A Note from the Author Regarding EMP

In the beginning of Part IV of my series, I have included a section I've titled, A Note from the Author. Over the course of these few pages, I explain that while an EMP can be used as an event, or even an antagonist in a book, it's not something you should be actively wishing for as a means to an end. Many authors use an EMP as the catalyst to their post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction and that's fine for fiction. However, the reality of an EMP is far more drastic and severe and, in my opinion, would essentially render any book fantasizing about an EMP moot. Even with the antics of North Korea as of late, an EMP's true effects are not something anyone should truly want.

Here's what I wrote:

A Note from the Author

Many writers within the fiction and dystopian genres are doing their readers a huge disservice when it comes to writing about EMP’s in general. Willingly, or knowingly, or not, many of the descriptions used fictionally to illustrate these after-effects, more often than not, tend to only include the topics that are most likely to be relatable to the reader’s imagination (death, disease, starvation, etc.). Readers have seen and heard PSA’s, infomercials, pleas on the radio for donations after the latest tragedy (earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, etc.). These are images that are already seared, conceptually at least in most cases, into their minds eye.

However, a key topic that is often not included, or at a minimum is glossed over while offering as few words as possible, in any sort of post-apocalyptic dystopian work are the effects of an EMP on our nations’ nuclear reactors. I wanted to take this opportunity to provide a statement and some context regarding this potential hazard.

  1. It is not in dispute that the United States electrical grid is vulnerable to an EMP. However, no one knows what will happen with regard to a nuclear power plant and its ability to shut down gracefully. Atmospheric testing on nuclear weapons was halted decades ago long before the first reactor came online; plus, we, as a nation, have never been targeted by a foreign or domestic actor with one of these weapons. EMP’s, by and large, were an unknown by-product from nuclear bomb testing. It wasn’t until there was an atmospheric detonation that scientists realized the potential for electrical disturbance.
  2. Many scientists, scholars, and government agencies believe that, due to the large diesel reserves for the backup generators at the reactor site (typically between 50,000-75,000 gallons), the operators will have no trouble shutting down the facility gracefully and avoid a meltdown; ala Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.
  3. Conversely, skeptics decry the government’s assurances, and their abundant faith, in the generators. This skepticism is derived from the widely known principles (E1, E2, and E3 phases) for electrical disturbances that accompany an EMP. Plant owner/operators have not disclosed whether or not the generators are adequately shielded from an EMP.
  4. Skeptics also point out that, even if the generators are properly shrouded, or have hardened components, and the reactors are shut down gracefully, due to the limited fuel capacity (coupled with a presumed lack of trucking/transportation to replenish exhausted fuel supplies) the plants operators are merely delaying the inevitable. Believing, instead, that once the fuel runs out, the pools used to keep the rods cool will eventually evaporate, thereby resulting in a full-fledged uncontrolled meltdown.
  5. Scholars, scientists, skeptics, and government officials are all in agreement, that should we be stricken by an EMP, given the placement of nuclear reactors within the continental United States (see map), a cascading series of meltdowns would have a devastating effect. So much so, that most of the continental United States, from the Mississippi River east to the Atlantic, would be rendered an unimaginable radiological wasteland.

Image from International Nuclear Safety Center

I tend to lean more on the side of the skeptics. Not because they are skeptics per se, but rather because I have a great understanding of the physics behind the E1-E3 phases of an EMP.

As a result, it is my assertion that, because of the potential for so much widespread radiation leakage, a large swath of the population will contract some form of radiation sickness and likely perish. Frankly, this is the sole reason I do not address it in my series… it’s just too damn depressing to conceive and contemplate let alone write about.

Just know that this author has read up on it. I fully understand, conceptually at least, exactly what the effects of a meltdown would be with regard to the immediate reactor site, as well as the down-wind vicinities. I am choosing not to address it because the inclusion of this truth would prohibit the continuation of the series, or any series, as a whole.

That being said, I hope you continue to enjoy the series.

If you do nothing else, read Chapter 2. Electric Power in the Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic (EMP) Attack. This PDF report is available for download on my Research/Downloads page. A great deal of information is available in this chapter as it pertains to the E1-E3 effects of an EMP.

The reason I wrote this section into my book is because I noticed that the Commission's report was noticeably thin with regard to nuclear reactors, specifically with regard to the lack of cooling pool water and fuel for the generators. When I tried to do further research outside of the report, the pickin's were pretty slim to say the least.

Also, while you're at it, give Chapter 1. Infrastructure Commonalities a gander. This chapter gives you a thorough understanding of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and details out the interconnectivity of all of the various aspects of our society. For example, there is an excellent case study regarding the San Diego Water Authority on page 2 which gives you a glimpse of just how vulnerable SCADA can be in just one of the industries comprising our infrastructure. It reads:

In November 1999, San Diego County Water Authority and San Diego Gas and Electric companies experienced severe electromagnetic interference to their SCADA wireless networks. Both companies found themselves unable to actuate critical valve openings and closings under remote control of the SCADA electronic systems. This inability necessitated sending technicians to remote locations to manually open and close water and gas valves, averting, in the words of a subsequent letter of complaint by the San Diego County Water Authority to the Federal Communications Commission, a potential “catastrophic failure” of the aqueduct system. The potential consequences of a failure of this 825 million gallon per day flow rate system ranged from “spilling vents at thousands of gallons per minute to aqueduct rupture with ensuing disruption of service, severe flooding, and related damage to private and public property.” The source of the SCADA failure was later determined to be radar operated on a ship 25 miles off the coast of San Diego.

For those of us that are visual learners, I leave you with this lasting image...

The above image really hammers home just how connected everything is. Technology has brought about a synergistic dance between these industries, but it is wrought with vulnerable gaps and holes that could potentially lead to our societies downfall.

For me, the entirety of the Commission's report boils down to one immutable fact. And just for shit's and giggles, I'll quote their own report:

No infrastructure other than electric power has the potential for nearly complete [societal] collapse in the event of a sufficiently robust EMP attack.