The myth of the home-bake terror nuke 'cookbooks'
Who needs Iraqi A-bomb plans anyway?
Analysis Predictably, the Nov. 3 New York Times revelation that sensitive documents on a-bomb design, recovered from Saddam Hussein's regime and released on-line, became a political football. If there was value in it, as opposed to red meat for Democrat blogs, it was swept away by the mania inspired by a Times source, one anonymous diplomat, who was quoted as claiming them to be a "cookbook" of methods.
An eye-rolling statement, it was used to rip Republicans. And they had it coming, enamored as the GOP has become of declaring that about half the United States' citizens are unpatriotic slugs who want to lose the war.
But the Times has become infamous for its clowning claims about all types of weapons of mass destruction, and this was quickly noted by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientist's Secrecy Project. Aftergood criticized journalist William Broad's piece, writing "the New York Times story failed to include an appropriate note of skepticism about the significance of the disclosures" and that its reporter "also has a penchant for telling and retelling a sensational, counterintuitive story that the government is failing to protect sensitive national security secrets." (For more Times overcooking, see also, or anything by Judith Miller).
What the Times declined to include in its story was that the methods for building atom bombs have not been particularly secret for decades. While some information on design is, for want of a better word, secret - and I'll get to this in a moment - the basic principles can be worked up from scratch by a dedicated team of scientists with skills in a wide range of complex disciplines. The requirement writes off the simple-minded notion of a "cookbook" - ready to download - on atom bomb design.
This information has been conveyed in seminars and courses on nuclear proliferation for years, although perhaps many might not be expected to know it. The nub of it is illustrated by a read of the semi-technical paper, "Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?", written by atom scientists J. Carson Mark, Theodore Taylor and others, published in 1987. Mark had been the director of the Los Alamos Theoretical Division for 26 years. He died in 1997.
Theodore Taylor was the creator of the smallest as well as largest a-bombs in the US arsenal and was legendary for efficiency and elegance in design, passing on in 2004.
The scientists wrote, "Schematic drawings of fission explosive devices of the earliest types showing in a qualitative way the principles used in achieving the first fission explosions are widely available."
Broad described the Iraqi a-docs as "roughly a dozen in number, [containing] charts, diagrams, equations and lengthy narratives about bomb building that nuclear experts who have viewed them say go beyond what is available elsewhere..." In this case, "information on how to build nuclear firing circuits and triggering explosives, as well as the radioactive cores of atom bombs."
But here the lay of the land gets squishy. Language is inexact when describing what constitutes detailed information and how much of it encompasses not only the science and engineering, but also the art of the work. The New York Times~, in any case, came up short in this area:
"...the detailed design drawings and specifications that are essential before it is possible to plan the fabrication of actual parts are not available," wrote Mark and Taylor. "The preparation of these drawings requires a large number of man hours and the direct participation of individuals thoroughly informed in several quite distinct areas: the physical, chemical and metallurgical properties of the various materials to be used, as well as the characteristics affecting their fabrication, neutronic properties, radiation effects... technology concerning high explosives and/or chemical propellants, some hydrodynamics, electrical circuitry and others."
Hmmm, sounds more complex, requiring an integrated effort and a library of plans, rather than just an electronic dozen.
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.