As tensions continue between the U.S. and North Korea, conventional warfare isn't the only concern for America. Recently, a group of experts went to Capitol Hill to testify at a House hearing about the threat of North Korea launching an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP attack on the U.S. The experts warn that such an attack could wipe out electricity for much of the country and even lead to the death of "90 percent of all Americans" within a year.
The idea of an EMP attack is not new, nor is the threat of one from North Korea. "You can, by exploding a nuclear weapon, create an EMP--electromagnetic pulse--and if it's done in the correct way, it could take down the power grid, or significant portions of it," says Richard Stoll, political science professor at Rice University. "To create an EMP, it has to be done in the right way, but you need a nuclear weapon, that's all."
North Korea has that nuclear weapon (actually weapons, according to new U.S. intelligence assessments saying the North has as much as 60 nukes). The latest testimony on Capitol Hill came from experts who previously sat on the EMP Commission, a panel created by Congress to study ways to prevent and guard against a possible EMP. However, the commission expired and was not reauthorized by Congress. Now, its former members are urging Congress to renew steps to shore up the U.S. power grid.
As for preventing such an attack, Stoll doesn't think it's possible in our world of modern connections and devices. "Old-style electronics like vacuum tubes and things like that are much more resistant to EMP than modern stuff, but we're not going to go back to that," he says. "So I think it's a vulnerability that you're going to have to live with."
While an EMP attack is a legitimate threat, the claim that it could take the lives of 90 percent of Americans is met with skepticism. "It would be very bad, but turning it into that large a number of deaths, I just don't see how that's possible," says Stoll.