In an EMP attack, the nuclear explosion occurs so high in the atmosphere (25 to 100 miles up) that no physical damage happens at ground level. People aren't killed by the explosion, there is no radioactive fallout, and buildings are not knocked down. Everything looks normal…but nothing that depends on electrical or electronic systems will work. Restoring the systems that are destroyed by the EMP, and thus returning to normalcy might take a year or longer.
If you would like to read an interesting book about what happens in the aftermath of an EMP attack, I suggest One Second After by William R. Forstchen. Although this is a work of fiction, the science is real. The author is a professor of military history and the history of technology, and used proven scientific information as the basis for the story. The foreword to the book was written by Newt Gingrich, and the afterword by a naval captain who is expert on the topic. The book has circulated in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, and elicited recommendation from those places that every American should read the book to become informed about the potential for this type of attack and how it would impact our daily lives.
Here's a brief rundown of what the experts say would happen after an EMP event:
- Automobiles with electronic ignition systems stop dead in their tracks, as if they had run out of gas. Older vehicle that have no electronic control systems might still operate, but fuel will be unavailable, because the pumps will not operate at gas stations. And the ethanol-laced gas stored in tanks will go bad from phase separation within a couple months and be unusable over the long term. Loss of the transportation system means that no new supplies can be delivered.
- Communication systems such as telephone, radio, television and Internet cease to function. With no communication with the outside world, rumors will spread and the populace will panic, following every crackpot who comes along with theories about the end of the world.
- Failure of the communication system leads to loss of coordination and cooperation. In the ensuing panic, neighbor will rise up against neighbor, community against community.
- Electric power generation is disabled, because everything is controlled by computer these days, and the sensitive electronics of every computer will be disabled.
- Computer controlled backup generators will not operate, and older generators will only run as long as the fuel holds out.
- With no electricity being delivered to communities, there will be no electricity delivered to businesses, homes, hospitals, etc.
- There will be no power for the community water company, so no water for your home.
- No power for the community water treatment plant, so the sewage system fails.
- No garbage pickup service, so the garbage will simply pile up and attract vermin. Disease will follow quickly.
- The fire department won't be able to operate vehicles or equipment to put out fires.
- The police will be on foot, at first, but most who work in community services will eventually abandon their posts to take care of their own families.
- Stores and pharmacies will almost immediately be emptied of all commodities by those who scramble to grab everything before anyone else can get there. There will be no food, medicines, tools or other supplies left on the shelves.
- The food supply will run out very quickly — within days — as will the domestic water supply. Those who can will hunt and fish until the local game population is decimated, then will turn to domestic pets as a source of protein.
- The drinking of contaminated water by those who are not equipped to purify their own water, will lead to disease and death.
- Nursing home personnel have no recourse but to sit by and watch patients die when prescription drugs and other life-saving supplies become unavailable.
- The dead have to be buried by hand, because grave-digging machinery will not operate. After awhile, the dead will be left unburied because lack of food will so weaken survivors that no one has enough energy to dig the graves.
- Criminals band together into armed gangs and roam from house to house and from town to town in search of food.
The interesting thing about Forstchen's story is that, although no one died from the initial nuclear blast, there was a massive death toll from the loss of services caused by the EMP. Shows just how dependent on modern technology we, as a culture, have become.