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Robert Gleason on the reality of his novel, End of Days

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Does the killing of Osama Bin Laden make the nuclear terrorist strikes you describe in End of Days more or less likely?

Some of bin Laden’s followers have claimed at various times to possess one or more nuclear weapons.  They have also warned—prior to bin Laden’s killing—that were he killed, they would set them off major western cities.  They also promised to attack and melt down nuclear reactors.

US officials take these claims seriously.  Al Qaeda has tried many times to acquire nuclear bomb-fuel, and many US authorities fear that al Qaeda already has that fuel.  Many experts believe—as we do—that nuclear terrorism is the gravest problem facing the world today.

As End of Days will dramatize, fissile nuclear bomb-fuel is ill-secured, widely available and once the terrorist possesses that bomb-fuel, cobbling together a crude Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-style nuke is surprisingly easy.

A number of highly placed al Qaeda officials have made these threats:

  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—a top al-Qaeda leader who helped to plan for the September 11 attacks on the US—confirmed this threat, according to Wikileaked records which detailed detainee interrogations at Guantanamo.  He informed his interrogators that “al Qaeda would unleash a ‘nuclear hellstorm’” on the US.
  • The Wikileaked files indicate that Libyan national Abu al-Libi “has knowledge of al-Qaeda possibly possessing a nuclear bomb” and could pinpoint the site of the weapon allegedly set to be used in the event of bin Laden’s capture or death.
  • Egyptian detainee Sharif al-Masri said that the al-Qaeda members handling the weapon “would be Europeans of Arab or Asian descent.”
  • Yemeni detainee Salman Yehah Kasa Hassan was said to have asserted that an associate of his brother was captured while looking for $500,000 worth of uranium.  The material was allegedly seized by officials in Yemen and “was rumored to have disappeared in a transaction” with bin Laden, one document states.
  • When detained in 2003, Afghan “weapons dealer”,  Mohammad Zahir, reputedly possessed a paper which reported that  “two or three cans of uranium” were waiting to be used “for the production of an ‘atom bomb,'” another says.  After he was taken to the detention site, an informant reportedly told officials that Zahir had collaborated with Pakistani nuclear scientist and proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan.
  • One document even describes the nuclear weapon’s location, quoting a senior al-Qaeda commander as saying al Qaeda already has a nuclear weapon hidden in Europe.

Does Bin Laden’s death place US nuclear power plants in jeopardy?

US power plants are shockingly vulnerable to 9/11 terrorist attacks and the threats are deadly serious.  In fact, the US has caught al Qaeda training men on US soil for such operations.  An al Qaeda operative, Sharif Moabley worked and trained at five US nuclear power plants, and unfortunately melting down a nuclear power reactor does not require his degree of expertise.  An unskilled terrorist can do it in minutes—after he has taken over the control room.  He does not even have to take over the control room to set the reactor and the spent fuel storage sites ablaze.  As the disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi taught us, disabling the plant’s cooling system is embarrassingly easy.  Its major pumps, parts, and intake pipes are all on the outside and almost completely unshielded.  A few well-placed bombs would eliminate the water needed to cool the reactor.  Moreover, and once the fuel and spent fuel rods catch fire, extinguishing those fires is horrifically difficult.

Nor are the people plotting and executing these operations are amateurs.  Sharif Mobley was a hardcore al Qaeda killer.  When he was finally captured in Yemen, he provoked a gun-battle in which he killed one person and wounded several others.

Most Americans do not understand how costly such meltdowns are.  A devastated reactor can irradiate and render uninhabitable as much as 27,000 square miles—which equals an area the size of New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland.  If the nuclear power plant was located near a large urban area, the total cost to taxpayers could be as much as $11 trillion.

US power plants are shockingly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  In the few mock-terrorist attack-tests, which the plants have run, almost 50% of the time the terrorists take over the control room and have enough time to melt down the reactor.  Even worse, these plants only plan to confront a maximum of three to four lightly-armed terrorists, not the sort of formidable force which attacked the US on 9/11—nineteen professionally-trained killers.  (Source: Nuclear Control Institute, www.nci.org/bc-nt.htm)

Similar mock-terrorist tests are run to determine whether if men disguised as terrorists or as facility employees can infiltrate a US nuclear weapons lab and leave with enough nuclear bomb-fuel to fabricate a Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-style nuclear bomb.   At least 50% of the time the phony terrorists walk out the main gate unaccosted with the bomb-fuel.  If the US cannot secure its own nuclear weapons labs and nuclear power plants, how can we expect Pakistan, India and Russia to secure theirs?  These are nations which live by extortion and bribery.

If al Qaeda’s threats aren’t intimidating enough, the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plants reminds us how deadly, difficult and interminable such meltdowns can be.  We will discuss what Fukushima Daiichi should teach us at some length.

How skilled and sophisticated are these Al Qaeda/Taliban nuclear terrorists?

Recent extremist strikes on several armed forces sites in Pakistan indicate that neither that nation nor the United States is capable of protecting its nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants from a direct attack by these highly trained al Qaeda/Taliban cadres.

Pakistan, which is currently under al Qaeda/Taliban occupation, is the most immediately vulnerable.  Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, said in the National Post that up to 70,000 individuals in Pakistan are familiar with or directly involved in the country’s nuclear weapons program.  “Some may be willing to collude in various ways with terrorists,” he wrote in his analysis, “Terrorist Tactics in Pakistan Threaten Nuclear Weapons Safety.”

Gregory said that over the past several years al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have focused on those regions most of the country’s atomic assets reside: its northern and western sectors and the vicinities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Pakistani originally chose locations it believed offered superior protection against potential military incursions by neighboring rival India.

Mentored by Pakistani commandos, these al Qaeda/Taliban terrorist units are extraordinarily well-trained, surprisingly sophisticated and incredibly tough.

*One of their targets was a nuclear missile base.  Eight people were killed in a 2007 suicide bombing at a nuclear missile holding site south of the Pakistani capital.

*Suicide bombers in 2008 attacked entry points at Pakistan’s Kamra air base — a suspected nuclear weapons holding site – and a Wah Cantonment facility thought to be involved in putting nuclear weapons together.

*A militant siege last month on the Mehran Naval Station in Karachi showed insider information and considerable expertise. The ten gunmen involved in the strike had been aware of the placement of surveillance cameras at the facility.

*Extremists mounted a comparable assault in 2009 against the Pakistan army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, possibly the most heavily fortified site in Pakistan.  The organizational brilliance of this amazingly successful assault—which included the penetration of multiple tiers of security; in-depth insider information, including detailed maps; weaponry and diversionary tactics, which allowed them to eventually breach the final tier of defense—should demonstrate to Washington the kind of jeopardy major US cities are in, including New York City with its nearby Indian Point nuclear power plant and San Francisco with its Sandia nuclear weapons lab.

Extremists in Pakistan have demonstrated their ability to breach multiple protective measures and mislead security forces by disguising themselves as military personnel, driving in correctly tagged automobiles and falsifying personal documents.  In addition, militants have proven to be familiar with the knowledge and procedures of Pakistan’s armed forces, and they have conducted thorough reconnaissance at attack locations weeks ahead of a strike.

“Almost certainly (the terrorists) learned their tactics from the SSG (the Pakistan Army’s elite commandos, the Special Service Group—the Pakistani equivalent of Seal Team Six), which had trained earlier generations of Pakistani/Kashmiri militants in similar tactics for operations against India,” Gregory said.

“Terrorist groups have now shown themselves capable of penetrating even the most securely defended of Pakistan’s military bases and of holding space within those bases for many hours, even against the elite SSG, more than enough time with the right equipment and sufficient numbers to carry out terrorist acts with enormous political or destructive payoff,” Gregory said (Peter Goodspeed, National Post, June 14).

Experts fear it is only a matter of time before these elaborately trained cadres visit the US and take on America’s nuclear facilities.

What does Fukushima Daiichi teach us about nuclear terrorism?

It demonstrates how easy it is to melt down a nuclear power plant.  All you need to do is knock out the cooling system which is located outdoors and extremely vulnerable to primitive bombs.

Is nuclear terrorism feasible and realistic?

Once terrorists obtain the nuclear bomb-fuel, crude terrorist nukes are shockingly easy to cobble together.  In fact, if a person simply drops a 100-pound grapefruit-size chunk of HEU onto another chunk from a height of six-feet, he will produce 50% of the Hiroshima yield.  If he places a smaller chunk in a short piece of cannon barrel—and the US has thousands of old cannon barrels left over from the Civil War—and blasts one chunk into the other with Extra High Explosive, he might well produce the Hiroshima yield.

Nor is obtaining the bomb-fuel that hard.  Russia’s nuclear bomb-fuel storage sites have been notoriously ill-secured.  What’s not as well known is that US storage sites aren’t much better protected.  Experts in the US occasionally run tests in which people sneak into US nuclear weapons labs and attempted to steal nuclear bomb-fuel.  Fifty percent of the time they succeed—and this is after the testers first warn the weapons lab’s security officers when and where the operation will be conducted.  In one such test the mock-terrorists trundled the nuclear bomb-fuel out of Los Alamos—birth place of the Atom Bomb—in a Home Depot Garden Cart in front of God and everyone.  No one stopped them.  I dramatize how this can be done in End of Days first chapter.

If the US can’t secure its nuclear bomb-fuel, how can Russia, Pakistan and India—nations which live by the baksheesh?

President Obama says that a single nuked US city is his worst nightmare. Is his fear realistic?

A single improvised nuclear detonation is not America’s worst nightmare.  Resourceful nuclear terrorists would find no shortage of poorly protected nuclear explosive.  Hundreds of tons are located in hundreds of ill-secured nuclear sites.  Truly enterprising terrorists could stockpile enough nuclear bomb-fuel to arm half a dozen panel trucks with crude nukes, each of which could be deployed and detonated in a major American city.  The nuking of Wall Street would devastate the entire global financial system.

Is a multi-city nuclear attack on america its worst-case scenario?

Not at all.  Herman Kahn wrote over fifty years ago that truly skilled terrorists—in league with “a small vengeful power”—could unleash a global nuclear apocalypse.  He wrote that if the nuclear bomb-fuel and delivery systems proliferated sufficiently, these terrorists could nuke the great nuclear powers and then frame other nuclear powers for the crime.  They could create the illusion that the great powers were nuking one another.  In retaliation, the great powers would nuke each other deliberately.  A relatively small terrorist state could thereby foment global nuclear Armageddon.  Kahn’s worst-case nuclear scenario is essentially the plot of End of Days.

Are you afraid that you are giving would-be nuclear terrorists ideas?

Bin Laden had been arguing for years that he could force the US out of the Mideast through nuclear attacks.  Michael Scheuer, who ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit, has said these nuclear attacks on the US are bin Laden’s driving, animating dream.  Al Qaeda has even threatened to nuke the Yellowstone supervolcanic caldera, whose crater is 45 miles by 35 miles.  That blast would blanket most of the US with ash, detritus and debris.  I dramatize the nuking of the Yellowstone caldera in End of Days.

Is nuclear power a nuclear proliferation threat?

Nuclear power reactors are nuclear bomb-fuel factories.  A 1977 Oak Ridge study proved that using the equipment from an old dairy or winery, low-tech terrorists could construct a crude nuclear bomb-fuel reprocessor in six months.  In another month they could reprocess enough plutonium to set off the Nagasaki bomb.  A 1998 Los Alamos study indicated that it was not always necessary to even reprocess the nuclear material to fuel a one-kiloton nuclear blast.

Nuclear power is the Trojan Horse inside of which the nuclear proliferators and their illegitimate offspring, the nuclear terrorists, hide.

The Obama administration is selling both nuclear power reactors and nuclear reprocessors to India and is planning to sell them to Saudi Arabia.  Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were notoriously Saudis and Saudi Arabia is al Qaeda’s homeland.  Obama is selling them de facto nuclear bomb-fuel factories.

Does Japan’s nuclear power debacle teach us anything?

It reminds us again how quickly and easily disaster can strike a nuclear power plant.  Moreover, such disasters are not infrequent.  They hit a nuclear power plant every ten years on average.  Even worse for the US, its nuclear power plants are more vulnerable to catastrophic meltdowns than those of any other nation in the world.  The tsunami threat isn’t as severe as Japan’s Indonesia’s, but the US is vulnerable to a far more likely and far more destructive menace: nuclear terrorism.

Indonesia, which is situated in the heart of “the Pacific Ring of Fire”, is also trying to build nuclear power plants—all of which demonstrates how self-destructive nations are regarding nuclear power.

Why are the US nuclear power plans so vulnerable to terrorist attacks and not, for instance, Sweden’s?  

Nobody hates the Swedes.  In an age in which pretty near any nation that wants nuclear weapons can get them, strategically, there is a lot of be said for not being hated.  Sticking to one’s own business and not meddling in the affairs of other nations—even when we cloak our actions in lofty rhetoric—can have a deterrent effect.  Nobody wants to hurt you, and as I dramatize in END OF DAYS, nuclear blowback can be a bitch.

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