Does Bin Laden Have a Suitcase Nuke?
Jude Wanniski
November 12, 2001


Memo To: Worried Website Fans
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Not to Worry

Since 1945, there have been only two nuclear weapons used in anger, both of them by Uncle Sam when President Harry S Truman decided he would rather have 100,000 Japanese dead than another million American servicemen -- which was the outside estimate of what it would take to invade and occupy Japan. The next big war was the “Cold War,” where the United States and the USSR each had enough nukes – mounted on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and in long-range submarines and bombers -- to blow each other up several times over. During the Cold War, the United Kingdom, “Red” China, France and India all joined the Nuclear Club. We now know for sure that Israel also developed a nuclear capability in the late 1970s and at least was able to publicly announce in 1981 that while it did not have one assembled, it had all the materials necessary to whack one together at a moment’s notice. When Israel then bombed Baghdad’s nuclear power plant in June 1981 to upset any thoughts Saddam might have of matching Tel Aviv’s capability, Saddam began Iraq’s nuke program, assembling the materials necessary to whack one together at a moment’s notice. After the Gulf War in 1991, it was determined to everyone’s satisfaction, after being able to look over the records, that Saddam never did get the nuke he wanted. Since then, Pakistan did become the first Islamic nation to successfully test a nuke, which it of course it did to match India’s, as they glare at each other across Kashmir, a predominantly Islamic province within the Indian state.

Now comes Osama bin Laden, announcing that he has joined the nuclear club. In an interview with a Pakistani journalist, he prayerfully says he would not use it first, but only defensively. We can either believe that or more comfortably believe that if Saddam could not fashion nukes between 1982 and 1991, when the UN inspected his records, it is most unlikely that Al Queda is in the Club. Over the weekend, a commentary appeared in the WSJournal’s, by an expert on such things, Pavel Felgenhauer, “Do the Terrorists Have Nukes?” Felgenhauer says, “Probably not, but look out for radioactive bombs.” As he explains:

Such a weapon is a device to spread deadly radioactive contamination over a large area without a nuclear explosion. It may rely on a mix of conventional explosives with some highly radioactive substance like spent nuclear fuel, cesium that is used in medicine or in industry, plutonium from a nuclear weapon, or plutonium from a conventional nuclear power station that is not suitable for weapons production. The explosion of such a bomb would create a radioactive cloud and cause severe and long-lasting contamination. If such a thing happened in New York, humans might have to abandon parts of Manhattan for hundreds, if not thousands of years, as they have the town of Pripyat in Ukraine, near the Chernobyl disaster area. The Soviets tried to clean up Pripyat, but it is practically impossible to clean a modern city of radioactive dust. In the 1950s, when Russia and the U.S. did not have many nukes, radioactive weapons were developed and tested. Later they were withdrawn and replaced by tens of thousands of regular nuclear bombs. But now the relative ease of making radioactive weapons and their terrifying power may attract terrorists.

This still sounds pretty scary, but when I consulted my personal nuclear weapons expert, Dr. Gordon Prather, he told me that while the Felgenhauer article was excellent and authoritative, it made one mistake, regarding parts of Manhattan not being usable for hundreds or thousands of years: “All such a ‘backpack’ bomb can do is spread around over a large area radioactive elements that are already in the backpack, highly concentrated. If the elements are highly radioactive, the guy wearing the backpack will also have to be wearing a three-foot thick lead suit. If the elements are not highly radioactive, then having them spread all over campus is a nuisance, but not life-threatening. In either case, if you are not close enough to ‘ground zero’ to be killed by either the concentrated radiation or the explosion, itself, all you have to do to stay alive is flee the scene, and when you get home take a shower.”

As to reports that there are nukes missing from the Russian arsenal, Prather says that if Russian President Vladimir Putin, formerly of the KGB, insists none are missing, he would trust him to know whether nukes are missing or not. “If the Chechnians have stolen a nuke, it would be a tactical nuke, that is a gravity bomb or a tactical missile warhead. I doubt that they could figure out how to arm, fuse and fire such a nuke on the ground. Bombs and warheads depend upon input and electrical power from the aircraft or missile for initiating the arming, fusing and firing sequence. ADMs (suitcase bombs, really the size of footlockers) are designed to be used on the ground, but the sequences are complicated for them too. There would be no reason for ADMs to have ever been in Chechnya. However, some of them might well have been 'sited' in Western Europe or even the U.S. If however they are 'boosted' nukes, then the tritium has to be replaced every ten years or so. The real danger is that if we preemptively nuke bin Laden or Saddam, the Islamic bomb will then come back and bite us. That's what bin Laden is saying.”

My basic assumption is that political terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden, do what they do to make political noise, not to wipe out millions of people or make parts of the earth uninhabitable for hundreds or thousands of years. Bin Laden still denies that he had anything to do with the September 11 attacks, according to the Pakistani reporter who talked to him over the weekend. It is enough for me that he is a terrorist by trade. That makes him evil enough, even though he would never, ever use a nuke first, he says. But optimist that I am, I do believe the process of nuclear stalemate that began after Hiroshima and Nagasaki will either continue indefinitely or for as long as Uncle Sam manages the family of nations with his usual wisdom.