Archive for November 2007

Power to save the world…in two ways

November 20, 2007

As it is with other important issues, the debate about nuclear power has always been mainly political and not technical. Along with the added benefits of nuclear energy and the drastically reduced risks of this energy source compared with conventional sources of energy, the problem of nuclear waste which has been the biggest bee in everyone’s bonnet has also been largely technically solved. The problem has been political; politicians and reactionary anti-nuclear environmentalists comparing nuclear power and nuclear weapons in the same breath and dissuading the nation from adopting the single most important source of power that can solve our energy crisis. Thus the pro-nuclear scientists and citizens who were arguing on technical grounds- a sound and honest strategy- nonetheless failed to see the political arguments that they would have to combat in order to get their message across. This is gradually changing now, and pro-nuclear citizens are also pointing out special interest and political strawmen in the anti-nuclear energy arguments. But there is still a long way to go in educating the general citizenry for whom the word “nuclear” is deeply rooted in fear and untrustworthiness.

I have just received my copy of a new book by Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy, which makes a passionate yet reasoned plea for nuclear energy. Cravens is a journalist who was previously part of the anti-nuclear movement. As she researched the topic however, she realised that almost all her fears about nuclear energy were misfounded or exaggerated. Touring various nuclear sites in the country, she reached the conclusion that nuclear energy is the single best solution for combating our global energy crisis. I will review the book as soon as I finish.

But I realised that this issue also relates to the issue of proliferation I was talking about in the last post. The idealist position advocates a little proliferation everywhere. A much safer and more rewarding view would be to advocate giving technology for nuclear power to energy-hungry nations. Not weapons but technology. In fact this was the central point suggested by the report filed by Robert Oppenheimer and others (The Acheson-Lilienthal report) after the end of World War 2. In its new incarnation, it seems it is being rewritten by a group that George Schultz and Senator Sam Nunn have set up. Sam Nunn is one of the world’s foremost experts and a longtime advocate of non-proliferation.

Details of the group’s report and plan have not yet been made public. But in a recent lecture recorded by CSPAN, historian Richard Rhodes said that Nunn has a plan in mind wherein every country in the world would have nuclear technology, but would be at least one year away from making a nuclear weapon. This is a sound and significant plan and sounds very similar in spirit to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Let an international body give countries nuclear material and technology, but only that which can be used for generating nuclear power. For example, material provided should be Uranium enriched only to reactor grade (4% U-235) as well as reactor grade Plutonium. Both these materials need to be significantly processed (Uranium to greater than 90% U-235) in order to make them weapons grade. In case of reactor grade Plutonium, the only way it can be used in a bomb is to use relatively large amounts of it. Any such diversion of material for weapons and the technological infrastructure needed to process it can be easily detected by a system of international monitoring, where countries have to keep detailed records of what goes in and comes out.

But for such a development to take place, countries first have to embrace nuclear energy as a solution to their energy problems. At some point or the other, every country in the world, whether fundamentalist or democratic, whether capitalist or socialist, is going to need a novel source of energy to replace fossil fuels, the deleterious effects from which affect everybody. It is only when they see great promise in nuclear power can they become amenable and even eager to partake of nuclear energy without wanting to build nuclear weapons.

Thus, the idealist position of providing nuclear technology to all nations in my opinion is intimately related to the desire of all nations to want that technology in the first place. Thus, the case for nuclear energy should become a mainstay of the case for non-proliferation of the kind that policy makers are trying to advocate. It is only by including the beneficial effects of nuclear energy in their proposals, that proponents of non-proliferation will make it easier for other countries to want to accept nuclear energy and give up nuclear weapons.

To proliferate or not?

November 20, 2007

One of the central questions debated among nuclear policy thinkers- perhaps the central question- is whether the world will be a safer place by allowing a little nuclear proliferation or by aiming for complete disarmament. This is essentially a debate between realists and idealists the way I see it. The idealist approach is not wrong. But the realist approach may be more feasible.

The realists say that nuclear weapons are here to stay. But they put great faith in the concept of deterrence and contend that if every nation in the world has a few nuclear weapons, all of them will be deterred and the threat of nuclear war will actually reduce. The realists also think that the potential threat from nuclear weapons can also limit the extent of conventional warfare.

The realist way of thinking is not new. After the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer, AEC Chairman David Lilienthal and Secretary of State Dean Acheson convened meetings to discuss and propose a daring plan called the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Their report started out by saying that nuclear technology can be obtained and used by anyone, no matter how much the United States would like to think of it as a secret. In such a scenario, it is better to provide the know-how to states and then have an international body keeping an official watch on these states so that such a situation is much safer than states developing such technology clandestinely. The existence of an international nuclear energy watchdog who kept a check on all states was key to the proposal.

The plan looked radical then; it would unfortunately be viewed as radical now. Naturally given the antagonistic political atmosphere of the times, the plan was not accepted without a great deal of modification by the administration and not surprisingly, promptly rejected by the Soviets.

The idealist way of thinking says that no matter if the realistic position works to some extent, it has fundamental flaws. The first flaw is that even if the probability of a nuclear war is extremely low, what if a madman decides to use his weapons? The very existence of nuclear weapons means that we will have to face the consequences of them being used, even if the probability of such a use is low. Secondly, the distribution of nuclear weapons does not exactly solve the problem, but pushes it under the rug. The peace such a situation entails can only be an uncertain, strained peace.

I have always been in two minds when it comes to this debate. I agree to a large extent that nuclear weapons are here to stay, and that it better to have an states possess them and then have an international body keep an official watch on them, rather than to have states clandestinely develop them. Right now, about 30 countries have the material and technology to build a crude nuclear bomb virtually with their bare hands. This knowledge cannot be taken away from them. I also think the realist position is strengthened by the existence of something that the original realists did not have to consider- nuclear terrorism. In the light of this plausible catastrophe, it becomes even more important to stop states from developing nuclear technology clandestinely and passing it to terrorists. We have seen several instances of such proliferation involving Iran, North Korea and especially Pakistan. Pakistani scientists have been known to have briefed Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri on WMDs. A. Q. Khan’s nuclear black market is well-known. From the realist point of view, it is far better to have nuclear material accounted for and officially distributed and tracked to stop it from falling into terrorist hands. The problem with the realist plan is that it depends on an unbiased system of international cooperation where countries don’t browbeat or lobby the international body to advance their interests. As we know from the examples of the UN and the IAEA, this seldom happens and more often than not such a policy results in the existence of certain nations who wield even bigger influence than the international body on key matters. Realism will also, just like the idealistic scenario described below, need the US and Russia to largely dismantle their nuclear fleet to level the playing field.

On the other hand, the idealistic position if it can be realised sounds blissful indeed. A world free of nuclear weapons. The idealists have a point when they say that only a world free of these weapons would have gotten completely rid of the possibility of them being used, no matter how small. Also, the idealistic scenario is not completely idealistic. After all, many countries have renounced their nuclear programs for various reasons. They have felt comfortable with their conventional forces, have decided to send out positive messages to other nations, have prospered in trade with nations that otherwise would not trade with them, and have obtained reassurances that the nuclear powers will help them out in case of an imagined emergency. The idealistic position seems to call the realistic position of assuming that nuclear weapons are going to be inevitable into serious doubt. The idealistic position also seems to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism.

For the idealist position to succeed, many problems would have to be solved. Treaties, viewed as unrealistic by many and condescendingly rejected by others, will have to be enforced. Countries will have to become much more cooperative. The illusion that only by having more nuclear weapons than your neighbor would make you safe needs to disappear. Most importantly, the two countries which have the largest numbers of weapons, the US and Russia, need to start on an expedited program of dismantling them. This program needs to have the urgency of the arms reductions programs in the late 80s. Such programs should aim to bring down the number of weapons on each side to perhaps a thousand, a goal that seems very far from the tens of thousands of weapons currently in their arsenals.

But the idealist position is on the table precisely because for many it does not sound idealistic. Former Secretary of State George Schulz and Senator Sam Nunn are drafting a radical proposal, perhaps similar to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The proposal necessarily needs to have a crash program for reducing US and Russian arsenals down in a few years. Then only will it gain enough weightage to dictate what to do in the rest of the world.

In the short term, the realist proposal seems to be feasible. Unfortunately, it will completely defeat the idealistic proposal of having a weapons-free world. I wish we could in fact implement the idealist plan. It might even be feasible to a limited sense. I think events in the next few years will dictate if it seems feasible or not. As of now, I am leaning more towards the realistic plan. In any case, international cooperation will be necessary, and the discussion of conditions for this to happen goes much beyond the limited issue of nuclear proliferation.

Apocalypse now?

November 18, 2007

This is a review I had written about two years ago on my old blog

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe- Graham Allison

For about 40$, says Graham Allison, former assistant secretary of defense, you can get two books from; ‘The Los Alamos Primer’ and ‘Atomic Energy for Military Purposes’. The first one is the set of lectures given by physicist Robert Serber, a student of Robert Oppenheimer, as a kind of indoctrination course to new recruits in the Manhattan Project. Classified top secret, they were declassified in the 1970s. The second book is written by Henry DeWolf Smyth, chairman of the physics department at Princeton in the 1940s. The book was an early attempt to demystify the bomb and atomic energy for the public, and was published right after the war in 1946. Allison says that while both books may not actually tell you how to build an atomic bomb, they certainly detail the obstacles faced by scientist and engineers, and explain basic bomb physics and engineering that has to be understood at a fundamental level for pursuing atomic weapons research. Anyone who actually wants to build an atomic bomb would almost certainly want to look at these two at least as a preliminary starting point.

Incidentally, I have copies of both books right now in the bookshelf in front of me. More easily, both can be issued from hundreds of public and university libraries in the US and around the world. Both are completely in the public domain. I first obtained Smyth’s book as a summer student at the Indian Institute of Science in 2002. I was wandering about dark, decrepit, and ghostly library stacks, when I chanced upon the book. It looked like it had seen more than its share of library interiors. I promptly browsed it, checked it out, and photocopied it to take back a copy to Pune. The Los Alamos Primer is even easier to obtain. It’s right here, at this website, as a PDF document (3.1 MB). Let me add two more books which I also have, again published a long time back; Samuel Glasstone’s ‘Sourcebook on Atomic Energy’; an extraordinary reference book for basic nuclear properties and information, involving isotopes, reactors, nuclear reactions etc., and ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’; a survey of major radiation, shock wave, and thermal effects of atomic weapons. Both are available in most libraries around the world. I could cite a couple more.

The point is that if I or anybody could obtain these books so easily, how hard would it be for a terrorist or terrorist state to build a nuclear bomb based completely on declassified materials in the public domain? Not hard at all, says Allison, at least if someone wants to build a crude bomb that would incur ‘only’ a few thousand casualties, instead of the ‘usual’ hundreds of thousands or millions that a failsafe, sophisticated nuclear bomb would bring about. The first thing to do after reading Allison’s book on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, is to get the notion of the ‘secret’ of the atomic bomb out of our mind. There is no such thing (More on this later). A few instances should serve to belabour this point:

1. In 1964, the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California recruited three brand new physics post-docs with no knowledge of nuclear physics, for a special project. Lab personnel gave these post-docs access to basic materials and nuclear physics and bomb related information available in the public domain. Working with this declassified information, these neophytes with no prior knowledge of weapons design, were able to come up with a workable implosion design for a nuclear weapon in less than six months. It was all the more remarkable that they worked on the implosion design, much more difficult to achieve than the ‘gun type’ bomb that was used on Hiroshima. The experiment, then secret, was dubbed the ‘Nth country’ experiment, to determine how fast some country (the ‘Nth’ one) could actually build an atomic weapon.

2. John Philips was a mere undergraduate at Princeton in 1977. Of his own volition, he undertook the same project as the above post-docs. This time, he had no government support, only a small budget allocated for this project, of the magnitude that would be allocated to any other student working on any other project. This ‘project’ was actually his undergraduate thesis. Philips had no problem procuring every basic fact necessary for constructing an implosion bomb. When he called the Du Pont company regarding information about the ‘shaped’ explosive charges that are crucial for implosion bombs, the company official gave to him exactly the same information and material that the company had provided to national labs working on nuclear weapons. In a semester’s time, Philips had put together a design for a working atomic bomb. While not actually tested, members of the Princeton physics department who had worked on the Manhattan Project testified that the bomb would work if detonated.

3. In 1979, Progressive magazine, against much government pressure and legislation, was able to publish an article which talked in detail about the design and workings of the H bomb, probably the best kept military secret in the world. This article is also available online in PDF format, right here (3.5 MB).

These events took place in the 1960s and 70s. Now, things would be even more easy, with much more information having been declassified, especially under the Freedom of Information Act. The bombs conceived by the Nth country post-docs and Philips may not have been sleek and perfect. But their yield would undeniably have been a few kilotons. As Allison notes, even a one-kiloton bomb detonated in Times Square in New York city in the middle of the day would kill a few hundreds of thousands of people. So the point is that it is not difficult for terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons. It’s almost a trivial point. However, the point becomes even more trivial, because in the light of the well-known nuclear black market scandals of the last decade (like the A Q Khan debacle), it has been made clear that terrorists would never go to the trouble of making nuclear material. They will just buy it.

Graham Allison sounds like an alarmist. He says that if things continue on their present course, it is more likely than not that there will be a nuclear attack on US soil in the next ten years. It does not matter what kind of attack it is. Maybe it will be an impossible logistical scenario for terrorists to detonate thermonuclear weapons in the middle of Manhattan, but that does not matter. Even if terrorists detonate a ‘fizzle’- a bomb partially debilitated from years of storage and wear, or from faulty design- the yield would still be enough to cause a serious number of casualties. An even easier way is to explode a ‘dirty bomb’, a package of conventional explosives with Plutonium added in for good measure. One such bomb will disperse its radioactive material far enough for a sickeningly large people to die of radiation poisoning. In fact Allison wonders how such an attack has not already taken place. Admittedly Allison does scare you sometimes. But there’s good reason. It’s better to face the facts, especially facts enumerated by someone as authoritative as Allison, in his crisp and readable style, that are always substantiated with accounts of known events. So Allison is not an alarmist but actually a sensible realist. He should know; he served as assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans under Bill Clinton, and is a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government as a leading American expert on nuclear weapons and proliferation.

Allison’s book is divided into two parts. In the first part, he talks about who could launch a nuclear attack, where they could obtain the material from, and how they could do it. In the second, he talks about how such an attack can be deterred. Each section is supported by a wealth of data. Unfortunately, as Allison points out, it is all too easy for terrorists to lay their hands on nuclear material. The grotesque nuclear legacy bequeathed to the world by the US and the former Soviet Union ensures that there’s more than sufficient material flowing around, which opportunists or disgruntled personnel could easily sell to terrorists, and they already have. The Soviet Union, after it’s downfall, became a veritable breeding ground for potential nuclear thieves, when its absurdly large nuclear arsenal suddenly became vulnerable to theft. In many cases, nuclear material was protected by just a padlock. In many cases, not at all. As the new government desperately tried to secure vulnerable material and weapons with assistance from the US in a short period of time, the sheer number of warheads made such a procedure imperfect in its success. Their number? Roughly 22,000. The problem is summed up in Dick Cheney’s words, that even if 99% of all weapons are secured- a fantastic achievement- still, more than 200 weapons remain vulnerable to theft. In Allison’s opinion, it’s most likely that they have already been stolen, and maybe ‘cannibalized’ and taken apart, thus making their precious cargo free to flow through the black market. Who could be interested in buying this cargo of death? Another trivial question with an obvious answer. Given the events of the past decade, there are an inconceivably large number of people and countries who would be interested in launching a nuclear attack against the US or its allies. Allison lists Al-Quaeda, Hezbollah, Chechen rebels and North Korea, but there many potential opportunists. Unfortunately, many of them are faceless and the weapons they would engender would carry no address labels. Thus, the salient feature of Cold War ‘peacekeeping’, deterrence, goes down the drain. If you don’t know who is going to do it, how can you deter them and keep them at bay through threat of retaliation?

Once terrorists acquire a nuclear weapon of any kind, from any one of thousands of sources, Allison demonstrates that the US border is anything but secure, and that there are any number of entry points that could serve to get such material into the country. An alarmingly large number of shipped containers are never opened by customs (unlike the detailed passenger baggage checks at airports), and Allison contends that current X-ray machines and other protocols are unable to detect the presence of Uranium 238, which has a weak radioactive signature. As is well known, X-ray machines usually detect only the two dimensional shape of an object (which is why they checked my Tuna cans last year, based on their suspicious cylindrical shape in my bag). Allison’s point is made clear when he cites the staged shipment of Uranium 238 by an ABC film crew from Indonesia in 2003, that was carried out to reinforce the point of vulnerability. The shipment was made through the most innocuous channels; it was packaged in regular cargo boxes in Indonesia, and then it was shipped through US borders without the shipping agent (such as FedEX) asking a single question to the crew about the details of the shipment. The shipment successfully made it through US customs, and the ABC crew filmed the unpacking of the Uranium in a Los Angeles warehouse. To say the least, it was an embarrassing moment for the administration. However, since then, security protocols for shipped cargo haven’t significantly improved. Everywhere across US borders- Mexico, Washington State, Florida, Michigan- there is no foolproof system that will detect nuclear material in transported cargo. Agents patrolling these borders sometimes are allocated a few miles of border per agent, making it impossible for them to check every border point all the time. Cases of smugglers being caught appear in the press all the time. It is unnerving to imagine the number that haven’t been caught. Allison says that if one wanted to go boating on the Great Lakes, at some places, there is absolutely no physical landmark, let alone security measure, separating one country from another! In a nutshell then, it is not difficult for terrorists to acquire nuclear material and smuggle it across US borders. Once inside, it is impossible to predict when and where and in what form they can use it. The point I think about, is that how much security is enough? For one thing, the people of the most libertarian nation in the world are already complaining about the curtailment of their freedom and the constant security checks they have to undergo. More security is simply going to lead to more suffocation of privileges and more desperation induced in turn. Moreover, it seems to be very difficult even with all that security to not be fooled by false positives; Allison cites a case of a man in a New York subway, who triggered radiation sensors in the train. Within minutes, he was surrounded by FBI agents and police officers in a classic “Drop your weapon!” movie scenario. It turned out that the radioactive Iodine that he had consumed for thyroid disease, had triggered the alarm. Unless we tackle the roots of terrorism, increased security is simply going to cause other problems, and it still may never be enough.

With such a somber background, Allison then proceeds to expound upon measures to prevent such horrendous acts from taking place. Interestingly and also not very surprisingly, his account goes much beyond nuclear terrorism, and he talks about a sober and strong US foreign policy that would be essential to accomplish this. He cites three ‘no’s’ that we need to adhere to in order to stop nuclear proliferation; no loose nuclear weapons, no new nuclear weapons, and no new nuclear weapons states. Allison makes it clear that the US has to play a complex game of carrots and sticks with would-be nuclear states and governments. Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea top the list of states that it would have to contend with. Allison’s stance toward North Korea is clear; stop weapons development or face precision bombing of your facilities. It’s probably the only time in the book that I felt this otherwise mild sounding Democrat get belligerent. For states to comply, the US should be ready to extent generous economic and technological benefits to them. In the last section, Allison talks about conducting a humble foreign policy, about international cooperation, and the cessation of unilateral measures that the US has always seemed to believe in. He talks about securing the aid of local intelligence forces in various states, of bartering information with local political leaders, and combined action against the miscreants. Clearly, no nation who looks upon the US as a bully will readily engage in such joint activities. It’s interesting how the solution of so many large scale problems always involves a mild and generous US foreign policy as a major component. Shouldn’t they really start listening now? Allison cites the procrastination towards nuclear proliferation that the administration exhibited in the aftermath of 9/11, with their distracting focus on Iraq. He says that valuable time was given to North Korea and Iran to nourish their nuclear arsenals because the US made the world divert its attention towards Iraq.

Allison’s book is sobering. I believe what he says, because the sheer number of loose nuclear weapons that have to be secured makes it very likely that at least a few of them will be in the wrong hands. Also, it is very easy for terrorists to cause SOME nuclear incident to happen; because even a fizzled bomb or a dirty bomb would have tragic consequences, unfortunately it’s too damn easy for them to achieve SOMETHING that will cause a loss of life. Political leaders like to point out details about weapons design that are still assuredly secret. But the point is that terrorists don’t NEED those details to simply build a crude bomb. The inclusion of maverick suicide bombers among their ranks makes their task even easier. Allison’s book gives you a feeling that nuclear terrorism is like natural disasters, something that you are going to have to live with, and simply try to mitigate. His measures, although cogent, will have to be acted upon in order to have effect. Securing nuclear weapons, disallowing states to process uranium or plutonium, and putting constant pressure on non-nuclear states to prevent them from going nuclear; all of these are big enterprises. They involve cooperative dedication by political leaders, and most importantly, international cooperation. Given the pall of bureaucracy that has descended on every aspect of government everywhere in the world, this surely is not going to happen in the near future. But there have been a few success stories, most notably the nuclear disarmament of Libya. There is always hope. But I think most importantly, again and again, we are led to the singular questions about world peace that will continue to haunt us unless we come together. Preventing nuclear terrorism will finally involve preventing terrorism. And preventing terrorism is really a profound problem, that involves mitigating religious strife, eradicating poverty, and liberating women. It is paradoxical that the ultimate solutions for preventing nuclear terrorism have nothing to do with nuclear weapons or terrorism at all. They again have to do with the age old question of conforming to the ideal of there being equality in the world. It takes much more conviction for achieving that than for preventing nuclear terrorism. For doing that, one thing seems to be sure: the policy of “You are either with us or against us” is surely not going to work…

Nuclear fears at climate change dinners

November 14, 2007

Over the last two semesters, I have attended four dinners on climate change and policy organised by our university. The speakers were quite interesting and focused on different aspects of the issue; beginnning with the science, the psychology of inertia against climate change, the health impacts of climate change including those on mental health, the legal issues involved in climate change legislation, the thrust by (a frustratingly low number of corporations) towards sustainable technologies, and the possible uniting of people of faith and those who do not have religious faith in fighting climate change as a common cause. There was also a session on alternative technologies.

While all of the people at the dinners were smart, articulate, responsible and congenial, I found some rather frustrating if polite opposition to nuclear energy among all of them. Reactions ranged from “What do you do with all that plutonium?” to “Even if coal kills more people, I am just less comfortable about things that I cannot see (like radiation)”. Needless to say, these reactions left me disconcerted, especially because they came from intelligent people. While not all of them are unfounded, they demonstrate some rather simplistic thinking. We have to dispel such doubts from these people’s minds, because we need the likes of them on board to push advocacy of nuclear energy. I am not sure what we can do publicly to increase awareness among such people. The problem as I have said before is that unfortunately this country has a large burden of history involving nuclear weapons that makes a fresh and sprightly look at nuclear energy much more difficult than a similar look at biofuel and solar power, which sounds cooler to many. However, there are always some central points that are common to doubts about nuclear energy in people’s minds, and I think everybody needs to keep reminding people about addressing them:

1. Waste: NOT largely a technical issue, but a political one. Dangerous precisely because of lack of processing.
2. Chernobyl and TMI: Chernobyl an abomination and anomaly on the industry, could never happen here. TMI did not directly kill anyone, and both these accidents killed way lesser people than industrial pollution.
3. Terrorism: Concerns addressed before. Hard to steal nuclear material. No fly zones around nuclear reactors. Much more likely for terrorists to choose much simpler methods.
4. Radiation: Much much less dangerous than many other things in daily lives…including falling vending machines.

One more Soviet Spy

November 13, 2007

George Koval at Oak Ridge. Wow. This sounds amazing, but I would hold out on my opinion until historians judge the veracity and value of Koval’s espionage attempts. I don’t recall any mention of Koval in Richard Rhodes’s meticulous and fascinating account of Soviet espionage in “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”.

Reykjavik summit video

November 10, 2007

In my review of Richard Rhodes’s new book, I had mentioned his lengthy discussion of the key Reykjavik summit, where great opportunities for nuclear arms reduction were lost largely due to the obdurate refusal of Ronald Reagan and his hardline advisors (Perle, Nitze) in agreeing to forgo the grandiose dream of Star Wars. I found the BBC news report for that day, October 12, 1986, which has a reasonably good video on the failed negotiations.

The Traffic Light

November 5, 2007

Part of the reason I made the trip to London in September was a single goal; to stand at a particular traffic light near the British Museum and take a photo of myself standing there. Later when I told people about the reason, most thought it was silly, and perhaps it was. But all of us have a romanticised impression of certain people, places and events in our mind which other people could find silly. In this particular case, the person, place and event involved were profound even if little known to the general public. In fact this light was so important for me that I had made up my mind to visit London once in my lifetime for the sole purpose of standing at the light, if not for anything else. What was so special about this traffic light?

It was 1933. Adolf Hitler had come to power in January, The Depression was raging and the future looked bleak to many. On the morning of September 12, 1933, on a miserable, wet, quintessentially English autumn day, at the intersection where Russell Square meets Southampton Row, Leó Szilárd waited irritably at a traffic light waiting for it to change from red to green. He had just attended a lecture by the great English physicist Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford, known to many as the father of nuclear physics, was discussing the newly prophesied release of energy from atoms, most notably by science-fiction pioneer H G Wells in his book The World Set Free. In his baritone voice, Rutherford, acknowledged master of the atomic domain, dismissed this fanciful idea as nonsense. Any thought of releasing the energy locked in atoms, he said, was “moonshine”.

Szilárd was irritated by this flippant repudiation. Accomplished as he was, how could even the great Lord Rutherford know what the future held in store? Szilárd, peripatetic Hungarian genius, imperious habitué of hotel lobbies, soothsayer without peer among scientists, had himself thought deeply about nuclear matters before, most often during his extended morning bathtub ablutions. Now waiting for the light to change, Szilárd pondered Rutherford’s words…I will let the acclaimed nuclear historian Richard Rhodes do the talking here. It was the riveting description of this event in Rhodes’s magnificent book that engraved it in my mind like nothing else:

“In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come”

Time cracked open indeed. What Szilard realised as he stepped off that curb, was that if we found an element that when bombarded by one neutron would release two neutrons, it could lead to a chain reaction that could possibly release vast amounts of energy. Leo Szilárd had discovered the nuclear chain reaction before anyone else, six years before the discovery of nulcear fission and any inkling that anyone could have had about the release of atomic energy, let alone the woeful apocalyptic future that would await the world because of its release.

I first read Rhodes’s book in 2000. The book begins with this story. The description is so riveting, the tale so profound and evocative, the person so singular and the implications so prophetic, that I resolved to visit Szilárd’s traffic light, my traffic light, even if I had to once make a trip to London for just that. Since then, the event has been etched in my mind like words in red hot steel. Seven years later I got a chance.

The traffic light itself is completely non-descript, standing among dozens of other non-descript lights. We almost missed it; as I mused aloud about my great disappointment to my friend in a cafe and wished I had a map, a Spanish tourist sitting at the next table saved my life and procured one. The intersection was there. We had missed it by a block. Back we went and indeed there it was, with not an indication that a famous and prophetic physicist had seen into the future at that light some 75 years ago.

As it turned out at the time, Szilárd’s choice for the element he was thinking about turned out to be wrong. Nuclear fission would be discovered only six years later in Germany after a series of close misses in Italy and France. But Leo Szilárd went down in history as the man who saw death before anyone else, a glimpse into mankind’s Faustian pact with fate, the shape of things to come.

Ironically, when the first atomic bomb test was conducted in the New Mexico desert in the deathly stillness of the morning, in the midst of war and hope, the flash was so bright that it would have been seen reflected off the moon. It was, literally, “moonshine”. The rest was history.

But I lived one of my dreams that day at that traffic light in London. Szilárd’s traffic light. My traffic light.

Nuclear terrorism’s unheeded assumptions?

November 4, 2007

Nuclear terrorism forms an important part of the armamentarium of one of the Bush administration’s favourite pastimes- threat inflation. While it is true that the potential damage that terrorists could cause with even a 1 kT nuclear weapon is tremendous (Times Square NYC, noon on a weekday), there are many very realistic obstacles they need to overcome before they can acquire, process, build, transport and use any kind of a nuclear weapon.

The more realistic fear that governments and the public have is about dirty bombs, explosives packaged together with low-tech dispersive radioactive material that would largely circumvent the need to achieve the myriad steps needed to be in charge of a bonafide atomic device.

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley challenges two assumptions made by proponents of a nuclear terrorist attack scenario: access to knowledge and the existence of a nuclear black market (exemplified by black market czar Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan). Gormley correctly tackles the myth of easy access to nuclear material and knowledge and identifies the slip between the cup and the lip- from knowledge to working product.

She also questions the ease of facilitation of trade in the nuclear black market and doubts the existence of a dedicated clientele, an essential feature of any black market. The clientele should also have the understanding and sophistication to purchase and process nuclear material (In the early days of Al Qaeda, Bin Laden was had when someone sold him mercuric oxide as yellowcake).

Lastly, she questions the nature of materials that have been implicated in nuclear smuggling until now, most of which included depleted uranium and isotopes like Osmium 167, too ineffectual in a dirty bomb, let alone a weapon.

But I think she is missing out on three other important isotopes which are widespread products of research reactors, large scale reactors as well as medical research reactors- Iodine 131, Cesium 137 and Strontium 90. Out of these, Iodine 131 can be absorbed by the thyroid gland and leads to thyroid cancer, but its effects can be thwarted rather easily by ingesting tablets made of normal non-radioactive iodine, provided such tablets are easily available (the slow dissemination of these tablets was partly responsible for the large number of deaths from Chernobyl). Cs 137 and Sr 90 pose more serious problems, and I would think that more than anything else they would be choice materials for a dirty bomb. Both isotopes seem to strike the golden mean for radioactive lethality, possessing half-lives of 30 years and 28 years respectively; long enough to compare to a human life span, and short enough to be intensely radioactive. Moreoever, both elements chemically resemble two key elements in the human body. Cs 137 behaves somewhat like potassium and distributes throughout body fluids and compartments, whereas Sr 90 resembles calcium and deposits in bones, greatly increasing the risk of bone cancer. Both elements if ingested in reasonable amounts will pose almost irreparable risk and cause permanent damage.

I certainly don’t think one should be immediately paranoid about these isotopes, but it is clear that if they wanted to, terrorists could steal them from multiple sources. I would think that any perceived scenario involving terrorists and dirty bombs should include discussion of these three isotopes, which because of their ease of access and purity are in some ways much more lethal than uranium or plutonium.