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Reality check:

Protagonists of my story have a scientific device of a peaceful purpose. Unfortunately, despite the peaceful purpose, activation of the device, as a side-effect releases about 100 kilotons equivalent of energy, mostly thermal. No radiation.

They don't want to cause any harm. Absolutely no casualties, minimizing damage to property and wildlife.

They are in Central Europe, specifically Poland. The time is spring of 2015. International travel with the device beyond borders of EU is problematic - while a rudimentary control by police or border guards between EU countries would reveal a neatly packed ton of bathroom tiles on a first glance, and a fancy artistic mosaic on the second glance, if they start poking e.g. scratching samples to test whether it doesn't contain drugs, they will damage it (and won't find anything illegal).

The device requires open sky above to operate, so unfortunately underground is not really an option.

They've recently obtained a lot of money (legally), but they have no influences, no friends in position of power, nothing of out of ordinary - other than access to the non-Earth knowledge. Knowledge, which allowed both gambling the markets in ways current economists can't dream of [AND proving validity of these methods to SEC, so the illegal insider trading charges were dropped], and construction of the device, using commonly available (if expensive) human technology. They operate secretly - if the scope of the knowledge became common, people would kill for it, either to get it or to bury it forever...

In my story their choice was to take it to the sea, in a barge pulled by a tugboat. The Baltic Sea is pretty crowded, but finding a 20-km diameter area without any vessel, off common routes is quite viable. Dropping off the barge there, moving the tugboat by 10 km, activating the device remotely.

Of course that would get them in trouble with the law, but after the device is activated that becomes a trivial issue. All they need is to survive several next days and their problems would solve themselves.

So, my questions:

  • Is my sea option viable? Did I miss something that would make it not work?
  • Did I miss any simpler, safer, easier solutions?
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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Mar 25 '15 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ I remember an old military saying from the Cold War - "towns in Germany are 10 kilotons apart" $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Apr 7 '15 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ For anyone who wished to read the complete story, here it is. $\endgroup$ – SF. Sep 19 '15 at 20:25

12 Answers 12

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Svalbard Archipelago, Nordaustlandet island. 14,443 square kilometres, uninhabited, mostly barren and covered in the Austfonna glacier, demilitarized by treaty, so no pesky soldiers to get in your face. It's so remote that the German outpost there during WWII took months to find out the rest of the Nazi forces had surrendered.

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While Norway is not technically an EU member state, it is part of the Schengen Area, so in effect passport-less travel for your Polish citizens.

When you get to Longyearbyen, talk to the Governor, Odd Olsen Ingerø (he's a charming fellow), and get a few small boats and a few ATVs. Tell them it's a high-volume renewable energy experiment or something. Show them some grant application papers with EU stamps on them. I'm sure you'd find a few dozen people there who'd pitch in with transport, for a modest fee. If they don't cooperate, talk to the local Russians. Bring plenty of good Polish vodka.

US and Russian satellites will probably capture the thermal flash, although, with a bit of effort, you could time it to their flight patterns looking for a gap. The seismic stations will likely still capture it, but since Svalbard is part of the High Arctic Large Igneous Province, earthquakes and even a bit of volcanism are expected.

Note that a sudden input of 100kt TNT equivalent ($ \approx 5\times10^{14}J$) of energy into the atmosphere and nearby ground will create a blast shockwave, regardless of the source of the energy. Perhaps keep that in mind for story purposes.

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    $\begingroup$ An interesting place, but what kind of transport there would you suggest? What kind of excuse? Imagine a team consisting of three common guys and a horse trying to get a ton of fancy bathroom tiles undamaged to Nordaustlandet. Even if they are quite rich. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ When you get to Longyearbyen, talk to the Governor, Odd Olsen Ingerø, and get a few small boats and a few ATVs. I'm sure you'd find a few dozen people there who'd pitch in with transport, for a modest fee. If they don't cooperate, talk to the local Russians. Bring plenty of good Polish vodka. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 22 '15 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ Haha, you actually looked up the current governor? $\endgroup$ – Aaru Mar 22 '15 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ @SF. True, I live at the North Pole, with my elves. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 22 '15 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ @SF. The papers can be in Polish, so it can be all BS. Remember, we're talking the population of a small village, and a few hard-drinking Russians and Norwegians literally at the end of the world. To make it interesting, you can have US and Russian nuclear submarines in the area. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 22 '15 at 14:49
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Here's a link to a nuke simulator. There will be more heat damage and less over pressure in this case.

But I would worry more about the potential tsunami effect of releasing this amount of heat into the water. The water turns to steam and expands, a lot of the expansion will go upwards, but some will move water horizontally. The coasts of the Baltic States and Poland are generally low, so a tsunami could go far inland, causing lots of damage.

And detonating 100 kt on the front porch of the Russian military base in Kaliningrad could make them a bit excited. In a bad way.

The Atlantic ocean would be a better idea. You would still kill a lot of fish, but the other effects would not be as serious. I guess the inhabitants of western Ireland, Scotland, Norway etc are more used to high waves from storms.

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    $\begingroup$ I've checked the effects of the Hardtack I operation; 12ft water wave at shore of about 2km distance for 8kt bomb. At 100km even 100kt would be imperceptible. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ An 8kt bomb says you were probably looking at Hardtack Umbrella, an underwater detonation. A surface detonation would generate far less displacement of water, and far smaller waves. $\endgroup$ – Mark Mar 22 '15 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ In that case I guess the Baltic Sea would be acceptable, just stay out of the shipping lanes and hope the Russians don't over-react. $\endgroup$ – NERVA Mar 23 '15 at 17:24
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If you want to stay close to home, find an open-pit mine or an old quarry. 100kT isn't that much if it's surrounded by a lot of earth, the pit would focus all the thermal energy up. Check airlines and the ISS orbital schedule before pressing the button.

If you want to leave, there are no effective border controls between Poland and Germany anymore, so just drive west. Getting a boat in the Med or Portugal should be easy, then there's a great big ocean available.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm skeptical about this: I really wouldn't want this to turn into another Operation Plowshare (despite lack of radiation, a rainfall of superheated rock is not something the neighbours would look to quite kindly. As for the ocean, logistics of obtaining the proper vessels and crew might be tricky. It's somewhat bigger and more dangerous than the little pond of northern Europe. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ @SF. but that's the point of the pit. Most of the energy goes up, not out, so unless the neighbors are very close it won't be a problem. $\endgroup$ – paul Mar 22 '15 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ most of solids that go up, eventually go down. I'd rather have steam and dust, than burning, meter-sized boulders. Now, if they'd fly half a kilometer away at most, that wouldn't be all that much of a problem. But if they rain onto a village ten kilometers away... whoops? Unfortunately maths of how the shaft would behave are entirely beyond my skill or expertize. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Agent_L: I think you're underestimating the impact of some $ 5\times10^{14}J$ energy. "Just thermal" at the bottom of a deep shaft changes into "a hundred tons of rock changed into superheated gas at pressure of several billion bars, with just one way to vent". 9km is for surface/airburst, not for essentially an enormous gun using roughly a nuke's equivalent of energy for propellant. Imagine impact radius of a loadout of a shotgun shell, detonated on a table with various items scattered around, and contrast with one going off at the bottom of a half-meter hole 3cm diameter. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ @SF "open-pit mine" is exact opposite of a "deep shaft". Just take a look at Bełchatów. Fireball would be 380m, so any pit that deep and several times wide will simply deflect blast up without gunbarrel effect. $\endgroup$ – Agent_L Mar 23 '15 at 16:38
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If you want a remote, low population density area within the EU your best bet is Northern Sweden or Finland during winter. It is not really uninhabited but in the far north the land is uneven enough that you should be able to find a valley that has no one else in it and is large enough to contain the explosion.

And transport from Poland should be manageable, the road network is fairly good, sea transport is available even during winter. The main issue would be the last leg over tundra to the final location. Vehicles are available, but it would leave a paper trail.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that even though northern Sweden is sparsely populated, it would annoy a fair number of locals. It's doubtful how many others would care in practice, but expect something like this to cause quite a ruckus at least regionally. (That reaction could even be a secondary plot device.) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 22 '15 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling: Well, in my case it was an important plot device - Russians scrambled their power, quite upset with the blast right by their border (Kaliningrad Oblast) which turned out very serendipitous; the "solve-all" resolution failed spectacularly and they could step in and resolve the crisis in the nick of time, and with NATO's blessing. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @SF. I think you misunderstood my comment. What I meant was that the local inhabitants' reaction to the event could provide a plot device or story arc possibility besides the major world-political event. If the government were to find itself with not just a serious international incident but also a few thousand of their own citizens demonstrating against something the government had nothing to do with nor any knowledge of, that could add an air of realism to the situation in the story. While northern Sweden is sparsely populated, that doesn't mean there aren't people there who'd be upset! $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 22 '15 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling: I understand - but in this case the real culprits would be found really fast and leaving little doubt. The only backslash the government would get is "why did you allow this allow to happen?" but since nobody had any clue about this kind of risk before, the opposition wouldn't have any real ammo. Besides, afterwards, events escalate quickly enough that the public demonstrations are really a minor headache. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ No paper trail - vehicles will be left behind in the blast. Meanwhile we sip on fine cognac from the mountain cabin... oh wait... $\endgroup$ – BAR Mar 23 '15 at 14:41
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How about an airburst over water, and avoiding aircraft so probably at night, over the North Sea (if that's European enough)?

I think the Baltic sea makes sense. Buy a boat on the north coast of Poland, and a truck.

To get it airborn to reduce damage to marine life and ships, I would suggest a large hot-air or helium balloon, though this greatly increases your required boat space, but as you are wealthy, you can buy another boat or two.

The technicalities of how much sky clearance overhead, and how much time your device takes to operate, may pose an engineering problem, but it sounds like you have ample engineering abilities. A donut-shaped balloon or series of balloons attached to a framework that leaves an open-air center would be possible, if clumsy. If that's not enough overhead clearance, you could use a combustible fabric for the balloon, and have it burst into flame at the right altitude, IF your device can do what it needs to do while in freefall, before falling too far.

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  • $\begingroup$ Logistics of the endeavor! How to bring it up to that height, in that direction, at a reasonable schedule and without arousing too many suspicions? $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ @SF: A decent balloon can ascend at 10 mps (aviation.stackexchange.com/a/10009/1727), so in less than two minutes from when you cut the cord you can be 1 km up. Even if you show up on local radar immediately, surely the military will take a couple of minutes to decide that the new blip could be dangerous and scramble an intercept. $\endgroup$ – user243 Mar 23 '15 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ Military in peacetime don't generally intercept, let alone destroy, hot air balloons. You could also schedule with aviation authorities as a scheduled recreational hot air balloon flight, if you were that worried about it. $\endgroup$ – Dronz Mar 23 '15 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ In fact, you would might want to practice your balloon flights anyway, to make sure it works, and do some manned flights without the special device, which you register with the aviation authorities. Start a front club which likes to launch hot air balloons from boats. $\endgroup$ – Dronz Mar 23 '15 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Dronz: Hot air balloons don't reach nearly that altitude. I'd need a helium balloon. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 24 '15 at 9:05
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Try Siberia, concretely the place where the Tunguska event was.

As per Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunguska_event) it was practically tested to withstand up to 10-15 MT.

Or your hero could not travel to Russia because of the US/EU sanctions? :-)

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  • $\begingroup$ While smuggling things to Russia is not nearly as common as in the opposite direction, the pass control might get interested in the cargo and damage it during examination. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 24 '15 at 10:17
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Lapland(northern Finland).

not impossible to find 20km with nobody in it. have them rent a helicopter with thermal imaging to confirm. roughly that there's no gold diggers. inside schengen, though you might get checked at borders for contraband. you can drive from poland to lapland too, without taking ferries or such.

also due to the hilly, but not steep hills, nature of Lapland you could find a large enclosed area to perform the task in to contain the explosion.

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  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps AirForce 1 will be flying overhead :-) $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Mar 30 '15 at 11:55
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A derelict oil rig is what you are looking for. At least one has burnt up and left something standing that may still be there. There may be sea forts in the north sea that are far enough away and if you put it higher you get less tidal wave.

The barge proposal is still most likely to succeed.

A new idea occurred to me. It might be a cool idea to tow it to the edge of the polar ice sheet in mid winter and retreat with the tugboat ahead of the ice formation. You could add some very noisy sonar systems (decoys) and announce you are doing underwater "sonar Doppler mapping and measurements" over winter and can people please stay away for 20km including subs that do not want to be detected. It might be the best way to have all civilians warned about the situation and the military desirous of staying away.

The ice sheet should dampen any tidal wave and you would have a way to watch out for the curious coming from the sea side as you fall back.

EDIT:

Saw this question on my profile and had a thought that perhaps someone has already researched the question. Sure enough there was a Wikipedia page about the least inhabited regions. This would be a good starting point and the source material might have good pointers. As mentioned in another answer Lapland seems like a good place to focus on.

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Nowhere? I think transporting the device elsewhere is much more viable.

100 kt is quite a lot if they really want to harm nobody. Does the thermal pulse come with a flash?

That barge location might blow a small aircraft out of the sky, or hurt a surfer, or a sailing yacht.

If there was a sufficiently empty area, odds are that it is a nature preserve. Could you be sure that there are no bird watchers you've missed?

Last but not least, NATO and Russia would go frantic. Not a good thing given the recent tensions. How much would you bet that Sweden really has no nuclear program?

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, the thermal pulse comes with a flash of visible light, besides, any absorbent material like steel of the barge or sea water explodes violently when exposed to this much thermal radiation. During good weather all aircraft and yachts within 20km can be easily spotted (and we wait till they are far enough), and there are no surfers good 100km from the shore. The worst we risk is submarines. As for NATO and Russia, sure there would be a tension, but - especially with no radiation, with the crude delivery, and the recent stockmarket shenanigans, the real culprits would be located very quickly. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 22 '15 at 8:18
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    $\begingroup$ "How much would you bet that Sweden really has no nuclear program?" How much would you bet that, if such an event occured in Sweden, which is stuck right in between Russia and NATO, not both Russia and NATO would go frantic right along with people in Sweden? Even doing it "in the middle of nowhere" in, say, northern Sweden (which is still inhabited, mind you, only sparsely) would raise a lot more than eyebrows! $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 22 '15 at 12:01
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If you don't care about wildlife and destroying the site of many spaghetti westerns, the Tabernas Desert is probably one of the most sparsely populated areas in mainland Europe.

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If you want to avoid going out to sea, this nuke simulator estimates a 100kt ground detonation wouldn't kill anyone and would only injure about 10 people if performed in a mountainous national park, like the ones in Romania and Slovakia - or even Scotland.

You could find a road running through some winding valley in the mountain region; stage vehicle accidents at each end of the road so you had the road to yourself; and use the device there.

You might be able to get the number of injuries down zero by reserving all the rooms in local hotels and triggering at night. For the purposes of fiction, you could also say the mountains and turns in the winding valley absorb most of the direct thermal radiation going out at low angles.

Obviously there will be serious damage to the valley, and people are quite sentimental about national parks, but it would avoid needing a boat and it could get your border crossings right down.

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I don't think your barge/tugboat option works--barges are for calm waters, not the open sea. You need something more oceangoing to take it far enough out.

I don't think you need that, though--simply charter an oceangoing vessel that either has or could support a crane big enough to lower it into the water. A collection of drums can provided the needed floatation while the ship backs off.

As for safety--"Notice to airmen and mariners: At xx/xx/xx xx:xx at xx° xx' xx" N xx° xx' xx" W we are going to engage in a high energy physics experiment. Successful operation of this device will as a side effect liberate approximately 420PJ of thermal energy. This is not a nuclear device and it will not release radioactivity."

I would put the energy in Joules rather than kilotons to stress the scientific nature rather than the potential military nature. Of course the nuclear powers are still going to go ape--scientific or not this is obviously a possible alternate means of building WMD.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sea barges are a thing, and they are significantly bigger than river barges. As for the broadcast, wanna bet someone will enter the area? And that would force the team to cancel the activation (no casualties, even if they are so stupid they deserve it!) and then the "invader" would take over the device. And maybe even replicate it as WMD (although nukes are cheaper,). $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 24 '15 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @SF. You don't give a lot of time and the device is on a timer, not remote control. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 24 '15 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ We aren't that ruthless. If somehow someone gets into the blast radius, we stop it. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 25 '15 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ @SF By setting a timer and announcing the fact you keep people from entering in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 26 '15 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ You're giving too much credit to human common sense. Read up on people's behavior in malls when a bomb alarm rings. I can easily imagine a country like Russia willing to sacrifice a submarine to catch a glimpse of the new technology. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 26 '15 at 8:58

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