Ben Bova: Sizing up the nuclear horizon

The prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is very worrying. The present government of Iran supports terrorism, and the thought of nuclear-armed terrorists is certainly something to be scared of.

We are truly terrified of a nuclear bomb destroying an American city, killing thousands, perhaps millions. Or of a cloud of radioactive materials spreading death across hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.

But that's not the worst-case scenario.

The most damage that nuclear-armed terrorists can inflict on us does not involve blowing up cities or sowing a radiation cloud across the land. The most damage that terrorists could do with a nuke would be to explode it in space. A nuclear explosion in orbital space blasts out a powerful thump of gamma rays, which can fry the electronics of satellites.

In 1962, when the United States and Soviet Russia were locked in the Cold War, the US Air Force tested the idea of using nuclear explosions in space as a way of destroying Soviet ballistic missiles. In a test code named Starfish, a 1.4 megaton nuclear bomb was exploded at more than 30 miles' altitude. Scientists were surprised to find that dozens of satellites went silent, even satellites halfway around the globe from the site of the blast. Their electronics were destroyed by the huge pulse of electromagnetic energy from the explosion.

Today there are hundreds of satellites orbiting the Earth: communications satellites relay radio, telephone and television signals around the world. Military satellites are hardened against radiation pulses. Civilian satellites are not. A single nuclear warhead could knock them all out.

In the flash of a nuclear explosion, all the satellites we depend on would go dead. No television, except for local channels. No GPS signals. No worldwide communications. Stock markets around the world would crash. Supermarkets would run out of food, because their incoming shipments depend on communications relayed across the country by satellites. Fuel deliveries for heating homes and replenishing gas stations would also be stopped.

Economic chaos, and thousands — if not millions — of deaths, within a few days.

And that's still not the worst-case scenario.

If a nuclear bomb were exploded in the upper atmosphere, only a few dozen miles high, the electromagnetic pulse would knock out electronics equipment on the ground, across thousands of miles. Such a nuclear blast over the Midwestern United States could cause devastation from sea to shining sea.

Automobile ignitions would be fried. Telephone systems would go down. Computers, the electric power grid, all would go dead. Across the entire country.

You think superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc? Imagine how it would be if the entire nation lost electrical power, computers and communications all in the blink of an eye. Imagine yourself sitting in the dark, with no telephone service, your computer dead, all the electric conveniences that we take for granted out of action. Your car wouldn't start, because its ignition system was fried. Gas stations wouldn't be able to pump gas, anyway. And don't expect emergency teams to come in and repair things; they won't be able to move, either.

The food in your refrigerator and freezer would spoil in a few days. You wouldn't be able to get to the supermarket, and even if you could, it would run out of groceries very quickly and be unable to restock because nothing is moving.

And the damage would not be limited to a few cities or even a few states. Most of the North American continent would be out of action. We would be facing a cold, dark disaster.

That's what terrorists could do with a nuclear weapon and a rocket-powered missile.

It would only take one nuclear bomb, exploded in space or in the upper atmosphere, to bring our nation to utter disaster.

That is why our government's topmost priority must be to deter Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. We cannot allow a nation that supports terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons.

Should we try diplomacy? Economic sanctions? Threat of armed force? An actual attack on Iran's nuclear facilities?

It seems likely that diplomacy and sanctions will not work. Armed attack could plunge the entire Middle East into a harrowing war.

Is there another avenue? We'll look at that possibility next week.

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