First, take some uranium...
The Independent, 30 July 2003
Original address: http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/low_res/story.jsp?story=428800&host=5&dir=497
How easy is it to build a weapon of mass destruction?
According to a new book by a man who made his career in nuclear technology,
it's not that difficult. But don't be alarmed, says Terry Kirby, this
is no do-it-yourself guide for terrorists
"I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
With those words from the Bhagavadgita, J Robert Oppenheimer,
the director of the Manhattan Project, greeted the sight of the first
nuclear test in New Mexico, the moment that heralded the dawn of the
nuclear age. Little more than half a century later, it seems that almost
anyone with a relatively low-level knowledge of physics, and a slightly
larger amount of ready and untraceable cash, can at least attempt to
"become death" and plan their very own destruction of worlds.
Indeed, given the proliferation of internet sites
with names such as "Nuclear Bomb Making Made Easy" that purport
to contain step-by-step descriptions, it seems incredible that Saddam
Hussein, with access to both the science and the money, tried for many
years and, so far as we know, failed to "become death". Similarly,
Osama bin Laden; files suggesting that al-Qa'ida was planning to build
a nuclear weapon were also discovered in Afghanistan.
Perhaps Saddam should just have sent somebody to
look at the Ministry of Defence files in the Public Record Office at
Kew, which are said to contain enough precise and detailed instructions,
including measurements and diagrams, to make the kind of atomic bomb
tested by Britain in the 1950s. Or maybe he already has.
Forty years ago, already alarmed at the prospect
of nuclear proliferation, the United States military set two young scientists
the theoretical task of building an atomic bomb from scratch, with no
prior knowledge but assuming access to the necessary funding and materials.
According to recently declassified documents, it took them around 30
months, although they were never told whether the device was actually
built or just existed on paper.
This summer, millions of Britons have been gripped
by the US-made real-time drama series 24, in which federal agent Jack
Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) races against time to stop Arab terrorists
exploding a nuclear bomb in the middle of Los Angeles. It can be done,
the programme-makers imply. But is it really that easy? And just how
scared should we be? A new book, to be published this autumn, entitled
How to Build a Nuclear Bomb - And Other Weapons of Mass Destruction
(Granta), taps directly into the post-Iraq war appetite for spin-free
analysis, and acts as a warning of the dire consequences of ignorance.
But although the book provides a straightforward
and unhysterical guide to some of the more hair-raising nuclear, chemical
and biological threats that have dominated the post-11 September world,
it does not exactly do what it says on the cover. While there are descriptions
of the basic principles of nuclear fission and what constitutes an atomic
bomb, there is no do-it-yourself guide to creating apocalypse.
"That was deliberate, of course," explains
its British author, Frank Barnaby, a man who actually does know how
to make a nuclear bomb. "I didn't want to be accused of giving
too much away that might help terrorists." Still, his book guides
the reader through toxic substances such as ricin, anthrax and sarin;
the well-documented Iraqi programmes to develop chemical and nuclear
weapons; the rise of al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups, and how they
might go about staging an attack.
It also describes, for the benefit of the post-Cold
War generation, exactly what the awesome sight experienced by Oppenheimer
involves in terms of human destruction, and what it would mean for a
city such as London.
Barnaby, now 75, writes from the heart as one of
a small - and dwindling - number of people who have witnessed a nuclear
explosion at first hand. He was director of the Stockholm International
Peace Research Institute in the 1970s, and is currently working for
the Oxford Research Group on military technology, nuclear energy, and
weapons of mass destruction.
But it was in 1953, in Maralinga, in the south Australian
desert, as a young nuclear physicist working for the Atomic Weapons
Research Establishment at Aldermaston, Berkshire, that he understood
the awesome power of nuclear fission. It convinced him that he had to
work to stop its spread.
"The observer at first stands with his back
to the explosion to avoid being blinded by the initial flash of light
and ultraviolet radiation. After the flash, he can turn towards the
nuclear explosion to watch the fireball grow. The initial flash of light
is followed by a weird, very short period of silence," he writes.
"Any exposed skin then feels a wave of heat.
Just as one gets over the surprise of the heat wave, one is shaken by
the blast wave, accompanied by a loud noise. The body is shaken again
by a wind travelling away from the explosion, raising a cloud of dust.
A short time later, one is shaken yet again by another wind blowing
in the opposite direction.
"Experiencing the heat, blast, noise, and the
winds, seeing the brilliantly coloured fireball growing to a tremendous
size, and watching the mushroom cloud rise to a high altitude, combine
to give a sense of the immense power of a single nuclear explosion.
It is an experience that one does not forget. The most awesome thing
is that this huge explosion, powerful enough to destroy a city, is produced
by a piece of plutonium about the size of a tennis ball."
It is this final image of something that can fit
in the palm of your hand being able to lay waste to whole cities with
the frightening force that he experienced for himself, that now most
disturbs Barnaby. It is what differentiates the terrorist threat from
that posed by "rogue states" such as Iraq or North Korea.
Whole countries, he argues, need to produce sufficient numbers of nuclear
devices to satisfy the demands of their own military and to ensure,
at the very least, a balance of power with their neighbours - otherwise,
he says, why bother at all.
It is terrorists such as Bin Laden who can achieve
their aims with little more than a small, primitive device, nuclear
or "dirty" (that is, a piece of radioactive material blown
apart by conventional explosive), strategically placed to create mass
destruction of a population and a panic-inducing spread of radioactivity.
While it is generally accepted that the principle
of a nuclear bomb is simple, and that the technical assembly is relatively
easy, for people such as Bin Laden, the most difficult bit is obtaining
sufficient enriched uranium or plutonium to build your bomb.
For the needs of a country such as Iraq or North
Korea, you need the massive infrastructure of nuclear reactors or gas
centrifuges to create the enriched uranium, coupled with power stations,
testing sites, and so forth. Barnaby says: "I met the Iraqi nuclear
scientists a few years ago, and they were certainly capable of building
a bomb - after all, they had been trained at places such as Cern in
Switzerland and Imperial College London. What they lacked was the material,
so that is why they had to embark on the programme to obtain sufficient
amounts." With lower demands, it is assumed that al-Qa'ida would
have to seek uranium on the black market. Quite what is out there is,
of course, difficult to calculate. There are an estimated 1,300-2,100
tonnes of highly enriched uranium in the world, together with 200-300
tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium. The best estimate is that 100 tonnes
- enough for about 20,000 nuclear weapons, are now surplus.
Despite efforts by the United States to secure Russian
supplies of uranium and plutonium since the collapse of the Soviet Union,
there are still persistent reports of material being offered for sale,
together with the expertise of former Warsaw Pact nuclear scientists.
"The evidence suggests that the potential supply is greater than
the demand of terrorist groups or countries," says Barnaby.
He quotes Luis Alvarez, a leading American nuclear-weapons
physicist who says that a "high-yield" explosion could be
achieved by simply dropping one half of the material on to the other
half, the "gun-type weapon" used in Little Boy, the bomb dropped
on Hiroshima. Alvarez adds: "Most people seem unaware that if highly
enriched uranium is at hand, it's a trivial job to set off a nuclear
explosion - even a high-school kid could make a bomb in short order."
Barnaby describes the process, with chilling precision,
thus: "Such a primitive gun-type weapon could use a thick-walled
cylindrical 'barrel' with an inner diameter of about 8cm and a length
of about 50cm. A cylindrical mass of highly enriched uranium... weighing
about 15kg, would be placed at the top of the barrel. The larger mass
of uranium, weighing about 40kg would be placed at the bottom of the
barrel. This mass would have hollowed out of it a cylinder of the same
size as the smaller uranium mass.
"A high-explosive charge would be placed at
the top of the barrel, behind the smaller mass of uranium. This charge
could be fired from a distance by a remote-control device operated by
an electronic signal. When the two masses of uranium are brought together,
the total mass becomes greater than critical, and a nuclear explosion
The total size of such a device, he says, is likely
to be no more than about 1m, about 25cm in diameter, and weigh about
300kg. "It could be transported by, and detonated in, an ordinary
van." Which is, in fact, roughly what you see in the TV series
24, for which Barnaby was consulted by the producers.
But that's about as close as Barnaby gets to describing
the method. Those keen to know more, he says, should bear in mind that
a lot of the material on nuclear bomb-making on the internet is either
inaccurate or insufficiently precise. Determined bomb-makers should
turn to the specialist scientific journals, he suggests.
Frank Barnaby has not been watching 24, in which,
of course, the hero ensures that the fictional nuclear bomb is located
and transported, in the nick of time, to the Nevada desert, where it
explodes harmlessly, but still terrifyingly.
Somehow, one feels that he doesn't need to.
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