Twilight of the Bombs

This book by Richard Rhodes has the long subtitle, “Recent challenges, New Dangers, and Prospects for a World without Nuclear Weapons.” I was eager to read the book because of previous Rhodes books, Making the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. I considered the author to be a diligent researcher, but was surprised to read his assessment of the down-sizing of the nuclear-weapon production “.  .  .partly in response to unilateral and negotiated arms reductions, partly because public concern had caught up with its environmentally abandoned ways. The FBI had actually raided the Department of Energy’s plutonium-production facility at Rocky Flats, in Colorado, in 1989, looking for evidence (which it found in abundance) that the DOE and Rockwell International, a contractor, had violated environmental-protection laws.” (212-213) Rhodes obviously read the headlines and didn’t bother with careful research that would have told him there were not actual violations of environmental laws. He could have learned the complicated truth about the outcome of the raid by reading my book, An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats: Urban Myths Debunked. Regardless of that major flaw, the book contains interesting information. Rhodes also mentions that “.  .  .Rocky Flats, the only facility capable of producing plutonium pits, was permanently closed.” (page 218) That statement would have been more accurate if it had said Rocky Flats had produced most of the plutonium pits for several years.

One theme of the book is that nuclear weapons have always been a bad idea. A quote attributed to Richard Butler in the front of the book is “The problem of nuclear weapons is nuclear weapons.” A limited search located a couple of dozen “Richard Butlers.” I’m certain Mr. Rhodes would be astonished that I didn’t know about the Richard Butler who is quoted. Instances of global risk of nuclear war are mentioned, to include the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another example was when the Soviets in 1983 thought that the Reagan administration might be planning a preemptive nuclear strike camouflaged as a military exercise called “Able Archer.” The exercise was a practice run-up to nuclear war, but it was just practice.

All of the nuclear powers have roles in the book, but Iraq’s efforts to build nuclear weapons get most of the ink. Israel destroyed a French-built reactor at Al Tuwitha in 1981, and the Iraqis responded by working to develop the facilities needed to separate uranium 235 for construction of nuclear weapons. Several Americans were taken hostage when the first Iraq war began. When they were freed they were invited to change clothes and leave behind what they had been wearing. They had ridden on buses used by Iraqi nuclear workers, and analysis of the clothing found traces of depleted uranium. That indicated the uranium 235 had been removed. (pages 37-38) There are detailed descriptions of the cat and mouse game played between IAEA inspectors and the Iraqis attempting to prevent the inspectors from learning what was going on. The book mentions a facility at Tarmiya, with ninety primary and secondary caltrons, or electromagnetic isotope separators. “Tarmiya could have produced enough HEU for one or two bombs a year.” (page 68)

A strange part of the Iraqi story is the defection of Hussein Kamel, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein, to Jordan in 1995. Kamel promised to reveal details of Iraqi WMD programs, and Iraq countered by leading inspectors to a cache of documents at a chicken farm. They claimed Kamel had been responsible for hiding the documents, which provided “. .  .an abundance of detail about secret weapons programs, particularly the nuclear weapons effort.” The story becomes even stranger when Kamel was lured back to Iraq with promises of safety. He and his group were provided a carload of automatic weapons and then were killed in an extended gun battle with members of his clan loyal to Saddam. (page 232)

The book clearly opposes George W. Bush in all of his actions involving Iraq (or, perhaps, anything else he did while in office). It does mention Clinton’s foreign policy failures as he was distracted by “. .  .fighting off impeachment for perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power.  .  .”  It is also mentioned that Al Gore, if he had become President, had taken a strong stand in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. He criticized George H. W. Bush for stopping short of Baghdad in the first Gulf War. He observed, “The only way we can hope for long-term relief from Saddam Hussein is if Saddam Hussein ceases to hold power.” Gore reiterated his support for regime change in the second presidential-campaign debate in October 2000, and George W. Bush agreed with him. (pages 253-254)

I credit Rhodes for giving what I consider an accurate description of why George W. Bush and almost all other politicians believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which led to the second Gulf War. Interrogation of Hussein by George Piro, an Arabic-speaking FBI agent, led Hussein to explain why he had expelled U.N. inspectors and led the world to believe Iraq was hiding stocks of WMD. Even though Iraq did not have the weapons, he did not allow the return of inspectors because of his concerns about Iran. “Hussein stated he was more concerned about Iran discovering Iraq’s weakness and vulnerabilities than the repercussions. .  .  .” “Hussein stated Iraq could have absorbed another United States strike for he viewed this as less of a threat than exposing themselves to Iran.” (pages 280-281) (This is a little mentioned aspect of why Bush and almost everyone else believed Iraq had stockpiles of WMD; Hussein lied to protect Iraq from Iran.)

The book provides a wide range of information about nuclear weapons “then and now.” I recommend it for the information provided about the stockpiles in the U.S. and the Soviet Union (now Russia). It also has information of interest about China, India, Pakistan, and others. There are interesting discussions about the nuclear weapons in the Ukraine and other new countries formed after the demise of the Soviet Union.

I’m going to close with a description of a private Russian corporation that presented a plan to a U.S. delegation “. .  . to market nuclear explosions for waste disposal.” A plan was presented to the Americans to use “.  .  .a 100 kiloton deep-underground nuclear explosion to vaporize 20,000 nuclear weapons cores (‘pits’), thereby distributing some 62 tons of plutonium in a much larger volume of molten rock (vitrifying and immobilizing the plutonium).” (page 112) That fascinated me, but others interested in the general subject would probably find other items of interest despite the flaws I’ve mentioned.  

One thought on “Twilight of the Bombs

  1. >a private Russian corporation that presented a plan to a U.S. delegation
    Sounds strange, since almost all of the nuclear production in Russia is the state one. I’ve heard about some private firms to build robots and stuff, but – a meeting with the US delegation? Looks really strange.

    >a 100 kiloton deep-underground nuclear explosion to vaporize 20,000 nuclear weapons cores (‘pits’), thereby distributing some 62 tons of plutonium
    Eeee… I’d prefer to use an another planet for such a distribution. At least the Moon. It might look spectacular still being relatively safe.

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