The Biggest Threat, Part II
WARNING: In all seriousness, some of the following is
incredibly depressing stuff. You may want to tune in next week
when I try and come up with something a bit lighter.
[If you''ve been watching ''24'' on television, however, it dovetails
Continuing with our look at the latest report from the Nuclear
Threat Initiative, the authors cite a comment once made by
former Senator Sam Nunn. “A gazelle running from a cheetah is
taking a step in the right direction,” but the question is whether
the steps being taken are fast enough to avoid a fatal catastrophe.
In the case of the weapons threat, the authors believe the answer
“Mother Nature has been both kind and cruel in setting the laws
of physics that frame the nuclear predicament the world faces.
Kind, in that the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons, highly
enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, do not occur in
significant quantities in nature, and are quite difficult to produce.
Making them is well beyond the plausible capabilities of terrorist
groups .Cruel, in that, while it is not easy to make a nuclear
bomb, it is not as difficult as many believe, once the needed
materials are in hand .And cruel, in that HEU and plutonium,
while radioactive, are not radioactive enough to make them
difficult to steal and carry away, or to make them easy to detect
when being smuggled across borders.
“ Detailed analysis of al Qaeda’s efforts suggests that, had they
not been deprived of their Afghanistan sanctuary, their quest for
a nuclear weapon might have succeeded within a few years – and
the danger that it could succeed elsewhere still remains.”
There are well-documented instances of al Qaeda attempting to
secure HEU since 1993, at least, though in many early instances
the group itself was scammed. Al Qaeda has attempted many
times to purchase materials in the former Soviet Union.
As far as the issue of controlling nuclear warheads and materials,
the authors write, “Many of the more than 130 HEU-fueled
research reactors around the world have little more security on-
site than a night watchman and a chain-link fence. At some
facilities where the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons
reside, there are literally no armed guards on duty; at some, there
is no security camera in the area where the material is stored,
and no detector at the door to sound an alarm if someone was
carrying out nuclear material in their briefcase; a few of these
facilities are so impoverished that they have dead rats floating in
the spent fuel pool.”
“Nuclear materials could readily be smuggled across U.S.
borders, or other nations’ borders .Today, none of the major
ports that ship cargo to the United States are equipped to inspect
that cargo for nuclear weapons or weapons material, and few of
the points of entry into the United States have an effective ability
to carry out routine searches for nuclear materials either .
“Those seeking material for a nuclear bomb will go wherever it
is easiest to steal, or buy it from anyone willing to sell. Thus
insecure nuclear bomb material anywhere is a threat to everyone,
everywhere. The world has the warning it needs to know what
needs to be done. Failing to act on this clear warning would
simply be irresponsible.”
The following is particularly depressing, but while I mentioned
the scenario of an explosion in New York’s Grand Central
Station in last week’s piece, the Nuclear Threat Initiative report
has far greater detail on a potential 10-kiloton nuclear bomb.
“Some 550,000 people work within a half-mile radius of the
station. This figure does not include the tourists and visitors
present on an average day, and hence is quite conservative.
Within this radius, the blast overpressure would be over five
pounds per square inch (psi), enough to destroy wood, brick, and
cinderblock buildings. The heat from the blast would be enough
to ignite paper and other combustibles throughout the area, and
to give everyone not protected by a building second degree burns
over much of their body. The possibility of a firestorm – a
coalescence of the many fires that would be set by the blast into a
raging storm of fire consuming everything and everyone within
it, as occurred at Hiroshima, Dresden, and Tokyo in World War
II – would be very real. The prompt radiation from the blast
would be enough to sicken everyone in this zone, and kill most
of those not protected by buildings. If the skyscrapers fell, those
inside would virtually all be killed. Falling would be a near
certainty for all the buildings within roughly 500 meters of the
blast (where the blast wave pressure would be over 15 psi, with
winds of 400 miles per hour), and a serious possibility for every
building in this half-mile zone, given the combination of blast
overpressure and fire. From the combination of these effects, the
vast majority of the people in this zone would die, as would a
substantial number of the people beyond. More than half a
million people would likely be killed by the immediate effects of
the explosion .
“In addition to those killed, there would be hundreds of
thousands of people injured – burned, battered, irradiated, hit by
flying glass and debris. Every bed in every hospital for a
hundred miles would not be remotely sufficient to handle the
casualties. Tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands,
of injured people would likely go without treatment for day, and
many would die.
“Such a blast would also draw thousands of tons of rock and
debris into the fireball, to be distributed as a cloud of lethal
radioactive fallout extending miles downwind from the blast. If
the blast occurred in late afternoon, with the wind headed north,
all of Manhattan that remained would have to be evacuated.
Depending on factors such as wind, weather, the effectiveness of
the evacuation, and the degree to which people were able to take
shelter from the radioactive fallout, tens to hundreds of
thousands more people downwind from the blast might suffer a
lingering death from radiation exposure .
The economic consequences would, of course, be staggering.
“The New York City Comptroller has estimated that the direct
cost of the September 11 attacks to the city of New York alone
was approximately $93 billion – measured only by the income
those killed would have received in the remainder of their lives,
the value of the property destroyed, and the first three years of
the reduction in economic output resulting from the destruction
in the city.”
Using a formula similar to that used for September 11 and
applying it to the Grand Central nuclear bomb example would
result in total lost future income of $875 billion, but the direct
costs would be well over $1 trillion, including potentially
hundreds of billions in cleanup costs. This figure is roughly 10%
of total gross domestic product in America.
“Dirty Bombs” vs. Nuclear Bombs
Both U.S. and British intelligence have reportedly concluded that
al Qaeda has succeeded in making a radiological “dirty bomb.”
But this is a far cry from an actual nuclear explosive. A dirty
bomb, instead, would be “more of a weapon of mass disruption
than a weapon of mass destruction, designed to sow panic and
chaos. By forcing the evacuation of many blocks of a city, it
could potentially cause billions of dollars in economic disruption,
and billions more in cleanup costs, but it would not kill tens of
thousands of people in a flash or obliterate a major section of a
city as an actual nuclear bomb could.
So what to do? The Nuclear Threat Initiative has a large number
of proposals, but in listing just the basics, you can see how
daunting the task will be let alone the fact that we need an
ongoing commitment from world leaders, and it’s this last point
that depresses me.
-Securing nuclear warheads and materials.
-Interdicting nuclear smuggling.
-Stabilizing employment for nuclear personnel.
-Monitoring stockpiles and reductions.
Lastly, in a totally separate report from the past few days,
Greenpeace in Russia, along with other activists there, recently
blasted the Russian government for what Greenpeace feels is a
huge crisis at the nuclear facilities in the country. And what
specifically may it be? Alcoholism and drug abuse among plant
[Source: Matthew Bunn, Anthony Wier, and John P. Holdren of
the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University, former Senator Sam Nunn, Senator Richard Lugar;
Hott Spotts will return next week.