Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Mistakes, Incompetence, and Coverup Beyond Fevered Imaginings

Michael Froomkin has a long post on the 350 tons of stolen high explosives, which I’m excerpting at length:

If all that matters is our safety and security, then today’s news makes it clear beyond peradventure that the Bush administration is horribly dangerous to our national security.

Josh Marshall’s blog today runs an extensive quote from the Nelson Report regarding a staggering disaster which occurred in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq: someone stole 350 tons of RDX and HDX, highly specialized explosives. These materials are so powerful that only a few pounds suffices for a roadside bomb; do the math (2000 lbs to the ton) and that means the ‘insurgents’ in Iraq have got enough bomb power to carry them on basically forever.

But that’s not the really bad news.

The really bad news is that these specialized explosives are what countries use to make nuclear bombs. It’s well known that there are three basic obstacles to making a small nuclear weapon: getting the fissionable material, getting the specialized explosives needed to implode it in order to compress the fissionable material to criticality, and calculating the right amount of explosives to use. The number of people who know how to solve the last problem is increasingly large, and it’s increasingly easy to work it out from published material. Getting the fissionable material still takes some apparatus…unless you are a rogue state or unless those guys in the former Soviet Union are really selling fissionable materials on the black market like the rumors say.

Perhaps you are thinking that it’s wrong to blame the Bush administration for letting 350 tons of material vanish in the fog of war. Yes, that’s a lot of stuff, but Iraq is a big place, and perhaps you think we can’t expect them to keep track of everything. But this wasn’t a secret stash: it was under IAEA seal, they would or should have known about it, and one would expect any competent planner to make securing it a priority. But they didn’t.

And that’s not all. What was the administration’s reaction to this debacle? It only gets worse. Having loosed this enormous stash of high explosive on the world, this enormous enabler of WMD-fueled terrorism, what did the administration do? It covered up. It didn’t even report the problem to the International Atomic Energy Association. And it pressured the Iraqi authorities to keep quiet, forestalling any disclosure by them until very recently, which means presumably that other countries were not on notice about this new threat any more than the American voter (unless, of course, word was slipped to our allies, but kept from the American voter).

(Before I go into the engineering of nuclear devices, let me say that I haven’t even read everything that’s publicly available. But I have read a lot.)
My understanding is that having RDX or HDX is nice if you want to make a nuclear device. Its not essential. What the “specialized” gets you is:

  1. High speed of explosion, that is, the gas and shock that are created by the explosion move very quickly.
  2. High reliability, so that your batch effects are smaller, and your explosive force is consistent.

(There’s also stability, so you only get explosions when you want them, but most modern explosives feature that.)

None of these are key to making a bomb that will go off. They’re key to making a bomb that will go off with predictable effects and efficiency. Efficiency is a nice to have. If you have enough plutonium or uranium to go critical, then you don’t really need HDX to compress it.

For more on this, John McPhee’s Curve Of Binding Energy is excellent, and scary, reading.