Guest essay by Eric Worrall
In the aftermath of the horrific events in Paris, you would think some politicians might have been jolted into reconnecting with reality, regarding the relative dangers posed by climate change vs terrorism. But a few politicians seem to be clinging to the ridiculous view, that climate change is somehow more of a threat, than well organised homicidal maniacs.
According to Slate;
At Saturday night’s second Democratic presidential debate, just a day after ISIS launched horrific coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, moderator and Slate political columnist John Dickerson asked Bernie Sanders a straightforward question: “Sen. Sanders, you said you want to rid the planet of ISIS. In the previous debate you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?”
Sanders didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.”
Guns and bombs are horrible enough, but they might only be a taste of what the near future holds. For example, lets consider the issue of nuclear terrorism.
Iran, an alleged sponsor of state terrorism, is rapidly approaching the point at which they could potentially possess substantial quantities of highly enriched Uranium – though Iran claims they are enriching Uranium for peaceful purposes. Financially bankrupt North Korea has produced enough HEU to make at least one or two bombs, at least one of which they have detonated. Unstable Pakistan, which suffers frequent military coups, possesses an unknown number of nuclear bombs, and bomb making material. Other countries are almost certainly either operating, or considering, their own nuclear programmes – in many cases in response to concerns about what their neighbours are doing.
I’m not suggesting that even Iran, which holds regular public “death to America” rallies, necessarily actually wants to blow up an American city. But as enrichment technology spreads, sooner or later, some of the material currently in the possession of corrupt, unstable regimes, is going to find its way into the hands of someone who wants to kill a lot of people.
Possession of Highly Enriched Uranium is a dream scenario for wannabe nuclear terrorists. HEU is incredibly difficult to produce, but once it has been produced, it is as easy to handle as any other lump of metal – as long as you are careful not to pile too much mass in one place, before you are ready to detonate the bomb.
1. HEU is incredibly stealthy. Highly Enriched Uranium, unlike Plutonium, is not very radioactive, until it reaches critical mass and carves the heart out of a major city. Your only hope of detecting a smuggled HEU component is to make it “fizz” – to target the hidden consignment with a beam of neutrons, in the hope of simulating a small secondary nuclear fission reaction. If you are lucky, the secondary reaction will set off your radiation detector. If the sample of HEU which you are trying to tickle with the neutron beam is small, or has a suboptimal shape (flat and thin, rather than ball shaped), and is well concealed behind plenty of shielding, you are unlikely to get a significant response to your neutron beam. For example, if say a consignment of tractors were imported into a country, and some of the washers in the engines of the tractors were made out of HEU rather than steel, it is unlikely the subterfuge would be detected. HEU is twice as dense as lead, so you wouldn’t need many washer size pieces of HEU, to create the critical mass of material required for a terrorist bomb.
2. HEU has a good shelf life. Unlike Plutonium, whose half-life is 24,000 years, Highly Enriched Uranium has a half-life of 700 million years. Your HEU bomb components could sit on a shelf and remain perfectly viable for centuries, providing they were protected from corrosion. Once HEU is in circulation, the threat it poses will be very hard to contain.
3. HEU is easy to use. Unlike Plutonium, which requires complex implosion triggers, HEU can in principle be detonated by smashing two lumps of material together. The other components required to produce a working nuclear bomb are fairly easy to obtain, with the exception of a Polonium initiator, which may or may not be required for the construction of a viable atomic bomb. However, as the recent assassination of Alexander Litvenenko demonstrated, smuggling Polonium into a Western country is not a significant challenge. Polonium is highly radioactive, but most of its radiation is emitted in the form of Alpha particles, which are very easy to shield from detection – a few sheets of paper would suffice. In the case of the Litvinenko murder, the Polonium was carried undetected in liquid form, in a small glass or plastic bottle.
As for building a HEU bomb, the required construction technique is well within the skill level of a terrorist bomb expert, possibly with the assistance of an expert metal machinist. Probably not much more complex than making a pipe bomb.
Will someone successfully build and use a terrorist nuclear bomb? It is impossible to say. But in any case, the nuclear threat is only the tip of the iceberg – we haven’t covered other routes to atrocity, such as weaponised diseases; Ebola, Anthrax, or maybe a strain of the Plague which has been deliberately bred to be antibiotic resistant.
Plague should especially concern Americans. 10 – 15 people are infected with the plague every year in mainland America, from exposure to animal carriers in the wild. A wannabe biological terrorist wouldn’t have to cross any international borders, to obtain their US plague sample. The only reason the Plague is not a bigger issue in America, is that there are effective treatments. A weaponised version of the plague, which has been deliberately hardened, by repeatedly exposing generations of cultured plague bacteria to slowly increasing doses of antibiotics, selecting for mutants which can resist the antibiotics, might not be so easy to stop. Of course you would have to also regularly try your hardened mutant strain on a few test subjects, to make sure your selective breeding process hadn’t damaged the virulence of your biological weapon – but psychotic terrorists wouldn’t have any qualms about kidnapping a steady supply of victims.
For small payloads, such as biological weapons, you wouldn’t even have to launch the attack from America. Small, fully automated drones are commercially available, which have a maximum range of thousands of miles. It would be entirely possible to launch a stealthy, high precision drone attack against mainland North America, from a base in South America, Africa or Europe, or an attack against Europe, from a launch site in Northern Africa or the Middle East.
Why have I explored these ghastly scenarios, in such nauseating detail? I believe people who claim climate change is more of a threat than terrorism haven’t faced up to the reality of what is possible. Suggesting all of these horrific yet technically viable scenarios are somehow less of a threat, than a mild temperature rise which might or might not manifest over the next few decades, in my opinion is completely nuts.