Solar flares could paralyse Britain’s power and communications, Liam Fox says By James Kirkup, and Andrew Hough
The Defence Secretary will next week attend a summit of scientists and security advisers who believe the infrastructure that underpins modern life in Western economies is potentially vulnerable to electromagnetic disruption.
Such disruptions, which can shut down electrical equipment and cripple orbiting satellites, can be triggered by man-made nuclear blasts or natural events on the surface of the sun.
Dr Fox will tell the conference he believes there is a growing threat, and he wants to address the “vulnerabilities” in Britain’s high-tech infrastructure.
“As the nature of our technology becomes more complex, so the threat becomes more widespread,” he will say.
“While we all benefit from the products of scientific advances so we also create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by our enemies. However advanced we become the chain of our security is only as strong as its weakest link.”
The Coalition’s Strategic Defence and Security Review is considering potential weaknesses in Britain’s defences against high-tech attack or disruption.
While conventional military units, cyberwarfare and other technology-driven capabilities are likely to get more money when the review is concluded.
Much of the Ministry of Defence’s planning focuses on the risk of a hostile state exploding a nuclear weapon in space, creating a sudden, intense burst of electromagnetic energy called a high altitude electro-magnetic pulse.
The Daily Telegraph can disclose that one “nightmare scenario” being privately discussed by senior defence figures involves Iran successfully detonating a nuclear device high over Europe. “They could reduce our civilisation to the dark ages,” said one insider.
Some scientists say there is a similar danger from a once-in-a-century solar flare, a disturbance on the surface of the sun that could cause geomagnetic storms on earth.
A major flare in the mid-19th century blocked the nascent telegraph system, and some scientists believe that another such even is now overdue.
The Westminister meeting is being jointly hosted by the Electric Infrastructure Security Council and the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank.
The meeting will be addressed by Avi Schnurr, a former US government adviser who said that “super-flares” occur about once every hundred years, meaning the next is overdue.
The electrical grid, computers, telephones, transportation, water supply, food production are all vulnerable to a major flare, said Mr Schnurr, who also works for the Israel Missile Defence Association, a lobby group.
“Our electrical infrastructures are so ubiquitous that an EMP or geomagnetic storm could shatter nations all over the earth, and we cannot wait for disaster to spur us to action,” he said
The Daily Telegraph disclosed earlier this year that Nasa scientists believe Britain could face widespread power blackouts and be left without critical communication signals for long periods of time, after the earth is hit by a once-in-a-generation “space storm”.
Last week MPs were told that a “virtual team”, involving officials from the agency, Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence and Home Office were currently investigating the “resilience and security impacts of space” and its impact on Britain.
David Williams, acting head of the UK Space Agency, told a Commons committee that any negative impacts on technology, particularly satellites, would have “severe problems both short-term and long-term” for Britain.