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updated 8/14/2009 7:51:51 PM ET 2009-08-14T23:51:51

A New York businessman is sounding the alarm on a potential terror threat that he says has not gotten the attention or action it deserves, despite a congressional committee's finding that the country grows more vulnerable to it by the day.

Henry Schwartz, chairman of Steuben Foods and Elmhurst Dairy, is so concerned that an enemy's electromagnetic pulse attack could paralyze America that he will gather a group of scientists, congressmen and others for a conference next month on how the country should protect itself.

"I've never lived in fear in my life," said Schwartz, 75, an Air Force veteran whose unit handled nuclear warheads in Europe, "but I have to tell you, I'm in fear now."

An electromagentic pulse, or EMP, is a split-second burst of energy that occurs when a nuclear device is detonated high in the atmosphere. A Department of Homeland Security disaster guide for the public explains an EMP "acts like a stroke of lightning but is stronger, faster and shorter."

Experts warn an EMP attack with even a crude nuclear device has the potential to disable or burn out everything from cell phones and personal computers to vehicle ignitions, power grids and air traffic control systems within 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers), all while having no direct effect on people.

The threat has been on the Defense Department's radar screen for years but a congressional panel recently noted in a report that "our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow."

The EMP Commission concluded that the country is ill-prepared for an attack today, but there are things that can be done to "harden" or shield electrical infrastructure.

Schwartz is already making plans to drill gas wells and water wells to make sure his food-processing plant in suburban Buffalo can continue to supply food in a crisis.

He is organizing the Sept. 8-10 conference in Niagara Falls, which he hopes will be a seed for a grass-roots movement to spur government action.

"It's not that expensive to protect our grid so that we will have electricity and we can live," said Schwartz, who has formed EMPACT America Inc.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will address the EMPACT conference via video, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has signed on as a keynote speaker, along with science and military experts. U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, co-founder of the EMP Commission, and Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who is on the House anti-terrorism caucus, are expected to participate via video feed.

"I've believed for a long time that EMP may be the greatest strategic threat we face," Gingrich said in a taped message to air at the conference, "because without adequate preparation its impact could be so horrifying that we would, in fact, basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds."

After receiving the EMP Commission's report, the Department of Homeland Security arranged for the Defense Department to brief cybersecurity officials in September, a Homeland Security spokeswoman said. The president's National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee also has examined the potential threat and impact to the communications network, said the spokeswoman, Sara Kuban.

"We continue to look at the control systems implications of an EMP attack," she said. "In addition, the commission's findings have been included in our internal risk-assessment process."

Dr. Michael Frankel, executive director of the EMP Commission, which was first authorized in the 2001 defense bill, praised Schwartz for organizing the conference. He noted that EMP also can occur naturally during solar storms and that a massive one could do severe damage.

The commission's classified final report was delivered to Washington earlier this year, he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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