Saturday, May 28, 2005

On May 11, a small private plane wandered into restricted airspace over the nation’s capital. While armed jets forced it to land in Frederick, Md., members of Congress and civil servants of all ages and physiques ran down D.C. streets.

Dignitaries dove into speeding limos. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi lost her shoes. Congress closed for the day, presumably because legislators had no clean underwear at their offices.

Afterward, radio talk jocks mocked the fliers as “stupid”, etc. One hysterical commentator said the plane should have been shot down to “send a message.” Others scoffed. “How much damage could a small plane do?” sniffed a letter writer to The Washington Times.

If government officials are wise, they will let the incident fade. Otherwise, we might realize our vulnerability: not to a small plane flown by two befuddled guys from Pennsylvania, but to a small plane — possibly originating offshore or in the Southwest — carrying an atomic bomb. Had the recent plane contained one, it would have incinerated Washington long before any fighter planes arrived.

Flying unobtrusively until near their target, suicide attackers could dart across the no-fly boundary and detonate a bomb at a specified altitude — destroying the city with a horrific airburst. People running down the street carrying papers and briefcases would be incinerated.

Having spent some time in the technical world of nuclear studies, I am sure the small-plane A-bomb scenario has been evaluated by top national security analysts. Perhaps we hear nothing about it because authorities don’t want a public panic.

Many imagine complexity puts atomic weapons beyond terrorists’ reach. Not so. Much nuclear technology and solutions to once-formidable problems — fashioned by Manhattan Project scientists — are now in the engineering domain.

Equipped with proper materials and a simple design, a few knowledgeable engineers could build a small bomb in a garage workshop. A lightweight plastic casing could make the device resemble a large trunk weighing as little as 1,000 pounds — deliverable in a small plane.

Some say crucial bomb materials are not obtainable by terrorists. This is partly true. Granted, neither weapons-grade uranium nor plutonium is available at Home Depot.

In nature, uranium consists mostly of the isotope U-238 (99.27 percent), with only tiny traces of the highly fissile isotope U-235 (0.72 percent). To produce the chain reaction for a nuclear blast, uranium must be “enriched” to at least 20 percent U-235. Weapons-grade uranium contains 90 percent U-235.

In his article “Can Terrorists Build the Bomb?,” Michael Crowley says uranium enrichment is beyond even wealthy terrorists, since it requires centrifuges whose export is closely monitored and controlled. Iran has spent billions on uranium enrichment capability, but still isn’t there.

Plutonium does not occur in nature, but is produced by splitting uranium atoms in a nuclear reactor — a process so complex and expensive terrorists could not possibly obtain it.

But al Qaeda might find enough enriched uranium or plutonium to build a single bomb that could level most of Washington, D.C. Just 100 pounds of 90 percent enriched uranium (i.e., bowling-ball size) or 35 pounds of plutonium (grapefruit size) would suffice.

Plutonium is so radioactive that unprotected handling of it is almost instantly fatal. Its high radioactivity is also easily detected. Thus, uranium is preferable. This is convenient (for terrorists) because enriched uranium is plentiful, widely dispersed, and poorly guarded. Stealing enough for several bombs or buying it from rogue states like North Korea or Iran are the wild cards.

Transporting a bomb built in the Middle East to the U.S. or Mexico is doubtful. It might attract attention and discovery. But enriched uranium “marbles” could be shipped to Mexico in small, lead-shrouded parcels and carried across our southern border to a collection point by some of the many illegals entering the United States every day. It is no insuperable logistical problem.

Building a bomb is nontrivial — certainly possible for engineers from the Middle East or China. Mr. Crowley documents that small teams of American engineers have already done it.

A “gun bomb” — which achieves critical mass by firing one near-critical lump of uranium at another lump — requires a small cannon barrel, gunpowder for propellant, and a garage-door-opener firing mechanism. Other components are commercially available.

A 10 kiloton bomb — about 62 percent of Little Boy’s (Hiroshima) yield — could fit in a small plane. A larger bomb might be truck-delivered in a lead-lined shipping container. A bomb built in the target city needs no delivery.

This threat is closely coupled to control of our national borders. The easier it is for illegals to sneak in, the likelier atomic bomb parts can be sneaked in with them.

Politicians of both parties are playing politics with illegal immigration, ignoring the concerns of a growing number of citizens and the nuclear threat. If they keep diddling, we might awaken one morning to find that nightmare has become reality. If the Big One hits, lost shoes will be the least of our worries.


Woody Zimmerman is retired from a long career in mathematics, simulation and modeling. His weekly column, “At Large,” runs in the Atlantic Highlands Herald, an Internet newspaper.

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