Connections: Dark Thoughts

The knowledge and equipment necessary to fabricate simpler bombs than those dropped at Nagasaki and Hiroshima is widespread and likely to be accessible

My daughter, who is also an editor, is always chiming in from the peanut gallery to tell me that my column is best when I resist my natural inclination toward sententious themes of doom and gloom. She likes to warn me, only half-joshing, not to allow my column to become a “Whine of the Week,” and perhaps she is right. But today’s sky is awfully gray, and it looks like it’s going to rain for the next two or three days . . . and this somehow is giving me license to write about what I am going to write about (rather than foraging for a sunny topic, which I might feel more compelled to do if the forecast called for balmy weather all week). In any case, my husband absolutely insists that I use this space to draw whatever attention I can to a report from the Federation of American Scientists called  “A Scenario for Jihadist Nuclear Revenge.” 

The report was sent to us by a lifelong friend, Edward A. Friedman, who wrote it with Roger K. Lewis. They are working to inform the public and our national leaders — and to promote academic discussion — about what they say is the greatest threat to this country if not to, well, civilization itself. The report is long and detailed and includes technological analyses, which I do not pretend to understand. But the crux of the message is powerful, to say the least.

While the media, the government, and the public concentrate on those nations with which we are at odds that have nuclear capability (Iran and North Korea in particular), the report summarizes the history of nuclear weaponry and makes it evident that the knowledge and equipment necessary to fabricate simpler bombs than those dropped at Nagasaki and Hiroshima is widespread and likely to be accessible.

The authors of the report say it is entirely possible that those who have a religious mission to destroy the “decadent” United States or want to exact revenge for anti-Islamism or the death of Osama bin Laden, for example, could deliver to a busy American port “a crate holding a lead-shielded, 12-foot-long artillery gun,” as used to set off the Hiroshima bomb, that would be both “effective and deadly.” They name Al Qaeda, as well as terrorists from the Northern Caucasus, a Japanese cult, and ordinary homegrown American sociopaths as possible perpetrators.

The report notes that President Obama has said nuclear terrorism is an “immediate and extreme threat” and that the Federal Emergency Management Administration is quietly engaged in trying to develop emergency responses to an attack with a nuclear weapon of the intensity of the one dropped on Hiroshima — but the authors aren’t sanguine about the plans so far to derail any such attack. They point to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, which they say has kept the world safe from nuclear holocaust for the 69 years since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It is no longer a safeguard because it cannot deter non-state entities. 

They remind those reading the report of the 82-year-old nun who with two others got into the “inner sanctum” of what was supposed to be the most secure nuclear facility in the country, at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to spray-paint the walls with graffiti; they speculate on how easy it might be to infiltrate facilities in Pakistan, North Korea, or China, which have huge stockpiles of enriched uranium, or to get into relatively unguarded places in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, obtaining uranium from which hundreds of bombs could be fabricated. 

A longtime professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., Dr. Friedman has bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University. He was instrumental in developing a college of engineering in Afghanistan in the early 1970s, was a founder and senior vice president of the Afghanistan Relief Committee, and has taught a graduate course on nuclear weapons. Richard K. Lewis is an architect and planner who has written a column for many years for The Washington Post. If you would like to read more about the alarm they are ringing, all you need do is go to the Federation of American Scientists website.