Are electromagnetic pulses terrorists' next weapon of choice? : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Sunday, September 30, 2001 Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

Are electromagnetic pulses terrorists' next weapon of choice?

Energy wave from small nuclear blast could disable computer chips, electronic equipment


The list of weapons available to terrorists now ranges from passenger jets to atomic devices and biological and chemical agents.

But the United States has made little progress in guarding against what might be its most devastating threat -- widespread damage to domestic electronic systems from a powerful, split-second wave of energy from a nuclear bomb.

Although some of the last full-scale nuclear weapons tests conducted in tunnels at the Nevada Test Site were designed to protect or "harden" military systems against electronic failure in a nuclear exchange, little of that preventive technology has been transferred to civilian equipment, sources said Friday.

"I don't think there has been any significant effort to harden the private sector against electromagnetic pulse," said John Pike, director of, a defense and intelligence policy organization based near Washington, D.C.

Twice in the past four years, and as recently as 1999, Congress was warned that a relatively small, 10-kiloton nuclear bomb, which would produce energy equal to exploding 10,000 tons of TNT, would cause widespread damage to computer chips and electronic equipment if detonated over the United States.

Called EMP, an acronym for electromagnetic pulse, the phenomenon from tens of thousands of volts of energy from a nuclear explosion could cause enough damage to cripple an economy dependent on computer networks and electronic communication systems. The damage from burnout or overloads on electrical circuits would extend far beyond the area directly affected by the blast and radiation, government scientists told Congress in 1999 and 1997.

But almost none of the technology to protect against EMP that was developed through Defense Department nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site as late as 1992 was put to use in the private sector.

Officials with two Las Vegas Valley public utilities said Friday their electrical systems have no protections against EMP.

"We did not design our system with that in mind," said Nevada Power Co. spokeswoman Sonya Headen. "I was also informed, to our knowledge, there isn't any utility in the country that was designed to withstand EMP."

J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said water operations depend on electrical circuitry that is vulnerable to EMP. "We do not have specific protections against electromagnetic pulses," he said.

Nevertheless, he said, "We have backup and recovery systems. We have redundant systems at various locations throughout the valley to deal with things that are generally within the realm of our scope."

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency -- the agency that replaced some functions of the now-defunct Defense Nuclear Agency -- fielded questions Friday from the Review-Journal about EMP and making protective technology available for civilian use. But an agency spokesman did not offer an immediate response.

Likewise, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration's Western Pacific Region was asked whether the nation's air traffic control system has been hardened against EMP. He did not respond Friday.

Pike, however, said part of the nation's air traffic control system probably relies on less-vulnerable fiber optics that might be somewhat more resistant to EMP than a desktop computer. But the extent of the risk to FAA systems from electromagnetic pulse is probably classified, he said.

Inquiries to the North Las Vegas office of the National Nuclear Security Administration -- a branch of the Department of Energy that oversees operations at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- were forwarded to officials at national weapons laboratories in Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos, N.M. But an administration spokesman said, "Classification guidance prohibits detailed information from cleared individuals at both of the labs."

Nevertheless, government scientists on at least two occasions discussed the issue of potential EMP damage on military and civilian systems at meetings of the House Military Research and Development Subcommittee.

"Special purpose nuclear warheads on a kiloton scale, can have much more EMP effect than ordinary nuclear warheads on the megaton scale. Warheads of less than 10-kiloton yields can put out very large EMP signals," Lowell Wood, a prominent physicist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, told a House Armed Services subcommittee in October 1999.

Two years earlier, in July 1997, Wood told the subcommittee that since the EMP threats were realized at the onset of nuclear testing more than four decades ago, its potential effects on U.S. power grids and communication systems have increased substantially.

"There is reason to believe," Wood said, "that the semiconductor-based portions of our communication system, which is to say essentially all of it, would be extremely vulnerable."

Civilian passenger jets, as well, are at risk, Wood told the subcommittee in 1997.

"It is probably clear that if this attack occurred at night that most of the planes, most of the civilian airliners in the air, would be lost for obvious reasons," he said. "They simply won't be able to land. They won't have landing aids, probably no lights on landing strips and so forth. Those would be lost."

Military experts say the cost of hardening their systems would be between 2 and 10 percent. Pike said how the cost of protective measures would translate to the commercial sector is unclear, but he imagines it would be substantial.

The late Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif., asked Wood and other scientists about specific threats. "Like the war in the Middle East, could they pull out EMP and use that as an aggressive weapon, or as a defense weapon, to knock out some of the smart stuff we have?"

Wood replied that the scenario "is one of very real concern because in those circumstances, very modest, very short-range rocketry could be used to loft a nuclear explosive over our forces ... and impose preferential EMP damage on our forces.

From the enemy's viewpoint, Wood said, "You are not interested in covering an entire continent, but rather than stretching 4,000 kilometers (2,480 miles), you might only be interested in EMP damage over 400 kilometers (248 miles), which is a major theater of operations. And in those circumstances, quite modest nuclear explosives on very modest rockets, Scud-type rockets, would suffice to potentially impose very severe damage."

In addition to the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China and France, several other countries are believed to have nuclear capabilities. The list includes Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel.

According to Pike, American enterprise faces a substantial risk from EMP under existing conditions.

"Any country capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to an American city could be capable of detonating that weapon in space above the North American continent," he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 30, 2001


"The list of weapons available to terrorists now ranges from passenger jets to atomic devices and biological and chemical agents"

The above statement is pure hogwash

A bunch of terrorists who according to the gvt, spent 500,000 and a few knives to do their nasty deed at 9-11 have accees to nuclear weapons? Is there a secret nuke manufacturing facility in the caves in Afghanistan? How would they get the stuff to US soil or on a plane? As an example another country that has access to such weapons is Isreal, it took them years to get there and they could not totally hide it from the US.

At least the article does not claim that an EMP weapon can be produced by equipment avaialble at RadioShack ;>

-- someone (, September 30, 2001.

Someone, check out

It might answer some of your questions.

-- anyone (, October 01, 2001.

As if I didn't already have enough to worry this.

-- R2D2 (, October 01, 2001.

No need to build one from scratch when at least one Islamic country (Pakistan) has already done it. And several of the new "Chaostans" of the FSU had/have old Sovbloc nuke facilities on their soil. Or buy one from your friendly local Russian black marketeer. There were credible reports last year that several dozen Russian nukes -- backpack type was mentioned -- had been "lost" from that country's inventory. As for getting it across the border -- good lord, smugglers bring in cocaine and marijuana by the ton every day. You think someone with the intelligence bin Laden and his sort have already shown can't get a package the size of steamer trunk here? Don't know about Radio Shack. They stock nukes? Didn't I read something about a Popular Science or Popular Mechanics article recently?

-- Cash (, October 01, 2001.

So let's assume that the only possible way (that has been proven) for knocking out electronic circuitry in a large scale is EMP from a nuclear warhead. There is this tiny problem that this warhead has to go off at high altitude, so it can damage a large number of devices etc, as opposed to exploding at ground level where the radius of damage would be relatively tiny. If the terrorist had access to such a device why wasn't it not loaded on one of the 757-767s and exploded in midair? Say somewhere btwn NY & DC at around 30000 ft?

That the US (and just about every other coubtry's) infrastructre is vulnerable to EMP is a well known fact (since scientists discovered the side effects of air burst nukes back in the 50s), only small portions (like NORAD HQ) and alike are hardened against the threat. Equally well, that almost all skyscrapers (in and out of US) are vulnerable to ramming by jetliners is a fact. The cost of building skyscrapers and telephone exchanges and the like immune to all threats is so prohibitively high that the average phone bill would cost so much that most people would avoid having a phone.

As for missing suitcase nukes, there is no evidence as to who has it in their bedroom closet. As for evidence that OBL was behind the terrorist attacks, well, I'm waiting.for Bush to announce it, and I hope such evidence does not become top secret an too sensitive for the average Joe to know about.

As for Pike's last comment in the article:

"Any country capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to an American city could be capable of detonating that weapon in space above the North American continent,"

The only countries currently capable of such thing are Russia and China, and maybe India but not OSL, Pakistan, Iraq, and not even Isreal.

If Taliban/OBl had access to nukes I would imagine they would use it to wipe out their own internal dissidents so they could at least run their own country without any encumberance, I do not need to remind you how nicely they treat their own people, do I.

As for Tajik, Turkmen and other former Soviet republics access to Nukes or other WMD, so far this is more like fiction than fact, and as far as I can see, all those countries are helping the US, rather than shipping the so called unaccounted for nukes to OSL for a not untidy sum.

I take it unless US of A can send inspectors to inventory and enumerate a complete list of wepaons available to groups or countries not in the same camp as the US, we will always be warned that such and such may have access to so and so so let's have a CRUSADE.

-- someone (, October 01, 2001.

I don't think we'll see an EMP attack for the very simple reason that the media is how the government controls the populace.

-- Kathleen Sanderson (, October 02, 2001.

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