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The North Korean Electromagnetic Pulse Threat, Or Lack Thereof


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.


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.


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.


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.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINTH MOON BLACK'S "THE END OF ALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.