The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
The Under Secretary for Nuclear Security of the Department of Energy
The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
The Commander of the United States Strategic Command
It may be that General John Hyten, the Head of the Strategic Command, who is in charge of the US nuclear triad, and General Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second highest ranking officer in the US, have never seen or heard of the 21st century nuclear winter studies. Perhaps when they hear a question about “nuclear winter”, they only remember the smear campaigns done against the early studies. Or maybe they just choose not to accept the new scientific research on nuclear winter, despite the fact that it has withstood the criticism of the global scientific community.
A colorized photo of the Baker detonation from Operation Crossroads. The underwater detonation rained down unanticipated fallout over a large area, covering the entire target fleet.
In July of 1946, the US military conducted a pair of nuclear weapons tests on the previously inhabited island of Bikini, a coral atoll in the Marshall Islands chain. Advertised as a “defensive” test to see how ships would withstand a nuclear blast, the tests—code-named “Crossroads”—were described by the Manhattan Project team as “the most publicly advertised secret test ever conducted.”
The National Security Archive project at George Washington University has assembled a collection of documents and videos related to the Bikini tests—the second of which would be called “the world’s first nuclear disaster“by Atomic Energy Commission chairman Glenn T. Seaborg. The Baker explosion, detonated underwater, was the first to create significant fallout, as a “base surge” of irradiated water and debris washed over the entire fleet of target ships and Bikini’s lagoon itself.
Bikini was chosen for its deep, large lagoon, and because the island was far off international shipping routes. To prepare the site, the US Navy (which governed the Marshall Islands immediately following World War II) convinced the inhabitants of Bikini to relocate for the tests, which military governor Commodore Ben Wyatt told them was for “the good of all mankind and to end all world wars.”
A task force of over 42,000 people, including 38,000 from the Navy as well as over 3,000 from the Army and scientists and technicians from 15 universities and various defense contractors and other organizations, was organized for Operation Crossroads. A total of 94 vessels, ranging from aircraft carriers to landing craft, was moored in the lagoon of Bikini as a target fleet, carrying fuel and ammunition as well as a collection of tanks, trucks and other military equipment. Twenty-two of the ships were “crewed” by 109 mice, 146 pigs, 176 goats, 57 guinea pigs and 3,030 white rats (a fact that caused the tests to be widely protested by animal welfare organizations).
The fleet of target ships included aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and landing craft, among other ships. Some of the vessels had been declared excess inventory after the Navy had scaled down its forces, and others had been damaged during World War II. Three German and Japanese warships captured during the war were among the ships to be targeted.
The Able and Baker bombs were the same type of warheads used in the bombing of Nagasaki. But the results of the two tests were vastly different. Able was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress bomber, detonating in the air nearly a half mile from the intended target–the battleship USS Nevada. It sank five ships, and damaged another 40, many of them beyond potential repair. And while the Nevada survived the Able blast, neutron and gamma radiation penetrated the whole ship, killing the goats aboard standing in for its crew. Even in the deepest parts of the ship, radiation was measured at above a lethal dose. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist noted in its report on the test, that it showed “a large ship, about a mile away from the explosion, would escape sinking, but the crew would be killed by the deadly burst of radiations from the bomb, and only a ghost ship would remain, floating unattended in the vast waters of the ocean.”
But Able caused no significant contamination to the ships. While there was some metal aboard the ships rendered radioactive by the neutron bombardment, the ships were safely boarded within days of the Able blast, and there was little fallout.
Baker was detonated underwater, suspended 90 feet below a landing craft (of which no identifiable part was ever found after the test). Nine ships were sunk by the detonation, including the battleship USS Arkansas. Many others were damaged severely by the shockwave and the tsunami that followed the collapse of the gas bubble created by the detonation. But the entire target fleet was engulfed by a “base surge”–a cascade of radioactive flotsam that spread out from the detonation, engulfing most of the test area and contaminating everything in its path with fallout. The degree of fallout was far beyond anything the military had prepared for.
The Navy initially attempted to decontaminate many of the surviving ships from the Baker test. But nothing short of taking them down to bare metal worked, and the Navy crews were unprepared to deal with decontamination on such a large scale. Many were exposed to high levels of radiation. The radiological safety officer for Operation Crossroads, Army doctor Colonel Stafford Warren, lobbied hard to abandon the effort, and finally convinced the head of the task force, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William H. P. Blandy, by showing him an x-ray of a fish from the lagoon–an x-ray taken using only the radiation coming from plutonium in the fish itself.
IF TERRORISTS GOT HOLD OF A NUCLEAR WEAPON THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES
Jul 4th 2016, 11:00
TO SEE a nuclear horror story unfold, look no further than YouTube. In “My Nuclear Nightmare”, a five-minute graphic film, Bill Perry, a former American defence secretary, describes how a breakaway faction of a rogue state’s security forces enriches 40 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in a secret facility and then constructs what appears to be a crude bomb, similar in design and yield to the kind that obliterated Hiroshima. It then transports the bomb in a box labelled “agricultural equipment” by civilian cargo aircraft to Dubai and on to Washington, DC. It is soon loaded onto a delivery truck and driven to Pennsylvania Avenue, where it is detonated at the halfway point between the White House and the Capitol building.
What follows is excruciating. More than 80,000 people are instantly killed, including the president, the vice-president and every member of Congress present. Another 100,000 are severely injured. Phones are down. A little later, it gets even worse: TV news stations have received a message that there are five more such bombs hidden in five more American cities. One bomb will be triggered each week unless all American troops serving abroad are immediately sent home. Panic ensues as people stream out of cities, and with the administration wiped out by the blast there is a constitutional crisis. Martial law is declared as looting and rioting spread; military detention centres spring up across the country.
How plausible is Mr Perry’s gut-churning scenario? Even pariah regimes care a lot about nuclear security. The idea that a breakaway group would manage to set up a clandestine enrichment facility in a place like Iran or even North Korea thankfully stretches credulity. Regimes that invest in a nuclear-weapons capability, despite all the political and economic costs associated with such programmes, do so for one reason only: their own survival. They do not do it to empower terrorist groups, even those they might sympathise with. Attribution would be inevitable, as would retribution once it had been established.
But concern about rogue nukes is serious enough for Barack Obama to have made a major effort during his presidency to stop terrorists from getting hold of either a nuclear weapon or fissile material that could be turned into one. He organised four nuclear-security summits aimed at creating better global safeguards to prevent highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium falling into the wrong hands. Progress has been made: HEU has been removed from 30 countries; many research reactors and isotope-production facilities have been closed or converted to use low-enriched uranium; security has been tightened at dozens of storage sites.
Despite those efforts, 24 states still have 1kg or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and nearly 2,000 tonnes of weapons-usable nuclear materials (1,400 of HEU, 500 of plutonium) remain stored around the world, much of it still vulnerable to theft, in the view of Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an advocacy organisation. A terrorist group would not need much fissile material to make a nuclear bomb–about enough HEU to fill a 2kg bag of sugar or a quantity of plutonium the size of a grapefruit. Moreover, the world has about 17,000 assembled nuclear weapons (although all but 1,000 of them are in either America or Russia). Harvard’s Belfer Centre calculates that it would require the theft of only 0.01% of the stockpile to “cause a global catastrophe”.
Beware of dirty tricks
Al-Qaeda has long had the ambition to acquire a nuclear device and there is little doubt that Islamic State (IS), in Mr Obama’s words, is “seeking nuclear material to kill as many people as possible”. Thanks to its control of territory, oil revenues and ability to recruit qualified engineers, a nuclear-capable IS seems all too plausible one day if it survives long enough. In a scenario envisaged at the most recent of Mr Obama’s nuclear-security summits, held in Washington, DC, in April, IS buys nuclear material from a medical facility sold to it by “insiders” through the dark web, constructs several “dirty bombs” and then detonates them from commercially available drones flying over a city.
Not a huge amount of engineering sophistication is required to build a “dirty bomb” or, to give it its more technical name, a radiological dispersal device (RDD). It consists of radiological waste wrapped in conventional explosives, which when detonated throw radioactive particles into the surrounding area. In 1995 Chechen rebels actually planted such a device in a Moscow park but did not detonate it.
A terrorist group would not need much fissile material to make a nuclear bomb
The lethality of an RDD is limited and in no way stands comparison with the destructive power of even the smallest fission device. More people would be killed by the initial explosion than by the radioactive materials. The psychological impact would nonetheless be big and an area of a city that would require expensive and painstaking clean-up before it could be reinhabited could extend to several blocks. In short, it would be an effective terror weapon, but hardly an existential threat.
…and a battlefield bazaar
A scenario of a different kind may have been among the dangers depicted in a video shown to world leaders at Mr Obama’s nuclear-security summit in April. Pakistan has long been a concern because it has at least 100 nuclear warheads (and is producing more at a fair clip) while at the same time being a crucible of jihadist terrorism. Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who has spent time with the Pakistani nuclear authorities, notes that there have been no thefts, seizures or accidents involving Pakistan’s fissile material. But there is still good reason to be fearful. IS has boasted in its online magazine, Dabiq, that it could purchase a weapon from corrupt officials in Pakistan.
In the past few years Pakistan has developed a number of short-range battlefield nuclear weapons as a counter to India’s growing conventional military superiority. These weapons are destabilising at best because of their proximity to the frontline of any conflict and the pressure to “use them or lose them”. But they suffer from another defect: at times of crisis they would be dispersed and put under the command of relatively junior officers.
There are intelligence reports of “mated” nuclear weapons (devices with all their component parts) being driven around Islamabad in unprotected civilian vans. According to some estimates, up to 40% of Pakistan’s middle-ranking army officers are to some extent radicalised. The possibility of rogue elements, with knowledge of where small nukes were to be deployed, working with a terrorist group is real enough, as is a jihadist attack on a base where such weapons are kept. Supposedly the enabling and authenticating codes that arm the weapons are in the hands of the civilian-led National Command Authority, but in reality it is the army that keeps them.
What if a jihadist group obtained an armed battlefield missile with the intention of triggering a nuclear exchange with India?What if a jihadist group obtained an armed battlefield missile with the intention of triggering a nuclear exchange with India? About 20m people would be killed directly, but the massive firestorms would send up to 5m tonnes of smoke into the stratosphere, leading to a “nuclear winter” in which crops around the world failed and hundreds of millions died of starvation. The thing about nuclear nightmares is that they come in all shapes and sizes.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
ROUNDTABLE: WHAT PATH FOR NUCLEAR SECURITY BEYOND THE 2016 SUMMIT?
22 MAY 2016
What keeps me up at night—US East Coast time—is reading Turkey’s morning news concerning Syria and Iraq. The insomnia is especially severe when my thoughts turn to nuclear security not just in Syria and Iraq but in countries throughout the Middle East.
All participants in this roundtable agree that, despite the achievements of the Nuclear Security Summits, the threat of nuclear terrorism is not necessarily diminishing. In the Middle East, nuclear terrorism seems a particularly immediate concern. True, the region lacks large quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. But its political instability and its tendency toward violent extremism are conditions that can enable nuclear terrorism.
According to the 2016 Nuclear Security Index, published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Middle Eastern nations rank poorly when it comes to safeguarding their nuclear materials from theft. Of the 24 countries that possess at least 1 kilogram of weapons-usable nuclear materials, two are Middle Eastern: Israel and Iran. The Index ranks these countries near the bottom of the theft-protection list. Israel comes in at number 20 and Iran at 23.
Among the 152 countries with less than 1 kilogram of weapons-usable nuclear materials, about a dozen are Middle Eastern. They are all over the lot in their vulnerability to theft—from the United Arab Emirates at number 24 to Syria at 151 (just above Somalia). Clearly, the region’s efforts to prevent nuclear theft are not strong enough.
Where vulnerability to nuclear sabotage is concerned, the Middle East does even worse. Of the 45 countries in NTI’s sabotage index, five are Middle Eastern. Israel—the highest-ranking of the five—comes in at number 36. Iran is tied with North Korea for last place.
And as my roundtable colleague Hubert Foy has discussed, concern about nuclear materials is not limited to fissile materials. Radiological sources are also an issue of pressing concern. The Middle East’s generally lax security environment, along with its political instability, makes the misuse of radiological sources more likely in this region than in many other places.
Civilian radiological sources are ubiquitous, particularly in medicine. They would be relatively easy to access in children’s hospitals, for example. Luckily, most radioactive sources are not easily dispersible. Their half-lives are short. They could contaminate only limited areas. Moreover, anyone attempting to steal an unshielded source might die from acute radiation exposure. Still, using a radiological source in a “dirty bomb” could create panic and terror in local populations. A dirty bomb would turn affected areas into no-go zones for a number of years, which would have profound economic repercussions.
Another reason to be concerned about Middle Eastern nuclear security is the planned expansion of nuclear power in the region. Some nations, pointing toward Iran’s limited right to enrich uranium under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will also wish to enrich uranium domestically. To be sure, such nations have the right to pursue the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including uranium enrichment. But in order to alleviate international concerns about their enrichment capacity, these nations must develop robust laws regarding nuclear security. They must establish procedures for secure interim storage of nuclear materials. And they must make final disposition plans for spent fuel and radioactive waste.
The International Atomic Energy Agency can help with all of those tasks. It has the authority, resources, and expertise for the job. But a lot of work will nonetheless fall to state regulatory authorities. A key challenge will be for regulators to establish independence from political authorities. A key component of success, meanwhile, will be identifying nuclear security approaches appropriate to the region—via close cooperation between regulators and the nuclear industry. Here the Nuclear Security Summits can extend their legacy. The Nuclear Industry Summits that ran parallel to the Nuclear Security Summits offer a valuable model for including industry in the dialogue toward establishing good nuclear security practices in the Middle East.
No one has used nuclear weapons since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima 71 years ago — the only time a country has used nuclear weapons against its enemies.
But it’s not likely the world can go another 71 years without a nuclear weapon being used against people, Nunn said on the University of Georgia campus Tuesday.
“I would hope so, but the odds are against it,” Nunn said. Nine countries now have nuclear weapons, and two more, Iran and North Korea, have nuclear aspirations, Nunn told a large crowd in the auditorium of the university’s Russell Libraries Building, which houses UGA’s special library collections.
“The thing I worry about a great deal is that we’re in a new era where states no longer have the monopoly on nuclear weapons or material or knowledge,” he said.
The best defense against that reality is keeping nuclear materials out of their hands, Nunn said.
Perry joined the crowd on a big video screen via an Internet link from his faculty office at Stanford University as he and Nunn delivered UGA’s annual Charter Lecture. The lecture is named for the 1785 UGA charter, the first such charter granted in the new United States after the Revolution.
It’s at least partly by luck that the Soviet Union and the United States never launched nuclear missiles at each other, said Perry, secretary of defense from 1994-97 under President Bill Clinton.
The United States at least three times received false alarms when the military thought the Soviets had launched a nuclear attack, and “we know of at least two (false alarms) in the Soviet Union,” he said.
The dangers back then were twofold, he said — accidental war resulting from a false alarm, and a “war of miscalculation,” which was narrowly avoided during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In each day of that 12-day period, “I truly believed it was going to be my last day on Earth,” Perry said.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided war “as much by good luck as by good management” in 1962, he said.
We still have those two dangers today, plus two more, Perry said.
There’s a real danger a terrorist group such as ISIS could get hold of nuclear material and make a so-called “dirty bomb,” in which radioactive material is mixed with explosives and set off in a major city.
That wouldn’t kill a lot of people, compared to an atomic bomb, but it would render large areas uninhabitable, tremendously disrupt the economy and force a large migration of people, Nunn said.
“What it would do to the world economy, even one weapon, could be very destabilizing,” Nunn said. “The abandonment of a city would be a thing to behold.”
The second new danger is the possibility of a regional war, a possibility that didn’t exist during the Cold War, Perry said.
The United States and Russia must cooperate more than they have recently in order to keep nuclear material from getting into terrorists’ hands, Nunn said.
“Russia and the United States have 90 percent of the nuclear weapons. We have an obligation to work together. This is vital. This is existential,” Nunn said.
Russia has taken destabilizing actions recently, including violating the sovereignty of its neighbor, Ukraine, and “these are dangerous times,” Nunn said.
The most important way to prevent accidental war now is to get U.S. and Russian diplomatic relations back on track, Perry said.
- Recent report explains that nuclear threat rises as terror groups evolve
- The authors point to three types of nuclear or radiological terrorism
- Includes detonation of bomb, use of ‘dirty bomb,’ or sabotage of facility
- No firm indication of intentions yet, but report warns better security needed
- For the latest Islamic State news updates visit www.dailymail.co.uk/isis
THREAT OF NUCLEAR TERRORISM
- Detonation of an actual nuclear bomb
- Sabotage of a nuclear facility
- Use of a ‘dirty bomb’ to spread radioactive material
More than 1,800 tonnes of nuclear materials are stored worldwide in hundreds of sites, some guarded well, some not so. And no country, not even the US, has a perfect score. A security breach in one country has the potential to harm neighbouring countries.
Thus the need for governments to make all things nuclear more secure and impenetrable. The fourth and last Nuclear Security Summit being held in Washington on March 31-April 1 is expected to come up with an action plan for a more effective global nuclear security system, with a special session on threats posed by the IS.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and 50 other leaders will try to demonstrate that they carry the burden of nuclear materials with the seriousness they deserve, and that the store is properly locked to prevent anything from ever getting into the hands of terrorists.
Modi is said to be bringing some ‘house gifts’ — summit-speak for voluntary pledges — to show India’s continued commitment to nuclear security. The plan is to squeeze in a separate meeting with President Barack Obama and give him what possibly could be the last hug before the latter becomes a private citizen.
It would be a good opportunity to ask the Prez about pushing India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in earnest when the organisation meets for its annual plenary in June. It would be a good, well, ‘return gift’.
Obama has proved his leadership by forcing world attention on the highly technical subject of nuclear security through four summits since 2010. First Manmohan Singh and now Modi have supported the idea in full measure. Meanwhile, India has shown itself as a responsible power by signing and ratifying various international conventions against terrorism, including one on nuclear terrorism.
It has been working the corridors of the United Nations since 2002, introducing an annual resolution on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The exercise helped create traction for UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 adopted in April 2004, which imposed legally binding obligations on all countries to prevent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation by passing domestic laws and enforcing them.
It’s a good time to remember that UNSCR 1540 was partly a response to the discovery of the proliferation network run by a certain A Q Khan of Pakistan. The main question facing leaders at the summit is to find ways to continue to keep the eye on the ball and not allow inertia to set in.
But how does India fare on nuclear security when judged by outside experts? Turns out, not too well. And that’s sobering.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a US-based non-partisan, non-profit organisation working to raise awareness, continues to rank India low in its 2016 Nuclear Security Index with a score of 46 on a scale of 100. China is at 60 and Pakistan at 42. Australia comes out on top for the third time in a row.
Even though India’s ranking improved by two points since 2014, the main reason it hovers in the 40s is the lack of an independent regulatory agency to provide oversight and ensure accountability. Unfortunately, here, India is in the company of Iran and North Korea, the only other countries with weapons-grade nuclear material and no independent regulatory agency.
India also gets below-average marks on insider threat prevention (33), physical security during transportation (0) and control and accounting procedures (29). It gets average scores for political stability (55), effective governance (38), on-site protection (60), domestic legislation (50) and international assurances (40). But it scores high and gets above-average marks in cybersecurity (75), international legal commitments (100), implementation of UNSCR 1540 (100) and capabilities to respond (86).
Indian diplomats, at least officially, dismiss the index as a ‘private initiative’ based on private assessments. They neither recognise nor accept the NTI rankings. “Let them make their own judgements. We are not going to talk about nuclear security with a private entity,” said one official.
But unofficially, India does pay attention to the NTI index. Sheel Kant Sharma, India’s former permanent representative to the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency, is on the panel of NTI experts. To continue to bolster its credentials as a responsible stakeholder, New Delhi knows it must engage all sides, even those who are in the business of ranking.