Monday, July 12, 2010

Can We Still Send Our e-mails After A Nuclear Attack?

Given that Nuclear Armageddon never went away with the end of the Cold War, can anyone of us still be able to send e-mails after a nuclear attack?

By: Ringo Bones

With increasing tension between North and South Korea over the “apparent” sinking of a south Korean warship with the loss of 46 sailors plus other current geopolitical issues like Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program and the long-term prospects of Taiwan’s independence from Beijing. It seems like the Doomsday Clock at the headquarters of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is permanently stuck at two minutes to midnight. But can the perennial threat of nuclear annihilation ever dampen our desire to stay connected to everyone we love?

The US Postal Service might have had the edge when it comes to legal precedents and procedural guidelines on how to deliver mail after a nuclear attack to American citizens fortunate enough to have survived it; But what about our Internet infrastructure? But first here’s a primer on how the US Postal Service intends to deliver mail despite of the dangers of cesium 137 and strontium 90 rich fallout.

As far back as the early 1950s, the US Postal Service developed an emergency planning manual that outlines procedures to allow mail delivery following a nuclear attack. These plans were regularly updated to cope with what might happen when a real nuclear attack happens and the last complete revision was undertaken back in 1981. In addition, Executive Order 11490 that dates from October 28, 1969, as amended by Executive Order 11921, dated June 11, 1976, assigned the US Postal Service the responsibility for emergency mail service and other duties associated with civil defense programs.

In addition to handling post nuclear strike mail delivery, the US Postal Service at the time was assigned the responsibility of distributing and collecting special change-of-address and safety notification cards to facilitate mail delivery and help other government agencies and family members locate survivors. At the time, some 60 million change-of-address cards were printed and stored at about 30,000 post offices across America – where perhaps they remain. Detailed instructions were also stockpiled, telling people how to fill out forms and account for any missing persons. And for postal officials – how to test the cards and other documents for radioactivity before processing them. Among the actions outlined in the 1981 revisions include the authorization of local postmasters to burn stamps as to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Restricting post-nuclear-attack mail to first-class letters and place an immediate ban on the issuance of money orders for payment in the country that attacked the United States.

At a 1982 congressional hearing, A US Postal Service official acknowledged that a massive attack would at the very least make implementing the agency’s plans very difficult. But he defended them by saying the agency must be prepared. Members of Congress questioned the viability of the post office plans, given the US Postal Service’s reliance on volunteer mail carriers and the likelihood that major road systems would be destroyed and the availability of gasoline sharply curtailed – if not eliminated after a nuclear attack. When it was pointed out that not many people would be left alive, let alone still be willing to read, write and send letters after the nuclear bomb explodes – the official remarked: “But those that are will get their mail.” Fast forward few weeks after the September 11, 2001 Terror Attacks, the US Postal Service experienced first hand their first ever biological terror attack after lethal anthrax were sent via the US Mail. Though somewhat unprepared, they managed to handle and diffused the threat.

But what about are current Internet infrastructure that, it seems, we can’t live without? Unfortunately, the electromagnetic pulse of a sufficiently large enough nuclear explosion can fry every functioning electronic gear hundreds of miles from its epicenter. Especially if its solid-state components are not hardened against EMP. Clandestine nuclear test from rogue nations can still wreak havoc on our fragile Internet infrastructure since they don’t explode their test nukes in those state-of-the-art blast chambers that are equipped with a built in Faraday Cage. Like those used in a typical Nevada underground test site. Unless you have the real estate and the revenue to use vacuum tubes in your Internet servers, your web infrastructure probably can’t survive a nuclear attack. It might be a “Dr. Strangeloveian” prospect, but your e-mail and Internet surfing privileges are probably the first ones to go during a nuclear attack.