More on Nuclear Terrorism

A Loyal Reader sent the following comment in response to “this post”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1409/nuclear-terrrorism about nuclear terrorism. I thought it worth highlighting, so here it is in full:

I’d say that if the potential for nuclear terrorism is to be taken seriously, then yes, it mainly adds urgency to a number of things we should already be doing urgently. At least in a rational world — I seem to recall that Rumsfeld and Rice both made very dismissive comments about the need to resource Nunn-Lugar programs early in the administration. Ghastly.

If there is an exception to the “merely adds urgency” rule of thumb, it probably isn’t detection, though. Anyone capable of building a nuclear device, or who knows what they are doing, is going to shield their material and/or device adequately, assuming it needs shielding in the first place to evade detection. Radiation detection could help with RDDs and the radionuclides that go into them, but the only thing that’s really going to help with a nuke is an x-ray, to spot the lead, tungsten, or DU box around the bomb, or perhaps the unshielded HEU. And you can’t have an x-ray machine going in the Holland Tunnel, I don’t think… Plus which, it’s a little late to catch the nuke at that point.

My own preferred candidate for a nuclear-terrorism inspired policy
decision is attribution R&D.

The last two paragraphs are in response to my claim that:

bq. I’ve always thought that, from a policy perspective, the risk of nuclear terrorism does not make much difference – we should do things like fissile material control, threat reduction, and counter-terrorism anyway. The exception may be for things like nuclear detection programs.

Happy effing Monday.

4 thoughts on “More on Nuclear Terrorism

  1. Russ Wellen

    “My own preferred candidate for a nuclear-terrorism inspired policy decision is attribution R&D.”

    As a layperson, I’m not sure what this means. Does it refer to improving forensics technique, which would determine the source after an attack?

    Of course, terrorists aren’t likely to be concerned with an attack being traced back to them (or whoever supplied them with the bomb). In fact, they’d likely take credit for it.

    I take it then, the poster was exhibiting more of that black humor endemic to you wonks.

    Reply
  2. Andy

    Russ,

    Attribution is more than determining the source organization for the attack, but also the source of the nuclear material as well as the design and construction of the device.

    Obviously, such after-the-fact research does little to prevent an attack, but it’s still important. Attribution wasn’t a concern during the cold war because we knew where the nukes would come from. Even if we know what groups conducted a nuclear attack, it’s still necessary to determine how they got the nuclear material. Since the early 1990’s a lot of basic research has been done on attribution and it remains an important area of research.

    Reply
  3. yale

    “A Loyal Reader” wrote:

    Radiation detection could help with RDDs and the radionuclides that go into them, but the only thing that’s really going to help with a nuke is an x-ray, to spot the lead, tungsten, or DU box around the bomb, or perhaps the unshielded HEU

    That is not quite correct. Detectors are being designed to spot smuggled fissile materials. A neutron beam is sprayed through the ship/truck/train container or trailer or luggage. The Plutonium or uranium will then emit gamma radiation with an extremely precise spectrum.

    Ordinary passive radiation detectors such as would be used for people, trucks and cars at tunnels or bridges would not have that capability.

    Passive detector:

    I think the ideal way to smuggle HEU is embedded within depleted uranium weights, such as used in some aircraft.

    Reply

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