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EPM: fallout over a naval EMPRESS.

EMP: Fallout over a naval EMPRESS

Since the Navy first announced itsintent to build and operate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) simulator in the Chesapeake Bay--one of the most productive estuarine systems in the world--there has been growing concern about the project's potential environmental impact. The most recent concerns appear in responses to a new environmental evaluation of the project, in strongly worded comments in a joint resolution by the Maryland legislature and in a lawsuit filed last week.

EMP is the rain of "Compton electrons'produced when gamma rays emitted by the detonation of high explosives--such as nuclear weapons--collide with air molecules. This electronic fallout will induce current or voltage surges through any electrically conducting material (SN: 5/9/81, p.300). While electrical equipment based on the old vacuum-tube technology is relatively immune to it, an EMP could literally fry sensitive electronic devices like those contained in computers, modern consumer electronics and communications systems.

The U.S. military's concern aboutEMP's possible incapacitating effects on weapons during a nuclear war launched a massive campaign to electronically shield all potentially vulnerable equipment (SN: 5/16/81, p.314). The Navy's proposed Electromagnetic Pulse Radiation Environment Simulator for Ships (EMPRESS-II)--an antenna system emitting simulated EMPs from atop a barge-- would generate more realistic ("threat level') pulses than are now possible, to test how well shipboard electronics have been shielded.

Though in general EMP has beenviewed as a problem only for electronics, a number of organizations are coming to question whether it is, in fact, biologically benign. In 1984, the Navy issued a draft "environmental impact statement' (EIS) on EMPRESS-II, as required by law for projects considered highly controversial or with the potential to "significantly affect the quality of the human environment.' (There is a much smaller EMPRESS-I facility, for which an environmental assessment has not been done.) But the paucity of biological-effects data on EMP described in the EIS only generated more public concern.

So the Navy commissioned additionalstudies on potential short-term effects to aquatic life or waterfowl, and published these in a supplemental draft EIS, issued last December. Although the report does say there is evidence "to assure us that EMP has no effect on humans,' official comments on this document, filed over the past six weeks, indicate significant public objections to EMPRESS-II still remain.

For example, the Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA) reports that "we do not agree with the supplemental draft EIS that EMPRESS-II will cause no impact to organisms of the Chesapeake Bay.' According to EPA's Feb. 27 letter, many questions EPA raised earlier about potential impacts of the project remain unanswered, and "statistics presented in the report do not clearly support the conclusions that were drawn.'

EPA says that studies involving birds"were too limited . . . to allow definite conclusions,' and that too few tests on oysters and crabs were conducted "to allow for any conclusions.' Some of the reports of tests on fish not only are confusing and contain discrepancies, according to the agency, but also "lack sufficient data points for reliable statistical analysis.' And it says it is possible that some boaters in the bay during EMP-simulation tests could experience a "brief painful shock.'

Both Maryland and Virginia, statesbordering the bay, strongly oppose siting the EMPRESS-II facility in the Chesapeake. Among Maryland's objections are complaints that: EMP effects on marine electronics have not been adequately assessed, "the Navy has prematurely discounted the effects of [EMPRESS-II's] operation on the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Station' 20 miles away, and the EIS fails to project chronic or long-term impacts of zapping estuarine life with EMPs. Among Virginia's concerns are potential hazards to humans, including cardiacpacemaker failures and electrical shocks.

Last week Jeremy Rifkin and his Washington,D.C.-based Foundation on Economic Trends joined the fray with the filing of a lawsuit asking the Defense Department to prepare a programmatic EIS on its entire EMP-simulation program. As a precedent, Rifkin cited a similar suit he won asking for an EIS on the Defense Department's biological weapons program (SN: 2/28/87, p.132). But in this suit, unlike the biological weapons suit, Rifkin is seeking to halt the EMP program until a program-wide EIS is completed.

The Navy says it is "inappropriate' tocomment on the lawsuit prior to its resolution, but hopes to decide whether to proceed with EMPRESS-II by late summer.
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Title Annotation:Electromagnetic Pulse Radiation Environment Simulator for Ships
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 21, 1987
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