Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


I wasn't going to write about this, because it's disconcerting and I'm not sure I have anything to add, but recent developments compel me to comment.

As long-time readers know, I am firmly of the opinion that putting chemical and most biological weapons in a category called Weapons of Mass Destruction™ is deceptive and propagandistic. Nerve gas and non-contagious pathogens such as anthrax spores are not inherently more "massively destructive" than high explosives -- in some ways less so. It is not a worse fate to be killed by nerve gas than it is to be blown to pieces by a 500 pound bomb, and it is actually easier to defend against. Contagious diseases such as smallpox indeed could cause mass destruction, but they don't make good weapons under most plausible circumstances. I won't go into all that now.

But nuclear weapons are indeed in a different category. I've written about proliferation and disarmament -- the problems surrounding states possessing nuclear weapons. But there is also this troubling issue colloquially known as Loose Nukes. Just google that phrase and you'll come up with a ton of stuff, leading off with various documentaries done by corporate media and PBS over the years, and thence descending from the speculative through the dubious to the wacko.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, its military establishment fell into disarray. Soldiers went unpaid, many deserted their posts, and nuclear weapons scientists and technicians were also out of work. Security at nuclear weapons sites deteriorated, sometimes to the point of non-existence, and there were huge temptations to sell nuclear materials. There were several incidents in the first half of the 1990s of people attempting to smuggle radioactive materials out of the former Soviet Union through Eastern Europe. When many attempts are uncovered, one must assume that others were successful. These incidents stopped in the mid-1990s, but a likely explanation is that smugglers decided it would be easier to go through central and southwest Asia than through Europe.

Radioactive materials could be used to make a so-called radiation dispersion device or "dirty bomb," but it is unlikely that a non-state actor could manufacture a nuclear explosive weapon. If a sophisticated terrorist group could obtain enough highly enriched uranium, it seems marginally plausible to some people that it could make a bomb, but of much greater concern would be diversion of a working device from the Soviet arsenal. Soviet -- and now Russian -- so-called strategic nuclear weapons are believed to have fail-safe devices, such that they cannot be detonated without codes possessed only by certain Russian military personnel. But the Soviet/Russian arsenal also includes many battlefield nuclear weapons -- artillery shells -- which may lack such protections. These are not very bulky and could have been sold on the black market. They have relatively small yields, probably 10 kilotons or less, but that isn't very much smaller than the Hiroshima bomb. The Russians claim that they have accounted for all of their weapons but there is no particular reason to believe them.

Lately, of course, the Russian military has greatly restored its competence. The U.S. has even provided some funding and worked with the Russians to improve the security of the Russian arsenal. But there was a window during which one or more nuclear weapons could have gotten into the hands of criminals or terrorists.

As time goes on and nothing nightmarish happens, worry about this tends to fade, but now we have a spate of claims promoted by the wing-nut media -- Newsmax and World News Daily -- to the effect that loose nukes are out there. On Monday, the EPA, on no evident occasion, proposed new rules to raise the levels of radioactive contamination at which land and buildings could be re-occupied following a nuclear explosion.

It's easy to see why there would be a right-wing interest in promoting this fear. It provides a classic "ticking bomb" scenario which can be used to justify further erosion of civil liberties and the policy of torture. Fearmongering has proved effective in the past in driving up the White House Occupant's popularity, although it is beginning to get a little strained to claim, on the one hand, that the Monkey God is the best person to keep us safe, but on the other hand that after five years of his wise and heaven-blessed leadership, we aren't safe after all. Still, they keep trying to work the trick since they don't have much of an act left.

If some bad guys do have a nuclear weapon, we have to ask, "What are they waiting for?" There are plausible answers to that -- they're arranging to smuggle it into the U.S. (or Russia, if it's in Chechnya), or perhaps Iraq (a nuclear explosion in the Green Zone would put an end to the U.S. project there, for certain), and they obviously would want to be very certain of success. But at this point it seems highly doubtful. It is not clear that any sufficiently sophisticated network even exists that could keep such a secret and plot to exploit it. The global jihad movement is disorganized, rag-tag, and amateurish, though certainly capable of depraved violence.

I think that what we really need to worry about is the future possibility of a nuclear weapon falling into irresponsible hands, and that is still about non-proliferation and disarmament. We need to commit to the disarmament provisions of the non-proliferation treaty, and cajole the other nuclear powers to do the same. The world will not take non-proliferation seriously as long as some countries are permitted to possess nuclear weapons, either officially, or with a wink and a nod as in the case of Israel. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of catastrophe that they represent is unacceptable.

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