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[] 30.9.01: EMP-Terror-Hype 1,

Las Vegas Review-Journal September 30, 2001 

Are electromagnetic pulses terrorists' next weapon of choice? 

By Keith Rogers 

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. 

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