Review of Benjamin E. Schwartz’s Right of Boom: The Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism (Overlook Press, 2015)

friedmanPIRRoadside bombs were devastating to American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The press has categorized the moment prior to such an explosion as “left of boom,” and that following the explosion as “right of boom.” Defense Department analyst, Benjamin E. Schwartz, has chosen to title his book about nuclear terrorism, Right of Boom. While capturing the mystery of the weapon’s origin, the title does little to convey the enormity or complexity of the issue being addressed.

This obscure reference adds to a list of euphemisms that shield readers from the shock of confronting nuclear terrorism head on. Homeland Security refers to a nuclear bomb fabricated by a terrorist as an IND (Improvised nuclear device). President Obama has named a series of World Summits on nuclear terrorism, “Nuclear Security Summits.” International affairs analysts and commentators refer to potential perpetrators of nuclear terrorism as non-state actors. The “T-word” is too often hidden in obfuscation and awkward verbal constructs. It is difficult to come to grips with what is perhaps the world’s most serious threat, when a verbal veil shields us from apocalyptic implications.

For more than forty years, serious commentators have drawn public attention to the possibility that terrorists, a.k.a. non-state actors, might detonate a nuclear weapon in a major American metropolitan location, but few have grappled with the question of what action should be taken by America’s President in response to such an attack by a perpetrator whose identity may not be known. Schwartz shares his thoughts with us on the forces that might drive the President to take dramatic action, knowing that it is predicated on a web of conjectures and guesses, rather than on hard intelligence and evidence. He also explores possible unilateral and multilateral actions that might prevent future additional attacks, as well as new world government initiatives for the control of atomic materials. By introducing these hypothetical situations of extreme complexity, Schwartz has made a valuable contribution to civil discourse. He lifts the rock under which these issues have been addressed by security specialists and government agencies that are out of view of the general public. However, he only provides a peek under the rock, rather than a robust examination of the issues.

Schwartz does grapple with the implications of an existential threat to the nation coming from a non-state entity. The norms of international relations go out the window when it is impossible for a government to protect itself through government-to-government relations. Even when dealing with the drug cartels of Colombia and of Mexico, the United States coordinates its efforts through the governments of those countries; but given the extreme threat of a nuclear weapon, if rogue gangs of nuclear terrorists were operating in Mexico, it is likely that the U.S. government would not hesitate to take unilateral action across international borders, much like the drone attacks in the frontier areas of Pakistan or the military operation that captured and killed Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, alliances needed to confront nuclear terrorism might take the form of collaboration with militias that have only a loose affiliation with nation states. Such new forms of international security liaison are emerging as the United States increasingly relies on the efforts of Kurdish and Shiite militias in combat against ISIS.

Schwartz is strongest when he explores the logical non-traditional opportunities for action and weakest when he seeks to draw wisdom from nineteenth century accounts of dealing with the likes of Comanche warriors of the Great Plains and Pashtun tribes of the Khyber Pass. His efforts of gaining guidance in dealing with unprecedented terrorist groups by learning from experiences in historic guerrilla warfare encounters lack credibility.

Right of Boom makes a particularly valuable contribution to discourse about the threat of nuclear terrorism by reviewing a key section of the 2004 book[1] by Graham Allison, entitled, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. Dr. Allison was the founding Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton. Allison ably summarized the dangers and potential policy initiatives in 2004, when he wrote:

The centerpiece of a strategy to prevent nuclear terrorism must be to deny terrorists access to nuclear weapons or materials. To do this we must shape a new international security order according to a doctrine of “Three No’s”:

  1. No Loose Nukes;
  2. No New Nascent Nukes; and
  3. No New Nuclear Weapons States.

The first “No” refers to insecure weapons or materials that could be detonated in a weapon. The second refers to capacity to develop new nuclear weapons material such as enriched uranium or purified plutonium. The third goes beyond the development of fissile materials to the design and development of operational new weapons. Schwartz details how each of these three barriers has been breached within the past decade. This road to instability has been paved by North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran. Schwartz makes it resoundingly clear that the mechanisms for preventing the catastrophe described by Allison need to be reviewed and recast.

Schwartz frames his discussions in the hypothetical context of a Hiroshima-type bomb, known as Little Boy, being detonated on the ground by terrorists in Washington, D.C., but with the executive branch of government having been out of harm’s way. The President is, thus, in a position to deal with needed actions of response and restructuring. He argues that the President must take military action, even if he or she is ignorant of the origin of the nuclear attack. While not completely convincing, his exposition is engaging.

Schwartz speculates other anticipated outcomes following a nuclear terrorist attack that echo post-World War II ideas about international control, including the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan of 1946. While thought-provoking, those ideas, which did not gain traction back then, are still not compelling today.

In order for readers to take the threat of nuclear terrorism seriously, they need to understand how such a cataclysmic event could occur in the first place. For the vast majority of readers, nuclear realities are quite remote and unknown. Most individuals make an implicit assumption that the many layers of security that have evolved since 9/11 adequately protect society from the development of rogue nuclear weapons. Even if there is not full clarity on the issue, there is most likely a vague understanding in the minds of most that the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima required an enterprise, the Manhattan Project, and that it was perhaps the greatest scientific, militaristic, and industrial undertaking in human history. How then, could an equivalent of that Hiroshima bomb arrive in a truck at the corner of 18th and K Streets in Washington, DC, delivered by a team of perpetrators, perhaps no larger than the team of nineteen jihadists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11?

Schwartz does a poor job of providing a clear description, for a layperson, regarding the plausibility of nuclear terrorism. He provides some history about the development of nuclear weapons, the subsequent declassification of the designs and knowledge needed for weapons production, and the 1966 case study of how three young scientists, without nuclear background, successfully designed a Nagasaki type weapon at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as an exercise to demonstrate national vulnerability.

His only reference to the Hiroshima bomb design, which would be the likely objective of a terrorist plot, is inserted as a passing phrase in the commentary about the Lawrence Livermore exercise. He states that the three young scientists “… quickly rejected designing a gun-type bomb like Little Boy, which would have used a sawed-off howitzer to crash two pieces of fissile material together, judging it to be too easy and unworthy of their time.” (P.42-43)

It is precisely the ease of both designing and building a Little Boy model that makes nuclear terrorism so feasible! The trio of young scientists succeeded in designing a Nagasaki bomb, known as Fat Man, but did not attempt to actually build one. Schwartz neglects to mention that the Little Boy design uses enriched uranium for its explosive power (which is only mildly radioactive and easy to fabricate into a weapon) while Fat Man uses plutonium (that is quite radioactive and difficult to fabricate into a weapon).

Schwartz identifies uranium 235 as a form of uranium that undergoes fission and he notes that uranium 238, which has three more neutrons in its nucleus, is a much more common form of the element. In the ore that is mined, there are ninety-nine atoms of uranium 238 for every one of uranium 235. Schwartz does not clearly state that bomb fabrication requires enrichment levels of uranium 235, which brings the composition of that component from 1% to 90%. Uranium composed of 90% uranium 235 atoms is known as “Highly Enriched Uranium” (HEU). One way of producing this bomb grade material is with the use of centrifuges. The quality and quantity of their centrifuges has been a key issue of negotiations with Iran.

Graham Allison, in Nuclear Terrorism, provides a clear and concise explanation of the Little Boy design:

If enough Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is at hand (approximately 140 pounds), a gun-type design is simple to plan, build, and detonate. In its basic form, a “bullet” (about 56 pounds) of HEU is fired down a gun barrel into a hollowed HEU “target” (about 85 pounds) fastened to the other end of the barrel. Fused together, the two pieces of HEU form a supercritical mass and detonate. The gun in the Hiroshima bomb was a 76.2-millimeter antiaircraft barrel, 6.5 inches wide, 6 feet long, and weighing about 1,000 pounds. A smokeless powder called cordite, normally found in conventional artillery pieces, was used to propel the 56-pound HEU bullet into the 85-pound HEU target. The main attractions of the gun-type weapon are simplicity and reliability. Manhattan Project scientists were so confident about this design that they persuaded military authorities to drop the bomb, untested, on Hiroshima. South Africa also used this model in building its covert nuclear arsenal (in 1977) without even conducting a test. If terrorists develop an elementary nuclear weapon of their own, they will almost certainly use this design. (P85-86)

The general public also needs to understand that U235 is only mildly radioactive. It can be handled safely and is hard to detect. In 2002, ABC News smuggled bars of uranium into ports on both the West Coast and East Coast without being discovered. Furthermore, the amount needed for a weapon can be carried in a container no larger than a soccer ball. Uranium is one of the most dense elements (about 70% more dense than lead). Therefore, 140 pounds can easily be hidden in an automobile that is entering the country or in a shipment of plumbing supplies. While an improvised terrorist bomb could probably be smuggled into the country disguised as an electric generator or embedded in a shipment of granite or other building material stones, its weight of more than a thousand pounds presents challenges. It would be much easier to bring in said soccer ball volume, distributed into smaller packages, and then assemble the weapon in a nondescript machine shop. ABC News transported 15 pounds of depleted uranium in a 12-ounce soda can. Depleted uranium, by definition, contains less U-235 proportionally than natural uranium but has a similar radiation signature.

The largest hurdle for nuclear terrorists is obtaining enriched uranium. Graham Allison does an excellent job of detailing opportunities for terrorists to obtain highly enriched uranium. His book identifies the potential sources of highly-enriched uranium from the many research reactors around the world that were once promoted by President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program. Other sources include the inadequately guarded storage sites found throughout the former Soviet Union. These sites attracted agents from rogue states and terrorist organizations in the 1990s. How much of the material from unsecured facilities that has entered the black market at that time is unknown, however many examples of black market transactions have been discovered and pose as continued challenges for international inspectors today.

There is a colossal amount of HEU present in various forms around the world. At the end of 2012, an authoritative study[2] estimated that there was as much as 1500 tons (3 million pounds). However, great uncertainty exists about the quantity located in Russia. That ambiguity translates directly into possible vulnerability for theft or diversion of HEU. The estimated total supply of HEU could provide fuel for twenty thousand Hiroshima-type gun nuclear weapons. If only a tenth of one percent of this material went missing, it could be used to fabricate 20 improvised nuclear weapons.

Allison describes a particularly egregious case from Kazakhstan where 1,278 pounds of highly enriched uranium were discovered in an abandoned warehouse that was secured only with a single padlock. That material had been collected for shipment to Russia as fuel for nuclear submarines. During the break-up of the Soviet Union, its existence was overlooked (or so it would appear). It is possible that some material was removed and sold to agents from Iraq, Iran, or elsewhere, but there is no public knowledge of that happening. Action was taken by the United States to purchase the material for use in power reactors. In 1994, removal was accomplished in a secret operation known as Project Sapphire, in which teams of U.S. experts packed and transported the materials to the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In 2014, the twentieth anniversary of Project Sapphire was celebrated, but the task of securing highly enriched uranium in the former Soviet Union has yet to be finalized.

Allison further writes that Pakistan (in 2004) was probably producing enough HEU to fuel five to ten new bombs each year. While Allison was concerned with the possibility that some of that material might be diverted, that possibility was exposed as a major U.S. concern in 2010. The Guardian reported on November 30th of that year that Wikileaks revealed that in early 2010, the American Ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, had cabled to Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Theft or diversion of HEU from production facilities is not unprecedented. Allison describes theft from a Russian enrichment plant in 1992, which was discovered in an unrelated police action. A famous case published in the March 9, 2014 issue of the New Yorker magazine and discussed in an excellent article by Eric Schlosser involved suspected diversion, in the 1960s, of hundreds of pounds of HEU from a commercial enrichment facility in Pennsylvania to Israel.

Given that large amounts of material that would fuel a Hiroshima-equivalent gun-type weapon are within reach of potential terrorists and successful acquisition of the material is quite plausible, the question remains as to whom might take such an action. Schwartz makes reference to al-Qaeda and to terrorists in general, but does not try to be specific regarding potential nuclear perpetrators.

Allison devotes a chapter of his book to the identification of potential nuclear terrorists, some of whom have actively explored acquisition of fissile material. Included in his overview are al-Qaeda, Chechen separatists, and Aum Shinrikyo. The Aum group, after failing in its attempts to purchase nuclear warheads, initiated a deadly sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995.

Another excellent, comprehensive book[3] dealing with nuclear terrorism is The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (2005), by Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter with contributing authors Amy Sands, Leonard Spector, and Fred Wehling. Ferguson and Potter explore a number of these issues in great detail. Their discussion of potential perpetrators has a prescient section on apocalyptic groups. They refer to “…certain Jewish or Islamic extremists or factions of the Christian identity movement, whose faith entails a deep belief in the need to cleanse and purify the world via violent upheaval to eliminate non believers.” Given the success of ISIS in acquiring domination over large cities and vast financial resources, their potential for producing a gun-type Hiroshima bomb exceeds any prior threat from a terrorist organization. While attacks on Europe or the United States by ISIS do not appear to be imminent, the use of nuclear weapons to attack Shiites in Iran or Jews in Israel could easily become priorities on their agenda.

In recent years, scant attention has been paid to the possibility that apocalyptic groups or other potential terrorists based in the United States might engage in nuclear terrorism. The most horrific bombing by an American was the detonation of explosives by Timothy McVeigh at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 that killed 168 people. McVeigh was driven, not by religious belief, but by a passion to avenge actions by the federal government at Waco Texas and Ruby Ridge. These confrontations of armed citizens with federal agencies promoted the militia movement to which McVeigh adhered.

While predating McVeigh, nuclear weapons designer, Ted Taylor, became obsessed with the possibility of nuclear terrorism being initiated by an American terrorist. Taylor was the quintessential embodiment of an obsessed inventor-scientist. All those around him tolerated Taylor’s idiosyncrasies due to his exceptional brilliance. After receiving an undergraduate degree in physics from Cal Tech, he studied for a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley where J. Robert Oppenheimer had established the first American theoretical physics research group of international prominence. Taylor was unable to complete PhD studies there, because he refused to pursue course work in required fields of physics that did not interest him. However, Oppenheimer recognized his genius for creative thought and facilitated his appointment to the post-war theoretical physics staff at Los Alamos in 1948, where he became the leading designer of nuclear weapons. His accomplishments included the creation of the largest fission bomb that was ever assembled and tested, the 500 Kiloton Super Oralloy Bomb, which was thirty-five times more powerful than the Hiroshima Bomb.

The design area in which Taylor confounded the experts was in the conceptualization of small nuclear weapons. His ability to model very small nuclear weapons led to the production for use by the U.S. Army in 1961, of a tripod mounted recoilless rifle known as the Davy Crockett that fired a warhead with the explosive capacity of only 250 tons of TNT (equal to one sixtieth of the Hiroshima bomb). This weapon, which could be deployed and fired by two soldiers on foot, was produced for use against Soviet armored units, but had quite limited distribution.

A leading 20th Century theoretical physicist, Freeman Dyson, is quoted as saying, “Ted (Taylor) taught me everything I know about bombs. He was the man who had made bombs small and cheap.”

Taylor’s deep insights into the ease with which nuclear weapons could be assembled led him to resign from Los Alamos in 1956 and focus his energy on alerting society to the threat of nuclear terrorism. He became acutely aware of how the U.S. Government had contracted out the development, handling, and storage of highly-enriched uranium to commercial suppliers. He observed directly that the security and the procedures for handling and shipping at these facilities were extremely insecure. After trying to promote safeguards through efforts within the nuclear establishment, he decided, in the late 1960s, that he should alert the public to these dangers and promote public policy initiatives. In 1972, he obtained a grant from the Ford Foundation for a thorough study of existing materials that might be diverted into fabricating a clandestine nuclear bomb. Together with Mason Willrich, a social scientist, they published a book in 1974 entitled, Nuclear Theft: Risk and Safeguards (Ballinger). During this same period, he travelled throughout the United States speaking about the issue. Taylor’s efforts attracted the writer, John McPhee, who then asked to accompany him. In 1973, McPhee wrote a book[4] about Taylor and his efforts to minimize the risks of nuclear terrorism entitled, The Curve of Binding Energy, from which Schwartz quotes a particularly startling prediction:

“’I think we have to live with the expectation,’ remarked a Los Alamos atomic engineer in 1973, “’that once every four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place and kill a lot of people.’ This statement is cited in John McPhee’s The Curve of Binding Energy, which detailed concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons to non-state actors over forty years ago.”

Schwartz then continues with: “While exaggeration may mislead the credulous and offend the perceptive, neither the absence of a precedent for nuclear terrorism nor the intelligence failure regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMD program changes the growing threat.”

While Schwartz gives lip service to the “growing threat” of nuclear terrorism, his book does little to assuage the credulous or to convince the perceptive of the seriousness of such a threat. The fact that he has engaged in this serious analysis of government policy for the aftermath of a nuclear terrorist attack is testimony to the fact that he is does not think that the issue is merely Chicken Little’s exaggerated concern. Certainly, his work as a Defense Department analyst lends gravitas to his posture on this subject.

It is worth reflecting how much traction the effort to call attention to nuclear terrorism has attained within the past 40+ years. The most immediate example of a serious concern for Schwartz’ scenario of a terrorist nuclear weapon being detonated in Washington, DC, is a 120 page report[5] from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Homeland Security entitled, Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism – the National Capital Region. The report summarizes studies, implemented in 2011, by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and Applied Research Associates on civil defense response to the detonation of a terrorist nuclear device. Unlike the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were detonated at about 1900 feet, the improvised nuclear weapons hypothesized in this study would explode at ground level. The consequence of a ground level explosion is that a crater would be forced from the ground carrying significant amounts of deadly radioactive debris that would then be dispersed over a range of perhaps 20 miles in length and a mile or two in width. Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not experience this characteristic “fallout” of radioactive debris.

The model that is discussed hypothesizes a 10-kiloton (Hiroshima was 15 kiloton) explosion at ground level at the intersection of K Street NW and 16th Street NW using the actual weather observed at that location on February 14, 2009. This in-depth analysis includes a summary of the effects of the explosion on the infrastructure of the city as well as on the population – including blast, fire, and radiation damage. There are detailed recommendations regarding how, where, and when to shelter from radiation, and assessments of evacuation scenarios. Public health issues are evaluated, including the anticipated post-explosion capacity of hospitals and health care workers to deal with needs of the population. Such a blast would produce nearly total death and destruction for an area about one mile in radius around ground zero and high levels of destruction out to about an area with a three-mile radius. Fallout with serious radiation consequences could impact regions as far as twenty miles from ground zero.

Homeland Security is engaged in studies of major metropolitan areas in the United States and shares these analyses and recommendations with police, firefighters, and other first responders, including emergency medical teams. In this literature, the word “terrorist” is rarely used and the amount of information and advice provided to the public is minimal. The weapon is almost always referred to as an “Improvised Nuclear Device” and its size seems to be standardized at 10 kiloton.

It appears that government agencies are concerned enough about nuclear terrorism to study their impact on physical environments and on human populations. However, the Right of Boom is unique in addressing the political impact and possible retaliatory action. But Schwarz is only addressing the simplest of potential scenarios. What if an explosion in Washington, DC, were accompanied by a blackmail threat that if certain actions were not taken by the United States, other bombs that were already in place would be detonated?

Another possibility would be that bombs were detonated simultaneously in several cities – possibly Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. The challenge of trying to anticipate such a catastrophe is mind boggling, yet, if one bomb were possible, three would be almost equally as feasible. It may be that such studies are taking place out of the public view. Even the Homeland Security studies, that are readily available on the Internet, are not proactively disseminated to the public.

During the height of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war led to Civil Defense exercises being held throughout the country. While these might not have been entirely realistic, they did prepare civilian populations for the possibility of nuclear conflict. Yet today, while nuclear terrorism may be just as likely, little is shared with the public – regarding either policy considerations or physical realities.

There is at least one instance of important advice that could potentially save many thousands of lives that is known to Homeland Security and FEMA, but is not distributed to the public: in the event of a terrorist nuclear event, the population affected should stay in whatever building they might be located in with positioning away from exterior windows, walls and ceilings. Homeland Security refers to this action as “Sheltering in Place.” The fact is that almost any building structure would shield against the type of radiation that most likely to be present, and that this radiation would dissipate significantly after a few days. By staying indoors for several days, chances of survival would be greatly increased. A practical consequence of this approach is that, following the first days after an attack, parents and children should not seek to be reunited if the children are in school and the parents are elsewhere. A strong concern for this issue was expressed in the 2004 report on terrorism planning after a “dirty bomb” attack issued by the New York Academy of Medicine[6].

Lack of public dissemination of practical information, such as this, is partially attributed to the fear of alarming the general population, as well as a deep skepticism, among many, that such an event could even happen. Government policy sustains nuclear terrorism as an invisible topic, lying outside of conscious consideration.

While Homeland Security and FEMA are actively engaged in preparations for an act of nuclear terrorism, the scope of their planning is limited to responding to the physical, medical, and radiological impact of an IND. The Right of Boom comes close to exploring the larger social and political consequences but ultimately fails to do so. Questions that remain unexplored here and elsewhere are the impact on the nation’s economic, transportation, communications, and other fundamental systems that underpin the functioning of society. When one considers the ways in which 9/11, with the deaths of approximately 3,000 civilians, transformed society, it is difficult to image how the deaths of 30,000 or 300,000 civilians might alter the basic framework of civil order. It is difficult to even frame the questions. The enormity of this threat may be a significant contributing factor that keeps it out of public discourse. Examples of the issue being ducked are all too frequent.

Recently, both The Economist and Foreign Policy magazines featured cover stories focused on nuclear weapons (March 7th-13th, 2015 and March-April 2015, respectively). The Economist sums things up with, “But for now the best that can be achieved is to search for ways to restore effective deterrence, bear down on proliferation, and get back to the dogged grind of arms-control negotiations between the main nuclear powers.” Foreign Policy deals more with the active nuclear weapons refurbishing programs that are taking place in the United States, Russia, and China and how these activities might prompt countries that now adhere to the Non Proliferation Treaty to withdraw. Neither of these overview reports mentions the threat of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors.

Even a long-time analyst of nuclear weapons issues, Professor Paul Bracken of Yale, eschews reference to nuclear terrorism in his otherwise insightful book[7], The Second Nuclear Era: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics (MacMillan, 2012). He bemoans the failure of U.S. strategists to reshape thinking that goes beyond a cold war framework, to grapple with a much more complex, multipolar world. Yet he limits his consideration of terrorists to that of agents for nuclear powers, rather than as independent non-state operatives.

It is striking that those who are worried about an improvised nuclear device exploding in an American city are noteworthy individuals who know the most about the subject: Theodore Taylor, the most capable of the post WWII nuclear weapons designers; Graham Allison, a former undersecretary of defense; Charles Ferguson, the current president of the Federation of American Scientists, and Benjamin Schwartz, an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. Following the knowledge trail to the deepest level of national intelligence, we find that the President of the United States is perhaps the most concerned individual of all. Michael Crowley wrote[8] in Time Magazine on March 26, 2014, Yes, Obama Really is Worried About a Manhattan Nuke. He quotes the president saying, “I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

One might wonder if this statement by Obama is an isolated comment or a deeply ingrained belief that underlies his thinking and strategic approach to governance. By examining his record of policy statements and executive actions of the past six years, one sees that this is his core belief.

Obama most likely became educated about nuclear issues during his time in the Senate. He rubbed shoulders with Senator Sam Nunn, who has probably been the most influential publically-elected official concerned with nuclear issues (in general) and nuclear terrorism (in particular), prior to the emergence of Barack Obama. Less than three months after his first inauguration in 2009, he delivered a historic speech[9] on nuclear weapons in Hradcany Square in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

The speech was comprehensive in addressing issues of stockpiles of the major nuclear nations, the need to eliminate proliferation in additional states, and the need to curb developments in Iran and North Korea. However, it is noteworthy that he dealt at length with issues of nuclear terrorism. He stated, “…we must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction. Al Qaeda has said it seeks a bomb and that it would have no problem with using it. And we know that there is unsecured nuclear material across the globe. To protect our people we must act with a sense of purpose without delay.”

President Obama renders the threat explicit: “One nuclear weapon exploded in one city – be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague – could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be — for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.”

He also does not minimize the chances of such an event-taking place: “Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build, or steal one.”

It is amazing that this Paul Revere-style alert and the call for action given by the President of the United States on the world stage could just as well have been an oration by Chicken Little. Perhaps if the President himself had failed to follow up, it might explain the lack of attention by commentators, think tanks, talking heads, and loquacious pundits. Certainly, the Right of Boom fails to build on the solid case made by President Obama.

But the President has not neglected this topic; far from it. While in Prague, he laid out an agenda and has assiduously adhered to it ever since. His Prague address called for efforts to expand cooperation with Russia and to seek new partnerships to lock down the fissile materials that enable nuclear weapons. He identified comprehensive areas of concern:

We must also build on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade. Because this threat will be lasting, we should come together to turn efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism into durable international institutions. And we should start by having a Global Summit on Nuclear Security that the United States will host within the next year.

President Obama organized a summit meeting in Washington, DC, in 2010 that was attended by 38 heads of state. This was the largest gathering of heads of state called by a U.S. president since the organizational meeting for the United Nations in 1945. He then held follow-up summits in 2012 in Seoul, Korea and in 2014 in The Hague, The Netherlands. A fourth summit will be held March 31- April 1, 2016, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. These historic gatherings of large numbers of heads of state have taken place with remarkably little publicity or comment from politicians or the public. Typically, news media have reported during the time of the meetings, but there has been virtually no mention of the activities that these summits have generated. Since the programs were referred to as “Nuclear Security Summits,” they probably generated much less interest than if they had been headlined as “Nuclear Terrorism Summits,” (which, in fact, is a far more accurate title).

Stemming from these summit meetings have been numerous working groups that pursue targeted goals during the intervals between the meetings. These meetings have been conducted using an innovative approach to international diplomacy that seems to be grounded in a philosophy of achieving what is possible and not being stymied by the usual impediments to negotiated agreements. The working groups bring together countries that have mutual concerns and they work to create implementable policy statements – (but start with no predetermined format, structure, or reporting mechanism). In an attempt to stimulate creativity and new leadership, the participants are not assigned by their governments, specific titles, or rank, but by their relevant expertise. They are given the titles of “Sherpa” and “Sous-Sherpa.” The very title, which is associated with providing assistance to mountain climbers, sets a positive tone. Another innovative break with tradition and creative use of language is to refer to the statements that are produced as “gift baskets.” These gift baskets have resulted in many countries pledging to take further action and applying peer pressure on other countries to take action.

As of April 2015, there are 15 groups[10] working to create these gift baskets. The number of countries that come together range from four in the group focused on reducing the use of HEU for the production of medical isotopes to thirty-five seeking to strengthen nuclear security implementation. The latter group has been working to integrate IAEA nuclear security policies into national rules and regulations.

Some of the other topics being addressed include the security of fissile material transportation, the security of radiological materials, forensics in nuclear security, and the promotion of countries becoming free of HEU. The elimination, since 2009, of all HEU from 12 countries has been a major accomplishment, particularly the removal of all HEU from the Ukraine, which was announced in March of 2012.

While Schwartz gives passing mention to the Nuclear Security Summits, he fails to recognize the innovative approach pursued by “gift basket” diplomacy or the successes that have resulted from that approach. Furthermore, the Nuclear Security Summit initiative has created a framework for approaching nuclear terrorism that would have applications following a terrorist nuclear detonation in an American city. Schwartz does not include that framework in his analysis of potential “right of boom” government actions.

More significant than the limited scope of Schwartz’ scenario’s vision regarding retaliation and new international security norms is his complete neglect of the horrific domestic situation that the President and his advisors would need to confront. Certainly the President would need to explain to the American public how he or she would respond to the perpetrators, but it could be argued that the American public’s main concern would be maintenance of civil society. Schwartz presents a hypothetical transcript of an address by the President to the American people in which he notes that he is speaking on his own authority that is enhanced by the advice of the cabinet and the consent of Congress. However, in that address, there is no mention of the deaths, devastation, interruption of commerce, breakdowns in communications, overwhelming strains on transportation systems, medical infrastructure, outbreaks of civil disorder, and general fear and hysteria that must be sweeping the country.

Perhaps it is asking too much for The Right of Boom to carry that load in addition to introducing the challenges of international actions, plans, and policy. Yet, its scenario – which may leave many readers incredulous regarding the actions that it does address, is rendered more unbelievable by its neglect of these obvious civil society considerations.

All of these issues were addressed in the article, “The Day After, Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City,”[11] by Ashton B. Carter, Michael M. May, and William J. Perry published in the Autumn 2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly (P. 19 This trio of authors had deep knowledge about how nuclear terrorism might manifest itself and what the resulting consequences would be. Aston B. Carter is currently the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Michael M. May was a long time director of the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons development laboratory, and William J. Perry served as Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration. These heavyweights wrote:

As grim a prospect as this scenario (a terrorist nuclear explosion in a U.S. city) is for policymakers to contemplate, a failure to develop a comprehensive contingency plan and inform the American public, where appropriate, about its particulars will only serve to amplify the devastating impact of a nuclear attack on a U.S. city…

In considering the actions that need to be taken on the “Day After”, they take more seriously than Schwartz the possibility of actual follow-on attacks, as well as the threat of follow-on attacks. Their short article refers to the physical impact of blast, radiation, problems regarding evacuation, medical care, civil unrest, etc. There is also a brief section dealing with retaliation and deterrence. It is surprising that Schwartz does not reference this precursor article that was written by such authoritative individuals.

A direct extension of the “Day After” article is an essay[12] by Richard L. Garwin entitled, “A Nuclear Explosion in a City or an Attack on a Nuclear Reactor,” that was included in the Summer 2010 issue of The Bridge, a publication of the National Academy of Engineering, within a special installment, “Nuclear Dangers.” Garwin has been a senior advisor for many years to the highest levels of the U.S. government on nuclear weapons policy and other technologies that are relevant to U.S. military and security affairs. In 1950, when Garwin was 22 years old, he turned the concepts developed by Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam for the hydrogen bomb into engineering and assembly specifications that produced the first manmade thermonuclear explosion at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1952.

Garwin’s essay parallels that of Carter, May, and Perry, (in which he has a lengthy quote). Garwin is explicit that he is hypothesizing a terrorist-improvised nuclear device that uses highly-enriched uranium and the Hiroshima gun design. This IND, like all the other imagined weapons, has a yield of between 10 and 15 kilotons. It is worth noting that everyone who addresses the issue of a terrorist nuclear weapon and who has knowledge of the underlying technology chooses to focus on a device of about 10 KT. Garwin also notes that the scenario he addresses, “…was the focus of President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12-13, 2010 (White House 2010).”

Garwin also emphasizes a point of great concern, made by the trio, with the following quote from the “Day After” article:

The federal government should stop pretending that state and local officials will be able to control the situation on the Day After. The pretense persists in Washington planning for the Day After that its role is to ‘support’ governors and mayors, who will retain authority and responsibility in the affected area. While this is a reasonable application of our federal system to small and medium-sized emergencies, it is not appropriate for large disasters like a nuclear detonation.

Since we witness the same pretense being operative in 2015, it is unfortunate that Schwartz did not bring this issue to the forefront. The current situation finds Homeland Security engaged in detailed Day After studies for different locations and in providing guidance and training for first responders in major cities, yet there is almost no information being shared, by either federal or local agencies, with the public.

The only exception, known to this reviewer at least, is the extensive efforts of the Ventura County California Department of Public Health. That office published[13] the 243 page, “Ventura County Nuclear Explosion Response Plan,” on August 8, 2011 and has ongoing activities addressing this civil defense challenge. The premise of the Ventura County plan is that the terrorist 10KT explosion would take place in Los Angeles County, that being a more attractive target for terrorists. The population, economic, transportation, port, and other infrastructure targets of Los Angeles County are all more significant than in Ventura County. However, since it is contiguous to Los Angeles County, Ventura County would likely experience significant radioactive fallout. In addition uncontrolled mass evacuation would confront Ventura County. Throughout the region there would likely be hysteria, looting, and civil disorder.  Additionally, the support resources of medical, police, and firefighter first responders would be called upon to aid in the response and recovery operations in Los Angeles County. The Ventura County plan examines short term, intermediate term, and long-term coordination issues for first responders, as well as guidelines for the civilian population. The plan calls for education and coordination efforts that are needed in anticipation of a nuclear disaster. It points out that many more lives will be lost and the impact of the attack will be much greater if society is not prepared and well- informed. In spite of this obvious reality, there is almost no attention to informing the American public about these matters.

The level of detail in the Ventura County Plan is impressive and somewhat shocking. For example, it includes guidelines on dealing with the large numbers of dead bodies that will need to be identified and disposed of. There are recommendations such as the creation of temporary burial sites in “trenches at least 5 feet deep and at least 50 yards from water sources.” They recommend that bodies be at least 2 feet apart and in “one layer only.”

The report also outlines the psychological impact of the disaster including anxiety, anger, depression, and lethargy. It notes that the fear, disorientation, and misleading notions will be introduced by the lack of understanding about the ongoing impact of radiation exposure. The report notes that Ventura County has elected to develop a Trauma Response Network to respond to large-scale emotional and psychological needs of the general public.

In its section on rage and hoarding, there is every indication that violence will erupt. The report notes that looting and other violent acts are more likely in settings where there are high crime rates and youth gangs. These conditions are met in Ventura County and among the evacuees arriving from Los Angeles County. While they note that, “The Federal government has a massive food shortage program of canned goods located in salt caves near Kansas City,” supplies will likely run out before federal authorities would be able to transport the stored food to where it would be needed. They also enunciate a likely need for “supervised looting” in which government authorities seize private warehouses and distribute food.

The Ventura County plan estimates that two million people will arrive from Los Angeles County bringing almost seven hundred thousand pet dogs and cats. The problems of radioactive contamination of pets and the fact that Red Cross shelters will not accept house pets are addressed. Burial of large numbers of dead animals is also included in the Ventura County plan. While the plan quantifies the number of pets likely to be carried by evacuees, there is no estimate for the number of pets that will become troublesome following the death of their owners.

One of the few examples of pets in a disaster zone is the experience in Rwanda, where more than 800,000 people were massacred during a 100-day period. When Paul Kagame led a military expedition into Rwanda from Uganda, he found packs of dogs eating the corpses that were everywhere and ordered his troops to shoot all of the dogs.

The level of detail in the Ventura County report reinforces the certainty that immediate Federal action will be needed following a nuclear terrorist attack. The problems of medical care, food availability, law enforcement, and general chaos will require federal resources and personnel.  Clearly, the issues that will be faced by the President on the Day After will be far more diverse and complex than portrayed in the scenario presented in Right of Boom.

Commentary about nuclear terrorism includes issues of prevention and preparation on the “left of boom” and issues of response, retaliation, and prevention of a repeat attack on the “right of boom.” Schwartz has chosen to develop a case for the likelihood of nuclear terrorism and the retaliation aspect of post attack actions. In so doing, he has made a valuable contribution to public discourse on an issue that has received little attention. Since the post attack actions of the executive branch of government will be occupied, if not overwhelmed, by the excruciating challenges of coping with domestic challenges and needs, his bland scenario, with its transcript of the President’s first post attack address to the nation, is not plausible. His focus on international initiatives to prevent follow-on nuclear terrorism would have benefited from explicit recognition of President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit diplomacy with the establishment of fifteen working groups that are attempting to deal with precisely these issues. By moving from a laissez faire, “gift basket” form of diplomacy to a more coercive approach of engagement, the outlines of a specific agenda for the “New Order,” that he imagines, might emerge.

While it is difficult to calculate the odds that there will be a nuclear terrorist attack on a U.S. city, the grim reality is that, if it were to happen, if would transform life as we know it. It appears that those who are best informed on the issue assess the probability as high. This is a threat that poses a serious concern to the President of the United States, former secretaries of defense, former undersecretaries and high-level advisors in the department of defense, and former lead designers and development managers of nuclear weapons. One wonders what conclusions the bookie, Jimmy the Greek, would have drawn from this consensus among experts.

In the 1950s and 60s the threat of nuclear war between the two superpowers stimulated intense discussion and debate. Many books were written, both fiction and non-fiction. Movies were produced, songs and poems were written, and civil defense drills were conducted. Some of this activity was profound and some of it was silly, but we are thankful that nothing happened to threaten our existence. Currently, nuclear terrorism receives little attention and is often viewed with skepticism. Right of Boom by Benjamin E. Schwartz is a welcome addition to the public airing of these issues.


[1] Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. Graham Allison. Henry Holt and Company, LLC (2004).

[2] International Fissile Material Report (2013).

[3] The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism. Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter. Rutledge, Taylor and Francis (2005).

[4] The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor. John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1973).

[5] National Capital Region Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism (November 2011), FEMA/Homeland Security/et. al. /irp/agency/dhs/fema/ncr.pdf.

[6] Dr. Roz D.Lasker,

[7] The Second Nuclear Era: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics. Paul Bracken. MacMillan (2012).

[8] “Yes, Obama is Really Worried about a Manhattan Nuke,” Time Magazine (March 26, 2014).

[9] Obama Prague Speech (2009).

[10] The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report on Joint Statements. Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security (March 2015).

[11] “The Day After, Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City,” Ashton B. Carter, Michael M. May, and William J. Perry. The Washington Quarterly (Autumn 2007, p. 19).

[12] “A Nuclear Explosion in a City or an Attack on a Nuclear Reactor,” Richard L. Garwin. The Bridge – Nuclear Dangers Issue (Summer 2010), National Academy of Engineering.

[13] Ventura County Nuclear Explosion Response Plan (August 8, 2011).

Edward A. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. His undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics are from MIT and Columbia University, respectively. He teaches courses at Stevens on nuclear weapons issues. He holds an Honorary Doctor of Science degree in Mathematics from Sofia University in Bulgaria and he received a medal from King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan for his work in educational development at Kabul University in the 1970s.