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Can Terrorists Build a Nuclear Bomb? 737

Posted by Zonk
from the the-lack-of-shrill-is-appreciated dept.
kjh1 writes "Popular Science is just chock full of good articles this month. One in-depth article addresses the question many are afraid to acknowledge is a possibility - can terrorists acquire the raw materials and then deliver a nuclear bomb? A good read that explains the difficulty in doing all of the above, while pointing out calmly that it is still possible." From the article: "Most experts with whom I spoke said that a nuclear terror attack is plausible but not inevitable, and that there's no way to precisely gauge the odds. 'I don't think the public ought to lose a lot of sleep over the issue,' says nuclear physicist Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "
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Can Terrorists Build a Nuclear Bomb?

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  • Well.... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:04AM (#11711660)
    With the help of Google, anything is possible! How to build a nuclear bomb [google.com] Complete with book search!
    • Re:Well.... (Score:5, Funny)

      by N Monkey (313423) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:14AM (#11711808)
      With the help of Google, anything is possible! How to build a nuclear bomb Complete with book search!

      Don't panic!

      Apparently U2's instructions [amazon.co.uk] to dismantle one should you find one are selling like hotcakes all over the world. :)
    • What are the odds of this? This is the latest scare fantasy.

      Please, a nuke being detonated in America - hey, what is that bright flash outside of my win

      .

    • With the help of Google, anything is possible! How to build a nuclear bomb [google.com] Complete with book search!

      It takes some brains to build a bomb. But --

      Nuclear weapons and nuclear-grade materials became available to wealthy criminals, with the collapse of the Soviet Union:

      "A U.S. House of Representatives Republican Task Force reported at the end of 1992 that three tactical nuclear warheads had vanished. Priced at $14 million a throw, and with a range of sixty kilometres, warheads were being

  • by 2.7182 (819680) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:05AM (#11711662)
    I highly recommend this book by John McPhee from 30 years ago. He even discusses the destruction of the world trade center.
    • by Feminist-Mom (816033) <feminist,mom&gmail,com> on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:09AM (#11711720)
      Yeah, this book is mostly about Ted Talyor who used to build really small bombs for the US government and then quit. He was really into these issues years ago and no one listened to him, although McPhee had the insight to write a book about him. His point about the WTC is that a really small nuclear bomb could knock one of them over. I guess we found out that it was easier than having a nuclear bomb.
    • you have enriched uranium. Then you don't have to worry about precise detonators, imploding shells, etc. Just slap two pieces together fast enough by, say, firing a near critical slug of U down a barrel through a ring of near critical U. That's how we did it over Hiroshima.
      • Re:Even easier if (Score:3, Informative)

        by iggymanz (596061)
        hah, no, those WW II devices were quite complicated and did have precision detonators, initiators, precision machined components, etc. there's some old interesting books on the construction of them that you can find in university libraries. Even in this day & age, it would take the resources of a government to duplicate the effort. Just getting enough u235 in one place only gets you alot of contamination, heat, radiation, etc.
        • Re:Even easier if (Score:5, Informative)

          by nbert (785663) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:49AM (#11712278) Homepage Journal
          IIRC the US had a project in the late 60's which tried to determine how hard it would be to build a nuclear bomb. They employed some freshly graduated physic students which had no prior knowledge about bomb designs but were allowed to use any material being in public domain. After about 3 man years they presented a working design. Taking into account that nowadays there is much more information available to the public it is likely that it would take even less time.

          However, you are quite right that it would be incredibly expensive/complicated for a non-government group to obtain amounts of weapon grade uranium or plutonium sufficient for a critical reaction. And even if they would be able to build a nuclear bomb it would still be extremely hard to transport it to a place were it could be of any use for them (I know that it's in theory possible to build bombs the size of a suitcase, but it would be hard enough for a government to build such a device).
          • Re:Even easier if (Score:5, Informative)

            by srmalloy (263556) on Friday February 18, 2005 @11:59AM (#11713210) Homepage
            IIRC the US had a project in the late 60's which tried to determine how hard it would be to build a nuclear bomb. They employed some freshly graduated physic students which had no prior knowledge about bomb designs but were allowed to use any material being in public domain. After about 3 man years they presented a working design. Taking into account that nowadays there is much more information available to the public it is likely that it would take even less time.

            Well, given that Analog magazine published, in their April 1979 issue, a science-fact article titled "Build Your Own A-Bomb and Wake Up the Neighborhood!" which laid out in clear terms how to build a brute-force gun-type bomb, I'd have to say that the only limitation would be their ability to get enough bomb-grade nuclear material. Admittedly, the device is crude, and not transportable at all; it's essentially a two-story pipe mounted vertically in a building, with one hemisphere of nuclear material at the bottom and one at the top mounted on a heavy lead cylinder that can be dropped down the pipe. However, it's perfectly functional, and aside from the production of the two hemispheres, doesn't require anything more than basic handyman skills to produce -- the 'detonator' involving nothing more complex than pulling out a rod that keeps the upper cylinder from falling down the pipe, and getting someone willing to be there to yank out the rod probably isn't going to be a problem.

            The article spends more time focussing on the problem of getting enough bomb-grade material from what was, at the time, the most accessible source of fissiles -- hijacking a truck full of fuel rods and refining the nuclear fuel to get bomb-grade material. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, it's probably a lot easier to get either the fuel or bomb-grade material directly, and getting an actual nuclear device eliminates all of the grunt work. Given the amount of effort needed to refine power-plant grade enriched nuclear fuel, the article suggested, IIRC, that a more effective use of the terrorists' effort would be to grind the fuel into a powder, take it up in a small private aircraft, and dump it out over a large city as they fly around, getting more effective distribution of the contamination. Additionally, spreading the nuclear material directly increases the cost to their target from the hysteria associated with a public announcement of the contamination and the government's attempts to clean it up, not to mention being able to repeat the attack once or twice using nothing more lethal than, say, table salt and still get the same hysteria and government reaction from the residents of the city you claim you've contaminated.

            • Re:Even easier if (Score:5, Insightful)

              by Rei (128717) on Friday February 18, 2005 @01:10PM (#11714340) Homepage
              Even building a HEU bomb isn't really that simple. High energy collisions can produce unexpected effects, and you may well get a very disappointing yield, if anything. And, if you have plutonium, you have no choice but to do an implosion-style device, which means manufacturing/acquiring krytrons, high performance capacitors, etc, and a lot more rigorous testing.

              In a real nuclear bomb development program, you don't want to waste your hard-to-get HEU/plutonium on a fizzle. So, what is generally done is you take a material with similar properties to your nuclear fuel build test bombs with it (in the case of uranium, you'd use DU). Then, during the collision, you analyze the impact (for example, with high-speed X-ray analysis). This in itself requires a good amount of equipment. Even with all of the "parts" on hand, a proper atomic bomb development program will still take at least half a year and a lot of resources.

              Hijacking fuel rods? That'd work for most US nuclear submarine fuel rods (which are highly enriched), but not conventional power plant fuel rods. You'll only have a few % of U235 - you might as well just refine from scratch. If you're talking about spent fuel rods, you can get plutonium out of them, but you have to worry about the differences between Pu239 and Pu240; you don't want to have to separate them, or again, you might as well just start from scratch. Plus, you have to deal with all of the other dangerous radioactive "junk" that builds up in spent rods.

              A truck full of spent fuel rods would, however, make for a nice way to irradiate a large area. Put them in a big vat and set two timers: One to dump as much nitric and hydrofluoric acid as you can get your hands on into the mix to dissolve the cladding and possbly some of the fuel, and the second to dump a large tank of gasoline in a couple hours later and ignite it to help burn the radioactive compounds into the air. You should be able to cause a US-based chernobyl that way. Cleanup would be catastrophically expensive, as it was for Chernobyl; and while mass irradiation events aren't frequently filled with mass casualties, the area that they contaminate is rendered uninhabitable for several hundred years (not 10s of thousands or millions like anti-nuclear nuts pretend, mind you, but still a long time).
      • Exactly. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tgd (2822) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:47AM (#11712241)
        Its important to note that no conventional design test has ever failed. US worked on the first try, Soviet bombs worked on the first try and every indication is every other nuclear power's tests worked on the first try.

        And those were built without the help of computers.

        Making a bomb work is simple if you have the nuclear material. Making it make a HUGE bang is hard. Making the bomb itself tiny is hard. But making a bomb is easy.

        The thing that is really keeping it from happening, I think, isn't the fact that making a bomb is hard, but making a bomb that can go supercritical with a small amount of fuel is very hard. The Ted Taylor book talks about that issue in some detail. (He made both the largest and smallest fission devices).
        • Re:Exactly. (Score:3, Insightful)

          by bombadillo (706765)
          Good point. Don't forget you also need a reliable means of vectoring the ordinance. This is also a similar problem with BIO weapons. It's easy to make them put being able to succesfully deploy them is thankfully very difficult. It seems to me that the truly dangerous weapons are the ones that can be succesuflly deployed and this thankfully seems out of reach.
        • Re:Exactly. (Score:5, Informative)

          by cat_jesus (525334) on Friday February 18, 2005 @11:48AM (#11713107)
          This is one of the reasons I was furius when incurious, lying through his teeth George made his assertion that Iraq could make a "nucular" bomb in 6 months if they were able to obtain fissionable material. No shit? Any modern country could. Hell, I could. The hard part is refininng the fissionable material, not making the bomb.

          But, the dumb ass congresscritters and the majority of the US bought it and our so called liberal media legitimized it by not pointing out such fallacies.

          • Re:Exactly. (Score:4, Interesting)

            by cluckshot (658931) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:18PM (#11713503)

            At risk of telling the terrorists how (like they don't already have somebody who knows more than myself telling them) I am going to lay out just how difficult it is to come up with a U-235 device. First take the U-235 and powder it in a inert gas environment. Then Sinter it like a ceramic (very hot here) into two hemispheres or use C-4 to explosively form it into a hemisphere. The latter method is probably the best and fastest. Once formed place one hemisphere on a plate of armor plate steel attached to the muzzle of an Artillery tube say 155 or so. With a fashioned shell probably best aluminum cased load the other hemisphere in the shell to be fired in the gun. Weld the whole thing severely shut with high grade steel with a few slits near the muzzle end to allow pressure to decrease but not clear through. The whole thing needs strong containment.

            That is about it for the bomb building except delivery. Difficult but not impossible. The problem of getting the U-235 is difficult but not impossible and takes far less resources than in the old days. The cost is well within those of a fairly rich person. Essentially the process is to take Uranium Hexafloride and Ionize it into a particle accelerator. Taking a set of high tech magnets send the gas down the accelerator tube and the magnets will aim the streams. This process used to be really expensive of energy and such but frankly isn't very expensive due to advanced magnets developed under the US Navy's Advanced Propulsion Project and now made in China... (Anyone suspecting North Korea here is right)

            It is probably pretty easy to do this by a chemical process in presence of these strong magnets as well. Something similar to Chromotography. But for those who will argue, this isn't free. It probably could be done for several million dollars now. It would be a lot cheaper in a 3rd world country where you don't care too much about the junk you throw around or the people exposed to it.

          • Re:Exactly. (Score:4, Informative)

            by Tim C (15259) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:22PM (#11713549)
            our so called liberal media legitimized it by not pointing out such fallacies.

            Saying "Don't listen to the President, he's overreacting"

            a) doesn't sell as many papers or ads as screaming "WE'RE DOOOOOOMED!! WHO WILL SAVE US?!?!?!"; and
            b) is unpatriotic, and as with being a communist, no-one wants to be accused of that

            The media sensationalises, that's what it does. I'm not saying it's right, just that it shouldn't be a surprise. It doesn't help, of course, that this is a relatively technical matter, that the average journalist simply doesn't understand. Unless they're given enough time to actually research the story properly (in which case another paper/news show will beat them to it, and steal all the ratings and so advertising revenue) they'll just go with whatever makes the best headline.
        • Re:Exactly. (Score:3, Interesting)

          by CodeBuster (516420)
          It's important to note that no conventional design test has ever failed. US worked on the first try, Soviet bombs worked on the first try and every indication is every other nuclear power's tests worked on the first try.

          That is true, but due to the relative inefficiency of these early bombs the large amount of fissile material, well above the theoretical minimal afforded by such innovations as neutron generators and beryllium reflectors, required to fuel the blast requires years of intensive refining in
  • Only if (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:05AM (#11711669)
    Their name is MuhammadGyver.
  • by rah1420 (234198) <rah1420@gmail.com> on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:05AM (#11711672)
    ... would think that the possibility of a terrorist WMD is far-fetched.

    Lose sleep? No. Sleep with one eye open? Damn right.
    • by JossiRossi (840900) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:08AM (#11711707) Homepage
      Why sleep with an eye open? It's not like you'll catch the guy planting the bomb in your bedroom. The honest truth is that the average person will have no oppourtunities to prevent an attack like this, it's up to our governements almost soley. The best you can do is take note and report really wierd suspicious behavior. Other than that sleep well, might be your last.
    • And while we all get distracted by Iran's domestic nuclear program Korea is chugging nukes out! C'mon Neo-Cons where's yer balls for a REAL fight?
    • No, 'cause your average terrorist is not terribly bright. It is likely that they steal some weapons-grade plutonium, and then pay a scientist to build a nuclear bomb.

      Then the scientist will inevitably give them a bomb casing made of old pinball machine parts, and uses the plutonium to build a time machine.

      It's a classic scenario. What we really have to worry about is going back in time and accidentally doing something that makes us cease to exist.
      • ... and the fix was worse than the problem.

        It's a classic scenario. What we really have to worry about is going back in time and accidentally doing something that makes us cease to exist.

        That appears to have already happened, and then been corrected. Unfortunatley, we now have Biff [georgewbush.org] in charge of the world, so things are even worse off in this timeline than they were in both the original timeline, and the one where we don't exist. God damn that delorian and misguided science!
  • dirty bombs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stubear (130454) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:06AM (#11711685)
    I think people are far more worried about the radiological and economic effects of a dirty bomb than a mushroom cloud vaporizing New York or San Francisco. The article should have discussed how easy it is to build a dirty bomb and the effects it will have on the area it's detonated in.
    • Re:dirty bombs (Score:3, Informative)

      by brianlawson (675334)
      I get the magazine and did read TFA, and it had a sidebar section about dirty bombs. If you click on the link in the post, scroll down and take a look at the "Dirty Destruction" link.
      • Re:dirty bombs (Score:5, Informative)

        by stubear (130454) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:23AM (#11711948)
        Well, there you go. Here's the article for the rest of us to read:

        Dirty Destruction
        A dirty bomb produces no nuclear chain reaction, no mushroom cloud. Yet its aftereffects could be devastating

        By Michael Crowley

        Although experts debate the ease of building a crude nuclear bomb, no one disputes that it is far easier to build a simpler weapon known as a dirty bomb--a conventional bomb that scatters radioactive material. A dirty bomb produces no nuclear chain reaction, no mushroom cloud. Yet its aftereffects could be devastating. In a 2002 computer simulation run by the Federation of American Scientists, a single foot-long piece of radioactive cobalt of the type commonly used in food-irradiation plants was blown up with TNT in lower Manhattan. The simulation found that a 300-square-block area would become as contaminated as the permanently closed zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, and that cancer caused by residual radiation could be expected to kill one in 10 residents over the next 40 years. Under current U.S. safety standards, the entire island would have to be evacuated.

        Unlike a nuclear bomb, a dirty bomb can be made from radioactive materials such as cesium, strontium and iridium, commonly found in hospitals and construction sites. Experts fret about security at such sites, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that because these materials decay quickly and only negligible amounts have been lost or stolen in the U.S., it's doubtful that terrorists could have accumulated enough to make even a single dirty bomb.

        Dangerous amounts of material have gone missing elsewhere, however, and the U.S. is working with the International Atomic Energy Agency to inventory existing sources and, when possible, remove or lock them up. It's a monumental task, but the possibility of Manhattan becoming another Chernobyl makes it essential.
    • Re:dirty bombs (Score:3, Interesting)

      by b-baggins (610215)
      The terror factor would be through the roof. The actual damage would very minor. Chernobyl was a incredibly HUGE dirty bomb. It killed a few hundred in the immediate vicinity, and may kill a few hundred more in twenty years from cancer. But the hysteria it produced was off the scale. People in Italy, thousands of miles away were in a panic because a radioactive cloud about as powerful as solar radiation in Denver on a sunny day was heading for them.
      • Re:dirty bombs (Score:3, Informative)

        by Da Fokka (94074)
        'A few hundred'?

        Try 15.000:
        http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/722533.stm [bbc.co.uk]
      • Hysteria? (Score:4, Informative)

        by Angstroem (692547) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:25AM (#11711973)
        But the hysteria it produced was off the scale. People in Italy, thousands of miles away were in a panic because a radioactive cloud about as powerful as solar radiation in Denver on a sunny day was heading for them.
        You, of course, are aware that there's a difference between solar radiation and radioactive material which settles down and takes decades to decay.

        After the cloud arrived, there were areas in Germany (esp. Bavaria) where you shouldn't eat (wild) mushrooms and venison anymore because of the radiation. And even today, almost 19 years after, it is not wise to eat too much of certain mushroom types. The joys of half-life.

        If that's what you call hysteria, I'd like to get your definition of severity.

  • Scared (Score:3, Funny)

    by teiresias (101481) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:07AM (#11711688)
    'I don't think the public ought to lose a lot of sleep over the issue,' says nuclear physicist Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "

    Sleep! No time for that now after that article. Thanks a fucking bunch Popsci. As if my dreams weren't f'd up enough.
  • Better link (Score:2, Informative)

    by jaiyen (821972)
    http://www.popsci.com/popsci/print/0,21553,1017201 ,00.html [popsci.com]

    The printer-friendly version of the article, with all the text on one page instead of spread out over 5.
  • Do they need to? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vonoech (605198) <brford@yahoo.cPERIODom minus punct> on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:07AM (#11711702) Homepage Journal
    If a terrorist group is able to build a dirty bomb that causes mass casualties why would they want a nuke?
    • by WoodieR (860635)
      correct - easier and cheaper, and gets better results - from THEIR perspective ...
    • by jedidiah (1196)
      You can get discarded radioactive materials from places like junkyards. There are even incidents of people PLAYING with radioactive materials they find in old medical equipment.

      This article completely glosses over all of that.
    • So they can say "We have a nuke" More people are scared of nukes because they are nukes...

      It's like me saying "I overclocked my 4 gig processor to 5" Do I need it? no, it's just to say it and sound special
    • by Aardpig (622459) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:18AM (#11711868)

      If a terrorist group is able to build a dirty bomb that causes mass casualties why would they want a nuke?

      Because dirty bombs aren't designed to cause mass casualties. Their main effect is fear; with the popular in terror of anything 'nuclear', they are ideal for cowing a whole population. Hell, you don't even need to detonate one; just the thought of a dirty bomb is good enough to terrorize people. The current mindset in the USA is ample evidence of this.

      They can also render an (albeit-small) area of real estate uninhabitable for a lengthy period of time. This of course can lead to a significant amount of economic fallout.

  • Well... (Score:3, Funny)

    by supmylO (773375) <bjarosz@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:08AM (#11711705)
    If 30 kilos of Plutonium is enough to build one, I'd say they have a strong case...
  • But I think they would have big problems deploying it.
  • 30 kilos of plutonium... check.... a nice book telling them what areas of their "alternative energy department" they need to improve... check....
  • The coral link (Score:2, Informative)

    by Laurentiu (830504)
    The original article is already sluggish, so there [nyud.net].
  • by Jack Taylor (829836) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:15AM (#11711826)
    The real question isn't whether terrorists could build a nuclear bomb, but whether they would want to. As long as the US can threaten smaller countries with the "invade first and ask questions later" approach to foreign policy, the fear will breed opponents to the US. The stronger the fear is, the likelier it is to fool individuals into thinking they can solve things by killing US citizens. The most effective way to combat terrorism is to stop people from being afraid, not by rounding up terrorists that are already known. America is channeling all its energy into short-term solutions and forgetting the long-term ones.
    • the fear will breed opponents to the US. The stronger the fear is, the likelier it is to fool individuals into thinking they can solve things by killing US citizens.

      You win the prize for the greatest misunderstanding of human nature. Congratulations.

  • 'I don't think the public ought to lose a lot of sleep over the issue,' says nuclear physicist Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Then he turned to the camera and said, "Lunatic Fringe! We all know you're out there!"
  • Although terrorists might be able to build a bomb they can probably only build a, as in one, bomb. They are unlikely to be able to build and deploy many bombs. That is why one of the best defenses is to create a more distributed economic infrastructure.

    I fear that NYC is a dangerous single-point-of-failure waiting to happen. Decentralizing the economic might of the country (reducing the number of company HQs in NYC and relocating financial networks to outlying areas) would reduce the magnitude of any
  • 'I don't think the public ought to lose a lot of sleep over the issue,' says nuclear physicist Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "

    Mr. Cochran then proceeded to run back into his armored bunker as he chuckled to himself "Would you like to play a game?".

  • Terrorists? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fforw (116415) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:19AM (#11711880) Homepage
    Only terrorists can build a nuclear bomb.

    What would you use such a powerfull bomb for?
    To prepare occupation?

    The only thing such a bomb is useful for is to create fear, terror in your enemies' hearts.

    • Re:Terrorists? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by HeghmoH (13204) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:28AM (#11712006) Homepage Journal
      The only two times a nuclear bomb was used in anger, they were both used to prepare the way for the surrender and occupation of the target. Until and unless some evidence presents itself to the contrary, I will have to say that you are wrong.

  • Most people in the Defense and Military sectors around the world say that terrorists or any small nation wanting nuclear capability will NOT build a nuclear bomb. It is much easier, cleaner and way cheaper to buy it from a willing seller.

  • Assessing the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities In recent years there has been increased awareness of the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities, which could have widespread consequences for the environment and for public health.

    This is an interesting 148 page report about the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities in the UK [parliament.uk]

    Or the quick four page summary [parliament.uk] ;-)

    Interesting the worries this report generated as politicians and commentators thought it might be a how-to guide

  • We're spending a whole lot of money in Iraq every day and have found no fissile material. How much better would we be doing in the war on terror if all of the money and resources were simply being used to ferret out terrorists and stopping them from obtaining the materials they need? I'm not saying Saddam wasn't a bad man who needed to be ousted, it justs seems like he should have been pretty far down the list of objectives.

    Derek
  • by s7uar7 (746699) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:22AM (#11711926) Homepage
    There's a lot of things we know terrorists can do - blowing up trains, flying planes into buildings, releasing nerve gas on the underground - because they've already done it. And look how often that happens. The chances of dying in a terrorist attack are about 10,000 times smaller than dying in a car accident.
    • BS Alert! (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Sun Tzu (41522)
      The chances of dying in a terrorist attack are about 10,000 times smaller than dying in a car accident.

      I have to call BS on this one. There've been, what, ~3500 terrorist-caused deaths in the US in the past decade? With your math, there must have been 35,000,000 US car accident deaths in that same decade. Traffic deaths, however, are closer to about 40,000 a year -- not 3,500,000 a year.
  • by whitroth (9367) <whitroth@5-COLAcent.us minus caffeine> on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:30AM (#11712034) Homepage
    I have no *clue* what the administration's "Iran know how in six months" crap is, nor do I see any problem with terrorists building a bomb (though the latter might wind up with a nasty melter, rather than a BOOOM).

    All they'd have to do is have someone look up what that kid wrote in the late seventies. He got a visit from the FBI, I think - his science project was "how to build a nuclear bomb", and they looked *really* dumb when he showed them that he'd only gotten stuff out of magazines and standard texts.

    Hell, I have a 20 year old issue of, umm, Mother Jones? that has a cover story on how to do it. Of course, the hardest part is the centerfuging, when you have the liquid in a bucket, and have to spin around as fast as you can in the living room for half an hour.

    mark "this is 'secret'?"
  • by originalhack (142366) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:33AM (#11712068)
    Unfortunately, there are a lot of nuclear states with very bad economies. If you only need a few nukes, buying them probably wins out in the build versus buy debate.
  • when I realized that living and working close to a large, urban area was no longer enjoyable and even dangerous. We moved to an agricultural area that is less risky from a terrorist standpoint just because of the paucity of victims and lack of headline material ("suicide bomber kills 3 pheasants, a rabbit, and 14 beetles"). It takes a bit more energy to make a living in rural America (or rural anywhere I expect) but the rewards are great even disregarding the enhanced safety. No crowded freeways, a lower noise threshold and abundant recreation (fishing, boating, hunting, bird watching, etc.). Plus, the advent of the Internet and high bandwidth has made moving to the country easier than ever. Overhead is less expensive too; I pay $350 a month for about 600 sq feet of office space in downtown and a 3-br/2bath house in a nice area is less than $100k!
  • by dr. loser (238229) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:39AM (#11712140)
    I'm a physicist. I know how hard it would be for an unskilled, untrained bunch of terrorists to build a bomb from scratch. I don't lose sleep over this.

    However, why would terrorists want to even try this? Assuming they wanted a real nuclear detonation rather than a dirty bomb, isn't the possibility of purchasing or stealing an intact, complete weapon of more concern? Reading this [cfrterrorism.org] doesn't exactly give me the warm fuzzies about the former Soviet Union. And remember, the Pakistanis and North Koreans have the expertise, know-how, materials, and a desperate need for hard currency.
  • Not a Holocaust (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ekephart (256467) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:42AM (#11712175) Homepage
    It's worth noting that the size (i.e. yield) of a nuclear weapon terrorists would be likely to acquire/build would be very low (maybe a few kilotons). And while the destruction sowed by such a device would be larger than that of a plane or truck bomb, it would not destroy a city.

    First the bomb is likely to be detonated at ground level, or a few stories up in a garage. This limits the blast damage significantly. Assuming an urban environment, tall buildings would also limit the devices blast effectiveness. US and Soviet bombs of the Cold War were several *mega*tons, and were detonated several thousand feet in the air. With a terrorist's bomb you will not see the massive air burst followed by a blast wave that topples buildings and vaporizes people for miles.

    The most dangerous effect from small bombs detonated at ground level is fallout. This would likely be enhanced by the very structures that limited the blast radius. Surrounding buildings would force radioactive dust and debris up, making the likelihood of winds blowing the fallout over a larger area higher.

    Indeed, a nuclear detonation in Manhattan would destroy several blocks and kills tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. Such an event would be devastating to our economy and to the lives of millions. IMHO this is something completely different from Cold War style nuclear scares. A nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union would have killed hundreds of millions of people, billions in the after effects. Here, the likelihood of you being personally and directly harmed by a terrorist nuclear weapon is relatively low when compared to the effects to the economy on a national (and global) scale.
  • by SuiteSisterMary (123932) <slebrun@gmail.cUUUom minus threevowels> on Friday February 18, 2005 @11:01AM (#11712458) Journal

    Clancy's 'Sum of All Fears,' circa 1990 or so, IIRC, has that exact plot; Islamic terrorists build a nuke.

    In the afterword, he laments the fact that information on how to build a nuke was SO easy to obtain, he felt obligated to not reproduce it in his book. He mentions calling up Oak Ridges and asking about specs for some of the fabrication machinery, and having blueprints FedEx'd to him the next day.

  • by Mr.Sharpy (472377) on Friday February 18, 2005 @11:07AM (#11712547)
    Seriously, I'm not so worried about terrorists getting raw material and building their own weapon from scratch as I am of them buying or "stealing" one. Building a weapon would require a lot of time, knowledge and raw material, but with an unknown number of unfriendy states posessing or already developing weapons who can say buying one outright is out of reach for some well monied extremist group? For all we know it might be a way for say, North Korea to detonate a weapon inside the US with plausible deniability. Can't you just hear Kim Jong-Il saying "Oh those darned terrorists, they stole one of our weapons!! We sure are sorry you lost Washington :(; maybe you shouldn't have been such capitalist pigs."

    Some might say it's a little kooky to imagine a black market for ready-made nukes, but is it really any less likely than a group like Al Queda building one from scratch? These people have money, lots of money; and everyone, even countries, has their price. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't focus all our attention on the raw materials and brains required to build one for an independent organization like Al Queda, when they could just as easily follow our American lead and outsource their dirty work to someone else.
  • Orwell said it best (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dpbsmith (263124) on Friday February 18, 2005 @11:10AM (#11712595) Homepage
    The newspapers have published numerous diagrams, not very helpful to the average man, of protons and neutrons doing their stuff, and there has been much reiteration of the useless statement that the bomb 'ought to be put under international control.' But curiously little has been said, at any rate in print, about the question that is of most urgent interest to all of us namely: 'How difficult are these things to manufacture?...

    Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a 'peace that is no peace.'

    -- George Orwell, "You and the Atomic Bomb," October 19, 1945
  • by hairykrishna (740240) on Friday February 18, 2005 @11:18AM (#11712717)
    So there's two ways you can go about building your fission bomb.

    "Gun type" - This was the way they built the Hiroshima bomb. Two bits of fissile material banged into each other using high explosive to form a critical mass. This only works with Uranium as plutonium bombs built using this method would "fizzle"- chain reaction kicks off before the core go's critical. Nobody makes bombs like this because of the inherent danger of accidental detonation- they could concievably go off in a crash or fire. The advantage of this type of bomb is that it's easy to make and you can be pretty sure it will go off ok (which is why they chose it for Little Boy).

    "Implosion type"- a sphere of fissile material with a hollow in the middle is crushed into a critical mass using explosive lenses. This is much more efficient than the gun type due to the increased density and the detonation speed. Getting the high explosive lenses right is a real bastard though. The literatures pretty light on the explosive details strangely enough.

    So, basically, your common or garden "building it in his cave" terrorist stereotype is going to have to go for the gun type. All the cross section and neutron transport data's available, you only need some world war II tech high explosives and machining ability and you're done. Thing is you're limited to highly enriched uranium.

    Ok, so nobody's serious suggesting that any non-governmental group is enriching their own uranium (at least I hope not). So they have to aquire very high U235 content uranium from somewhere. Where's the only place you find this? Bombs. Basically I reckon that anyone in a position to sell terrorists material for a bomb is in a position to sell them one pre-assembled.

  • Dirty bombs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by g0bshiTe (596213) on Friday February 18, 2005 @11:41AM (#11713012)
    What of dirty bombs made with depleted uranium? Older X-Ray machines have a readily available supply which could be obtained cheaply and realatively inexpensively. And what of Korea? They have already refused to agree to the UN treaty barring nations from actively developing nuclear weapons, I'm sure Korea would be more than happy to supply a few terrorist groups with some lower grade weapons.

    A device would not have to be very large or have a 12 kiloton yield to do alot of damage. Property would most likely be lost at ground zero, the real threat would be the iradiated area and secondary fallout carried on wind currents. Imagine one going off in Central Park large enough to iradiate the total area of the park. How many residents would be in that area at any given time?

    This worries me more than bieng caught in the blast from an ICBM, at least then it flash, your dust. But a death from radiation poisoning, that is terrifying.
    • Re:Dirty bombs (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Detritus (11846)
      Depleted uranium is almost useless for a dirty bomb. With a half-life of almost 5 billion years, you are more at risk from a chunk of the bomb falling on your head than the radioactivity released by the bomb.
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday February 18, 2005 @01:03PM (#11714233) Homepage
    That's what you need to build a dirty bomb. And it keeps showing up in dumps and scrap yards. And that's with the stuff in big chunks. "Weaponized", ground into a powder for distribution, it would be far more dangerous.
  • Why Bother? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rfc1394 (155777) <Paul@paul-robinson.us> on Friday February 18, 2005 @01:26PM (#11714576) Homepage Journal
    You can build a fuel-air explosive a lot easier, or the McVeigh Sandwich of fertilizer and diesel (AMFO) with a lot less trouble and with just as much impact, and it's a hell of a lot harder to prevent or catch someone parking a tractor-trailer truck full of AMFO as opposed to a radiation detector catching a small nuke.

    You want to do damage, it's a whole lot easier to buy a truckload of fertilizer, and openly buy 500 gallons or so of diesel fuel from any truck stop for cash, and if you have them delivered to a farm, nobody will notice or even think twice about it as it would be routine, and the chances are excellent you can get away with it and never be caught.

    For probably $10,000 you can create a dozen nasty good sized bombs without even having to do anything which in any way looks suspicious or illegal until you set the damn thing off. I doubt that you can go nuclear on less than a million. A million bucks will probably buy you a thousand Oklahoma City-sized bombs, but at best gets you one lousy nuke. Which is going to have more effect for the same amount of money? One spectacular bomb that kills about the same number as the World Trade Center, Second Edition, or a thousand WTC-sized bombs?

    Estimates are the WTC attacks cost Al-Qaeda maybe $100,000. Would a nuclear bomb have done better in terms of horror, publicity or terror than two hijacked airliners? Above a certain level it really doesn't matter, you've already made your point, and trying to use even stronger methods doesn't buy you anything more.

    Further, you don't have to be a martyr to use ANFO, but you'd better be intending to die if you use a nuke, because otherwise if you drop a nuke, you guarantee they will hunt you down for as long as it takes. And let's not forget that it's possible for a very tiny group (2 people, maybe even just 1) can set up an ANFO bomb. And it doesn't take a whole lot of smarts to do it. It's going to take a lot more people - with intelligence - to set up a usable nuke.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken

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