Experts close the lid on 'suitcase nukes'
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Posted: March 17, 2007
Jack Bauer may lose 24 hours of sleep worrying about suitcase
nukes, but should his viewers?
Probably not, nuclear weapons experts say.
Nuclear bombs cleverly concealed in suitcases don't exist in
real life. Even so, they have long been a popular Hollywood
The lethal luggage — or what non-proliferation experts
prefer to call portable nuclear devices — have been featured
in action thrillers, including 1997's The Peacemaker with George
Clooney and Nicole Kidman and 2002's Bad Company with Anthony
Hopkins and Chris Rock.
Now, 24 (Fox, Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT) has had Kiefer Sutherland
and the gang hunting for three bombs packed into suitcases.
But how concerned should we really be that suitcase nukes will
one day be fact rather than fiction?
Arms control expert Charles Thornton of the Center for International
and Security Studies at the University of Maryland calls the
scenario "so highly unlikely as to be approaching fantasy."
Nikolai Sokov of the Center for Non-proliferation Studies in
Monterey, Calif., says there is no evidence any scientist has
been able to create a suitcase-contained nuclear device. In
science fiction, "the more disastrous the event, the less
likely," he says. "God forbid it happens. But no,
it's not very likely."
Still, this threat is not just the imagination of an overcaffeinated
screenwriter. Modern-day worries about suitcase nukes crested
in the late 1990s, when the late Russian general Alexander Lebed
suggested that a few dozen portable nuclear devices had disappeared
from Russian military stockpiles at the beginning of the decade.
Loose Russian nukes have been a major preoccupation of weapons
experts since the end of the Cold War. Concerns were underlined
by the interception last year of an illegal shipment of weapons-quality
uranium, 4 ounces in all (quite a bit less than the amount needed
for a bomb), announced in January by Ivane Merabishvili, an
official with the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
In particular, worry centered on nuclear artillery shells built
by the Soviet Union before its demise. The United States built
its own lightweight devices, the parachute-borne Special Atomic
Demolition Munition (SADM), which were phased out in 1989. Such
devices had similar characteristics to the theoretical suitcase
nukes, Sokov notes, including:
• Small size, perhaps measuring 23 inches long by 8 inches
tall and weighing less than 70 pounds.
• Explosive yields from plutonium explosions under 1
kiloton, less than one-tenth as strong as the bomb dropped on
Hiroshima in 1945.
• Short battery life for the devices, requiring recharging
perhaps every six months.
Battery life is one glaring sticking point, Thornton and others
say. Any device lost in the early '90s would be battery dead
by now, as well as missing a few dozen maintenance checks. (24
plot spoiler alert: The story revolves around the villain seeking
to somehow revive the batteries in his suitcase nukes.)
A 1-kiloton blast set off from a low-flying airplane would
send out lethal radiation in a half-mile radius, leveling most
of the buildings in a crowded city, the Federation of American
Though it's scary, such a scenario is far from our biggest
nuclear terrorism worry, says nuclear physicist Peter Zimmerman
of King's College London. In November, Zimmerman and Jeffrey
Lewis of Harvard wrote in the journal Foreign Policy about the
steps a domestic terrorist team would have to take to produce
a full-fledged atomic bomb.
More real threats
Other experts, including Sokov, warn that a "dirty bomb"
seems a more likely form of nuclear terrorism, albeit a less
deadly one. A dirty bomb would blow up some radioactive material,
perhaps discarded medical diagnostics such as radioactive cesium,
in a crowded place. It would kill some people with the explosion
and contaminate the area. The technical expertise needed to
create such a bomb is much less, Sokov says.
Zimmerman views the poisoning of ex-Russian agent Alexander
Litvinenko in November as genuine nuclear terrorism, in part
because Russians implicated in the death reportedly have left
traces of polonium-210 across Europe, enough to trigger health
One side benefit of 24's hunt for suitcase nukes, fanciful
or not, may be raising awareness of the threat of smuggled radioactive
materials, Sokov says. But, he says, if people think spies rounding
up non-existent suitcase nukes, rather than real anti-smuggling
pacts between countries, will stop nuclear terrorism, "that's
probably not a great message."
Article at: usatoday.com