The Long View 2002-03-07: Some Nuclear Fiction

This is another early blog post that impressed me. John had very acute judgement about things such as the military potential of dirty bombs. The whole point of asymmetric warfare is that you don't have to so much as kill or even truly frighten an enemy you can cause to expend vast amounts of time and treasure attempting to counteract what you are doing. Even less well appreciated is what is likely to happen if you do truly frighten an enemy like the United States. War to the knife. No stone left standing on another. Carthago delenda est.

Some Nuclear Fiction

Just this week, we learned that the federal government had plausible information last October that a 10-kiloton warhead had been bought or stolen from a Soviet-era arsenal, and that someone was trying to smuggle it into Manhattan. The information, thank God, turned out to be wrong. Still, public officials in the governments of New York City and New York State immediately began to complain that they had not been told at the time. They insist that, hereafter, they want to be informed even of unconfirmed threats.

No they don't. Such was the state of morale last October that Manhattan would have been abandoned if the public had received an advisory of such a thing. Even if the authorities had issued no warning, but had merely taken "precautions," such as removing irreplaceable works of art from the island's museums, the news would have leaked in increments. That would have been worse, since the government would have lost credibility and the news would have gotten out anyway. It would have been the biggest man-made urban disaster in America since Sherman burned Atlanta.

Now terrorism experts are focusing less on fission bombs than on radiological weapons. "Some See Panic as Aim of Dirty Bomb," says a headline in today's New York Times. That pretty much hits the nail on the head.

An interesting historical aside is that, conceptually, radiological weapons antedate fission and fusion bombs. The first fictional atomic bomb, at least that I know of, appears in The World Set Free by H. G. Wells, which he published in 1914. The world war that the book describes starts in 1956. The atomic bombs in that war are essentially small nuclear reactors. They are dropped into cities and melt into the ground, forming small, radioactive volcanoes. They do not cause immediate mass destruction, but they do cause cities to be abandoned over a period of weeks.

Less well known is a story that Robert Heinlein wrote in 1940, under the name Anson MacDonald. Entitled "Solution Unsatisfactory," the story appeared in Astounding Science Fiction the next year. This was the sort of story that gave the FBI hysterics in those years, since it described pretty much what the Manhattan Project would soon be doing; it even mentioned an imaginary supersecret military research office dedicated to building an atomic bomb. In this story, the United States does not enter the Second World War until 1945. Also, the attempt to create a fission bomb is shelved in favor of a simpler solution. An ancillary project devises a radioactive dust that can depopulate a city with just a few bomber loads. In addition to the dusting of Berlin, there is a war with a post-Soviet state called the Eurasian Union, or E.U.

The important thing to note about these speculations is that they have been tried and found wanting. Robert Oppenheimer himself considered doing what the head of the research project in the Heinlein story does. After careful consideration, Oppenheimer abandoned the idea. So, reportedly, did the Iraqi government. There is no practical way to produce mass, immediate casualties with radiological material. It's not that potent, and it's hard to deliver.

What radiological weapons can do is create a health risk just high enough to make living in an affected area unacceptable. In the New York Times story, experts told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about scenarios in which all of Manhattan south of Central Park might have to be closed off for decades, like the area around Chernobyl. Maybe no one would be killed in the explosion that would distribute the material over the island, but the stuff would still create a hazard that exceeds federal guidelines.

We should note that those scenarios are extreme, and involve materials that terrorists probably could not obtain, or handle if they did. Nonetheless, one might create a considerable panic with ordinary radioactive medical waste.

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