A Disco-era View of Atomic Terrorism

The Curve of Binding Energy — John McPhee


John McPhee is one of America’s great writers, a master of “creative non-fiction” whose eye has fallen on subjects as diverse as tennis (1969’s Levels of the Game), citrus farming (1967’s Oranges) and the chimera of commercial lighter than air vehicles (1973’s The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed). In 1974’s The Curve of Binding Energy, McPhee turned his attention to nuclear terrorism as seen from the point of view of Ted Taylor, a talented nuclear weapons designer.

In the early 1970s when people worried about nuclear catastrophes, it was generally in the context of a Nato-Warsaw Pact exchange or perhaps a Sino-Soviet conflict spiraling out of control. This was perfectly reasonable, given what nations armed with nuclear weapons were willing to do to their own territories.

What concerned Taylor was shoddy nuclear materials management coupled with the rapid growth of the civilian nuclear power industry. Keeping a close eye on every gram of fissionable material was something the military nuclear weapons industry had never managed and of course the profit motive meant that civilian nuclear power companies would be looking for ways to cut costs. Peculiarly adept at designing fission weapons 1, Taylor could see many ways for a talented individual to misuse stolen nuclear materials and little to stop such an individual from doing so.

McPhee approaches the subject in two intertwined threads. One is the biography of Ted Taylor, the story of how a bright physics student went from pacifism to embracing the idea of peace through weapons too terrible to use, from exploring his talent for designing fission-based explosives to a curious squeamishness about his potential role in killing millions of people, with a side trip into deep space exploration. The other is a examination of the practices of the military and civilian nuclear industries of the 1970s as they applied to deterring atomic terrorism. Or, more frequently than readers probably preferred to know, as they didn’t 2

My copy of this is a dense little paperback, 170 pages of tiny print 3. Shockingly, it lacks both proper chapters and any form of index. The paragraphs are long, the sentences short, and the effect is of a machine gun fire of informative discourse. Explanations are often compact, the author expecting readers to understand details like why small yields result in radiation injuries while large ones incline towards incendiary and translational damage. The tone is authoritative and the narrative convincing. That said, there are details like the following

A thousandth of a gram of plutonium taken into the lungs as invisible specks of dust will kill anyone — a death from massive fibrosis of the lungs in a matter of hours or at most a few days.

where the author appears to over-egg the batter. Plutonium is chemically toxic, radioactive and under the right conditions will provide sudden unrequested fission surpluses but it’s not the nuclear Medusa painted above.

No humans have ever died from acute toxicity due to plutonium uptake […] Nevertheless, lethal doses […] have been estimated from research on dogs, rats, and mice. Animal studies indicate that a few milligrams of plutonium per kilogram of tissue is a lethal dose.

The results of chronic exposure in populations downwind of facilities like Hanford and Sellafield would have been markedly different if plutonium was a bad as McPhee paints it. This leads me to wonder about the other facts that get rattled off so convincingly. 

This was for me and I expect many others the first place I ever encountered the idea of the Orion rocket, a nuclear rocket not of the atomic steam kettle design but rather externally pulsed plasma propulsion or in the vernacular, surfing on a series of nuclear explosions. The advantage to the Orion EPPP is it offers a nearly unique combination of high thrust and high exhaust velocity but the cost is some challenging public relations issues. Thus far, the latter have triumphed over the former.

There are also some technical details that never got hammered out because development never got that far. Would the pusher plates have stood up to repeated nuclear explosions? Would issues like EMP and fallout have kept the Orion a strictly above the magnetosphere craft? How many propulsion units would have been misplaced? So far those questions have not had to be answered. I can recommend George Dyson’s Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship for those of you who are interested in Orion rockets.

An interesting historical detail involves the iconic structure Taylor often turned to to illustrate his various scenarios. The World Trade Center had only recently been completed when this book was written; as the tallest buildings of their kind on the planet at the time of their construction, they would naturally have come to mind as potential targets for extremists. Comparison between how Taylor envisioned the towers reacting to sudden energy inputs and their actual behavior in 2001 reveal that as talented as Taylor was with respect to fission-based explosives, his understanding of the behavior under stress of large buildings was lacking. 

In retrospect it is obvious that even if nuclear terrorism had been a problem in the 1970s, the fact that the US was churning out well over three million new Americans a year meant shrinkage at a rate of five American Civil Wars a year could have been managed without an overall drop in American population or at least not a significant one. Indeed, the subject of sustainable protracted nuclear conflicts is sadly neglected: the standard nuclear war is a brief spasm followed by a slow recovery or extinction but I am certain that properly managed, an atomic conflict could last as long as any previous world war or, if we are very lucky, as long as the Roman-Persian Wars of the first millennium. But I drift off topic.

McPhee’s work is so compelling one feels outraged at the inconsiderate way extremists have failed to provide real life examples of Taylor’s hypothetical atomic terrorists. The great triumvirate of weapons of mass destruction are chemical, biological and nuclear but while radicals have misused the first two, to my knowledge there has never been an incident involving nuclear materials. Part of the reason may be that following books like this one, security was improved. Another contributing factor is that for various reasons the growth of the civilian nuclear power industry expected in the 1970s failed to materialize. Still, it’s not that hard for someone to put their hands on the cobalt-60 and caesium-137 sources used in radiography and the fact nobody has used them to construct dirty bombs seems a curious oversight. Like the commercial fusion generators lauded at the end of this book, nuclear terrorism appears to be like personal jet packs and lunar cities, another wonder of the future we were promised as kids that never actually materialized.

The Curve of Binding Energy is still in print and may be purchased in a variety of formats.

  1. When Taylor got into the business, fission bombs were seen as old news and Supers were where the action was seen to be at. As it turns out, given decent targeting megaton yields are excessive for most targets so perhaps the Supers really were an unnecessary flourish. 
  2. Because his focus is on the US, when McPhee discusses just stealing a whole nuclear bomb he doesn’t talk about the considerate way the US helped the Canadian government keep Quebec happy by waiving their usual security requirements for the nuclear weapons facility near Val d’Or. The possibility that the FLQ would leg it with a nuke or two was considered serious enough possibility that the military had plans to deal with such an eventuality – the term you want to look for is “Operation Rivet” - but the potential threat of Ottawa being reduced to ash and cinders by political extremists was as nothing to the reality of how Quebec would have reacted had their nuclear weapons depot opened after the one in Ontario.
  3. I did consider buying the ebook but hesitated both because the Canadian price is higher than the American and because I wasn’t exactly sure what format the ebook was in.

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