Will North Korean Atmospheric Nuclear Testing Damage Submarine Fiber Optic Telecommunications?
By Thomas Popik, George Baker, William Harris and Jordan Kearns
March 19, 2018
If North Korea conducts atmospheric nuclear tests, could submarine telecommunication networks suffer permanent damage?
Despite economic sanctions, the North Korean government proposes to test and stockpile nuclear weapons that cause an electromagnetic pulse hazard to critical infrastructures. Without protective measures, EMP from high altitude nuclear tests can damage both the landing station equipment and repeater amplifiers upon which submarine fiber optic cable networks rely. This paper addresses EMP threat plausibility and what can be done to protect submarine telecommunications networks.
The Foundation for Resilient Societies, Inc., a non-profit in Nashua, New Hampshire which performs research on threats to critical infrastructures, released a Working Paper in late 2017 entitled: High Consequence Scenarios for North Korean Atmospheric Nuclear Tests. This article highlights key findings from that publication.
The 1962 Starfish Prime test conducted by the United States demonstrated that a nuclear weapon detonated in the upper atmosphere will produce a series of electromagnetic pulses radiating downward within line-of-sight (LOS) of the nuclear burst. The technical term for this phenomenon is high-altitude burst electromagnetic pulse (EMP), sometimes also called “HEMP.” High-altitude nuclear tests conducted by the Soviet Union produced the same EMP environments.
Short duration, high-intensity EMP pulses can disable electronic equipment on the Earth’s surface. Additionally, a low-frequency component of the EMP pulses can penetrate deep into the ocean, inducing large currents in the repeater power conductors of submarine cables.
North Korea has threatened to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test in the Pacific region. North Korea has also declared that electromagnetic pulse capability is a “strategic goal” of its regime. Some atmospheric test scenarios, including scenarios for EMP tests, may cause failure of submarine telecommunications systems. Disruption in trans-Pacific trade could result. However, operators of submarine telecommunications cables can use proven engineering techniques to defend their equipment from EMP effects.
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