Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Chicago is a fantastic city in many ways; at some point I should do a series of posts on why this is the greatest city in the world to live in. One reason, believe it or not, is geography. In some respects, it's not good to live on a large plain in the middle of a large continent; there are no mountains nearby to go climbing, and with no nearby oceans the weather can get pretty dramatic. (I once read that there are only three metropolitan areas with greater than five million people in which the temperatures regularly reached over 100 degrees F in the summer and below zero in the winter: Beijing, Moscow, and Chicago.) But there is an important benefit as well: it's much harder to sneak up on an inland city with a nuclear weapon than it would be if we were on one of the coasts.

To be sure, Chicago is only about the fourth-ranked U.S. target that one would choose for a dramatic blowing-up; New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. have to be ahead of us on the list. That, coupled with the difficulty of smuggling a nuclear weapon all the way into the interior, makes it seem relatively safe here. If I lived in one of those three coastal cities, I wouldn't be nearly as sanguine. It's one of those things we don't like to talk about, but the chances of a terrorist group cobbling together the technology and raw materials for making a bomb have to be appreciable, given the half-hearted efforts that have been made to quarantine both resources and know-how thus far. (Not only have we gone quite easy on people who are known to share nuclear secrets, but our violations of the test-ban treaty and plans to build "small" tactical nuclear weapons have created a climate in which other countries do not feel encouraged to give up their own nuclear programs. Not to mention the fact that successfully building a bomb would be excellent proof against getting invaded.)

Mutually Assured Destruction, shaky as it was as a defensive doctrine under the best of circumstances, is nearly useless against terrorist organizations. There's no way of guaranteeing we would even be able to pinpoint the true culprits, nor to counterattack if we could. If terrorists somehow get the bomb, they're very likely to use it.

So what are the chances of a nuclear bomb being detonated in a U.S. city sometime in the next fifty years? One percent? Ten percent? These seem like reasonable numbers to me. What to do about it, I'm less sure.

Of course, risk analysis is notoriously difficult, and people tend to do a terrible job even when it's easy. How many people would evacuate L.A. if scientists could guarantee that there was a 20% chance of a devastating earthquake (millions dead, city in ruins) in the next twenty years? I suspect not many; when the danger is so diffuse, it's hard to take the tangible steps necessary to avoid it.

It was good to hear that Kerry is putting nuclear proliferation high on his list of foreign-policy priorities. (Even if he did choose to wear an old Monday Night Football blazer while doing so. Doesn't he have wardrobe consultants on staff?) I don't know how effective we can be, but doing everything conceivable to prevent a nuclear weapon from exploding in one of our cities seems like an easy priority to agree on.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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