Nukes and Dirty Bombs

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Joe Carter examines a number of myths about the dangers of dirty bombs and suitcase nukes (with some comments also about nuclear power plants at the end). I didn't know most of this stuff. His sources look to me to be about as reliable as you get. His conclusion: these tactics really are aimed at evoking paranoia and wouldn't really do anywhere near as much damage as you would think from the way people talk about it. It would be bad if a terrorist exploded a dirty bomb in the middle of Manhattan, but most people's attitudes toward it are far beyond what the threat really is. Someone a mile away would have a stronger radiation threat from getting an X-ray, but I think he's right that most people's fears stem from thinking the whole city would be uninhabitable with everyone anywhere near the city dying of cancer within a year.


It is fairly easy to construct a dirty bomb, since the intention is to spew forth radiological particles into the environment without initiating the more rigorous chain reaction. You won't necessarily need weapons-grade, fissionable material, and delivery system is relatively simple (a converted truck carrying normal TNT or C4 would do the job).

What becomes a challenge for terrorists, though, is if the design specifies a thermonuclear reaction and not just a passive radioactive decay. In that case the paraphernalia would be more complex, the raw material is under much stricter control (unless they can either steal or buy one off the black market, or - heaven forbid - a rogue state like North Korea is secretly supplying them), and you know that the feds will be on the lookout for them.

Of course, if you can get your hands on a "Soviet suitcase" thermonuclear device and you are currently reading Parableman sitting in Time Square with the detonator in your hands, then I salute you for pointing out how far we still have to go - after you incinerate New York, of course.

I want to add that the fissionable material (either U-235 or plutonium) is *the* big hurdle for the terrorists. The actual design of the device is already in the public domain, and any engineering grad student worth his/her salt should be able to design a fairly crude thermonuclear device. But the weapons-grade material is the key: Without it the device is one hunking lump of metal. So the focus on nuclear arms control has a lot to do with tracking and inventory of uranium and plutonium and making sure that Denver, Colorado, doesn't end up being nuked (see "Sum of All Fears").

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