Saturday, November 22, 2008

PBS: Avoiding Armageddon: Nuclear Nightmare


PBS has a series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice”. Disc Two is “Nuclear Nightmare”, dated 2003. It is narrated by Walter Cronkite and directed by Frank Sesno. The production company is Ted Turner Documentaries.

The program started with an account of the July 1999 crisis where President Clinton met with leaders of India and Pakistan, who could have entered into a nuclear exchange. Even in 2002 the after effects of the crisis continued. One problem is that neither country can detect a “nuclear tipped” weapon from a similar conventional one.

The film then goes back to 1945 to consider the history of nuclear weapons, with the Trinity Test in New Mexico and President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb to end World War II with Japan. Not as many people know that in 1951 the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to use up to thirty atomic bombs in North Korea or Manchuria to “end” to Korean War. Truman said no, out of moral reasons.

The film discusses the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the closest we ever came to nuclear war with the Soviets. The soviets almost breached our quarantine with subs equipped with nuclear payloads that we didn't know about.

The film moved to the modern era. It the 1972 treaty that prohibited nuclear missile defense, that then President Reagan’s challenge in 1983 with a proposal for a Strategic Defense Initiative, which was never built.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the resulting situation was one of thousands of sites, over 9 or more time zones, husbanding nuclear weapons and materials presumably under control of an imploding Communist parties. Nuclear scientists were out of work and were faced with supporting their families in a world of high inflation. One scientist, wanting to start a pet shop, smuggled small amounts of uranium at a time and kept it in his apartment until selling it. One scientist got a job working for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 1998, three workers were seriously injured by a canister of loose strontium 90 found in the mountains of the Republic of Georgia. There is tremendous pollution in the Ural mountains areas near plants, with many birth defects.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) had investigated 17 leaks of nuclear material from Russia by 2003.

The film mentioned former senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), who now works with the group the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and has produced a dramatic film “The Last Best Chance.” Nunn believes that misdirection into the hands of terrorists is by far the most likely way a nuclear incident could happen on American soil or any other western country. The film briefly covered attempts by Saddam Hussein to obtain uranium, and then attempts by Al Qaeda. The Cold War was deterred by "mutually assured destruction" but a terrorist has no return address.

The film showed by illustration the effect of a Hiroshima-sized bomb had it been exploded on 9/11 at the WTC site.

There was presentation of non-proliferation and the dismantling of some Soviet weapons, and even smashing bombers. Some nuclear materials were being sold to utilities in the United States for electric power.

The film says that only about 2% of cargo coming through coastal ports is inspected.

The film ended with a panel discussion, emphasizing the need for removing loose nuclear material from around the world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Electromagnetic Pulse: YouTube has some substantial videos on the ultimate "mega-disaster"


Imagine one day, perhaps an early morning, you’re sitting at your computer. The power goes out. That happens, even for no reason sometimes (look at the Northeast in August 2003). Okay, you have an uninterruptible power supply for your computer, or it is a laptop with a charged battery. But it freezes too, perhaps goes dark. That’s strange. You go upstairs because you have to go to work. But your car won’t start.

Outside, people mull around. Nobody knows what has happened. But this would be the scenario for an electromagnetic pulse burst, possibly from a high altitude crude or small nuclear weapon, possibly launched from a freighter ship a few hundred miles in the Atlantic. There might or might not be fallout issues later. It would be a very long time before you could get reliable information from authorities.

This has to be a good idea for a movie that ought to be made. (In fact, I do have a short film screenplay for this scenario.) But if it happens, there might not be any movies for a very long time.

Youtube has a few videos on the topic. The most informative may be “The End Time Prophet Presents Electromagnetic Pulse,” link here. True, the website flashes “Rapture Information” and has a religious motive. (The date it gave for our demise, 12/21/2007, has already passed; I wonder about 2012, the Mayan date.) But the narrator, with some pretty good illustrations over 9 minutes, traces the history of nuclear weapons, starting with the Trinity Test (as in the opera "Doctor Atomic") over New Mexico in July 1945. By 1952 we had fusion hydrogen bombs, and the Soviets were soon surpassing us. In 1961 the Tazr was the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. In 1962 Project Dominic, by the US, accidentally did a lot of damage to the electrical infrastructure of several Hawaiian Islands 800 miles away. He goes into some discussion of submarine nuclear launch capabilities and attempts to detect them (as with Orion “submarine hunter” planes). The speaker discusses the composition of the atmosphere and gives some explanations of the physics of the blast. One of the highest blasts was 240 miles above the earth, probably capable of bathing the entire US in the pulse. He also posed a “Moonraker” scenario, a blast from a space station outside the mesosphere, capable of wiping out all electronics over the entire world. He says that such an event would happen to end a nuclear war.

This video has about 25000 views so far, rather moderate given the seriousness of the issue.

There is a short but chilling video in black and white with a man speaking “Electromagnetic Pulse: Will It Play a Role” in which the speaker outlines a scenario a bit like the one in this post, link here. The video was posted in April 2008 and mentions the “Dark April” project.

Perhaps the most chilling is an eleven minute speech by Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) “Electronic Pulse Attack Threat Raised in U.S. Congress,” from July 2008, link here. ("CSPANjunkie" has it on it's blog here.) Again, toward the end, Mr. Bartlett explains the physics with some diagrams. He refers to the work of William Graham. He also discusses Iran’s scud tests in the Caspian Sea and says that Iran may have missiles that can reach 1000 miles or so and that could be placed on an inconspicuous freighter. But most alarming is the political and social analysis (at least as conservatives see it). EMP, at high altitude, is one of the very few ways the United States (and the West) could be defeated by a small asymmetric entity like Al Qaeda or small rogue states like Iran or North Korea. Why? Because the entire American economy and physical function depends on technological infrastructure. People would not die immediately, but prospects for long term survival for many people might be poor. More primitive countries are less vulnerable to such an attack. A high altitude EMP blast could be more devastating and a few isolated full nuclear blasts on the ground. It would appeal to an enemy with authoritarian and socially hierarchal (familial or clerical, often patriarchal) religious values, a desire to “bring others low”, and resentment of individualism enabled by technology that tends to encourage public expression. Perhaps all of this is more like a conservative "projection" of its own subtle ideas on family values than the actual reality of radical Islam mentality.

The critical step, of course, is preventing rogue states and groups like Al Qaeda from having nuclear weapons or raw materials at all. (Remember Osama bin Laden’s “threat” on Nov. 10). Not good are reports indicating how difficult it is for western Navies to prevent piracy off the coast of Somalia. They would need similar diligence to protect the East Coast from rogue ships for several hundred miles.

There have been some reports, as in a Popular Science issue published one week before 9/11 in 2001, that relatively cheap conventional devices could cause EMP damage over a wide area. There have also been discussions of whether Faraday Cages can protect electronics (at least for companies and the military). Sorry, "Oceans 11" got this concept all wrong.

The Washington Times published op-eds on this problem on September 3 and October 14, 2008, by William Graham and Clifford May, respectively (see my International Issues blog on those days).

One big question is how likely it is a "rogue" device (sponsored by Iran or North Korea or even Al Qaeda) could really reach the "necessary" altitude for the destruction that's claimed. Another good question is whether small "suitcase" or other crude weapons would actually "work" this way at high altitudes. There is a lot of right-wing hype about this, and it deserves careful reporting from the established media. Others have pointed out that Iran and most of the rest of the Muslim world in the Middle East and far East really do have a lot to lose from massive retaliation that would follow.

I don’t think that the History Channel has done a show on this possibility, for it’s “Mega Disaster” series. It sounds like an important topic.

So, if you wake up in the middle of the night, check whether the electricity is on. If it isn’t, check your laptop and car. If nothing works, we face The "Purification". I hope I don't have to say, "I told you so!" Just hope the lights never go out.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Krakatoa: a new documentary on PBS


Although the History Channel aired a report on Karatoa in 2007, PBS stations are now airing a 90 minute British film directed by Jeremy Hall and Stuart Everett and narrated by John Shrapnel. The website for the film is this. The film "Krakatoa" (2008, with a docudrama format) dramatizes the events (with actors in period costumes) in the four months leading to the great explosion eruptions in Aug. 26-27 1883, starting with earthquakes felt 23 miles away in Ketimbang. The third of those eruptions was the largest blast ever to occur on the planet. Businessmen and merchants from the Netherlands worked there and communicated by telegraph. The Dutch expected the employees to visit the volcano by canoe or small shop to monitor it.

The great explosions destroyed a lighthouse and produced briefly-lived tsunamis (caused by landslides from pyroclastic flows) over 100 feet high, capable of destroying any skyscraper city in the area today. There are some comparisons to the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. The original mountain was over 5000 feet high and it was almost entirely eliminated (in comparison to St. Helens, which lost about 1300 feet of “mountaintop removal”).

The film uses real footage and simulations to show what the great eruptions must have looked like. The film also shows some of the drawings of a British artist who sketched the effect of the eruption on sunsets in London for a year. During this era, all photography was in black and white.

At the end, the film shows the replacement volcano Anak Krakatau which has grown at an amazing rate, and has already caused a few injuries and deaths with spit-ups.

Krakatoa apparently did not produce as high a plume as Tambora in 1815, also in Indonesia, responsible for the "year without a summer." See the comparative chart in this Wikipedia article on Tambora.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A&E "I Survived" episode describes massive chlorine leak from Texas derailment in 2004


The “I Survived” segment on A&E tonight (Nov. 3) traced what can happen after a train derailment with chlorine gas. Two of the survivors were an elderly couple near San Antonio Texas near a massive derailment in late June 2004. A typical news story of the event is here. The A&E stories are supposed to be at Bio.com, although I couldn’t find this yet.

The couple survived over seven hours, not able to escape the cloud of chlorine because of muddy conditions and road blockage. Inside the house, stainless steel fixtures gradually disintegrated. The couples stay in the house for much of the time recalls last year's film "Right At Your Door." Emergency was not able to get to them, and actually threatened to arrest a relative volunteer fireman who said he could get to them. The 911 operator at one point told them to shower, which was wrong advice because the chlorine converted to hydrochloric acid, causing chemical burns. The inability of emergency services to perform their job seemed unbelievable. The couple eventually settled out of court with the Union Pacific Railroad.

The US Army uses chlorine gas in training recruits for chemical warfare with protective masks (which actually work very well), although in my own Army Basic we had “just” tear gas.

Major cities, including Washington DC, have been taking action to force trains carrying hazardous chemicals to bypass populated areas or tunnels. The transportation of extremely hazardous materials (including radioactive) is one of our most important homeland security issues and “mega-disaster” scenarios.

There was a somewhat similar catastrophe in South Carolina in January 2005, link here.

The “I survived” segment also covered two crime stories. A woman, driving alone on a freeway at night in Idaho is cut off, carjacked and left for dead by methamphetamine addicts. She is rescued by two teenage boys who see her car on fire. The four suspects are caught, and three get life sentences. However, carjackings and crimes of gross brutality have increased in the past eight or so years, to amount to acts of domestic terrorism.

In Kentucky, a young couple leaves a party and walks along railroad tracks and is attacked by a serial killer. Only the woman survives. The perpetrator is apprehended for a crime in Texas.

The film featured the victims and survivors talking to the camera, and mostly just stills of the scenes of the incidents.