As for the question posed by the title of the Mark/Taylor paper, the answer is "yes" but with a long tail of variables, caveats and troubles that either must be faced or which can arise unpredictably. NB, a recent take on the same question is dealt with in Foreign Policy's "The Bomb in the Backyard," written to address a theoretical bin Laden effort and styled more toward a non-technical audience Subscription needed for the full text).
Astute readers know that news organizations like the Times never have trouble finding experts who will attach the worst possible interpretation to security issues. This is part of the inescapable nature of the war on terror. Sometimes there is unvarnished truth from them. But quite often they are just an appropriate-sounding bleat of concerned noise out of the religious belief and slogan, "9/11 changed everything."
Now, to further soil your underwear with demonical atomic menaces to America, let's take a trip to a news item in the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks earlier. The security problem: The US government's nuclear materials storage facility at Oak Ridge, TN, wasn't superheroically protected enough against potential terrorist assaults, terrorists who could assemble and detonate an improvised nuclear device in minutes. That's right, minutes. "It is believed such a device could have a yield equal to that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb," wrote the newspaper.
The reader should be left wondering why anyone needs plans to put together an atom bomb if terrorists under fire can lash one together in a relative moment.
But this, too, originates specifically from - guess where - the New York Times. Chasing the suicidal nuke bomber threat, Matthew Wald of the paper dug up the expert in 2002. In this instance it was Frank von Hippel of Princeton University, saying, as paraphrased by the paper, "that a 100-pound mass of uranium dropped on a second 100-pound mass, from a height of about 6 feet, could produce a blast of 5 to 10 kilotons." Which, you'll note, is less than the Hiroshima bomb although still a pretty big bang.
Von Hippel also seemed to indicate to the Times that any such improvised blast might yield as little as a kiloton and that actually finding the right kind of uranium would be "a challenge." Nevertheless, the story has been flogged by news organizations and a public interest group interested in security whoopie cushions and gotchas since then, conjuring the images of an al Qaeda team with atom scientists more expert than US atom men, jerry-rigging chunks of weapons grade uranium onto a hoist while machine gun fire envelops them.
Historically, Manhattan Project scientist Luis Alvarez's 1988 autobiography used to be the primary source for this idea. Alvarez wrote "With modern weapons grade uranium the background neutron rate is so low that terrorists, if they had such material, would have a good chance of setting off a high yield explosion by dropping one half of the material on to the other half." When citing Alvarez, other physicists used to tend to mention there was no guarantee this would work at all.
Mark, for example, claimed, "What [Alvarez] meant by 'high yield' or 'good chance" are not explained..." You tend not to find such statements, however, in newspapers because they spoil the narrative.
And it would seem if North Korea had known how simple it all is, it could have saved itself the embarrassment over a botched first test shot. ®
George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.