by Lyle Lofgren
May, 2002 (edited 2005)

[Note: This started out as some idle e-mail correspondence. If I'd known I was ever going to publish it in any form, I might have written down the sources for my information on missing nuclear material. Without citations, you'll just have to take my word for it.]

I haven't seen the latest scary Tom Clancy movie ("The Sum of All Our Fears"), but according to the ads, there's a warhead missing. Presumably the super-able folks operating our super-secret agencies will find it, after a number of noisy encounters with the Evil Ones. I don't know why they bother making movies like that when it's a lot scarier to just look at the facts. Here's a plot for you: no one knows how many warheads are missing from the former Soviet Union, but it's somewhere between 20 (former Soviet Intelligence officer) and 2,589 (The New Yorker).

The Russian weapons are ready-to-go. The do-it-yourselfer could build from scratch, given the right materials. As of 1996, the last time the US government tallied up, Hanford in Washington couldn't account for 1,265 kg of plutonium and Rocky Flats in Colorado was missing 1,191. Savannah River, South Carolina, did best, missing only 234 kg. My recollection is hazy, based on a 1950s Life magazine article, but I think the critical mass for a plutonium bomb is less than 15 kg. That's enough for about 170 nuclear explosions.

[Note added 8/24/2005: I just read an article, "Detecting Illicit Nuclear Materials" by Richard T Kouzes, American Scientist 93, #5, Sept.-Oct. 2005, which says that only about 4 kg of plutonium are needed for a bomb, so there's enough missing material for about 670 bombs.]

Of course, as a movie plot, this might be a little messy, since you can't find them all, no matter how hard you look. You could also argue that the US figures undoubtedly over-estimate the amount of plutonium available. Most of it is probably in the drinking water of Washington, Colorado and South Carolina.

Then there's the dirty bomb scenario. I don't believe anyone has any idea how much radioactive waste is missing. I do know that, back in the physics labs at the University of Minnesota in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when nuclear radiation was good for you, we were pretty relaxed about the way we handled radioactive isotopes. We used cobalt 60 to calibrate radiation measurement equipment. We kept it in a small tin container that once held electrical tape. Electrical tape was also the seal. The only danger then was from the Soviets, and they already had lots of cobalt 60.

Responding to the idea that the nuclear threat is too great to comprehend in a novel or movie, a friend told me that, in the 1960's Marvel comics story, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider that in turn gave him his spiderman powers. In the big 2002 Spiderman movie (which I didn't see), the story was changed. Peter was bitten by a "genetically engineered spider." My friend concluded that, eventually, genetic engineering will be no big deal, either, and he wondered what they're going to do with that spider if they remake the movie in 30 years.

But even in the 1960s, radiation wasn't new. Liz's grandmother was killed by radioactivity in 1910 when doctors used radium to treat her goiter and didn't know when to quit. Marie Curie died of cancer, so it's appropriate that we named a unit of radioactivity after her. It wasn't novelty that bothered the public back then, but a well-founded fear. Since it was unpatriotic to question the effects of environmental radioactivity when the government wanted to test atomic bombs, the warning was concealed inside a comic book. Here was a case where the public (as represented by Spiderman comic strip artists and some horror movie producers) was worried, but the experts were not. The experts now worry about radiation in the environment, even though it seems to cause only cancer and not the fearsome mutations the public feared. We now understand a lot more about how to produce fearsome mutations, and history is rhyming with itself: the experts are sanguine about genetic experimentation, but the public is not.

Fear of radioactivity can be used by the government for other purposes. The EPA, for instance, found that preventing and cleaning up chemical pollution is a thankless and expensive business, with no reward except the enmity of lobbyists. They found the perfect solution by screaming about  radon: it's in every basement (fearmonger effect), it's naturally occurring, there's no effective remedy, and it's up to the individual homeowner to fix it. The only feature of radon that's never mentioned is that it isn't particularly dangerous. It's an inert gas, so you breathe it in and breathe it out without absorbing it, unlike the really dangerous atomic bomb by-products, iodine 131 (which collects in the thyroid) and strontium 90 (which the body thinks is calcium and incorporates in the bones). Daughter elements caused by the decay of radon could be picked up by the body, but you'd have to breathe a lot of radon continuously to be affected. That's not likely to happen if you just go to the basement for a hammer. Even then, the EPA conveniently ignores the evidence that non-smoking miners, who daily breathe lots of radon, don't have cancer rates higher than the general population.

[Note added 4/30/2006: You can take a trip to Boulder, Montana, and spend two weeks in an abandoned mine, breathing your fill of radon. It's a tourist attraction in Montana. Proponents say radon reduces arthritis symptoms. This is bound to confuse both the EPA and the FDA. The latter agency is spending much of its energy fighting the medical use of hemp, but now they're going to have to go after the medical use of a substance that doesn't even make you high.]

The whole cloning issue, though, reflects the earlier radioactivity fears: monsters loosed upon the earth. I have no idea what monsters society will fear 30 years from now, and I don't expect to be around to find out. No doubt the cloning issue will have been resolved, and will result, not in monsters, but in unexpected (and certainly deleterious) effects. We won't have Bill Gates clones running around cornering new markets, but we will have ads on the smellavision set for genetically engineered hair plugs and prettier noses ("and ask your doctor whether a Lily Liver is right for you!"). And certainly, in addition to taxes, you'll have to pay royalties to whoever owns the patent on your DNA. If boom times return, maybe Spidey will get bit by a malevolent Initial Public Offering. That certainly happened a lot in the 1990s.