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EMPs From the Sun Can Wipe Computers — and Streetlights

Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) can do that as accidents of nature. But they can also be weaponized. Russia and China both have the technology to detonate at EMP from space.

In “Are your electronics protected against sudden surges?, Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks spoke with electrical engineer Sarah Seguin about electromagnetic pulses. (August 5, 2021) Whether natural or designed, these surges can wreck unexpected havoc with electronics. In this second podcast, “EMPs. Be afraid. Be very afraid,” Marks, himself a computer and electrical engineer, and Seguin delve further into the risks (August 12, 2021). For example, in 1989, an electromagnetic coronal mass ejection from the sun infiltrated power plants across North America and northern Europe and destroyed a nuclear power plant’s transformer:

This portion begins at 00:13 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks: Welcome to Mind Matters News. I’m your very concerned host Robert J. Marks.

Greetings. In 1989, our own sun electromagnetically disrupted the US power grid. Something scientists call a coronal mass ejection, CME from the sun was about the size of 36 Earths and it erupted from the sun surface. It set off a geomagnetic superstorm the result was what scientists called geomagnetically-induced currents on Earth. These electrical surges infiltrated power grids all over North America and northern Europe, and even destroyed a transformer at a nuclear power plant in New Jersey.

Even more seriously, Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid crashed when the safety systems sensed the power overload caused by the ground currents. The failure knocked out electricity to six million people in Northeastern Canada for as long as nine hours.

Note: About solar storms and electricity: “The thinking goes that ‘the big one’, when it hits (about once every 500 years, if not sooner) would be powerful enough to knock out electrical and communications systems across Earth for days, months, or even years – nixing power grids, satellites, GPS, the internet, telephones, transportation systems, banking, you name it. – Peter Dockrill, “Here’s What Would Happen if a Solar Storm Wiped Out Technology as We Know It” ScienceAlert (June 21, 2018)

Dockrill points out that the last major coronal mass ejection happened in 1859, before electricity was much of a thing in human societies.

Robert J. Marks: Now this was nature. EMPs also come from man-made nuclear explosions. Nuclear explosions [could also fry] the power grid in all of our electronics. A worst case scenario was reported by a federal committee called the National Coordinating Center for Communications, the NCC.

This is a 2019 report. They talk about high altitude EMPs [electromagnetic pulses]. You take the H from high altitude and then put in the EMP and you get a HEMP. So they’re talking about HEMP risks. And this is a quote from their report: “HEMP disruption and damage to critical infrastructures can occur across multiple time zones with one or more nuclear bombs exploded at high altitudes in the near region space. A single nuclear burst 250 miles above Kansas could destabilize much if not most of the US power grid. Likewise, one HEMP burst over north America could significantly disrupt regional or continental data infrastructures such as the internet and our television, radio, phone, and cellular networks.” There the quote ends.

Now an explosion 250 miles above the Earth is about as high as the US Space Station is from Earth. So the EMP just described would need to be detonated in outer space. Now, no one wants to militarize outer space, but as I pointed out in my book The Case for Killer Robots, cases like this can result in threats from our adversaries and unfortunately force the issue. This is one of the many reasons former President Donald Trump formed the United States Space Force as a separate branch of the United States military.

And this is not theory. This is not a bunch of physicists scribbling on notepads with equations. There’s experimental verification. We know that EMPs from nuclear explosions zap electronics. A 1962 test of a 1.4 megaton bomb, exploded 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean, disrupted global communications and blew out streetlights on the ground in Hawaii. There weren’t many satellites in 1962, but the explosion zapped some of them that were there. This included the British Ariel 1 satellite and the US Telstar satellite.

Note: The test was called Starfish Prime: Operation Fishbowl was a series of tests conducted by the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Defense Atomic Support Agency in response to the August 30, 1961 announcement that Soviet Russia intended to end its three-year moratorium on testing. The United States had conducted six high-altitude nuclear tests in 1958, but the results of the test raised more questions than they answered.

Starfish was one of five planned Fishbowl tests. An aborted Starfish launch occurred on June 20. The Thor launch vehicle began to break apart about a minute after launch. When the range safety officer ordered its destruction, the missile was between 30,000 and 35,000 feet (9.1 to 10.7 kilometers) of altitude. Debris from the missile and radioactive contamination from the warhead fell into the Pacific Ocean and Johnston Atoll, a wildlife refuge and airbase used for multiple nuclear tests. In essence, the failed test became a dirty bomb. Similar failures with Bluegill, Bluegill Prime, and Bluegill Double Prime of Operation Fishbowl contaminated the island and its surroundings with plutonium and americium that remain to the present day…

“Observers at Johnston saw a white flash upon detonation, but did not report hearing any sound associated with the explosion. The nuclear electromagnetic pulse from the explosion caused electrical damage in Hawaii, taking out the telephone company microwave link and knocking out street lights. Electronics in New Zealand were also damaged, 1300 kilometers from the event.” – Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., Starfish Prime: The Largest Nuclear Test in Space, Thoughtco (June 2, 2019)

Robert J. Marks: The GPS is controlled by satellites.A thermonuclear bomb 250 miles above the Earth would destroy a lot of the satellites that are responsible for our GPS.

This is one of the reasons, by the way, that we have nuclear test ban treaties. I used to think that nuclear test ban treaties were put in place so that people wouldn’t develop thermonuclear bombs anymore. Well, that’s probably one of the reasons, but another one was, every time you exploded one of these bombs, there was EMP effects in different parts of the world.

Now here comes the chilling part: Russia and China both have the technology to detonate an EMP from space. EMP threats from US adversaries from less developed countries like North Korea and Iran would have to be detonated closer to the ground, but nevertheless they could do severe damage. So what is going on here? To help us understand, our guest today is Dr. Sarah Seguin who is an expert in the area of electromagnetic compatibility.


Sarah Seguin

Dr. Seguin was formerly on the faculty at the University of Kansas. And by the way, that’s where this explosion has to occur above the state of Kansas. She then helped develop Third Iron, a software business, and currently does research at Baylor University. Dr. Seguin, welcome.

Sarah Seguin: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time to be on this podcast.

Robert J. Marks: Well, you are going to educate us and I’m afraid scare us — from the research that I’ve been doing about EMPs. So I want to talk about EMPs specifically in the power grid.

An EMP miles above Kansas, above your former employer’s university campus, could wipe out the American power grid according to this report. More realistically, EMPs from USA adversaries would not be that powerful. Just in general, could you give us an overview how vulnerable the United States’ power grid is to general EMPs?

Sarah Seguin: It really depends on the specific power grid. But in general, if you think about how easily an electromagnetic pulse could couple into the power grid, well, all you need is a really good conductor. Well, what do you need in the power grid? Well, to get electricity to folks you need really good conductors and we have them, many of them not buried.

The lines that are buried would have a little better shielding; we bury our electrical lines in large cities and newer cities of course. But if we’re running them from really long links, we’re running them across fields and they’re above the ground. So it really depends how each individual power transmission grid is hardened for electromagnetic pulses. And in the process of doing some research, I found a report by NRECA, which is one of America’s electrical co-ops.

These electrical co-ops basically take care of power distribution. You have your power company, they do the generation of the power, but then there’s these various co-operatives across the United States that then basically figure out how to distribute this power — which is very non-trivial. Anyway, their conclusion from a 2019 report was that an electromagnetic pulse would not have widespread impact on the electrical grid. Now, I actually tend to agree with you that an electromagnetic pulse, put in the right place — knowing certain vulnerabilities of, for example, certain local power distribution centers — could take down a large portion of the grid. You would definitely want to go through city centers to
have the most impact.

Robert J. Marks: You know, when we drive by these power substations, I look over, and — again, I’m not an expert in the field but I don’t see any shielding there. I don’t see any protection.

Sarah Seguin: Yeah. There’s one not too far from my suburb. I don’t know if they caught me looking one day, but they’ve actually covered. They’ve recently covered their fence so I can’t look in, but I find them super fascinating.

And actually when I’m just driving down the road, I love looking at these power lines and figuring out like … Now they mount cell towers on them as well. And in general, I think that they are more concerned with lightning. They’re probably more hardened for something like lightning but [not for] the terrorist threat. I don’t think that they have spent too much time hardening the grid for that.

Robert J. Marks: That’s a little bit scary. Prepping for this podcast, I ran across an article in Forbes. A federal committee called the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security issued a scary report specifically on China’s ability to conduct an EMP attack in the United States. Now according to Forbes, China now has super EMP weapons. And again, they might be in outer space. They have satellites in outer space.

Robert J. Marks

They also say that China knows how to protect itself against an EMP attack. So I have no idea what’s happening in China, but apparently according to Forbes they’re doing things about hardening their power grid. And they have developed protocols to conduct a first strike attack on the United States. It would be a devastating Pearl Harbor sort of incident, should they ever choose to do that. That’s just chilling. Do you know if there’s been any proactive attempts to protect the US power grid?

Note: “According to the Center for Strategic International Studies, China has the most active ballistic missile development program in the world, so this is doubly troubling. China used stolen U.S. technology to develop at least three types of high-tech weapons to attack the electric grid and key technologies that could cause a surprise “Pearl Harbor” attack that could produce a deadly blackout to the entire country.” – James Conca, “China Has ‘First-Strike’ Capability To Melt U.S. Power Grid With Electromagnetic Pulse Weapon,” (June 25, 2020)

Sarah Seguin: I am not privy to that information. There have been some recent reports identifying the issue. I think that there has been some discussion, but are we putting funding into it? I question that. I think we should be though.

Robert J. Marks: Yeah, hopefully. What’s the physics behind EMPs frying the power grid? One of the places I believe is transformers. I hear a lot about EMP taking out transformers. What’s the physics that happens that zaps transformers with EMPs?

Sarah Seguin: You talked about China and possibly even they might have satellites that could direct the energy, which is very terrifying to me too. And I can think about it actually being possible. It’d be expensive, but certainly for someone determined, it may be possible.

Honestly, you could build something where you’re just a person walking by with some dedicated antenna as well. And in general, the physics creates a very large electromagnetic wave that then is designed to couple into these transformers and these substations very well.

Sarah Seguin: So you would know in general how the substation works and you’d create a frequency that would couple in well. And then you can literally induce the currents from that electromagnetic wave that could actually just completely take out the electronics. And transformers…

Robert J. Marks: I’m wondering if the transformers, it’s just a thought. But I would imagine that the wires would get so hot, they would melt the insulation and everything would be shorted out.

One Second After is a thriller by William R. Forstchen (Forge, 2009) exploring the consequences of an EMP attack. It offers an Afterword on EMPS by U.S. Navy Captain William Sanders, referencing the reports of the United States EMP Commission.

Sarah Seguin: Right. It shorts it out and then once it’s shorted out, then nothing’s going to work. And also you’d have big currents induced across the grid that way. And then you could take out other people’s electronics near the substation as well.

Robert J. Marks: And we think about EMPs originating from big nations like China and Russia, and also from smaller countries, North Korea and potentially Iran. So this brings up the topic of terrorism. How much would a small EMP device cost a terrorist that wants to do some damage?

Sarah Seguin: Well, I think that you could probably do it for several thousand dollars and do a very directed EMP to something like the power grid or some building that you were trying to … I don’t want anybody to knock on my door because I’m definitely not thinking about doing this.

Robert J. Marks: Okay, okay.

Sarah Seguin: But you could definitely do it for several thousand dollars and you could direct it to a specific building just in the way that other terrorist attacks have been directed to specific buildings or specific stations in the past.

Robert J. Marks: Okay, that’s a little bit scary now. For a few thousand dollars if you could build an EMP, we’re not talking about explosions here or thermonuclear bombs going off. Rather we’re talking about super antennas, if you will. Is that a fair statement?

Sarah Seguin: Yeah. This is not talking about having any nuclear material. This is actually creating a very specific device that you know would affect the electronics that you want to affect. So you could create, for example, we’ve read the Russia has created something which is basically a directed electromagnetic pulse for taking down UAVs at specific microwave frequencies.

So what you could do, you would have to have some prior knowledge of the substation you wanted to take down or the building. But you could very specifically having some knowledge, which wouldn’t be very difficult to get. Spend many thousands and do some major damage if you chose a significant important target. And of course I could name any number of those and so could anybody listening to this podcast, but we would hope that no one would.

Robert J. Marks: Hopefully, but our adversaries sometimes are very creative. Getting back to the power grid, there is, as we mentioned, a lot of talk about improving the infrastructure in the United States. And one of the questions is, what would it take to harden the US power grid? …

One source says that the first order cost model would be an overnight cost of EMP protecting the US bulk electric system to be on the order of $255 billion. Now, when people get into billions and trillions, I think that they begin to lose focus on what that means. What about trillion dollar stimulus packages? And if you look at that, how much is a trillion? Is it bigger than a billion? Yeah, it’s a thousand times bigger than a billion, but what does that mean?

Well, $1 trillion if we divided it between the 328 million people in the United States, that’s over $3,000 per capita. So if we were to have the United States citizenry pay for that $1 trillion, then each man, woman and baby would have to cough up $3,000. And so in order to fix the power grid, this one source says that it would be $776 per capita. And they’re talking about $255 billion. So we have a long way to go and that’s scary. Finally, Sarah, how scared of you are EMPs and the vulnerability of the United States to EMPs as a specialist in electromagnetic compatibility on the EMPs?

Sarah Seguin: I am worried. I think that we should put some funding into hardening our electrical grid and other important targets such as certain buildings — for example, government buildings, in the event of an electromagnetic pulse, if we truly are just going for the electromagnetic pulse and not [just] one attached to an explosion. Of course, there’s other issues associated with that. I think that we should be putting some funding after that. And I am worried, but do I sleep at night? Well, yeah. I mean, there’s all sorts of things to worry about that are scarier than electromagnetic pulses.

Robert J. Marks:There are so many things to worry about. You got to pick one and work on it, right?

Sarah Seguin: That’s right.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. Well, thank you very much, Sarah. This has been a fun chat. Our guest today has been Dr. Sarah Seguin. She’s an electrical engineer who specializes in electromagnetic compatibility, including. This to me is very scary stuff. Nevertheless, until next time be of good cheer.

Next: How can EMPs be used in warfare?

You may also wish to read: Are your electronics protected against sudden surges? Electrical engineer Sarah Seguin discusses with Robert J. Marks an under-recognized risk for sensitive electronic devices. Electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that knock out electronics can be traced to natural events like lightning or human-caused events like nuclear activity.

Show Notes

  • 00:13 | 1989 Solar Storm
  • 01:31 | HEMP Disruption
  • 04:34 | Introducing Sarah Seguin
  • 05:39 | The United States’ Vulnerability to EMPs
  • 10:01 | Protection against EMPs
  • 10:28 | The Physics of an EMP Attack
  • 12:45 | Terrorism
  • 14:52 | Infrastructure Improvements

Additional Resources

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EMPs From the Sun Can Wipe Computers — and Streetlights