Suitcase Bomb Feedback
got a fair bit of email correspondence from LRC readers regarding
on the blast and heat effects of a potential nuclear "suitcase"
bomb. Accordingly, I felt the questions and comments generated were
sufficiently high to offer this follow up article for readers' edification.
I realised that one has to be careful about making confident
assertions in a public article. No sooner had I noted the fact that
no major Taliban leader had been caught than the next day we hear
about Mullah Omar being holed up and then escaping the clutches
of the U.S. government via motorcycle.
temptation to draw comparisons was too much, but I couldn't quite
envisage a turbaned Steve McQueen hollering Allah Ho Akhbar!
through a massive beard as he evades the Nazis in The
on that whimsical note, I now go back to our mini atomic bomb.
the assumed bomb yield of one kiloton, one reader thought ten kilotons
was less difficult to manufacture than a lower yield because a higher
critical mass is easier to detonate and hence less conventional
explosive is required to enclose it.
is here that there lies some confusion as to what Bin Laden could
have. Media sources I have read speak of nuclear backpacks
as well as suitcases. The former can be carried whilst the
latter is wieldier. The backpack is alleged to have a yield of three
to five kilotons whilst the suitcase was only one kiloton.
alleged claim that 48 out of 132 backpacks and suitcases are unaccounted
for offers no clue either way, as it does not break down the numbers.
But, if it is a 5-kiloton backpack that Bin Laden has then the parameters
of my article need to be revised upwards by a factor of 1.7 for
blast damage and 2.2 for temperature effect. In other words, the
winds roar at 380 mph at one third of a mile instead of 1050 feet
and metals melt up to 1470 feet instead of 670 feet.
reader also raised the question of how viable these devices really
are and how long a "shelf life" they have. That is an important
question for if they do degrade without specialist maintenance and
if it presumed that these devices came onto the black market in
the mid-1990s then would they not have been used by now?
article I read suggests that these devices required a constant voltage
to stay alive and if the link was broken they would automatically
disarm. On the other hand, how many disaffected Muslim nuclear physicists
were tempted to join the Jihad against the West and offer their
valuable services in maintaining these devices? The evidence is
scant to say the least but it is alleged by the media that
such scientists were consulted by Al Qaida.
brings us to a more basic question of whether these devices should
have been used by now if they were acquired years ago? That may
well mean that Bin Laden has no fission device but I could also
ask why the four-plane attack of September 11th was executed in
2001 rather than 1994? Are terrorists ultimately wary of doing such
a thing and may actually be deterred by how they think America may
react? Bin Laden reduced the World Trade Centre towers to rubble.
America responded by reducing the Taliban to rubble and denting
the Al Qaida network. Bin Laden may be bloodthirsty but he is not
another twist to rapidly moving news, the Cessna
suicide crash a few days ago in Tampa shows that such a
delivery method is feasible. Admittedly, a coastguard helicopter
tracked the plane and fighter jets were scrambled but one can easily
imagine the acquisition of a private plane being a much more silent
operation to determined terrorists.
to the height itself, another correspondence concerned the optimal
height for an airburst and 1.8km was suggested as one such height.
According to my tables, the maximal height depends on the PSI (pounds
per square inch) effect the aggressor wants to maximise. For example,
to maximise 30 PSI effects for a one megaton bomb (i.e. reinforced
concrete structures collapse), the height should be 1 mile. If he
wants to break as many windows as possible (1 PSI) then the height
should be 3 miles.
these are for a 1 kiloton bomb, I do not know and I suspect the
terrorists will be mainly concerned with just being above the shielding
effects of average city buildings.
readers suggested a plane is not necessary at all and a terrorist
could just go to the top of a building and detonate. That is possible,
so long as a nervous looking Arab with a funny looking backpack
can get past security. I personally think terrorists would take
minimal risks in displaying the device to the public but then again
once they are near ground zero the bets are off.
correspondents further informed me that the topology of Miami and
Houston are as flat as pancakes plus Houston has plenty of flammable
petrochemical plants. I commiserate with them but hope is offered
in another reader who suggested that the political content of the
target is the main priority to a terrorist and hence Washington
D.C. was highest on the list. This has some merit since Bin Laden
seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble to attack the highly symbolic
WTC towers. Ultimately, we don't know what the hit list priorities
finally, one reader asked about blindness incurred by the flash
and I must say that this is a major factor for anyone hoping to
survive. His suggestion concerned commuters on the freeways looking
steadfastly towards the city centre skyline at the moment of detonation.
I readily concur that this could render many permanently blind or
merely dazzled for a few minutes. The required radiation to inflict
retinal burning is probably at a distance which offers low probability
of survival anyway but dazzled victims are at a real disadvantage
of escaping the up and coming blast wave if they cannot get out
of their cars and find shelter. Unfortunately, the blast wave will
only take seconds to reach everyone in the outer perimeters.
statistics remain largely the same – a 1 in 7250 chance of suffering
due to a nuclear terrorist attack. Most people would take a bet
on surviving those odds. As I view the varying opinions, I still
tend to the opinion that possession of a nuclear device by Bin Laden
is closer to "not likely" than "possibly".
again, thank you to everyone for the interesting correspondence.
Watson [send him
mail] writes from Edinburgh, Scotland.