April 1, 2002
The possibility that the Homeland Security force empowered
by "22-Caliber George" might inadvertently "allow" a nuke
to slip through and send a quarter of a million Americans
to meet that Great Supreme Court Judge In The Sky is low.
Possible, I admit, but low.
According to the press, any ten-year-old with a modem and
a five-minute attention span can download plans to make an
atomic bomb out of old TV parts and enriched uranium available
on EBay ("Divorce Final, Must Sell") . But it's not quite
true. Although fission bombs are simple to build in theory,
a weapons-of-mass-destruction hobbyist would need two identical
bombs -- one for a test, and one for the Real Thing. It's
not just a matter of building an off-the-shelf uranium gun
with a pipe, some C-4 and an electric egg timer. It might
work, and it might not. And a successful test would draw attention
from a hundred nuclear explosion sensors in place around the
world and in orbit.
Far easier to build, build in big numbers, and build discreetly,
are EMP bombs. They aren't very good at bombing, but they're
extremely good at generating EMPs. "EMP" is the acronym for
"Electro-Magnetic Pulse", like the electrical surge that a
nuclear explosion generates during the first 500 nanoseconds
after its detonation. One kind of low-tech EMP bomb, a Flux
Compression Generator (or FCG), could be built for well under
$1000; the Popular Mechanics article cited below quotes $400.
Although the actual explosion itself might be piddling, no
semiconductor would survive in the area affected by the EMP,
except one in a well-designed Faraday Cage. For a good introduction,
Here's few paragraphs from a more technical article by Carlo
Kopp that describes several approaches to EMP warfare:
Proliferation of Electromagnetic Bombs
At the time of writing, the United States and the CIS (Commonwealth
of Independent States, the Yeltsin-era name for what had been
called the USSR --bkl) are the only two nations with the established
technology base and the depth of specific experience to design
weapons based upon this technology. However, the relative
simplicity of the FCG and the Vircator (Virtual Cathode-Ray
Tube generator --bkl) suggests that any nation with even a
1940s technology base, once in possession of engineering drawings
and specifications for such weapons, could manufacture them.
As an example, the fabrication of an effective FCG can be
accomplished with basic electrical materials, common plastic
explosives such as C-4 or Semtex, and readily available machine
tools such as lathes and suitable mandrels for forming coils.
Disregarding the overheads of design, which do not apply in
this context, a two stage FCG could be fabricated for a cost
as low as $1,000-2,000, at Western labour rates (REINOVSKY85).
This cost could be even lower in a Third World or newly industrialised
While the relative simplicity and thus low cost of such weapons
can be considered of benefit to First World nations intending
to build viable war stocks or maintain production in wartime,
the possibility of less developed nations mass producing such
weapons is alarming. The dependence of modern economies upon
their information technology infrastructure makes them highly
vulnerable to attack with such weapons, providing that these
can be delivered to their targets.
Of major concern is the vulnerability resulting from increasing
use of communications and data communications schemes based
upon copper cable media. If the copper medium were to be replaced
en masse with optical fibre in order to achieve higher bandwidths,
the communications infrastructure would become significantly
more robust against electromagnetic attack as a result. However,
the current trend is to exploit existing distribution media
such as cable TV and telephone wiring to provide multiple
Megabit/s data distribution (eg cable modems, ADSL/HDSL/VDSL)
to premises. Moreover, the gradual replacement of coaxial
Ethernet networking with 10-Base-T twisted pair equipment
has further increased the vulnerability of wiring systems
inside buildings. It is not unreasonable to assume that the
data and services communications infrastructure in the West
will remain a "soft" electromagnetic target in the forseeable
At this time no counter-proliferation regimes exist. Should
treaties be agreed to limit the proliferation of electromagnetic
weapons, they would be virtually impossible to enforce given
the common availability of suitable materials and tools.
With the former CIS suffering significant economic difficulties,
the possibility of CIS designed microwave and pulse power
technology leaking out to Third World nations or terrorist
organisations should not be discounted. The threat of electromagnetic
bomb proliferation is very real.
EMP bombs are frightening because they are cheap, low-tech,
and would create a "blackout" zone of 500-2000 meters' radius.
If you are in that zone, say goodbye to not only electrical
power, radios, TV and most of your appliances, but all the
data on your hard drive, floppy disks, cassette and VCR tapes
and custom-recorded CDs.
Want more? God help anyone in a hospital dependent on even
fairly low-tech medical devices. For instance, intravenous
solution drip controllers contain some complex microprocessor
circuitry. And most people with pacemakers would simply die
of immediate cardiac arrest -- the rest might have a period
of fatal arrhythmia.
Are you paying attention, Mr. Cheney?
Twenty flux-compression EMP bombs detonated within NYC would
cause little or no explosive damage; however, Manhattan Island
would be dark and silent for weeks, maybe months, and the
damage to electronic devices would total in the tens of billions
of dollars. Secondary losses would be at least as great, with
a many people dependent on electronic technology simply dying.
An EMP attack in midwinter during a cold snap would condemn
hundreds of infants, the poor, the elderly, and the infirm
to death from hypothermia.
A huge chunk of the world economy, stored inside electromagnetic
and semiconductor devices in New York City, would simply evaporate.
The total loss to the economy would be far more extreme than
the destruction of the World Trade Center, which also involved
the loss of financial data (not to mention approximately 3000
Even a single EMP bomb detonation in a car parked outside
a major broadcast studio would do major damage. The car would
be totaled, and the studio would be off-the-air. A detonation
near a military base would take the base out in one stroke,
as well as cause an immediate "red alert" in the Department
Nearly none of the devices killed by the pulse would be repairable.
So whatever "evil-doer" uses EMP for warfare or terrorism,
the effect on our lives would be quick, deep, and painful.
If you want to read up on this, type the keywords "EMP Bomb"
into your favorite search engine, and you will find hundreds
of articles, most of which are either written for the lay
audience, or are easily understandable to a scientifically-literate
reader. Add the search term "FCG" to focus on articles about
Flux Compression generators.
Can the Ordinary Joe take "countermeasures" against EMP bombs?
Yes, some. You can get an old tube-powered AM/FM that can
run for a while on batteries -- thousands were built in the
middle 1960s and can be found in thrift shops. Most cars built
before the introduction of electronic ignition and on-board
computers would still work. Ambitious technology fans could
build a tight Faraday Cage, preferably underground (maybe
in that Fallout Shelter your Dad -- or Granddad -- built in
1955!) and store an extra computer system or two, along with
radios, cell phones, FRS walkie-talkies, scanners, and other
Those who are amused by such things should note that a Faraday
Cage for one's electronic "toys" is the ultimate "Tinfoil
With or without a Faraday Cage "chip cellar", the late Douglas
Adams' advice is well worth taking: Don't Panic. And that's
good advice in any situation.