Democratic Underground  

Not by Nukes
April 1, 2002
By bkl

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, visit this website.

Here's few paragraphs from a more technical article by Carlo Kopp that describes several approaches to EMP warfare:

9. The 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 economy.

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 future.

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 human lives).

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 of Defense.

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 high-tech doo-dads.

Those who are amused by such things should note that a Faraday Cage for one's electronic "toys" is the ultimate "Tinfoil Hat"!

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.

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage