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The myth of "suitcase nukes." ?

 
 
Reply Sat 5 Nov, 2005 05:06 pm
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".
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Type: Discussion • Score: 4 • Views: 4,439 • Replies: 32
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parados
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 08:48 am
I am curious how someone is going to make a suitcase sized nuke in their garage with waste material from nuclear generation. You aren't going to find plutonium of good enough quality just sitting around.

Small nukes exist but no one will be building one of that size in their garage. A suitcase dirty bomb perhaps but not anything that will create an actual nuclear explosion.

The answer as to why McVeigh and others haven't built a nuke is really quite simple. It is easy to buy fertilizer and diesel fuel without drawing too much attention to yourself. Try asking various people where to buy 10 kg worth of 90% pure plutonium-239 and see how long you escape notice.

What is scare mongering is making claims of how easy it is to do it and that is what this piece seems to be doing.
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freedom4free
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 12:27 pm
I imagine it would look something like this :

http://www.nationalterroralert.com/images/nuclear_suitcase_bomb_nuke.gif

A suitcase nuke or suitcase bomb is a very compact and portable nuclear weapon and could have the dimensions of 60 x 40 x 20 centimeters or 24 x 16 x 8 inches. The smallest possible bomb-like object would be a single critical mass of plutonium (or U-233) at maximum density under normal conditions.

The Pu-239 weighs 10.5 kg and is 10.1 cm across. It doesn't take much more than a single critical mass to cause significant explosions ranging from 10-20 tons. These types of weapons can also be as big as two footlockers.

The warhead of a suitcase nuke or suitcase bomb consists of a tube with two pieces of uranium, which, when rammed together, would cause a blast. Some sort of firing unit and a device that would need to be decoded to cause detonation may be included in the "suitcase."

Another portable weapon is a "backpack" bomb. The Soviet nuclear backpack system was made in the 1960s for use against NATO targets in time of war and consists of three "coffee can-sized" aluminum canisters in a bag. All three must be connected to make a single unit in order to explode. The detonator is about 6 inches long. It has a 3-to-5 kiloton yield, depending on the efficiency of the explosion. It's kept powered during storage by a battery line connected to the canisters.

nationalterroralert
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freedom4free
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 12:37 pm
http://www.rotten.com/library/crime/terrorism/terror-tactics/suitcase-nukes/suitcasenukes2.jpg
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parados
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 02:44 pm
And none of that addresses the issue of how you are going to get the plutonium or uranium to make such a device in a garage.

No one will be building a breeder reactor in their garage to get the plutonium or a centrifuge big enough to get the required uranium.

It is possible to build a gun type device but it requires enough compression to achieve the detonation. The simplistic designs put out by the Dept of Homeland (Scare the people) Security don't address how you are going to achieve that in a garage.
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roger
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 02:56 pm
Indeed, if it were that simple, Nigeria and the Congo would be bristling with nuclear warheads. There would be no question of whether N. Korea has nukes. The question would be how many dozens, and where are they stashed.
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username
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 03:25 pm
From apparently credible accounts, there have been several cases of Russian mafiosi and similars offering fissionable materials (or what they claim to be such--no assurances they're not running a double scam) on the black arms market. The ones that have come to light are ones which were nipped in the bud by various police or intelligence forces. Who knows if there have been any not caught in time.

And also much of the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal seems to exist today under lax security at best. Think security like the one layer of chain-link fencing around your kid's playground, and a rusty padlock and chain.

The US government has consistently failed to provide the amount of funding it would take to protect those stocks (or buy them up)or destroy them, which would do a hell of a lot more for our security than trying to build a new generation of tactical nukes (which fortunately recently got shot down), or misdirect the funding for the war on terror into the misbegotten war in Iraq.
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parados
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 03:31 pm
Yes,
The biggest threat of nukes does come from rogue Soviet fissible material sold on the black market. A lot of people in the know have said this time and again.

Clinton had instituted a program to buy it from Russia but the Congress refused to fund it.
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farmerman
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 03:33 pm
a Plutonium device, can achieve supercriticality with as little as about 35 lb of Pu and a bit of U238 for a focus. It would be man portable only if detection were not an issue. It would be a "gun" type not an Implosion style (which is the usual Pu bomb style). The carrier would be irradiated and the thing would be detectable. However , if prepared and set in a van and driven in a city, the result would be awful.
The Hiroshima Uranium bomb had about 100 lb of uranium in a " male/female" arrangement with high explosives driving each side so they could fuse together and start the reaction(This design and all the calcs were done by Richard Feynman). With the density of U 235 at weapons concentration, its just about as big as a 6 pack of beer (the fissionable stuff)

Pu, although not as explosive as U, can be made into a super critical mass in a smaller space.

I just looked up the weapons grade Pu 239/40 around the world and its about 250 tons, mostly from the former USSR. So dont lets get cozy with the idea that were safe. Mr Miniter is FOS.

Our N.E.S.T. capabilities ARE suitable to catch suspicious rad sources from choppers , as long as these weapons arent super shielded.
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parados
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 03:40 pm
Yes Farmer, but without a source for this fissible material you won't be building a nuke in your garage. The claim made that we have all this material sitting around because we have had nuclear power generation is a red herring, a scare tactic. The waste material from power generation isn't going to provide anyone with a cheap easy way to get the material needed to make a device. It doesn't contain a high enough percentage of Uranium or Plutonium of the proper isotopes.
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farmerman
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 03:56 pm
you need only 15% pure Pu 239 or 240 and ,I think I mentioned that the source for this material is already there in the old USSR, not nuke plants.
Parados,I never said I was the one whos gonna make a nuke. If some terrorist is properly motivated , with enough cash to buy the fissionable material on the market. Its available. The technology is not difficult and theres probably at least one US machine shop that is a possible sleeper. The myth that suitcase nukes are a myth is what Im poo pooing.

The USSR stuff, is already weapons grade and can be machined to fit . For a supercritical implosion type, wed need some Beryllium and Polonium but thats available too
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Acquiunk
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 03:56 pm
Some 20 odd years ago a Prinston undergraduate submitted a credable nucllear weapon design as a senior thesis. Pakastan proved to have people venal enough to sell nuclear material. This idea is not out of the relm of the possible
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farmerman
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 03:58 pm
dubble post, damn howd that happen, I tried to edit with a statement that we should not be lulled into a false state of security on this. Mr Miniter is, I repeat , full of it.
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username
 
  1  
Reply Sun 6 Nov, 2005 04:05 pm
BUT remember an actual nuke isn't the only thing we have to worry about. Reactor waste products can be used to coat conventional explosives, to produce the so-called "dirty" bombs, which could contaminate a square mile or two--set off at the World Trade Center, instead of flying a plane into them, and Wall Street would very likely still be out of operation.

And even discounting radiation, heavy metals poison biological systems--we're lightweights, our cells can't handle heavy metals. And that's uranium, folk. The depleted uranium anti-armor shells (and the dust produced from their decomposition) that litter Iraq thanx to us will have long-term consequences for the people there, just as the Agent Orange dioxin that we strewed so liberally over Southeast Asia still causes birth defects and poisons croplands today.
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DrewDad
 
  1  
Reply Mon 7 Nov, 2005 08:42 am
Handling nuclear material is not like handling steel or tin. There is a big gap between theory and practice, here.
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Acquiunk
 
  1  
Reply Mon 7 Nov, 2005 11:10 am
DrewDad wrote:
Handling nuclear material is not like handling steel or tin. There is a big gap between theory and practice, here.


Perhaps, Perhaps not. If someone is willing to strap high explosives to their chest and walk into a crowd and set it off, the toxicity of nuclear material should present no problem.
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oralloy
 
  1  
Reply Sat 17 Dec, 2005 02:30 am
parados wrote:
I am curious how someone is going to make a suitcase sized nuke in their garage with waste material from nuclear generation. You aren't going to find plutonium of good enough quality just sitting around.


Leaving aside the question of how someone would manage to get ahold of even reactor-grade plutonium, whether anything is achievable depends on what the goals are.

Such a device couldn't produce destruction on the scale we normally think of when we consider nukes, but it could be made to produce a nuclear fizzle, say with a yield of a tenth of a kiloton.

That would be enough to instantly collapse the Sears Tower or Empire State Building if the suitcase were inside when it exploded.
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oralloy
 
  1  
Reply Sat 17 Dec, 2005 02:35 am
farmerman wrote:
Pu, although not as explosive as U, can be made into a super critical mass in a smaller space.


I'd say that plutonium was just about equally as explosive as the fissile isotopes of uranium.

It is true that uranium is better suited to larger weapons, and plutonium better suited to smaller ones though.
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parados
 
  1  
Reply Sat 17 Dec, 2005 09:57 am
oralloy wrote:
parados wrote:
I am curious how someone is going to make a suitcase sized nuke in their garage with waste material from nuclear generation. You aren't going to find plutonium of good enough quality just sitting around.


Leaving aside the question of how someone would manage to get ahold of even reactor-grade plutonium, whether anything is achievable depends on what the goals are.

Such a device couldn't produce destruction on the scale we normally think of when we consider nukes, but it could be made to produce a nuclear fizzle, say with a yield of a tenth of a kiloton.

That would be enough to instantly collapse the Sears Tower or Empire State Building if the suitcase were inside when it exploded.


It is waste material because it can NOT produce enough neutrons to create heat. The depleted uranium from a nuclear plant isn't going to create a fizzle no matter how much of it you collect and try to compress together. Depleted urnanium contains even less U-235 than mined uranium. For it to be more than just a dirty bomb, a "fizzle" (an explosion that blows the nuclear material apart before it reaches supercritical mass) requires material of good enough quality that you could build an actual working nuke. You have to be able to start some kind of a chain reaction. That means you need decent quality U-235.
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oralloy
 
  1  
Reply Sat 17 Dec, 2005 11:48 am
parados wrote:
It is waste material because it can NOT produce enough neutrons to create heat. The depleted uranium from a nuclear plant isn't going to create a fizzle no matter how much of it you collect and try to compress together. Depleted urnanium contains even less U-235 than mined uranium.


I'm sure that if terrorists could get ahold of weapons grade U-235, they'd go that route and produce a real nuke with a 20 kiloton yield.

But what I was talking about was reactor-grade PLUTONIUM. That'll fizzle.



parados wrote:
For it to be more than just a dirty bomb, a "fizzle" (an explosion that blows the nuclear material apart before it reaches supercritical mass) requires material of good enough quality that you could build an actual working nuke. You have to be able to start some kind of a chain reaction.


Actually, you can use reactor-grade plutonium to make a "real" nuke. But it takes a high level of nuclear technology to get around the downsides of using such material.

Anyone who has a high enough level of technology to get reactor grade plutonium to work in a full-scale nuke, is someone who already has a ready source of weapons-grade material, so no one ever bothers.

Terrorists, on the other hand, have to live with what they can do with what they can acquire, and if it happens that all they can get is reactor-grade plutonium, all they can do at their level of technology is make it fizzle.

But I think they'd be satisfied with a suitcase that fizzles.
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