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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Suitcase nukes

Like everyone else rushing off the Washington subway one rush-hour morning, Ibrahim carried a small leather briefcase. No one paid him or his case much mind, except for the intern in the new Brooks Brothers suit who pushed past him on the escalator and banged his shin. "What do you have in there? Rocks?"
Ibrahim's training had taught him to ignore all provocations. You will see, he thought.

The escalator carried him up and out into the strong September sunlight. It was, as countless commentators would later say, a perfect day. As he walked from the Capitol South metro stop, he saw the Republican National Committee headquarters to his right. Two congressional office buildings loomed in front of him. Between the five-story structures, the U.S. Capitol dome winked in the sun. It was walled off in a mini-Green Zone of jersey barriers and armed police. He wouldn't trouble them. He was close enough.

He put the heavy case down on the sidewalk and pressed a sequence of buttons on what looked like standard attaché-case locks. It would be just a matter of seconds. When he thought he had waited long enough, he shouted in Arabic: "God is great!" He was too soon. Some passersby stared at him. Two-tenths of a second later, a nuclear explosion erased the entire scene. Birds were incinerated midflight. Nearly 100,000 people--lawmakers, judges, tourists--became superheated dust. Only raindrop-sized dollops of metal--their dental fillings--remained as proof of their existence. In tenths of a second--less time than the blink of a human eye--the 10-kiloton blast wave pushed down the Capitol (toppling the Indian statute known as "Freedom" at the dome's top), punched through the pillars of the U.S. Supreme Court, smashed down the three palatial Library of Congress buildings, and flattened the House and Senate office buildings.

The blast wave raced outward, decapitating the Washington Monument, incinerating the Smithsonian and its treasures, and reducing to rubble the White House and every office tower north to Dupont Circle and south to the Anacostia River. The secondary, or overpressure, wave jumped over the Potomac, spreading unstoppable fires to the Pentagon and Arlington, Va. Planes bound for Reagan and Dulles airports tumbled from the sky.

Tens of thousands were killed instantly. By nightfall, another 250,000 people were dying in overcrowded hospitals and impromptu emergency rooms set up in high school gymnasiums. Radiation poisoning would kill tens of thousands more in the decades to come. America's political, diplomatic and military leadership was simply wiped away. As the highest-ranking survivor, the agriculture secretary took charge. He moved the capital to Cheyenne, Wyo.
Yet thankfully this scenario is unlikely.

For now, suitcase-sized nuclear bombs remain in the realm of James Bond movies. Given the limitations of physics and engineering, no nation seems to have invested the time and money to make them. Both U.S. and the USSR built nuclear mines (as well as artillery shells), which were small but hardly portable--and all were dismantled by treaty by 2000. Alexander Lebed's claims and those of defector Stanislev Lunev were not based on direct observation. The one U.S. official who saw a small nuclear device said it was the size of three footlockers--hardly a suitcase. The desire to obliterate cities is portable--inside the heads of believers--while, thankfully, the nuclear devices to bring that about are not.
· Linked Article

Posted by Gooner | 11/02/2005 09:30:00 PM

5 Comments:

Blogger RightWingDeathBeast said...

Apparently the science in this article is wrong, even though it comes to the correct conclusion. This is an email printed at dissectleft.blogspot.com:

"One of my nuclear physicist readers has emailed me to offer the following technical correction to the "Suitcase nukes" story in the WSJ's Opinion Journal that I referred to below:

You are correct to note that the suitcase nukes story is bunk and that real suitcase nukes have an extremely limited shelf life - but the Opinion Journal article on why it is bunk gets the physics all wrong. A suitcase nuke has to make use of a small quantity of plutonium with isotopics that are referred to as "super-grade" well above the normal weapons grade level (super grade is around 97% Pu-239 as opposed to 93% Pu-239 for normal weapons grade) - the Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. The Opinion Journal's explanation of why the suitcase nukes have a limited shelf-life is simply ludicrous.

The real reason is that the nukes themselves operate at extremely fine tolerances and their yield is incredibly dependent upon the absolute perfection of their internal geometries. As the higher isotopes of the Pu decay (most importantly Pu-241 going to Am-241) the heat output of the Pu part of the core changes drastically and the geometry changes slightly - this makes the weapn prone to two problems that are referred to as spalling and jetting. As the weapon itself operates right on the limit of having too little material to give an actual nuclear explosion, any material lost to spalling or jetting will prevent the weapon from going off at all. The steps necessary to remake the suitcase weapon to get back its old yield are at least as complex as building it in the first place."

11/02/2005 11:18:00 PM  
Blogger Chefen said...

The Americans had a man-portable atomic demolition device once upon a time, for quickly removing bridges and ports etc. I think the lucky soldier would parachute in with it rather than hump it crosscountry and you definitely couldn't get it in a briefcase. But even so, a truck borne device is just as scary as a briefcase... you can't get into the centre of a busy pedestrian area, but you can up the yield for more effect. Even setting off a crap small nuke in a large city would have a massive psychological impact.

11/03/2005 03:23:00 AM  
Blogger Bernard Woolley said...

What about the nukes in the Russian embassy ehh? ZIt is believed that the Russians smuggled in nukes and constructed them in various buildings around the country during the cold war. They could be used to give "the element of surpise".

11/03/2005 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

Ahh the Spetznatz bombs? There were many rumours about the Russian military that turned out to be scams invented by the KGB/GRU. Rather like how evidence for Saddams WMD's were largely an invention of the intelligence services of Iraq. I remember the yearly Pentagon summary of the Soviet/Warsaw Pact threat which as it turned out was highly incorrect as it included numerous fake objects as real tanks, etc.

11/03/2005 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger Antarctic Lemur said...

Here's a bit on the Spetnatz - not sure if the site is 100% credible:
http://www.spetsnaz-gru.com/

11/03/2005 09:50:00 AM  

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