15 May 2009

Terrorising ourselves

I've been thinking further, since last night's post, about the areas where I am reluctant to write in this sort of public view for fear of attracting unwelcome attention.

Peter Laurie's Beneath the city streets contained a chapter about the effects on democracy of latent nuclear war. With the end of the cold war, we tend to forget how damaging that was. We are now, I think, in a time when democracy is seriously distorted and eroded by latent terrorism – and I include unintended psychological terrorism by organs of society and state charged with maintaining our safety or (like the press) informing us.

Which, of course, brings me to TTMF's self answered question: "is it important that suitcase nukes are loose? Probably, but at a different level than the one I live in daily." That's the thing: balancing sensible precautions against the cost of worry. How much paranoia is worth paying for what level of reassurance about physical security?

There is a "Chicken Little" drive in human beings to accept appalling social repression in return for (often spurious) guarantees of safety. A police state is an acceptable price as long as it's the next door neighbour who disappears in the night and not me.

As Cecil said: "If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe."

All of which is fine, but avoids the issue of my own cowardice. So...

I have no expert knowledge of nuclear weapons, but anyone can think critically about the general issues involved.

Manufacturing a small nuclear device is not a scientific problem but a logistical one (how to get hold of all the necessary bits) and an engineering one (how to make it all work in a way that produces the desired level of sickening unpleasantness). Anyone with university entrance level physics (A-level in Britain) could, in principle, describe how such a device should be constructed. Anyone given the necessary components could produce some sort of nuclear reaction – it would be a messy and inefficient one, producing more heat and radiation than explosion, but it could be done. Add in experience of industrial machining (a factory lathe setter?) and some conventional explosives handling (a quarry worker?), and my guess is that this hypothetical "anyone" could fit a fairly nasty detonation at the kiloton equivalent level into a Ford Transit van. If, I repeat, they had the components to start with – oh yes, and if they didn't mind dying of radiation sickness.

*From the 1960s the USA manufactured "special atomic demolition mines" weighing about 70kg. The USSR had compact "special mines" for human portable use. Both claim to have dismantled them again as part of the tactical arms reduction moves in the 1990s.

**The story started with comments which General Aleksandr Lebed, a Soviet national security advisor, made in 1993

Squashing it down to a human portable size and weight, though, would be several orders of magnitude more difficult. That would take serious expertise and facilities of several kinds which only an advanced industrial state could command. And even then, I doubt that a true "suitcase nuke" that could be carried unnoticed on the subway is possible; the term is a journalistic tag. We're almost certainly talking in reality about a "bulky, heavy, unwieldy backpack nuke".*

Maintaining such a small device in working order would also be a problem; the nuclear core would be very close to minimum critical mass, and would deteriorate quickly. The conventional explosive driver would probably last longer, at a guess, but I wouldn't like to be the person carrying it around as time went by. The large intercontinental plutonium warheads are said to be good for more than a hundred years, but in the case of a human portable bomb my uninformed back of an envelope calculations suggest an unmaintained life of somewhere between six months and ten years. Don't put any reliance on even that vague estimate, but still ... these devices were (allegedly; the story is full of holes, contradictions and uncertainties) stolen before 1997** so their likelihood of current usability is highly questionable to say the least.

And why do we feel that an aging, deteriorating, device in the hands of some undefined amateur zealot is more dangerous than it was in those of a highly trained GRU cell which knew exactly how to maintain it and make sure that it actually worked?

I grew up as part of a generation psychologically crippled by fears of latent nuclear war. Today we are busy crippling ourselves in fear of people with big beards. Bombs on London transport, or an airliner flown into the World Trade Centre are no more "terrorist" than ICBMs on permanent readiness for counter city warfare. Fear of Islam or of communism is just fear of a hypothesised "other", and with it we terrorise ourselves far more than we are terrorised from outside.

BSE, influenza pandemic, terrorism, of course these all matter. To take precautions against them is sensible. But to put them at centre stage and obsess about them is not. Let's take to heart TTMF's reminder that that they are important "at a different level than the one I live in daily". It would be far more rational for me to worry about crossing the road ... or about somebody reading this and deciding that my interest in such things is suspicious.

  • Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Letter to Lord Lytton, 15 June 1877
  • Peter Laurie, Beneath the city streets: a private enquiry into the nuclear preoccupations of government. 1970, London: Allen Lane. 0713901144

    Ray Girvan said...

    I was going to comment on the TTMF post, but it required some kind of registration.

    I think the portability (luggability, more like) issue is just a scary red herring. Even with the non hand-luggage variety, it has always been feasible to deliver a nuclear device covertly. It would be well within the capacity of a nation-state to secrete one in a civilian ship or aircraft and, as Jim suggests, I've no doubt this always was, and still is, somewhere in the scripts of how a nuclear exchange might play out. Most likely, due to the difficulty of landing, getting past inspections, and travelling on foreign soil carrying ruddy great nuclear McGuffins, the targets would be major ports. If I can think of that scenario, the military will have, long since. So what's new, apart from 9/11 having caused a "conceptual jump" of making people more aware that such close-to-home scenarios exist?

    Pauline Laybourn said...

    "If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe."

    And if we believe the media, the sky really is falling!

    Felix said...

    Pauline: I like the Cecil extension :-)

    I shall rip it off and pretend I thought of it myself, next time I use that quotation!

    Ray Girvan said...

    Updated thought: there are close parallels with the "dynamite terror" of the late 1800s, when Fenian bombings in English cities led to a cultural paranoia about dynamite (whose invention had greatly increased the ability for someone to clandestinely deliver and explode a bomb). See Explosions.