Archive for the ‘Suitcase Nukes’ Category

Po 210

Posted: October 26, 2010 in Nuclear Weapons, Po 210, Suitcase Nukes, Terrorism 101

Po-210 is a terrible choice for a poison. Extremely toxic, radioactive, and is extremely difficult to handle. It emits alpha particles and becomes lead. It has a half life of 138.4 days. This means half of the original amount of Po-210 turns into lead every 138 days. It has a short shelf life, which limits it industrial usefulness.

Po-210’s main military application is a neutron source, a polonium-beryllium “nuclear trigger.” This type of nuclear trigger was used in all early nuclear weapons, and is probably used in the missing Soviet suitcase nukes. If the Po-210 has turned into lead, the suitcase nukes will not work. It has been reported al-Qaeda is offering $3 million dollars for a gram of Po210.

Speculation: a courier was transporting Po-210, packaged in small foil packages about the size of the little red or blue sweetener packages, and one or more of the packages leaked. The fine powder would be tracked by the courier’s feet, and spread by contact with his clothes. This explains the multiple contaminated sites. Po-210 is only a threat if ingested or inhaled. Litvinenko could have touched a contaminated surface and then contaminated his food. Once inside the body, it only takes a microscopic particle to kill.

Polonium-beryllium neutron sources is accurately described in The Rings of Allan. More information can be found on

Could the next chapter of our national nightmare be a nuclear one? How hard would it be for operatives of Osama bin Laden to deliver a “suitcase nuke” to our doorstep?

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The technical answer is that the threat is still considered to be remote; there is no hard evidence that any terrorist group, including bin Laden’s, has a finished nuclear weapon in its arsenal. But not long ago, anthrax seemed a distant threat. And it is possible for the bad guys to assemble an atom bomb with contraband uranium and off-the-shelf parts. “It’s not particularly probable, but it’s possible,'” says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The difficulty is that we are dealing with a wide range of low-probability cases. We can’t be afraid of any one, but we have to be concerned about all of them.” Among those probabilities: “dirty” conventional bombs loaded with radioactive garbage and attacks on nuclear plants that cause massive radiation leaks.

For years, cloak-and-dagger stories have circulated that Soviet suitcase nukes (also known as atomic demolition munitions, or ADMs) had gone unaccounted for and presumably ended up on the Russian black market. The Russians have offered confusing and conflicting statements about the disposition of their ADMs, leading some to suspect the worst. The ADMs weigh from 60 lbs. to 100 lbs., according to Bruce Blair, a former U.S. Air Force officer and expert on Soviet nuclear weapons. They could be carried in a case 8 in. by 16 in. by 24 in. The fissile material inside the mini-nukes degrades over time, though, and it’s unlikely that the Russians maintained them or that their new owners could. “There’s no good evidence that any rebel group or terrorist has these,” says John Lepingwell, a nuclear expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

If terrorists can’t buy portable nukes, they would have to make them. And in a frightening study done by the Nuclear Control Institute, a nonproliferation group in Washington, a panel of nuclear-explosives experts concluded that a group of dedicated terrorists without nuclear backgrounds could assemble a bomb if it had the right materials (such as plutonium 239, uranium 235, plutonium oxide and uranium oxide). It would take about a year to complete the job. “There’s little question that the only remaining obstacle is the acquisition of the material,” says Paul Leventhal, the institute’s president. Less than 110 kg of active ingredients could yield 10 kilotons of explosive power–a Hiroshima-size weapon. Even if the terrorists didn’t get the recipe quite right, a 1-kiloton yield could still devastate a city. And forget the suitcase: a truck will do, or a container ship to float the bomb into an American port.

Where would bin Laden get the material? Again, the most common answer is Russia, with its reputation as a fissile flea market. And a bin Laden associate has told authorities that the mastermind is shopping for nuclear ingredients. Adds Leventhal: “My feeling is that the prudent assumption is that bin Laden is nuclear capable in some fashion.” Other experts are less certain that any terrorist group could pull off a nuke. A 1999 Rand study on terrorism noted somewhat reassuringly that “building a nuclear device capable of producing mass destruction presents Herculean challenges for terrorists and indeed even for states with well-funded and sophisticated programs.”

Which is why the greater danger may lie in dirty bombs, conventional weapons used to spray radioactive material–anything from used reactor rods to contaminated clothing–over wide areas. Although the death toll wouldn’t be great, the contamination and the public panic could be widespread. “The ultimate dirty bomb is a nuclear power reactor,” says NCI’s Leventhal. That someone will run a jet into a cooling tower isn’t the only risk. Periodically the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has staged mock attacks against facilities, and the faux intruders won half the time–meaning they were in a position to cause severe damage. It’s a target-rich environment: not only is the core vulnerable, but one NRC study also concluded that if terrorists blew up the cooling pool that holds the spent fuel, the radiation could kill 6% of the people living within 10 miles of the plant.

Read more:,9171,1101011029-180495,00.html#ixzz13Q3ECd1H

Are Suitcase Bombs Possible?

By Carey Sublette

Last changed 18 May 2002

It is impossible to verify at the time of this writing whether nuclear devices sized to fit in side a suitcase were actually manufactured by the former Soviet Union, as alleged by Alexander Lebed in September 1997. It is certainly possibel to assess the technicial plausibility of such a claim and to provide a analysis of the likely characteristics of the weapons Lebed described.

A suitcase bomb with dimensions of 60 x 40 x 20 centimeters is by any standard a very compact nuclear weapon. Information is lacking on compact Soviet weapons, but a fair amount of information is available on compact US designs which provides a good basis for comparison.

The smallest possible bomb-like object would be a single critical mass of plutonium (or U-233) at maximum density under normal conditions. An unreflected spherical alpha-phase critical mass of Pu-239 weighs 10.5 kg and is 10.1 cm across.

A single critical mass cannot cause an explosion however since it does not cause fission multiplication, somewhat more than a critical mass is required for that. But it does not take much more than a single critical mass to cause significant explosions. As little an excess as 10% (1.1 critical masses) can produce explosions of 10-20 tons. This low yield seems trivial compared to weapons with yields in the kilotons or megatons, but it is actually far more dangerous than conventional explosives of equivalent yield due to the intense radiation emitted. A 20 ton fission explosion, for example, produces a very dangerous 500 rem radiation exposure at 400 meters from burst point, and a 100% lethal 1350 rem exposure at 300 meters. A yield of 10-20 tons is also equal to the yield of the lowest yield nuclear warhead ever deployed by the US — the W-54 used in the Davy Crockett recoilless rifle.

A mere 1.2 critical masses can produce explosive yield of 100 tons, and 1.35 critical masses can reach 250 tons. At this point a nation with sophisticated weapons technology can employ fusion boosting to raise the yield well into the kiloton range without requiring additional fissile material.

The amount of fissile material that constitutes a “critical mass” varies with the material density and the type of neutron reflector present (if any). A high explosive implosion can compress fissile material to greater than normal density, thus reducing the critical mass. A neutron reflector reduces neutron loss and reduces the critical mass at a constant density. However generally speaking, adding explosives or neutron reflectors to a core adds considerably more mass to the whole system than it saves.

A limited exception to this is that a thin beryllium reflector (thickness no more than the core radius) can actually reduce the total mass of the system, although it increases its overall diameter. For beryllium thicknesses of a few centimeters, the radius of a plutonium core is reduced by 40-60% of the reflector thickness. Since the density difference between these materials is on the order of 10:1, substantial mass savings (a couple of kilograms) can be achieved. At some point though increasing the thickness of the reflector begins to add more mass than it saves since volume increases with the cube of the radius. This marks the point of minimum total mass for the reflector/core system.

A low yield minimum mass or minimum volume weapon would thus use an efficient fissile material (plutonium or U-233), a limited amount of high explosives (sufficient only to assembly the core, not to compress it to greater than normal density), and a thin beryllium reflector.

We can now try to estimated the absolute minimum possible mass for a bomb with a significant yield. Since the critical mass for alpha-phase plutonium is 10.5 kg, and an additional 20-30% of mass is needed to make a significant explosion, this implies 13 kg or so. A thin beryllium reflector can reduce this by a couple of kilograms, but the necessary high explosive, packaging, triggering system, etc. will add mass, so the true absolute minimum probably lies in the range of 11-15 kg (and is probably closer to 15 than 11).

This is probably a fair description of the W-54 Davy Crockett warhead. This warhead was the lightest ever deployed by the US, with a minimum mass of about 23 kg (it also came in heavier packages) and had yields ranging from 10 tons up to 1 Kt in various versions. The warhead was basically egg-shaped with the minor axis of 27.3 cm and a major axis of 40 cm. The test devices for this design fired in Hardtack Phase II (shots Hamilton and Humboldt on 15 October and 29 October 1958) weighed only 16 kg, impressively close to the minimum mass estimated above. These devices were 28 cm by 30 cm.

Davy CrockettW-54 Davy Crockett (38 K)

The W-54 design probably approaches the minimum size for a spherical implosion device (the US has conducted tests of a 25.4 cm implosion systems however).

The W-54 nuclear package is certainly light enough by itself to be used in a “suitcase bomb” but the closest equivalent to such a device that US has ever deployed was a man-carried version called the Mk-54 SADM (Small Atomic Demolition Munition). This used a version of the W-54, but the whole package was much larger and heavier. It was a cylinder 40 cm by 60 cm, and weighed 68 kg (the actual warhead portion weighed only 27 kg). Although the Mk-54 SADM has itself been called a “suitcase bomb” it is more like a “steamer trunk” bomb, especially considering its weight.

Minimum mass and minimum volume are not the only design criteria of interest of course, since even 25.4 cm (10 inches) is rather thick even for a suitcase and is wider than the reported 20 cm thickness of Alexander Lebed’s suitcase bomb. Another approach is to instead develop a minimum diameter or minimum thickness design.

Minimizing nuclear weapon diameters has been a subject of intense interest for developing nuclear artillery shells, since the largest field artillery is typically the 208 mm (8.2 inch) caliber, with 155 mm (6.1 inches) artillery being the workhorse. Nuclear artillery shell designs with diameters as small as 105 mm have been studied. Packaging a nuclear artillery shell in a suitcase is an obvious route for creating a compact man-portable device.

The US has developed several nuclear artillery shells in the 155 mm caliber. The only one to be deployed was the W-48 nuclear warhead developed by UCRL, packaged in the M-45 AFAP (artillery fired atomic projectile) shell. The W-48 nuclear warhead measured 86 cm (34″) long and weighed 53.5-58 kg (118-128 lbs). Its yield was on the order of 70 to 100 tons (it was tested in the Hardtack II Tamalpais shot with a yield of 72 tons, predicted yield was 100-300 tons).

The smallest diameter US test device publicly known was the UCRL Swift device fired in the Redwing Yuma shot on 28 May 1956 . It had a 5″ (12.7 cm) diameter, a length of 62.2 cm (24.5 inches) and weighed 43.5 kg (96 lb). The test had a yield of 190 tons, but was intended to be fusion boosted (and thus would probably have had a yield in the kiloton range) but its yield was insufficient to ignite the fusion reaction and it failed to boost in this test. This test may have been a predecessor to the W-48 design.

Later and lighter 155 mm designs were also developed — the W74 (canceled early in development), and the W-82/XM-785 shell. The W82 had a yield of up to 2 kilotons and weighed 43 kg (95 lb), but included a number of sophisticated additional features within this weight. Since it was capable of being fielded with a “neutron bomb” (enhanced radiation) option, which is intrinsically more complex than a basic nuclear warhead, and was in addition rocket boosted, the actual minimum nuclear package was substantially lighter than the weight of the complete round. Its overall length was 86 cm (34″).

It is reported that designs least as small as 105 mm (4.1 inches) are possible. A hypothetical 105 mm system developed for use in an artillery shell would be about 50 cm (20 inches) long and weigh around 20 kg.

Compact nuclear artillery shells (208 mm and under) are based on a design approach called linear implosion. The linear implosion concept is that an elongated (football shaped) lower density subcritical mass of material can be compressed and deformed into a critical higher density spherical configuration by embedding it in a cylinder of explosives which are initiated at each end. As the detonation progresses from each direction towards the middle, the fissile mass is squeezed into a supercritical shape. The Swift device is known to have been a linear implosion design.

Linear Implosion System

It is quite likely, that should the suitcase bombs described by Lebed actually exist, that they would use this technology. It is clear that any of the 155 mm artillery shells, if shortened by omitting the non-essential conical ogive and fuze would fit diagonally in the package that Lebed describes, and the Swift device would fit easily. If the yield is as much as 10 kilotons, then the device would have to be fusion boosted.

A somewhat more sophisticated variation would extend the linear implosion concept to cylindrical implosion, in this case an oblate (squashed) spheroid, roughly discus-shaped, of plutonium would be embedded in a cylinder of high explosive which is initiated simultaneously around its perimeter. The cylindrically converging detonation would compress and deform the fissile mass into a sphere, that could be wider than the original thickness of the system. This type of design would make the flattest possible bomb design, perhaps as little as 5 cm. The only obvious application for such a device would be briefcase bomb, and would require a special development effort to create it.

See Section 4.2 of the Nuclear Weapons FAQ for more details.

Source of weapon and test details The Swords of Armageddon, by Chuck Hansen, Chuckelea Publishing, 1995.


Where Have All The Suitcase Nukes Gone?


October 24, 2008: Despite the low risk of terrorists using nuclear weapons, there is still a great fear of this kind of attack taking place. One opinion survey found that 40 percent of Americans believed that terrorists would use nuclear weapons in an attack in the next five years. This is unlikely for several reasons.

First, there is the myth of the “suitcase nuke,” a nuclear weapon that could be carried by a man in a container similar to a large suitcase. Such weapons don’t exist, at least not to any extent that terrorists could get their hands on one. To this day, for example, the media continues to chatter on about Russian suitcase nukes. This is a myth. The Soviet Union did have hundreds of portable nuclear weapons for use by engineers and commandoes. These weapons would be of great interest to terrorists. But the reality was that, like similar American weapons, these “atomic demolition munitions” had yields under a kiloton. But the weapons were the size of footlockers, not suitcases. The idea of their being suitcase size came from a mistranslation of comments made before the U.S. Congress by Russian General Lebed. The Russians were adamant that their footlocker nukes were securely stored, heavily guarded and supervised by officials who are selected for their immunity to bribes by terrorists looking for nuclear weapons. This is nothing new for Russia. During the Soviet period, nuclear weapons were guarded by a special department of the KGB (secret police), who proved to be highly effective. That approach continued, with similar success, after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

The more likely, or theoretically possible, suitcase nuke was one based on the nuclear warheads in 155mm shells. These nuclear devices weighed less than fifty pounds and were small (less than six inches in diameter and less than a foot long). But these weapons have been withdrawn from service and the nuclear component disassembled, with most of the parts destroyed.

A more likely nuclear weapon for terrorists is the “dirty bomb” (high explosives coated with radioactive material). Not because they would kill more people than chemical or biological weapons, but because anything associated with the word, “radioactive” is more terrifying to people. Terrorists are more interested in scaring you than killing you. The problem with dirty bombs is that they are more myth than reality.

What makes dirty bombs particularly troublesome is that radioactivity, like fire, is something we deal with on a daily basis. For example, there is a US government standard of 5,000 mrem (a measurement of radiation) a year for those working with nuclear material. People cleaning up after a dirty bomb would be monitored (usually via a measuring device carried by each person), and once they hit 5,000 mrem (for the last year), they could not work in a highly radioactive area until the next year began. Actually, the workers would also have do limit how many mrem they were exposed to in an hour or day, for it is now known that radiation is much less harmful if exposure is spread out, rather than absorbed in a short period.

The whole concept of how much radiation people acquire naturally is still not fully understood. As more people are monitored over a longer time, the picture is becoming more clear. Two trends are apparent; people get more natural and lifestyle radiation than was previously thought, and the amount of radiation needed to cause cancer or other health problems appears to depend more on how much radiation is received in a short period of time.

For a long time, it was thought that the average annual radiation exposure in the U.S. was about 160 mrem per person. Then we came to know more about radon (a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is present everywhere, but in very dense concentrations in some areas.) This, and greater amounts of lifestyle radiation, has increased the average to about 360 mrem a year. This is considered way below the level at which damage is done.

A lot of mrem in a short time will kill you. When the Russian Chernobyl nuclear power plant had a fire and explosion in 1986, 134 firefighters and plant workers got from 70,000 to 1,340,000 mrem in 7-10 days. Of these, 28 soon died from radiation sickness and the rest are expected to have shorter life spans as a result. Hundreds of thousands of people got doses of several thousand mrem over a longer period, causing the cancer rate to increase ten times, especially among those who were young children in 1986. Chernobyl was the first time since 1945 (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that there large numbers of people exposed to a wide range of radiation doses. Unlike 1945, there was more, and better, radiation measuring equipment in 1986. Much more was known about radiation, and the Chernobyl radiation victims are being carefully monitored (if not adequately treated) over the years. This is important, as some of the studies of Japanese radiation victims were perplexing. For example, overall, radiation victims seem to be living longer than those not exposed to radiation. This may be because radiation victims got better media care right after the war, or for other, as yet not understood, reasons.

Lifestyle radiation has become a major source of exposure. This is the radiation that we can avoid. Much we cannot, like the 30 mrem a year we get from the sun, or the 40 mrem a year we get from what we eat and drink. Another 25 mrem or so come from building materials, particularly stone. But if you choose to live inside a stone building, add another 50 mrem a year. Want, or have to, fly 100,000 miles a year? That’s another 67 mrem. A chest x-ray is about 5 mrem. Other types of x-rays or medical tests using radioactive material can give you hundreds of mrem (or more) a year. When these levels get that high, the doctors are supposed to take the higher radiation levels into account. If the tests are a matter of life and death, then the decision is clear. But at other times, it’s more of a life style decision. Some parts of the country have a lot more radon gas coming out of the earth, and if you don’t ventilate your basement continuously, the radon gas will build up and you will pick up hundreds (or even thousands) of additional mrem each year.

Which brings us back to dirty bombs. The easiest to steal radioactive material is the low level stuff found in hospitals, labs, universities and factories (that use nuclear material as part of their manufacturing process.) The heavy duty stuff (plutonium and uranium) is much more heavily guarded. It’s much more likely that low level material would be used and it would be vaporized by an explosion and spread over a wide area if there was enough wind blowing. The material would also disperse as it spread from the spot where the bomb went off. Thus hundreds, or thousands, of acres might be contaminated.

The media won’t zero in on the degree of contamination, because headlines screaming “Downtown is a Radioactive Wasteland” are too tempting (and lucrative). There won’t be much of a wasteland, as the “hottest” area might be generating 50 mrem an hour, while at the fringes of the hot zone, it’s one mrem an hour or less. Now you don’t want to live in an area that is giving you an extra one mrem an hour. Even if you just work there, that’s an extra 2,000 or so mrem a year. You have to clean the place up. But a lot of that can be done with high pressure water (which flushes the radioactive material into the sewer system, or catch basins, depending on what the stuff is). Where the terrorists win big time is when the public health people have a hard time convincing a terrified public that an additional .001 mrem an hour is “acceptable” (it is, but not if you got a real bad case of radiation phobia.)

The U.S. and Russian government have gotten together and actually tested dirty bombs (apparently in some remote part of Russia). The idea was to get a better idea about just what kind of radiation could be spread using various types of radioactive material and what cleanup methods work best. The results have been classified (lest the terrorists obtain useful information), but the rumors are that there were no surprising discoveries.

However, to deal with public fears over dirty bombs, there is a case to be made about being more forthright in explaining exactly what they are, what they can do and how the cleanup will proceed. Waiting until a dirty bomb goes off to share this information just gives the terrorists another advantage. Terrorist love ignorant and uninformed victims. Makes it much easier to terrorize them. And that’s what terrorists do.