The Hiroshima Fallacy

A nuclear physicist shares his views on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons;

The most likely form of nuclear attack in the modern world is one carried out by terrorists. In carrying out such an attack, the attackers might well use a device quite different from the sophisticated weapon that military experts suggest it will take Iran “five to eight years” to develop. Current thought on this subject is often informed by what one might call the “Hiroshima fallacy,” the belief that terrorists would not consider the use of a nuclear weapon significantly less sophisticated than the first weapon used against Japan, or one with a yield significantly less than the yield of that weapon. This is simply not true. Terrorists could inflict tremendous damage in terms of both human life and economic disruption with much simpler devices. Another potentially dangerous fallacy is the notion that terrorists could not attack without transporting a complete weapon to the target. This, too, is nonsense.

The rest at Medienkritik

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Terrorism, , ,
Kate McMillan
About Kate McMillan
Kate McMillan is the proprietor of small dead animals, which has won numerous awards including Best Conservative Blog and Best Canadian Blog. She contributed nearly 300 pieces to OTB between November 2004 and June 2007. Follow her on Twitter @katewerk.


  1. Anderson says:

    I’m not qualified to pronounce on the physics, but the article is very plausible.

    So, when do we invade Pakistan?

  2. LJD says:

    …if we once again see a mushroom cloud rise over one of our cities, there will be a very significant rearrangement of attitudes regarding this matter, in Europe and elsewhere.

  3. spencer says:

    But the article does not address the question is
    a terrorist more likely to get the needed nuclear material from Iran or from the old Soviet stockpiles.

    If the policy objective is to minimize the chances of terrorists getting nuclear components
    it would seem that we should spend a lot more attention to securing the Soviet stockpiles then
    preventing Iran from developing a nuclear capacity.

    If the main reason nations do not use nuclear weapons is the fear of retaliation why would a state like Iran or Iraq ever provide traceable nuclear materials to a terrorists?

  4. legion says:

    A very interesting article, but the author makes one logical mistake – equating Iran with a stateless terrorist group. I know, their funding & support of such groups blurs the line, but there’s an important issue in the distinction. A terrorist group, like AQ, Hezbolla, etc., only needs to cause destruction to its target. But a _nation_ has to operate on many more levels. As he states, a nuke may be no more valuable a weapon to a terrorist group than a dirty bomb or bioweapon – in fact, it’s vastly more complicated to make and use. But to a nation, just having that nuclear capability enhances their position militarily _and_ politically, and is well worth the expense & diplomatic flak (as has been demonstrated by the more recent inductees to the “Nuclear Club”).

  5. If civilian deaths are your prime concern, and death of your people delivering the weapon, then ounce for ounce, I believe you can get a lot more deaths with the weapons grade material in a fine powder distributed over major population areas than on a big boom. It further raises the effective casualty rate by including those who worry they might develop cancer, those who already had undetected cancer and those who would have developed cancer anyway.

    The only nation I am aware of that went nuclear, then allowed the country to “go under” without using the nukes is South Africa. I suspect that we will see another example, for good or ill, in North Korea within the next decade or so.

  6. legion says:

    Interesting observation, YAJ. I had forgotten about SA’s efforts in that. Of course, Botha couldn’t very well nuke the source of his problems, what with them being largely the growing power (and support across the entire planet) of the black population in his own country. Also Botha, bastard though he was, wasn’t clinically insane. I too think NK can’t keep itself together much longer, but I wonder if Kim is just wacky enough to try to take SK, Japan, or a bunch of Americans down with him if he gets deposed…

  7. Legion,

    I think Botha could have found some targets if he wanted to. If nothing else, he could have hit some Cuban troop concentrations. But despite some who wanted to fight on, Botha realized that the SA he championed was doomed and tried for as soft a landing as possible (which I think he got).

    Like you, I don’t see Kim being nearly as reasonable. I’m not sure if he directly would be the biggest threat or if a fanatic involved in an internal power struggle after he goes would be the biggest threat. Part of this is how you view human nature. Can someone function at a level high enough to be in the power struggle be so blinded by Kim’s view of the world or does rising to such a level force them to be a little more open eyed? The soviet union certainly argues for the later.

    My hope and I think the odds point towards the nukes not being used. But it certainly is a strong argument to me for the development of anti-ballistic missile capability. Yeah, an old soviet empire attack with thousands of missiles and thousands of dummies would have been pretty hard to stop. But my gut tells me that the ability to knock down a few missiles could save a lot of grief at some point in the future. The risk may not be that high, the costs aren’t insignificant, but the downside is so bad that its worth the investment.

  8. Kent G. Budge says:

    I can’t speak as freely as I would like, but I think it is safe to say that the Hiroshima weapon was actually quite a simple design, all too easily duplicated, especially if yield efficiency is not that great a concern.

    I agree with the comment that security at the old Soviet arsenals was a real problem. I use the past tense because there has, in fact, been quite a lot of cooperation between our country and the fragments of the former Soviet Union to improve security. I don’t know that the risk has been eliminated, but I’m fairly confident it has been reduced significantly since the breakup. You don’t hear a lot about it because it doesn’t make splashy headlines, and because security measures are not something you broadcast.

    Folks living in Albuquerque during the 90s recall the frequent arrival at Kirtland AFB of large green cargo aircraft with pretty red stars. They weren’t bringing in vodka and caviar.