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WASHINGTON — A well-placed nuclear blast miles above Iowa could knock out much of America’s electrical grid and cripple the country, security experts warned Congress on Thursday.

Lawmakers admitted the unlikely scenario sounds more like a movie plot than a real-life attack plan, but added that the country needs to be thinking about those kinds of unusual threats as they work to secure the country.

"I’m very concerned that we don’t have the equivalent of an insurance policy for this," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who has pushed the issue in the House Armed Services Committee. "The initial report on this came out four years ago, and we’ve had four years where we could have been doing something."

Nuclear blasts and some modified conventional weapons push out an electromagnetic pulse in addition to their destructive blasts. That energy burst carries the ability to damage and destroy electronic equipment, short-circuiting critical components.

William Graham, chairman of a congressional commission examining the threat of electromagnetic pulse attacks, said the EMP attacks were first discussed during the Cold War, as a way to knock out opponent’s critical response systems. A blast just 25 miles above the Earth has the potential to affect a ground area hundreds of miles wide.

"A determined adversary could achieve EMP capability without having a high level of sophistication," he said. "And it’s one of a small number of threats that could leave our society with catastrophic consequences."

No electricity in much of the country for even a few weeks could mean food shortages, lack of medical care and widespread panic, Graham said.

Simple infrastructure upgrades — inexpensive shields on critical grid connectors, better training and staffing of emergency electrical repair crews — could minimize the threat, but require funding and attention from Congress.

"If the country does nothing about it, we’re basically inviting others to look into it," he told the committee.

Defense officials are scheduled later this summer to give Congress contingency plans for such an attack, as part of emergency planning for a host of doomsday scenarios.

Graham said countries such as China and Iran may already have to capability to carry out an EMP attack, and terrorists who obtain a first generation nuclear weapon and a short-range missile might be able to carry out one as well.

Bartlett said that should be a concern to all homeland security planners.

"I’ve been told we shouldn’t be talking about this because it gives our adversaries ideas," Bartlett said. "But they already know about this."


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