The Coming Nuclear Attack on the US – III

February 21, 2010

Al Qaeda wants to get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

(Note that my reference to al Qaeda is somewhat generic, in the same way we refer to organized crime as ‘the Mafia.’ Whether the perpetrator is al Qaeda or some parallel or spinoff gang really doesn’t matter. If al Qaeda isn’t the ultimate perpetrator it will be something that looks just like it.)

As I pointed out yesterday, the biggest problem anyone faces in building a nuke is acquiring enough weapons-grade nuclear fuel to build a bomb. Building the bomb itself is relatively easy. Yes, you can do it in a cave.

When it comes to building a nuclear weapon, the only real advantage a technologically-advanced society has (outside of fuel production itself) is in higher destruction per unit of fuel and, probably, a physically lighter and smaller device.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA official, has detailed al Qaeda’s 20-year quest to acquire nuclear fuel. al Qaeda are infinitely patient, believing in the aphorism, “the Americans have the watches but we have the time.”

When asked why al Qaeda has apparently done little visible mayhem in the United States most government experts will cite our heightened law enforcement and surveillance techniques.

The real reason is that al Qaeda has not yet been able to come up with something more devastating, more horrifying, than the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 is a tough act to follow. Bringing down 2 100-story buildings and killing 3000 isn’t easy to repeat. Airliner hijacking is pretty much out. That was a trick that worked once, but won’t work again. (Well, not even once, really. Don’t forget that the last of the four hijacked planes failed in its mission when the passengers discovered, via cell phone, what had happened to the other three planes. The passengers managed to cause enough chaos on United Flight 93 so that it crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, rather than its likely target, the Capitol or the White House).

al Qaeda is known to have experimented with a variety of WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) including chemical and biological agents. There is credible evidence that they learned what Western nations have known all along—managing chemical and biological weapons on a large scale is difficult at best. If you want guaranteed results, the only WMD worth considering is a nuke.

And, for a nuke you need weapons-grade fuel. And, what’s the best source of weapons-grade fuel? Why right next door to Afghanistan—in Pakistan. That’s the reason there’s so much commotion along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border right now. All the Islamic radicals can smell the prize that awaits them in a destabilized Pakistan: weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

Once you’ve got the fuel, building the bomb is easy; smuggling it in to the United States is only slightly more difficult.

Once the bomb is in the United States, what will they do with it? It depends on the quality of the weapon.

According to the New York Times, “al Qaeda seems focused on the nuclear option. Its stated goal is to kill four million Americans.” If they can acquire or build a state-of-the-art nuke, their best chance for this kind of kill would be to detonate the device in the middle of Manhattan—about the only place in the US where the population is sufficiently concentrated so that a single nuke can achieve this kind of result.

But, if they are unable to build a bomb that has a reasonable prospect of this kind of death toll, their best alternative is Washington. Because of its much lower population density, 4 million deaths are unlikely but the destruction of virtually every physical symbol of the American government would be assured. A smaller-than-Hiroshima device would take out every memorable building and monument in the capitol.

Neither of the above scenarios would likely destroy our country or our government but either would likely light the fuse to World War III.

I make no guesses as to what WWIII might look like.


The Coming Nuclear Attack on the US – II

February 20, 2010

Yesterday I made (or, more correctly, parroted) a prediction that I’d rather not have made at all: Within the lifetimes of most of the readers of this column, a nuclear weapon will be detonated somewhere in the United States.

First, a brief on nuclear weapons. They aren’t that hard to understand and they aren’t that hard to build. For most wannabe nuclear powers, the problem is getting enough ‘fuel,’ or weapons-grade radioactive material. Refining, or enriching, nuclear fuel to a concentration sufficient to produce an effective weapon is not easy. It requires considerable time, knowledge, and sophisticated equipment. The only reason there are so few nuclear powers in the world today is the difficulty in obtaining enough enriched fuel to cobble together a bomb.

Building a nuclear weapon is not difficult.  At its simplest it involves nothing more than slamming two pieces of fuel together quickly enough to achieve a ‘critical mass.’ Any graduate nuclear engineer, given sufficient enriched fuel could, with the assistance of a few Igors, put together a device that would achieve critical mass and produce a nuclear explosion. The trade-off comes in size, weight, and yield.

For example, given sufficient quantities of U-235, a builder could put together a relatively simple “gun bomb” like the one that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. “Little Boy,” as the device was called, was grossly inefficient. It contained 64 kg of enriched uranium, of which 0.7 kg underwent nuclear fission, and of this mass only 0.6 grams was transformed into energy. In other words, the U-235 that actually underwent transformation weighed less than a paper clip and yet yielded the explosive power of somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 tons of conventional explosives. The overall weight of “Little Boy” was about 9000 lbs.

Iranian Nuclear Processing Facility

Needless to say, the efficiencies of modern military-grade weapons are much, much better than they were in 1945. The amount of fuel needed for a high-yield weapon could be less than twenty lbs. provided a fairly sophisticated design were used. Even in an unsophisticated IND, twenty or thirty lbs. of fuel could yield a few kilotons of explosive effect, enough to destroy or damage most things within, say, a mile and produce a fallout plume worth worrying about.

The current physics and design of nuclear weapons is widely available. There’s enough on the internet to instruct someone with reasonable technical skills on the construction of at least a crude bomb. If you’re a geek with nothing else to do, spend some time reading up. You’ll find a lot of very smart people have been up late conjuring ideas that would do more damage with less material. There are dozens of great designs out there.

The most important thing to remember is this: given sufficient fuel any motivated group can build an effective nuclear weapon.

Nuclear Gas Centrifuges

So, where to get the fuel? Most of the weapons-grade nuclear fuel is under the lock and key of the major nuclear powers; fuel rods from nuclear reactors don’t count. They represent a potential source of fuel but would have to undergo considerable and difficult-to-conceal enrichment. There is rumored to be a lot of weapons-grade nuclear fuel in the hands of penurious former Soviet nuclear physicists but, so far, this fuel (if it exists) hasn’t shown up in the nuclear black market in large quantities.

The guys to worry about right now are the ones with unstable or ‘rogue’ governments and military-grade nuclear weapons already on hand. Obviously, the top candidates here are Pakistan and North Korea.

North Korea is ‘hungry’ enough (literally) to sell weapons grade nuclear fuel but is unlikely to do so because, if caught providing it to terrorists, they can kiss their asses goodbye. Hardly anyone would shed a tear.

Pakistan, on the other hand, presents the most eminent danger. They have (according to some estimates) 60-100 military-grade deliverable weapons, a strong Islamic tradition, an unstable and only marginally popular government, and they currently are fending off encroachments from Taliban and/or al Qaeda terrorists. A takeover of the Pakistani government by radical Muslim terrorists is a real possibility. And, with the takeover would come access to nuclear weapons. Even if the bombs themselves prove unusable because of well-engineered ‘fail-safe’ interlocks, the fuel can be extracted and re-used. There’s no danger of the bombs going off accidentally.

Tomorrow: a guess at al Qaeda’s nuclear strategy against the United States.

The Coming Nuclear Attack on the US – I

February 19, 2010

An attempted terrorist attack on the United States in the next few years is “a certainty.”

This opinion is held by Leon Panetta, Director of the CIA, Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, and Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller.

Unfortunately, these three agree not only that an attack is a certainty but they also agree that the weapon most likely to be used is a nuclear bomb.

There has been ample speculation about why there have been no major terrorist attacks against the United States since 9/11. Some would like to believe that DHS, TSA, FBI, NSA, CIA, NRO, ATF, ICE and all the other three-letter agencies charged with preserving our safety are doing a crack-up job of stopping terrorism dead in its tracks.

Wiser heads don’t buy this improved enforcement theory for a second. Our borders are as porous as ever. The recent, almost comic, attempt of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber, to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight shows that we’re barely able to deal with the inept and mentally ill.

The most intelligent unclassified speculation to which I have access places al Qaeda at the head of the list of likely suspects looking for the means and opportunity to set off a nuke somewhere on US soil. Al Qaeda heads the list because they seem to have both the money and the credibility to pull off a nuclear attack against a US city. But there are others who could do it as well.

What’s particularly troubling today is that, since 9/11 there have been no significant terrorist attacks in the US. Why not? Using conventional explosives, terrorists have killed hundreds in Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France over the past decade, but we’ve been pretty much left alone

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former C.I.A. official and Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy thinks al Qaeda is biding its time until it can pull off something to “top” the horror of 9/11. About the only thing that would horrify Americans more than the collapse of the Twin Towers would be the detonation of a nuclear weapon, even a small one, within our borders.

In Al Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat: Hype or Reality? Mowatt-Larssen details the first 15 years of Al Qaeda’s two-decade-long effort to acquire a nuclear device. There is no question the bastards are working to buy, steal, or build a nuke. And there is little doubt that, once they have it, smuggling it into the US would be easy. Some wags have suggested just hiding it in a bale of marijuana.

If you have the time, download Mowatt-Larssen’s paper. It’s about 30 pages long and covers a range of WMD’s, including nukes. The paper was published in 2010. Curiously, Mowatt-Larssen’s chronology runs only from 1988 through 2003. Nonetheless is it a well-documented summary of al Qaeda’s first fifteen years in the  WMD business.

We have no reason to believe that al Qaeda has ceased its quest for significant WMDs. In fact, the flow of al Qaeda leaders and foot soldiers into Pakistan leads me to believe that they view Pakistan as their best source for nuclear devices. Pakistan has munitions-grade nukes already stockpiled and has been the Third World’s principal source for nuclear design and technology information.

These are not pleasant times. More about the coming nuclear nightmare tomorrow. Sleep well.

The Pederasts of Ireland

February 18, 2010

"Oooh, Father O'Malley, look! Cub Scouts."

In March 2006, the Commission of Investigation into Child Abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese was ordered to select a representative sample of complaints or allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1975 and 2004.

They had no shortage of cases from which to choose. Over 100 priests were alleged to have committed child sexual abuse over a 30-year period. The commission worked for over four years, investigating 46 of the priests. These 46 were alleged to have sexually abused at least 320 children.

The story is outrageous, offensive, and pathetic but it needs telling.

In the United States, sexual abuse by Catholic priests has become the fodder of stand-up comedians. The number of cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States runs into the thousands. Settlements of lawsuits are rumored to have cost the church over a billion dollars, bankrupting some American dioceses.

The story in Ireland has taken longer to develop but events there are, perhaps, even more sinister than those in the United States. The Republic of Ireland contains about 4 ½ million people, 87% of whom are (or, in some cases, were) Roman Catholics.

The abuse stories had been circulating quietly for years but, until the Commission published its report in 2009, few were aware of the extent of the problem. Few, except church insiders, who worked diligently for thirty years to keep the story quiet. Four archbishops of Dublin: John Charles McQuaid, who died in 1973; Dermot Ryan, who died in 1984; Kevin McNamara, who died in 1987; and Cardinal Desmond Connell, who retired in 2004 knew about the abuse but did little or nothing about it.

"Schweinehund! Do you heff any idea how much ziss iss going to cost us?"

According to the Commission report, high-ranking ecclesiastics were concerned only with “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets.”

The Commission released its report in November 2009, causing the Pope to meet in December with “senior Irish bishops.” No doubt, the lead item on the Papal agenda was damage control. According to The Guardian, “Four bishops [out of 24] have offered their resignations, but only one has been accepted, amid squabbles between the bishops over degrees of culpability.” Guilty, not guilty, ashamed or embarrassed, these guys apparently are not going to give up their cushy jobs without a fight.

"We should have worn our beanies. When he sticks these hats up our asses, it's gonna fuckin' hurt."

The best part of the story happened just a few days ago when all 24 Irish bishops were called to the Vatican. Each bishop was called separately before the Pope and given exactly seven minutes to explain his conduct. I think the smart ones took the Sgt. Shultz (Hogan’s Heroes) approach and said, “I zee nussing, I know nussing.” This approach would have to resonate somewhat with a German Pope. Transcripts of the interviews with these ecclesiastical nimrods would make great reading but, odds are, we won’t be seeing them.

This entire matter is of obvious deep concern to His Holiness. In December, he promised that he would write a pastoral letter on the matter to the Irish faithful. Publication of the letter has now been delayed until spring. There is an apparent shortage of stamps in the Vatican.

"Vee heff vays uff dealing wiss you. Perhaps ziss titanium sunflower or vatever it is up your ass vill change your story."

The Environmentalists are Throwing a Hissy Fit

February 17, 2010

For the first time in thirty years, construction of new nuclear commercial power reactors is about to commence in the United States. It’s long, long overdue. Here we are, wringing our hands over greenhouse gases, dependence on foreign oil, instability in the Middle East, and so on, yet god forbid we should build a nuke.

But on Tuesday, the Obama administration pledged an $8.3 billion loan guarantee to support the construction of two 1,100-megawatt nuclear reactors in Georgia.

At least a dozen more reactors are on the way including two reactors at each of the following locations:

William States Lee III Nuclear Generating Station – South Carolina
Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station – Alabama
Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station – South Carolina
Levy County Nuclear Power Plant – Florida
Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant – North Carolina
Turkey Point 6 and 7 – Florida

Westinghouse AP1000 Nuclear Reactor

All of these reactors are of an identical design, the Westinghouse Electric Company’s AP1000 reactor. This design received final approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2005. China approved construction of four of these reactors in 2007.

The AP1000 reactor has a lot of advantages over earlier reactors built in the US and elsewhere. First, it is a truly standardized design. Most early reactors were one-off designs that entailed high costs for development, certification, construction, and operation.

The AP1000 is a simple design:

  • No emergency AC backup power is required
  • Emergency cooling relies entirely on gravity and natural recirculation rather than pumps
  • Proven, reliable technologies from the nuclear, as well as other industries, are used
  • Although redundant safety systems are in place, complexity has been halved from old designs
  • Core damage frequency (a serious, but not necessarily life-threatening risk) is about 2.4*10^-7/year or about the same as your chances of being struck by a meteorite.

The really great part of this is the reaction from the environmentalists (Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund—the usual suspects). These guys endorsed Obama, gave him tons of money, worked the neighborhoods and the phones for him, voted for him in droves and how does Barry thank them? He ponies up $8 billion for a couple of nukes and says he’s ready to build more.

Jim Riccio, Greenpeace’s Nuclear Policy Analyst is screaming rape, “It is a dirty and dangerous distraction from the clean energy future the President promised America.”

First of all, Jim, how does a guy get a dick job as Greenpeace Nuclear Policy Analyst? All he’s got to do is write a two-word position paper: “Hell No,” and take the rest of the day off.

Second, welcome to politics Chicago style: Fuck anybody you like. Just don’t make no waves and don’t back no losers.

Now that Obama’s given up on health care and turned his attention to things that really matter, I’m kinda starting to like the little feller.

Tea Parties and the Republican Party

February 16, 2010

Every decade or so, voters get so upset with congress that some sort of grass-roots or third-party movement gets started. None has had any staying power but some have impacted elections in a significant way. John Anderson, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader and the Green Party all made a difference in election outcomes but then quietly have faded away.

Usually, it is the Republican party that suffers. The Democrats have a knack for holding together the most unlikely mixtures of voters (e.g., Hollywood, labor unions, and the super rich).

The Republican party is more brittle. Angry Republicans are an easy mark for third-party movements. For this reason, the “Tea Party” movement, despite the legitimacy of many of its concerns, presents far more of a threat to the Republicans than to the Democrats.

According to a story in the LA Times, Tea Partiers are encouraging their supporters to “filter into the GOP at ground level.” The story also points out “many Republican Party leaders have welcomed the activity, particularly because they worried that the energy driving the Tea Party movement might create a third party that would split the conservative vote.”

This is good both for the Tea Party and for the Republicans. The Tea Party doesn’t stand a chance on its own (ask the Libertarians) and the Republicans are in desperate need of new vision and new leadership. It could well come from the Tea Party.

The de facto leader of the Republican Party, John McCain, is too old not in body but in spirit. He lacks vision and is far too ready to sacrifice Republican principles in the name of compromise.

The de facto leader of the Tea Party is, I guess, Sarah Palin. Or at least it looks like the Tea Partiers paid her $100,000 to take on the job for at least a night.

Palin is a curiosity, but nothing more. She lacks Gingrich’s knowledge and Reagan’s leadership skills. Sure, she’s fun to listen to for an hour but in the long run she’s no better qualified to lead than her “Saturday Night Live” doppelganger, Tina Fey.

The Republicans need to do three things and do them now:

  1. Embrace the Tea Partiers and encourage their participation in the Republican Party.
  2. Find a young, charismatic person to carry a clear Republican message to the voters.
  3. Sorry to be cynical, but develop a clear Republican message worth carrying to the voters.

Avoid PHX

February 15, 2010

When at all possible, avoid the Phoenix airport. I’ll give you a couple of good reasons.

As any air traveler will tell you, the biggest indignity of the trip is the TSA security check. Yeah, we all know it’s necessary but one of these in a day is about all I can stand. Keys and change out of your pockets. Better put your glasses in a bag somewhere. Only 4 ounces of any liquid is OK even though 4 ounces of Sarin would kill everyone on board the aircraft. Take your computer out of its bag so that it can be screened separately. Have your boarding pass in your hand (why? somebody just checked it before you got to the metal detector). Take off your shoes, your belt, your jewelry, cell phone and stick them in your carry-on or in the handy plastic bucket. God help you if you have any prostheses or embedded metal holding your bones together.

Most trips, you go through this once and, even if you change planes one or two times en route, you remain inside the secure area and don’t have to strip down again.

But in Phoenix, you may have to endure the TSA security theater twice. Why? Because Phoenix Sky Harbor airport is divided into three separate terminals (oddly enough numbered 2, 3, and 4). And these terminals are not linked to one another.

If you change airlines in Phoenix, chances are you’ll have to leave the secure area, go outside (this is loads of fun in the summer) and ride a bus for maybe a mile to your next terminal.  Of course, when you arrive at the next terminal you’ll have to go through the TSA bullshit again before you can get to your gate. And by the way, better allow extra time in changing terminals because the buses use the same lanes as the cars. If traffic is jammed up at PHX your bus will be right in the middle of it.

Walk? If you are schlepping the requisite carry-on bag and the one “personal item” allowed by the FAA, chances are good you won’t survive the 1-mile hike between terminals 2 and 4 when its 113 degrees.

I’ll give you a couple of other good reasons to avoid Phoenix.

No clocks. Seems silly but I’m serious. Arizona is one of the few places in the United States that has its own time zone rules. Arizona remains on Mountain Standard Time year-round.  Why should you care? Well, the ticket you’re holding for the flight out of Phoenix states the departure in local time. Look around the Phoenix airport and you won’t find very many clocks that tell you what local time is. Your own watch is useless unless you’ve got one of those GPS rigs that also knows the Arizona rules. Hmm. Lemme see here, does my plane leave in two hours or is it one hour or is it three hours?

Food. Gourmet dining is not something you can expect at any airport, but especially not at Phoenix. Oh, they have the usual assortment of chains and local eateries, but Phoenix seems to have the worst Wendy’s, the worst Sbarro’s, the worst Burger King and the worst sports bars you’ll find at any airport in the country.

Smoking. Cross Phoenix off the rapidly-shrinking list of airports where they have indoor designated smoking areas. You’ll have to go outside (and, of course, back through the TSA crap later). Biggest advantage is that, in the summer you don’t need a lighter in Phoenix—the cigarettes ignite spontaneously.