Bombs, Bats, and Terrorism in New York

07/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So our attention once again returns to the possibility of another terrorist attack in New York. Whether or not the young man apparently involved in the recent failed bomb explosion in Times Square has bats in his belfry is beside the point. What is more important than knowing his mental state is a public understanding that sooner or later, if current trends continue, there will be a successful bomb explosion, and an explosion of more consequence than an explosion of fertilizer and propane gas alone.

Our problem is not fertilizer but nuclear material.

A true nuclear explosion? We don't like to think about it. As the physicist Martin Rees recently reminded us, "A nuclear explosion at the World Trade Center, involving two grapefruit-sized lumps of enriched uranium, would have devastated three square miles of southern Manhattan, including the whole of Wall Street."

But in reality our most serious problem is not the possibility of a true nuclear explosion in New York, but the possibility (maybe probability) of an ordinary explosion contaminated with radioactive material--a "dirty" bomb.

Unfortunately, although dirty bombs are often also called "nuclear" devices, the explosion of such a device does not involve nuclear events. They are really ordinary explosive material packed with radioactive material, the ordinary explosion dispersing the radioactive material over a wide range--contaminating everything, people, objects, the grass in the parks, and the lungs and bones of your children.

Are we safe? The question has been at the forefront of American politics for nearly seventy years, ever since the beginning of the atomic age. But given the methods of modern warfare, and more recently the methods of terrorism, the question is now more a question for scientists rather than a question for politicians and generals. Unfortunately, politicians and generals don't always welcome the answers of scientists, and when that happens, the answers of scientists are likely to be kept secret or to be buried in a mountain of paper to keep the answers from public awareness.

Terrorism -- nuclear, chemical, biological -- remains the most serious threat to the United States and other industrialized democracies, and although democracy is based on the idea of an "enlightened" electorate, governments are not in the habit of fostering enlightenment if such enlightenment interferes with short-term political objectives. At the present time, the declarations of government officials that domestic security against terrorism is in good hands and sufficient can be characterized as at best a twisting of reality. It's a public disservice to tell the public they are safe when science indicates they are not safe. In dangerous times, short-term political expediency can be a lethal strategy.

The realities concerning terrorist use of a crude "hand-delivered" nuclear device or a dirty bomb are disturbing, and the public needs to be made aware of these realities.

Administrative chaos in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union has made the enormous nuclear arsenal of the Russians a potential source of nuclear devices and nuclear materials for terrorists with financial resources.

Approximately 600 tons of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium are believed to be stored across the former Soviet Union under poor security conditions. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that illegal trafficking in nuclear materials has doubled since 1996, and the agency has counted 370 confirmed cases of smuggling of such materials between 1993 and 2001. A US State Department study has noted that as many as 130 terrorist groups worldwide have expressed interest in obtaining nuclear capabilities -- among them Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group. Some analysts maintain that with a softball-size lump of enriched uranium, a few materials readily available at a Radio Shack store, and a competent university engineering graduate at hand, terrorists would have a reasonable chance of making a crude nuclear weapon.

Reality: Explosion of merely a "crude" nuclear weapon in Manhattan or one of the boroughs would be enough to close down New York City.

The problem of the enrichment of uranium by Iran is not merely a question of whether Iran will ever launch an atomic warhead at anyone. The more important question is whether Iran will ever make enriched uranium available to terrorist groups.

Former Soviet scientist Vadim Birstein has publicly declared that enriched uranium has already been smuggled out of Russia by the Russian Mafia. If this is true, the most prudent course to protect the United States against a nuclear or radiation disaster is to put aside antimissile defense, Star Wars, x-ray lasers blowing up missiles in space, and concentrate security resources on the possible smuggling of nuclear materials or a nuclear device into the United States by ordinary means.

For example, the policy of random inspection of only a small fraction of the contents of inbound container ships is essentially a policy of exposing the largest American cities to nuclear roulette. Does it make sense to examine every individual who crosses the border but not every crate that crosses the border?

It's unlikely that terrorists would try to do damage with radioactive material not coupled to an explosive. Radioactive material alone is unsuitable for exposing large numbers of people to large doses of radiation, and small doses may not affect health for many years. Explosives packaged with radioactive material are the simplest "nuclear" device, and such a "dirty bomb" can be devastating to a city. There might not be much physical damage from such an explosion, but the fear and panic about radioactive contamination would be intense, disruptive, and could last for years.

So our problem is that although a terrorist dirty bomb exploded in a major cosmopolitan city will not physically destroy the city, such a catastrophe would put Americans and the civilized world in a state of panic whose consequences are unpredictable. As a resident of such a city, I have yet to see any official advice or preparation that would be helpful to ordinary people, no advice, no special medical facilities, no shelters, no evacuation plans--the public remains ignorant. Are the local officials as ignorant as the public, or are they too busy watching the sky for guided missiles?

The first terrorist "nuclear" bomb will be a dirty bomb exploded at ground level, in an apartment or small house, in Manhattan or central London, or in a place like Brooklyn or Islington. Nuclear catastrophe will not come from guided missiles in the sky.