Harold Palmer Smith Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Thinking about the 'Unthinkables' in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Harold Palmer Smith, Jr., Professor, Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, January 26, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Thinking the Unthinkables

We can say the fall of the Soviet Union created your agenda for the first phase of your recent career, and now 9/11 creates the agenda for the second phase. These problems are linked because [they are both] about cleaning up the unintended consequences of decisions made in an earlier phase. [After] 9/11, we suddenly realized that we could be attacked on the homeland by disciplined, fanatically driven terrorists, and immediately the first fear becomes, "What if they could get hold of some form of a nuclear device, whether a dirty bomb, or whatever?" And that presents your new agenda. Is that correct?

That's very well stated. Would that I could do it as well myself, Harry.

Can you state for us the entrée points into this problem? We've listened to you talk about what you've been doing, we have a sense that you have to bring different sectors together, there has to be interdisciplinary study in order to identify the problem, and then of course, hopefully down the road something will be done about it. Talk with us a little about how you're doing that now.

The problems get as complex as you have laid out. I can find no better way than a scenario to focus our thoughts, "our" being the various members of the faculty who join me in projects of this type. That's not to say that we think the scenario is going to occur. It's strictly a way of focusing one's capabilities. So, in this case, we do fear loose nukes in Russia, or probably equally likely, loose fissile material. We want to take that danger and see if we can focus what we, the United States, or we, the Russians, or we, the world community, should be doing to make sure that fanatics do not get their hands on fissile material, or worse yet, a weapon, and detonate it in a major city, whether it's an American, European or Asian [city].

So, we have been here at Berkeley following these scenarios, and in this case we decided to take a step further and propose that the fanatics that exist in Russia -- or let's say more appropriately, on the southern border where there's a strong Islamic strain -- could get a weapon. Rather than transport it across international boundaries where there's some risk it could be detected, and given the hatred that the Chechans, at least the extreme Chechans, have shown at Beslan and in Moscow itself, mass murder does not seem incredible. So, we posited that the Chechans would set off a nuclear device near the Kremlin and asked ourselves not only what would happen, which is challenging in itself, but also what should we do now to make sure that the things we most fear do not happen. This is not an easy problem for a lot of reasons. First of all, human beings don't like to think about unpleasant events.

Thinking the unthinkables, is what I would say.

That's right, and this is a take-off on Herman Kahn. I've asked my colleagues to think about the unthinkables, and they have done a very fine job. To be fair to the [Bush] administration, a lot of energy is being expended on making sure it doesn't happen. That's wise, but some effort has to go into thinking the unthinkable -- denying the denial. Universities particularly, broad-based universities like Berkeley, are the ideal place to carry on work like that. Furthermore, the Defense Department recognizes that and has sponsored this kind of work, and I think they're very pleased with their product.

Two particular problems -- let's briefly just touch on this to give our audience a feel -- and I'm going to give a popular interpretation. One is the "CSI problem," [from the] popular show "Crime Scene Investigation." The analogy here would be nuclear forensics, namely if a device were to go off, what is the evidence about who did it? This is an important piece of information about how our policy makers or Russian policy makers should respond.

That's a very fine question. Let me give a historical context. We first learned that the Russians had exploded a nuclear device by flying aircraft on the eastern border of the Soviet Union and just picking up minute amounts of the debris from that first shot, but it was enough to convince Mr. Truman correctly that indeed the Russians now had an atomic device. Well, that gives you some feeling for what we can learn from the debris from a nuclear weapon, so that if a bomb went off in the United States, we clearly have the ability to decide, within a day or two, that it was a uranium device, a plutonium device, whether it was a sophisticated device, or whether it was homemade, so to speak. That's important information.

But it goes further than that. If one has the library by which the plutonium has been produced, the reactors, the separation process, or the techniques that have been used to enrich the uranium, if one knows those things, and there are telltale isotopic ratios -- these are various forms of the key nuclei that result from separation or enrichment, and of course, the debris afterwards -- one can possibly say, "This weapon came from arsenal X." That can be extremely important.

Let's take the scenario that I posited regarding an explosion in Moscow. Certainly there's a real possibility that the Russians could conclude that it was an American device. If there were a bilateral Russian/American team with access to the libraries that we've been discussing who could say in a matter of days that, "No, that's not an American device, and in fact, it's not a Russian device," that's extremely important when one can retaliate with nuclear weapons. We've come up with this idea, it's not new but it's an idea that has to be pushed forward. The idea of nuclear forensics is not new.

The idea of bilateral or multilateral forensics -- that's new, and that's going to be very, very difficult because all countries that have developed nuclear weapons treat that information as sacrosanct, how they go about producing material, how they do the designs. That's going to be a hard, hard argument to make. But thanks to support from the Defense Department and the good people here at Berkeley, and the Livermore Laboratory, and the Sandia Laboratory, I think we're prepared to make some very potent recommendations on how to go about it.

A second problem that you're working on, and I want to, again, give our audience a feel for this problem, is if, God forbid, a device were to go off here, Russia, or somewhere else, the whole issue of evacuation, and thinking about the possibilities there, the choices before decision makers. Again, we can refer to a recent experience. What comes to mind, since I'm from Galveston, Texas, is the evacuation of Houston, where the anticipation of a storm that didn't materialize in Houston nonetheless led to flight from the city. It became a public official's nightmare, both for people who run the governments in Houston and Texas, but also officials nationally, watching this. Talk a little about that, because again, it's an interdisciplinary approach to thinking about problems [that] we'd rather not think about, but we have to.

Well, first of all, to give you a personal view, our daughter and her family moved to Houston two weeks before Hurricane Rita hit, and I finally made the decision to evacuate them.

This was Rita?

Rita, not Katrina. Southwest Airlines had a few seats left, and so we got our family out. But it certainly drove home to me personally the fears of everyone of what was then a Category 5 hurricane. You're quite right, it was downgraded by the time it hit Houston, but no one knew that at the time. Now, consider that was something that had been tracked for days. We all knew where Rita was, we had a pretty good idea where it was going, we had the experience of Katrina to show how devastating it could be. You might say there were warning signs everywhere.

Now, let's think about a nuclear explosion. There's no indication whatsoever until there's a blinding flash of light, the proverbial mushroom cloud, and worse yet, if the device is exploded on the ground, then there's all the debris from the weapon and the activated soil, concrete, glass that's around it. It is a big, black plume, and it will move in whatever direction the wind is moving. Those people who are in suburban housing have to move, because exposure to that plume for short periods of time, many minutes to an hour, could be lethal. Those people have to move.

But if we go back now to the Houston experience, everybody is going to be scared to death, and everybody will want to move, in which case nobody can move, which is what Houston showed. That means then that those in the plume will suffer radiation death, and I don't mean cancer thirty years from now, I mean death that day. So, we've formulated a problem which we call selective evacuation, and your guest a few days ago, Professor Smelser, has been a great leader in this. But it's quite simple. Those who will be in the plume should move, and those that would not be in the plume should seek shelter -- the deeper, the better. Unfortunately duct tape would be a good idea, to seal windows and things like that. One has to shelter oneself for periods of many hours, not many days.

So, it is not the Armageddon that we think of, or the nuclear exchange in the Cold War. This is one single nuclear weapon which will have death and devastation but only for perhaps a mile around the weapon, and then we fear this plume, and there, if we do it right and move the people who are in it and keep the other people sheltered, the number of fatalities goes way, way, way down. It's a very humanitarian undertaking, but it's fraught with the technology problems of how do you predict which way it's going to go, and more importantly, the psychological problems: how do you convince people to stay put with a nuclear explosion going off, or maybe equally difficult, how do you make people move, particularly since you may not have the communications system that you would like to have?

There are legal aspects here. There are political science aspects: who's in charge? There are organizational questions. The interdisciplinary nature of Berkeley and its surrounding national laboratories [makes it] ideal for us to look at [the problem]. Furthermore, [it's] better to have a university look at this terrible problem than for the government to do it, because the government then will be telling the people they honestly fear it's going to happen. There is, as we call it, plausible denial when a university and its academic thinkers take it on, but we're undertaking this project for the very reasons that you and I have been discussing.

One final question, Harold, because looking back at all we've talked about in your career, I think it's fair to say that you carry an element of hope even as you think about all these unthinkable possibilities. It's by applying rationality in an organized context that you think one makes a difference.

Yes. If you think things through, I'm quite positive we will do more than survive. We can be a very healthy society as far into the future as I can look. But you're absolutely right, Harry. What one can find on a campus like this is a group of people who are willing to sit down, think hard, write clearly about what we have concluded, and what's equally difficult, take that message to the right people where decisions can be made. It's hard work, but what else is there to do?

On that positive note, Harold, I want to thank you very much for coming back to the campus to be at the School of Public Policy, and thank you for being on our program today.

It is my pleasure. Very good questions, Harry. Thank you.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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