New Nuclear Threat Is Based On Junk Science

The following news release appeared a few days ago:

“Chicago, February 27, 2002: Today, the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the minute hand of the ‘Doomsday Clock,’ the symbol of nuclear danger, from nine to seven minutes to midnight, the same setting at which the clock debuted 55 years ago. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, this is the third time the hand has moved forward.”

Since 1949, the hands on this clock have moved 18 times. In 1953 the Bulletin set the clock at 2 minutes to midnight, and in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, they backed the clock to 17 minutes before midnight. Since then it has moved closer 3 times to its present position of 7 minutes before midnight.

The position of the “Doomsday Clock” has always been big news. A movement never fails to capture the public’s imagination, especially when the movement is towards rather than away from midnight. After all, newsmakers and reporters and public leaders reason, “Atomic Scientists surely know whereof they speak.”


Well, probably – if it were actually atomic scientists doing the speaking, and if they were speaking about atomic weapons, about which they probably know a great deal.

So who are these folks alarming the world while posing as “Atomic Scientists”?

For starters, their real name is the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science (EFNS), formed in Chicago in 1949 as a non-profit organization. They are currently sponsored by – read, “These are people who allow their names to appear on their letterhead” – a group of 39 eminent men of science and letters, including 12 Nobel Laureates. They also list 26 deceased scientists and academics, including another 14 Nobel Laureates.

This is pretty impressive, so long as you don’t probe beneath the surface to discover who actually decides Bulletin editorial policy, EFNS organizational point of view, and the all-important Doomsday Clock position. The governing board consists of 15 people, nearly all from well-known intellectual groups holding political points of view ranging from the left to the far left. A partial listing includes the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Program on Global Security and Disarmament, Institute for International Peace Studies, and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. A complete listing can be found at their website.

These folks have a clear, well-defined agenda, one that – more often than not – is opposed to the official position of the U.S. government, and – more importantly – represents an outlook inherently bad for us, the citizens of the United States.

Hiding behind the guise of “Atomic Scientists,” these hard-core members of the intellectual left inject fear and panic into the social context every time they move their ominous clock nearer midnight. The most recent example of such paranoia is the media panic and government “back-and-fill” we have witnessed since Time magazine this week revealed the informant Dragonfly’s report that terrorists might have taken possession of a 10-kiloton Soviet nuclear warhead.

Media reports carried the Time assertions that such a weapon would flatten everything inside a radius of half a mile, kill 100,000 people outright, and irradiate another 700,000. A Fox News reporter breathlessly explained that this bomb would leave a mile-wide hole in the ground.

Come on, guys: Let’s get real!

Assuming that the weapon is real (and begging the question of whether or not al Qaeda terrorists actually got one), and that it really has an explosive yield of about 10 kilotons, then it probably came from one of the old Soviet MIRV (Multiple Independently-targeted Reentry Vehicle) missiles. The Hiroshima bomb was about 13 kilotons, but it was a very large, clumsy fission device. In order to make a 10- kiloton bomb sufficiently small to fit into a missile payload bay along with another 9 or 10 bombs, they all must be tritium-boosted thermonuclear devices – little hydrogen bombs.

Tritium-boosted devices work like this: You first construct a sphere about the size of and sectioned like a soccer ball, with the individual sections consisting of weapon’s grade plutonium. Next, you attach an explosive charge to each of the sections, fill the sphere with tritium (a radioactive form of hydrogen), and seal it so that nothing escapes.

To detonate the device, you set off the explosive charges simultaneously, so that all the plutonium meets forcefully at the center of the sphere where it commences a fission (atomic bomb) explosion, which in turn causes the tritium to undergo a fusion reaction, and presto-you have a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb explosion. By modifying the firing sequence of the explosive charges, you can vary where inside the sphere the fission explosion happens, resulting in a specific shape to the explosion, so that it delivers more of its energy at the target, and less to the surrounding environment.

This process is very precise and requires a degree of extraordinary accuracy in the detonation process. Any failure to meet the weapon’s precise design parameters will leave you with – literally – a pop and a fizzle. Furthermore, tritium is a very sneaky gas. It can slip through solid steel; it can escape like Houdini from any confinement. Nothing, absolutely nothing can retain tritium over the long haul. The U.S. weapons program continuously recharges the tritium in its boosted weapons, because the darn stuff simply leaks out, goes away, vanishes.

The Soviet Union collapsed over 10 years ago. Any weapon held by terrorists would be at least 10 years old. By now, any remaining tritium inside the sphere has certainly vanished like the value of Enron stock. Based on my analysis of current terrorism and nuclear weapons technology, I can say that no terrorist organization in the world has the ability to generate sufficient tritium to recharge one of these devices.

Even if they could recharge the device with tritium, they still are more likely to get a poof than a bang. It is highly unlikely that such a weapon could have been transported around for 10 years without suffering sufficient jarring and incidental damage to make the firing sequence totally unreliable.

What if they actually could make the weapon work?

In the first place, such a weapon is designed to explode high above the target in what weapon designers call an air-burst detonation, so that the force of the explosion is directed downward like a giant fist, crushing everything beneath it, and irradiating everything inside a broad cone. Al Qaeda terrorists simply lack the means to make it happen this way.

At best, they could transport the device to the top of a skyscraper for detonation. More realistically, they would have to explode it at some intermediate level. There is no way these guys can get the device to any level higher than 15 or 20 floors, but even this is unlikely. The only genuinely realistic scenario is a near ground burst from inside a residential building.

If they succeeded in setting off the device, the buildings immediately nearby would be history – not vaporized or melted, but merely knocked down and outward by the explosion. Remember, however, that these structures are built of concrete, steel, brick, and other dense, hard stuff. All this absorbs a great deal of energy. Nobody can say exactly what would happen but a half-mile radius of total destruction? No way! There’s simply too much material in the way that would absorb the energy of the blast.

Ditto for radiation. The high-energy neutrons generated by a nuclear detonation would penetrate two or three buildings, depending on how solidly they’ve been built, but that’s it. By the fourth building, all the HE neutrons would be gone. Gamma rays won’t get that far, and beta won’t get past the first building. Relatively innocuous alpha radiation is what would remain behind. If the HE neutrons have a clear path down a street or avenue, they would be deadly for quite a distance – at least a couple of miles, maybe more; but that’s it.

In the real world we live in, it is all but impossible for terrorists to successfully detonate a stolen Soviet nuclear weapon. Even if they succeeded, such a device exploded on or near the ground would be totally devastating at ground zero and would destroy most of the buildings within a couple of blocks, depending on what those buildings are made of.

The reckless and inaccurate prediction in Time magazine of a half-mile radius of destruction, 100,000 people dead and another 700,000 irradiated – that is pure junk science, right out of the pages of the left-wing Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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