Apocalypse now?

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 Amazon.com; ‘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…

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2 Comments »

  1. 1

    Good post. I have argued than any nation that has a University where physics and engineering are taught, a modest industrial basis, and a willingness to invest a modest amount of money in the project, can build a nuclear bomb. One of the arguments aginst building light water reactors in the United States is that it will lead to proliferation. But it would be far simpler and cost a whole lot less money to build a simple graphite pile. Reactor grade plutonium is really not a good proliferation too. But the nearly pure Pu239, that you can extract from furing natural uranium in a graphite pile is going to be much easier to work with. No one has ever built a nuclear weapon with reactor grade plutonium, despite the large amount of it in spent nuclear fuel. On the other hand, a CANDU reactor can give you bomb grade Plutonium.

  2. 2
    nucleardreams Says:

    You might be interested then in (or might have already read)

    “The Explosive Properties of Reactor-Grade Plutonium” by J. Carson Mark
    http://www.princeton.edu/~globsec/publications/pdf/4_1Mark.pdf

    It seems that right now, only India and Canada have exclusively heavy water reactors, which seems to be largely a historical accident.


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