Worldwide Threat Assessment U.S. Intelligence Community, Part 1

Download here: Statement for the Record, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.

This standard of quality of the Assessment restricts to categorical fact, as opposed to the “lesser truths” which necessarily occupy a great deal of intelligence work. It contains nothing that could be challenged by open source. On the other hand, the authors of the Assesssment do not engage in policy prescription, or meta analysis of the kind that asks, “What does it all mean?”, or “What can we do?”

The Assessment contains 18 major sections, each of which would occupy a group empowered to devise and implement policies. There has been very little innovative thinking on the public level on responses to these threats. In consequence, the responses come from playbooks. The most obvious example is in the government approach to economics. The menu of our twisted variety of Keynesian economics is:

  • Varying interest rates and reserve requirements.
  • Buying and selling financial instruments.
  • Discretionary spending.
  • Tax credits.
  • Tax rates.
  • Tariffs.

This has become the accepted universe of options, so much so that no politician finds it necessary to go beyond them. Similar comfort zones and restricted menus characterize every aspect of government, which is why, until recently, many voters tuned out of politics.

In 1942, Winston Churchill said, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Despite his brilliance, and the anticipation, it happened anyway. Britain had her comfort zones, but fate made them meaningless. Can we escape the analogy, the disintegration of Pax Americana?

When painting a picture, an artist is taught to begin with a broad brush; the details follow. We have an adversarial relationship with a state of 1.4 billion people, and another with a shrinking, blighted population of 147 million, which in many categories contains  a large proportion of world strategic resources. In our corner, we have 327 million people,  significant land area, and possibly unequaled petroleum resources, but vulnerable to desertification caused by global warming.

Our adversaries have a combined population roughly 4.74 times ours. This gives them a potential advantage of 4.74 times the number of very intelligent people. In our corner, we have something called “American technology”, which has somehow become divorced from the brains that create it. As the Statement remarks, China already leads in non-medical paper citations. This is the most ominous note of the Assessment.

We  have a national myth, which is not valueless. A myth can to some extent be self-fulfilling, but only if we don’t rely on it. Only the inspiration and action that derive from the myth have value. A myth that takes on a meaning separate from thoughtful debate and innovation is a sign of retrogression.

One obvious implication, which tempts us to look away, is that the report presages a drastic decline of the U.S. position in the world. Watching the traffic indicators for this blog, this is not a popular theme, particularly when the alternative is so ugly. Twenty years ago, we hoped that China would incorporate at least some elements of liberal democracy. With the advent of Xi Jinping, these hopes have been dashed. China has adopted, with apparent finality, a social system inimical to our concept of the basic rights of man.

Although China provides its citizens an ugly travesty of human rights, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the Chinese system is or will be  more efficient at realizing human potential and industrial efficiency. Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History ( 1961, Harcourt, Brace), was (Wikipedia) an American historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology. His remarks on page 170 are relevant to us, as they were to  Sibyl Moholy-Nagy in her own classic work, Matrix of Man.

As a political unit, the city, dating back to Ur, Jericho, and perhaps beyond,  precedes the nation by millennia. One city in particular, Athens in the time of Pericles and Socrates, circa 500-400 B.C., concerns us here. It was the first democratic polity for which we have a complete record of birth, golden age of Pericles, and decent into misery and insignificance.

Mumford describes the Athenian illusion that all problems of the city, and governance, were people-oriented; that functional issues, natural resources, the entire intersection of human existence with the physical world, simply did not exist. In our age, a similar issue has been described as “dividing-up-the-pie versus making new wealth”, but these are childish words. Quoting Mumford (braces, boldface mine),

“… the limitations of the worship of the polis [population at large] became patent, just at the point where they should have disappeared, in response to criticism. For exclusive preoccupation with the polis further widened the distance between the understanding of the natural world and the control of human affairs. …Socrates declares that the stars, the stones, the trees could teach him nothing: he could learn what he sought only from the behavior of “men in the city.” That was a cockney illusion… Babylonian superstition was closer to the truth in its erroneous association of the planets’ movements and human events than was Greek rationalism in its progressive dissociation of man and nature, polis and cosmos.”

This is the Athenian Illusion. 2400 years later, the current illusion is that the world is politics, while politics is actually a small part of the world. Athens gives us part of the story; the rest comes from Rome.

In summary of the greater problem,

  • The Worldwide Threat Assessment presents overwhelming challenges to the current  intellectual resources of our government.
  • Increasing   restrictions on material  resources, such as manpower and money, demand innovation.
  • The Athenian Illusion prevails, severely hampering innovative thought in government.

To resist the tides of history, nothing can be sacred. Which of our ideas should be reconsidered? What do we value most, and what is dispensable?

To be continued shortly.





Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community; forthcoming

An article on this is forthcoming. The report itself is of the highest quality, which makes writing an article a matter of meta-analysis. This is taking a little time.

A general observation: The analytical apparatus of the intelligence community is as strong as ever. But since a high during World War II, and approached during the Vietnam War, there has been a shrinkage  of the “brain trust” available to the executive branch. The report contains 18 major sections, each of which would occupy a group empowered to devise and implement policies.

These intellectual resources do not exist in the required strength and institutional mode.

(CNN) Ballistic missile can hit moving ships, China says, but experts remain skeptical

(CNN) Ballistic missile can hit moving ships, China says, but experts remain skeptical.  An earlier article, “China’s reaction to US Navy operation: We have missiles, quotes Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center:

“Remember, the Soviet Union never successfully developed an ASBM (anti-ship ballistic missile) and no country in the West has one,” Schuster said.”

The simplest reason of several is geometric. The aim of a cruise missile, which flies at low altitude towards the target, is principally a matter of azimuth angle, which you could think of as a direction. The DB-26 missile flies high and approaches the target in a steep dive. This means that as it dives, it must use its fins to control two angles, the “direction”, and the steepness of the dive. (This description is  for the nonspecialist reader.)  It is much harder for the DF-26 to land on target than for a cruise missile to do the same.

And with the missile coming from the far west desert of Xinjiang, it’s a challenge to tell the missile where the target is, requiring a distributed system architecture. The software is hideously complex.

But casting this as a weapons match up is wrong.  With effort to muster force, which might take some time to arrange, and be visible to intelligence assets,  China has a good chance to sink ships on similar missions. They have at least three options:

The reason China doesn’t do it is that it would scare all the money out of China. Hence caution, while they debate the proper moment. For the oldest  civilization, there’s plenty of time.

For us, it’s important to understand the game.




Japan – South Korea Military Spat

(CNN) Why a military spat between Japan and South Korea could snowball into crisis.  This is a good article,  omitting only what should be common knowledge: Japan invaded Korea in 1910,  occupied, colonized, and predated it  until 1945. Japan’s enormous explosion of potential energy resulted from the Meji Restoration of 1867, projected into the 20th century. It combined with a complete lack of regard for the rest of Asia, except as grounds for exploitation.

When Douglas MacArthur reconstituted Japan along the lines of Western democracy, he left at least two institutions in place:

  • The emperor, Hirohito, privately unrepentant, continued as a figurehead. Stripped of his divinity, enough of the institution was retained to give the Japanese the comfort of cultural continuity, with the privacy of  thought to believe in the old way. See (Long Reads) How the Emperor Became Human and MacArthur Became Divine.
  • The criminal justice system, with a penal code established in 1907, was left untouched. This accounts for the strange tales of Westerners incarcerated in Japan, a stark, harsh existence with occasional torture. While in the best  Western prisons, a basis  of shared humanity governs the interaction of guards and prisoners, this is not so in Japan, where the guard is the master and the prisoner the slave.

This much is known; it implies other areas left untouched and unnamed. In Germany, the Nazi political structures were razed and salted.  In Japan, the existing structure was co-opted, with a whisk-broom cleaning.  Was this because the scope of Japan’s war crimes, in areas that came under Western control, were less than those of Germany? Was it because, as close cultural relatives, you could look a German in the face and get the gist of a soul, while the Japanese remained inscrutable? Or was it because the alien Japanese culture required MacArthur’s use of intermediaries?

MacArthur may not known himself, since total absorption in the task robs the self of perspective. But it is accepted in the West that Germany completed her apology, and became a moral paragon.  With Japan, it’s less clear, and less vital to us. We think the visits of Japanese politicians to Shinto war shrines as a little strange, but we have no emotional involvement. We keep hoping  it will pass, but it doesn’t, because of a misplaced Japanese  reverence for a warlike past.

An all-American example is close at hand, Confederate monuments, precisely analogous to the Shinto war shrines, celebrated by losers and hurtful to the victims. But what makes one country capable of the apology that vaulted Germany into the highest moral echelon, while Japan apparently cannot?

While Nazism promulgated the superiority of Germans, it sat on top of a tradition of cultural exchange and respect that goes back at least 500 years. Hitler decreed that every German soldier would have two weeks in Paris. Apart from their abhorrence of modern art, the Nazis looted Europe of artwork,  a back handed compliment to the nations looted. By the time of the Renaissance, multilingual Europeans were reading each other’s books. Europe became culturally transnational centuries before the idea of political integration.

So only five years after VE Day, Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister, proposed the European Steel and Coal Community, the ancestor of the Common Market, which was followed by the EU. Quoting Wikipedia,

The ECSC was first proposed by French foreign minister Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950 as a way to prevent further war between France and Germany. He declared his aim was to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”

73 years after VJ Day, Japan and Korea can’t do what the Europeans did in 5.  The reason is cultural. While the Asians share cultural heritage in distant forking paths, the national myths do not permit this admission. What they share instead is a kind of racism-among-equals. While racism in the West is visible in social stratification, the Eastern form is xenophobic national identity.

In Pivot To Asia, Cultural Aspects, Part 2, I wrote,

Complaints! Every member of ASEAN bordering on this sea disputes economic zones, atolls, and islets with the others. There is not a shred of cooperation against their common adversary, which happens to be their largest trading partner. A few years ago, some pundits averred that the Asian tradition of consensus prior to agreement might not be correctly understood by western diplomats. But the disputants may not understand it themselves. Sometimes a charade shrouds a meaningful process, and sometimes, a charade is just a charade. Part of this charade are claims against Japan by the Republic of China, a country that occupies the island of Formosa, the whole of which is claimed by The People’s Republic of China. It’s a very convoluted charade!

So far I’ve written 802 words. Words equate with time. This begins to sound like a trial delayed forever by motion practice. The East Asian countries are stuck in a loop. In a counterfactual history, if  China did not exist, East Asia would be at war.  Unthinkable? Remember the UK-Iceland Cod Wars. 

The effect of disunity on the U.S. attempt to pivot to Asia is profound. All of the fixtures of a policy can be in place, yet without the magic sauce of regional cohesion, a policy becomes a place holder instead of a functional achievement.

The evolution of this situation is beyond the influence of statecraft. Japan has a desperately low birth rate, 1.44; South Korea’s is 0.96. In the long term, immigration, perhaps from the Philippines, encouraged by demographic desperation, may result in dilution of the grudges. A misstep by China could catalyze, but note,  there have thus far been none. The statesman can only watch, wait, and work around the margins.




Meet Our Staff

Some guy in Moscow has been trying the “/?author=number” hack, apparently convinced that this blog cannot be the work of one person. According to this nose-to-the-grindstone concept, people can know only about a couple things. So there must be 200 contributors to this blog.

Our message to Moscow is this staff photograph. Specialists in Moscow will doubtless pour over the photo, attempting to correlate with known figures who might be induced, for love or money, to hand over  the keys to the vault that is

Nothing doing! I can vouch for the fidelity of all the above individuals. And if I were to ever detect the slightest deviation from the line, I would remove the person from the photo, and make him an unperson. I’d even revise the Great Soviet Encyclopedia if given the chance.

My attestations will doubtless fuel the rumors that is  front for the Illuminati. Hidden within the bowels of intel9 is the list of members, whose influence touches the highest echelons of power. What a coup for Russian intelligence to verify what was faintly hinted at in The Illuminatus! Trilogy!” But they would find we guard our secrets fiercely. All our deliberations are recorded on two-ply toilet tissue of the softest variety. For really important documents of record, we use pizza napkins. At the slightest sign from our dog Cerberus that our lair has been violated, the buffers are flushed.

Some readers will not be able to resolve the contradictions of the above. This is intentional. But less than a century ago, persons of our plurality were understood. They were said to have renaissance minds, because they broke through the balkanization of knowledge that again infects modern civilization.

To reveal all  of the secrets of intel9 would be like leaking the solution to the Times crossword.. But we do have a secret. We are a fairly homogeneous bunch, but there is one gentleman, actually a retired British major general, who seems to know all about everything, although some consider him weak on strategy. I’ll let him speak for himself:

Interview with British Major General.

We enliven any party, though we tend to scarf up the hors d’oeuvre.


Revolution in Venezuela, Redux

I wrote about this in August 2017, in Revolution in Venezuela. There have been previous signals, but none strong enough to counter the structural defect that has impeded revolution in Venezuela. The Caracas drone attack on Maduro was heralded as a serious challenge, yet no challenge to his power emerged. Between 1932 and 1944,  there were 22 plots to assassinate Hitler, yet no equivalent challenge to his power.

Political will to revolution can exist while frustrated of the means actualize it. This occurs when there is no large segment of society that offers refuge to revolutionaries, yet impermeable to the power structure. Revolutions have almost without exception had a strong geographic bias in support.  The French and Bolshevik revolutions were of urban origin, as was Hitler’s putsch.  In the First Indochina War, the Vietnamese refuge was rural. The  Cuban  was agrarian; the Red China revolution advantaged an agrarian base. In each case, a revolution had to subdue the other geography; urban against rural, or rural against urban.

Revolution in Venezuela cites the criteria of Davies and Brinton, already satisfied, that signal ripeness. But I wrote,

As noted, the accession of the extremists would be facilitated by rural sanctuary.  But “melting away” of the rebels into the countryside may be hindered by rural majorities of Maduro supporters. Open sources do not illuminate. This exhausts Brinton analogies. Here’s a new one, the development of the tornado.

This is about to change.  As Venezuela’s oil output drifts towards zero, the subsidy to the  rural poor will vanish. As a sanctuary most of the country will become available.

Maduro’s intellectual mediocrity is the most striking thing about him. It renders him incapable of understanding the historical analogies of his position. He may end up being thrown under the thing he used to drive.

Leading Up to the North Korea Summit II

Recent presentations in the media are useful to confirmation bias, while not actually providing new information. Let’s follow an imaginary news consumer trying to puzzle it out.

CSIS presents Undeclared North Korea: The Sino-ri Missile Operating Base and Strategic Force Facilities. Since this is new to the news, it is instinctively identified as a new threat. It is not; NRO has much finer imaging capabilities than commercial imagery used by CSIS.

Remembering Trump’s effusive praise of Kim Jong-un, our imaginary consumer  wonders if the existence of the CSIS – identified facilities is due to spin artists in the Trump administration. Do these facilities antedate North Korea’s development of nukes that can be launched on missiles?

With considerable unease, our consumer cannot make that determination. (They do.) Nevertheless, these missile sites seem to amplify the threat that North Korea presents, in a potential if not actual way.

The average news consumer probably will not jump all the way to the analogy with the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is widely criticized for loopholes that in effect allow the development of “nuclear capable missiles.” The distinction between a nuclear capable missile, and one which is not, exists only in the imagination. Hence an Iran analogy is high on the list of outcomes.

Now the consumer has a choice.  The bag of choices that makes a reader a conservative, a liberal, or the increasingly rare in-between, promotes a polar response to the idea of the impure blends of truth and  lies that most treaties are.

  • The hawkish conservative will focus on the lies, criticizing that the bases, which have been studied for years by NRO, are not part of the deal.
  • The liberal who wants to get on with the liberal agenda will ignore the parts of the deal that constitutes “lies”, and note that it isn’t cricket to suddenly demand inclusion of  the bases, which antedate N. Korean nukes that can be carried on missiles.
  • The in-betweeners are the most thoughtful group. Very intelligent defense specialists, notably former Secretary Mattis, though not a supporter of the Iran agreement, advocated against U.S. withdrawal. Theirs is the most complex calculus, in dealing with a world that cannot be made safe, only safer.

The missile bases are certainly part of the threat, as the destinations of a future deployment surge of nukes; this is discussed in North Korea Buildout; Kim Defines the Game. Quoting,

One of the above, a deployment surge, is consistent with the satellite reports. It is now reasonable to consider how a deployment surge could be used by Kim to his advantage. Some narratives:

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a school of thought that has sought to eradicate the last bastions of tyranny and bellicosity. The Middle East has been the most recent laboratory for their experiments. The site interviews a Tufts professor; Tufts University’s Sung-Yoon Lee talks diplomacy, “fake concessions,” and what the DPRK really wants.

Though he provides valuable perspective from a cultural vantage point closer than our own, Sung-Yoon Lee also ideates his fears of hegemony. Instead, let’s stay focused on the three major threats:

  • Rather than ideate the nightmare of regional hegemony by North Korea,  the unnamed policy of containment offers good promise that North Korea will remain pariah state, with no influence beyond its borders. It will remain successful provided U.S. economic ties with South Korea continue to have a preferential element.
  • The strategic threat has a choke point, tritium. See Trump – Kim Summit; Tritium Choke Point. This is far more important than “hidden” missile bases. As before, follow the tritium like you follow the money. It is far more certain than  missile defense as it currently exists, which has an unacceptable record.
  • Nuclear blackmail, discussed in North Korea & Trump’s Mental Rubicon; Smuggling Nukes?, remains a concern. As well as proliferation of warheads, North Korea is a potential source of radioactive material for dirty bombs, in forms more concentrated  than black market  sources.

Nuclear blackmail has a distinct appeal to the criminal mind, because it can be deployed in a deniable fashion. No one has to know where a cache of radioactive material is hidden,  where it came from, or the identity of the instigating actor. While other threats can be countered by counter-threat that appeals to reason of the adversary, this  logic doesn’t assure with blackmail. It might work, and it might not.

In the years after 9/11, some wondered what could deter Al Qaeda from the use of WMDs more  damaging than the 9/11 attacks.  The calculus of statecraft was helpless, because Al Qaeda is not a state, and not driven by rational goals. The threat of destruction of Mecca by nuclear weapons was considered. ISIS, apparently, has a different view; they might desire to  destroy it themselves.

Blackmail remains the dangling thread of the problem. It invites consideration of unconventional solutions. In language, both moderation and bellicosity, of carrot and stick, isolation and selective engagement, of convincing the North Korea leadership of the best path to a normal lifespan. Of other things of which we probably should not speak.










Feasibility of the Southern Border Wall?

This is not about whether a wall is desirable. That is a political question, to be solved by the political process.

Democracy is well suited to maintaining an equitable and stable social order. As questionable  as the recent record  of American government has been, democracy still has a strong association with maximum realization of human potential. But when  a construction project or anything technical  is mandated by politics, it is vulnerable to failure.  Democracy has a fundamental weakness  in dealing with technical issues.

With technical issues, the shortfall of the body politic, and elected officials, in dealing with the boundary between human affairs and the physical world is acute, and getting worse. In the case of the wall, the reasons are a mix of generalities and specifics:

  • Natural reluctance of persons of authority to admit limits of competence, or to subjugate the political will to the limits of the achievable. This is a cousin of the Peter Principle.
  • Ballooning complexity of the questions themselves. A wall used to be a pile of rocks. Not any more; all devices, including walls, are required to be smart.  Brains replace mass.
  • There are no walls, except in our imaginations, There are only barriers. Maintaining the  integrity of a barrier is a dynamic process.

Amy Patrick, eminent  licensed structural engineer, assesses the proposed wall, with (Facebook) negative conclusions. Her comments deserve the amplification of historical perspective. History would be much different if there were such a thing as an impenetrable barrier.

By the first century B.C. the Romans had perfected siege engines that could easily breach the proposed wall. In a hypothetical match up, the Great Wall of China might have withstood Caesar, because it had a road on top, and was heavily manned. The proposed wall would compare poorly in mass with the Great Wall, because we don’t have millions of slaves and generations to build it.

But the advent of gunpowder, and later, of high explosives, renders the above argument obsolete. Gunpowder made fixed fortifications obsolete. With every advance in the technology of warfare, concentration of force has become greater. In recognition of  this,  Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was not a wall-with-ramparts. It was an agglomeration of obstacles and strong points. Ramparts were obsolete by the late Middle Ages, replaced by the increasingly futile efforts to create fortresses along the principles of military science .

Any kind of wall can stop an unaided migrant. But on the other side of the border, we face rogue forces with capabilities that approach those of a modern military – submarines, planes, drones, and more. These forces have the capability to mount sapper attacks with modern  shaped charge explosives, employing the (Army Research Laboratory) Munroe Effect. These forces have enormous revenue streams,  smuggle drugs into the U.S. with about 75% efficiency, and can respond to the human-smuggling challenge of a wall with well-funded agility. Hence any wall construction which relies on a fixed concept of the adversary is in error.

If it is your inclination to discount the above, with arguments like

  • A hole can be patched.
  • One shaped charge can’t collapse the wall.
  • Attempts would be interdicted.

you may suffer from mental rigidity. It is unfortunately necessary to consider all possible combinations of threats.  What if the adversary decides to spend $5K on a rock drill and an air compressor, with a Mariachi band for company? In  the technique developed for hard rock mining, the holes thus made are filled with explosive, vastly increasing the destructive power. And compared to granite, concrete is not very hard.

What if the adversary chooses to degrade the wall over time, gradually knocking hundreds of holes in it, turning it, eventually, into a heap of gravel? This scenario challenges the idea of rushing border control officers to plug a single breach.

The concept of a wall as a static obstacle, like an ocean or mountain range, is not valid. Protection of the border becomes a problem for Operations Research, with cost/logistical/functional study of:

  • Static resistance  – the ability of the wall to resist short term intrusion.
  • Maintainability; the cost of repairing damage inflicted by the adversary.
  • Optimal trade-off between the fixed asset, the wall, and dynamic assets, human patrol and interdiction.
  • Relative cost allocation of the dumb and smart attributes: the quality of static resistance, and the ability of the wall to detect and report challenges.

A smart wall is simply an extension of battlefield technology. The modern battlefield is alive with sensors, enabling rapid, accurate response. While military use centers on lethal force, the smart wall is compatible with minimized lethality. In Israel, border barriers comprise mainly (AZ Central) steel fences, augmented by sensor fusion to provide detailed information about who is doing what to the barrier, and where.

Any damage to a steel fence, even a truck bomb, can be repaired in a few hours, versus months for a concrete wall.

And certainly in less time than a typical government shutdown.


The Dirty Bomb Equation; Predicting Radioactive Terror

A  mathematical equation provides useful input to prediction of radiological terror. This is because radioactive decay proceeds as a natural, inexorable process, affecting the ability of terrorists to amass a stockpile.

Markov chains model radioactive decay, providing precise predictions of how long a radioactive substance will remain potent, resulting in the simple equation presented here. Decay proceeds with the precision of an atomic clock, and cannot be slowed by “proper storage” or any other treatment by man. (Markov chains will also be used in a future discussion of power projection.)

Use of dirty bombs has long been anticipated, yet the threat has not so far materialized. To understand why, and to offer an insight as to when it might, we must consider the terrorist problem, which is to accumulate a stockpile prior to use. The more radioactive material can be assembled in one place, the more harmful the effect will be.

A stockpile of a radioactive isotope undergoes exponential decay, decreasing in potency by half every half-life. The half-life of a particular isotope is precisely known and unchangeable. The physical bulk of a source remains, but containing an ever-increasing proportion of inert, stable isotopes. Isotopes used in hospitals have half-lives between days and years.

  • Most radioactive substances  in hospitals are used as tracers. Injected into the body, a tracer concentrates in particular tissue, providing diagnostic information. Tracer isotopes have short half-lives, decaying rapidly, avoiding persistence of radioactivity in the patient. Tracers have little terror potential.
  • In brachytherapy, a tumor is irradiated from a source placed inside the body. These sources are more powerful and longer lasting than tracers. Cesium-137 is  used as an implant to a tumor. With a half life of 30.17 years, it must be removed from the body after treatment. The discarded implants  have terror potential. Amassing a stockpile requires collection of many discarded doses.
  • The most dangerous isotopes used by hospitals are found in external radiation machines, which direct an intense beam of radiation into the body. The standard isotope is cobalt-60,  contained within a thick lead capsule with a bore hole at one end. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.27 years.

Cesium-137 and cobalt-60 do not fit well into  the conventional definitions of low or high level waste. While a single hospital source is far less radioactive than a single spent reactor fuel rod, collected discarded sources over time can accrete to massive levels. But there is a limit, determined by the half life of the isotope.

Suppose some  individuals in Peshawar, perhaps a nuclear medicine technician or physician and an analytical chemist,  put themselves in the illicit business of collecting, assaying, and reselling radioactive sources to terrorists.  Suppose that, on the average, they manage to collect a fixed amount of a particular isotope per year, perhaps a few ounces. Every source in their stockpiles decays relative to when they acquired it. For this example, let’s consider cobalt-60.

After some years of collecting, the total radioactivity in their possession will almost plateau, as an asymptote. They more isotope they have, the more is decaying. At some year relative to start of their enterprise, the amount lost to decay is merely balanced by the amount of their annual collection. The stockpile continues to increase in bulk, becoming ever harder to concentrate for dirty bombs, yet no more radioactive.

This is the cash-out point. Some time relative to it, both the terrorist and the technicians  make a deal. We cannot predict the actual event of use  but we can estimate the cash-out point, when the stockpile reaches a point of diminishing returns. Nothing can be done to change the rate of decay.


h = half life of the isotope

t = the elapsed time from start of collection

R = rate of collecting discarded sources, in whatever unit of radioactivity you prefer

ln is the natural logarithm

Q is the  quantity of isotope in the stockpile

Q_T is the maximum amount of isotope that can be accumulated given the rate of collection R

we have

Q = [h*R/ln(2) ] * [1  – 2  (to the power of (- t/h))]

while the maximum size of the stockpile (the asymptotic value) is

Q_T = h*R/ln(2)

For cobalt-60, the point of futility, the cash-out point, when the amount collected is about 84% of Q_T, with the bulk ever increasing, is about 15.5 years. Cesium-137 can accumulate for a much longer time.

This calculation is independent of how much isotope is collected annually, assuming only the same amount each year. If the collecting started in the early 2000’s,  the time is about now.