• 02.06.16

Should You Worry About North Korean EMP Attacks?

Yes and no.

Should You Worry About North Korean EMP Attacks?
[Photo: Flickr user Brian Gonzalez]

Senator Ted Cruz wants us to freak out about a new threat: Satellites over the eastern seaboard detonating a large electromagnetic-pulse that knocks out anything with a circuit board and results in the deaths of millions of Americans.


At tonight’s Republican debate, Cruz described a nightmare scenario in which North Korea develops a new superweapon that wreaks havoc on our electric grid. He isn’t the first Republican candidate to reference EMP damage. Rick Santorum recently described a scenario in which “planes fall out of the sky.” Ben Carson said America’s enemies were developing nuclear weapons that will explode and “destroy our electric grid.”

Pretty terrifying, but is this anything more than fearmongering and a relic from the Cold War?

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a senior research fellow at National Defense University and an expert on the topic, recently told the Washington Post that he’s not all that concerned. “I’m just saying the threat, if it’s being cast as a rogue nation or a terrorist trying to do this, it seems like a difficult way for them to achieve harm,” Butt said.

Such a weapon is possible, but it’s extremely challenging. As Butt told the Washington Post, it would require a massive nuclear explosion (far larger than a recent test in North Korea), a missile that can deliver a very precise attack, and a willingness to deliver such an attack that would likely result in mutually assured destruction.

As Slate recently put it, the threat of an EMP attack is real, and possibly even growing. However, the authors also say that “you have far more to fear from nut-obsessed squirrels than nutty extremists when it comes to the reliability of your electricity.”

Well, that’s reassuring!

About the author

Christina Farr is a San Francisco-based journalist specializing in health and technology. Before joining Fast Company, Christina worked as a reporter for VentureBeat, Reuters and KQED.