Whatever happened to Nuclear Terrorism?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

In 1982, Thomas Schelling opened an article with this warning:

Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.

So, whatever happened to nuclear terrorism?

I think now that we failed to appreciate that theft of weapons-grade fissile material was only a first step in a difficult process of getting stolen material to a dangerous customer.

Imagine that you have succeeded in stealing a Picasso insured for many millions of dollars, and you know that there are people willing to pay several millions for it: how do you find your customer? You cannot put a want ad in the New York Times.

If you have weapons-grade uranium for which you know someone is willing to pay a high price you probably need someone able to get it out of the country, who can meet someone somewhere who can be in touch with someone who is in touch with someone who is known to be willing to kill to get the stuff, who may pay handsomely. At every stage someone has much money, someone has stuff worth much money, someone gets a commission, and somebody may be willing to kill for the money or for the bomb material.

Eventually, if all goes well, a “supplier” and a “customer” representing the terrorist organization may meet in a public place, each with a few unrecognizable body guards, to consummate the deal. At that point I fantasize that the seller and the buyer recognize each other, one is from the CIA and the other from the Israeli Mossad. Each is engaged in a “sting” operation, and they shake hands and go back to work.

Assume the sale succeeds. The terrorist organization needs the people who can convert the fissile material into an explosive. It needs several highly trained scientists in physics, chemistry, computer science, and metallurgy, and highly skilled machinists and others who can produce something technologically demanding. The fact that a bomb design can be found on the internet, doesn’t make it easy. Anyone can find out how to make a Chevrolet, or an MRI or a CAT scan; there’s no secret, but it’s not easy!

Recruiting must be a problem. There are three main avenues. Loyal terrorists, if they have the skills, may be happy to join. Pay may attract the needed people. Coercion—threatening family, etc.—may work. But there’s always the chance that the persons approached can become informants. Pay may be unattractive if the potential contractor suspects that any organization willing to kill thousands or millions wouldn’t hesitate to kill a nuclear scientists rather than pay him at the, end of his contract, especially to preclude his becoming an informant. As in the process of avoiding enemy intelligence in the chain of transactions getting the fissile material to the ultimate customer, there is the difficulty of “advertising” for participants in an enterprise that requires leaving job and family and going off to a secret location from which he may never return.

I love the bit of meta-analysis:

If a team is assembled that, in isolation, spends months making a workable bomb, or a few bombs, what will they spend their evening hours talking about? They are all concentrated on a nuclear weapon. Won’t they continually converse about what the thing is good for, what should properly be done with it, how it might be used to advance some important objective, and whether they might have any influence on its use? They will almost certainly have spent more hundreds of hours trying to think strategically about the possible uses of a few nuclear weapons than any head of government, or even senior government adviser has devoted to the question. It’s possible—I think likely—that they may be listened to. And what “strategy” might they propose?

I propose that they will conclude that exploding a weapon over Los Angeles or Vladivostok or Bremen will “waste” the weapon. They will think, “we are a nuclear power. There are the USA, Russia, France, Britain, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Maybe Iran, and now US. We have status, power, influence. Let’s use it!”
But I have not yet given as many hours of thought to this subject as that team will have done by the time they’ve produced a nuclear bomb.

That conclusion humbly sidesteps the fact that Schelling is one of the world’s greatest game theorists.


  1. Sconzey says:

    I used to work for a defense contractor. Incredible colleagues; the kind of guys you hope never become terrorists.

    One of them argued that in fact the simplest nuclear weapon (assuming one has suitably enriched plutonium) is to rent out a whole floor of an office block, remove all the internal partitions, lay a pipe diagonally across the middle, separate your fissile material into two sub-critical masses, put them into opposite ends of the tube, pack the ends behind the fissile material with cordite, or blasting caps, or whatever. He said you’d get a lot of fizzling and very little efficiency, but it would go “boom”.

    Using a skyscraper allows you to get the height to most efficiently use you tiny explosion.

    I think he said that would only work with plutonium as well.

    Every day I thank God he uses his powers for good, and not evil.

  2. Doctor Pat says:

    You’re not actually supposed to put ideas that easy to implement on the Internet.

    I did it once in a forum discussion, mentioned some extremely straightforward thing that would probably take out a city. I thought it was obvious, but the replies I got indicated that nobody else understood it. I realized that if I was to explain the details, then I’d be putting out information that was clearly not obvious. And that if anyone ever did it I’d be wondering for the rest of my life if I was partly responsible.

    So now I only discuss such things with people I actually know IRL.

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