Daily Kos
Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Monday | July 21, 2003

Ignorance reigns

by RonK, Seattle

On a tangent from the BIG intelligence debacle that suckered us into fisticuffs with the Mesopotamian Tar Baby, we present a smaller-scale proof that ignorance reigns, while national security dribbles down the drain.

On Meet The Press Sunday (2003-07-20), Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) reminded us how little our leaders know about WMD, and suggested how little they care about getting the facts straight.

REP. HASTERT: ... it's there, barrels, as a matter of fact tons, of plutonium, some of it this yellow cake plutonium from Niger, that they had purchased, you know, previously. ... So they do have capability.
What's wrong with this picture?

Plutonium is hot stuff ... fissionable, right out of the box. One ton equals roughly 100 critical masses. Iraq has plutonium, all right, but in laboratory quantities ... grams or fractions of grams extracted from research reactors.

Yellowcake is a refined extract of uranium ore, upwards of 50% uranium by weight, of which 0.7% is fissionable U235. It takes around five tons of yellowcake to produce one critical mass of U235.

So does Iraq "have capability"? If they had tons of plutonium, they'd have capability to produce hundreds of atomic bombs using proven designs. [They'd still have to conduct live tests ... plutonium bomb designs are technically difficult to execute, and available design documents often contain deliberate errors.]

With tons of yellowcake on hand, Iraq would have capability to produce cumbersome, low-yield uranium weapons IF they also had facilities like our Oak Ridge National Laboratory to concentrate the U235. With further technical development -- and live testing -- they would have capability to produce lighter-weight, higher-yield devices.

What Iraq has today -- as they had before the war -- is capability to store barrels of yellow dirt.

Should Hastert know better?

REP. HASTERT: Look, you know, I'm not the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, but I do get briefed on a weekly basis. It's part of my job to know what's going on.
In Constitutional line of succession, Mr. Speaker sits two heartbeats away from the Oval Office. It is part of his job to know what's going on. In certain critical scenarios, it could be strategically important to know bombs from dirt.

Hastert gets briefed. He clearly doesn't comprehend all the material. That's OK, but he should have someone close at hand who does grasp the material, and who keeps Mr. Speaker clearly aware of his own intellectual boundaries.

Now for Senator Joe Biden (D-DE).

SEN. BIDEN: ... with North Korea ... a ball of plutonium about as big as this coffee cup is undetectable, can be sent out and sold for a lot of money, homemade nuclear device that's over one kiloton can be made from a ball this high in a rifle device that can be, 'a rifle' they call it, device that's homemade.
Sen. Biden is not as far off the mark as Speaker Hastert. A critical mass of plutonium is comparable in size to a Meet The Press souvenir coffee mug. It could be smuggled across borders (though it is decidedly more detectable than the MTP mug). But the homemade "rifle" design?

A crude gun-type uranium bomb has a decent chance of detonating, but plutonium is touchier stuff ... highly susceptible to predetonation. You can shoot a wedge of plutonium into a subcritical sphere of the stuff, but early-stage fission will release enough energy to blow the sphere to smithereens -- quenching the chain reaction.

Plutonium smithereens make for a potent "dirty bomb" ... but not a kiloton blast. Why would a terrorist bear the expense and mission risk of procuring black market plutonium when he could slap a dirty bomb together out of industrial isotopes and nitrate fertilizer?

As the opposition party's foremost foreign policy figure (Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) it's Biden's job to know what's going on, too. He gets briefed, but the details run together and end up as indistinguishable figures of speech. Like Hastert, he's happy to share his garbled understanding with Mr.and Mrs. America ... aimlessly, shamelessly, and erroneously.

It's not clear whether know-it-all moderator Tim Russert detected Hastert's gaffe. He clearly missed Biden's. Neither occasioned mainstream correction or comment, at least in the first response cycle.

Uranium is not plutonium. Yellowcake is not U235. A nation that has a barrel of yellowcake is not the same threat as a nation that has a ton of plutonium.
Until our leaders -- and their interlocutors -- begin to take hard facts more seriously, our national dialogue will remain incoherent and our collective response to emerging threats will remain dysfunctional.

Meanwhile ... Biden is from Pluto, Hastert is from Uranus, and our little planet is in a world o' hurt.

Posted July 21, 2003 01:10 PM


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