America’s frail defense against a nuclear-tipped threat

By John Fialka | 08/18/2017 07:00 AM EDT

The United States tested a hydrogen bomb 250 miles above Earth in 1962, creating a blue-lit sky as particles collided with nitrogen atoms. The atmospheric detonation created a powerful electromagnetic pulse that shut off streetlights and phone lines in Hawaii. Officials today warn that a U.S. enemy like North Korea could use an EMP to badly damage the U.S. grid.

The United States tested a hydrogen bomb 250 miles above Earth in 1962, creating a blue-lit sky as particles collided with nitrogen atoms. The atmospheric detonation created a powerful electromagnetic pulse that shut off streetlights and phone lines in Hawaii. Officials today warn that a U.S. enemy like North Korea could use an EMP to badly damage the U.S. grid. Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr

First in a two-part series. Click here for part two.

Mother Nature’s first attempt to explore the Earth’s fledgling electrical system came Sept. 1, 1859. It was a two-day solar storm that aimed rogue pulses of electrical energy — later called geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) — at the planet, where they hitchhiked on telegraph lines that acted as giant antennas. Many were knocked out, but a few lines astonished their operators by sending messages without any power.

The two-day storm is known as the Carrington Event after Richard Carrington, the British astronomer who identified the cause. The display of power was unusual. The northern lights, the fireworks resulting from electrons hitting the Earth’s upper atmosphere, appeared as far south as New Orleans, where, according to a local paper, drunks went to bed early, satisfied that they’d had their fill. Meanwhile, coal miners in Colorado saw the light and got up in the middle of the night, certain it must be time for breakfast.


A reporter for The New York Times saw elements of beauty and danger in the display. "The whole southern heavens were in a livid red flame. … Streamers of yellow and orange shot up and met and crossed each other, like the bayonets upon a stack of guns."

The first major U.S. military attempt to explore electrical effects in the upper atmosphere was a more brutal, secretive and unsettling affair. It came a century later, on July 9, 1962, with a hydrogen bomb test called Starfish Prime. The 1.4-megaton warhead detonated at 250 miles over the mid-Pacific, creating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) — somewhat similar to GMD, but more powerful and immediate. It blew out streetlights and shut down telephone systems in Hawaii, 898 miles away.

The pulse, five times stronger than scientists expected, also fried the circuits of six space satellites, including Britain’s first and a Russian spacecraft positioned to spy on the bomb test. It got nuclear weapons designers on both sides of the Cold War thinking. The United States intended the test to show whether the EMP from a nuclear weapon exploded in space might destroy the guidance systems of a U.S. retaliatory missile strike against a nuclear attack from Russia.

But the results of Starfish hinted at the answer to a more profound strategic question: If an EMP explosion in the upper atmosphere caused serious, lasting damage to an adversary’s electricity grid and its communication systems, its economy would be in tatters. Would there be any need for further nuclear strikes?

An old threat gets more menacing

The former Soviet Union quickly followed the U.S. Starfish test with three big nuclear weapons tests in the upper atmosphere over the deserts of Kazakhstan in 1962, just ahead of a pending agreement to ban further space-based weapons tests. And later underground tests by both sides established how potent weapons designed to enhance the EMP effects could be. The results were heavily classified by both the United States and Russia, but parts of the story came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Henry Cooper. Photo credit: Department of Defense/Strategic Defense Initiative
Henry Cooper. | Department of Defense/Strategic Defense Initiative

In 2001, Congress appointed an investigative panel, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, and in 2003 it held several meetings between Russian scientists and U.S. experts on the subject. The commission learned that the Russian tests were held over the deserts of Kazakhstan, where EMP bursts from nuclear weapons destroyed aboveground, long-distance power lines; burned through insulators; and even disabled a buried communication line over 400 miles away from the blast.

According to one commission report, by 1968 the Soviets had developed a way to launch an EMP attack over the United States using a "fractional orbital bombardment system" (FOBS). It was designed to evade the main U.S. detection systems — banks of radars watching for missile and bomber launches coming over the North Pole — by being carried in a satellite that would orbit over the United States from the South Pole. Soviet experts told the commission that the system was dismantled in 1983.

Two former cold warriors helped Congress fill in the gaps. Henry Cooper, a nuclear weapons expert, former head of the Strategic Defense Initiative under President Reagan and a former Pentagon official under President George H.W. Bush, worked closely with the commission, which was terminated by Congress in 2008 but was restarted in 2015. He told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May that "very senior Russian generals" and other former Soviet weapons experts told the commission in 2004 that "EMP knowledge had been transferred to North Korea."

The possibility that North Korea has developed such a weapon, he suggested, might explain why its underground nuclear tests have had low yields. Weapons designed to enhance EMP effects don’t necessarily need high blast power.

"I consider that we are living in the most dangerous period of my lifetime for a number of reasons, but the vulnerability of our national electric power grid is among the most important ones," Cooper, 80, told the committee.

EMP and the classic plot twist

In prepared remarks in July 2015, R. James Woolsey, a former U.S. arms control negotiator and head of the CIA under President Clinton, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that "North Korea and Iran have both orbited satellites at altitudes that, if the satellites were nuclear warheads, would place an EMP field over all 48 contiguous United States."

James Woolsey. Photo credit: Christopher Michel/Flickr
R. James Woolsey. | Christopher Michel/Flickr

"The iconic EMP attack detonates a single warhead about 300 kilometers [186 miles] high over the center of the U.S.," Woolsey testified, asserting that the scenario poses "an existential threat that would have catastrophic consequences for our society." Yet many people still think "that EMP is science fiction," he complained.

Indeed, that may still be the case. While more members of Congress, at least 13 foreign nations, U.S. scientists and some businesses are now taking fresh, serious looks at the potential threat, EMP quickly became a classic plot staple on American movie screens during the 1980s. There, the threats started with two James Bond films, followed in later decades by more EMP adventures starring Superman, Batman and even Godzilla.

Novels such as "Warday" and "High Intensity Death Wave" appeared amid a variety of other books and at least 32 video games, where some characters lobbed EMP grenades at each other. In one game, "Plants vs. Zombies," one of the heroes is a plant named EMPeach.

What was troubling to younger scientists during this fictional onslaught was that as each decade passed, the U.S. economy was becoming more dependent on digital electronics, computers, cellphones, satellite-based communications, and weather and GPS navigational systems that have rapidly accelerated the nation’s vulnerability to both hostile EMP attacks and solar storms.

‘People should know more about this’

The two phenomena, GMD and EMP, have some similarities. However, EMP attacks are regarded as more dangerous because they come in three phases. The first phase, called E1, strikes with no warning time and can damage control systems that are often left intact by the weaker start of a solar storm. The full EMP attack can be carried out in 20 minutes. The most harmful part of a solar storm, called the coronal mass ejection, can sometimes take two days before its clouds of charged particles and twisted magnetic fields can strike the Earth.

Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is familiar with the concerns about EMP and knows that the Defense Department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and several years hardening its communication and electrical systems to protect against it. His main worry is that the nation’s three electric power grids remain unprotected and that a solar storm could be almost as devastating to them as a military attack. "People should know more about this," he said during a recent interview.

He began his efforts to spread the knowledge during a meeting of scientists in 2007, explaining that relatively little was known about the resulting damage from solar storms. Beginning with the Carrington Event in 1859, potential impacts could not be measured because there was no developed power grid resembling today’s. The three grids that serve most of North America, for example, are among the largest man-made machines on Earth. Baker found the group was also worried about the rapidly growing dependence in the United States on vulnerable electronics used by nearly every sector of the economy.

The result was a 144-page study in 2008 called "Severe Space Weather Events," by the National Academy of Sciences, written by a committee headed by Baker. It concluded that "electric power grids, a national critical infrastructure, continue to become more vulnerable from geomagnetic storms" and pointed to the prospect of long-term blackouts and trillions of dollars of damage, an economic jolt that would make Hurricane Katrina’s costs in the $125 billion range seem trivial.

That led to other studies:

  • The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded in 2010 that a solar storm that knocked out part of the power of New York Central’s railway system in New York City in 1921 had struck with the force to cut power to 130 million people using today’s grids. It had the potential to create grid damage that might prolong the blackouts to some areas of the modern grid "for a period of years."
  • A May 1967 solar storm called a proton event gave rise to a nonfiction thriller. It shut down all three Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar System sites in North America, Greenland and the United Kingdom and led the U.S. Air Force to put B-52 bomber crews on a "ready to launch" status. One major concern was that radio interference was so bad that the planes, once launched, might not be called back. A study published by the American Geophysical Union last year noted that the alert was canceled after a newly installed space weather forecasting system showed that a solar pulse and not Soviet radar-jamming was responsible.
  • A Lloyd’s of London study done in 2013 indicated that a solar storm that struck Quebec at 3 a.m. March 13, 1989, collapsed the Hydro-Québec power grid in less than 90 seconds, causing a blackout experienced by 6 million people. It lasted nine hours, resulting in damages of $10.6 million. "As the North American electric infrastructure ages and we become more and more dependent on electricity, the risk of a catastrophic outage increases with each peak of the solar cycle," Lloyd’s concluded, saying that prolonged blackouts "could have major implications for the insurance industry." The study predicted that the area with the greatest risk was along the corridor between Washington and New York City.
  • A NASA satellite known as STEREO A, launched in 2006 just ahead of Earth’s orbit around the sun to give warning of approaching solar storms, was struck by a massive GMD on July 23, 2012. If this GMD had hit the Earth, following in orbit just seven days later, "we’d still be picking up the pieces," explained Baker, who was lead author of a separate study on it. "This was a shot across the bow" for policymakers, he asserted.

It was a warning that was finally heeded by the White House after decades of confusion, fears, much creative science fiction, international tensions and some scary near misses. On Oct. 13 last year, President Obama signed an executive order, the National Space Weather Action Plan, setting a timetable for government agencies to deal with a large but still poorly understood GMD threat that the president said "could disable large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, health care and transportation."

Three months later, Obama was gone. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Australia, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom are among nations that are taking steps to harden their power grids against the twin threats of EMP and GMD. Whether the United States will join them remains a work in progress.