New Cold War, Not!

CNN. Addresing the U.N., Russian PM Medvedev equates relations with West to a ‘new Cold War’.

A few days later, (Reuters) Lucian Kim accuses the West of Munich-like behavior, where “Munich” is a synonym for capitulation.

The authors share a common assumption, the continued existence of a Bloc World. In the post World-War II era, this was most certainly true. The two world-spanning blocs have as 19th century antecedents the balance of power struggles of the continent. It can certainly be seen in the strategies of Cardinal Richilieu, the practitioner of raison d’État. But he was not the originator; the honor probably belongs to Niccolò Machiavelli, author of the infamous treatise, The Prince. Before him, more primitively, the world belonged to men with strong arms who accrued more strong arms the way we do oil patches. But while the alliances of balance of power were exercises in geography and manpower, the bloc abstraction was a 20th Century innovation. What of the British Empire? Let’s leave it to the academicians. There is also some resemblance in the vassal states of China. But there was no opposition.

The blocs had common characteristics. Each had a preeminent state, with some advantage over the lesser members. In the U.S. there were advantages of technology, human development, economies of scale, and the ability of the world’s largest economy to mint a stable currency. In the wake of World War II, the Soviets acquired the technical and intellectual remnants of countries that had been more advanced than itself. Combined with economies of scale, and backed by military might to deter doubters, the Soviets were able to pose as credible bloc leaders until the stagnation of the Brezhnev era.

The ultimate glue of these blocs was not very different from the religious variety. In the religious case, there is the desire to preserve the flock from conversion by a competing religion. This was the nature of the struggle between communism, which claimed to change the very nature of man, and the Free World, which still and probably always will have very real devils to fight. Besides free versus not-free, there was opposition on every level of organization. For example, it is not obvious that communal economics should be twinned with totalitarianism, but it was. In the world of today, there are so many mixtures of systems, it’s like an old fashioned gas pump where you could dial the octane. Who could have imagined a free-wheeling Chinese economy layered beneath an opaque ruling class? Or a Russian economy with constant intervention by hidden hands, beneath a not-so-opaque inner circle of personalities we know? Or an Iranian labyrinth that defies the specialists because the currency of power is not what we know?

The bloc structure was driven by quasi-religious fear, but it was permitted by economic conditions. In the West, the economies of smaller bloc members had been destroyed or severely damaged by war and loss of colonial possessions. The economies of the Eastern Bloc were destroyed by deliberate dismemberment. This resulted in a trade structure that had some resemblance to the triangular trade of British colonial mercantilism. But instead of raw versus finished goods, the dichotomy was one of economies of scale. Europe’s products in both blocs were highly finished goods that did not require great manufacturing scale.

In 1989, the Eastern Bloc began to fall apart big time. In 2000, Airbus surpassed Boeing for the first time. These arbitrary samples highlight that, coincidental or not, the vanishing of fear of the Soviet Bloc and vanishing of the U.S. economies of scale were contemporaneous. Can a bloc-world structure exist without the simultaneous occurrence of both ideological/political struggle and economic viability? Consider:

  • The triangular trade still exists between China and Southeast Asia. For instance, China is the largest trading partner of Vietnam, but relations are antagonistic.
  • Relations between the Western nations are harmonious. Yet these countries are cutthroat economic competitors simultaneously bridged by multinationals. A very mixed picture! The U.S. was angered when Britain leaped to join the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.) With respect to China, the word “frenemy” is in vogue. Yet the decision to join was made in spite of the historical “special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. This is not bloc-type behavior.
  • The future viability of the Trans-Pacific Partnership , as an unanswered question, could support a yes or a no. If China’s policy in the South China Sea becomes a serious challenge to the local members, the members could develop bloc-like characteristics crystalized by “Pivot to Asia. But that presupposes that China’s future policy will be unintelligent. This is too big to suppose, so the TPP will probably just muddle along.
  • The Russian construction of the Eurasian Economic Union, and the partly overlapping CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) uniquely lacks a competitor. The poor countries of central Asia are largely dependent on repatriations by migrants working in Russia. Their economies are too small and isolated not to advantage themselves of Russia. It may be a bloc, but the landlocked geography of the smaller states is a special condition, and it is not politically unified.

Lucian Kim’s article does not state, but implies, that we are in a new cold war with Russia. Whether the Russian elite believes this or not, Putin markets it domestically. Quoting The Guardian,Vladimir Putin has accused the west of trying to contain and subvert Russia “for decades, if not centuries”, in a fierce and uncompromising attack during his state of the nation speech. Highlighting the dichotomy between domestic and foreign propaganda, P.M. Medvedev tried to unwind it. But the result of all this verbiage, and actions, such as in Ukraine, is that both sides are positing the question of a cold war.

The last time there was a cold war, the West was faced by an adversary with Soviet ground forces so massive that, at least when tallied as orders of battle on paper, have not been seen since. This time is different. The Russia of today, composed of a people so remarkably similar that we see them in the mirror, has no such advantage. In compensation, the Russia of foreign policy is a combination of the cat that ate the canary, and the master of intimidation. Perhaps the Russian invasion of Georgia, which may have actually been justified, was the seed of this latter idea. In the case of the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine, it has backfired badly.

All labels carry baggage. The Cold War label carries this: We are in conflict with a powerful, implacable enemy. But it’s not true. The canary is Syria, and the cat is going to have serious indigestion.

To be continued.

Iraq, Iridium-192, and Dirty Bombs

gouache marigolds_cReuters: Radioactive material stolen in Iraq raises security fears. The article states that 10 grams of iridium-192 are missing. According to Isoflex, a supplier of iridium-192 to industry,  each gram of fresh iridium-192 has a radioactivity of 550-600 Curies.

(Because this is an exceptionally dismal subject, I’ve included a sketch of marigolds done in gouache as a mood antidote. Click on the marigolds whenever you feel you need relief.)

Some readers may be interested in what the open-source perspective can provide to estimate the consequences of a dirty bomb explosion in Iraq. It is feasible to present a meaningful calculation in “back-of-the-envelope” fashion for contemplation or use by someone who  has had a freshman year of engineering, science,  or perhaps finance. Should other threats be reported in the future, that reader  could use the discussion for enhanced understanding. So it’s worth doing.

Since it’s topical now, let’s get to the results. The missing iridium is part of a gamma camera, a device for checking oil pipeline welds. If Isoflex is the supplier, the camera contains ten disks of 1 gram each. Since the theft or loss was sometime in 2015, and the threatened usage some time in the future, let’s assume one half-life of Iridium-192, which is 73.83 days, elapses before use, so that 3000 Curies is available at the time of use.

There has been an enormous amount of research on explosive dispersal of radioactive substances. We don’t need it to get a decent idea of the outcome.  The vaporized iridium would quickly oxidize or bind with other substances comprising dust particles. Let’s assume that half of it comes down within a 100 meter radius of the explosion.  Let’s assume that it is uniformly distributed within that circle, and what escapes the circle does not concern us.  If this seems crude, the actual scenario is not known, even to specialists,  unless it happens.

The actual scenario would be characterized by plumes, vortices, and winds. As I write this, the wind speed in Baghdad is 6 miles per hour, which implies that the actual dispersal pattern cannot be circular. But because the  decay of radioactivity is exponential, the numbers that result are less influenced by environmental variables than naive intuition might suggest.

The terrorists might choose to include the entire 10 gram load in one dirty bomb explosion. Or they might use each of the ten 1 gram disks in separate explosions. Let’s consider both possibilities. After the dust settles, perhaps the next day, what dosage will a person receive who visits the 100 meter circle? The back of the envelope calculation indicates that:

  • If 1 gram is used in the explosion, a person who lingers in the 100 meter circle for an hour will receive a dosage of about 63 millisieverts. This is equivalent to two high-dosage whole-body CAT scans. It’s not a good habit to get into, but health effects are slight.
  • If 10 grams was used, the  pedestrian who lingers an hour receives about 630 millisieverts. If the person lingers much longer, his dosage moves into the range of mild radiation sickness. There may be mild illness and increased risk of cancer, but death or even life-changing consequences are unlikely.

Mosque bombings in Iraq kill a lot of people. If the event of a dirty bomb actually occurs, the conventional explosives will do most of the damage. But what about decades of barren land, forced evacuation,  mini-Chernobyls?

If a radioisotope can be said to be kind, Iridium-192 is kind. Normal earth background radiation is about 3 millisieverts per year. In many areas, it is much higher. You can have a normal life, with normal health and healthy kids if the background radiation is 6 millisieverts per year.

  • If 1 gram of iridium is used in the dirty bomb, it takes 3.5 years for the radiation level within the 100 meter circle to reach that level.
  • If the full load of the gamma camera, 10 grams, is used in the bomb, it takes 4.2 years to reach twice background.

Unlike many other kinds of nuclear accidents, a dirty bomb that employs iridium-192 would not cause massive, long term defacement of the environment. But neither should we be complacent. Much worse things lurk,  things of nightmares.

North Korea’s Plutonium, Iran’s Uranium / Suitcase Nukes

Since it is anticipated that North Korea will restart a reactor for plutonium production, this is an executive summary, a mere capsule, for those who may wish to understand a little of the difference in the title.  As with the explanation of Teller-Ulam, there are huge omissions. But rather than be accurate, let’s aim for digestible.

The scope of what follows is specific to the current endeavors of North Korea to deploy, and the presumably halted endeavor of Iran, to  build, the A-bomb.


  • Bomb-grade plutonium is ” relatively easy” to make. In a relatively simple nuclear reactor, not very different from the first one constructed by Enrico Fermi, it shows up as a decay product. To obtain the plutonium, it is “only necessary” to remove fuel from the reactor and chemically isolate it.
  • Bomb-grade uranium is very difficult to make. It is one of the most abundant elements in the earth’s crust, but there is no way to chemically isolate it. Hence Iran’s thousands of centrifuges.

Ease of use

  • Plutonium is hard.
  • Uranium is easy.

Plutonium is a horror in the machine shop. It has six  forms (allotropes) which it seems to pick at random, each with different densities. Expanding and contracting under the slightest provocation, it is very crumbly.  It also corrodes in common gases that do not affect other metals. When exposed to damp air, it flakes off, and the flakes spontaneously combust in air. This is not something you should store in your closet. In a nuclear weapon, the metal with all the  crumbles is in close proximity to high explosives.

Plutonium requires implosion. If a hunk of the metal, called a  “pit”, is squashed in just the right manner, which is very complicated and difficult to achieve, there is fission, and, BOOM! Otherwise, it fizzles.  The explosives used to implode the pit require precise combinations, shaping, and uniformity.

Uranium is relatively easy to use.  A warhead can have a gun barrel aimed at a hunk of uranium. The “bullet” is another hunk of uranium. When fired, the two hunks assemble a critical mass and, BOOM! This method cannot be used with plutonium. Uranium is not terribly stable, with changes called “phases”, but they  are much more moderate than the allotropes of plutonium.

Advantages of plutonium

  • Plutonium is the high performance option.
  • Both metals are very heavy, but less plutonium is required than uranium. An enhancement called boosting, which uses tritium gas, greatly increases performance while reducing weight, but limits storage lifetime to a few years.
  • Plutonium is much cheaper to make.

Advantages of uranium

  • It holds shape at any reasonable temperature.
  • The gun-type weapon is low-tech.
  • Since it can also be used for implosion, it is the flexible choice for the aspiring superpower.
  • A low-tech uranium  gun-type bomb made by an aspiring nuclear power is likely to remain functional for a longer period than a plutonium device. An article published by Los Alamos National Labs is not directly related, but gives a general idea of the problems.

If for some reason  the shape of the warhead is important, it is not difficult to build a uranium gun barrel weapon of very narrow diameter, resulting in a skinnier weapon than a typical plutonium design.   But plutonium bombs using “linear implosion” can fit  inside a 155mm artillery shell. Photo of a full scale model shell. Even narrower plutonium bombs are postulated, but would be entirely new designs.

If this has held your interest so far, you may be curious as to which technology has the greater chance of use by non-state actors. In At The Center of the Storm – My years at the CIA, George Tenet wrote,

“We have learned that it is not beyond the realm of possibility for a terrorist group to obtain a nuclear weapon. I have often wondered why this is such a hard reality for so many people to accept.”

Tenet was specifically concerned with the Russian “suitcase nukes”,  approximations of which have been made by both sides.  See Alexander Yablokov’s PBS Frontline interview. They are likely too bulky to fit in suitcases, but portable in bulky backpacks, which has caused some to discount Yablokov. Since weight, not bulk, was the determining factor in the designs, it follows that all of them were plutonium weapons boosted with tritium, which has decayed.

The denials of risk by Russian officials, who assert that all of the suitcase nukes are accounted for, are unconvincing. The Russia of the Yeltsin period was the Wild, Wild West. There is even an anecdote of one Russian whose debt was paid by a hydrogen bomb, a big thing delivered on a truck, which he kept in his garage for a few days. It was subsequently reclaimed. Have you ever been tempted to lie if your dog pooped on someone’s lawn? This is bigger.

But current threat assessments have gravitated to crude unminiaturized gun-type weapons, the main requirement of which is stolen bomb grade uranium and a white van for the delivery vehicle. These opinions are likely based on the decay of the tritium in the Russian nukes.

Each type of bomb has an argument against it:

  • Uranium is traceable to the producer,  so it isn’t likely to be sold by a country that understands they could be blamed.
  • The Russian suitcase nukes have aged to the point that they don’t work anymore. They need to be taken to a garage shop for  replenishment of tritium, battery replacement, checkout of the explosive lenses, and adaptation to suicide operation.

The decay of tritium calms the nerves much more than moral arguments along the lines of “who would do this?” Until recently, it was impossible to conceive of a state with morals so demented, it might miscalculate. North Korea doubtless understand that their plutonium is traceable. But tritium is not, and they are making it.

In answer to Tenet’s question, we shield ourselves from the unthinkable with the assumption that the adversary has a moral standard. During the Cold War, this was true. Current events suggest otherwise.