The threat of radiological terror:

Not if but when: “All Sept. 11 did was turn a theoretical possibility into a felt danger. All it did was supply a credible cast of characters who hate us so much they would thrill to the prospect of actually doing it — and, most important in rethinking the probabilities, would be happy to die in the effort. All it did was give our nightmares legs…

The best reason for thinking it won’t happen is that it hasn’t happened yet, and that is terrible logic. The problem is not so much that we are not doing enough to prevent a terrorist from turning our atomic knowledge against us (although we are not). The problem is that there may be no such thing as ‘enough’. ”

The author comprehensively considers the risk of both the detonation of an atomic explosion and the non-explosive dispersal of radioactive matierals by terrorists. Uncharacteristically, he lapses into the first person toward the end of the article:

Fear is personal. My own — in part, because it’s the one I grew up with, the one that made me shiver through the Cuban missile crisis and ”On the Beach” — is the horrible magic of nuclear fission. A dirty bomb or an assault on a nuclear power station, ghastly as that would be, feels to me within the range of what we have survived. As the White House official I spoke with said, it’s basically Oklahoma City plus the Hart Office Building. A nuclear explosion is in a different realm of fears and would test the country in ways we can scarcely imagine.

I share this reaction; it’s the reason, as readers of FmH will recall, that I disapprove of referring to the WTC site as “ground zero,” a term whose connotations properly relate to the site of a nuclear blast. Most people have no idea how unimaginably worse a nuclear detonation in the midst of New York would have been, and we ought not use sexy linguistic hype to obscure that distinction:

As I neared the end of this assignment, I asked Matthew McKinzie, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, to run a computer model of a one-kiloton nuclear explosion in Times Square, half a block from my office, on a nice spring workday. By the standards of serious nuclear weaponry, one kiloton is a junk bomb, hardly worthy of respect, a fifteenth the power of the bomb over Hiroshima.

A couple of days later he e-mailed me the results, which I combined with estimates of office workers and tourist traffic in the area…

NY Times Magazine