Making The Bomb No Cakewalk After All
January 4, 2004 4:44 PM   Subscribe

Libya has pledged to dismantle its atomic weapons program. That is obviously good news, in addition to being a victory for George W. Bush's aggressive foreign policy. But what, exactly, is Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi giving up? Not much... Libya may be closing down its nuclear program because it wasn't working anyway. This points to an important reality about nuclear weapons: they are extremely difficult to make. Claims that bomb plans can be downloaded from the Internet, or that fissile material is easily obtained on the black market and slapped together into an ultimate weapon, seem little more than talk-radio jabber. Nations like Libya that have made determined attempts to obtain atomic munitions have not even come close.

If the Bomb Is So Easy to Make, Why Don't More Nations Have It?
posted by y2karl (42 comments total)

It's just the first step that's hard.

1) Acquire enough weapons grade fissionable materials.

Getting the weapons grade materials was the hard part of the Manhattan Project, and is the hard part of building nuclear weapons today. This is what the various non-proliferation groups watch -- not the technology to make a simple to moderately complex fission weapon (or even some of the simpler fission-fission, or fission-fusion-fission weapons), but the extremely complex separation technology.

If you handed Libya 100 (carefully separated) kilograms of U235 or Pu238, they could have functional kiloton scale weapons within two months.
posted by eriko at 5:10 PM on January 4, 2004

Was Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was let down by text files like this?
Making and owning an H-bomb is the kind of challenge real Americans seek. Who wants to be a passive victim of nuclear war when with little effort you can be an active participant? Bomb shelters are for losers. Who wants to huddle together underground eating canned Spam? Winners want to push the button themselves. Making your own H-bomb is a big step in nuclear assertiveness training - it's called Taking Charge. We're sure you'll enjoy the risks and the heady thrill of playing nuclear chicken.
I'm not sure if the humor translates, but the reality is far off. The NYT article claims, "The "enrichment" of uranium or plutonium to weapons-grade concentrations is a fantastically complex undertaking, involving reactors that cost billions of dollars or centrifuge facilities that are also costly and complicated." The text file states, "Then make a simple home centerfuge, Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexa, flouride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the rope (and attached bucket) around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes."
posted by john at 5:13 PM on January 4, 2004

FAS: Libya Special Weapons
posted by y2karl at 5:37 PM on January 4, 2004

The creation of a fission nuclear device, that is, some country announcing that it has "the bomb", has only one criteria, internationally. Recently demonstrated by Pakistan, you must test a device to prove that you have, or can have other devices. Otherwise, other nations just don't know.

The trouble happens when you have nations that want nukes but *don't* want others to know they have them. For example, some years ago, it was believed that three nations, Argentina, South Africa and Israel, conducted a joint nuclear test in the South Pacific ocean. Though there was no monitoring equipment in the area, a northern hemisphere satellite detected "something" akin to a nuclear test. By dividing labor between them, they were able to skirt export restrictions and international scrutiny.
(Something, it has recently been suggested, that other nations are doing.)

A different example would be Libya. If Libya had *already built* a nuclear weapon, that they had confidence *would* work without testing, the smartest thing they could do would be to carefully hide it underground, or even out of country, then erase every possible clue to its existence. Then open themselves up to inspection, relaxing trade and travel restrictions, which would then allow them to smuggle the device to wherever they wanted to detonate it.

To make matters worse, not all nuclear devices are treated with equal concern. Strategic weapons require "release" from the command authority in that nation, but tactical nuclear weapons, such as 155mm Howitzer nuclear rounds, once released to low level units, have "release" from as low as battalion Commander (Col.) in the US Army.
In other words, "Fail Safe" codes apply only to ICBMs and bombs dropped by long-range bombers. If you can get a nuclear artillery shell, just bonk it with a hammer and boom.

And this was the big concern after the fall of the Soviet Union. Far-flung Soviet military units with tactical nuclear weapons stored in decaying bunkers in a chaotic situation.
Ironic that a group of bandits on horseback with rifles could steal a nuclear weapon in such a situation.
posted by kablam at 5:44 PM on January 4, 2004

"And this was the big concern after the fall of the Soviet Union. Far-flung Soviet military units with tactical nuclear weapons stored in decaying bunkers in a chaotic situation.
Ironic that a group of bandits on horseback with rifles could steal a nuclear weapon in such a situation."

Kazakhstan: Project Sapphire
On 21 November 1994, 581kg (1,278 pounds) of HEU was transferred from the Ulba Metallurgy Plant 20 miles outside of the northern Kazakhstani city of Ust-Kamenogorsk to the Y-12 plant at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, in a highly secret project code-named "Sapphire." The project was initiated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev with the full knowledge of Russia, according to Kazakhstani Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Mette, in order to prevent the possibility of diversion by terrorists, or by any of the so-called nuclear threshold states near Kazakhstan. Government officials claimed that apart from the plutonium in missiles remaining on its territory, Kazakhstan no longer has any significant nuclear stockpiles. William H. Courtney, the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, led the secret negotiations in cooperation with the Kazakhstani government and the US Departments of Defense and Energy.

The uranium, reportedly left over from the Soviet Union's secret Alfa submarine program, had been stored at Ulba in unsecured and unsafeguarded facilities, without electronic means of accounting. Instead, quantities were simply recorded by hand into books.

Experts estimate the uranium was sufficient to make 20-25 nuclear bombs, though it was said a "skilled bomb-maker" could have produced as many as 36.


Loose Nukes and Poisons, by Jessica Stern

Nuclear Material Security in Russia (.pdf file)
posted by matteo at 6:25 PM on January 4, 2004

Making your own H-bomb is a big step in nuclear assertiveness training

IIRC, didn't Afghani soldiers -- or was it a media crew? -- find text quite similar to this in one of the Taliban enclaves?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:10 PM on January 4, 2004

Trump's law of nuclear proliferation:

At any point in time, any non-nuclear nation is six-months away from developing a nuclear weapon.
posted by jamsterdam at 7:16 PM on January 4, 2004

At any point in time, any non-nuclear nation is six-months away from developing a nuclear weapon.

Oh, well, that explains Grenada.
posted by y2karl at 7:41 PM on January 4, 2004

Then make a simple home centerfuge, Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexaflouride.

I presume you mean UF6, uranium hexafluroide.

There's the problem. How do you make UF6. Easy? No. You need to mix uranium oxide with hydrofluoric acid and fluorine. That's nasty. Worse, now you have your UF6. You cannot let it come into contact with water vapor, or you get

2H20 + UF6 --> 2HF + U02F2 + 2F + heat

That's right. We get loose fluorine, and hydrofluoric acid, and a more stable uranium compound, uranyl fluoride. Oh, and heat. Lots of heat. It's not a thermite reaction, but you're likely to have hot hydrofluoric acid. Better have a really resistant bucket.

Plus. You need liquid UF6 to separate. That means you need to heat it to 147F at 1.5 bar. At room temps, it's a solid (until water gets in, then it's a mess) at sea level pressure, it will sublimate into a gas. You'll need to swing a hot, sealed bucket of UF6 if you expect to sort U235 out of U238.

Plus, when you're done, you need to get rid of the UF6 that has the 238 isotope, and then get the U235 out of the UF6. That's complicated, and leaves depleted UF6 to deal with afterwards, as well as some spare fluorine.

For those wondering, a quick description of fluorine is "like chorine, but more reactive and more toxic."

We once had a game of "build the most evil rocket possible." I recall the winner being filling a space shuttle with H2 fuel, F as the oxidizer, and making the solids out of UF6 and beryllium.
posted by eriko at 7:58 PM on January 4, 2004

I presume you mean UF6, uranium hexafluroide.

I don't mean anything. I am under the impression that the majority of the text is a joke that came from some basic knowledge.
posted by john at 8:11 PM on January 4, 2004

just bonk it with a hammer and boom.

I think it's a little more complex then this. Neclear reactions need to be setup just so, and simply 'bonking it with a hammer' wouldn't do anthing I'm sure that they are setup to be 'timed' so that the round detonates as it aproaches the target, rather then waiting to be smacked into it.

Eriko. I think you just got yourself on "the list"... :P
posted by delmoi at 8:53 PM on January 4, 2004

you beat me to it that John hold his breath while swinging that bucket, at least 'til the white HF cloud dissipates...
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:40 PM on January 4, 2004

it looks like we have enough expertise here to be the first community weblog to possess nuclear weapons.

- we start bombing fark in five minutes.
posted by sgt.serenity at 10:43 PM on January 4, 2004

it would be nice to know how whether this is an isolated article or some kind of organised campaign. it's clearly in america's interest to downplay the risk; in the case of iraq it was otherwise. to what extent are articles this used to manipulate opinion to follow the appropriate party line?

i'm not questioning the article, just wondering whether there's a different emphasis in what is presented, and how that emphasis is managed. is it simply through the kind of "subconscious" group think of the ruling classes (i think this is chomsky's argument, but it's been a long time since i read anything of his)? or is it overtly manipulated?
posted by andrew cooke at 4:36 AM on January 5, 2004

ouch - delete and insert words as appropriate to make previous post intelligible. does senility increase paranoia?
posted by andrew cooke at 4:43 AM on January 5, 2004

to being a victory for George W. Bush's aggressive foreign policy.

I'm calling bullshit on this incorrect assumption/statement by the author. Pretend I'm from Missouri and prove it to me you lazy media whore. SCLM "conventional wisdom" just doesn't cut it. All the evidence I've read thus far would deny and negate this statement.
posted by nofundy at 5:15 AM on January 5, 2004

While isolation of U235 or P239 to fissible purities and quantities is extrremely difficult, and more to the point, expensive, it is child's play to make or aquire enough simply radioactive material that could also render an area of a few dozen NYC blocks uninhabitable for the next few decades. Even if a terrorist didn't aerolize the nuclear material enough, the fear alone from living in a "contaminated" area would keep it empty for years to come. This is the definition of good "terrorism" -- if it's cheap and off-the-shelf, it can happen at any time and thus we feel we're never safe enough, no matter how many perfectly good laws we tear down.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:46 AM on January 5, 2004

Perhaps more likely than an atomic detonation would be a "dirty bomb," in which conventional explosives spread radioactive material. Since this has never been used, effects are hard to project. Most likely, even an extremely large dirty bomb (say, an entire truck converted to one) might kill only those within a city block. Fallout would probably threaten only those a few hundred or thousands of yards downwind.

Yet if people heard on the radio that a dirty bomb had exploded — if they so much as heard the word radiation — panic might set in. In Manhattan or Washington, mass chaos to escape might result in more deaths than the bomb itself.

But is the government explaining to the public how to react if a dirty bomb goes off? (Stay indoors; if upwind do nothing; if downwind, drive away only if roads are clear; take potassium iodide pills to prevent some effects of fallout.) The Department of Homeland Security Web site, for one, has loads of information about anthrax, but offers essentially zero on what to do in the event of radiological explosions.

The Smart Way to Be Scared
posted by y2karl at 9:01 AM on January 5, 2004

On a related tip: We're All Gonna Die!

A skeptical guide to Doomsday.
posted by y2karl at 9:16 AM on January 5, 2004

Official data on the number of deployed, non-deployed, or eliminated warheads for (Russian Only) tactical nuclear weapons have not been made public...Unofficial estimates vary broadly, from 3,000 to 10,000 warheads...The highest recent estimate was calculated by the French Ministry of Defense: 18,000 to 20,000 warheads.

So, if someone gets ONE tactical nuke artillery shell or mine, out of the somewhere between 3,000 to 20,000-about Russian tactical nukes, it would be bad. Which, of course, assumes it's a Russian one, not an American, French, Israeli, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, British or somebody else's.

Gee, there are a lot of these things kicking around. Glad we don't lose nuclear weapons. Somewhere between 200-600, last I heard. But most of those were BIG bombs, not just little tactical ones.
posted by kablam at 10:30 AM on January 5, 2004

"And we'll all bake together when we bake.
There'll be nobody present at the wake.
With complete participation,
In that grand incineration
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.
We will all char together when we char.
And let there be no moaning at the bar.
Just sing out a Te Deum
When you see that I.C.B.M.
And the party will be "come as you are"."

If the terrorists get things fissable
Life is sure to get more miserable
So don't be so damn unreasonable
New laws make that more treasonable
posted by john at 10:37 AM on January 5, 2004

So, if someone gets ONE tactical nuke artillery shell or mine, out of the somewhere between 3,000 to 20,000-about Russian tactical nukes, it would be bad. Which, of course, assumes it's a Russian one, not an American, French, Israeli, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, British or somebody else's.

Indeed. This truly should have been our number one priority from the day the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Which is why some minds--left, right and center--are boggled at the current administration's senseless squandering of our military and intelligence resources on an ill considered unnecessary elective war gone wrong.

If unguarded, unaccounted Russian tactical nuclear warheads are our number one WMD threat, why are we pissing away so much money and machinery and putting so many men and women's lives in harm's way in Iraq?
Why are we abrogating the nuclear test ban treaty and pulling out of arms control agreements in order to develop even more tactical nuclear weapons--not to mention green lighting the Russian announcement of their intention to do exactly the same?
What-we don't have enough fail safe free, easily smuggled mini-nukes to worry about already?
Why aren't we addressing the real issues instead of having self congratulatory photo ops about stopping a Libyan nuclear weapons program that didn't amount to diddleysquat to begin with?

'Dirty' weapons on the loose

No new nukes to U.S. arsenal, Nunn urges

National Security Spending Doesn't Reflect Post-9/11 Realities, Critics Say

Making U.S. Voters Happier, Not Safer
posted by y2karl at 12:31 PM on January 5, 2004

You want a dirty little secret? Nuclear war is unavoidable.

But the twist is that it won't be the great big thermonuclear, world-destroying holocaust. It will be a small, tactical device(s), used in some war like Iraq-Iran's, where the mullahs of whatever stripe, who just don't grasp *what* a nuclear weapon is, will use it against their hated enemy. And when it is done, and the *rest* of the world realizes how *puny* it was, everybody will want to have, and use them. (Which is why both the US and Russia want to have a stockpile sitting around.)

Because if a nuclear detonation is little different from a conventional explosion, with even radiation gone in 48 hrs, who cares?

So, for this reason, the only sane thing to do is to resurrect MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, but with a twist. That being the threat that if a nation uses a nuclear weapon against its hated enemy, or allows a nuclear weapon to be used by some NGO, their entire nation will be obliterated.

When a nuclear device is used, the responsible country will be bombarded with induced neutron weapons, that will kill every lifeform in the country, but not destroy buildings and other inert objects. Almost no fallout, little long term consequences. And then that aggressor nation shall be awarded to the victim nation as reparations.

In other words, "Use a nuke and lose it all to your hated enemy. He will get all of your stuff. All of your houses, temples, lands, water, everything. And your people will *cease to be*."
posted by kablam at 3:20 PM on January 5, 2004

When a nuclear device is used, the responsible country will be bombarded with induced neutron weapons, that will kill every lifeform in the country, but not destroy buildings and other inert objects.

And where on the map, pary tell, is the nation of Al Qaeda?
posted by y2karl at 3:43 PM on January 5, 2004

er, pray *Doh!*
posted by y2karl at 3:45 PM on January 5, 2004

That's a great plan kablam!

In fact, let's switch all our bombs to neutron, hide in our vaults, bomb everyone and then move to their countries because they will have probably used regular nukes on us.

Man, do you know how much money would could have saved if we used these on Iraq?

Of course, maybe there's another particle that we could build a bomb around that only kills other bombs or bad thoughts or mad cows.
posted by john at 4:05 PM on January 5, 2004

I don't know, kablam. What about scoring intentional "own goals" to trigger MAD against the enemy? It's a pretty good tradeoff to detonate a sub-kiloton weapon at some remote outpost when it comes under artillery attack and claim it was packed into the other dude's 155mm shells when you then get all of his oil/water/arrable land/baseball cards.

Anyway, MAD was dead and buried by the 80's. Nuclear chess was and is what it's all about.
posted by Ptrin at 4:43 PM on January 5, 2004

I don't want to suggest this is what I advocate. However, what alternatives? I propose that these decisions have already been made by the major nuclear powers, based on *their* belief:
1) That at some point, nuclear weapons will lose their mystique, becoming the same as conventional weapons as far as most of the world is concerned.
2) From that point, you can either kill everybody who uses a nuke at all; or just try to limit their use to tactically, against military forces.
3) That to wait until nukes are used is less desirable than to kill everybody (outside the club) who tries to obtain them, preemptively, ala James Bond.

By this murderous logic, Saddam would be eliminated not because we are certain that he *has* a nuke, but because he has and is trying to *get* a nuke, and he has the resources to do it. The assumption is that all the checks and preventative measures in the world *won't* stop someone of substance who is bound and determined to get a nuke.

If you plan to counter-nuke a military that uses a nuke, you need nukes small enough to do the job, which is what the US and Russia are doing right now.

If, however, you have a national "death penalty" for using a nuke, probably only if sent by traceable ballistic missile; well, it's really important to let combatants know ahead of time what the consequences are. Meaning some ultra diplomat/bureaucrat like Richard Armitage takes a suitcase full of required reading to the antagonists, such as Pakistan one day and India the next, with a "You WILL read and sign" directive on them.

And if they are still so bound and determined to smite their hated enemy even though it will annihilate them, their people *and* lose all their stuff, then what do you do?
posted by kablam at 8:31 PM on January 5, 2004

If the Bomb Is So Easy to Make, Why Don't More Nations Have It?

We fought over who had to hold the flashlight.
posted by trondant at 8:43 PM on January 5, 2004

If, however, you have a national "death penalty" for using a nuke, probably only if sent by traceable ballistic missile;

So why wouldn't everyone use 155mm shells? Or copy the 40-year-old Davy Crocket nuclear bazooka? Ballistic missiles are a luxury -- something the Americans seem to have a very hard time understanding. They are a luxury of a country thousands of miles from the potential battlefield; a country that can very easily imagine fighting the final war without ever leaving its soil. Most nations don't have this luxury, and for them, the suicide bomber, the battlefield rocket, the cargo container, and the 155mm artillery shell are more than enough.

And what of chess? What of a single conventional warhead lobbed at Manhattan? A spread of VX aimed at Wyoming's ICBM fields? Do you respond to those, too, with assured destruction for both your enemy and the Eastern Seaboard? Do you really think the president will win the Virginia vote when reelection comes around if he begins a deadly nuclear exchange over less than a ton of blister gas in a gay neighborhood in San Francisco? What about a ton of cesium? What about a sub-kiloton detonation?

Here's the dirty little secret about MAD: the dog won't hunt.
posted by Ptrin at 9:26 PM on January 5, 2004

By this murderous logic, Saddam would be eliminated not because we are certain that he *has* a nuke, but because he has and is trying to *get* a nuke, and he has the resources to do it.

Uh, no. By this murderous logic, the greater worry is and has always been the Russian tactical nuclear weapons threat because we are certain that the Russians *have* thousands of tactical nuclear warheads that are * unsecured and unaccounted for*. These present such *a clear and present danger* that the *waste of our military and scientific resources* on an invasion promoted on the premises of a *hypothetical Iraqi threat* was and is a criminally insane folly. Especially when the present administration has been so dilatory and negligent in dealing with the *real* threat.

Remember while we spent all that time, money and manpower building up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq over those hypothetical and entirely non-existent WMDs and WMD programs, *38 nuclear warheads* disappeared from Moldova.

So, according to your murderous logic, from where did the *real* threat of *a mushroom cloud over an American city* come? Hint: not Iraq.

And again, how do you retaliate against a nuclear attack by a para-state entity like Al Qaeda?
posted by y2karl at 9:37 PM on January 5, 2004

why is there no discussion of depleted uranium here?

hopefully you are aware that low-grade radioactive weapons are being deployed in the mideast... AGAIN & AGAIN.

the results of previously deployed DU are widely available

I prefer to make changes that are possible, plausible and pragmatic rather than sit around hypothesizing all the 'WHAT IFs' - most of which have already been brought to the surface and discussed, at least to some degree.

There are countless veterans and agencies combatting this issue without adequate media coverage.

I take the responsibility of media publishing & review very seriously, and MeFi is one of the (few) places I expect to see a wide angle view.

it's hard enough to keep up. now the use of UNdepleted uranium may be more difficult to detect.

the half life is so long it's hard to tell how much of this pollution would be required to completely wipe out our species.

if you think the risk of low-grade radiation is no big deal, contact someone who has firsthand experience.... a member of the armed forces or citizens of one of the myriad locales unfortunate enough to lay in the path of imperialism & hegemony.

contravening UN edicts requires immediate ramification. greater than 10 years after initiation of such action is far too long to hem, haw and generally stick our thumbs up our asses.
posted by gkr at 10:00 PM on January 5, 2004

Let's face it folks: we're fucked. If any knut-ball organization decides it's going to kill a bunch of people, they will. Between easy access to dirty nukes, bio-diseases, and ordinary poisons, there ain't nothin to guarantee our safety.

All we can do is judge the risks and act accordingly.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:48 PM on January 5, 2004

That's the great thing about nukes: one size solutions don't work. Russia *is* the greater threat, but only due to lack of surety, not malevolence; and both the US and Russia are trying very hard to create surety in Russia.
So again, the emphasis is not *against* Russia, but against those trying to steal from Russia.
The use of small nukes is *one* problem, with the counter of another small nuke a solution; but mounting a single small nuke on a missile requires a different solution--as does policing up "missile technology", which is also being done.
And Ptrin, though your VX example would be hard as hell to carry out (VX is like baby oil in consistency, has a low vapor hazard and is hard to disseminate, so would be a poor choice); something like a Bio agent would be preferable. But not all WMDs are created equal, and likewise response to their use cannot be cut-and-dried.

Back during the Cold War, both the US and the USSR developed a framework of "escalators", designed to reduce the intensity of war and prevent full nuclear exchange. The base level is "conventional war", BUT, if you do something like use chemical weapons, WE will respond with chemical weapons PLUS something else.

The purpose of this was to give fair warning, to set up "rules" for even WWIII, to keep it from becoming MAD.

And to answer the NGO, Al Qeida question, you *can't* attack them back with WMDs. Your choice is to prevent them from getting such weapons in the first place, and then to kill them, systematically and thoroughly, using your "James Bond" types. Which is what the US is doing, and to considerable effect, judging from the body count so far.

And good old fashioned bloody mindedness works just fine for such individuals. It is a death penalty not just for those persons who themselves are trying to obtain and use WMDs, but for all their buddies, and their families, and their mullahs, and anyone else they associate with.

So no matter *what* solutions you come up with, anything beyond interdiction and diplomatic pressure usually ends up killing some or a lot of people, one way or another.
posted by kablam at 6:10 AM on January 6, 2004

Back during the Cold War, both the US and the USSR developed a framework of "escalators", designed to reduce the intensity of war and prevent full nuclear exchange. The base level is "conventional war", BUT, if you do something like use chemical weapons, WE will respond with chemical weapons PLUS something else.

But this NEVER WORKED. The USSR always considered chemical weapons to be entirely acceptable in a conventional war, and the US saw no reason not to use sub-kiloton devices in the same circumstance. The Soviets only gave up their chem-heavy doctrine in the 80's when they realized that a chemical battlefield would slow down their planned lightning war. They felt that they had to win in under 90 days, so the reduced rate of advance caused by everyone plodding around in class B chem suits wasn't going to work for them.

And the situation is even more impractical (if that is possible) now that there are so many important actors. The Chechens used a radiological device against Russia a few years ago. Do they now get the national death penalty? I'm sure Putin wouldn't mind at all, especially if we're willing to use our neutron weapons so that he doesn't have to pay for it. Especially since he's tried the hell out of bloody mindedness, and it hasn't exactly worked.

(I chose VX because it could be dumped in playgrounds and public parks, where it might potentially remain for months. It would be difficult to figure out why all the dogs and toddlers were dropping dead, and even harder to locate and clean every contaminated spot.)
posted by Ptrin at 7:44 AM on January 6, 2004

Though chemical weapons are associated with gruesome mortality, in actual use they have caused horrible choking and blisters--see the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the World War I British soldier whose famed work concluding "The old Lie: Dulce de decorum est/Pro patri mori" concerns troops being gassed--but have proven less deadly than bombs or bullets. Fewer than 1 percent of battle deaths during World War I, the only war in which chemical arms were extensively employed, were caused by gas. As John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, and his son Karl, a RAND Corporation analyst, have written, "In the First World War, only some two to three percent of those gassed on the Western front died while, by contrast, wounds caused by traditional weapons were some 10 to 12 times more likely to prove fatal." American fatalities followed exactly this ratio: 2 percent of those gassed during the war died, compared with 24 percent of those struck by bullets, artillery shells, or shrapnel.

Moreover, during World War I the Germans and British expended one ton of gas on average to achieve a single fatality on the opposite side. Chemical weapons were used in huge amounts to small effect because they are hard to deliver and hard to control. They waft on the wind, missing their targets and attenuating to the point that they cease to be lethal. Sunlight breaks down many chemical agents. And artillery shells don't carry chemicals well, because impact tends to immolate the chemical. Finally, in close combat, chemical weapons are as likely to blow back onto your position as to remain behind enemy lines.

Though more frightening than the mustard gas of the Great War, modern chemical arms such as sarin also fare poorly in pound-for-pound comparison. Writing a decade ago for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in an article presciently titled "The Myth of Chemical Superweapons," Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson estimated it would require one ton of sarin delivered under perfect conditions to inflict substantial casualties on unprotected civilians. And perfect conditions for gas--no wind, no sun, a very low-flying plane that no one is shooting at--almost never happen. A terrorist crop duster trying to spray sarin over a city, for example, would have to fly at least several hundred feet above the ground to avoid hitting buildings, meaning most of the gas would waft away harmlessly. A 1993 study by the Office of Technology Assessment found that one ton of perfectly delivered sarin, used against unprotected civilians, could kill as many as 8,000 but that even light wind or sunlight would drop the death toll by 90 percent. Eight hundred dead would be horrible, surely, but not "mass destruction" compared with what conventional arms do all too readily. A single U.S. bomb dropped against one Iraqi bunker during the Gulf war, for example, killed 314 civilians.

When the Aum Shinrikyo death cult attacked Tokyo's subway system with sarin in 1995, thousands were sickened but only twelve people killed--and this from the release of gas from multiple containers in an enclosed area without sunlight. The worst known use of gas, by Saddam against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, is generally estimated to have killed 5,000 people, though some analysts think the toll was lower. But in that attack, Iraqi air force planes made repeated, low-level, unopposed passes over defenseless civilians. Regular bombs and strafing would have caused a similar slaughter.

Op-Ed: 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' Meaningless

Chemical and Biological Weapons: Use in Warfare, Impact on Society and Environment

The application of the VX to the park soil would require personnel in in full CBW suits--you'd think someone might notice. And its persistence is in question.

The deadly nerve agent VX degrades on concrete in a matter of hours, a new detector has revealed. The finding could help military clean-up crews and chemical-weapons inspectors.

Despite all these science ficition scenarios, it's a far far easier proposition to kill thousands of people with fully fueled airliners or fertilizer and diesel oil truck bombs. Those are your terrorist weapons of mass destruction.
posted by y2karl at 8:53 AM on January 6, 2004

y2karl: that last link is good news. And I'm not arguing that anyone will launch a terror attack with CBN weapons -- they are a waste of time and money, unless you get a full-fledged atomic bomb (in which case it may still be a waste of time and money, given how hard they are to produce and procure...). I'm just trying to demonstrate that even a CBN attack, even a serious one, doesn't automatically present a clear case for a nuclear retaliatory strike.
posted by Ptrin at 9:03 AM on January 6, 2004

And in the news today, some Al-Queda agent stuffed C4 up her snatch, intent on blowing up a plane. It's extremely unlikely that, had security not been tipped off, she'd have succeeded.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:33 AM on January 6, 2004

Good arguments all around! I might also add that if you use lethality as a standard, agricultural Parathion, another nerve agent, works almost as good as VX, LD/50-wise.

One of my big, previous arguments about Chem/Bio in Iraq is that any industrial nation has plenty seriously toxic chemicals all over the place--just pop them in an artillery shell, like VX, and fire them. Biological weapons? just go to the pathology lab at any hospital. So the "WMD" argument then turns on "delivery systems". But that doesn't work, either, because while less efficient, delivery systems can also be low tech.

And yes, chem-bio only works really well against unprotected civilians. Both physically and through fear.

So the bottom line is a LOTS of potential weapons (N.B.: "anything can be a weapon"), and LOTS of potential ways of confronting the use of those weapons. Changing "hearts and minds" is a great technique, and I strongly encourage it; but then you have an entire gamut culminating in horrific counter attack and preemptive strike.

So, can you get a nuclear weapon? Maybe. You certainly have a good enough chance to warrant a strong effort to stop you from getting one. Having the resources to get one and the will to get one also makes you a very dangerous person, and in itself may be reason enough to stop you, at the user level, rather then try to interdict every possible supplier.
posted by kablam at 8:17 AM on January 7, 2004

This brings to mind my question Why do they always send in the Haz-Mat crews to newly discovered meth labs but never to Lowes and Home Depot grand openings?
posted by y2karl at 10:15 AM on January 7, 2004

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