November - December 2008

P.O. Box 190, Mount Holly, Virginia 2252
Volume 38, Number 6, Jerry Strope, Editor

  "She will be a leader who can reform a sprawling department while safeguarding our homeland."                                

            President-elect Barack Obama, referring to Janet Napolitano

In This Issue
Change may be Coming  
North Korea is Waiting, Too
Iran Worries IAEA

Notes to Members

The Shape of the Threat
An article by Walmer E. Strope

Please invite your friends to visit the ASDA website at

Change may be Coming    

  The big news as the year ends is the transition from the administration of George W. Bush to the presidency of Barack H. Obama, which will occur on January 20. Janet Napolitano, governor of Arizona, is Obama’s choice to head the Department of Homeland Security. According to Marsha Mercer of Media General, it’s likely that Homeland Security will test Obama’s urge to change, reform and overhaul government against the realities of the federal bureaucracy. Created five years ago by combining 22 federal agencies, Homeland Security might well be regarded as one of George W. Bush’s biggest mistakes.

   Nonetheless, current secretary Michael Chertoff cautioned recently, “There’s a presumption in my mind against any massive changes. At a minimum, you ought to take a couple of years and make sure you’re using existing structures as well as you can. Each time you reorganize, you freeze everything. People become uncertain what their future is. All actual, substantive work becomes impeded, and then you lose time.”

  It is difficult to forecast what the new administration may try to do to introduce credible change into homeland security. Obama may make high-profile appointments of “czars” for specific areas, where the czars would report directly to him and not go through the Department of Homeland Security. Under review is a proposal to remove FEMA from the department. Chertoff views these ideas dimly. What, he asks, would more czars add? And he says having the agency that responds to disasters as part of the larger preventive effort makes sense.

  It is difficult to see why including FEMA’s disaster response with “the larger preventive effort” makes sense when even the other response efforts have little commonality with that of FEMA. In a presentation made by Mr. Kirk Paradise at the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness annual meeting in July 2008, Paradise, who is the emergency management coordinator for Madison County, Alabama, noted that in his opinion the Department of Homeland Security had exerted great effort and much federal funds to prepare to deal with possible chemical and biological terrorist attacks. On a scale of zero to ten, he believed he would rate the nationwide readiness to deal with chemical and biological attacks to be a nine. On the other hand, the effort to prepare to deal with a terrorist nuclear attack has been negligible and he would rate the readiness as a one on the same scale. Possibly, with Janet Napolitano at the helm, we can expect a change for the better.

North Korea is Waiting, Too

  North Korea seems to have slipped into a delaying mode as the six-nation negotiators try to nail down a plan to verify the denuclearization of the hermit kingdom. In early November, the North claimed it had not agreed to allow nuclear sample collection as part of the verification process. On November 12, the US rejected that claim, arguing that the verification plan agreed to last month specifically included site visits to declared and possibly undeclared nuclear facilities and sampling of materials. “It was basically agreed that experts could take samples and remove them from the country for testing,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

  “The sampling issue is the core focus of the verification measures,” said South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-bwan. “The US and North Korea held their recent talks on this understanding.” That didn’t prevent two months of delays. Finally, on Friday, December 19, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blew her top before the Council on Foreign Relations. “Nobody was trusting of the North Koreans. I mean, who trusts the North Koreans? You’d have to be an idiot to trust the North Koreans. That’s why we have a verification protocol that we are negotiating.”

  The ongoing talks have been worthwhile, even if they have yet to meet their ultimate goal, according to Secretary Rice. There has been no plutonium production in North Korea since 2005 and disablement activities continue at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. “This is a process that still has a lot of life in it.” Rice said. The question now is whether the Obama administration will let it continue.

  “North Korea is not the top priority of the incoming administration,” said Charles Pritchard, head of the Korea Economic Institute. “It might take time for the Obama administration to turn its full attention to North Korea.” “They [North Korea] have high hopes that the Obama administration will be more generous in terms of getting energy assistance and political recognition,”  said Gary Samore, vice president of the Council of Foreign Relations. “The longer they can hang on to their nuclear weapons, the more likely people will eventually be frustrated and give up,” he added, “That’s something they are very good at.”

Iran Worries IAEA

  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN”s nuclear watchdog agency, released a routine inspection report on Iran’s nuclear activities on November 19. It being a slow news day, the New York Times decided to heat up the report as only the Times can do. Noting that Iran had manufactured 1,390 pounds of low-enriched uranium, the newspaper declared that Iran has enough uranium to create a nuclear weapon if it were to continue enriching the material. But the headline said only: Iran Could Fuel One Nuclear Bomb.

  The Institute for Science and International Security quickly issued a report pointing out the need for enrichment and alleging Iran would need several more months of production to really have enough low-enriched uranium to eventually make one bomb. It also quoted an official familiar with IAEA operations to the effect that Iran may be able to begin operating 6,000 centrifuges by the end of 2008. These are the new centrifuges Iran has claimed were about to begin operation for a year now.

  The Times story generated considerable comment and alarmism. “They have a weapon’s worth,” said Thomas Cochran, a nuclear scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a virtual milestone,” he added. Dick Garwin said,”They clearly have enough material for a bomb. They know how to do the enrichment. Whether they know how to design a bomb, well, that’s another matter.”

 The Times ploy hid the real message in the IAEA report; namely, Iran is hiding something and not answering questions. A high-level UN official said that the matter remains far from resolved. “We had gridlock before but then at least we were talking to each other. Now it’s worse. There is no communication whatsoever, no progress regarding possible military dimensions in their program.” Iran gave the agency more than 200 pages of records last June but IAEA officials said their worries remain. “Our questions remain and they need to be addressed. There is no point in writing them again every week. We are just awaiting their response. But we have a long vacuum of communication now.”

  This situation explains why shortly after the November election IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said that president-elect Barack Obama’s declared willingness to hold direct talks with Iran might encourage Iran to cooperate with the IAEA investigation of its nuclear activities. “If there is a direct dialogue between the United States and Iran, I think Iran will be more forthcoming with the agency,” said ElBaradei. “A political opening will also convince Iran to work with us to solve remaining technical issues.” “Right now we have a stalemate in the Iranian situation. We are able to verify all their declared activities, we are able to verify their enrichment program, which is a good thing, but we are still unable to move forward on clarifying some of the outstanding issues related to alleged studies that could have some linkage to a possible military dimension.”

Notes to Members

  I thank those of you who learned of my loss of two grandsons in November. Your condolences are deeply appreciated.

  Please recall that the newsletter becomes a quarterly in 2009. The next issue will cover January, February and March and will be mailed in the first week of April.

  In the hope of clarifying discussions of terrorist nuclear attack, I include the following essay on the nature of the threat.


The Shape of the Threat

Walmer E. Strope

What would a terrorist nuclear attack look like? Perhaps only some members of the terrorist group have a good estimate. What we do know is that the terrorist threat is wholly different from the threat that we faced during the Cold War. Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union would have involved the detonation of thousands of multimegaton warheads throughout the industrial nations of the northern hemisphere. Many distinguished scientists lamented that such an event would mean the end of civilization. Other scientists predicted that the thousands of mushroom clouds and smoke from burning cities would so hide the sun that the planet would freeze up in a “Nuclear Winter.” Although these predictions may be exaggerations, the concept of civil defense—survival and recovery—seemed ludicrous.

  The terrorist nuclear threat is nothing like the above. For one thing, it most likely will consist of a single nuclear explosion. The only ways that a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda can obtain a nuclear device is to build one surreptitiously or obtain one from a willing supplier. Building a nuclear weapon requires not only an adequate supply of fissile material but also nonnuclear parts and facilities for precision machining and the like. North Korea had all that but when they tested their bomb it did not work. The mass media has saluted North Korea as a new member of the “nuclear club” of nations possessing nuclear weapons but all we know is that North Korean weapons don’t work. Al Qaeda probably wouldn’t buy one.

   Iran also is trying to get a nuclear weapon. “It seems hard to imagine that Iran does not already have them,” says historian Michael Ledeen. “Iranians are not stupid, and they have been at this for a minimum of twenty years in a world where almost all of the major components needed for a nuclear weapon—not to mention old nuclear weapons—are for sale.” But, so far, Iran has not found a willing supplier. We don’t know about Al Qaeda. We do know that Usama bin Laden has said that if he had several nukes he would put one in each of several US cities and attempt to detonate them simultaneously.

  The terrorist threat also is shaped by the size or yield of the nuclear explosion. Most analysts agree that the terrorist nuke will be about the size of those that ended World War II with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—15 to 20 kilotons.  The reason for this judgment is that the least amount of fissile material (highly-enriched uranium or plutonium) needed to form a critical mass at the moment of detonation was used. The amount of fissile material needed is by far the most costly component and most difficult to obtain. Actually, the amount of fissile material used in those very-first nukes was slightly larger than the minimum needed. When the North Koreans tested their nuclear device, they expected a yield of 10 kilotons. They got virtually no fission yield as the critical mass blew apart before only a tiny portion could engage in a chain reaction.

  Another possible source of a terrorist nuclear weapon is said to be one lost when the Soviet Union dissolved. There are inadequate records for some weapons but these are not high-yield ICBMs but rather battlefield devices with yields around 10 kilotons. If there are such not under Russian control, their possible use by terrorists does not change the shape of the terrorist threat.

  An important aspect of the threat is whether the explosion would be high in the air as it was in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks (an air burst) or on or close to the ground (a surface burst.) There appears to be no advantage to terrorists from attempting to deliver an air burst and several drawbacks. If the terrorist objective is to kill as many Americans as possible, the surface burst is superior, as it threatens to kill by blast, fire and fallout whereas the air burst has only blast and fire. A 10-kiloton surface burst produces a crater 280 feet wide and 65 feet deep. No survivors there, but there were several survivors at Hiroshima’s ground zero, directly under the air burst.

  A surface burst is the natural location for a concealed terrorist nuclear device and surprise is essential to the terrorist purpose, as it was at 9/11. Lack of warning is central to the terrorist threat and it means that civil defense cannot avoid a grievous loss of life. Even so, civil defense can save most of whom would otherwise die. Do both: try to prevent and be prepared to save.

  The unavoidable deaths and injuries from an attack without warning will occur not only in the crater and its lip but also from blast and fire out to the 10-psi blast overpressure level, which occurs about 0.4 miles from ground zero. People outside and unshielded may be lost out to one mile where the blast overpressure is 2 psi. But outside one mile will be thousands who can be at hazard from the radioactive fallout from a surface burst. Consider the following for a 10-kiloton fission explosion:

            Dose Rate                                Distance                                   Max. Width

            r/hr@1 hr                                  miles                                          miles

                 500                                          3                                              < 1

                  50                                          14                                                2

                   5                                           60                                                6 

                  0.5                                        150                                               16

  This table, which is adapted from Table 9.90 in The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Revised Edition, requires some explanation. Some selected values of the unit-time reference dose rate are shown in the left column, their downwind distance and width in the center and right columns. The distance and width in miles is for a uniform wind direction at all altitudes and a uniform wind speed of 15 miles per hour. 

  When a 10-kiloton nuclear device explodes, about 20 ounces of radioactive fission products are produced as a very complex mixture of over 200 different isotopes of 36 elements. This radioactivity is swept up with large amounts of crater material into the mushroom cloud. Further mixing and cooling occurs as this material falls gradually to back to earth as fallout. At weapons tests, which is where all the available data have been obtained, the wind direction and speed are never uniform and measurements on the ground occur hours and days after the event. The 20 ounces of radioactive fission products have been being depleted since they were formed in the chain reaction. Their “decay curve” is well known and is used to adjust the measured values to a common reference time; namely, one hour after the explosion. That is the left-hand column above. The location measurements are adjusted in a similar fashion to form the dimensions of the ellipses commonly shown to represent fallout areas.

  The important point is that the dimensions in the table do not account for the dynamics of the event. To do that, we note that all the dimensions are for one hour after the explosion. Where is the mushroom cloud at that time? It is 15 miles downwind. In the table we see that the 50 r/hr dose rate extends 14 miles. So the fallout event is over at 15 miles with a peak of about 50 r/hr. Moreover, the fallout event is over at all distances less than 15 miles with peak dose rates greater than the one-hour reference dose rate. For example, we might assume that the maximum width occurs at half the full distance of 50 r/hr reference dose rate, or at 7 miles. But fallout occurred there at about 30 minutes after burst when the dose rate was 2.2 times higher than the reference dose rate or over 100 r/hr. Obviously, the maximum width of the 50 r/hr peak dose rate was substantially larger than shown in the table. Conversely, peak dose rates beyond 15 miles will be lower than the reference dose rate because the fallout arrives later than one hour after burst. As an example, the extent of 5 r/hr reference dose rate is shown to be 60 miles but fallout would not arrive until four hours after burst when the peak dose rate would be about 1 r/hr.

  What have we learned about the shape of the fallout threat from a terrorist nuclear explosion? First, the extent of lethal levels of fallout is confined to areas where fallout arrives within one hour. That area might be about 10 miles long and 3 miles wide or 30 square miles.  Since the area subject to blast and fire is about 3 square miles, there may be ten times as many people  subject to lethal fallout as are subject to lethal blast and fire. We can also conclude that people in the lethal fallout area must be given very good shelter or directed out of the area within two to four hours after the explosion to avoid fatalities.