Imagining the once-unimaginable

`Sum of All Fears' disaster scenes strike a chilling note of authenticity.

Science & Technology

May 26, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

It's only a movie ...

Repeat this to yourself in those final, innocent milliseconds before 69,000 Baltimore football fans are vaporized in their seats - along with the stadium itself and pretty much everything else for a quarter-mile around.

It's only a movie. It's only ...

Repeat it as the nuclear blast wave ripples out from the stadium, leaving the heart of Baltimore in shreds and its survivors burned, irradiated and bewildered.

The Sum of All Fears - the prescient 1991 Tom Clancy novel about terrorists who strike a monstrous blow against the heart of an American city - is now a movie, opening Friday. But it may be hard to dismiss the film as fantasy.

That's no accident: Clancy does his homework. And two experts, invited by The Sun to preview the movie, agree: The creators of this film, with a few slips and bows to dramatic license, have portrayed this atrocity with scientific accuracy and chilling plausibility.

Aihud Pevsner, a high-energy physicist and professor at the Johns Hopkins University, calls it "a cautionary tale for our times."

Donald M. "Doc" Lumpkins, state anti-terrorism officer with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, is grateful for the authenticity he saw. "It always helps me to do my job when people understand a little of what we're dealing with," he says.

In the movie, terrorists - hoping to foment war between the United States and Russia - acquire a small atomic bomb. They move it by ship to Baltimore and by truck into the city's football stadium, where the President of the United States (James Cromwell) and the director of the CIA (Morgan Freeman) are due to attend the Super Bowl.

Clancy's hero, Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) unravels the plot and races to save the city. Fans of the book may be surprised to see that in this movie, Ryan - formerly played by Harrison Ford - is a 28-year-old, unmarried, junior CIA analyst instead of a middle-aged and married CIA deputy director.

The Baltimore setting is another departure from the book, which put the bomb in Denver. But the change makes sense to Lumpkins. "It's a port city, and it's a place where heads of state tend to go for sporting events and other occasions," he says. "If you need ... to show you can do it without taking out the capital, it would be Baltimore."

Terrorists might also strike first in Baltimore to draw security and emergency resources away from the capital. "Then, going after D.C. would be easier," Lumpkins says. "Maryland looks at that as one of the very real scenarios. A lot of planning has been done to keep some of the resources in D.C."

Seaport security has become a critical concern since Sept. 11. The U.S. Customs Service has increased by about half the 2 to 3 percent of inbound shipping containers opened pre-Sept. 11. (The Port of Baltimore alone admits the equivalent of 371,000 20-foot trucks each year.)

That means at least 95 percent enter unopened. But officials insist that's misleading: Inspectors target the most suspicious cargoes after close scrutiny of the listed contents and origins of all containers, and any intelligence from here and abroad.

But Pevsner says, "You can't assume some determined terrorist can't find a way to bring in a 100-pound device hidden in a container full of potatoes."

In the movie, the bomb's core is the size of a soccer ball. "You can have small atomic devices as small as an artillery shell - 2 feet by 6 inches," he says.

So the movie's depiction of the terrorists' 11-kiloton atomic device - found in the 29-year-old wreckage of an Israeli jet in the Golan - is plausible, even if it seems implausible that the Israelis would leave a nuclear device in the desert to be found.

Four thousand customs inspectors carry gamma radiation detectors, with 4,500 more on order. But there are few sure ways to detect gamma radiation from outside a shipping container, Pevsner says. "I would bet my nickel on the smugglers."

Lumpkins agrees. "Unfortunately," he says, "the mushroom cloud would be your first clue."

Customs spokesman Dean Boyd, who has not seen the movie, is more optimistic. He says good police work has already paid off in several seizures of nuclear material overseas. The service is negotiating to place more officers in key foreign ports. It's also training thousands of foreign customs officials to spot nuclear contraband, and providing equipment.

Customs also is rushing more X-ray machines into service, which can detect uranium and plutonium inside containers because of their very high density. And they're buying more detectors capable of sensing other radioactive materials that could be used in so-called "dirty" bombs.

"We're not there yet," Boyd said. "It takes money. It's expensive. It's a work in progress."

New York Sen. Charles Schumer this month proposed that the government spend $250 million more to develop a new generation of detectors to protect the nation's ports.

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