Electromagnetic Pulse Program Raises Environmental Concerns : Pentagon Told to Halt Simulated Nuclear-Blast Tests

Times Staff Writer

The Pentagon has been ordered to halt electromagnetic pulse tests--designed to simulate the effects of a nuclear blast--until it has studied the environmental and health effects of the high-energy experiments.

In a federal court order signed Friday night, the Defense Department agreed to demands by a Washington environmental group to suspend the experiments until their effect on humans and wildlife is assessed.

The order closes or severely curtails electromagnetic pulse (EMP) operations at military facilities in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama and New Mexico. The order also halts the military's plans to build a pulse generator at China Lake, Calif., until a full environmental assessment is completed.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said Saturday that the agency "will comply with the decision," but that officials would have no further comment until they have time to study terms of the settlement.

Bomb Blast Effect

The tests, generating as much as 50,000 volts of electrical power, are conducted to measure the effect of a nuclear bomb blast on soldiers, electronic gear and military hardware. One of the unknowns of nuclear warfare is how electromagnetic radiation created by the atmospheric detonation of an atomic or hydrogen bomb would affect sensitive communications equipment, missile guidance systems, radars and other electronic gear.

The Foundation on Economic Trends, a privately funded environmental organization, alleges that electromagnetic pulse testing could have adverse effects on human health, as well as disrupting the civilian operation of nuclear power plants, telephones, computers, ships and even automobiles.

"This is the first time that the Department of Defense by court order has been forced to take part of its high-tech nuclear program off-line," said Jeremy Rifkin, an environmental activist and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends. "This is the first recognition that electronic pollution is an environmental issue."

The environmental assessment probably will take five to six months, Rifkin said, after which the generators may be turned back on, but only if they do not radiate power beyond the perimeters of the military bases. A full environmental impact statement, if required, could take as long as two years to prepare, he added.

Plant, Animal Life

Rifkin said that several preliminary scientific studies have shown a potential link between EMP and damage to plant and animal life. Another study, published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine, cited a possible relationship between exposure to electromagnetic radiation and brain tumors.

Rifkin's group filed the lawsuit in March, 1987, seeking to bring the Pentagon's testing program into compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Under terms of the agreement signed Friday, the Defense Department will immediately suspend EMP experiments at the Army's Harry Diamond Laboratories at Woodbridge, Va.; at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, and at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

The Navy will shut down its Empress 1 EMP site in the Chesapeake Bay and severely reduce the power at two additional pulse generators at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.

The Air Force and the Defense Nuclear Agency have been given 14 days to provide environmental data about the EMP facility at Kirtland Air Force Base., N.M.

"The U.S. Army and Navy have been using EMP simulators with two goals in mind. First, to develop data on how to harden military equipment against a nuclear attack; and secondly to collect data on the feasibility of developing EMP weaponry," Rifkin said.

No 'Ray Guns'

The Pentagon denied it was working on electromagnetic pulse "ray guns," spokeswoman Susan Hansen said. The department is, however, studying the use of electromagnetic forces to fire projectiles, she said.

The Pentagon alleges that the Soviets are working on weapons based on EMP, which it refers to as "radio frequency" weapons designed to kill soldiers and burn out sensitive electronics and communications gear.

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