Dangers of EMP exaggerated?

Preface. The article by Lewis (2017) below questions whether a nuclear bomb can really ruin our grid and cause societal collapse.  All the other posts in the Fast Crash/Electromagnetic Pulse category think otherwise.

The most hopeful study that EMP effects from a nuclear bomb may not be as bad as expected is the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI 2017) study, which looked at the possible effects on one high-altitude EMP on the U.S. fleet of 37,000 bulk power transformers. These large transformers, often found in substations, are greater than 69,000 volts and convert electricity from high-voltage electricity to levels that are distributed around neighborhoods.  “We found that there would likely be some failures, but those failures are relatively small in nature and not in the hundreds as had been contemplated from some of the reports in the past,” EPRI’s Manning said.

This article doesn’t question the effects of EMP’s, just whether North Korea has a nuclear warhead powerful enough:  “Former Department of Defense and intelligence contractor Jack Liu described the threat from EMPs as “grossly overstated” and said North Korea had not developed nuclear warheads powerful enough to be effective” (Porter 2017).

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


Warnings that North Korea could detonate a nuclear bomb in orbit to knock out US electrical infrastructure are far-fetched, says arms expert. There is no shame in enjoying dystopian science fiction – it helps us contemplate the ways in which civilisation might fail.

But it is dangerous to take the genre’s allegorical warnings literally, as too many people do when talk turns to a possible electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. There have been repeated recent claims that North Korea could use a nuclear bomb in space to produce an EMP to ruin US infrastructure and cause societal collapse. This is silly.

We know a nuclear explosion can cause an EMP – a burst of energy that can interfere with electrical systems – because of a 1962 US test called Starfish Prime.

US nuclear weaponeers wanted to see if it was capable of blacking out military equipment. A bomb was launched to 400 kilometres above the Pacific before exploding with the force of 1.5 megatons of TNT. But it was a let-down for those hoping such blasts could knock out Soviet radar and radio.

The most notable thing on the ground were the visuals. Journalist Dick Stolley, in Hawaii, said the sky turned “a bright bilious green”.

Yet over the years, the effects of this test have been exaggerated. The US Congress was told that it “unexpectedly turned off the lights over a few million square miles in the mid-Pacific. This EMP also shut down radio stations, turned off cars, burned out telephone systems, and wreaked other mischief throughout the Hawaiian Islands, nearly 1,000 miles distant from ground zero.”

It didn’t. That was clear from the light-hearted tone of Stolley’s report. Immediate ground effects were limited to a string of street lights in Honolulu failing. But no one knows if the test was to blame.

Of course, we rely on electronics more today. Those warning of the EMP threat say it would lead to “planes falling from the sky, cars stalling on the roadways, electrical networks failing, food rotting”.

But evidence to back up such claims is lacking. A commission set up by the US Congress exposed 55 vehicles to EMP in a lab. Even at peak exposures, only six had to be restarted. A few more showed “nuisance” damage, like blinking dashboard displays. This is a far cry from the fantasies being aired as tensions with North Korea rise.

Nuclear weapons are scary enough without the fiction.


EPRI. 2017. Magnetohydrodynamic Electromagnetic Pulse Assessment of the Continental U.S. Electric Grid: Geomagnetically Induced Current and Transformer Thermal Analysis. Electric Power Research Institute.

Lewis, J. 2017. Would a North Korean space nuke really lay waste to the US? NewScientist.

Porter, T. 2017. Could a North Korean EMP Attack on the U.S. Really Cause Mass Starvation and Societal Collapse? Newsweek.

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4 Responses to Dangers of EMP exaggerated?

  1. Rutger says:

    Interesting, but can the experiences of Hawaii in 1962 be translated to a deliberate and targeted attack in modern times?

    The pacific test in 1962 was doubtedly detonated directly above the islands, so are the experiences transferable to an attack scenario? The article doesn’t go into that detail. I can’t find this report by Stolley. I’d be interested to read it.

    We might deduce that the damage could be regional at worst, which is reassuring, but then that leaves the possibility of multiple or larger warhead detonations, scaling up the mischief. Surely warheads have advanced since the 1962 tests over the pacific too, and pack more EMP punch as it were? EMPs really are not my field of expertise, but fascinating nethertheless.

  2. Josh says:

    I think the merger concerns are transformers, the ones that are practically custom built and take a year for just 1 to get hear. Isn’t there a ton of evidence showing that the grid is extremely vulnerable??

  3. Curt B. says:

    I’ve studied this for a long time. The automobile test mentioned didn’t come near using “maximum EMP levels”. In fact the testing on each car was stopped at the point of any type of failure to avoid catastrophic damage. You see, the cars had been borrowed from various government agencies and had to be returned in working order.

    As regards starfish prime, the blast occured about 600 miles from Oahu, and really wasn’t all that powerful, yet some unintentional damage to power lines occured. Makes one wonder if the blast had been closer, larger and designed to inflict maximum EMP damage what might have happened ( and then been promptly covered up)

    Knowing that the Soviets and the Chinese have worked years ago to develop SUPER EMP weapons and assumably succeeded, you can be sure the North Korean and many others have these. We’re talking about EMP bombs designed to provide maximum disruption.

    The only thing keeping any of these Nations from using these bombs on the USA is the fact that we would immediately retaliate with nuclear weapons against any and all percieved enemies, and plunge the world into a nonrecoverable nuclear winter, killing a high percentage of all life on the planet.

    So in this case, what’s keeping all this EMP stuff from happening , is the fact that USA and most Western politicians and military commanders are absolutely Bat Shit crazy Pyscopaths, and wouldn’t hesitate to poop in the pool, erasing the hope of a happy, normal life for everyone on the planet. Hopefully we can all feel so much better about this now!

    So the authors assurances here fall soundly under the “nothing to see here folks, everything’s ok, move along, move along…”

  4. hugh owens says:

    Well it does appear that there is little solid evidence of the damage a nuke generated emp would cause. The one time a test was run in 1962 over Jonson atoll in the pacific, little damage resulted. The only way to know what will happen is to detonate a powerful nuke over a populated area and see what happens al la Randy Newman “Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.” Obvious it is not a feasible test to run so we will just have to wait for a big solar storm like the 19th century Carrington Event. Some people like William Forstchen with his “one second, one year etc” series have made money playing up the fears of an EMP but absent any solid testing, the danger will just have to remain hypothetical. A good whopper of a solar storm should settle the issue. Stay tuned.