North Korea: The Real Threat

Sep 20, 2017

America’s aging electrical power grid system is an amazing concoction of aging technologies and patchwork fixes; ill-suited to meet our future ramped up electrical needs.

It’s vulnerability to natural disasters, brownouts, terrorist, and cyber-attacks is unacceptably high. (See: The Cyber Blitzkrieg) The war of words over North Korea brings to mind still another threat; one that has garnered little mainstream media attention.

It’s not a futuristic, “sci-fi” threat. In fact, it has been vetted by congressional and military/intelligence agencies for years, and it may be the ultimate asymmetric weapon.
It is called an “electro-magnetic-pulse” (EMP) weapon that can fry electrical grids and electronic systems over vast areas of the country – or world – in nanoseconds. We’ve known about the EMP phenomenon since the early days of atomic weaponry but didn’t fully appreciate its significance until years later. Here’s how it works:
A nuclear explosion releases a high intensity burst of electro-magnetic energy – like gamma rays – that create a rapid acceleration of super-charged particles. When exploded at an altitude of, say, 30-50 miles or higher, the released particles crash into the Earth’s electromagnetic fields and trigger an electromagnetic pulse of unbelievable energy.
Think of the “power surge” from an EMP pulse as something infinitely more intense than a lightning bolt or more far reaching than a solar flare. It could destroy the electrical circuitry of virtually all electrical devices across large areas of a country in a flash.
Chances are, we wouldn’t even know such a bomb high in our atmosphere went off. We wouldn’t feel it or see it, but we would know something happened because our car wouldn’t run. We’d turn on our TV, radio or smart phone for information and it’s dead. Any system dependent on sensors or smart devices – like banks, financial, air traffic control, water, sewage, transportation, and other infrastructure systems would cease to function. Our grid systems, power stations, and transformers would be rendered useless.
Within hours – days at most – refrigerated products would spoil, and access to food, water, heat and other necessities would vanish. Within weeks, civil disorder would erupt as panicky citizens scratched and clawed to survive. The ultimate toll would be staggering.
An EMP surge is an inherent part of any nuclear bomb explosion if it occurs at a high enough altitude, and can be weaponized into a “super-EMP” that can penetrate most “hardened” sites.
In my book, Lethal Trajectories, I wrote about a rogue nation that leveraged their limited nuclear arsenal into a greater threat by converting “conventional” nukes into EMP weapons.  
This brings us to the topic of North Korea. In a traditional sense, we think of a nuclear threat as coming from a warhead atop an ICBM rocket. This scenario requires a) a rocket with intercontinental range, b) a miniaturized warhead, c) a sophisticated guidance system and d) a reentry vehicle that can withstand the enormous heat of reentering the atmosphere with the weapon intact.
An EMP system requires only parts of the first two but none of the last two parts. To a nation with a limited number of nukes, the overall damage inflicted by an EMP could far exceed that of a singular bomb wiping out one city; in either event, horrible scenarios. North Korea has the ingredients for such an EMP weapon, and we would be wise to ponder this possibility as events unfold.
While the probability of an EMP attack is far less than, say, a cyber-attack on our grid system, it is another powerful imperative for completely rebuilding our energy grid system. With talks now of plowing a trillion dollars into the rebuilding our infrastructure, it’s hard to imagine where we could get a bigger bang for the buck than in our grid system.
And, while we are building it, we can work to “harden” critical grid sites – to the extent we can – to withstand an EMP assault or a natural disaster like an intense solar flare that endangers the grid.
Our Weathering the Storm mission to “Awaken, engage and help others to weather the storm” calls for an open dialogue on troubling topics like this. Hopefully, it will encourage us to make our elected representatives aware of our concerns as we follow these various events.

Mike Conley
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