The North Korean Electromagnetic Pulse Threat, Or Lack Thereof
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And let's follow up on a warning about U.S. security. Former CIA Director Jim Woolsey laid it out yesterday on this program talking of one way that North Korea could use a nuclear device.
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JAMES WOOLSEY: The really dangerous thing is that they can both orbit satellites - they've orbited several - and use nuclear weapons. And if they detonate a weapon up some miles above the Earth in a satellite, they can knock out a major share of our electric grid.
INSKEEP: Well, that sounds scary, so we asked NPR's science editor Geoff Brumfiel to evaluate that threat.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Officially, it's called an electromagnetic pulse or EMP.
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JUDI DENCH: (As M) Set off a nuclear device in the upper atmosphere, creates a pulse, a radiation surge that destroys everything with an electronic circuit.
BRUMFIEL: That's from the James Bond film "GoldenEye." There is something Bond-like about a bomb that would create a power surge and fry all our modern gadgets. So I Skyped Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and asked him, could North Korea really do this?
JEFFREY LEWIS: (Laughter).
BRUMFIEL: Take that as a no.
LEWIS: This is the favorite nightmare scenario of a small group of very dedicated people.
BRUMFIEL: That's not to say EMPs aren't real. In 1962, the U.S. military conducted a nuclear test high above the Pacific.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Existing military operational communications links throughout the Pacific area were turned on to determine the disruptive effects of this detonation.
BRUMFIEL: They detected an EMP, and it did some damage but not that much. A bomb about a hundred times bigger than the one North Korea currently possesses knocked out a few streetlights in Hawaii. Lewis says more recent tests showed that cars, for example, can survive a pulse quite well. Given all that, Lewis says it's more likely the North would use nukes in a direct attack against the U.S. and its allies.
LEWIS: I worry that North Korea's plan is to use nuclear weapons very early in a conflict, and I believe that North Korea wants a nuclear armed ICBM to be able to hold the United States at risk.
BRUMFIEL: Most experts agree North Korea is working on an intercontinental ballistic missile. And Lewis says that's the real threat. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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