Review: Shadow Strike

Shadow Strike

In true Israeli fashion, the country’s leadership stayed publicly mum when a building in eastern Syria mysteriously exploded on September 6, 2007. Ten years later, they announced what everyone already knew-they had bombed and destroyed a Syrian reactor building. Yaakov Katz proceeded to write Shadow Strike, the story of the operation and its lead-up.

Previously, I had regarded the operation purely in terms of its anticlimactic execution. Like so many other times since 1948, the Israelis came, they bombed, they conquered. For the sake of secrecy, the site of the North Korean-supplied reactor had no defenses around it. But Katz tells the story of how a combination of flukes (getting a Syrian official’s laptop that showed very well what it was), politics (in Jerusalem and Washington), and urgency (the reactor had to be destroyed before it went critical) and in the process, makes it far more intriguing then the tip of the iceberg.

The reactor, unlike Osirak, was optimized to produce plutonium for weapons, and getting it operational would have cleared the biggest bottleneck to nuclear warheads. While no reprocessing or warhead assembly buildings were found, those are significantly easier to hide.

This has to rank as one of the lucky fates of history. I do not think Assad would have launched a first strike-his family did not survive by being foolhardy. And even with the bottleneck cleared, there were still more obstacles to actually making a bomb. But knowing that the Syrian Civil War beckoned, having a hot reactor running during it-and one of a more rickety design than the heavily shielded ones at Enerhodar, is a nightmare that was averted.

Review: Gadget


Nicolas Freeling’s Gadget is a book about a terrorist nuclear weapon. It can sort of be described as Red Army (villains win) meets The Sum of All Fears (nuclear terrorism). Only without the strong points of ether and with the latter’s weaknesses.

See, if you really, really loved the scenes in Fears where the nuclear bomb is being constructed, you will like this book. In fact, if the editor had chopped the entirety of that novel down to just the bomb construction scenes and ended the book right when it was successfully brought to the target and detonated, you’d have something very much like Gadget-a dry, technical nuclear tale.

I’ve pondered before why most nuclear terrorism novels were the way they were. The reason is “because it’s more dramatic than this”. If you absolutely need a detailed Herman Melville’s Nuclear Bomb story, this is the book for you. Otherwise, stay away.

The Nuclear Assumptions

The one thing going in the would-be nuclear terrorists favor is that nuclear weapons have a lot of “slack” built into their design. IE, they can be ridiculously “inefficient” and still be devastating. Even a rough-implosion sub-kiloton warhead is still a much hotter, radioactive version of this:

But that’s it. Everything else works against them. There’s a lot of attention paid to nuclear material ever since the 1940s for obvious reasons. The materials require specialized personnel and are hazardous (radiation is the least of the worries-both uranium and plutonium are extremely flammable, for one). I used the analogy of Y2K in my review of the best book on the subject that I’ve read.

While reading Brian Michael Jenkins’ own book, one passage jumped at me. This was Jenkins, a renowned terrorism and security expert, talking about how the yields increased.

We have too easily slid from the scientists’ first estimates of terrorist nuclear devices with yields likely to be in the tenths of a kiloton range to a now-assumed standard of a ten-kiloton terrorist bomb. The worst case has become the baseline assessment.

-Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Kindle Locations 3611-3612). Kindle Edition.

And yet, both seem valid. Ten kilotons is slightly less than Little Boy, an extremely simple “bang two chunks of HEU together” design whose biggest limiter is that it requires a lot of fissile material. Less than a kiloton is what’s often theorized for a very basic implosion design, necessary with plutonium as the explosive material. Since in the 1970s there was justified fear around the glut of plutonium, that is not an unreasonable assumption. Likewise, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that with access to Little Boy levels of material (Cold War “Surplus”?) one could make a Little Boy level bomb.

There are no real case studies to go on. Aum Shinrikyo conducted the only known and most credible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by a terror group. It never got beyond basic theoretical designs, as has every other terror daydream. With a (thankful) sample size of zero, all planners can do is base the possibilities on theory.

The Plutonium Red Team Study

In the mid-1990s, a “Red Team” (simulated adversary) was launched by the Sandia national laboratory. It looked at all the processes for disposing of excess plutonium (especially after the fall of the USSR) and studied their potential vulnerabilities for unsavory acquisition of nuclear materials. The report is a very interesting read.

Everything from fuel assemblies to mixed/ceramic encased disposed plutonium is studied. The vulnerabilities studied include both accessing it at the storage site and separating the weapons-usable material. It’s quite interesting, yet gives the impression that most nuclear thieves would need to be employed by either a state or the cast of Payday 2. Which is kind of the point, showing the difference between more and less plausible points of failure.

The Warhead Mystery

David Seed’s magisterial analysis of nuclear terrorism in fiction has confirmed one large suspicion I had about such books: The warhead MacGuffin is, far more often than not, stolen or donated by a sinister benefactor instead of being scratch-built. The Sum of All Fears is one big exception, just as how Red Storm Rising has Iceland invaded and the war staying completely conventional from start to finish. Because I love overthinking stuff like this (in violation of the wise words of literary theorist Mr. Hippo that not every story has to have significance), I have a few possible theories.

Theory 1

Theory 1 states that this is an example of being, even accidentally, technically reasonable. There are large practical issues with constructing even the simplest Little Boy-esque designs. The biggest and most obvious is appropriate fissile material, but there’s more that’d be hard to do and harder to do in secret. Of course, most authors would probably be going with their gut telling them it’s just easier to skip that step. Seeing so many writers get absolute basic technical details wrong makes me think it’s more a broken clock being right at that moment than anything else.

Theory 2

Theory 2 is less generous and states that it’s because it’s easy to write, means you don’t have to research, and can just say “here, they got a nuke.” Even The Sum of All Fears, as (over)-researched at it was, did this in a way by almost literally dropping the Israeli bomb into the laps of the antagonists.

Theory 3

Theory 3 is simply the result of bandwagoning. Because everyone else is having the nukes being sold or donated, the authors are simply writing what they know. Tom Clancy is weird in that while a lot of people adopted his themes, his exact style is not replicated nearly as much (and understandably so)

_ _ _

The warhead issue symbolizes something I’ve noticed about fiction: Realism is often not really that much of an asset. Roughly speaking, a lot of the people won’t know any better, many of the ones who do know won’t care, and a giant subset of those who do care will find issue no matter what. This combined with thrillers almost always succeeding and failing based on execution and not concept means my advice would just be to write what you’re comfortable with.

My personal take is this: Since I’ve been reading so much on the topic, and since I find the stolen/gifted nuke overused, I feel like I’d have the warhead be scratch-built if I wrote a book on the subject.

Review: US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism

US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11

Because of my current “itch” for material involving nuclear weapons, I knew I had to read Liverpool University professor David Seed’s US Narratives of Nuclear Terrorism Since 9/11. In spite of its title, this covers material written long before 2001. As I love highbrow analyses of lowbrow fiction, I dug deep into this book.

Doing more than just digging into stuff like The Sum of All Fears, Seed in fact wades through the Augean Stables of fiction that makes up what I’ve dubbed the “shoot the terrorist” subgenre. To have read so many books of that nature seems astounding even to me, who loves cheap thrillers. Some are books that I’ve read from big names like Tom Clancy and Mario Puzo (Fears and The Fourth K). Some are from series that I’ve heard of (like SEAL Team Seven). Others are extremely obscure and unknown to me prior to seeing Seed’s compilation.

This isn’t perfect. At times the book gets a little too stereotypically “academicese” in it writing, and there are the occasional typos here and there. And while it sounds like a clickbait video, I’d have loved to see someone with more technical knowledge critique the plausibility of many of these scenarios. Seed tries and often does a good job, but an actual nuclear expert could probably do better.

But it’s something very near and dear to my heart, and as a review of thriller fiction, I remain in awe of this smooth narrative. Where else could I hear of books like Thomas Fillinger’s Chameleon’s Shadow, where Seed mentions the following plot point in a deadpan fashion:

“Detroit is destroyed when a nuclear bomb detonates by accident, but this proves to be a sideshow from the main search for the leader of the conspirators, who are all depicted as stereotyped fanatics.

It’s plots like that that make me love my reviews. And this brave struggle of a book has warmed my heart. I mean, even I probably couldn’t make it through that many “shoot the terrorist” novels without gaining an insatiable urge to lick the Chernobyl Elephant’s Foot. It’s not Seed’s fault, but so many plot elements repeat throughout his summaries: Warheads stolen by/sold to the antagonists and the dreaded “suitcase nukes” are two of the most common. Granted, this comes with the cheap thriller territory, and these kind of books succeed or fail more on execution than concept, but still.

There are definitely a lot more terrorist nuke books than conventional WW3 books, and this does a great job covering them and (however accidentally) showing the different subgenres of thrillers.

Review: On Nuclear Terrorism

On Nuclear Terrorism

Michael Levi’s On Nuclear Terrorism has been the best book I’ve read in some time. In fact, of all the books and papers I’ve read on this topic, it’s arguably the greatest. Levi takes a holistic approach, using the analogy of a sports team where trying to judge each component in isolation falls short. Although he uses baseball when football is a much better analogy. Oh well.

The decision to look at the big picture as well as noting the issues that alarmist worst-case analysis brings are relevant to much more than countering nuclear terrorism. He also turns “the terrorists only have to succeed once” statement on its head by pointing out that while true, it can also be said that “they have to succeed every step of the way, while their opponents only have to succeed at one”. This sort of reasoning is welcome whatever the subject.

Not that this is a brief overview-it goes into a lot of detail on things like the uses and limitations of scanning detectors and does a lot of detail on gun-type weapons (implosion ones get less effort, because given the issues states have had, non-state actors going for them is arguably pushing it). And he even goes into psychology as well, which is important for the goals of irregular groups.

The impression I’ve gotten from this and other sources is that nuclear terrorism can be compared to Y2K. Y2K was mistakenly perceived as an overblown panic when in reality it was a legitimate issue largely solved by a massive effort when the new millennium rolled around. Similarly, while the threat of even a radioactive Beirut/Tianjin/Port Chicago-level blast (to say nothing of even a Little Boy-level bomb) is a legitimately frightening one, the similarly massive efforts to work against it have (to date of course) deterred even attempted nuclear terror attacks. The Aum Shinrinkyo cult marked the only known attempt at a substantive irregular nuclear program, and it failed despite numerous factors in its favor (lots of money, able to operate openly pre-chemical attacks, and access to Russia at the depths of its 1990s desperation).

Bad sports analogies and occasional clunkiness aside, this is an excellent book.

Reactor Grade Plutonium

Reactor-grade (as opposed to weapons-grade) plutonium has been hotly (no pun intended) argued over as to its suitability for nuclear warheads. From the open-source claims I’ve been reading, there are arguments that I’m not qualified to address the technical side of, but a couple of common themes have emerged:

  • Every extant nuclear power has chosen to go ahead with the additional expense of weapons-grade plutonium rather than trying to make something out of reactor-grade material. There have been tests and rumors, but that’s it.
  • Reactor-grade plutonium is hotter, more dangerous when exposed [making design and handling more difficult], requires more material for less explosive power, and is far more likely to fizzle (detonate instantly with a much lower yield).
  • However, even the low yield (less than a kiloton) is still a radioactive Beirut explosion, raising fears of nuclear terrorism with stolen reactor-grade materials.
  • Improved design can remove many of the shortcomings of reactor-grade plutonium.
  • The increased yield uncertainty makes it less attractive for tactical operations.

Still, the technically “easiest” way just to make a nuclear explosion with national-level resources would be to use civilian reactor-grade plutonium to put together an atomic charge. The list of countries that could do such a thing is much longer than the conventional nuclear states. Granted, they’d be facing a large backlash to make an explosive charge that’s 1940s-level at best and has little practical military utility, but it’s what’s the most possible in spherical cow terms.

Review: Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Apartheid South Africa built a handful of nuclear bombs before the ANC government dismantled them. As a result of that revelation and transparency, it provided an interesting look into a a field that is understandably quite opaque otherwise. David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program show it in depth.

Altough this is a technical nonfiction book, Albright and Stricker nonetheless write well, and it’s quite accessible to non-nuclear physicists. The creation, developmental struggles, warhead production, and removal of South Africa’s nuclear weapons is all covered, and there are several interestingly unique factors about it that the book provides.

The first is a technical tidbit. South Africa went with a conceptually simpler gun-type device in the style of Little Boy. However, their device was small enough to fit on a Raptor glide bomb carried by a Blackburn Buccaneer, and there were (preliminary) plans to boost it to around a hundred kilotons using a special pellet. As most powers have used implosion devices, South Africa’s experience shows how far the basic gun-type can be pushed.

The second is that, unlike other nuclear programs, South Africa’s was comparably well run and efficient. The pragmatic choice of a gun-type was one of the good decisions that it made. And it still took several years in peacetime while running into bottlenecks-most notably the enriching of uranium.

For those interested in the relevant subjects, this book is thus a good read.