back to article Electropulse weapon fear spreads to UK politicos

A campaign by US right wingers, designed to raise fears of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack they allege could cripple Western nations and lead to chaos, is targeting British politicians, with some success. James Arbuthnot, the Conservative chairman of the Defence Select Committee, recently questioned the government's …


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  1. Captain Underpants

    Excellent stuff!

    So the worry is that we'll be attacked by a nuke and the biggest problem will be the EMP? Great! Because, you know, if I was a hostile foreign nation who'd decided to fire a nuke at ANY OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, I'd make sure to try and use it to fry their infrastructure, instead of, you know, razing their capital city to the bedrock.

    Good *Christ*, it boggles the mind.

  2. abigsmurf

    Limited effectiveness

    From what I've read about EMP blasts they have such a small range that you'd basically be better off using a nuke.

    Most of the most sensative electronics have a fair amount of shielding to begin with.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sounds probable..

    '...Harris told how a terrorist group or rogue state detonating a small nuclear bomb in the upper atmosphere could destroy power infrastructure...'

    So terrorists not only have to get hold of a nuclear weapon, they also have to get their hands on a miniaturised warhead that can be put in the nosecone of a missile (which they'll also need to acquire), work out how to target the missile, fuel it and prepare it for launch without being seen.

  4. Lionel Baden

    better start oon the bunker

    what a load of tosh !!!

    guy is just hyping stuff up !!

    it not going to cripple food distro the worst that could happen is that you may not get your favourite food for a couple of weeks and have to use a no brand for the period.

    Put people in a difficult position they tend to buckle uip and get the job done

    Just cause our government are stupid lazy bastards now doesn't mean if shit hit the fan they couldnt get food to us.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The most dangerous thing

    The most dangerous thing in the world is Fox/Sky news, run with an war mongering agenda.

    EMP doesn't even pass through the metal cage of your PC and does not take out power lines any more than lightning does.

    Nope, misinformation, lies, deceit, dressed up as news presented by an organisation with an agenda like News Corp. Now that is the real threat to society.

  6. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Another Pyramid Ponzi from Schhhh ... you know who.

    Yeah ..... I think El Reg has called it right on this stinking parasitic lobby group. Zealous Gold Digging Groupies for the Military Industrial Complex is all that they are. The threat is well enough known but is no more likely to be launched than any other Dr Strangelove scheme/scam.

    It is default practice for the low gifted ...... create a scare and then offer to fix it for an exorbitant price with goods which they just happen to have available or in development.

  7. ThePhantom

    "...and stop food distribution"

    I have a quick solution to that one. Don't buy processed food and buy locally. As for the rest of it, yes, in theory, North Korea could do an EMP above the Pacific ocean and take out US, China, and Japan. Life's a bitch sometimes...

  8. Richard IV

    @The most dangerous thing

    That would be Tomorrow Never Dies. This, however, is the plot to Goldeneye.

    Chucking them in a Faraday cage and dropping it in the ocean's too good for them.

    I am inveencible!

  9. Anonymous Coward

    The Israeli-American Sideshow

    I'm sure we'll all be safe. All we need to do is give up control of our nation's defence systems to American and Israeli contractors. Oh, and sign up to an ABM system with doctored test data and no real-world threat present.

    I don't know if anyone remembers the film Threads. A nuke detonating over the North Sea was the opening salvo of a full nuclear attack on the UK. If a world superpower can't do it I can't really see how some dudes living in a cave can get a large enough nuke onto a suitable transport and detonate it in the right place. Don't let facts or logic into self-made hysteria from a bunch of Americans looking for contracts, though.

    If we wanted to do this by ourself the boys at Farnborough could whistle up something by tea-time (Google Chevaline). No doubt the Americans would do some back room deal which saw us declaring our system defunct in favour of some jury-rigged bag of shite tossed together and badged for export.

  10. The Metal Cod

    Someone watching too much Star Trek?

    I've heard a few people talk about these all powerful EMP devices that can totally fsck anything electronic but haven't actually seen any evidence that they exist and can do the things some people say they can. So right now it seems like my cover drive - fantastic in theory but damn near non existent in reality.

    What is the actual scientific reality here? Reality being the operative word. Does such a device physically exist and what can it do?

    In theory we could be in danger from mutant lesbian French speaking crustaceans. The reality seems to be somewhat different.

  11. BlueGreen

    @most of ye goboffers

    EMP produced by a decent blast 100 miles up would be devastating (can't find booklet, I believe it's Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse by Tim Williams) to a large part of britain. Perhaps much more than a low/ground blast. According to it, the emp gets everywhere and is very damaging.

    That said I agree it's scaremongering and if we had one go off then we'd likely be in a significantly worse situation than suggested here ie. looming national nuclear conflict which might well dwarf a single nuke's use.

    @Lionel Baden: go down yer local supermarket and ask how much food they keep. It's a JIT-ish pipeline with quite a bit less slack in it than you'd expect.

  12. abigsmurf

    @The Metal Cod

    EMP blasts are a known by-product of nukes. They'll fry most electronics within a certain distance. However they'll also literally fry them from the main blast itself making this a bit pointless.

    I've seen a PC undergo a full on EMP in a special chamber. It switched on but the bios was reset and the boot sector of the HDD was erased. Basically gave a 'disk read error'. Seemed intact other than the massive data loss.

  13. Oliver Mayes

    @The Metal Cod

    Yes, EMP devices are real. In this case the EMP pulse is just a by-product of a nuclear explosion. I'm don't think that pure EMP devices are in general use yet, mainly because in order to shield something from EMP you just need to put a bit of shielding around it so it's not really very effective.

    All major government and military facilities are already EMP shielded to ensure they can't be disabled in the event of an attack. Even if an EMP were to be used in a developed country only the most delicate electronics would be permanently damaged, given time everything else would just come back up again once they'd had a chance to recover.

  14. Max Pritchard


    The pseudoscience behind E-Bombs is great reading. Google for "Flux Compression Generator". "One point twenny one jiggawatts!"

  15. Adrian Jones
    Black Helicopters

    There was a documentary series on this, wasn't there?

    Called "Dark Angel"

    Mmm. Jessica Alba.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Wouldn't we be better off?

    In the UK, with the appalling state of most government-run IT projects, we'd probably find that the country ran better after an EMP took out the computing infrastructure, although productivity in properly run IT departments would also take a nosedive if they couldn't access El Reg throgh the no-defunct internet

    Note to panicking politicians -> this is a joke

  17. Dan Breen

    however, as any fule nose...

    We need EMP weapons to stop Mecha-Godzilla stomping over Leighton Buzzard. If we can shoe-horn compulsary ID cards in as well then we can spot Mecha-Godzilla far more easily as he won't have and ID card.

    I hope this has put the matter into context for you.

  18. Apocalypse Later

    Right wing myth BAD

    "Global warming" on the other hand, is promulgated by the left, so that's alright.

  19. Luther Blissett

    "Geeks and Trojans", Wm Notshakespeare, Act 341, Scene 27

    [Scene: yet another political arena]

    Dodgy Geezer: Look, peons, an EMP weapon!

    Crowd [gazing left altogether]: Ahhhhhhh....ooooerrrrrr.

    [Enter Trojan Horse stage right, and proceeds to do a little gigue]

  20. Nigel 11

    Big nuke needed

    To EMP a continent you'd need a BIG nuke - tens of megatons, and the technology to put it a very long way above the ground. To EMP at all you need the technology to detonate a nuke at least twenty miles up. Either way the missile launch would tell all who did it, and I doubt if retribution on the megatonne scale would be far behind. Nukes are MAD.

    It's possible to construct an electropulse device using electricity and conventional explosives that would have an effective range measured in meters. I don't know if the range would ever exceed the blast damage radius, let alone the blast radius of a bigger lump of explosive. Maybe, using exotica like superconducting magnets ... but once again, why bother?

    It's supposedly possible to take out consumer electronics with a big capacitor, a spark gap, and a resonant cavity, from the room next door. If I'm ever driven to the farthest fringes of sanity by excessive decibels from next-door every night all night for weeks, I might R&D this for myself.

    And the biggest electromagnetic threat of all? That massive ongoing H-bomb we call the Sun. We don't know how big the biggest possible coronal mass ejection might be. We do know that there was one in the early days of the electrical telegraph which melted the wires, bigger than any we've seen since. The same today would take out electricity grids, planet-wide. It's not the same sort of pulse - it's a minutes-long pulse of charged particles which induces a large DC current in systems designed for AC.

  21. Bob Wheeler

    Do these people think about what they are saying before hand?

    The bit that got me laughing the most was: -

    "a giant time machine that would move us back in technology a century"

    So OK, a EMP blast will knock out the computers etc, but will it destory forever all of our knowledge gained over the last 100 years?

    FFS where do these people live - I wont to move far away from them.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    Erm hang on a minute...

    Isn't that exactly the sort of attack that Arpanet was designed to be resilient to?

  23. Dave Bell

    A bit of history

    There have been a couple of nuclear tests which showed EMP effects over a wide area, before the first of the test ban treaties. The US detonated a nuke in near orbit, over the Pacific, and , various effects were seen in Hawaii around 1500 miles away.

    It was detonated about 250 miles up, and the radiation effects knocked out several satellites in low orbits. Want to bet that the Cold-War designed telephone systems we have now were not designed with EMP effects in mind? Buried phone lines, for a start, and optical fibres. One of the reasons for the BT towers in London and Birmingham is to provide communications links that would survive a nuclear war.

    Those lobbyists are stupid. How can a terrorist group manage to do anything on this scale? So that puts us into Rogue State territory. Since the military have been setting up for fighting on a nuclear battlefield since, at least, the 1950s, what is this going to get you?

    About all this proves is that some politicians are crazy enough to push the big red button, and that they're on our side.

  24. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Chaos is no longer a valid meal ticket in a World of Instant Communication ...

    .... and Deep Packet Inspection Analysis of MetaDataBase.

    Here's some more info. on the gravy-train lunacy .......

  25. Ru

    This isn't about E-Bombs!

    To all of you crying out about the lack of effectiveness of theoretical EMP devices, read the article. This is about the use of nukes in a high altitude blast. Read to see what happened the first time this was tried.

    But it is a stupid stupid threat in this case. If we end up in a nuclear war, everything is going to be screwed regardless. EMP resilience of electronic devices is more or less an irrelevancy at that point.

  26. Tom 7

    You dont need a nuke

    A few blokes with angle grinders, 4x4 and tow ropes and you could pull down a few pylons for the same effect.

  27. Martin 6 Silver badge

    @Richard IV

    I agree, but we should probably lock up Sean Bean anyway - just to be on the safe side.

  28. JR Fezziwig

    An appeal to thoughtfulness?

    It is likely that mere facts will never get in the way of a strongly-held opinion, but it might be worthwhile to look up "electronmagnetic pulse" in Wikipedia ( One would find:

    1. The phenomenon has been known and described since the early 1950s, so this danger is anything but new.

    2. In 1962, the US conducted an electromagnetic radiation test 180 miles over the Pacific, and caused electrical damage in Hawaii, as noted by Dave Bell in a previous post.

    3. The same year, the Soviets conducted a similar test over Kazakhstan. It turned out that the cables connecting electronics to networks and power sources were like giant antennas, and the test created a power surge in a power line that started a fire in a power plant in Karagandy. So the idea that wide-area disruptions could be the result of such an attack is not out of question.

    4. The strongest component of the pulse, called E1, is too fast for normal surge protectors to handle.

    All this does not make an electromagnetic pulse device practical or its use by a rogue state possible. Nevertheless, calling attention to the issue is not necessarily fear-mongering.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Those who like Standards

    will appreciate the 2004 IEC technical report IEC/TR 6100-1-5, a product of IEC Technical Committee 77C studying "High Power Transient Phenomena" .

    IEC/TR 6100-1-5:2004-11 is named "High Power electromagnetic (HPEM) effects on civil systems",

    summing the document up - big pulses can and will upset or damage civil electronic systems.

    note that this is one of TC77C's documents which broaden the attack from HANEMP (high altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse) to the (Andrei Sakharov et al) Flux Compression Generator ultrawideband high power and the HPM (high power microwave) developments of the last 50 years. Oh, 'twas mentioned in Arthur C.Clarke's Last Theorem, last book an' all!

  30. Anonymous Coward

    INDEED ...

    Rogue states (N Korea) have both the means and possibly the will.

    Why wastefully detonate a single warhead on one target when you can detonate one miles above the earth and let the Compton effect fry the electronic infrastructure of every city in a country the size of, say, the UK?

    The damage could be in the hundreds of billions of pounds and would leave us dangerously exposed. Not to mention the havoc caused by riots when people who don't have electricity, phones, mobiles or radio and ultimately fresh water and food runs out.

    Take EMP weapons very seriously. You don't even need a nuke. Small, portable EMP weapons can be built for about £1000 and just one could take out critical infrastructure over a very large area.

  31. Robert E A Harvey


    You can take my company email system out whenever you want. And the born-again osbourne I have to lug round with me that takes 17 minutes to boot and load windows.

  32. David Gillies


    We can rule out a terrorist organisation doing this, but the threat of a State actor deploying an EMP weapon is not an empty one. It might not be top of the list of threats, but Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems (FOBS) have been known about for a long time. These have a strong deniability component and are also very difficult to counter. Civilian infrastructure would be very badly impacted. For example, food distribution is heavily reliant on just-in-time delivery and refrigeration, both of which would be badly hit by a significant EMP event. You don't need a multi-megaton weapon to cause a non-negligible EMP. In fact fission weapons give you more bang for your buck if you want to take out electronic infrastructure like telecomms and computer equipment. A big thermonuke will be better for knocking out power distribution systems. Both are hard to safeguard against.

    It's easy just to dismiss this as lobbyists angling for cash, but it's a real problem.

  33. Anonymous Coward

    Doubt we should be scared about this

    First off, to generate a large enough EMP to do significant damage to UNSHIELDED electronics and communications over a wide area (say 500-1000 mile radius) you would need an H-bomb with a yield of at least 20-30 megatons. Given that even those nasty North Koreans and Iranians are working on ATOMIC bombs with a max yield of maybe 15-20 KILOTONS and that even the U.S. and Russians have gone away from producing these 1950s-style massive H-bombs in favor of 200 kiloton to 1 megaton strategic warheads, just getting an H-bomb of the correct size would require a national effort.

    Then, once you have your blockbuster H-bomb, you would have to weaponize it to fit it onto a missle. If you loaded the weapon onto a surplus 747 or something and detonated it at 40000 feet, the line-of-sight/radius for the EMP blast would be greatly reduced. Though obviously if you could get a big H-bomb and load it on a transport plane it would be a great threat to destroy an individual major city.

    Then you would have to get the missle to carry the weapon. You'd probably need at least an intermediate-range missle, if for no other reason that to have something large enough to carry the huge 20 megaton+ warhead. I doubt your average $500,000 Scud would even get off the ground given the size of the payload.

    Then you would need a a ship (or maybe a land base if this was a state firing the missle) to fire the weapon from. Given the size of the missle you would probably need a decent-sized freighter converted to fire the missle, a crew of 20 or so for the freighter and I would guess at least 40-50 additional people with the technical skills and equipment to set up and fire the missle and warhead. Doing this in secret would by no means be easy, but would probably still be the simplest part of the plan. Note that launching via the freighter would obviate the usefulness of a strategic missle defense system, because the freighter would probably get within 10-100 miles of ground zero and then launch the missle, which would detonate a few minutes later 50-100 miles above ground zero and well before most strategic missle defense systems could react (though maybe something like a Patriot battery or a U.S. Aegis-equipped ship might be able to spot and shoot down on time if the local defenses were nearby, on alert and could get clearance to fire in time.)

    Then after that you would have to hope that the locals around ground zero hadn't sufficiently hardened enough of their electronics so that their infrastructure would survive the EMP.

    So it doesnt sound to me like this is likely to happen anytime soon, and if it were, it doesnt sound to me like this would be something that a strategic missle defense system would be able to deal with in many cases.

  34. Doug Glass

    Not New

    This has been a "fear" for decades. It was even the "demon" of the TV series "Dark Angle" (2000) whereby an EMP pulse instantaneously plunges a major portion of "advanced" world into third world nation status.

    Better be worried about the neutron bomb too while you're at it. This masterpiece of "mass destruction" is an air burst that emits strong neutron radiation that kills pretty much all living things but doesn't harm non living stuff. There was a reference to this in the movie "Beverly Hills Cop" where one of the songs by The Pointer Sisters was "Neutron Dance". To wit, "Blows people away but leaves buildings standing".

    And of course there's chemical and biological warfare that would wipe out most of us.

    Damn, just worry about what you want, I'm going water skiing and I plan to eat real meat, fried chips, watermelon, ice cream and drink real beer. I don't worry, I have the rest of the world to do that.

    IT Angle

    Just Another Quantum Conspiracy

    As for mepersonally, only matching keywords match the quantum coherency with EMP event horizon are -

    in actors line: Satanist-type, Government, Pole, Deep-bedding depots, CERN, Vatican (-: , Sunstorm, Submarines; in temp line: 2012.

    Impact on a human: death or temporally losing conscience, darkening in the eyes, changing colours in the picture seen, physical disability, hearing very loud unbelieveably unpleasant sound, disorientation, heart attacks, hair loss. A lot of health diseases follows. Impacts also weather, as we all know, and direction of the magnetic axis. Completely a joint New Sky experience. Err... I said "joint"?

    Nice set, I agree. Of course there is protection from EMP. But there is only the duty personnel will be in right place at right time. I would also send a possibly big genetically well crew as farther from Mother Earth as possible for a while.

    For some, those folks exercising with horse-riding, swords and archery... don't forget Enc.Brit... look not too old-fashionable, yet critiqued as being torn from the reality.

    It's, probably, impossible to escape making a choice having all the corresponding data, whatever media-please-make-my-end-comfortable trick/Google search direction is chosen for this. EMP is a dangerous idea in dangerous minds. Unfortunately, this is a definite statement.

    Rhetorically: what will be the sense of the expression "IT angle" if UK once will make just a sysadm-free group of mountain islands?


  36. codemonkey


    @The most dangerous thing #

    By Anonymous Coward - Fact man. There are dangers to humanity then then there are large (or small ) capitalist organisations. Like damn lies and then statistics.

    @Right wing myth BAD #

    By Apocalypse Later - Terrible argument friend. Just plain terrible. I mean, so illogical and disconnected. Like, really? Did you just say that? Seriously? Wow. ( I sound like a Yahoo Audible now : Record me )


    I'm connected.

    Reality exists outside your head: shape it :)

    Tux: as non-antagonistic collaboration ( the complete opposite of capitalism ) is the way forward:)

  37. Watashi

    Solar flares

    We could very easily be a giant solar flare at any time. One in 1989 caused huge problems to Canada's power grid, and a similar event today would easily be able to do all the damage detailed in this article. Chances are, we'll experience one of these sometime in the next few decades.

    But do the MPs care about this? Are there plans to put an early warning satellite into position? Are there plans to put safety curcuits into the power grid? No chance. Have we known about this for years? Yes.

    British Politicians are scientifically illiterate f*ckwits. I hate myself for saying this, but this time the scare-mongering right-wing loonies over the Atlantic may be doing us a favour.

    Of course, this is peanuts compared with Global Warming...

  38. EL Vark

    @The Metal Cod

    Just one more for you. In 1962 the U.S. conducted an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test in the South Pacific which succeeded in blacking out Hawaii via the EMP. The test was conducted in part to see if that would happen, so conditions would have been somewhat optimized to incovenience the island folk. The U.S. government have some related documents if you perform a concerted search (they're not hiding them or anything, the references are just old and dated and hard to find). So, yeah, such a thing is possible but, as so many others have mentioned, lunatic state/group with nuclear capability who can overcome all of the technological hurdles will probably be more interested in mass death with a nice, Earth-shattering KA-BOOM! than mass inconvenience. I'm skeptical that my computer case would thwart a sufficiently large or local EMP as someone has attested but I'd just as soon not have to find out. I do know that simple lightning can cause all sorts of chaos under the hood under the right circumstances. I love the smell of charred modem in the morning...

  39. Anonymous Coward

    @ Marketing Hack

    You don't need a multi-megaton weapon at all. The one that took out the Pacific, Hawaii and six satellites in 1962 was a rather modest 1.44 Megaton device (something much smaller would do), well within the capability of emerging nuclear states such as N Korea.

    The use of simple nuclear weapons as EMP generators is well known and should be taken very seriously as a clear threat. You clearly have no idea what the implications of a repeat of the Starfish Prime test over a densely populated country with a total reliance on computer technology for everything would mean.

    It does NOT matter a shit if your equipment is shielded or not: the field strength of an EMP such as the Starfish Prime test is in the order of 50Kv per meter at ground level. Not even deeply buried power or telephone cabes are entirely safe as later Soviet tests later established.

    I suggest you also look at 1859 Carrington Effect for evidence of what natural EMP's can do as well. In this case, telegraph cables all over the world were completely destroyed by currrents in the order of 2-3000 amperes being induced by this effect.

    EMP is a serious and very real threat. More than enough to competely disable and wreck entire infrastructure.

  40. Matthew 4
    Thumb Down

    it sounds bad...

    ... nearly as bad as misinformation!

    oh wait! that's what this is

  41. Anonymous Coward

    Food chain, current knowledge, civil resilience

    Some people are a bit dumb or a bit ignorant aren't they.

    Kudos to those who have pointed out how dependent we are on the supermarket JIT chain in "Western civilised" countries. If **any element** of that network fails (fridges, trucks, data network, fuel supply, people) then Joe Public is reliant on Local Food from Local People within hours not days, and these days that isn't as workable as it should be. People of Great Britain, allotmentize the golfcourses, before it's too late.

    Have we also all forgotten the UK floods in 2007 [1]? That the good people of Gloucestershire and elsewhere were deep in water, none of which was fit to drink, and the Army had to be called in in various places to distribute drinking water because the water mains weren't working. In most places the floods were because it had rained rather a lot, but there were a few examples of where floods occured because pumping stations failed in low-lying areas. How resilient were our distribution systems there/then?

    James Lovelock. Heard of him? Agree with him? I don't agree with everything he says but recently he's pointed out that the preservation of modern knowledge is increasingly dependent on modern technology, and that maybe, just maybe, we should make sure we also have those "book" things in those "library" things, so that stuff doesn't get lost.

    Remember the fun when the first Russian fighters were captured by the US and how the West laughed when they found the electronics was still valve based? Remember how the laughing stopped when they realised *why* there were valves in there (valves survive EMP, chips don't).

    The UK and much of the West has lost any concept of "civil resilience", we've handed it all to "the markets", which is why in the UK we're building houses as rapidly as possible on various flood plains because it's profitable in the short term. That's why we're ignoring the limited lifetime of the Thames Barrier despite the fact that before people in London have paid off their thirty year mortgages, their properties will be worthless. It doesn't have to be this way.

    By all means expose this latest EMP story as the lobby group self interest which it doubtless is, but don't deny the underlying technical risks.


  42. Tom Paine

    Solar CME and EMP

    Wikipedia "Carrington event", 1859. Someone up thread mentioned melting wires - the induced earth currents actually electrocuted telegraph operators. Fibre's not susceptible to such effects, of course, but - oh dear - the switches and repeaters and other supporting infrastructure, is.

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    As soon as my government is involved .. I worry

    "... recently questioned the government's preparedness against the supposed threat ..."

    Well I suppose NuLabour could always build a Faraday Cage over these sceptered isles. The lord knows they take enough in taxation to actually do so.

    But really, we are governed by idiots who have never held down a day job in their lives. How the fsck are they supposed to reason themselves around this concept?

    I feel another BB moment coming along some time real soon now.

    Anonymous - because I just watched Brazil again and its getting spookily realistic to where we are today!!

  44. TheBigCat

    It is a real threat

    Usually an atomic bomb doesn't produce strong EMP outside the blast area, but at the right height in the atmosphere it can produce a huge amount. A country such as NK or Iran may find they can do more damage with EMP than hitting a city. Also it might be easier for them to find the right elevation and be in the general area than to hit a city.

    While protecting everything against strong EMP would be too expensive, there would be economical solutions to consider. Long wires would be the biggest sinks of EMP, so perhaps power plants could be protected such that surges don't take out their generators. Just attention to things here and there would help. Antennas for fire and police could be hardened as the military does.

  45. Anonymous Coward


    So; you've got a nuke, and a missile to deliver it. And your fiendish, carefully hatched masterplan is to use this- doubtless hard-won - WMD to prevent the people of Britain from watching Eastenders on iPlayer or ordering "10 ways to empower yourself and avoid becoming a victim of terrorism" from Amazon, rather than simply snuffing a few million infidel lives out in the blink of an eye.

    Really really fiendish.

    Troll alert, cos the Israel/defence lobby has many similar characteristics.

  46. James Pickett

    Run and hide

    "designed to scare Americans"

    That's too easy to be fun any more...

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    EMP -a well known threat for decades

    I was in UK civil defence activity as a volunteer scientific advisor in the mid 70's and the EMP threat was a very well perceived threat at the time. Critical govt comms systems and infrastructure has been planned constructed (hardened) and maintained since at least that time on that basis. The recent scares is by those ignorant of history.

  48. Captain Thyratron

    Regarding nuclear EMP effects.

    I was in the process of writing some huge, long thing about the known effects of EMP from nuclear explosions, with a list of references and all that stuff, but somebody else already did a better job, so you should go look at these instead:

    In short:

    A high yield is not necessarily required to cause a lot of damage. The USSR's K-project tests in 19621 and 1962 didn't have an especially high yield; the most damaging shot, test 184 (K-3), only had a yield of 300kt, and it hosed a lot of shallow-buried cables and set a power plant on fire. (The explosion happened at an altitude of 290km.)

    The strength of the pulse depends on the strength of the Earth's magnetic field in the vicinity of the explosion and the yield of the bomb. Gamma rays from the bomb produce high-energy electrons through Compton scattering in the atmosphere, and these go spiralling around magnetic field lines; in doing so, they lose energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. The Starfish Prime shot near Hawaii was not in a very strong magnetic field region; hence, despite its 1.4 megaton yield, it only produced a maximum electric field on Hawaii of about 5.6kV/m, which was sufficient to screw up parts of the phone system and to knock out a bunch of traffic lights (although only a small fraction of them).

    Remember, however, that this is the stuff of nuclear war, and nothing less. If somebody's shooting off nuclear warheads into the airspace of other countries, you might have a lot more to worry about than whether your line conditioner is stout enough to keep your mail server running. Of course, civilian infrastructure would be at greatest risk of EMP damage. Military installations are built with this stuff in mind; civilian infrastructure damaged by EMP can be repaired later, so long as someone does a good enough job of fighting the war that something is left to repair later. Hopefully, that isn't necessary.

    Further reading, for those interested:

    Military Research and Development Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, US House of Representatives. Electromagnetic Pulse Threats to US Military and Civilian Infrastructure. Hearing. One hundred sixth congress, first session, 1999.10.07. Accessible via

    Seiler, Louis W. Jr: A Computational Model for High Altitude EMP. Air Force Institute of Technology, 1975. Accessible via

    Vissitoe, Charles N. Did High Altitude EMP Cause the Hawaiian Streetlight Incident? Sandia National Laboratories, Electromagnetic Applications Division. 1989. Accessible via

  49. ChuckManto

    you can't shoot down a solar storm -- this is bipartisan

    You can't shoot down a solar storm. The electromagnetic effects of a large solar storm are similar to those of a high-altitude nuclear burst and now thought to be just as dangerous according to new projections from the National Academy of Sciences, NASA and NOAA who recently released their new projections of a 100 yr solar storm that predict the potential of a global one year blackout due to damage of the largest power grid transformers. It is also a significant issue addressed by the Niagara Falls conference on September 8-10 from those who see EMP and solar storm mitigation as an issue that stands totally on its own without reference to the missile defense debate. (It is also an issue for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who asked Congress in a hearing on cybersecurity last week for emergency power to compel utilities to take action to harden their facitites.)

    This is a game changer. Previously, advocates of ballistic missile defense, often right wing politically but not always, saw high-altitude EMP as one of a number of reasons to harden against EMP while proposing a missile defense system as another needed tool in the government's tool kit. Those who don't want to see a missile defense system, either because they doubt its effectiveness or value, still admit that the EMP issue should be addressed by hardening critical infrastructure. However, that issue gets obscured by many such opponents of missile defense since they see the EMP issue as a Trojan horse to get missile defense. That is a shame for their own position since if hardening against EMP were to be accomplished, missile defense opponents could argue that hardening mission critical assets would diminish the need for missile defense.

    On the other hand, now that the worst case solar storm (ranging from a 30 yr to a 100 year event based on solar storms in the 1800's and one such storm in 1921) is projected to be 10 times worse than previously thought, the need for hardening against electromagnetic pulse events is more urgent than ever. Fortunately for those on both sides of the issue of missile defense, hardening against a super solar storm can be done in such a way that it also hardens against manmade EMP.

    Protecting against a solar storm can not be construed as a Trojan horse for missile defense unless someone thinks they can shoot down a solar storm.

    The last issue is one of timeliness. In recent discussions in the US on manmade EMP events, some who do not prioritize it highly often speak of waiting for an "imminent" threat until it should be considered important or urgent. That approach would play right into the hands of the most hawkish personalities. Since it takes roughly 5 years for a sizeable country to build out EMP hardening and be protected, any threat that is anywhere close to 5 years would by definition be "imminent" unless you are only considering a massive pre-emptive military attack. Sloppy thinking and laziness may push societies to unnecessary military options because they have not minimized the threat potential in the first place. Furthermore, the possibility of a 100 year storm in any given year is one percent-- for a 30 year storm, three percent. That makes this combination of a manmade EMP or a solar storm a low frequency and high impact event as opposed to a low probability and high impact event. Given time, it is 100% likely.

    This particular conference, though organized by a number with EMP and missile defense familiarity is also supported by those who care about the solar effects as well. There are no pitches for missile defense while there are headlined discussions on solar storms by those who have participated in the National Academy of Sciences work and a FEMA projection of the financial impact of such a storm. This is the same work supported by the Space Forum, a group of federal agencies who look at space weather (NASA, NOAA, Department of Energy).

    This would be a great conference for those on opposing ends of missile defense to come together and learn how to take pre-emptive defensive measures, such as hardening mission critical civilian infrastructure. This conference, instead of extolling the virtues of missile defense, will show what local governments and businesses are doing to take cost effective and prudent measures. This includes research on projects I have led through my company Instant Access Networks, LLC and received support by the University of Maryland that include the hardening of renewable energy systems from EMP effects of either manmade or natural sources. Those on both sides of the missile defense issue would be welcome to attend. I would love to see a break-out session on this very issue.

  50. Anonymous Coward

    The *actual* effects of the Starfish explosion... oh boo hoo, I'm so scared... NOT.

    Let's all just calm down and take a deep breath shall we? Here's what that wikipedia page describes:

    >"about 1445 kilometers (897 statute miles) away in Hawaii, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created by the explosion was felt as three hundred street lights failed, television sets and radios malfunctioned and burglar alarms went off.[2] On Kauai, the EMP shut down telephone calls to the other islands by burning out the equipment used in a microwave link"

    Got it? A bunch of street lights went out. Wanna bet they were all on one circuit? A single microwave link burnt out, blocking calls.


    Minor, trivial damage. Or take those Russian tests: one surge that caused one fire in one power station.

    Please read the official US DoD report into the Starfish Prime test, titled 'A "Quick Look" at the technical results of Starfish Prime'. You will see that one of the explicit purposes of the test was for the US military to evaluate whether the EMP generated by a nuclear explosion could be used to disrupt an enemy's electronic communication systems, such as radars, in order to provide cover for incoming missiles. Their conclusion?

    " [ ... ] Starfish Prime was not as effective as anticipated. Detonation degradation of communications and radar surveillance capabilities were found to be appreciably less than expected. "

    Please, actually READ the report, and get yourselves informed. I'm looking at you, Mr. Greg "hundreds of billions of pounds" Fleming. "Took out" Hawaii and the Pacific, my arse. READ the report. They were using a vast array of hundreds of electronic and radio devices to measure the EMP and other effects of the explosion, and that wasn't all destroyed, was it? Do some maths while you're at it as well: if the explosion happend at an altitude of 400 km, the distance to the visible horizon is 2280 km - and yet we just have a few breakdowns in Hawaii, and nothing in the continental US? Where are the news stories of the Great California Blackout of 1962? Nowhere, because it didn't happen, because the effects of airburst nuclear EMP are simply not remotely as you describe them. You are talking rubbish.

    A few people in this comment thread have been pointing at these historical incidents and claiming they are evidence of a catastrophic threat. They are nothing of the sort, you are being hysterical about a trivial event. As others have pointed out, solar and geomagnetic storm events are not anything fundamentally new to us, the real threats to our infrastructure are the weakness to single point failures caused by our interdependency and just-in-time market-oriented systems.

    Everyone was pretty scared of Red Mercury back in the day, too, but it was all bullshit, and so is this. It is FUD being spread by snake-oil merchants who have products that they want to sell to the military - "products" of the same order as that magic anti-EM paint and directionally-preferential oxygen-free-copper screened ethernet cables for digital music data and all that utter crap that crooks like to sell to gullible and hysterical suckers. Don't be one.

  51. Anonymous Coward

    @ AC Monday 27th July 2009 09:32 GMT

    Attempting to ridicule my name when you don't tell us yours kind of an own goal as far as I'm concerned.

    If you read something more reliable than Wikipedia, you would know that most of the recording equipment failed. They *did* get data, but it took them months to reconstruct it. They were also completely taken by surprise by the extent of the effect. Most of the effects were physically evaluated in the light of the physical evidence after the test.

    Now, in 1962 there wasn't much of an electronic infrastructure in Hawaii and most of it was vacuum-tube based -- roll forward to a city like London in 2009. An EMP *would* cause hundreds of bllions of dollars of damage in that city alone.

    You clearly know nothing of the Compton Effect (Compton Scattering) -- if you did you would understand it is a very real phenomenon. I'm not trying to sell anyone anything. An EMP could today cause a cascading series of failures that would be impossible to minimise or contain.

    I don't know what point your trying to make, but invoking Wikipedia as a source of reliable content in order to trivialise the nature of EMP's is not a good place to start.

    And no -- not everyone was scared of red Mercury either. I wasn't. I knew it didn't exist.

  52. The First Dave


    If there was any way of doing this without the need for a nuclear bomb, don't you think that the Israeli's would have already used it against Syria/Egypt ?

    Sure, Iran or North Korea _might_ be able to do this, sometime, but we all know that it would guarantee a major retaliation, possibly a full-blown invasion, and not the careful humanitarian kind either.

  53. Peter Mc Aulay

    A likely scenario

    So an enemy state or terrorist group gets its hands on a sufficiently powerful atomic warhead plus delivery vehicle and uses it to flash an EMP at the UK in order to, what, briefly disturb communications and maybe some power (at tremendously disproportionate cost) in preparation for, umm, the massed tank armies which will immediately take advantage of the event to breach the, wait, the amphibian troops which will no doubt pounce from mainland Europe? the offshore carrier group, umm, or perhaps a rubber boat, yes, I totally see that happening. Boo! Be afraid! Give us your money!

  54. Anonymous Coward

    straight outta compton effect

    Now, how many more people will understand that reference than will know what the real "compton effect" is, and why (as Greg has been pointing out) it is important here.

    Does it matter that many more people will understand a relatively obscure (c)rap music reeference than understand one of the basic atomic/unclear physics effects?

    Discuss, while physics departments still exist.

  55. Anonymous Coward

    Faraday cage

    Perfect Faraday cages are a bit limiting. You can't get electrickery in or out of them.

    So the real world has imperfect Faraday cages which reduce, but don't completely block, undesirable electrical effects. Your mains gets in (or out if you're a power station), your LAN gets in and out, maybe your keyboard monitor go in and out (unless *you* are inside the cage, which is 'unusual').

    The other point to note is that Faraday cage benefits are largely a steady state thing, whereas what we're talking about here is a very fast transient - high speed circulating currents, doing their damage before the "steady state" settles down.

    Yes, it's probably more about lobbying than anything else. But there is a real risk, it's a high impact risk and we know that sooner or later we will get a high impact magnetic storm, and that the consequences will be inconvenient at best.

  56. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is the same US, right?

    The same one that built a variant of the Nike missile defense system back in the day that worked by launching a nuke... at a group of inbound nukes... Not to swat it out of the sky as with the conventional Nike missiles, but to fry its guidance and trigger systems with EMP (or in the case of air-dropped munitions, to take the bomber's guidance systems and engine ignition offline)?

    You know why they abandoned that program? Because it was utterly ineffective. The EMP damage was small enough that it wasn't going to do any lasting damage to stuff in the freaking sky near the explosion, much less on the ground.

    Yes, full scale nukes have sizable EMP bursts, but if I were a rogue nation or terrorist, I'd most certainly be much more interested in using my full scale nuclear weapon to do damage and either kill my enemies or terrify the everlasting hell out of them than to make them have to spend a few hundreds of millions of dollars replacing electronics. As for natural-cause EMP - yes, it's possible for a gigantic clusterfuck solar flare to overwhelm our magnetic field with a direct hit, but that's going to fry every piece of electronics ON EARTH and there really isn't going to be a fucking thing we can do about it short of preemptively blowing up the sun. Much more likely is a situation that frys everything in orbit - in which case we're still in a bit of trouble, but we still can't do a damn thing about it.

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