were installed when they were built. That is the Hoover dam still has those olde style transformers built in the 30’s. It is only a handful of electric generation facilities that are using the new complex transformers from China. Secondly the big high voltage transfomers transformer just like the distribution transfomers are in a steel container and the connection on the outside is the weak link and will “blow” with a massive electric pulse before the transformer is damaged.

    I would expect that after the worst EMP that power would be restored to critical users within a week or less and to 50% of customers within a month or less. Not the years some people are predicting.

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