Safe as houses

Quick note – I haven’t exhausted the topic of thorium, and I am incredibly gratified at the number of comments my last two postings have attracted and the thought that’s gone into them. But I wanted to take a short break from thorium since I know that not everyone is completely enamored of that particular topic! But never fear – next week I’ll get back to thorium with a discussion of the thorium reactors and their impact on proliferation.


To assure someone that something is perfectly safe the British will say that it’s “safe as houses.” The term is thought to date back to the railway bubbles of the late 19th century – when they burst and sent stocks plummeting people returned to their senses, realizing that while stocks can rise and fall, real estate tended to maintain a slow but steady upward trend. The last few years, though, we’ve found that even real estate isn’t safe as houses. And much more recently it seems that even some of the most dangerous materials in the world might be safe as houses – at least safe as houses in the last few years.

In Oak Ridge Tennessee an 82 year-old nun and two sidekicks (57 and 63, respectively) broke into a high-security area at the Y-12 plant, using the sophisticated technique of cutting through a chain-link fence with bolt cutters. This group of youthful ruffians wandered around for two hours before they were finally run to ground – at a facility that stores weapons-grade uranium. Several time zones away WMD security is also an issue, whether we’re talking about the security of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles or of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

So…highly dangerous materials ought to be kept secure – that’s sort of an easy conclusion to reach, but there’s more to these stories than just cautionary tales about WMD potentially astray in a dangerous world. For example, we might ask ourselves what level of security is appropriate and who should provide it. Or what steps can we justify taking in order to try to keep ourselves secure – and can we justify infringing on another nation’s sovereignty in order to try to secure these weapons to our satisfaction.

So let’s start by thinking about why we want to secure these materials in the first place. I know it seems fairly obvious – we don’t want the bad guys (our enemies) to get their hands on materials that can be used to attack us or our allies. It would be tragic to be attacked with pilfered WMD no matter where they came from; it would be both tragic and embarrassing to be attacked with a bomb made of nuclear materials stolen from one of our own facilities. Since we know that we are at risk from groups that want to use these weapons against us it seems to make sense to try to control those weapons that might be at risk.

So we have to ask ourselves how well our own nuclear materials are if an octogenarian nun can mastermind a break-in at what is supposed to be a highly secure facility and can evade capture for 2 hours.

Let’s stipulate to the fact that this ought to be unacceptable and not dwell too much on that point (although I’ve got to admit that this sounds more like something I’d expect to see in a comedy movie). But it’s interesting to look a little further and to ask why in the world we would allow a private security firm, no matter how good, to guard materials that, if they go astray, could kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people. I understand that private security firms can be quite good – that they often use highly skilled former soldiers and marines, and that they are well-trained and dedicated. But is this good enough? Shouldn’t we want the most destructive weapons on Earth to be guarded by those who have sworn an oath to defend our nation against all enemies rather than those who are working for a paycheck? Please note – I am not doubting the competence or the dedication of the private security professionals at these facilities – what I am asking is if there might be more to keeping our nuclear materials safe, and that perhaps safeguarding them ought to rely on more than a contract.

Moving overseas, we’ve heard of worries about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, including speculation that the US might already have plans to move to secure these weapons if it looks as though they’d otherwise fall into the hands of terrorists or militants. More recently there’s been concern about the security of Syria’s chemical weapons, including suggestions that the US (or another nation) should move to secure Syria’s chemical weapons if it looks as though the Assad government is going to crumble. And here we’ve got two quandaries – can we secure these weapons, and should we move to do so? Or maybe there’s another way to ask the question – does the potential risk to the US and our allies from these weapons outstrip the risk to our international reputation from actions we might take to secure them?

After all, securing Pakistani or Syrian nuclear and chemical weapons would require our invading a sovereign nation and placing their most valuable weapons under our control. At the very least such a move would be humiliating to Pakistan or Syria, and if we’ve learned nothing in the last decade of war in Muslim lands we’ve learned that memories are long in these nations and that pride runs deep and is nearly as important as oxygen. If we were to land even a small expeditionary force to secure these weapons we might feel safer for a time, but we could also cause wounds that could last for generations. Not only that, but any such effort carries with it the possibility of further dividing the world community into those who support the actions taken and those opposed – it seems entirely plausible that those in favor would include other nations at risk of terrorist attack (England, France, Spain, Germany) and that those opposed would likely include any number of nations in the Middle East, in addition to upsetting nations who are already prone to think of the West (in general) and the US (specifically) as aggressive nations. To justify such an action we would at least have to make a case that the risk to us of inaction would outstrip the risk to us (reputation, international opprobrium, inflaming anti-American sentiments).

OK, so how do we balance the American lives that might be lost in a hypothetical terrorist attack against the cost to our nation from international outrage and increased anti-American sentiments? Let’s try some hypothetical what-ifs.

What if, for example, we know that the collapse of the Syrian government is certain to lead to the seizure of their chemical weapons by a terrorist group and that this group was certain to use them against the US. In a case like this I suspect that most would agree that we’d be justified in acting to secure weapons that would otherwise be almost certain to cause untold American deaths. But this is an easy case – what about something more challenging? What if we knew that these weapons would be used, but not against us – what if we could prove that they were to be used against one of our allies – Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, or Israel. Could we justify the infringement on Syrian sovereignty to avert an attack against a third nation?

I’m fairly certain that the intended target would approve! But what about the rest of the world – could we convince, say, Iran that we were justified in invading Syria in order to prevent a putative terrorist attack against Saudi Arabia? In a case like this the American public (not to mention the public in the nation that would otherwise have been attacked) would probably approve. But what about the rest of the world? Would other nations support our actions, or would this make things more difficult? And what if our intelligence was wrong?

A variation of this would be knowledge of an attack against a nation that is not an ally – what if, say, we had knowledge that terrorists were planning to use Syria’s chemical weapons against, say, civilians in the Sudan, or in the tri-border region of South America (near the junction of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina)? Should we risk American lives and possible international outrage to help avert deaths in a nation that has little or no value to our national interests? Is the risk to our international standing balanced by the risk to lives in a nation that we (sorry to say) just might not care about?

One approach might be to use the utilitarian argument – the most good to the most people. If an invasion to secure Syria’s chemical weapons is estimated to cost, say, 1000 lives  but an attack would cost 100,000 lives then the numbers are in favor of an intervention. The problem is that the utilitarian argument is based only on numbers and doesn’t include moral or ethical issues – this is called the utilitarian fallacy. Would we execute a thousand innocent citizens to avert a war that could cost 10,000 lives? Probably not, because this would be morally wrong. But what about executing a hundred people in cold blood to avoid the death of a million – is this morally acceptable? My guess is that most of us would say no, even though the math says yes. But in reality we are not comparing numbers – we are comparing one morally reprehensible act against another. No matter how it might be justified, there are many who would argue that deliberately taking even a single innocent life cannot be justified, even if it were to prevent a war. Hard as it might be for the scientist in me to accept, many problems come down to more than math.

So – should we invade Syria to keep its chemical weapons from falling into extremist hands? Or should we invade a crumbling Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons? In all honesty I don’t know. But I do know that there are a lot of factors to consider – more than the numbers of potential dead and more than what our gut instinct might tell us is the thing to do. Whatever our leaders choose to do, I can only hope that they are considering not only the math, but the morality and ethics as well as the impact on our international standing.

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2 Responses to “Safe as houses”

  1. Derek R. August 27, 2012 at 10:45 AM #

    What I’m about to say does not mean I believe it is necessary at this time to physically pursue seeking/securing WMD in Syria; that is a whole different rabbit trail. I am not knowlegeable enough on the topic to discuss the “when” and “if/then” aspects. That said, IF we would find it necessary to pursue this course of action, I think it would be highly possible to do so in a manner consistent with what happened in Abbottabad… in other words covertly and without damage to innocent civilian lives. I realize the differences: several locations instead of one location, highly secure government facilities instead of a private compound, the necessity (for best success in this situation) of using local nationals instead of completing the task using only U.S. forces… etc.

    Despite the flaps and failures of the past decade and beyond, there are, as well, many examples of successful operations throughout. The late Richard Helms, former DCI, writes in his memoir that the truly successful operations (and of course these are the ones the public never quite gets to hear about) shared common characteristics, two of which were good intelligence and a population ready and willing to support the covert and overt elements of the operation. In other words, if a large portion of the population in a country (like Syria) is already rightfully agitated, they are basically ready and waiting for whatever strong arm of support they can receive for their righteous cause. This is a ripe field for harvesting in the field of intelligence and covert action, is it not? Then, with time and dedication on the part of the “benefactors” and “beneficiaries” the groundwork can be laid for a successful operation, even in a situation as tough as this.

    Well, that is just my musings and opinions. It was an interesting article to read, and I think we all agree that Syria, especially, confronts us with a potential dilemma. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

  2. rich August 27, 2013 at 7:48 AM #

    Moot point now (8-27-13) Syria has used its weapons on its own population and Turkey (?) has found sarin in the hands of terrorists linked to Syria.

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