Archive for the ‘Probability’ category

How much is that nuclear bomb in the window?

October 25, 2007

I scratch my head over the mainstream press when they debate whether Iran will get the bomb in two years or five years or 10 years. They’ve missed the big story: Nuclear bombs are available on the black market today!

The former Russian Security Council secretary, Alexander Lebed, said in an interview on 60 Minutes on September 9, 1997, that more than 100 suitcase nukes are missing from the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The situation is probably worse. In his book, The Al Qaeda Connection, Paul L. Williams speculates that even more nukes were at risk as they were transported from strategic sites to arsenals (arsenals that remain unsecured even to this day, see below):

“Yet the movement of the twenty-two thousand nuclear weapons occurred when everything in Russia was falling apart.…then secretary of defense Dick Cheney said that recovery of 90 percent of the nukes in Russia would represent ‘excellent performance’. Such an ‘excellent performance’ would mean that 220 weapons would have been lost, stolen, or otherwise unaccounted for.”

Mr. Williams continues at length documenting the history of the nuclear arms black market, including Al Qaeda’s attempts at purchasing them and their intent on using them. Two more passages from the book:

“In the first three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the black market in nuclear weapons and materials began to boom.”

“On October 11, 2001, George Tenet, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, met with President Bush to convey the news that at least two suitcase nukes had reached al Qaeda operatives within the United States… The news sent the president ‘through the roof’, prompting him to order his national security team to give nuclear terrorism priority over every other threat to America.”

Paul L. Williams is a journalist and formerly served as a consultant to the FBI and as an adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Scranton. Here’s the amazon link to this worthy book, which I’ll come back to at a later time.

Unfortunately, the unsecured Russian nuclear arsenals remain a big problem. I found little in the mainstream press on the subject so I dug up this press release from September 9, 2002, from California Congresswoman Ellen O. Tauscher of the House Armed Services Committee. Here’s an excerpt:

“Despite significant improvements, the most likely source for a terrorist to acquire nuclear materials is Russia. Everyone here knows that they have a vast nuclear complex with hundreds of tons of inadequately protected fissile material. We should assume that the world’s two most wanted men do, too. [This press release is from 2002 so the other most wanted man she’s referring to is Saddam Hussein.]

“Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorist organization have made numerous attempts to buy stolen nuclear material and to recruit scientists to help them make a bomb….

“Through American nonproliferation efforts, Russia has taken steps to safeguard its nuclear arsenal, but they still have an insufficient inventory system and only 40 percent of their arsenal is truly secured.

“According to recent U.S intelligence, there have been numerous attempts in the last decade to steal fissile material from facilities throughout the former Soviet Union.

“According to the National Intelligence Council’s latest report to Congress, the Russian warhead security system ‘may not be sufficient to meet today’s challenge of a knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist group.’

“According to the Energy Department, some 603 tons of weapons-usable nuclear material — enough to make over 40,000 nuclear devices — is located at 53 sites in the former Soviet Union that require security upgrades.

“To make matters worse, the recently-signed Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty will, ironically, make nuclear security problems worse because it does not commit either nation to actually destroying a single nuclear weapon. Instead, it will allow the United States and Russia to merely store weapons, like putting your car on blocks in a garage, leaving more nuclear parts in more locations where they will likely be less secure.

“The danger posed by unsecured nuclear material is not just a Russian problem. Enough civilian plutonium for many nuclear weapons exists in Germany, Belgium, Japan, and Switzerland, and some 20 tons of civilian highly enriched uranium exists at 345 operational and shut down civilian research facilities in 58 countries, sometimes in quantities large enough to make a bomb.”

Do you think this could get messy?

Radioactive “Dirty Bomb” Exercise

October 14, 2007

The Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) is running a dirty bomb preparedness exercise this week, Oct. 15-19, called TOPOFF 4 (Top Officials 4). It’ll take place in Portland, Phoenix and Guam and will involve many thousands of people from all levels of the public and private sectors. Here’s the TOPOFF 4 link in the DHS website, although there’s not much there.

Training for people directly involved in disaster prevention and relief is important but what about you and me? A first responder is probably not going to be available in the first two minutes after an explosion to help me decide if I should seek shelter or evacuate. Everybody needs preparation.

Interestingly, dirty bombs use conventional explosives so it may not be apparent that a bomb is dirty (i.e., radioactive). One thing you can do if you suspect radiation is to shed your clothes, which you should always do if you’re contaminated, and save them in a sealed plastic bag for testing.

How easy is it to obtain radioactive material to create a dirty bomb? Here’s something from the book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense under Clinton:

“The consensus in the national security community has long been that a dirty bomb attack is inevitable, indeed long overdue. The integration of various forms of radioactive material in modern life, from X-rays in dentists’ offices and hospitals to smoke detectors, has made control of such material impossible.”

This is a worthy book and I’ll come back to it at a later time. Here’s the amazon link.

After the Bomb

September 12, 2007

Click here for an interesting New York Times op-ed piece from 6/12/07, ”After the Bomb”, by three retired bigshots, a former defense secretary, a former assistant defense secretary, and a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

These gentlemen say the probability of a nuclear attack “is larger than it was five years ago.” They suggest the formation of a contingency plan for the inevitable chaos on the day after: “Sadly, it is time to consider such contingency planning. First and foremost, the scale of disaster would quickly overwhelm even the most prepared city and state governments.”

If a former secretary of defense and his colleagues are requesting the formation of a contingency plan, it makes me wonder, do we currently have a plan? Or maybe they think we have an inadequate plan. Or, maybe, because they think you can’t plan the day after, they feel a new plan should be devised to plan that the day after is unplannable. I’m getting the warm, radioactive fuzzies all over.

They give good survival info if you survive the blast. They bring up an important point, which is to know which way the wind is blowing to determine if you’re in the path of the fallout:

“Those lucky enough to be upwind could remain in their homes if they knew which way the fallout plume was blowing. (The federal government has the ability to determine that and to quickly broadcast the information.) But for those downwind and more than a few miles from ground zero, the best move would be to shelter in a basement for three days or so and only then leave the area. This is a hard truth to absorb, since we all would have a strong instinct to flee. But walking toward the suburbs or sitting in long traffic jams would directly expose people to radiation, which would be the most intense on the day after the bomb went off.”

More about determining wind direction in my next post.

They state there will be choices for individuals regarding what to do, which should take into consideration radiation exposure and the chance of long term health risks, specifically cancer:

“The choices would be determined by the dose of radiation they were willing to absorb. Except in the hot zone around the blast and a few miles downwind, even unsheltered people would not be exposed to enough radiation to make them die or even become sick. It would be enough only to raise their statistical chance of getting cancer later in life from 20 percent (the average chance we all have) to something greater — 21 percent, 22 percent, up to 30 percent at the maximum survivable exposure.”

Finally, they bring up a very interesting point. A nuclear attack in one city could inflict fear of more bombs in other cities and could incite the mass or partial evacuation of our major cities:

“Next comes the unpleasant fact that the first nuclear bomb may well not be the last. If terrorists manage to obtain a weapon, or the fissile material to make one (which fits into a small suitcase), who’s to say they wouldn’t have two or three more? And even if they had no more weapons, the terrorists would most likely claim that they did. So people in other cities would want to evacuate on the day after, or at least move their children to the countryside, as happened in England during World War II.”

I think this concept is a biggie in putting together a survival strategy: Everybody should be prepared to stay in their homes for an extended period of time without emerging; and everybody should be prepared to evacuate their homes immediately.

For some grim, depressing comments on this New York Times piece and what the day after would be like, click here for a column by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Although I agree that survivors in the immediate area will be too traumatized to act rational in the ensuing chaos, there will be a distance from the blast where people will not be as traumatized and will need to make immediate decisions. Common sense says that those who are prepared will fare best.

What’s a safe distance from a nuclear bomb? That will be the subject of numerous futures posts.