Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Spooks and 'briefcase' nuclear weapons

Just watched the latest edition of Spooks - (a BBC TV program about MI5 officers, now in its seventh series). Initially this was a very good TV programme, showing signs of being relatively well researched, and with gripping plots. After about the third series, however, it showed an increasing lack of both originality and, more importantly, plausibility.

Take last night's episode. In it, a Russian sleeper agent from the Cold War was awakened to detonate a briefcase-sized nuclear bomb that he had been given during the fall of Communism (not mentioned on the program - this was twenty years before!). The Russians have awakened him after publicly claiming that the Americans had 'lost' two small nuclear weapons in the south of England. Their rather ridiculous aim: to get America to withdraw troops and bases from Europe. To aid this, they have sent an FSB (successor to KGB) team in to prevent MI5 from uncovering the plot.

The MI5 team have recently uncovered a mole, and she tells them of the plot. It also happens that she has the names and details of all the sleeper agents in a drop-box near London Bridge. The MI5 operatives then have to get her across London, whilst under fire by an incredulously large FSB team, who appear to be everywhere at once. In the meantime, the sleeper agent sits on a park bench outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, a briefcase securely under the bench.

-cue dramatic music-

Well, no actually. For myself and Sencan, the dramatic music might as well have been a music-hall tune, or, perhaps, Keystone Cops. Because well before this, the plot had lost any sense of realism.

So what was wrong with it?

1) As can be seen on the (far from definitive) Wikipedia entry, the American Mk-54 'Davy Crockett' nuclear is described thus:
"The bare warhead package took the form of an 11"x16" cylinder that weighed only 51 lbs (23 kg). It was, however, easily small enough to fit in a footlocker-sized container."
So? I hear the writers say, the Russians made smaller ones before the fall of Communism!
Yes, well, except, according to another Wikipedia page on enriched uranium:
"the critical mass for 85% highly enriched uranium is about 50 kilograms, which at normal density would be a sphere about 17 centimetres (6.7 in) in diameter."
So, ignoring the size (the briefcase was most certainly not 17cm wide), it would have weighed 50 Kg (and that is just for the critical material, and none of the support equipment and electronics). Then, when the bomb is being defused, it is actually mentioned as being an implosion type (where two subcritical hemispheres of nuclear material are exploded inwards, creating a critical and explosive mass). This was in a small tube within the briefcase, which she could easily pick up with one hand.

2) They even had one of the main MI5 characters watching an old fifties or sixties Public Information film about the effects of nuclear blasts - whilst the drama was unfolding. Surely he could have found something more productive to have been doing? Oh, he thought, I'm totally unaware of the effects of a nuclear blast. I'd better look at forty-year old films for information. Due to budget cuts MI5 have access to no new information!

They then circled a blast radius on a map of Central London showing the blast radius and damage. Except for the fact that a bomb the size above would have only a maximum of a 1 Kiloton yeild. That is a great deal, but to put it into perspective, the blast at Hiroshima was between 13 and 18 Kilotons and Nagasaki was 21 Kilotons. So we are taking about a small, tactical nuclear warhead, not a strategic weapon.

if you wish to see the effects of a 1-kiloton blast, enter '0.001' into the top field of the nuclear weapons effect calculator. The 'Ground Zero' page at Carlos Labs allows you to superimpose blast range over cities in Google Maps - unfortunately the smallest bomb it has is the 15kt Little Boy - far too powerful for a briefcase nuke, but even that blast rnage is far smaller than the one they circled on the map. According to the former link, a 0.001 mt (1 kt) bomb would have an air blast radius (near-total fatalities) of 280 metres, and a air blast radius (widespread destruction) of 739 metres. In a built-up city line London you would be bound to get strange effects from such a small bomb, with blast waves following city streets. Bad, but nowhere near as bad as they were making out on the programme.

3) The mere existence of 'briefcase nukes' is widely disputed. Note that this backs up the fact that the alleged RA-115s (or RA-115-01s for submersible weapons) weight between fifty and sixty pounds. Not enough to easily be carried in a briefcase.

4) Would the weapons remain viable after nearly twenty years in the possession of a sleeper agent? All nuclear weapons have a distinct shelf life, and need re-engineering. The longer they are left, the more dangerous they become - not from nuclear blast, but from detonation of the conventional explosives within. The idea that a small briefcase bomb would still be viable after such a period is, in my opinion, nonsensical. According to the link above,
"They can last for many years if wired to an electric source."
That is many, not twenty. For instance, from http://www.foi.se:
"For some non-strategic NW, such as the alleged 'suitcase weapons' mentioned by Lebedev and others, the service time interval seemed to be as short as six months according to a recent study."
5) The MI5 mole is the only person in the area who can disarm the weapon. In doing so, she detonates the conventional explosives that kills her, and in the process irradiates some tunnels under London. Would an MI5 agent really have expertise in disarming an arcane and rare foreign nuclear device?

6) The whole concept that the Russians would detonate small, tactical nuclear weapons in London for such a broad (and uncertain) strategic aim as moving all Americans out of Europe is farcical, for many reasons. Firstly, the risks are too great. If the plot were to be uncovered it would be an undeniable act of war, and Russia would face severe consequences from the international community. Secondly, it could well become obvious that it was a Russian nuclear device rather than an American one that exploded. Thirdly, such an event might actually cement US influence in Europe, as 'protection' against the Russians.
It just does not make any sense. Things never got that bad, even in the shivering depths of the Cold War.

What is really galling is that it would have been fairly easy to incorporate more accuracy without spoiling the plot. It really reeks of lack of effort and poor writing. You could easily have had a similarly dramatic story and had it accurate - had the bomb being a rucksack nuclear weapon (pushing it, but still feasible), and by having it been imported from Russia recently. instead, they mucked it up, big time. Or they could have made it a 'dirty' nuclear bomb - a weapon that would spread radioactive material over a wide area. This would certainly be feasible within the size depicted.

As an aside, ex-Congressman Curt Weldon has claimed that such weapons do exist, and he used to walk around with a mock-up of the device. There is a slight rebuttal at the Washington Post
From this:
"Weldon was known for carrying around a mock-up of a suitcase nuke made with a briefcase, foil and a pipe. But it was nowhere near the weight of an actual atomic device. "
"First, he (Majidi) defines what a Hollywood-esque suitcase nuke would look like: a case about 24 inches by 10 inches by 12 inches, weighing less than 50 pounds, that one person could carry. It would contain a device that could cause a devastating blast. "
This was not a TV show, it was a farce.

And this does matter. The BBC likes to make out that Spooks had some realism, and all they are doing by foisting such a stupid plot on the public is spreading fear. In my opinion there is nothing - absolutely nothing - to fear from Cold War vintage briefcase nukes after such a long time, if they ever existed at all.

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