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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Reading List: Secrets of the Kingdom

Posner, Gerald L. Secrets of the Kingdom. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6291-8.
Most of this short book (196 pages of main text) is a straightforward recounting of the history of Saudi Arabia from its founding as a unified kingdom in 1932 under Ibn Saud, and of the petroleum-dominated relationship between the United States and the kingdom up to the present, based almost entirely upon secondary sources. Chapter 10, buried amidst the narrative and barely connected to the rest, and based on the author's conversations with an unnamed Mossad (Israeli intelligence) officer and an unidentified person claiming to be an eyewitness, describes a secret scheme called "Petroleum Scorched Earth" ("Petro SE") which, it is claimed, was discovered by NSA intercepts of Saudi communications which were shared with the Mossad and then leaked to the author.

The claim is that the Saudis have rigged all of their petroleum infrastructure so that it can be destroyed from a central point should an invader be about to seize it, or the House of Saud fall due to an internal revolution. Oil and gas production facilities tend to be spread out over large areas and have been proven quite resilient--the damage done to Kuwait's infrastructure during the first Gulf War was extensive, yet reparable in a relatively short time, and the actual petroleum reserves are buried deep in the Earth and are essentially indestructible--if a well is destroyed, you simply sink another well; it costs money, but you make it back as soon as the oil starts flowing again. Refineries and storage facilities are more easily destroyed, but the real long-term wealth (and what an invader or revolutionary movement would covet most) lies deep in the ground. Besides, most of Saudi Arabia's export income comes from unrefined products (in the first ten months of 2004, 96% of Saudi Arabia's oil exports to the U.S. were crude), so even if all the refineries were destroyed (which is difficult--refineries are big and spread out over a large area) and took a long time to rebuild, the core of the export economy would be up and running as soon as the wells were pumping and pipelines and oil terminals were repaired.

So, it is claimed, the Saudis have mined their key facilities with radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), "dirty bombs" composed of Semtex plastic explosive mixed with radioactive isotopes of cesium, rubidium (huh?), and/or strontium which, when exploded, will disperse the radioactive material over a broad area, which (p. 127) "could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years". What's that? Do I hear some giggling from the back of the room from you guys with the nuclear bomb effects computers? Well, gosh, where shall we begin?

Let us commence by plinking an easy target, the rubidium. Metallic rubidium burns quite nicely in air, which makes it easy to disperse, but radioactively it's a dud. Natural rubidium contains about 28% of the radioactive isotope rubidium-87, but with a half-life of about 50 billion years, it's only slightly more radioactive than dirt when dispersed over any substantial area. The longest-lived artificially created isotope is rubidium-83 with a half-life of only 86 days, which means that once dispersed, you'd only have to wait a few months for it to decay away. In any case, something which decays so quickly is useless for mining facilities, since you'd need to constantly produce fresh batches of the isotope (in an IAEA inspected reactor?) and install it in the bombs. So, at least the rubidium part of this story is nonsense; how about the rest?

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 both have half-lives of about 30 years and are readily taken up and stored in the human body, so they are suitable candidates for a dirty bomb. But while a dirty bomb is a credible threat for contaminating high-value, densely populated city centres in countries whose populations are wusses about radiation, a sprawling oil field or petrochemical complex is another thing entirely. The Federation of American Scientists report, "Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat", estimates that in the case of a cobalt-salted dirty bomb, residents who lived continuously in the contaminated area for forty years after the detonation would have a one in ten chance of death from cancer induced by the radiation. With the model cesium bomb, five city blocks would be contaminated at a level which would create a one in a thousand chance of cancer for residents.

But this is nothing! To get a little perspective on this, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Leading Causes of Death Reports, people in the United States never exposed to a dirty bomb have a 22.8% probability of dying of cancer. While the one in ten chance created by the cobalt dirty bomb is a substantial increase in this existing risk, that's the risk for people who live for forty years in the contaminated area. Working in a contaminated oil field is quite different. First of all, it's a lot easier to decontaminate steel infrastructure and open desert than a city, and oil field workers can be issued protective gear to reduce their exposure to the remaining radiation. In any case, they'd only be in the contaminated area for the work day, then return to a clean area at the end of the shift. You could restrict hiring to people 45 years and older, pay a hazard premium, and limit their contract to either a time period (say two years) or based on integrated radiation dose. Since radiation-induced cancers usually take a long time to develop, older workers are likely to die of some other cause before the effects of radiation get to them. (This sounds callous, but it's been worked out in detail in studies of post nuclear war decontamination. The rules change when you're digging out of a hole.)

Next, there is this dumb-as-a-bag-of-dirt statement on p. 127:

Saudi engineers calculated that the soil particulates beneath the surface of most of their three hundred known reserves are so fine that radioactive releases there would permit the contamination to spread widely through the soil subsurface, carrying the radioactivity far under the ground and into the unpumped oil. This gave Petro SE the added benefit of ensuring that even if a new power in the Kingdom could rebuild the surface infrastructure, the oil reserves themselves might be unusable for years.
Hey, you guys in the back--enough with the belly laughs! Did any of the editors at Random House think to work out, even if you stipulated that radioactive contamination could somehow migrate from the surface down through hundreds to thousands of metres of rock (how, due to the abundant rain?), just how much radioactive contaminant you'd have to mix with the estimated two hundred and sixty billion barrels of crude oil in the Saudi reserves to render it dangerously radioactive? In any case, even if you could magically transport the radioactive material into the oil bearing strata and supernaturally mix it with the oil, it would be easy to separate during the refining process.

Finally, there's the question of why, if the Saudis have gone to all the trouble to rig their oil facilities to self-destruct, it has remained a secret waiting to be revealed in this book. From a practical standpoint, almost all of the workers in the Saudi oil fields are foreigners. Certainly some of them would be aware of such a massive effort and, upon retirement, say something about it which the news media would pick up. But even if the secret could be kept, we're faced with the same question of deterrence which arose in the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove with the Soviet doomsday machine--it's idiotic to build a doomsday machine and keep it a secret! Its only purpose is to deter a potential attack, and if attackers don't know there's a doomsday machine, they won't be deterred. Precisely the same logic applies to the putative Saudi self-destruct button.

Now none of this argumentation proves in any way that the Saudis haven't rigged their oil fields to blow up and scatter radioactive material on the debris, just that it would be a phenomenally stupid thing for them to try to do. But then, there are plenty of precedents for the Saudis doing dumb things--they have squandered the greatest fortune in the history of the human race and, while sitting on a quarter of all the world's oil, seen their per capita GDP erode to fall between that of Poland and Latvia. If, indeed, they have done something so stupid as this scorched earth scheme, let us hope they manage the succession to the throne, looming in the near future, in a far more intelligent fashion.

Posted at July 21, 2005 23:57