Thursday, November 27, 2008


As the horrific attacks on Mumbai are still in their last stages, I keep on worrying about only one scenario; a nuclear weapon detonated on Indian soil, perhaps in Mumbai. The thought makes me shudder and lose at least a little sleep at night.

Several top analysts in the US such as Graham Allison and Joseph Cirincione have identified kinks in the US security system, especially in border security, that would make it possible for terrorists to use a nuclear weapon on American soil. Allison thinks that a nuclear attack of some kind and magnitude on US soil may already be overdue. If that's the case with the United States which is still one of the most relatively secure places in the world, one can only imagine that the scenario would be much worse in India.

It is very difficult to overestimate the effects of a weapon with even a 1 kiloton yield- a dismal yield by any standards- in a city like Mumbai, irrespective of the time of the day. A more typical scenario usually talks about a 10 kiloton weapon, but as in other such scenarios, it's always best to be as conservative as possible and then extrapolate to worse cases. Now, the 20 kiloton bomb in Hiroshima killed at least 100,000. Mumbai's population is an astounding 20 million compared to Hiroshima's 300-400,000 at the time of the atomic bombing.

Let's imagine a macabre scenario for a second in which a extremely watered down 1 kT bomb was detonated at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the same location where the terrorists began their killing spree. Extensively depending on the conditions including structures of buildings, wind patterns, road traffic, presence of combustible material and other variables, such a blast could essentially level most of the buildings in the Fort area (within a radius of 1 km or so), including all the famous hotels which the terrorists targeted. There would be almost total and instant loss of human life within this radius, probably numbering in a few thousands right there and then. Those who were not directly struck by the shock wave would be obliterated with shards of flying glass, metal and construction material. Given enough combustible material around, thermal radiation from the blast could also start fires, the effects of which were historically neglected in some such studies. Such fires could seal the fate of people trapped in buildings, many of whom will be seriously injured to begin with. Farther from the blast, prompt and delayed radiation would bathe people and property for miles, essentially shutting down the financial part of the city including the BSE for at least months. The effect on the economy would be devastating.

A dirty bomb detonated in Mumbai with materials like strontium 90, cesium 137 or the infamous polonium 210 would limit the (still significant) blast and thermal effects to the conventional explosive used to package the radioactive material, but the radiation effects would still kill or incapacitate thousands, render large swathes of real estate inhospitable for years, and at the very least severely cripple the financial and commercial sector of the Indian economy, a consequence whose aftereffects themselves would be disastrous in several ways. Similar effects of varying magnitude would be visible in any other of India's biggest or second-biggest cities. Dozens of well-known and loved names spring to mind; Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Calcutta, Chandigarh, Pune, Trivendrum, Jaipur and Varanasi to name a few.

The above scenario discussed a weapon with an embarrassingly low yield. There are 'suitcase' nuclear weapons small enough to fit in a backpack with yields from 1-10 kilotons. Even by the most abysmally conservative estimate, at least 100,000 people could die in Mumbai from the immediate (blast, radiation, thermal) and delayed (radiation) effects of such a 'small' 1 kT explosion. A more typical 10 kT weapon would extend the above effects to at least Churchgate, Grant Road, Marine Lines and Girgaon. The death toll from such an explosion could be 500,000 or so, more than twice the total number of people killed by the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Either the former or certainly this would be a number beyond imagination and a catastrophe beyond comprehension. It will create complete chaos in the country, and the resulting civil strife and riots might kill thousands more.

Sadly, what's really frightening is that smuggling in a small weapon with a 1 kiloton yield could be cakewalk for terrorists. This is not fear-mongering or paranoia. Weapons-grade uranium, especially when concealed beneath common and heavy tamper and shielding materials, can be extremely difficult to detect by most conventional radiation counters (Weapons-grade plutonium which has a higher energy gamma and neutron radiation signature is easier, although still not trivial). It would be relatively easy to detect such uranium if suspected containers could be leisurely inspected over a period of several hours. It is quite a challenge on the other hand to detect such a bomb among the thousands of containers that rapidly flow across India's borders every single day. Considering that Mumbai itself handles 50% of India's maritime traffic, this becomes a weapons detection nightmare. India's long sea and land borders thwart this attempt even more, the same way they thwart it in the US. And it goes without saying that once inside the country, the high population, facile movement of goods across state borders, immense network of road and train networks and the inadequacy of security at all these routes and points would make it virtually impossible to detect such a weapon. Being of similar appearance, language and culture, the terrorists who escort this deadly device would seamlessly blend in among the population, most of which is busy securing its own square meals to be vigilant.

Nor would it be impossible to obtain such a weapon in the first place, even though this would probably be the most challenging task of all. Analysts have estimated that the price of a 10 kiloton nuclear weapon in the black market may be about 10 million dollars. Based on the quality and yield, this price could possibly drop down to 2-5 million dollars. It is not very difficult for networks like Al Qaeda to secure such a weapon and then, even if they don't use it themselves, auction it off to eager bidders who would carry out both their own objectives as well as that of Al Qaeda's. Evidence suggests that Al Qaeda has already courted Pakistani scientists about nuclear know how as well as material once or twice (Cirincione, 2006). B. Raman in a heartfelt essay worries about the fate of our nuclear materials and weapons and loses sleep over it. I think he should lose even more sleep over it because as far as I know, our own nukes and materials are not the most attractive target for terrorists. The most lucrative weapons raw materials and perhaps weapons themselves have been thought to be loose nukes in the former Soviet Union (Allison, 2004). There were roughly 20,000 nukes in the Soviet Union around the time of its demise. Assuming that only 1% of these nuclear weapons failed to be secured, it still means that an alarming 200 are unaccounted for. Even one weapon among these with its yield degraded would be enough to cause the above catastrophe. A slightly more benign but still volatile scenario exists with Pakistan's nukes.

For now, terrorists have taken the even more easier way out of using conventional weapons and crude tactics. These crude tactics killed 'only' 125 and have shaken a city and nation's soul. The event has left us even more stunned and disturbed because of the sheer viciousness, bravado and efficiency of the terrorists. We better not even try to imagine what it would be like with a crude nuclear weapon or dirty bomb. Mr. Prime Minister, no more words; we already know as much as you do what you want to convey to us. We need action now.

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