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Hell in a Suitcase (Suitcase nukes fact and fiction)
Tech Central Station ^ | April 1, 2004 | Ralph Kinney Bennett

Posted on 04/01/2004 1:59:14 PM PST by quidnunc

I will never forget the image. An unassuming looking man walking the streets of London with a bulging briefcase. Inside it, an atomic bomb.

It was back in 1950. I was just a kid, and I sat immobilized in my seat at the Manos Theater in Latrobe, Pa., watching a British film "Seven Days to Noon." In it, a leading British atomic scientist, played by now-forgotten actor Barry Jones, posts a letter to the Prime Minister saying he has taken a small nuclear weapon and will detonate it in the center of London in seven days unless the government agrees to abandon its atomic weapons program.

The story of how the police track down "Professor John Willoughby," meanwhile evacuating the city of London, was absolutely riveting. And the scenes of a deserted London as the last day approached were eerie and unforgettable.

I'm pretty sure this Boulting Brothers movie — filmed in black and white with an almost documentary feel to it — was the first to introduce the idea of carrying a nuclear weapon around in some sort of case. Very little was publicly known about nuclear weapons at that time. People had little sense of their size or shape. There was only a vague understanding that something relatively small had caused horrendously big explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So the idea of an atomic bomb in a suitcase was not implausible.

We now know how really big and heavy the first atomic bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, were. But within a few years of the appearance of this movie the U.S. had developed not only artillery shell-sized nuclear munitions but also an 11- by 16- inch oval warhead, the W-54. Dubbed the Davy Crockett, it weighed as little as 51 pounds and could be fired by a soldier from a recoilless rifle!

The closest the U.S. is known to have come to a "suitcase" or hand-carried weapon was a variation of the W-54 called, interestingly enough, the SADM (small atomic demolition munition). This device — officially the Mk-54 — would have required a mighty big suitcase. It was a fat cylinder, 15 inches (diameter) by 24 inches, not unlike one of those big plastic buckets you can buy bulk paint in at Home Depot, and it weighed 150 pounds.

-snip-

(Excerpt) Read more at techcentralstation.com ...


TOPICS: Extended News; War on Terror
KEYWORDS: alqaeda; loosenukes; mininukes; suitcasenukes; wmd

1 posted on 04/01/2004 1:59:14 PM PST by quidnunc
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To: quidnunc
That movie won the Best Story academy award that year. It's available on VHS, I know, and perhaps on DVD as well. Excellent film, and worth watching, if dated.
2 posted on 04/01/2004 2:04:05 PM PST by MineralMan (godless atheist)
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To: quidnunc; All
Tiny Nukes-- the backpack threat
3 posted on 04/01/2004 2:05:11 PM PST by backhoe (Has that Clinton "legacy" made you feel safer yet?)
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To: All


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4 posted on 04/01/2004 2:05:28 PM PST by Support Free Republic (Don't be a nuancy boy)
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To: All
Hell in a Suitcase




By Ralph Kinney Bennett
 Published 
 04/01/2004 

I will never forget the image. An unassuming looking man walking the streets of London with a bulging briefcase. Inside it, an atomic bomb.

It was back in 1950. I was just a kid, and I sat immobilized in my seat at the Manos Theater in Latrobe, Pa., watching a British film "Seven Days to Noon." In it, a leading British atomic scientist, played by now-forgotten actor Barry Jones, posts a letter to the Prime Minister saying he has taken a small nuclear weapon and will detonate it in the center of London in seven days unless the government agrees to abandon its atomic weapons program.

The story of how the police track down "Professor John Willoughby," meanwhile evacuating the city of London, was absolutely riveting. And the scenes of a deserted London as the last day approached were eerie and unforgettable.

I'm pretty sure this Boulting Brothers movie -- filmed in black and white with an almost documentary feel to it -- was the first to introduce the idea of carrying a nuclear weapon around in some sort of case. Very little was publicly known about nuclear weapons at that time. People had little sense of their size or shape. There was only a vague understanding that something relatively small had caused horrendously big explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So the idea of an atomic bomb in a suitcase was not implausible.

We now know how really big and heavy the first atomic bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, were. But within a few years of the appearance of this movie the U.S. had developed not only artillery shell-sized nuclear munitions but also an 11- by 16- inch oval warhead, the W-54. Dubbed the Davy Crockett, it weighed as little as 51 pounds and could be fired by a soldier from a recoilless rifle!

The closest the U.S. is known to have come to a "suitcase" or hand-carried weapon was a variation of the W-54 called, interestingly enough, the SADM (small atomic demolition munition). This device -- officially the Mk-54 -- would have required a mighty big suitcase. It was a fat cylinder, 15 inches (diameter) by 24 inches, not unlike one of those big plastic buckets you can buy bulk paint in at Home Depot, and it weighed 150 pounds.

Since the deployment (and eventual retirement) of these weapons, more ingenious designs and advances in explosives, structural materials and microelectronics, have brought relative miniaturization of nuclear weapons to a multi-billion dollar high art, making possible the stuffing of warheads by the half-dozens into missile nose cones

"Relative" is the key word here. How small can a nuclear bomb be? What are the downscale physical limits to making one? It is important to have some concept of these limits as we consider the occasional alarms in the media regarding terrorists and "suitcase" or (lately) "backpack" nuclear bombs. Last week were heard al-Qaeda claims that it has a couple of suitcase bombs it bought from Russians years ago. Chechnyan rebels have made similar claims in the past, as have Palestinian terrorists.

The infamous Soviet-made suitcase bombs that supposedly disappeared from inventory sometime after the break-up of the Soviet Union have been the subject of numerous investigations and much fevered speculation. It is known that the Soviets, like the United States, developed small nuclear munitions, small enough to be fired in artillery shells or to be hand-carried (by one or more soldiers) as a demolition device. If they designed and built one that could actually fit in a large brief case, one of them has not shown up anywhere, nor has an official photograph or blueprint of it.

The ones described by Soviet General Alexander Lebed, in sensational Congressional hearings back in 1997, were supposedly in suitcases approximately 24 x 16 x 8 inches. A mock-up of such a bomb, using the warhead of an American nuclear artillery shell, was constructed and, indeed, all the necessary items -- neutron generators, batteries, arming mechanism etc. -- were successfully stuffed in around the cylindrical device itself. (For a photo of the mock-up and more see nuclearweaponarchive.org/News/Lebedbomb.html. This is an excellent site thanks to the expository writing of Carey Sublette.)

There continue to be disturbing rumors, and in some cases evidence of fissile material and dangerous nuclear byproducts (strontium, cesium etc.) floating around the international underworld. And while nothing should be considered beyond the scope of determined terrorists with enough money, building a hand carried nuclear weapon "from scratch," so to speak, would be very difficult.

The starting point would be a critical mass of plutonium or U-233. This would be a sphere about 4 or 5 inches in diameter and weighing roughly 28 to 30 pounds. Since the carriers of the weapon would presumably be in close quarters with it for some period of time, the critical mass would have to be of "supergrade" plutonium, which would be relatively safe to handle because it gives off lower neutron emissions. Beyond that, design variations (neutron reflector, high explosive, trigger type etc.) and the packaging for the device would add to size and weight depending on materials used, ingenuity of layout and other factors.

Part of the design of U.S. and probably Soviet small atomic munitions was to insure maximum safety to handlers and enough robustness to preclude accidental damage. These might not be particularly acute considerations for some terrorists, who would be thinking more about portability and concealment.

There can be little doubt that next to the acquisition of an actual contained nuclear munition (in a suitcase or whatever) the acquisition of an artillery-type nuclear warhead would be the ticket for terrorists -- a sort of advanced starter kit. The smallest one the U.S. ever deployed in its arsenal was the M-45, which could be fired from a 155 mm cannon. It was 6.1 inches in diameter (caliber) and 34 inches long. It weighed up to 128 pounds. Remove the conical tip and fuse from one of those and you reduce the length enough to barely fit diagonally in the Soviet-sized suitcase.

But, hey, why not a larger suitcase? Or a crate, or a strong cardboard box? How about the trunk of a car? The possibilities for concealing or disguising a nuclear weapon are endless. Take a look, for instance, at one of those high-capacity air compressors you can buy in any Sears hardware department.

The big question is the shelf-life and availability of nuclear artillery shells. The U.S. shells are apparently accounted for and secure. Whether all the Soviet era mini-warheads can be accounted for is another story.

The shelf-life issue is important. If there is a nuclear munition or more than one "out there," its condition could be in question. A nuclear weapon involves the melding of a variety of materials in close proximity -- metals, plastics, ceramics, exotic high explosives and, of course plutonium and uranium. Things happen inside a nuclear weapon even when it is just sitting.

The plutonium core gives off quite a bit of heat. This will warm the other parts of the weapon up to as much as 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Uranium "rusts" in much the same manner as steel when exposed to the air. And even though warheads are sealed in airtight metal containers, the materials inside -- the explosives and plastic, for instance -- give off trace amounts of oxygen, hydrogen and water vapor that can eventually cause oxidation and corrosion, both of which are abetted by the weapon's intrinsic heat. The high explosives in the detonating "lenses" of a weapon also have been known to deteriorate.

So, unless the purloined (or purchased) warhead was regularly monitored and, if necessary, refurbished by experts it might become dangerously unstable or perhaps not work at all. It's conceivable that the conventional explosives might detonate incompletely and that the nuclear core might be scattered rather than being "assembled" to cause a nuclear explosion. Thus a "dirty bomb" incident, spreading radioactive material, would be the result.

Of course a nuclear weapon gives off a significant signature in the form of both gamma rays and neutrons. A huge effort is being made to employ a variety of gamma and neutron spectrometry devices at ports of entry and the perimeters of potential targets. But these devices (and more sophisticated ones are now being worked on at the national laboratories) are not foolproof. Distance, shielding of various types (tungsten, lead, steel of a given thickness) and the problem of false positives and false negatives are some of the challenges now being wrestled with by detection experts.

In the end, an atomic bomb in a suitcase is really just a metaphor, not only for the portability of nuclear weapons but for the new and ominous possibility of who might be carrying them. The fictional tweedy professor who terrorized London in "Seven Days to Noon" was a misguided idealist with a bomb in a satchel. Those who now seek to terrorize the West and particularly the United States are hate-filled killers who have glorified suicide as a virtue and are bending every effort to secure and use "the bomb," be it in a suitcase, a packing crate, a car or whatever will surreptitiously deliver it to target. "If" is not the question. Where and when are.


 

Ralph Kinney Bennett recently wrote for TCS about the military's efforts to reduce collateral damage.
5 posted on 04/01/2004 2:09:29 PM PST by Prince Charles
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To: quidnunc
But wouldn't they have tried it already?
I mean, c'mon.
I'm beginning to think they are afraid to try it.
They know we'll start picking off the Middle East and smacking up Targets if they dared.
6 posted on 04/01/2004 2:09:54 PM PST by mabelkitty (A tuning, a Vote in the topic package to the starting US presidency election fight)
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To: mabelkitty
But wouldn't they have tried it already?

Not necessarily.
What if they didn't get one until after 911?
Even if they did get one after 911 they may not have someone with the technical expertise to insure it goes off when it's supposed to.

They know we'll start picking off the Middle East and smacking up Targets if they dared.

I don't think that's their fear at all.
They don't care about any of the other Arabic countries other than there are some that will hide them.
I think their fear is that it would go off prematurely, not at all, or that it would be detected beforehand.

7 posted on 04/01/2004 2:19:49 PM PST by Just another Joe (Monthly donors are better lovers)
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To: mabelkitty
They know we'll start picking off the Middle East and smacking up Targets if they dared.

The type of people who would deploy and use a nuclear device would never worry about the destruction of the Middle East. Why would they be concerned? 90% is controlled by dictatorships or near dictatorships who give lip service to the 'cause' of Islam.

It is the 'Western Thought' that is their enemy; that 'enemy' is corrupting their regimes, or so they believe. Some might even consider such destruction to be the final unifying force to join all the Arab people together to finally put down the infidels.

No, I'm afraid I'm one of those who will never draw comfort from the idea that they're afraid to use it because we'll destroy cities or countries.
8 posted on 04/01/2004 2:21:18 PM PST by kingu (Which would you bet on? Iraq and Afghanistan? Or Haiti and Kosovo?)
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To: quidnunc
They don't got one.... period
9 posted on 04/01/2004 2:26:16 PM PST by CathyRyan
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To: quidnunc
Read this later BUMP!
10 posted on 04/01/2004 2:41:10 PM PST by Pagey (Hillary Rotten is (still ) a Smug and Holier- than- Thou Socialist)
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To: Criminal Number 18F
These posts are becoming as prolific as our favorite airline disaster. Ping and don't blow a gasket.
11 posted on 04/01/2004 3:35:43 PM PST by Archangelsk (Shall we have a king?)
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To: quidnunc
My understanding was that nukes degrade in around 5-7 years. I'm not sure of the exact nuclear recipe, but I know that it takes more than just plutonium and explosive and good timing. And apparently the other nuclear components have a much shorter half life than plutonium.

The old soviet weapons are certianly older than that by now. And with Al Qaeda scattered, they'll be lucky to get just one more Mohamed Atta trained to steer a jet. Much less actually pull something off.

12 posted on 04/01/2004 3:41:00 PM PST by narby (Clarke's job was to prevent terrorist attacks, but he's better at CYA)
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To: mabelkitty; Just another Joe; kingu; CathyRyan
But wouldn't they have tried it already? I mean, c'mon. I'm beginning to think they are afraid to try it.

Well, no! You are looking at it from a western perspective. The way you or I may think is totally different from the thought paradigms of a Jihadi. It is actually simple to see examples of this. Eg: I doubt you, and certainly i wouldn't, strap on a bomb-belt and go and blow myself up. And i wouldn't hijack a plane and crash it into a building. Simply because my sense of self-preservation is too strong, and moreover i am not in the biz of killing innocents.

However for the Islamic terrorist the end justifies any and all means. So what if they kill themselves? They are going to heaven to drink from rivers of wine and consort with a bevy of virgins. So what if they kill innocents? After all they are following Allah's will, and anyways what is the worth of a kafirs life (when Queda bombed the Nairobi, Kenya embassy Usama said that the 200+ Kenyans who died and 2,000 wounded were nothing more than collateral. 9 Americans died). Lives, be they American, Kenyan, Spanish, British, Russian, Indonesian ....whatever. To the Islamic mind they are all kafir lives, and thus expendable.

And by the way, as to your assertion that if they had the bomb they would have used it. Personally i think they are bluffing ....partly. I think they probably have some crude radiological device, but probably nothing more. It takes a whole lot of specialized care to ensure a nuke is going to go boom and not just fizz, and unless some govt is providing them with assistance it is going to be really hard to put a nuke in a cave and still maintain its efficacy.

The biggest barriers to a nuclear Queda are as follows:

1) Acquiring a weapon that will work.

2)Delivering the weapon to the target.

If the US has not been attacked with a nuke or bio WMD then it means one of two things.

a) They do not have a viable weapon.

b) They have a weapon but do not have a safe means of delivering it. Note for Queda these are silver bullets .....they cannot risk them being intercepted.

The best thing for the pertinent authorities to do is to work with the assumptions Queda has a bomb! Hence what they need to do is work to prevent them from being able to deliver it. Saying that there is no way they can get such weapons (no matter how improbable it may be) is just to invite a horrid wake-up call one dreary morning.

The single biggest reason the Japanese managed to carry out Pearl Harbor is because people were saying they were too inept to pull it off. The literature of the day even said they (Japanese pilots) could not fly straight due to their eyes. Pearl Harbor changed everyones perceptions on Japanese ability (and flying capability).

Let us not put ourselves in a similar position by placating ourselves with 'they cannot be able to do it' mantras.

They are nothing more than uncouth murderous sots ......however they are trying to kill us, hence no matter how uncouth or how incompetent, we still need to treat them as true killers.

13 posted on 04/01/2004 4:23:42 PM PST by spetznaz (Nuclear missiles: The ultimate Phallic symbol.)
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To: quidnunc
Just finished a book by Brad Thor called 'State of the Union' about the US being threatened by suitcase nukes (but by the Soviets not middle east terrorists, kind of an interesting thesis, economic blackmail)
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0743436776/qid=1080865555/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/104-0914873-5142336?v=glance&s=books
14 posted on 04/01/2004 4:27:12 PM PST by LakerCJL
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To: spetznaz
BTTT
15 posted on 04/01/2004 4:31:41 PM PST by Fiddlstix (This Space Available for Rent or Lease by the Day, Week, or Month. Reasonable Rates. Inquire within.)
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