Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Waiting for Doomsday

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 5, 2002 --  

The Doomsday Clock has moved to only seven minutes before midnight! This bombastic announcement of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sought to expose a heightened danger of nuclear war. Yet their announcement yielded little more than an eye-roll from me when I heard it last week. Are they kidding? Measuring by the time on their "clock," the chance of nuclear Armageddon is equal to that in the time of the Cuban missile crisis. This outrageous claim is supposed to highlight the danger from terrorists seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.1 This danger, unlike that of war between superpowers, is not of the annihilation of human civilization, or even an entire country, but merely of a single targeted city.

In the larger scheme of humanity, one city is really no big deal. Unfortunately, one of the most likely target cities happens to be the one where I live. It was little consolation, then, when the Washington Post reported on Friday that the Bush administration has evacuated 100 government officials from Washington to underground bunkers where they will be safe from a nuclear detonation.2 I was further unnerved when the Post reported Sunday that federal government has deployed "gamma ray and neutron flux detectors" at transport arteries leading into Washington.3 The same reporter quoted unnamed administration officials saying that parts of the intelligence community believe al Qaeda already has either a stolen tactical nuclear warhead or enough fissile material to build an atomic bomb.

That's pretty frightening. Not only do some officials believe al Qaeda may have the bomb, but they think there is enough of a risk of it using one on my hometown that they've evacuated government officials to bunkers, and placed detectors at points leading into the city.

Of course, we're probably not talking about a Hiroshima-style bomb hitting Washington, DC. The first atomic attack against Japan was with a 15 kiloton weapon that caused 64,000 deaths within four months of the explosion.4 Run-of-the-mill tactical nuclear weapons have a much smaller explosive yield of a kiloton or less. Estimates of the power for America's "Davy Crockett" tactical warhead, for example, range from 0.015 kilotons to 1.0 kiloton.6 If you believe the lower estimate, it is only two to four times more powerful than the bomb used in the attack on Oklahoma City.7 If you believe the larger estimate, it could "level the Capitol building and everything in a half mile radius."8

Given that I live about six blocks from the Capitol building, this is hardly reassuring. And if al Queda has managed to build a bomb from stolen materials, the destruction could be much greater. If a one-kiloton bomb were detonated during working hours, the 5,000 people working in the Capitol complex would be instantly killed, as would thousands of more nearby office workers, and residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Radiation and radioactive fallout would sicken and kill thousands more over a much wider area in the following years.

While this is hardly the end of the world, the risk to Washington residents is very real. The reports have not caused a mass exodus from town, because people rightly believe the short-term risk is relatively small. The trouble with this reasoning is that nuclear weapons aren't about to be uninvented. Nobody disputes that there are people who would use them, if they could get them, and that plenty of groups are actively working toward that goal. As long as this is true, it is really only a matter of time before Washington or another high-profile city gets hit.

Until now, the only thing that has saved people from rogue nuclear attacks is the fact that a pretty sizable industrial complex is required to produce enough fissile material for a weapon. Stateless terrorists, cults, and insane individuals just don't have that capacity. Their only option is to steal it, and questionable security of nuclear materials on the distant fringes of the old Soviet empire and in Pakistan make this a very likely possibility.

The only hope for Washington, New York, and today's other high profile targets is if up-and-coming high profile targets eclipse them before somebody succeeds. People who think that the risk of nuclear terrorism can be eliminated are refusing to face reality. The only way to make this happen is to get rid of all the fissile material in the world, or change something about humanity to make people too reasonable to consider such a thing. The former alternative will not happen anytime soon, if ever. The latter is an impossible dream.

For the foreseeable future, people will just have to live with both the risk and, quite probably, the actual use of nuclear weapons in isolated acts of terror. The panic that will result from the first detonation will far eclipse anything that came out of last fall's attacks on America, or the bombings that Israel and Europe have experienced for years. Is a bomb that kills 20,000 every 20 years more deadly than ones that kill 100 people every month? No. But such a bomb is far, far more terrifying.

The direct effects of Nuclear terrorism pose absolutely no threat to humanity. The undoubtedly irrational responses, however, could be immensely more dangerous. This is the most important consideration when preparing for an atomic attack against my hometown. People must prepare themselves for the worst, and accept that life will go on. It is only a matter of time.


1. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 27, 2002

2. The Washington Post, Shadow government Is at Work in Secret, March 1, 2002

3. The Washington Post, Fears Prompt U.S. to Beef Up Nuclear Terror Detection , March 3, 2002

4. Uranium Information Centre, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Subsequent Weapons Testing, June 1999

5. Brookings Institution, U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project, 1998

6. United Press International, FBI focusing on portable nuke threat, December 20, 2001

7. Brookings Institution, Ibid.

8. United Press International, Ibid.