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February 13, 2006

Container Nukes

An interesting discussion about recently confirmed cold fusion is going on over at Slashdot. Here's a real gem that puts some nuke fears into perspective. I never really thought about what quality nukes a terrorist might actually get their hands on.

Modern nuclear weapons are around 1 MT, usually a bit less, as that's the optimal size for a weapon you can target accurately. The larger nukes of old were designed to crack silos with a near miss, were extremely expensive for their mission, and were taken out of service long ago. If a terrorist gets a nuclear weapon, it's either going to be a sub-MT military weapon, or a quite a bit smaller "home made" fission only device (modern nukes are pretty sophisticated fusion-pumped-fission devices).

Let's do the math [nuclearweaponarchive.org]. A 1 MT nuke detonated at optimal blast height will knock down residential structures at a radius of 10 km, more solid buildings at 7 km, and at 5 km knock down reinfored buildings and kill people outright from the blast (and all other effects, such as high doses of radiation, have smaller radii). A surface blast would have a far smaller effect. The only real point of a surface blast is to generate radioactive fallout (an air blast generates surprisingly little, though it would still hinder clean-up and rebuilding).

So yes, in theory, a terrorist with a high-quality military nuke (let's imagine a few were sold out of the old USSR armory, and somehow still worked today (the tritium would have to be replaced, which is quite technical, but lets imagine a scientist came with the bomb)) could sit a couple of kilometers off the coast and destroy some structures along the coast. Good for psycological impact, but not much else, and insanely expensive to carry out. A 50 kt fission bomb, a far more likely scenario for a terrorist, would have less than 40% of the blast radius of the high quality military bomb, and would probably need to be within 1 km to be effective.

A surface blast over *land* is what a terrorist wants, because the radioactive fallout would cause a world of hurt. You'd get very little of that even 1 km off the coast, and even a ship at a dock would produce far less fallout than a bomb 1 km inland. It's *definitely* worth checking for nukes at ports of entry: the threat just goes down very fast as the bomb moves away from land.

The Nuclear Weapon Archive is extrarodinarily cool.

Posted by mbowen at February 13, 2006 05:35 PM

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The psycological impact should not be dismissed so lightly. I don't _know_ but it seems like a great deal of the 9/11 impact came from secondary effects; the nation-wide grounding, the financial reverberations; hells bells an entire branch of my company evaporated because of the economy the following year. I don't even _know_ anyone in New York city let alone anyone who was killed; yet my life, my family were affected deeply.

Posted by: Brian at February 13, 2006 07:00 PM

You make valid point about the surface burst being significantly less effective than air. For just this reason, a far better tactic would be to use your device, or devices in one of the California cargo container ports. It would be unlikely to destroy even most of the facility. However, it would be guaranteed to shut it down for god knows how long. And given the share of U.S. imports coming through that port, the economic damage would be horrific.

RK Jones

Posted by: RK Jones at February 13, 2006 08:03 PM

You could also blow offshore to make a tidal wave.

And docking in manhattan could easily destroy the county's financial center.

But the best use would be as emp device. But you can do that without nukes. See here

Posted by: Scott at February 14, 2006 09:05 AM

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