Warning on space attack devastation

By | February 23, 2012

Britain’s critical national infrastructure could be crippled in a high-altitude space attack by a rogue state or terrorists, MPs have warned.

A nuclear device detonated up to 500 miles above the earth’s surface could generate an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) with a “devastating” effect on power supplies, telecommunications and other vital systems, the Commons Defence Committee said.

It warned that countries such as Iran – which is resisting international pressure to end its nuclear programme – and even eventually some “non-state actors” could acquire the technology to mount such an attack.

Terrorists could also build a “crude” non-nuclear EMP weapon, with the power to cause disruption over a more limited area. But despite the vulnerability of the UK to such an attack, the committee accused the Ministry of Defence of appearing “complacent” and “unwilling to take these threats seriously”, and added that ministers should start work on “hardening” the infrastructure to protect against an EMP attack as a “matter of urgency”..

The committee said the Government currently rated the probability of a high-altitude EMP attack as “low”, although it acknowledged that the impact would be severe. However, an official EMP commission in the United States found “rogue states” such as Iran and nuclear-armed North Korea were well aware of the potential for such an attack.

The Iranians in particular were reported to have conducted missile tests which appeared to simulate the effects of an EMP nuclear strike. The Americans concluded that in the event of such an attack, the widespread collapse of the electrical power system was “virtually inevitable”.

It is not only EMP weapons that have the power to wreak havoc. The committee said a naturally occurring “space weather event” caused by changing conditions in the sun’s atmosphere could have a similar effect.

The most severe example – known as the Carrington event after the astronomer who observed it – occurred in 1859 when a massive solar flare sent enormous electrical currents surging through telegraph systems causing shocks to telegraph operators and setting fire to papers.

The likelihood a severe space weather event occurring over the next five years is currently assessed by the Government as being “moderate to high”, the committee said. The National Grid has estimated that if there was another Carrington-sized event, there was a 91% chance that an area of the UK would be left without power for two months or more while essential satellite systems could also be damaged

It said ministers should also consider the practicability and cost of establishing resilience against a widespread loss of transformers, as could occur in an EMP attack.

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