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July 2006

Nuclear Materials at the Bulgarian Border: A Puzzle

(Click on the graphic below to see a pdf version you can zoom in on.)


At the Counterterrorism Blog, in a post entitled, Iran caught red handed in smuggling nuclear material, Olivier Guitta remarks on an intriguing news story alleging that Bulgaria had detained, at the Romanian border checkpoint at the Russebridge over the Danube, a truck containing materials that could be used to build a dirty bomb. Agence France-Presse first reported it. There's also a Sofia News Agency version, and a longer Daily Mail (UK) version. Each has a detail or two that the others don't, but this excerpt from the Dail Mail will give you the general idea:

Border guards seized a British lorry on its way to make a delivery to the Iranian military - after discovering it was packed with radioactive material that could be used to build a dirty bomb.

The lorry set off from Kent on its way to Tehran but was stopped by officials at a checkpoint on Bulgaria's northernborder with Romania after a scanner indicated radiation levels 200 times above normal.

The lorry was impounded and the Bulgarian Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NPA) was called out.

On board they found ten lead-lined boxes addressed to the Iranian Ministry of Defence. Inside each box was a soil-testing device, containing highly dangerous quantities of radioactive caesium 137 and americium-beryllium.

The soil testers had been sent to Iran by a British firm with the apparent export approval of the Department of Trade and Industry.

Last night, the head of the Bulgarian NRA, Nikolai Todorov, said he was shocked that devices containing so much nuclear material could be sold so easily.

He said: "The devices are highly radioactive - if you had another 90 of them you would be able to make an effective dirty bomb."

And a spokesman for the Bulgarian customs office, said: "The documentation listed the shipment as destined for the Ministry of Transport in Tehran, although the final delivery address was the Iranian Ministry of Defence.

"According to the documentation they are hand-held soil-testing devices which were sent from a firm in the United Kingdom."

The shipping company involved is Orient Transport Services of Sevenoaks, Kent, apparently located in one of the most affluent towns in Southeast England. According to their website, they ship to Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Belarus, Russia.

If in fact the radioactive soil-testing devices traveled all the way from Kent, they were a little less than half way on their 3,000 mile journey to Tehran when they were impounded by the Bulgarians, and would have already passed through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Romania before being stopped after crossing into Bulgaria.

The news articles imply that the radioactive materials were apprehended in the same truck they left Kent in. But an examination of the Orient Transport Services site has maps of countries where they deliver suggesting regular delivery routes, and the Map Key mentions an "Istanbul control centre" suggesting a transportation network rather than just individual trucks that make really long drives. Also, the truck stopped in Bulgaria had Turkish plates; the location where it was stopped is a little over 150 miles from the Turkish border. So it seems to me unlikely that the truck itself came all the way from Kent. News reports have not yet identified the UK company alleged to have sent the equipment.

So how much mischief could have been caused with the kind of stuff that was in the truck? Some. Apparently, these devices in their native state pose little danger of radiation exposure and breaking them down for parts is a lot of trouble for not very much radioactive material. Nonetheless, there is a perceived problem with the theft of portable radioactive gages, and some consideration has been given to what could be done with them. Here is a discussion of safety issues involving similar equipment left lying around in California: Radioactive material not life threatening: Soil density gauge stolen, then recovered in Chualar.

A scientific instrument the size of an ice chest that contains low-grade radioactive material touched off a nuclear alert Sunday when it was found abandoned outside a neighborhood grocery store in Chualar.

The device, a soil density gauge, had been stolen from a vehicle belonging to Salinas-based Kleinfelder Inc. on Saturday, the Monterey County Sheriff's Office said. The machine is used to measure soil density and helps contractors determine whether soil will support various structures.

. . . The machine was returned to Kleinfelder personnel, who assured the public safety workers that although the device does contain radioactive material there was no threat to anyone who came in contact with it.

In general it seems that while someone could use the contents of that truck as ingredients of something that might be called a "dirty bomb," it would be a rather disappointing one, not up to the standards of the popular imagination.

So what's going on here? Are Iranians with overactive imaginations ordering soil testing equipment in hopes of blowing stuff up and making a radioactive mess? Are Bulgarian customs officials with overactive imaginations detaining perfectly legal shipments of soil testing equipment which otherwise would have been shipped to someone at the Iranian Ministry of Defense who urgently needed some soil tested? Was the equipment really going to end up in Iran? If so, why was it traveling by ground when it was still about 1,500 miles from its destination? Or was it going to one of the other places OTS ships? Whatever the answers to these questions are, what this situation isn't is an open and shut case of the Iranian military ordering up fissionable materials from a source in the UK, which is what it appeared to be at first blush. It seems to me that someone somewhere in this supply chain is being conned. I'm just not sure who.

Speculations on where Israel will attack on the ground

Based on new information, detailed in Bill Roggio's post More fighting near Avivim; prelude to invasion?, I have annotated the graphic I did the other day on Hezbollah's new reach into Israel. The full annotated version is HERE. (For the uninitiated, note that this map's vantage point is Lebanon looking towards Israel.)

For Google Earth mavens: I'm on the road, so finding a way to do further work on the image was an interesting technical challenge. Not only am I not at my usual desktop machine, but I managed to leave at home the Firewire cable for my hard drive, so even though I have the drive, I can't access any of the programs on it. The initial image, posted the other day, was created using both Google Earth and Photoshop. I don't have access to Photoshop here, and I'm working on a much smaller monitor, here in my hotel room.

Luckily, I have InDesign installed on this machine, so annotations in this version were made using InDesign. I used Google Earth for reference, but did not introduce any new imagery created in Google Earth.

Your current life getting you down? Why not spend a bunch of money doing something stupid?

I was entertained by this detail in this morning's BBC story, Kenya captures 'terror suspect':

Abdulkadir Karim Tunda was captured in the Kenyan coastal town in possession of eight fake passports on Thursday.

Wonder what countries they were for and what other fake/mailorder IDs he had. Further to the subject of fake passorts, a  Sri Lankan couple just got themselves in big trouble trying to travel by air with fake Canadian passports. (I can just imagine the fight they had afterwards!)

So I was poking around a little and came across the website They are apparently having a big sale, so if you're dumb enough to go for this, act now without thinking!

Take advantage of our Summer Sale!!! Take 10% Off Everything until August 30th, 2006!!! Credit card orders: a 10% rebate check will be mailed with your order, Mail orders: simply deduct 10% (before shipping costs)! Hurry, sale ends August 30th, 2006!

So, what can you get from them?

"Get A Bulletproof Fake ID Fast!"

How You Can Get A Complete Fake ID & Identity Fast and Easy!

Are you sick of collection agents hounding you? Do you have no pay left after alimony? Are Stalkers constantly finding you? Is your credit report more like a wanted poster? You need a bulletproof fake id - a rock solid past and a new start! Our Fake ID System will get you a complete new past, a new name, new driver's license and a complete new identity with a new social security number, and much more - and the best part is, they're all verifiable! Get a brand new, clean credit report - forget all those expensive credit repair programs! You can finally break free of bad credit, have anyone think that you're any person - of any age - from anywhere you like!

You can read their testimonials HERE. Here's my favorite

My DL was suspended for a DWI and I thought that I wouldn't be able to continue to commute to work (which is obviously needed!), I spent a couple of weeks with the program and now have a new birth certificate and DL. Thanks for helping me out of a possible financial disaster!

Keith - White Plains, NY

Does any piece of this sound legal to you? If so, which piece? You too can be the total idiot who forks over money in order to feel secure in driving with a suspended license!

Staying over with the woman who broke Isaac Asimov's heart.

Last night we stayed over in a B&B in a quaint old house in New Castle, Delaware. At breakfast, we noticed a copy of Isaac Asimov's memoirs in the dining room. David remarked upon this, and our hostess, a pleasant lady of advanced age, said she had known Isaac and that he was a major influence on her life, and that she was in the book. The chapter of Asimov's memoirs entitled "Heartbreak" is about her.

After breakfast, I took the kids out to the B&B's rather nice gardens, adjacent the waterfront park in New Castle, and David and our hostess exchanged Asimov stories. Apparently, Asimov spoke highly of her to Robert A. Heinlein, who subsequently recruited her into the Navy in Philadelphia.


Liz and Peter with a statue in the garden.

My Surprise Hit: the Hezbollah bombing range graphic

Night before last, I was asked by a good friend to do a quick Google Earth favor. Yesterday morning, I finished a draft of the graphic. I was asked if the graphic could be given to "Bill" to post (i.e. Bill Roggio of the Counterterrorism Blog). Sure, I said. And a little while later, I tossed it up on Flickr as an afterthought. Then I decided to blog the pic myself: Being a goddess of Google Earth, I have a different constituency than Bill does.

This evening, Flickr reports that the graphic has been viewed 20,363 times. I'm a bit bewildered by this, since it was created to help with a discussion among a very small group of people. Sure it was topical and was picked up by BoingBoing, but I've done topical stuff in Google Earth before and had it picked up by BoingBoing and other major blogs. And this one is running at about 20 times the popularity of the next runner up in my Flickr account. And the Hezbollah bombing range graphic is now about 5 times as popular as my previous Greatest Hit, a scan of some fake Yu-Gi-Oh! cards from my son's card collection.

The way the graphic is supposed to be used is at full rez in coordination with the list of missiles and their ranges that appears in the upper right. There are also distance markers for the concentric circles that you can't read except at full rez. I suspect that the majority of my viewers are not looking at it full rez, and most probably pay no attention to the list of missiles.

When the graphic was thrown out there to the public, I was expecting its general assumptions to be questioned. Those circles are deliberately fuzzy to keep people from getting the idea that they represent a greater degree of precision than they do. Instead, what has been mostly questioned are my politics and my decision to orient the map from Lebanon looking south.

A number of people have remarked that I (or someone) should do a graphic of what Israel can do to Lebanon. Here's the reason I'm not going to: that Israel maybe's got the bomb and could maybe transform Beirut into a green glass plain is not new information. Hezbollah's new-found bombing range into Israel is new information, and very important new information. Now, I don't think this would be a politic moment to explicate my opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of Israel as a nation state. But in the past, blogger Gary Farber has been quite articulate on the subject of my failure to appreciate Israel. So this graphic isn't about whether I value Israeli lives over Lebanese. One of the general tenets of my personal politics is that if it shouldn't happen here, it shouldn't happen there, and this certainly holds true for members of the general public having bombs dropped on their heads.

Now, about the orientation of the map: I am tempted to speculate that there may be a class of persons out there who keep their heads permanently oriented due north. However, that would be unfair: somewhere around here, we have a t-shirt bearing the slogan, "Australia: No longer down under," showing the standard Mercator projection of the world upside down. So I do understand. But stilll . . . .

First of all, this graphic was created to facilitate a small group discussion. And there was some conversation about how to orient it. I tried a number of things, but what seemed most appropriate was to orient it from roughly the geographic point of view of those launching missiles, so that those things easiest to hit were biggest and closest, and so that the most speculative targets were smaller and further away. Also, I opted for an angled view, taking advantage of Google Earth's simulation of 3-D reality rather than a flat-on top-down view, to give a sense of verisimilitude. Apparently, I succeeded.

But it bears mentioning that even maps generally perceived to be "properly oriented" may involve distortion. Check out the rather good New York Times map. Can you tell me what the distortion is? I know because I used a piece of it as a Google Earth overlay.

All this having been said, I'm glad so many people have found my map worth looking at. Flickr now reports it's been viewed 20,512 times. At bottom my project, and the project of this blog, is to explore and improve methodology. And I hope in all those visitors, someone got new ideas of how to better use GIS-based visualization. Because exploring the possibilities of visualization is what I think I'm on about. And guess I must be doing something right.

So what exactly is the Mirsad 1 UAV?

I've been following the discussion of whether the ships attacked off the coast of Lebanon were hit  by Mirsad 1 UAVs (aka drones) or by missiles. Initial news stories said UAVs. Later news stories said Iranian-made missiles. Bill Roggio has a good post on what's wrong with thet ground-based missile theory: Hezbollah missile sea strikes: UAV or ground based? And Noah Schachtman's palimpsest of a multiply-revised post on the subject indicates just how complicated this fast-moving story can be.

There's something fascinatingly cinematic about the idea of killer model planes. So I decided to pursue a different angle: Just what is this Mirsad 1? Everyone seems to have the same lousy photo. Is it really a riff on the Hunter? I pawed through a whole lot of Google Images looking for matches. There is certainly an argument to be made that the Mirsad 1 and the Hunter are very similar UAVs. But I found another good match: The Seeker II made by Kentron UAV Systems in South Africa.

Is the Mersad 1 more like the Seeker II or the Hunter?

My vote is for the Seeker II, based on visual inspection of grainy photos found on the Internet.

So the other day I was writing about imaginary secret societies. Today it's killer model planes. Just how much stranger is the 21st century going to get and is this something we should take seriously? Well, actually, yes.

There were a number of articles a couple of years ago, when the Mirsad 1 was first spotted flitting about. For example this one: Terrorists Develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: On "Mirsad 1" Fight Over Israel from, which remarks:

As analysis of technical capabilities shows,  UAVs can become a very attractive option for terrorists anxious to deliver a covert attack with the use of chemical or biological weapons. Even armed with conventional explosives, UAV can become more efficient than so-called "shaheed's belt" frequently used by suicide terrorists. A substantial damage can be inflicted, in particular, if a UAV is directed to a crowded place. In addition, UAVs can penetrate to the areas, where suicide terrorists have almost no chance to get to.

Meanwhile, terrorists do not even try to hide their intentions with respect to the use of UAV as a bomb delivery means, stirring up fears in the Israeli media.
As Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said after the incident, "Mirsad 1" type UAV flights will continue, such a drone "can be laden with a quantity of explosives, 40 to 50 kilograms" and reach "anywhere, deep, deep" into Israel.

So where did these little planes come from? Hezbollah likely got them from Iran. But where did Iran get them? Did they build them themselves based on approximations of plans for the Hunter? Or did they maybe buy them from a South African company and pass them along to Hezbollah? I at least think that's an interesting question.

Me & a plane kite

Tornado pictures

The other day, a tornado cut through this area during rush hour. I've heard that the worst damage was in Tarrytown, though I haven't been over there. David called from North White Plains station and asked to be picked up. He had parked his car at Hawthorne, but the train couldn't get him there because there were trees down in the track. So I set out to get him, and the round trip to the train station took an hour and a half because there were trees down everywhere the tornado had been. It was a long difficult drive to the train station because I kept having to try new routes, looking for one that wasn't blocked.

Last night, we took the kids out for ice cream and on the way we stopped in Mt. Pleasant to take some photos of the tornado damage near the Mt. Pleasant Town Hall. Here are a few pix plus an ice cream shot after we toured the damage.

downed trees & bent guardrail

tornado damage to office buiding

downed trees


Geoff Hartwell's CD is Now Available for Sale!

Be the first on your block!

Buy the CD
album cover
click to order

Geoff Hartwell, my very talented stepson, sent me this before flying off to Autin to teach slide guitar (aka "Southern Fried Slide") at the National Guitar Workshop next week—later in the summer he is teaching at the NGW in Connecticut.

He and his band perform every Tuesday night at the Blues Jam in Pleasantville, if you are in the area. They recently had the 200th jam.

Who Really Runs the Liberal Blogosphere: I Do

Lately there has been some discussion of who really runs the liberal blogosphere. And so on this 4th of July, I thought I would shed some light on the matter. I am the true blogger "Kingpin." I am the Secret Master, sitting at the center of my electronic web.

Here I am for instance in an Elitist New England Setting, text messaging Soooper Friends and the New York Times that while my beach motel parking lot is a little small, the beach nearby would be a perfectly fine place to land The Black Helicopter.

text-messaging at the beach

Here I am emailing subtle suggestions (Marching Orders) to my Elite Tiger Team of attack bloggers, ordering up blog posts around the world:


And here I am in one of my many disguises:


And here I am calling the shots:

On the phone with Greg Benford

So now you know: Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos, and all the rest of them are merely my tendrils.

For God sakes, David Brooks, check you facts, next time! You call yourself a journalist? Sheeesh.

Car Fire on Rt. 3 Near Kingston, Massachusetts

We were up at the beach at Fieldston, in Marshfield, Massachusetts over the weekend staying in a beach motel. We drove home this afternoon, rather than braving the full-scale 4th of July Cape traffic later. We had a bad drive up to Massachusetts on Friday: it took 3 hours to drive across Danbury.

So today when we set out and almost immediately got into a traffic jam we were pretty worried. The cause of the congestion turned out to be a car fire, of which I got a pretty good picture:

Car Fire on Rt. 3 near Duxbury, MA

Luckily, we were only delayed about 15 minutes. The Kingston Fire Department was pretty efficient about putting out the fire.

Meanwhile, there was the usual problem of people with entitlement issues feeling that they have the right to access the shoulder of the road in the event of an emergency, even if it means that they block emergency vehicles. This guy was angling for a shortcut, but ended up blocking a cop car for a minute.


I leaned rather conspicuously out my car window and took a picture of his license plate.

Why Is the Blogosphere So Much Like High School?

The rocket scientists over at Xeni Sucks seem to be expanding their list of bloggers to stalk -- apparently they got bored when Xeni went to Tibet and wasn't available for their stalking pleasure --  and I seem to have made the cut. Not a good idea, guys.

How about y'all get a life instead?

Continue reading "Why Is the Blogosphere So Much Like High School?" »