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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 plot point.

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?

'Approaching fantasy'

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 Scientists says.

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 concerns.

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."

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