The Nightmare Soon To Become A Reality (Rev 15)
Jul 4th 2016, 11:00
TO SEE a nuclear horror story unfold, look no further than YouTube. In “My Nuclear Nightmare”, a five-minute graphic film, Bill Perry, a former American defence secretary, describes how a breakaway faction of a rogue state’s security forces enriches 40 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in a secret facility and then constructs what appears to be a crude bomb, similar in design and yield to the kind that obliterated Hiroshima. It then transports the bomb in a box labelled “agricultural equipment” by civilian cargo aircraft to Dubai and on to Washington, DC. It is soon loaded onto a delivery truck and driven to Pennsylvania Avenue, where it is detonated at the halfway point between the White House and the Capitol building.
What follows is excruciating. More than 80,000 people are instantly killed, including the president, the vice-president and every member of Congress present. Another 100,000 are severely injured. Phones are down. A little later, it gets even worse: TV news stations have received a message that there are five more such bombs hidden in five more American cities. One bomb will be triggered each week unless all American troops serving abroad are immediately sent home. Panic ensues as people stream out of cities, and with the administration wiped out by the blast there is a constitutional crisis. Martial law is declared as looting and rioting spread; military detention centres spring up across the country.
How plausible is Mr Perry’s gut-churning scenario? Even pariah regimes care a lot about nuclear security. The idea that a breakaway group would manage to set up a clandestine enrichment facility in a place like Iran or even North Korea thankfully stretches credulity. Regimes that invest in a nuclear-weapons capability, despite all the political and economic costs associated with such programmes, do so for one reason only: their own survival. They do not do it to empower terrorist groups, even those they might sympathise with. Attribution would be inevitable, as would retribution once it had been established.
But concern about rogue nukes is serious enough for Barack Obama to have made a major effort during his presidency to stop terrorists from getting hold of either a nuclear weapon or fissile material that could be turned into one. He organised four nuclear-security summits aimed at creating better global safeguards to prevent highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium falling into the wrong hands. Progress has been made: HEU has been removed from 30 countries; many research reactors and isotope-production facilities have been closed or converted to use low-enriched uranium; security has been tightened at dozens of storage sites.
Despite those efforts, 24 states still have 1kg or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and nearly 2,000 tonnes of weapons-usable nuclear materials (1,400 of HEU, 500 of plutonium) remain stored around the world, much of it still vulnerable to theft, in the view of Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an advocacy organisation. A terrorist group would not need much fissile material to make a nuclear bomb–about enough HEU to fill a 2kg bag of sugar or a quantity of plutonium the size of a grapefruit. Moreover, the world has about 17,000 assembled nuclear weapons (although all but 1,000 of them are in either America or Russia). Harvard’s Belfer Centre calculates that it would require the theft of only 0.01% of the stockpile to “cause a global catastrophe”.
Beware of dirty tricks
Al-Qaeda has long had the ambition to acquire a nuclear device and there is little doubt that Islamic State (IS), in Mr Obama’s words, is “seeking nuclear material to kill as many people as possible”. Thanks to its control of territory, oil revenues and ability to recruit qualified engineers, a nuclear-capable IS seems all too plausible one day if it survives long enough. In a scenario envisaged at the most recent of Mr Obama’s nuclear-security summits, held in Washington, DC, in April, IS buys nuclear material from a medical facility sold to it by “insiders” through the dark web, constructs several “dirty bombs” and then detonates them from commercially available drones flying over a city.
Not a huge amount of engineering sophistication is required to build a “dirty bomb” or, to give it its more technical name, a radiological dispersal device (RDD). It consists of radiological waste wrapped in conventional explosives, which when detonated throw radioactive particles into the surrounding area. In 1995 Chechen rebels actually planted such a device in a Moscow park but did not detonate it.
A terrorist group would not need much fissile material to make a nuclear bomb
The lethality of an RDD is limited and in no way stands comparison with the destructive power of even the smallest fission device. More people would be killed by the initial explosion than by the radioactive materials. The psychological impact would nonetheless be big and an area of a city that would require expensive and painstaking clean-up before it could be reinhabited could extend to several blocks. In short, it would be an effective terror weapon, but hardly an existential threat.
…and a battlefield bazaar
A scenario of a different kind may have been among the dangers depicted in a video shown to world leaders at Mr Obama’s nuclear-security summit in April. Pakistan has long been a concern because it has at least 100 nuclear warheads (and is producing more at a fair clip) while at the same time being a crucible of jihadist terrorism. Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who has spent time with the Pakistani nuclear authorities, notes that there have been no thefts, seizures or accidents involving Pakistan’s fissile material. But there is still good reason to be fearful. IS has boasted in its online magazine, Dabiq, that it could purchase a weapon from corrupt officials in Pakistan.
In the past few years Pakistan has developed a number of short-range battlefield nuclear weapons as a counter to India’s growing conventional military superiority. These weapons are destabilising at best because of their proximity to the frontline of any conflict and the pressure to “use them or lose them”. But they suffer from another defect: at times of crisis they would be dispersed and put under the command of relatively junior officers.
There are intelligence reports of “mated” nuclear weapons (devices with all their component parts) being driven around Islamabad in unprotected civilian vans. According to some estimates, up to 40% of Pakistan’s middle-ranking army officers are to some extent radicalised. The possibility of rogue elements, with knowledge of where small nukes were to be deployed, working with a terrorist group is real enough, as is a jihadist attack on a base where such weapons are kept. Supposedly the enabling and authenticating codes that arm the weapons are in the hands of the civilian-led National Command Authority, but in reality it is the army that keeps them.
What if a jihadist group obtained an armed battlefield missile with the intention of triggering a nuclear exchange with India?What if a jihadist group obtained an armed battlefield missile with the intention of triggering a nuclear exchange with India? About 20m people would be killed directly, but the massive firestorms would send up to 5m tonnes of smoke into the stratosphere, leading to a “nuclear winter” in which crops around the world failed and hundreds of millions died of starvation. The thing about nuclear nightmares is that they come in all shapes and sizes.