Out of My Mind
I am well aware that by the time you read this, I could have been proven tragically wrong. I know that when the World Affairs Council met in Pasadena on the evening of December 7, 1941, the title of the featured speech was “Why there Will Be No War in the Pacific.” The speaker acknowledged the irony but said that his talk and his reasoning were so good that he’d proceed with his planned talk.
So, with some humility, I offer the following analysis:
Nuclear weapons are no good for war—not big thermonuclear bombs, nor smaller nuclear weapons, nor even tactical or theater level nuclear devices. They would all lead to escalation and devastation. Nukes are good only for deterrence. Their use is MAD, both as in “crazy” and as Mutually Assured Destruction.
While it is possible that a cornered, suicidal, or Apocalyptic leader might try to end our world if his world is crumbling around him, we cannot game a scenario based on irrationality—on evil, yes, but on mad, no.
Now, before you take too much comfort in my faith in the inutility of nuclear weapons, I do believe that dirty weapons are already being used. Dirty weapons can disperse poison—chemicals or biologicals. While these are certainly transgressive of norms and laws, they might not trigger unstoppable and massive retaliation and escalation.
Dirty weapons are being used but are a step beneath a bright line of inevitable nuclear catastrophe. The most likely next step would be dangerous, dirty weapons that would be used to disperse radioactive materials. These bombs could be loaded with relatively mild, but universally available, radioactive medical waste. The smallest and weakest country has medical radioactive waste from its nuclear medicine programs. The larger nations with nuclear reactors, even if these reactors are dedicated to the peaceful use of nuclear power, can use the reactors to create radioactive materials that can easily be loaded in bombs and on missiles.
There would be little challenge for Hamas or Hezbollah to take the medical waste and put it either in primitive rockets or more sophisticated missiles. Likewise, Russia and Iran could easily take nuclear radioactive material and put it in their missiles. The missiles could explode with an air blast and distribute the radiation from above or explode on impact and irradiate the target, as well as distribute radioactive debris. No scientific breakthroughs are needed. And while these tactics would be transgressive and dangerous, they would not cross the bright line of coming from a nuclear bomb.
A nuclear bomb is the result of nuclear fission—the splitting of atoms at high temperatures that releases their energy through a chain reaction. A thermonuclear bomb uses a nuclear bomb to create sufficient temperature to fuse atoms and release much greater energy. The resulting physical devastation and spread of radian make these weapons, in my view, unusable.
However, dirty bombs, though distributing radiation, are of a different category and are much more likely to be used. A nuclear attack on America or Israel, on Russia or China, would take us to armageddon. A limited but dirty attack would engender proportionate responses. But what is proportional to a small city being uninhabitable for a decade or a reservoir supplying a large rendered unusable for five years?
Though dirty bombs are more usable than true nuclear weapons, there is no assurance that they wouldn’t also unleash unstoppable escalation.
Finally, in my not quite as assuring scenarios that my title implied are the breaching of radioactive sources of other nations. If Iran attacked Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, if Russian missiles split open any or all of the containment shells surrounding Ukraine’s nuclear reactors, what would the responses be? Would Israel, having been substantially poisoned, treat it as a nuclear attack and respond accordingly? Would NATO be drawn into a massive on-the-ground and even air response against Russia if clouds of radiation floated over Western Europe?
I don’t know. We don’t know.
Short of breaching any nation’s nuclear facilities would be an attack on their nuclear waste, the spent fuel rods in the cooling tanks usually adjacent to the reactors. While not as serious as blowing up the reactors, still, massive and potentially deadly radiation would be released.
Nuclear war is still unthinkable, but dirty war with chemicals and biological elements continues today. From mustard gas to chlorine, from Saron to Ricin to Polonium (which is radioactive), dirty weapons are being used to kill people. So far, Saron, Ricin, and Polonium have been small-scale operations or for targeted assassinations. Will there be a dirty war? I’m afraid that the answer is yes. It is happening now and will likely, even inevitably, grow.
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