But What If The Terrorists Had A Nuclear Bomb?

Last Friday, I figured it was just a matter of time before someone asks “But what if the Paris attackers had a nuclear weapon?” The first showed up last night. Before the attacks, another article appeared on nuclear smuggling, of which much was made by the usual suspects.

The probability of terrorists having fission weapons or RDDs is vanishingly small. The consequences could be enormous in the case of a fission weapon, much less in the case of an RDD. The fear stoked by repeated articles of this type would be the greatest consequence of an RDD.

A number of people at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons spread fearful images: cities annihilated or paralyzed, tens of thousands dead. I sympathize with the ideal of eliminating nuclear weapons, but I question whether fear and exaggeration are the way to sell that ideal. I’d rather work from the facts and slog through the difficult actions that will be needed to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Although I share their goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, I cannot ally myself with those groups for a number of reasons. First, they ignore the realities of physically dealing with those weapons taken out of service. Second, they ignore the international events that drive the perceived need for nuclear weapons. Third, their messaging is all wrong, starting with that fear.

Even if all nuclear nations decided to eliminate nuclear weapons this afternoon, those very physical objects, something like 17,000 of them, would still exist. They contain dangerous materials that need to be handled safely, which means that physically eliminating them will take some time. The facilities in which they are now decommissioned are aging and overloaded with work. But the NGOs argue for closing down those facilities and against budgets for improving them.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent rattling of nukes, the US can’t unilaterally say we’re removing nuclear weapons from our arsenal. It’s nice to dream of a bold move that is reciprocated by Russia, but it’s hard to believe that any of that can happen right now. The downside of such a move by the United States, both domestically and geopolitically, is much to large for any president to take it.

Fear in messaging is manipulative and develops an attitude of helplessness in the people who receive it. It’s realistic to recognize the enormous destructiveness of nuclear weapons and agree that eliminating them from our future would be a good thing. Fearing that one’s city may be nuked at any time seems less conducive to taking action towards eliminating them. I would like to see the NGOs do some serious studies of what it will take to deal with the weapons taken out of service and then write and support legislation for those measures. A few successes of that kind might do a lot more to gain supporters.


Focus on Terrorists

The focus on terrorist RDDs and real-thing fission weapons doesn’t make much sense in relation to historical terrorist activity. Terrorists want the simplest way to get the greatest effect. Kalashnikovs and explosive vests worked quite well in Paris. Or boxcutters for 9/11.

From J. M. Berger, an expert on terrorism:

Al Qaeda’s love of elegance was a distraction.

Terrorism is inherently improvisational.

Occasionally terror groups discuss nuclear weapons internally or threaten vague horrors. None I am aware of has shown any real intention (acquiring materials, for example) of building an RDD or fission weapon. Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Zimmerman figured up what it would take for a terror group to build a fission weapon: at least 19 people. Since current estimates for the Paris attacks are as high as 20, the number to build a fission weapon is likely higher, and they would include some very specific kinds of expertise. Learning to handle a gun is much easier.

Building an RDD would require less than a fission weapon, but it still needs specialized materials. International programs have been collecting the radioactive sources that would make the best RDDs. Hospitals are turning to accelerators to eliminate the radioactive sources that could be used. Although recent articles have mentioned depleted (or even enriched) uranium as a possible RDD material, neither is radioactive enough to be a threat. That’s another problem: reporters often don’t understand what they are writing about and err on the side of sensationalism.

Material for a fission weapon has always been hard to obtain. Immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were concerns about the security of materials. The program sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, authors of the latest article, has locked down much of that material. Most egregiously, chunks of plutonium metal were scattered across the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, but they have been cleaned up. During the decade they lay out on the steppe, nobody picked them up. The area is now patrolled by drones.


No Customers

Douglas Birch and Jeffrey Smith have been working hard on tracking down samples of enriched uranium in Moldova. Their headline writer is good at getting clicks, not so much on representing what is in the article, which contains a fair bit of threat inflation.

This article focuses on enriched uranium, from which a fission bomb might be made. The material seized in Moldava was similar to two other seizures – in Bulgaria in May 1999 and in Paris in July 2001. In all three cases, the sellers claimed to have a larger cache of material, which Birch and Smith say “is considered credible by experts who have studied the three incidents.” Middlemen have been caught and prosecuted, but whoever has whatever cache there may be remains unknown. Analysis of the samples points to the Mayak Production Association in Ozersk, one of Russia’s major nuclear processing centers, as the origin of the material.

In all three cases, granular uranium metal contained in glass ampoules was packed in a lead container. The ampoules were typical of samples taken from production runs. This is a routine procedure, so that if something is found to be wrong with material from a run, engineers can go back to the sample and check it out. A vacuum system is necessary for packing the ampoule. The sample is put in a test-tube-shaped container that is necked down at one point. Once the sample is in the container and the system pumped out, a glassblowing torch is used to seal it at the narrow point. It’s a common technique; I have done it for samples of plant pigments.

The Bulgarian sample was determined to have been packed in late 1993. That, and the requirement for a vacuum system, means that it was probably packed at Mayak, not taken from a larger amount by the smugglers. As Matthew Bunn was quoted in the article, it’s possible that someone went into the sample storage room and swept a number of ampoules into a briefcase.

Or put one in his pocket every day and took it home. We don’t know how many ampoules were taken, unless there is a classified accounting. Each ampoule contains maybe ten or twenty grams. The 10 kilograms that the article says are needed for a sophisticated bomb design would require 500 to 1000 of those ampoules. Which would have to be opened, the material melted and machined into shape, and conventional explosives, detonators, and timers would have to be added very precisely.

Birch and Smith repeat previous descriptions of other seizures, which gives the impression of large amounts of uranium available. They give no basis for believing there is a cache of material. From this article, it is just as believable that the three ampoules from Mayak are all anyone had.

For sixteen years, there has been no buyer. The man captured in Bulgaria was unsuccessfully seeking a buyer. For approximately the same amount of time, plutonium was lying around for the picking up – and there were scavengers pulling metal wire out of the ground at Semipalatinsk. Is it possible that terrorists aren’t that interested in a fission weapon? Neither a fission weapon nor an RDD has been detonated in the almost two and a half decades since the Soviet Union broke up. Nor have parts been found in the possession of terrorist groups. Drawings were found in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, but they were sketches only, like the ones you might see in a physics student’s imaginative notes.

Birch and Smith make much of unspecified worries on the part of officials quoted anonymously. They also frame a lack of knowledge about Russian nuclear materials in the scariest way possible: We don’t know that there isn’t an immense stock out there somewhere, just waiting for the right terrorist buyer. That lack of knowledge could equally be framed: we don’t know that any such stock exists. You can make whatever you want out of what you don’t know.


The Nuclear Security Summit

President Obama has prioritized securing nuclear materials and has sponsored Nuclear Security Summits to bring nations together to improve methods of securing those materials. Yesterday’s article, by Sam Nunn, Richard Lugar, and Des Browne, focuses on those programs. Unfortunately, the article, following Obama’s lead, focuses on the terrorist threat. We can expect to see satellite articles from the NGOs touting their “Be very afraid” message.

It is a good idea to secure sources and other nuclear materials. When I came back in 1998 from seeing how the Soviets had tossed neutron sources around like used popcorn boxes, I tried to push for more attention to the problem. A few people were working on it at the time, but it was years before funding increased. The Nuclear Security Summit is a good idea to spread the word and share best practices.

The article vaguely mentions 1,800 metric tons of “weapons-usable materials,” 17% of which are civilian materials and 83% are military. What they are talking about is all the fissile materials in the world. Alex Wellerstein developed a nice graphic (small version at top) in this article to show how much that is. But some is in reactors, some in bombs, and most of it is in the hands of governments. Most of it is in forms very difficult to steal. Perhaps informing us of the relative dangers of how much of this total of world fissile material might be more helpful than implying that there are 1,800 metric tons (“tens of thousands of nuclear weapons”) just lying around waiting for the next terrorist to pick up.


Because of initiatives led by Nunn, Lugar, and Obama, nuclear materials are locked down tighter than they ever have been, and continuing attention at Nuclear Security Summits helps maintain and improve vigilance. International police forces have intercepted material that people have attempted to sell, only some of which has been fissile material. There is no evidence that a terrorist has bought any or made parts of a fission weapon or RDD. Terrorists typically stick with easily available weapons. Should we do what we can to make sure nuclear materials remain and are made further secure? Certainly. Should those who know better spread fear? I don’t think so.


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