The myth of "suitcase nukes."
In the Wall Street Journal, Richard Miniter "debunks" the myth of "suitcase nukes"
. Miniter takes a goodly amount of column inches to claim that man-portable nuclear devices capable of causing huge amounts of destruction do not exist, and never have. On the surface, his assessment looks credible. But, were he still alive
, Dr. Theodore Taylor might disagree
The Curve of Binding Energy, by John McPhee, was written in 1973, 32 years ago. The book is an exploration of Taylor's world, history and views on the potential for nuclear terroristic acts. Taylor designed nuclear bombs for a living. In Curve, McPhee explores with Taylor a pretty specific scenario: is it possible for a small group (or even one man working alone) to assemble and detonate a nuclear bomb that is man-portable and powerful enough to knock down one tower of the then-new World Trade Center? In following this scenario, they draw only on publicly available documents and information.
The conclusion? It is possible, within the skillset of a moderately technically proficient actor and would cost around $5000 (in 1973 dollars, probably between $20,000 and $40,000 today) for everything but the required 5 Kg of Plutonium. That material would have to be stolen, because it's not available on the open market.
The target scenario is eerie enough, given what has happened to the WTC in the intervening years. Scarier still is that the technical proficiency required is far more widespread in this Brave New World of interconnected computers. And it raises some interesting questions, such as why the crew that first bombed the WTC (with a van full of ANFO, presaging the Oklahoma City Federal building bombing) hadn't read the book. Or why Tim McVeigh hadn't. Or, more ominously, just why this hasn't happened yet somewhere.
We're not talking arcane technology that requires a major infrastructure. This is a project that could be built in a garage. It's been possible, possibly even practical, for 32 years. And yet it hasn't happened. On one hand, I'm thankful it hasn't. On the other hand, I fear it's just because the right theater of target, motive and opportunity hasn't converged. On the gripping hand, I can't be sure such an attempt hasn't been fortuitously and surreptitiously thwarted.
The Miniter piece, it's true, deals specifically with portable nuclear devices that may or may not have been produced "officially" by the USA and/or the former USSR. And it's credible that such official weapons, if they exist, may have not been conveyed to NGOs for terroristic activities. But I don't think that a reasonable man can take the same conclusion Miniter reaches; that the "suitcase nuke" threat is a modern legend devoid of factual basis. The tech is out there. After 54 years of commercial nuclear power generation
, there is a lot of waste material lying around (not all of it is perfectly accounted for, despite official assurances to the contrary). And there is no shortage of pissed-off political activists willing, if not downright eager, to make a large-scale destructive statement to the world at large.
I don't think it's scaremongering to suggest that the question isn't "if", but "when and where".