[Paleopsych] Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: Rethinking doomsday
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Rethinking doomsday | thebulletin.org
Loose nukes, nanobots, smallpox, oh my! In this age of endless
imagining, and some very real risks, which terrorist threats should be
taken most seriously?
By Linda Rothstein, Catherine Auer and Jonas Siegel
November/December 2004 pp. 36-41, 44-47, 73 Bulletin of the
T his year, beginning with the January/ February 2004 issue, the
Bulletin began a series of articles we dubbed "Rethinking Doomsday."
The effort was in direct response to the remarkable proliferation of
potential death-and-destruction scenarios about which so much has been
made since 9/11.
There is no doubt that the attacks of September 11, 2001 made clear
that Americans faced very real dangers at home that few had foreseen
and even fewer had taken seriously. Three years later, many, if not
most, of us remain frightened.
But so many doomsday scenarios have been paraded on TV, in the
newspapers, and in the course of political campaigns, that we can't
help asking: How many possible terrorist attacks with how many
possible weapons can there be? Must we, while worrying about nuclear
holocaust or about terrorists commandeering airplanes or detonating
conventional explosives, also worry that tomorrow we will come in
contact with an evildoer bearing live smallpox stolen from somewhere
in Siberia, with which he intends to infect the entire unsuspecting
United States? (Government officials blithely assure us that we are
all safer than we were before 9/11, but also say a smallpox epidemic
is a case of "not if, but when.") How much time should we have devoted
to the idea that the United States faced a gathering threat from
Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons? About a plot to poison the food
supply? Or should we worry if foreign visitors are seen taking
snapshots of the Flatiron Building?
Sometimes it seems as if the source of newly announced dangers must be
the basement of the White House or a back room at a Washington think
tank, where the thousands of monkeys who have yet to type out exact
copies of the works of Shakespeare are nonetheless producing dozens of
new ideas for attacks on America, to be trotted out on the news at 10.
The "rethinking" reader on page 39 lists the articles published in
2004 that led us to our own conclusions about rethinking doomsday.
(Many are available at the Bulletin's web site, www.thebulletin.org.)
The following is a recap of what we learned.
In "The Dew of Death," Joel Vilensky and Pandy Sinish recounted the
strange story of lewisite, an arsenic-based chemical weapon developed
by the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I.
By the end of the war, the United States was producing 10 tons a day
of the stuff, yet it was never used in battle, where it would probably
have flopped. Lewisite shares many of the problems that have prevented
most chemical weapons from entering the world's armies' battlefield
arsenals: Most chemicals are very hard to disseminate in sufficiently
undiluted form, and might not work in weather that is too hot, too
cold, too windy, or too wet. The dilution problem would also make it
very difficult to carry out an attack involving the poisoning of a
major city's water supply.
Nearly every article about terrorist uses of chemical or biological
weapons begins by recalling Aum Shinrikyo's use of sarin gas in 1995
in the Tokyo subway. Employing five separate packages of poison, cult
members managed to kill 12 commuters, although another 1,000 had to
seek hospital treatment. The attack was shocking, yet fell short of
the cult's ambitions. (Shoko Asahara, the leader of the group, aspired
either to be Japan's prime minister or to kill as many of his
countrymen as possible.)
Saddam Hussein's forces used poison gas at Halabja in the open air.
Halabja, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, is perhaps the best known of
the several dozen towns and villages Saddam Hussein is thought to have
gassed in 1987 and 1988. Some 5,000 of its population of 70,000 died
as a result of being bombarded with what might have been a combination
of mustard gas, nerve agent, and possibly cyanide.
The attack was a monstrous crime, but the Iraqi military succeeded by
having complete control over the place, the time, and the choice of a
day with ideal weather--and because it faced no danger of experiencing
any resistance. Saddam's men were able to spread the poisons
systematically (delivery might have been by a combination of dispersal
from low-flying planes and attack with chemical shells). The Halabja
massacre was not a demonstration of the unique power of chemical
weapons, but of the fact that the population was defenseless.
Iraq, and probably Iran, also used poison gas during the Iran-Iraq war
(1980-1988). Even as thousands of young people were slaughtered in a
war that ended in stalemate, the war's less-controlled, battlefield
use of chemical weapons is customarily assessed as having lent neither
side an advantage.
Today, few of the world's militaries would even consider using
chemical weapons--they can contaminate the battleground and come back
on the attackers if the wind takes an unexpected turn. The major
militaries--including those of the United States, Britain, Russia, and
Germany--have dumped old munitions (not always carefully) or have
spent, or need to spend, billions of dollars to neutralize decaying
munitions that could threaten civilians who live near storage sites.
Some tiny amount of worry should probably be devoted to leaking
If civilians do not need to fret too much about attacks from the air,
they should perhaps worry a little more about chemicals deployed in
enclosed or otherwise contained environments, where they can be
delivered at concentrated levels. Somehow, though, it's hard to jump
from the Aum Shinrikyo case to believing that overseas villains would
find it easy to deliver deadly doses at will.
On the other hand, a domestic effort, with greater access to American
ingenuity and reliable materials and work space in which to generate
lethal chemical mixtures would be another matter (see "Homegrown
Terror," by Michael Reynolds, page 48).
Let's recap. Chemical attack by international terrorists: Possible.
Probable? No. Time spent worrying about it? Possibly wasted.
Domestic terrorists' use of chemical weapons? Possible. Probable? Best
known potential case found by accident--and experts say that as a
result of emphasis on international terrorism, domestic cases are
The Aum Shinrikyo cult recruited technical experts from around the
world, had a net worth of more than a billion dollars, and is
repeatedly mentioned as the most salient example to show that
international terrorists will attack the United States with biological
weapons. But all of Aum's attacks occurred in Japan, on its own turf,
and the cult's attempts to poison Japanese citizens with botulin or
anthrax--efforts it made between 1990 and 1995, before turning to
sarin gas--were utter failures.
Conversely, the culprit (or culprits) who sent letters containing
anthrax spores through the mail in September 2001 has not been
apprehended, and his or her identity remains a mystery, at least to
the public--this despite the fact that the perpetrator used a strain
of anthrax known to be of U.S. origin, that it was milled in a highly
sophisticated manner, also suggesting it was likely produced in one of
a limited number of facilities, and that in all likelihood the
perpetrator works or worked among a fairly limited universe of
possible suspects in government or government-contract laboratories.
Some worry might be devoted to why the attacks occurred, why they
stopped, and whether they might start again.
An industry seems to have sprung up devoted to inculcating fear in
Americans about contagious diseases, especially smallpox. In the
run-up to Gulf War II, it was said that Iraq was likely to unleash
smallpox on the American public. Promulgators of panic were less clear
about how, where, or why it would do so. But they assured us there
would be an epidemic. From what we can tell, they were wrong on nearly
Smallpox is a serious business. And although transmission seems
somewhat avoidable--it occurs through close contact, often with
someone who has visible signs of the disease, namely, pox--the great
historical smallpox epidemics still had 30-50 percent mortality rates.
More than 200 years ago, Edward Jenner's development of a vaccine
began to change the picture. Still, according to Richard Pilch
("Smallpox: Threat, Vaccine, and U.S. Policy," Center for
Nonproliferation Studies) "in the twentieth century, smallpox killed
more people than war." Accordingly, after World War II, a major global
effort was undertaken to stamp out the disease. By 1980, when the
entire world was declared smallpox free, the disease had been
eradicated in the United States for some time. All samples of the
virus were then destroyed, except for two, which were maintained at
the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and at the then-Soviet
Union's State Research Center for Virology and Biotechnology, known as
Although there have been no outbreaks in the United States for
decades, a supply of vaccine remains--about which there is some
controversy, because inoculation with live virus can pose a risk.
There is one well-known supply of about 15 million doses, which is
generally accepted as entirely usable, and another supply of
approximately 80 million doses, which was mysteriously rediscovered in
2002. Because of its exotic provenance, this second supply has been
generally considered unsuitable for anything but emergency use. In
tests since its discovery, however, the second supply appears to be
safe and effective. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has contracted with
OraVax for the production of some 300 million additional doses.
Stalwart Cold Warriors have long insisted that Russia gave smallpox
samples to Iraq, although there is no evidence to support such a
claim. (It seems counterintuitive for Russia to eagerly share a deadly
microbe if its reintroduction would endanger its own population.)
Various U.S. intelligence agencies have also claimed that France, as
well as Russia and Iraq, had illicit samples of smallpox. At various
times they hypothesized that Iraq either was given smallpox samples by
Russia, retained some virus from a 1971-1972 outbreak in Baghdad, or
developed it in an indigenous program to adapt camelpox. Of course, no
virus was found in Iraq, either during the 1991-1998 period of
post-Gulf War I U.N. inspections, or during the pre-Gulf War II U.N.
inspections, or as a result of the activities of U.S. search teams
during and after the latest conflict since January 2003.
So we escaped an attack by Iraq. But would we all be doomed if Al
Qaeda terrorists (perhaps bearing some of that rumored French
smallpox) decided to infect the United States?
It seems unlikely. First, set aside the problems attackers would face
in trying to deliver the disease other than through person-to-person
contact. (Cold Warriors speculated that the Soviets would fill
intercontinental ballistic missiles with the virus and send the
missiles over the North Pole.) The key to preventing a major outbreak
is a good public health system that can detect a handful of cases
before the disease spreads. Meanwhile, helping to slow the spread are
two surprising findings: A study by Oregon Health and Science
University researchers, reported in the September 2003 issue of Nature
Medicine, revealed that in contrast to conventional wisdom that the
effects of vaccination lasted only a few years, "90 percent of those
vaccinated 25 to 75 years ago maintain a substantial level of
immunity." In other words, half the U.S. population (nearly everyone
was vaccinated before 1972) has some degree of immunity, a
considerable barrier to the rapid spread of smallpox. Simultaneously,
if cases were detected, there would be time to vaccinate the
As for the vaccine's availability, there seems to be an adequate
supply. Doctors at Vanderbilt University report in the September 8
issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that the
vaccine in the emergency supply can be diluted to as much as one-tenth
and still provide an overall vaccination success rate of 99.4 percent.
Let's recap. There are no known smallpox stocks in the hands of
evildoers. An antidote exists in plentiful supply. And half the
population is already protected.
How much time should Americans spend worrying about
attack-by-smallpox? Probably not as much as on the spread of naturally
occurring nastiness like flu epidemics, Ebola, and hantavirus, and
probably not as much as on laboratory concoctions like bioengineered
new strains of anthrax.
And speaking of anthrax, the U.S. government seems to have learned
little from the anthrax-in-the-mail experience. As Susan Wright
explains in "Taking Biodefense Too Far," (see page 58), the government
is responding to the newer, high-tech threat of specially engineered
pathogens against which there may be no defense by spending billions
to produce some, in the process creating a cadre of highly specialized
germ weaponeers and constructing dozens of special laboratories where
they will be able to work in comfortable secrecy. As other Bulletin
authors have pointed out, some of these facilities are being placed
behind the barriers of the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories, all
the better to make it less likely that their dangerous activities will
be properly monitored.
Officials would no doubt respond that these U.S. facilities will be
safe. Well, maybe. But that ignores a long history of poor judgment.
The U.S. government conducted open air tests of dangerous biologicals
in, among other places, the United States, Central America, the
Pacific, and the Caribbean, leaving a trail of contamination behind.
Not that other countries have been any more responsible. The Soviets
built a major test facility on Vozrozhdeniye Island. Now that the Aral
Sea is drying up, it's just a matter of time before the pathogens in
the island's soil and in insect and wildlife populations spread to the
mainland. Cleanup, if it happens, won't be easy. Britain struggled to
clean up its anthrax mess at Gruinard Island--eventually doing so with
Nanotech is the new, high-tech wild-card of doomsday scenarios. The
emerging science of manipulating the supersmall--molecules and
atoms--has generated some popular scare stories, such as the "grey
goo" scenario, in which a swarm of self-replicating nanobots smothers
all life in its path. But is this really a threat? If the number of
defensive measures developed to combat grey goo is any indication, not
really. So far, there's no such thing as a grey-goo fighting wand or a
Maybe it is too daunting a task to prepare for a threat that seems so
futuristic. Or maybe the informed opinion of some scientists that the
out-of-control self-replication of nanomachines is avoidable, if not
entirely impossible, has kept the public, government, and industry
The risk of nanomachines uncontrollably self-replicating is "very
low," reported Margaret Kosal, now a fellow at Stanford University's
Center for International Security and Cooperation, in the
September/October Bulletin. But there's still room for concern: "To
say that nanotechnology could never lead to self-replication, or that
uncontrolled self-assembly would not have unintended consequences,
would be presumptive," concluded Kosal.
Other researchers are convinced that "molecular
manufacturing"--machines that could someday be able to construct
precise atomic structures--has scary potential.
In his 1986 book Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler envisioned
nanomachines capable of building structures from the atom up. He was
the first to imagine the implications of a runaway self-replication
process. Drexler recently sought to tone down speculation about the
possibility of an accidental runaway replication and to legitimize
research into molecular manufacturing. In a paper coauthored by Chris
Phoenix, Drexler wrote that "the development and use of molecular
manufacturing need not at any step involve systems that could run amok
as the result of accident or faulty engineering." Still, Drexler and
Phoenix were adamant that "no law of nature prevents [a runaway
replication's] deliberate development."
As with biotechnology, the potential for the misuse of nanotechnology
grows when esoteric technological expertise is coupled with access to
A greater nanotech threat than self-replicating nanobots, according to
Drexler, is the potential that "a powerful and convenient
manufacturing capacity could be used to make powerful non-replicating
weapons in unprecedented quantity, leading to an arms race, war,
terrorism, or oppression." Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory are already making strides toward the mass production of
nanostructures. In April, they announced that they had designed a way
to transform a carbon nanotube into a "conveyor belt" capable of
transporting a stream of atom-sized particles to a "construction
site," where they could hypothetically be combined with other
materials to create larger structures.
The scenario imagined by Drexler appears similar to those envisioned
by Kosal, where nanotechnology could be used to enhance the
effectiveness of existing chemical or biological weapons, or to create
entirely new weapons. Considering the various factors that presently
complicate the delivery of chemical and biological weapons, or the
creation of miniature nuclear fusion bombs, this is perhaps one avenue
where nanotechnology has the potential to play more than a wild-card
The U.S. government's message to the public has so far been full of
praise for the potential benefits of nanotechnology and lacking in
outward concern about potential dangers. Little has been done to guard
against the potential for nanotechnology to contribute to mass
destruction, or to protect against a less fear-inspiring, but more
prescient concern. Only in June did the Defense Department announce
that it was funding a five-year project to determine which, if any,
characteristics of nanoparticles--the ones now showing up in tennis
balls, clothing, and other commercial products--are toxic or have
Although there has been some research on the toxicity of nanoparticles
and their potential effect on the environment and in the food cycle,
scientists still do not know much about the implications and dangers
of nanotechnology in general.
Let's recap. Death and destruction are unlikely to come at the
microscopic "hands" of swarms of nanobots in the near future, but the
possibility of such an event isn't likely to leave the public
consciousness anytime soon and can't be dismissed out of hand. More
immediate concerns should center on the potential misuse of
nanotechnology and the dearth of information about the effects of
nanoparticles on the environment and in the food chain.
In early 2004, President George W. Bush called nuclear weapons the
"greatest threat to mankind." But his administration has pursued a
broader arsenal, lifted the 10-year ban on RandD on new low-yield
nukes, moved to shorten the preparation period for nuclear testing,
and deployed an untested missile defense that many perceive as an
offensive measure. As Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen reported
in the September/ October "Nuclear Notebook," the U.S. arsenal's
combined yield is about 1,800 megatons--still overwhelming, if
reduced, firepower. The yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a
mere 15 kilotons.
But no one in the administration seems worried about overkill. "The
national laboratories, where weapons designers are eager for fresh
challenges, are exerting tremendous pressure for a renewed mission
complete with new weapons and programs," reported Andy Oppenheimer in
"Mini-Nukes: Boom or Bust?" In the same issue, Bret Lortie wrote that
the Energy Department looked to be gearing up for new nuclear
responsibilities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Critics
called Energy's plan "a shocking blueprint for an increasingly
aggressive and robust nuclear weapons program."
Speaking of robust, in the May/ June issue Jonas Siegel showed how
Defense's proposed budget revealed its plans for pursuing the Robust
Nuclear Earth Penetrator. Oh, and not to mention that the Bush
administration is building a new plutonium pit fabrication plant
capable of churning out 250-900 new weapon cores a year by 2018 (see
"Dismantling U.S. Nuclear Warheads").
The United States has also gone back on its own proliferation rules,
against the "long-standing prohibition against using commercial
nuclear reactors to produce bomb materials--the so-called no-dual-use
policy," Kenneth Bergeron reported in the January/February Bulletin.
Critics of the administration's plan to produce tritium at Watts Bar
are "concerned with the U.S. government's retreat from
The United States seems to have a problem with proliferation
principles. "It is ironic and hypocritical that the Bush
administration has condemned both North Korea and Iran for their
apparent efforts to develop nuclear weapons," wrote Ronald Powaski in
the January/ February Bulletin. "Clearly, if the Bush administration
were serious about halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it
would accept the same standards of behavior that it is attempting to
impose on non-nuclear weapons states."
Let's recap. The Bush administration warns about proliferation but is
going forward with new nuclear plans, which prompts other nuclear
weapon states to modify their arsenals (see "Nuclear Policy: France
Stands Alone," and "Russian Nuclear Forces, 2004"), and prompts other
nations to gain nuclear weapons status. Could proliferation alone be
the end of the world? Not technically--you need someone to push the
button. But think about this:
Who might be next to catch the nuclear fever? Terrorists, maybe?
The many nuclear maybes
Thinking for a moment about the many different ways in which the
United States could come under some kind of nuclear-related attack is
enough to make the eyes bulge, pulse race, and head swim. Terrorists
could steal or buy an intact nuclear weapon and detonate it in the
United States. Or they could steal or buy fissile material, make a
crude nuclear weapon, and blow it up within our borders. Or they could
couple fissile material to explosives and craft a radiological
dispersion device--a "dirty bomb." Let's not forget the more than 100
U.S. nuclear power plants (which some like to call sitting ducks) that
are potential targets of attack or sabotage.
Of these, the first is the least likely. It would be extremely
difficult for terrorists to acquire an intact weapon from one of the
eight nuclear weapon states. The security of these weapons, especially
those in Russia and Pakistan, is a valid concern. But to detonate an
intact, stolen Russian nuke, a terrorist would have to get past
security safeguards built into the weapon, such as authorization
codes. And Pakistani nuclear weapons (believed to number up to 50) are
reportedly stored separately from the weapons' cores. Besides the
difficulties associated with obtaining a ready-made, good-to-go nuke,
there would be other barriers--such as transporting and preparing to
deliver it undetected. This is perhaps the lowest probability, highest
consequence scenario of nuclear terrorism.
Getting the core material
Could terrorists produce an entirely do-it-yourself nuclear bomb?
Fabricating fissile material, highly enriched uranium (HEU) or
separated plutonium, is exceedingly labor-and resource-intensive--and
both activities present many opportunities for detection.
Terrorist-produced fissile material is so extremely unlikely that it's
safe to call it impossible.
But it is possible that a group of nuclear-minded evildoers would
attempt to build their own nuclear weapon using stolen or black market
fissile material. Al Qaeda's interest in nuclear weapons has been
documented, as have meetings between Osama bin Laden and sympathetic
nuclear scientists. As Morten Bremer Mærli and Lars van Dassen write
on page 19, the major barrier to nuclear terrorism is acquiring
fissile material. And there are thousands of tons of fissile material
stockpiled around the globe, as David Albright and Kimberly Kramer
report on page 14. Certainly, not all of it is a security concern;
however, "Not only do nuclear thieves stand a chance in Russia (and
elsewhere), they have repeatedly been successful, stealing
weapons-usable nuclear material without setting off any alarm or
detector," according to Matthew Bunn of the Project on Managing the
Atom ("Securing the Bomb," Harvard University, May 2004). The CIA
recognizes that there have surely been undetected cases of theft of
fissile materials, in addition to nearly 20 documented (and
intercepted) incidents. And as Albright and Corey Hinderstein reported
in "The Centrifuge Connection," a nuclear black market--with possible
state ties--can exist and thrive for years before detection.
If terrorists are able to buy or steal plutonium or HEU, could they be
clever enough to build a crude nuclear bomb? The answer, according to
many experts, is yes. Provided they had enough fissile material,
resourceful and determined terrorists could fabricate both gun-style
and implosion design nuclear weapons. Of plutonium and highly enriched
uranium, HEU is more attractive to terrorists--easier to handle and
transport, it's more easily diverted. As Mærli and van Dassen write,
many believe that eliminating Russia's stocks at a faster pace would
contribute greatly to Europe's increased security.
If terrorists lack the skills to build a crude nuclear bomb, but are
able to acquire fissile material, they could construct a dirty
bomb--conventional explosives coupled with fissile or other
radioactive material. "An improvised terrorist device using highly
enriched uranium could be smuggled into this country in virtually
undetectable segments, and then assembled in any one of 50 million
suburban garages," wrote Christopher Paine in "The Party of
Detonated in a populated area, a dirty bomb would expose many people
to radioactive particles dispersed by the explosion, but any immediate
fatalities would be caused by the blast and not exposure to
radioactivity (although exposure has the potential to cause eventual
Among the many types of damage would be economic; analysts at the
University of Southern California's terrorism center predict that a
dirty bomb exploded at the Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex
could cost $34 billion. That's just a best guess; no one really knows
for sure the kind of damage a dirty bomb would do because it would
depend largely on unpredictable factors such as bomb design,
detonation location, and weather.
There has never been a dirty bomb attack. True, Jose Padilla was
arrested in Chicago and accused of plotting, in the words of Attorney
General John Ashcroft, "to build and explode a radiological dispersion
device, or 'dirty bomb,' in the United States."
But as Lewis Z. Koch explained in "Dirty Bomber? Dirty Justice," the
evidence against the ex-gang member was thin. Plus, Koch reported,
"Although some materials from hospitals, research universities, and
other facilities are radioactive enough to be lethal, it would be very
difficult to deliver high doses to more than a few people." One way a
terrorist might do more damage is by using the extremely radioactive
spent fuel from a power plant, but "Putting aside the controversy
surrounding security at U.S. nuclear power plants, a would-be dirty
bomber faces a Herculean task." The spent fuel is heavy, hard to
access, and dangerously radioactive, Koch noted. If would-be dirty
bombers were to somehow access a spent fuel pool and remove rods to
another location, they would have been exposed to "enough radiation to
make them burnt toast."
And the "ultimate dirty bombs"
That nuclear power plants are ripe targets is nothing new. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) was forced to admit after 9/11 that U.S.
nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand the force of a
crashing jetliner, which some worry could cause either a core meltdown
or a fire in spent fuel pools. "A single spent fuel pond holds more
cesium 137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests
in the Northern Hemisphere combined," Robert Alvarez reported for the
Bulletin in 2002. The radioactivity released from a pool fire could
render hundreds to thousands of square miles uninhabitable.
"Spent fuel pools present the most severe consequences and
vulnerability at nuclear power stations," Alvarez told the Los Angeles
Times (September 16). "They are the ultimate dirty bomb."
But the NRC has no plans to reinforce the plants. "The NRC has been in
a state of denial," said Frank von Hippel (Los Angeles Times,
Could intruders force their way into a reactor to wreak havoc? Past
incidents have demonstrated that one need not have sophisticated plans
or skills in order to gain some level of access to a nuclear plant. In
1993, a mentally ill man drove his mother's station wagon past the
guarded entrance at Three Mile Island (TMI). Although he was driving
at about 35 miles per hour, the surveillance cameras couldn't swivel
fast enough to keep up with his car. The intruder drove through a
fence, then a roll-up door, and into the turbine building, where he
got out of his car and hid before he was arrested four hours later.
Fortunately, his intentions were not malicious.
Sure, that was more than 10 years ago, but at the time, the TMI plant
had earned the NRC's highest security rating. In general, nuclear
plant security teams have miserable reputations for failing to prevent
even mock attacks for which they've been forewarned. After 9/11, it
took the Energy Department nearly three years to revise its security
standards--and the new standards fall short by many experts' measure,
as Stephen Schwartz wrote in "A Slow Sort of Security."
Should one worry, too, about insider nuclear sabotage? There are no
reported cases of this, but it's another scary possibility. Before
September 11, 2001, the NRC reported several cases of nuclear power
plant workers who were inappropriately granted "unescorted access" to
sensitive areas at some plants. Employees are supposed to undergo
background checks, which are done by outside contractors. Several
contractors had falsified or not completed the checks.
How much damage could a terrorist group do by attacking a nuclear
power plant? That's a big unknown. The accidents at Three Mile Island
in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 give some shaky indication, although as
Joseph Mangano reported in the Bulletin earlier this year, questions
about the health effects of TMI remain unanswered. The figures for
fatalities caused by the Chernobyl meltdown are controversial and
range from as few as 30 to as many as tens of thousands. The
psychological, environmental, and economic impacts of potential
nuclear terrorism are impossible to quantify.
Let's recap. Nuclear terrorism is not easy, but it is possible.
It's likely that nuclear-bent terrorists would take the path of least
resistance, which makes theft or purchase of an intact nuke or
self-fabrication of fissile material very unlikely. A dirty bomb would
be perhaps the easiest, and least harmful, "nuclear" attack.
That the NRC has been inexplicably slow to improve security at nuclear
power facilities is cause for concern. As long as nuclear power plants
operate, they will be potential targets. To date, the scariest
near-misses at U.S. plants involve human mistakes (such as allowing
boric acid to eat almost all the way through the reactor lid at
Davis-Besse in Ohio) and not malevolent actions. When it comes to
nuclear facilities, perhaps both error and terror deserve equal
amounts of worry.
There are too many different ways in which terrorists could perpetrate
some kind of nuclear attack to mention in this limited space. But keep
this in mind: There have been zero cases of nuclear terrorism--neither
nuclear nor radiological. There are no known cases of theft or
purchase of an intact nuclear weapon, so a terrorist attack with one
is more than unlikely. There has not been any documented theft of
enough fissile material for a crude nuke--although there have been
attempts. There has never been a dirty bomb attack. There has never
been a case of nuclear plant sabotage. If there were, it would be
awful--but not the end of humanity.
The sum of all fears?
So far these nuclear doomsday scenarios have focused on terrorism. But
the most destructive of all nuclear threats is nuclear war. After all,
eight nations have nuclear arsenals, but a terrorist group would have
to work feverishly to get their hands on a single warhead, or enough
material to make one.
Is an incoming nuclear missile attack plausible? Yes, but unlikely.
The Cold War is over, and the ballistic missile threat from
nuclear-capable nations is extremely minor. In February 2001, the
Defense Intelligence Agency listed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as
"countries of concern" that might someday field long-range,
WMD-capable missiles, and Russia and China as nations expanding their
long-range missile programs. One presumes Iraq is now off the list. As
to Iran and North Korea, both nations have decent missile
capabilities, but Iran cannot strike the United States, and most
analysts believe the same about North Korea, despite its boasts. On
the other hand, North Korea has nuclear material, and Iran is believed
to be working toward a nuclear weapons capability. China has a
whopping 20 Dong Feng missiles that can reach America. (The United
States has close to 6,000 operational strategic nuclear weapons, as
the Bulletin's May/June "Nuclear Notebook" reported.) Russia's
capabilities are more comparable to America's, and Russia is expanding
its capabilities, according to the July/August "Nuclear Notebook," but
a planned attack from Moscow is extremely improbable.
What's more likely is an accidental nuclear attack. Both Russia and
the United States still maintain nuclear-armed ICBMs on high alert and
adhere to "launch-on-warning" policies, as Alan Phillips and Steven
Starr wrote in the May/June Bulletin. Launch-on-warning means that if
either Washington or Moscow thinks it is under attack from the other,
it will launch a retaliatory strike before the supposed incoming
missiles can do any damage. A false warning could mean the start of an
accidental nuclear war. Keeping launch-on-warning policies alive is
"inexcusably dangerous," Phillips and Starr wrote. "Launch-on-warning
has exposed the world, for at least 30 years, to the danger of a
nuclear war caused by nothing but a coincidence of radar, satellite
sensor, or computer glitch, and a temporary human failure to
appreciate that the message signaling attack is false."
So far, there have been no false launches--but there have been many
Nuclear terrorism would be horrific, but nuclear war would be far
worse. As Lynn Eden reported in "City on Fire," fire damage from
nuclear explosions has been vastly and systematically
underestimated--a move that allowed early U.S. war planners to demand
a much larger nuclear arsenal. As Eden wrote, a single 300-kiloton
nuclear weapon detonated above the Pentagon on a clear day would
engulf the surrounding 65 square miles in firestorms that would
"extinguish all life and destroy almost everything else." And that's a
Let's recap. An attack from a weapons state is highly unlikely; an
accidental nuclear launch is far more worrisome. As remote as the
possibility is, all-out nuclear war has the potential to end human
life on the planet--still the true doomsday scenario.
Linda Rothstein is editor, Catherine Auer managing editor, and Jonas
Siegel assistant editor of the Bulletin.
Sidebar: The "rethinking" reader
"Nuclear Weapons: The Death of No-Dual-Use," by Kenneth Bergeron
"Bush's Nuclear Hypocrisy," by Ronald E. Powaski
"City on Fire," by Lynn Eden
"Dirty Bomber? Dirty Justice," by Lewis Z. Koch
"Nukes Without Borders," by Linda Rothstein
"Dismantling U.S. Nuclear Warheads," by Robert S. Norris and Hans
"The Party of Preemption," by Christopher Paine
"The Centrifuge Connection," by David Albright and Corey
"The Dew of Death," by Joel A. Vilensky and Pandy R. Sinish
"Weapons Labs Good to Go," by Jonas Siegel
"The Protection Paradox," by Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew G.
McKinzie, and Robert S. Norris
"Let's Go No-LOW," by Alan Phillips and Steven Starr
"Schooling Iran's Atom Squad," by Jack Boureston and Charles D.
"An NPT for Non-Members," by Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr.
"Defusing the Nuclear Middle East," by Bennett Ramberg
"Pakistan: It's Déjà Vu All Over Again," by Leonard Weiss
"Fun and Games with the NPT," by Linda Rothstein
"Robusterererer," by Jonas Siegel
"U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2004," by Robert S. Norris and Hans M.
"A Slow Sort of Security," by Stephen I. Schwartz
"Nuclear Policy: France Stands Alone," by Bruno Tertrais
"Disposal in the Doldrums," by Jonas Siegel
"Russian Nuclear Forces, 2004," by Robert S. Norris and Hans M.
"Mini-Nukes: Boom or Bust?" by Andy Oppenheimer
"Nanotech: Is Small Scary?" by Margaret Kosal
"No Plans for New Nukes Here!" by Bret Lortie
"U.S. Nuclear Reductions," by Robert S. Norris and Hans M.
"Europe, Carry Your Weight," by Morten Bremer Mærli and Lars van
"Fissile Material: Stockpiles Still Growing," by David Albright
and Kimberly Kramer
"Iran: Countdown to Showdown," by David Albright and Corey
"Homegrown Terror," by Michael Reynolds
"Taking Biodefense Too Far," by Susan Wright
"U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe, 1954-2004," by Robert S. Norris
and Hans M. Kristensen
Sidebar: Child's play
Preparing for a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack is fast
becoming a national pastime (see "The New Bunker Mentality," page 42).
And one of the best ways to be prepared for the coming doom, according
to government officials and security experts, is to have an emergency
plan and survival kit. On this front, there is no shortage of options.
(Even mogul Steven Brill extols the virtue of emergency kits as part
of his new organization, the America Prepared Campaign.)
Most kits recommend similar goods--food, water, medical supplies,
radio (and extra batteries), flashlight, can opener, and important
documents--to help citizens survive disaster or attack. But the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seems concerned with
entertainment, too. FEMA suggests that children assemble a survival
activity kit containing:
A few favorite books
Crayons, pencils, or marking pens and plenty of paper
Scissors and glue
Two favorite toys, such as a doll or action figure
One or two board games
A puzzle ("One with lots of pieces is good--it takes a long time to
Small figurines and play vehicles--an ambulance, fire truck,
helicopter, dump truck, police car, or small boat--that kids can use
to role play what is happening during the disaster
Favorite stuffed animal or puppet
Favorite blanket or pillow
Pictures of the family and any pets
A "keep safe" box with a few treasures that make them "feel special"
Sidebar: (Not) following the leaders
Government officials have told us time and again to be "ready" in case
of a terrorist attack. But what if, in a terrorist attack, the
government isn't ready for reality?
A new study from the New York Academy of Medicine's Center for the
Advancement of Collaborative Strategies in Health says that "current
plans have been created in a 'top-down' style, telling people what to
do in the event of an attack without considering all of the risks and
concerns that drive people's actions."
In other words, there's a planning gap between what officials want
people to do and how people would actually react. The study found that
only 40 percent of Americans would follow instructions to head to a
public vaccination center if told to do so after terrorists caused a
smallpox outbreak. If officials directed people to shelter-in-place in
an undamaged building (not their home) after a nearby dirty bomb
explosion, about 60 percent would.
"It's not that the rest of the people want to be uncooperative," lead
investigator Roz Lasker said in a press release. "The problem is that
current plans unwittingly put them in extremely difficult
The problems stem from a difference between what emergency planners
are trying to protect citizens from and what the citizens are
seriously worried about. In a smallpox attack, planners want people to
get vaccinated right away, but according to the study, more people
would be concerned about the safety of the vaccine than about
contracting smallpox. And in the event of a dirty bomb attack, when
planners want people to stay in their workplaces, many people would
rather leave to see to the safety of their kids or parents.
The findings, write the investigators, "are cause for worry because
they suggest that current plans to deal with smallpox and dirty bomb
attacks will be far less effective than planners want or the public
Sounds like the government should get ready.
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