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When the United States tested nuclear weapons on home turf in the 1950s, it wasn't exactly a top secret operation. In fact, word of the impending test was often listed in newspapers and discussed on the radio. Among the 30,000 residents of the growing little city of Las Vegas, news of an impending test drew the curious up onto their roofs. From there they could look across the sixty miles of desert that separated the town from the buildings, bunkers, towers, and huge expanses of impressively barren ground that made up the Nevada Test Site. Even at such a distance, the blasts were sometimes astonishingly bright, and since several were held in the hours right before dawn, more than one witness was quick to compare the momentary glare of the expanding fireballs to the glow of the rising sun (though the test site was west of Las Vegas, so it would have been a bit hard to actually get the two mixed up). A few seconds after the flare of light, a shivering rumble would pass through the ground. Residents were able to make a fair assessment of the relative strength of the weapons being tested by the way in which their household goods were rattled. They got plenty of practice.

Even in 1951, the first year the United States made use of the Nevada Test Site for nuclear weapons, the place was kept extremely busy with an even dozen explosions. Starting at the end of January, five bombs were dropped in a period of just ten days. All of the bombs were exploded in open air, and the largest was a good 25% larger than the weapon that had leveled central Hiroshima. Some observers, unsatisfied with the rooftop view, drove out of town and climbed up into the mountains for a clearer look. 6,500 Army troops, who were marshaled in the desert to conduct maneuvers while observing the blast, got an even better look. By all accounts, it was quite a show.

Other than the Trinity blast conducted during the war, these were the first nuclear explosions to be carried out in the United States. Previous tests had mostly taken place in the form of blowing the hell out of leftover World War II ships at rather obscure (at least to Americans) sites in the Pacific. Targets of these blasts included the German heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen, which had fought alongside the Bismark, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga which had served as the flagship for the Guadalcanal assault, and the battleship USS Nevada.  

Nevada had already survived a direct hit from a torpedo and at least six bomb strikes during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. She was the only battleship to get underway during the attack, causing one observer to declare the ship "the only bright spot" in an otherwise dismal morning. It sometimes seemed that the ship was everywhere in the war from the D-Day invasion of Normandy, to the assault on Iwo Jima. However, in 1946 the aging ship was painted rusty red to make it more visible against the sea, and set up as a bomb target off Bikini Atoll, a ring of tiny coral islets near the northwest edge of the Marshall Islands. USS Nevada was placed at ground zero for the first test, but the bomber wasn't perfectly accurate and the ship survived in good order. She was then dragged into place for as second test, and this time ended up only 615 yards from a 23 kiloton explosion. Nevada survived that blast, as well. Several other ships were sunk, even though they were positioned much farther from the blast.

Afterwards, the ship was towed back to Pearl Harbor, examined, and used for gunnery practice by the newer battleship, USS Iowa.  The Nevada still would not go down.  Finally a large aerial torpedo was dropped into the center of the hull, and USS Nevada sank into the waters south of Pearl in July of 1948.  One tough ship.

Also towed to Bikini Atoll for the tests was the Japanese battleship Nagato.  Nagato had been the flagship of Admiral Yamamoto, and it was from her decks he had conducted and observed the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Planners took special care with Nagato.  Special care consisted of placing the ship near ground zero.  She sank immediately, which made for excellent and satisfying newsreel footage.

Additional blasts had been planned for Bikini, but one of the tests there was in the form of using an atomic bomb as a kind of very large depth charge. As it turned out, exploding a nuclear weapon underwater not only gave rise to so many odd effects that scientists were kept busy for weeks just pinning names on the assorted strangeness, it also caused most of the radioactive products that would otherwise have dispersed into the air to stay close at hand. The high levels of radiation would eventually force the testers to declare victory and move on to bombing Enewetak Atoll instead (though they'd get back to Bikini within a decade and eventually drop more than twenty bombs, totaling over 75 megatons, on the unlucky islands).

With all this excitement offshore, it was no surprise that the movement of US tests into the Nevada desert was big news, especially since a year earlier the Soviet Union had successfully exploded its own nuclear weapon.  Following the Soviet bomb, the United States had begun stockpiling nuclear weapons as fast as they could be built, but at this stage each bomb was essentially unique. The Cold War was on, the threat of commies was everywhere, and testing a few bombs to see if this growing stash would actually work seemed like a pretty fair idea at the time.  

After a break (during which the first thermonuclear weapon was tested in the Marshall Islands) explosions in Nevada resumed for the fall season.  Las Vegas observers were once again ready for the flash and rumble, but on the morning of October 22, 1951 those peering off to the northwest in expectation of an announced blast saw... nothing. Some observers watching from closer vantage points in the mountains reported a brief flicker of light, but there was no massive fireball. No shaking of the ground.  After awhile, the people climbed down off their roofs and went inside.

This test, test Able of Operation Buster-Jangle, was the sixteenth nuclear test conducted by the United States and it achieved something unprecedented. It was the first atomic weapon we ever triggered – so far as we're aware, the first such weapon that anyone tried to set off – that failed.

The device wasn't a complete dud. For one thing the bomb contained a good deal of convention high explosives, which went off just fine. It was the sphere of plutonium at the center of the bomb that failed to provide the expected bang. Plutonium weapons are constructed in a manner reminiscent of a evil Tootsie-Pop, where the crunchy shell consists of explosives, timers, and wiring while the not-so-chewy center is a hollow sphere of plutonium. What should happen is that the explosive force presses inward on the plutonium from all sides, momentarily increasing the density, and driving the sphere to become "supercritical." At that point a gram or so of matter is converted into energy, and if you'll remember that the 'C' part of E=MC^2 represents the speed of light, it's not surprising that the amount of energy obtained from a small amount of matter is rather a lot.  

But in the case of the Buster-Able bomb, something didn't go quite right and the device produce only a partial, relatively weak moment of atomic fission in which the explosive force generated from the reaction was actually less than that of the conventional explosives used. The bomb was a "fizzle," a nuclear blast that failed to produce the expected level of destruction, but which nonetheless kicked out a nice burst of radiation.

The reason that the device failed could have been something as simple as a failure of one of the timers on the explosive shell. If all the explosives didn't fire essentially at once, then the pressure applied to the core would be uneven. But the most likely reason that Buster-Able failed to reach criticality is even simpler: it didn't have enough plutonium.  

Getting enough plutonium or enriched uranium to create bombs was always the big challenge, and as the United States scrambled to produce more weapons it was anxious to get more bang for the processing buck. Weapons were designed to "do more with less" by extracting a larger explosion from a smaller lump of nuclear material. There was also a desire to come up with a "baby nuke," a tactical weapon that could be used on the battlefield.  The original "Fat Man" plutonium bomb dropped over Nagasaki weighed more than 10,000 pounds – not exactly handy pocket size.

Eventually the US would produce a bomb small enough to be "man portable," with a weight below 50 pounds. There was even a special recoilless rifle created to fire these nuclear "rounds" as if they were oversized bullets.  The launcher was capable of firing the round over a mile, which was a good thing. Even though the smallest of these rounds produced an explosion equivalent to only around 10 tons of dynamite (less than 1/1000 the power of the bombs dropped on Japan) the radiation from the resulting blast was almost certainly fatal in a radius of a quarter mile.  

Whether through simple stinginess or in pursuit of reduced size, the effect of making do with a smaller core is the same. As the lump of plutonium was reduced, the rest of the device had to get better, with improved precision of the conventional explosives and improvements to design. The device tested on October 22, 1951 flunked. Most likely this device was designed by Ted Taylor, who designed not only many of the smallest weapons in the nuclear arsenal but also the largest fission weapon ever tested (he was also part of the team for Project Orion, a secret effort to create a spaceship the size of an skyscraper that was propelled through the release of a stream of small nuclear bombs). It was only after years of working on bomb designs that the lesson of Buster-Able came home to Taylor.

The conceptual work behind the development of atomic weapons required rare genius and insight into the implications of experimental results combined with theoretical models that were very new at the time. The Manhattan Project was a massive effort harnessing enormous resources from the government and some of the best minds of the century. Delivering those first bombs to Japan – whether you look on it as an unnecessary horror that took tens of thousands of lives, or as a necessary horror that took tens of thousands of lives – required a supreme effort of both engineering and logistical genius.

What Taylor eventually realized was that none of that remained true. The biggest breakthrough in building a nuclear weapon? Knowing it could be done. Having obtained some (though far from all) details of the Fat Man device through spies, the Soviets were able to duplicate the weapon with a fraction of the effort the United States had put into it. And Fat Man was the difficult version. The other bomb America dropped on Japan (code name: Little Boy) was a uranium weapon based on the "gun" design. Basically, the weapon contained two lumps of uranium.  When triggered it brought these two lumps quickly together. There are niceties, such as adding mumble-mumblium as an initiator and using a mumble-mumblium case, but really that's all it took. If you weren't concerned about portability, precision, or engineering elegance, you could make an atomic bomb starting with some enhanced uranium, a length of pipe, and enough explosive to fling one piece at the other. How simple is a uranium bomb? So simple that we didn't bother to test one before dropping the first such weapon on Hiroshima.

If someone was making a nuclear weapon and wanted to use the bare minimum of material, they have to be pretty good. If they have enough material to get sloppy, then even a bad design is likely to work. With excess plutonium or enriched uranium, the worst you would get from a design made by people with even a modicum of understanding would still be worth noticing. And that pretty well describes what happened with the first explosion in North Korea. On October 9, 2006 North Korea conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon. It had handily announced the test to the world six days in advance, which was good, because otherwise there's some chance we would have missed it. The yield of North Korea's bomb was something less than one kiloton. Exactly how much less isn't clear. It's certainly possible to design a bomb for a yield of that size, as both the US and the Soviets demonstrated several times. However, the size of the North Korean explosion was much smaller than the initial explosions from other countries joining the nuclear club. The device exploded by India was of very simple design, but yielded 12 kilotons. Trying to build a nuclear device designed to produce less than one kiloton as a first effort, would be like starting your diving career by doing a triple somersault – with a double twist.

Instead of intentionally building a small device, it's much more likely that the North Koreans intended to explode a weapon with considerably more force. Only it fizzled. Because their bomb didn't contain just the bare minimum amount of plutonium even a fizzle resulted in a far from insignificant explosion. North Korea announced that they were going to conduct additional tests right away, but actually three years passed before they tested a second device in May of 2009. This time the yield was considerably greater – probably somewhere between one kiloton and five kilotons. And even that was probably another fizzle, with a yield far below expectations.

But what Ted Taylor had learned was: it didn't matter. Even the worst nuclear bomb was still a horrifying weapon. You don't need good design.  You don't need a crowd of geniuses, or even a roomful of geniuses, or even one. In fact, you don't even need a bomb.

In 1945, the United States produced a plutonium sphere that was intended for the core of a Fat Man style bomb. About the size of a volleyball, the sphere was absolutely unremarkable in appearance – and incredibly dangerous. On August 21, 1945 physicist Harry Daghlian was conducting a test on the number of neutrons produced by the core, a test that involved surrounding the core with a loose enclose of reflective bricks. While moving the bricks around, Daghlian dropped one onto the core. It wasn't the kind of calculated compression that it took to set off a nuclear blast. It was enough to cause the core to produce an extreme burst of neutrons. Three weeks later, Harry Daghlin was dead from severe radiation sickness. Nine months after that, this same plutonium sphere was still sitting in its box at Los Alamos when physicist Louis Slotin decided to conduct another experiment. He put the plutonium ball into a beryllium bowl, then slowly lowered another bowl over the top.  Beryllium reflects neutrons, and if Slotin allowed the two half-spheres to close completely around the plutonium, he knew it would become critical. So he kept the bowls apart – just apart – using the flat blade at the tip of a screwdriver. Doing so allowed measurements of the activity at a just sub-critical state. Slotin had performed this little show several times before, even though others (including Enrico Fermi) had warned him that it was a foolish risk. He should have listened. On that day, the screwdriver slipped, and in the moment before he could fling the top cover away, Slotin was washed by a warm blue light. Nine days later, Slotin died from severe radiation poisoning. Another scientist in the room at the time made it a decade before succumbing to leukemia.

What Slotin did was amazingly dangerous, but even though moving quickly to remove the top half of the beryllium cover did nothing to save his own life, it likely saved the lives of many others at the lab. Maybe everyone at the lab. The behavior of the core if it had remained covered is difficult to predict, but it had certainly gone critical the moment the halves of the cover met, and would have sleeted hard radiation for as long as the chain reaction continued. Considering the size of the core, it might even had produced a limited explosion. And that sphere of plutonium had no explosives at all. No timers and wiring. No nothing.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, the material is the weapon. When you see the concern expressed over plants that could potentially process nuclear material into a state suitable for making weapons, it may seem that there's a tendency to overreact. Yes that process is the first step in creating a bomb – but it's essentially the only step that counts. Of course, clever engineering can produce a thermonuclear bomb able to deliver staggering levels of damage, but it takes none of that to deliver horror. It takes a man with a heavy ball, staggering through a crowd.  

A. Q. Kahn, the Pakistani engineer arrested for spreading nuclear secrets, wasn't handing out the blueprints to nuclear bombs. The secret that he brought first to Pakistan (and then to unknown numbers of others) was the form of uranium enrichment he learned while working for Urenco Group, a company that enriches uranium in several countries, including the United States. Learning to make enriched uranium on the cheap in limited space is the golden ticket every nervous dictator or ambitious warlord is seeking.

When you think "loose nukes," don't think about some "suitcase bomb" being ferried out of a former Soviet republic by a disgruntled night watchman, or a warhead being brokered off by a cash-starved former general. Think about the material. Anyone who can get the material can make a bomb. The United States has conducted 1,149 nuclear detonations. Only three of those were fizzles. And other than North Korea, every other nation has gotten it right the first time. In fact, so far as we know, they've gotten it right every time.

Unless you can keep nuclear material out of the wrong hands, you can't stop the proliferation of nuclear bombs. And that's the crux of the problem. North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. The most isolated. No other nation faces such restrictions on trade. It is, by almost any measure, backward, poor, and cut off – a country where starvation and patriotism are frequently considered synonyms. Even so, North Korea managed to obtain or create enough nuclear material to make at least two bombs.

If you can't stop the flow of nuclear material you can't stop nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, you can't stop the flow of nuclear material.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:00 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The Demon Core (58+ / 0-)

    After the accidents that killed Daghlian and Slotin, the plutonium sphere they had worked with became known as the "Demon Core."  Later in 1946, the Demon Core was finally installed in a weapon and tested at Bikini Atoll (that was the first blast that the battleship USS Nevada survived).

    Afterwards, it turned out that the Demon Core produced a bit more energy than expected. Apparently running the core up to the critical stage twice before dropping it into the bomb had enhanced its strength. You can imagine how thrilled the scientists were when it was decided to see if this desirable trait could be reproduced.

    Richard Miller. Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing. Two Sixty Press (1991)

    John McPhee. The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (1974)

    Alan Pater. United States Batleships - The History of America's Greatest Fighting Fleet. Monitor Book Company (1968)

    •  John McPhee! (4+ / 0-)

      I really need to get some more of his books one of these days.

      BTW, did you ever see that very nice long profile and interview with him in Paris Review recently? I think it was in the same issue with their Bradbury profile/interview.

      "I play a street-wise pimp" — Al Gore

      by Ray Radlein on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:18:43 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  John McPhee's book is still one of the best (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ray Radlein, Simian, Simplify, KenBee, kurt

        ... ever written for laymen on the subject of early nuclear weapons design.  It's still in print:  The Curve of Binding Energy.  One of the more interesting vignettes in it is weapon designed Ted Taylor's account of how he once lit a cigarette with an atomic bomb.

        Per McPhee, the "fizzle"-yield weapon was, in fact, designed by Taylor, whose nickname for the device was the "Puny Plutonium Bomb."

        "Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense." Steve Landesberg, 1945-2010.

        by Califlander on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:38:33 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm stretching a bit... (6+ / 0-)

          To say that Buster-Able is the "puny" device, but it seems like the best candidate (and Taylor didn't correct others who made that assumption earlier).

          •  Khan was peddling Chinese warhead designs (8+ / 0-)

   / US & Canada - US fears over A.Q. Khan nuclear ring
            Jun 15, 2008 ... Network may have distributed warhead designs. ... A.Q. Khan may have distributed designs for nuclear warheads as well as ... Tripoli handed over the blueprint for a nuclear warhead – based on an old Chinese design – that ...

            Also, the CIA knew about Khan and had been protecting him in his world travels since at least 1974, according to the Dutch PM, Jan Lubbers.  That was until he was outed in the FT in mid-2001 by Richard Armitage, who also outed Valerie Plame.  No coincidence, as the Agency's Counter-Proliferation Division had been using Khan to monitor the progress of his customers nuclear program.  Khan sold shitty plans and equipment, and nobody made much progress, and that's what CIA/CPD told Bush about Iraq's WMDs.

            Just a quibble, really.  Otherwise, a well-written article about the blackest art.

        •  Re: It's not too hard to design an A-Bomb (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ray Radlein, 714day, SeekCa, BYw

          Anybody else remember the story of the Princeton student who designed one in the 70s? I believe the book about it was called Mushroom.

          The only newscaster on Fox that you can trust is Kent Brockman.

          by Van Buren on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:08:34 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  his name was John A Phillips (9+ / 0-)

            His design was an implosion bomb with a plutonium core. His real claim to fame though was that he managed to sweet-talk some DoD functionary into telling him the specific explosive used in the outer implosion shell (we know today that the original Fat Man used Composition B and Baratol in its explosive shell, but the makeup of the modern weapon is highly classified--the Nagasaki bomb had almost a ton of conventional high explosives, but modern weapons have very small and very powerful shells instead).

            But there is no need to even be that complicated.  If you have enough enriched uranium, then the Hiroshima gun-type bomb is amazingly simple to design.  It's just a gun which shoots one piece of uranium into another.  The Little Boy bomb used ordinary gunpowder as a propellant, and used a surplus Navy cannon as a barrel.

          •  Their was a lenghty article in Time Magazine (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Ray Radlein

            when this student managed his sensational stuff.

          •  I Have That Book (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            It's right over yonder in my smallish "Nuclear Proliferation" bookshelf, with Thinking About the Unthinkable, the Swedish AMBIO study of nuclear war casualties, and a handful of other, generally much less entertaining, tomes.

            "I play a street-wise pimp" — Al Gore

            by Ray Radlein on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 12:20:03 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  Addendum (6+ / 0-)

      Turns out I still had the Bradbury piece open in one of my other tabs, so it was trivial to get a link to the John McPhee interview, just in case you hadn't seen it and were interested.

      "I play a street-wise pimp" — Al Gore

      by Ray Radlein on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:22:02 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  heh (7+ / 0-)

        "strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of seventy years"

        gross underestimate: pollution from exhaust probably killed at least as many Americans over that time, if not more. Crashes are just the obvious end result of the tragic love affair with 'the car'. Dying slowly from lung cancer, emphysema, COPD, being a nameless statistic is not just sexy enough to write about.

    •  for those interested in the history of nukes (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Simplify, KenBee, kurt, BYw

      I humbly recommend a book I edited titled "Hell's Fire: A Documentary History of the American Atomic and Nuclear Weapons Projects":

      It contains the official history of the Manhattan Project, and a number of declassified reports and articles on the hydrogen bomb projects, as well as chapters explaining how nuclear weapons work.

    •  Plutonium Comes In Several Varieties (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Simplify, KenBee

      Plutonium comes in several isotopes, some of which are more sensitive than others.  In fact, plutonium's neutron state prevents it from being used in a simple gun-type nuclear weapon, because it blows itself apart.  If one could extend the period in which the plutonium was super-critical by a few seconds (or nanoseconds more likely) to allow more plutonium atoms to split, one could improve the overall yield.  

      "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

      by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:40:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  it is indeed the last few fission generations (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Simplify, KenBee, JeffW

        which produce most of the power, since the fission rate is exponential. Even adding one more generation at the end, increases the power dramatically.

        That is why nuclear weapons have a device called a "tamper".  This is a big dense layer of material, usually depleted uranium or beryllium, which surrounds the core. It's purpose is to use momentum to hold the exploding mass together for as long as possible, thereby increasing the yield.

  •  Second Amendment Remedies (6+ / 0-)

    I think I probably have the right to carry a concealed nuclear weapon -- like a briefcase dirty bomb -- in Arizona.

    "It's always been a class war, Frodo."

    by bink on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:09:00 AM PST

    •  Think? It's an "Arm." 2nd Amendment Forbids (5+ / 0-)

      restricting the right to bear "arms" just as the 1st forbids restricting "speech."

      There is no progressiveness limiting our formulation of rights, no matter how vastly large, powerful, or speedy the exercise of them that's coming against you.

      That's a situation that might appear risky to some future eyes, and not just in the 2nd amendment.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:15:24 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'm sure there are people who would argue that (0+ / 0-)

      you can legally possess and transport dangerous CBR materials, you can probably find them being thrown away or stolen by demo contractors in hospital lab renovations, and even their storage isn't really well controlled.

      There are places where you need card access to get in but people working there will hold the door open for you if you follow them in.

      As mentioned in the article it wouldn't be a lot of work to weaponize them, and there are places like Arizona where the more dangerous something is the more status accrues to its possession.

      What bothers me about Arizona is that its definition of self defense is pretty aggressive.

      Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

      by rktect on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:35:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I always leave mine at home. nt (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Candidate Obama was right: When both parties serve the same side in the class war, voters may as well cling to guns and religion. Bitter since 2010.

      by happymisanthropy on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 11:31:03 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think you will find it difficult (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jds1978, David B

    to get much of a discussion going with anybody about anything except what happened in Arizona.

    Still enjoying my stimulus package.

    by Kevvboy on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:10:17 AM PST

  •  As Kids We Used to Be Forbidden to Play Outdoors (21+ / 0-)

    during the several days after those nuke tests. Dad, an aerospace engineer, fretted about radiation and fallout in those days of shoe store fluoroscopes and happy embrace of all things nuclear.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:17:59 AM PST

    •  And don't forget the "duck and cover" drills (6+ / 0-)

      They didn't do them where I lived but we saw the educational films on nuclear preparedness.

      I have a purpose in life, I am my cat's doorman.

      by ontheleftcoast on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:25:28 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  We Did the "Duck'n'Cover" (6+ / 0-)

        I remember distinctly doing the duck'n'cover drills in grade school while growing up in the 1950s.  Of course I also remember seeing the sign along US1 in our area which announced that it was an officially designated evacuation route out of the city we outside of, as if the mob leaving town heading toward another major metropolitan area could have actually gotten anywhere.  

        Only recently I learned that Wikipedia had the files on the US Army operated NIKE anti-aircraft missile defense systems around the nation when I noted a little sidebar in a CT newspaper about an old Nike site which included reference to the entire system.  I looked up my old hometown and learned that one of the sites was situated only four miles from my family's home as the crow flies.  These weapons were nuclear armed too.  My family never talked about them and I'm not sure they even knew they were located there.

        "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

        by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:48:29 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  The Nike Hercules had a nuke warhead (0+ / 0-)
          ...the rest had conventional explosive warheads. I'm nor sure the Nike Zeus was ever fitted with a warhead, because it was dropped due to technical and financial reasons.

          "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success." Ed Brayton -7.75/-6.05

          by QuestionAuthority on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 07:27:41 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  shoe store fluoroscopes (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Alumbrados, Simplify, kurt, JeffW, BYw

      I remember those. Used to enjoy watching the bones of my feet as I wiggled my toes. Jesus!

      Also I remember going to an open house at the RCA plant in Moorestown, NJ backi in the fifties and watching a demonstration of microwaves. It consisted of a technician cooking a hot dog on a stick with no protection for him or any of the spectators. Pretty impressive.

      "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." -- Mark Twain

      by rambler american on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:18:32 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Work Colleague Told Me the Same Thing (7+ / 0-)

        A technician who worked with me served on a US Navy guided missile cruiser back in the early 1960s.  He had worked with the radar control systems used to guide those missiles, which used a technique called "beam-rider" navigation. The ship pointed the radar at the target and the missile flew "down" the beam toward the target.  He said that they had drills aboard ship to demonstrate the reason for getting out of the way of the radar dishes as they slewed.   The officers would have a senior NCO swing a hot dog attached to a string through the beam while  for just a few seconds, with it coming out totally carbonized on the end of its trip.  The missile systems he had on his ship were actually built by RCA in Moorestown if I'm not mistaken.  I know the Navy built their test sight up near Cherry Hill just off I-295 because RCA was the prime contractor for the Aegis control system used on our guided missile cruisers these days.  You can't miss the test sight.  It's an Aegis missile cruiser bridge parked in a field just north of I-295.  Weirdest thing in the world the first time you see it.

        "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

        by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:34:06 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Aegis missile cruiser bridge (0+ / 0-)

          replaced an earlier structure we locals dubbed Ike's Golf Ball, a huge sphere housing a radar installation (I think). That was a weird sight as well.

          "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." -- Mark Twain

          by rambler american on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 04:24:17 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  In 8th grade,,, (11+ / 0-)

        I visited Oak Ridge, where we were allowed to go inside the research reactor and stand over the cooling water to watch it glow with the Cherenkov radiation. I was also able to play with a club-footed ferret descended from the ones used to clean the glass rubes of the gaseous diffusion plant, and to put a dime in a machine that would make it "mildly radioactive."

        Exciting trip.

  •  Why Dailykos is unique. Great article. n/t (18+ / 0-)

    "If you don't use your majorities, you lose your majorities."

    by SteinL on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:18:01 AM PST

  •  A fascinating article. (7+ / 0-)
    Thank you for this.

    by Inoljt on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:19:23 AM PST

  •  So how does the recently signed START (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, JeffW, BYw, billmosby, jm214, marleycat

    affect this? Clearly the US and Russia will be dismantling warheads. But will that make more or less of these materials available to the "nervous dictator or ambitious warlord" of the world?

    I have a purpose in life, I am my cat's doorman.

    by ontheleftcoast on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:20:07 AM PST

      •  Wikipedia is sometimes completely useless (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Odysseus, KenBee, kurt, JeffW, marleycat

        One attraction of MOX fuel is that it is a way of disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, which otherwise would have to be disposed as nuclear waste, and would remain a nuclear proliferation risk. However, there have been fears that normalising the global commercial use of MOX fuel and the associated expansion of reprocessing will itself lead to greater proliferation risk

        That's what I was trying to ask and the article does nothing to clarify the position. It goes into great lengths to describe all the various types of fuel extraction but it doesn't delve into the implications.

        I have a purpose in life, I am my cat's doorman.

        by ontheleftcoast on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:37:03 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  At least the U is dealt with. (17+ / 0-)

      Is being dealt with, I should say. I'm probably getting tiresome by mentioning this yet again, but we've been using downblended uranium from retired Russian weapons for reactor fuel since about 1995. In fact, about 10 percent of our electricity has been generated from that source since somewhere around that time. I used to work on this part of this program.

      And since it's easiest to make a bomb from U, perhaps this program is pretty helpful.

      As for the Pu, as you hint below the situation is more complicated. You effectively kill U for bomb use by downblending it. The only thing that can make it difficult to use Pu for a weapon is to increase its spontaneous neutron emission by irradiating it in a reactor until the even Pu isotope content is as large as you can get it. And even then it is said that we have made an explosive device of the stuff just to see if we could get it to work. And it did work. The heat output associated with the decay of those higher isotopes would make a practical weapon somewhat problematic, I hope.

      The only sure way to erase Pu is to fission it in a reactor that didn't simultaneously make more. That means a reactor core with a minimum of U, and particularly U-238, in it. That has been done, but the smaller fraction of delayed neutrons from Pu fission makes reactor control quite a lot more tricky- it has to have a much faster reaction time and there is more potential for overpower accidents as a result. Pu is not an easy thing to undo.

      Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

      by billmosby on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:54:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  as long as there are reactors (0+ / 0-)

      there will be nukes.  It is inevitable. Particularly since most modern reactors themselves use low-enriched fuel.

      The ONLY way to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons is to outlaw all nuclear technology---reactors, reprocessors, the whole works.

      •  I don't think that's realistic (5+ / 0-)

        Putting the genie back in the bottle just isn't going to happen. Cultures don't tend to willingly put aside technology, especially one that can be used as a weapon. What could happen is another form of energy is made readily available so that nuclear reactors seem less appealing but that's even less likely.

        I have a purpose in life, I am my cat's doorman.

        by ontheleftcoast on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:29:09 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  that would be a political decision (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Simplify, JeffW

          It is indeed doubtful whether we or anyone else would have the political will to make that decision.

          But that doesn't change the fact that from the technical point of view, having nuclear power in any form, means nuclear weapons.  The technological process for making low-enriched nuclear fuel is the same as making highly-enriched nuclear weapons. There are some things we can do to make the process harder, but there's nothing we can do to make the process impossible.

  •  The thing that worries me, (13+ / 0-)

    and should worry everyone is that it is not a matter of "if" a bad guy with no sense of shame gets a nuke of some kind, but "when" it happens. That is scary. There are all too many moral midgets in the world who would rejoice at the ability to detonate a nuke in the middle of a large and crowded city.  

    It makes me think living in a remote area with low target potential is a Good Thing.

    It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. - Ansel Adams

    by Otteray Scribe on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:22:19 AM PST

    •  Really. Who can doubt that such an event (4+ / 0-)

      is likely to occur someday. Maybe not in our generation but, barring a sudden outbreak of global sanity, before the internal combustion engine has gone the way of the horse and buggy, IMO.

    •  The nuclear genie was let out of the bottle (13+ / 0-)

      more than 65 years ago. I'm amazed what you describe hasn't happened yet. Will all the fear, anger, and just plain stupid in the world how we have gone so long without such an incident is something of a miracle. And how will we respond to it when it happens?

      I have a purpose in life, I am my cat's doorman.

      by ontheleftcoast on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:27:56 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Think on this one. (14+ / 0-)

        Crazy is not limited to targeting against the USA. What would happen if it were rebels setting one off in Red Square during a big parade?  Or in Mecca during Haj? Or in Tokyo or Bejing? Or Berlin? What would happen then?    

        It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. - Ansel Adams

        by Otteray Scribe on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:34:15 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yeah, a pretty gloomy picture (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          KenBee, Otteray Scribe

          So how has the world dogded the nuclear bullet for so long? There are clearly some "flash points" that are more likely targets then others. Large cities, conflict zones, etc. that the fearmongers drool over in their fetid minds. And what will the reaction of the world be when it happens is rarely, if ever, talked about openly.

          I have a purpose in life, I am my cat's doorman.

          by ontheleftcoast on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:43:27 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  At this point, I think (6+ / 0-)

            the fact that we have dodged the bullet up to now indicates just how hard it is to actually make a nuclear explosive. The question is, is it getting easier? Getting the material is the hard part. So far you still need to be something like a small country to get that part done. South Africa did it, I seem to recall. Thankfully they seem to have had better moral quality than outward appearances indicated at the time. Or was all that just a hoax? Not being snarky there, just recognizing that some have suggested that it was.

            Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

            by billmosby on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:58:18 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Pakistan (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              KenBee, JeffW, billmosby, Otteray Scribe

              is the one that worries me.

              Scientific Materialism debunked here

              by wilderness voice on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:10:30 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  I was going to mention that, (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                wilderness voice

                but it's probably weighing heavily on a lot of our minds already. That's not some kind of islamophobia, is it?

                Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

                by billmosby on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:19:49 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  it's likely that the next nation to use nukes (3+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  KenBee, kurt, JeffW

                  will be the US again.

                  During the Dubya administration, the US made plans to replace at least part of its nuclear arsenal with a new generation of "earth-penetrating" bombs, which burrow underground before exploding. They were originally designed to take out Soviet missile silos and hardened underground command centers, but the neocons envisioned them as a weapon in the "war on terror", allowing them to strike underground nuclear production facilities in small countries. The Pentagon made war plans envisioning the unilateral use of small earth-penetrators to preemptively strike "potential weapons of mass destruction" (leaked reports indicated that the use of tactical earth-penetrating nukes was part of the plan for the invasion of Iran).  

                  As part of the new plans for unilateral first use of nuclear weapons, the Pentagon asked for a massive program to "modernize" their arsenal and replace the obsolete Cold-War era city-busters with smaller "more usable" nukes, including a new facility to produce plutonium cores.

                  After a temporary interruption, those programs all continue under the Obama administration.

            •  Apartheid Unsustainable Long-term (9+ / 0-)

              "...So far you still need to be something like a small country to get that part done. South Africa did it, I seem to recall. Thankfully they seem to have had better moral quality than outward appearances indicated at the time..."

              The South African Afrikanner government realized that it could not sustain its apartheid practices indefinitely.  At some point, it was going to need to allow black South Africans to vote, in which case they would get control of the levers of power.  That would have included the nuclear weapons.  The Afrikanners could not predict just who might come to power and how they might retaliate to sixty years of apartheid.  Just let's say that the Afrikaaner government did the prudent thing in removing their nuclear weapons from the playing field.

              "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

              by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:24:17 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Ah, yes. I hadn't considered that. (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Otteray Scribe

                At least according to "Invictus", they seem to be behaving a little better now. Or maybe they have died off.

                Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

                by billmosby on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:29:46 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  Outcome Unexpected (4+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Odysseus, quotemstr, BYw, billmosby

                  Of course, it all depended on the path chosen by the new regimes in South Africa.  Nothing is ever forewritten in stone.  

                  If the leadership of the African National Congress had been more vindictive (and the movie Invictus shows the splits within that party) the outcomes for the Afrikanners could have been more like that predicted by the father, Mr. Pienaar, than we've actually seen.  Throw in a little crazy resistance by Afrikaaners, maybe some guerrilla terrorism, let the new South African government have the bombs, put one of the ANC leaders who couldn't forget the torture in charge, and watch the fun'n'games begin.  That alternate history would not be very hopeful at all.  We'd also have been deprived of a very good movie.  

                  "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

                  by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:04:28 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

            •  nothing moral about South Africa's disarmament (7+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Odysseus, sphealey, KenBee, kurt, JeffW, BYw, billmosby

              The apartheid regime didn't destroy its nuclear weapons technology out of humanitarian motives---it destroyed it because they knew they were going to lose power to the ANC and they didn't want black people to have nuclear weapons or the technology to make them.

              So even though South Africa is the only nation to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons, they didn't do it out of the goodness of their heart.

              As a technical matter, the South African nukes were reportedly gun-types, indicating that they had lots of U-235 to spare. Persistent rumors indicated that Israel lent a helping hand.

              •  Look on the Bright Side (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Odysseus, KenBee, kurt

                Without a doubt the SA Nationalist government destroyed the weapons out of self-interest and not much else.  But, it really doesn't matter, because any government in South Africa can remake them, since they have access to the materials and the technology.  I think it might be better to consider the fact that the Nationalists decided to destroy the weapons rather than deploy them in a bid to keep power.  Crazier folks on either side of that dispute could have led to utter disaster for all.

                "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

                by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:10:50 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  they destroyed the materials and technology too (4+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  quotemstr, KenBee, JeffW, BYw

                  They didn't just destroy the weapons--they destroyed anything they had that could be used to remake them.

                  So any South African government in the future that wants nukes, will have to start all over from scratch.

                  But yes, we can at least thank our lucky stars that the Afrikaners didn't nuke the Bantustans as a last desperate act of racist defiance.

      •  Only Major Powers Until Now (6+ / 0-)

        We've managed to avoid watching the nuclear genie stride the land mostly because only major players have been able to get their hands on the fissile material until most recently.  Typically, only nation states have had the resources and clout to secure the necessary materials.  The design and engineering are simple, as was shown here and has been known for at least fifty years.  With advances in production techniques and even the simplest computers for control systems, almost any reasonably sized "player" could build their own nuke if they wanted to.  That includes some of those multi-national corporations, if they ever decide to go really rogue.

        "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

        by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:18:09 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  I was born in Las Vegas in 1945....... (9+ / 0-)

      Our cattle range became the test site, and our ranch was about 45 miles from the explosions. The people in our valley were deemed "a disposable population"....

      Living in a remote area didn't work for me then....I wonder if it would now.

      Love is the lasting legacy of our lives

      by princesspat on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:10:42 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I understand. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        KenBee, princesspat

        However, you were not in a low value target area such as where I live.  What I referred to was those who live in the remote rural areas of the US that are of little interest to terrorists or even nation-states that possess WMDs.  And not even suitable for a test area, such as where you were living. The closest we come to that sort of thing is there is a low-level military training route nearby.  I was driving down the Interstate recently and a navy jet went past me at an altitude lower than I was on the highway. I could see DOWN into the cockpit. Both guys in the cockpit had their heads down and locked, flying strictly on instruments at less than treetop level right along the Interstate.

        But still, I do not think anyone is going to be setting off any loud noises around here anytime soon.

        It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. - Ansel Adams

        by Otteray Scribe on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:26:53 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Disturbing documentary (12+ / 0-)

    Radio Bikini

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Radio Bikini is a 1988 documentary film directed by Robert Stone.[1] It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988 for Best Documentary Feature.

    The film documents the nuclear tests performed around Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads in 1946, and their effects on the indigenous population and American servicemen involved in the testing.

    "Pardon me, I've got something sanctimonious to do." The Rude Pundit

    by BOHICA on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:26:00 AM PST

  •  Since the 1960's, the probability (7+ / 0-)

    of a world-ending nuclear war has gone way down. At the same time, the probability of one or two isolated devices blowing up a major city has gone up.

    I'm in the I-fucking-love-this-guy wing of the Democratic Party!

    by doc2 on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:28:52 AM PST

  •  Thanks for a very readable, important post. (17+ / 0-)

    You do a great job of taking complex material and rendering it readable, with insight. Thanks.

  •  There have only been five fizzles? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    the fan man, Otteray Scribe

    Hard to believe.



    by aoeu on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:31:42 AM PST

  •  Great post! Well written and informative. (7+ / 0-)

    "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."

    by the fan man on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:37:34 AM PST

  •  The one part you don't address is the making (4+ / 0-)

    of this material, and how nuclear power plants can produce it. Is that 'part II'?

    The technology to make weapons grade material is part of the economy of energy production; predictably the political and ethical implications of this part of the discussion will get quite heated.

    •  Yes (9+ / 0-)

      there was a point around 3000 words where I realized I needed ro have mercy on people and plan for part two. Besides, by then it was 4AM and I'd been writing since 6AM ( with a True Grit break in there). Seemed like a good time to also have some mercy on me.

      •  Oh boy, please include (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        what you know about the claim (I think I recall) that one of the experimental processes would consume the weapons grade material and not produce worse...ah, beyond recall. Thorium?, dammit.

         And why does that discussion get so dam heated?


        I really appreciate your writing abilities Mark, science is dam hard to make clear, you do it as well as anyone can.

        Does this rec make my head look fat?

        by KenBee on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 04:59:36 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Uranium enrichment processes (7+ / 0-)

      The World Nuclear Org. presents concise, readable descriptions of how the different "levels" of enrichment are achieved. It's notable that this is a capital-intensive manufacturing effort. Most analysts view it as unlikely that fringe groups could attain these levels of production capacity.

      For these reasons, the scenarios for terrorists getting a nuke are based on stealing the stuff.

      As the diary indirectly makes clear, it is very likely that the folks who might actually steal some weapons grade uranium, or worse yet plutonium, would probably all be dead in a very few days.

      Hollywood-style movieola usually focuses on the bad guys stealing a functional bomb and then figuring out some technical solution to make it explode. The easiest plot approach is to have a trained technician obtain the stuff; that is a person who already knows how to trigger the bomb. That is, in fact, a potentially real world occurrence.

      Let's all have a nice 21st Century. Peace!

      •  Which brings up the point: (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        If no nation-state made the stuff, there wouldn't be any to steal. No nuclear material fabrication, no terrorist nuclear threat.

        Government and laws are the agreement we all make to secure everyone's freedom.

        by Simplify on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:42:50 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Fascinating, terrifying, and insightful. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Otteray Scribe

    Thanks for starting my day with doom.

    Great writing, as always.

    You may wish to italicize Bismarck, and correct the spelling.

    Save energy! Install the dimmest bulbs available: Vote Republican.

    by CitizenJoe on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:48:07 AM PST

  •  Love your writing style. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, Otteray Scribe

    Way to make a frightening topic fun to read.  That's a gift.

  •  Give up? is that what the certainty in your last (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, kurt, Amber6541

    line is recommending?

    or should President Obama continue his mission to rid the world of loose nuclear material?

    should we just accept that this is our fate or should we fight back as hard as we can?

  •  Computer Modeling..... (5+ / 0-)

    I know there's been some push to either design a new class of nuclear weapons or modernize the current ones (since they don't keep forever). Those in the know claim it can be done without new testing (which would violate the Test Ban Treaty).

    However, since we're talking about "fizzles," I wonder what the degree of error is in the computer modeling? I'm sure it's pretty small, but it is still an odd thing to potentionally spend billions on new weapons that you will never test to see if they work right, unless you're actually using them to destroy the world.

  •  Here is one that was not a fizzle (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mark Sumner, KenBee, kurt, jds1978, JeffW, J M F

    the Tsar Bomba, approximately 57 megatons. This was the largest nuclear experiment to date. It can be replicated--never forget that.

    It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. - Ansel Adams

    by Otteray Scribe on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 06:50:07 AM PST

    •  As an aviator (5+ / 0-)

      I have the utmost respect for the volunteer aircrew members who accepted this mission t airdrop the monster. They knew what they were getting into and did it anyway. That is bravery above and beyond. In fact, all the aircrews who undertook airdrop missions are truly brave souls.  When the US did the first hydrogen bomb tests, those bombs were sitting firmly on the ground at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific.

      It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. - Ansel Adams

      by Otteray Scribe on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:08:10 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  To be fair... (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        sphealey, KenBee, kurt, Otteray Scribe would have taken some work to loft the gear that made up the Ivy Mike device: a huge Dewar full of liquid deuterium with a plutonium "sparkplug" in the center, and a plutonium fission bomb on top, with electric heaters to insure it would detonate properly! And all the refrigeration gear to cool the deuterium!

        And yet, with the Mark 17 hydrogen bomb casing, and having the huge Convair B-36 available, the AEC and Air Force actually had a liquid-fueled hydrogen bomb for a short period of time! The logistics of providing refrigeration for the thing, and the fact that you could carry 2 Mark 17's in a B-36 as opposed to one liquid deuterium bomb, probably led to its early demise.

        Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

        by JeffW on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:28:17 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  the Tsar Bomba, by the way, was (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Simplify, KenBee, kurt, JeffW, Otteray Scribe

      deliberately manipulated so as to not explode at full power.  It was designed to produce almost 100 megatons.  In the test, part of its uranium tamper was replaced with lead to reduce the yield. The bomb was never deployed--it was intended as a propaganda coup rather than as a usable weapon.

      Fusion bombs are designed in stages, with each stage providing the power to set off the next one.  So theoretically there is no limit to how big a fusion bomb can be---you can always add one more stage to make it even bigger.

  •  Thorium An Issue Too (8+ / 0-)

    Despite all of the claims about thorium being the perfect nuclear fuel, the thorium fuel cycle contains a very real "poison pill."  The U-233 produced by the thorium cycle can be used to produce a simple gun bomb, unlike plutonium which must use an implosion bomb approach.  Since the U-233 is chemically different than the thorium from which it is produced, it can be chemically separated.  It doesn't need the expensive isotope separation techniques which keep fissile material out of the hands of most people.  If we ever convert to thorium in a major way, we'll need major controls or else everyone and anyone will have be able to own their very own nuke.

    "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

    by PrahaPartizan on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:05:19 AM PST

    •  what was the tech that was posted here 6mo (0+ / 0-)

      ago or so that talked about a nuke power system seemed to make the claim that weapons grade material was consumed in the reaction, and it was a good way to use weapons grade material without the production side effect.

      Pretty sure it wasn't thorium bed whatever, maybe diarist david walters...grr crs.

      Dammit,  I can't re,member it, there was the usual stinkup, but the diarist made it sound Tony the Tiger greeaaat.

      Does this rec make my head look fat?

      by KenBee on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 05:34:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  There is a slight problem here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Insofar as "who" gets to determine whose hands are wrong.  I would venture a guess (and extend the metaphor) and say that that entity should have clean hands to start with.  And, by virtue of same, that someone would NOT be the United States.  Perhaps someone a bit more even-handed when it comes to stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Perhaps a nation or entity where one hand knows what the other is doing.

    " ... or a baby's arm holding an apple!"

    by Lavocat on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:08:33 AM PST

  •  I remember back in the fifties (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    when I was a kid living in New Jersey, we had many extraordinary and spectacular sunsets. I've often wondered if they were not a by-product of the testing in Nevada.

    "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." -- Mark Twain

    by rambler american on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:12:54 AM PST

    •  Very likely, as a bomb test (0+ / 0-)
      ...would blow a huge amount of dust/particulates into the upper atmosphere. Same principle as a volcanic eruption making for great sunsets.

      "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success." Ed Brayton -7.75/-6.05

      by QuestionAuthority on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 07:41:12 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary! (12+ / 0-)

    Only one little quibble, the Pu core for Fat Man was about the size of a softball. The uranium tamper around it was the size of a soccer ball, and you wouldn't be picking that up. The Pu core, though was only about 2 or 3 kg.

    Oh, and another quibble, if you didn't have a mumble-mumblium initiator in the center of either type of primitive bomb, the U one probably wouldn't go off at all and the Pu one would probably be a fizzle. The geometric criticality lasts for something like a millisecond for the U gun-type weapon and about a microsecond for the Pu one, and you need at least a few neutrons to appear in either of them during just part of that time for a reliable explosion. I don't think anyone, having gone to the trouble of constructing a nuclear device, would leave the final result to that much chance when a relatively small effort would ensure it. Polonium-beryllium was used in the early days.

    Good description of criticality accidents. I had a lot of training in that area as part of my nuclear material accountability job. Solid metal criticality accidents are typically very short and very intense and we were told, anyway, that they make so much heat so fast that they produce a shock wave that generally moves the pieces apart with such force that they terminate after one neutron pulse. For example, the Godiva accident.

    Where I worked, at Argonne-West, we routinely handled 2 to 3 kg of Pu metal during inventory operations. One rule was never stack the canisters, and we didn't. The two person rule was invaluable on occasion whenever one of us started to do something against the rules- there are so many rules that it's easy to forget one if things start to get too routine.

    Liquid solution criticality accidents have gone one for minutes to as much as half an hour- they blow apart but keep coming together because the solution generally remains trapped in a tank. They self terminate only when the liquid in the solution has evaporated to such an extent that the moderator which allows the criticality is no longer present.

    Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

    by billmosby on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:14:50 AM PST

    •  that polonium-beryllium initiator (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Alumbrados, KenBee, kurt, billmosby

      at the center of the implosion bomb was called "The Urchin". As I recall, they were fairly sure the gun-type uranium bomb would work without it, but decided at the last minute to add one anyway.

      •  By golly, I think you're right. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        KenBee, kurt, happymisanthropy

        I had been going by what I remember reading in Rhodes' book, but I just found this detailed description of the thing on the web.

        "Even if the neutron initiator failed to work, the bomb would have exploded from spontaneous fission in a fraction of a second. The decision to include initiators in the final weapon wasn't even finalized by Oppenheimer until March 15, 1945."

        It seems the target was robust enough to stop the uranium bullet in the target and hold it there until enough neutrons showed up by chance to make it go off.

        Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

        by billmosby on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:17:24 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  as I recall (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          KenBee, kurt, billmosby

          (and I am going completely on memory with this) the initiator designs were different for each bomb.  The Urchin in the Fat Man was a little hollow sphere with chambers inside, each chamber holding polonium or beryllium---the convergence of the implosion wave scrunched the Urchin together and allowed the separated elements to mix and produce neutrons. In Little Boy, they attached a wafer of polonium to one piece of uranium and a wafer of beryllium to the other, and neutrons were produced when they contacted.

  •  great diary! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, KenBee, JeffW

    I forgot about Project Orion - that the human spaceship in the sci-fi novel, "Footfall" had a basis in reality.

    "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Michael Steele quoting "War and Peace" lolwut?

    by mydailydrunk on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:39:06 AM PST

  •  "Evil Tootsie-Pop!?!" (6+ / 0-)

    How wide was the grin when that one came to mind?

    Great diary/commentary.

    Thanks, MB.

    Now, where did I leave my torches and villagers..

    by FrankSpoke on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:40:10 AM PST

  •  This diary ignors vast amounts of nuclear... (0+ / 0-) and is extremely simplistic.

    I could go on for days and days on this topic, but what would be the point?

    •  Well... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Odysseus, quotemstr, kurt, annieli could always post a companion diary.

      Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

      by JeffW on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:22:04 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  This is a website primarily about politics (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      quotemstr, KenBee, kurt

      and perceptions.

      Diaries about my field are to my reading always technically superficial and often inept as well.  That doesn't make their essential messages about what- in the present moment- poses the crucial problems and what the important attitudes and solutions are wrong.

      Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure. -Reinhold Niebuhr

      by killjoy on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 10:06:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting and well done diary (0+ / 0-)
  •  Can't fight greed. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    As long as there's money and power to be gained from having these weapons, and as long as the people who have the money and power in this world think that is more important than people's lives and welfare, this issue is not going to go away. The world has become a sad, dark place.

    "If I could have one wish, I would have people accept the importance of our common humanity." --Pres. Bill Clinton, The Today Show, 09/21/06

    by desordre remplir on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:58:06 AM PST

  •  And how far is Iran in this process...? (0+ / 0-)
  •  And if this is not enough to scare (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    you, read The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman. He talks about nuclear, chemical and biological WMDs.

  •  Ultimately (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Simplify, KenBee, kurt

    all that really protects us is our good relationship with our neighbors, because the genie that brought us temporary protection is out of the bottle.

    Help the Lakotah survive winter's storms.

    by Deep Harm on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:18:20 AM PST

  •  Newe Sogobia (7+ / 0-)

    Is the name in the Western Shoshone language for their traditional homeland, as affirmed by the Treaty of Ruby Valley, 1863, which includes the nuclear test site, and most of Nevada.

    The nuclear tests have made Newe Sogobia and the Western Shoshone people the victims of more nuclear attacks than any other Nation on Earth. On-going efforts to have the US Government honor the Treaty of Ruby Valley have met with continual stonewalling, as is the case with most of the 400+ treaties the US Gov't negotiated with the Indigenous Nations.


    "Without LOVE in the dream it will never come true..." -Hunter/Garcia

    by US Blues on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:24:33 AM PST

  •  I had never realized... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    KenBee, JeffW

    that two scientists had died due to accidents while doing criticality testing with that plutonium sphere.

    •  One death was dramatized in a movie (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      about the Manhattan Project, though now I forget which one. (Fat Man and Little Boy??) In the scene I remember, a young scientist had a little accident with the sub-critical material and got a quick (and eventually fatal) radiation bath.

      Death from radiation poisoning is simply horrible. The movie made it more viewer-friendly, but the gist was the there. Massive organ failure, cellular DNA damage, radiation burns both inside and outside -- and excruciating pain.

      There are different kinds of radiation exposure: from alpha and beta particles, from neutrons and from gamma rays. Alphas are lumbering giants (comparatively speaking) and cause surface damage. Betas are fast electrons ejected from nuclei; being much smaller than alphas, they penetrate the human body more deeply. Neutrons (as in neutron bombs) can zip right through the human body, since they have no electric charge, causing all kinds of havoc. Gamma rays are the most powerful, and most lethal. That's what you need two-foot thick lead, steel and concrete walls to stop. Think X-rays, but exponentially more dangerous. (Bruce Banner would not have become The Hulk. He would have been The Radioactive Corpse, requiring a remote burial in a lead coffin in a deep, secure crypt.)

      Standing next to material at or near criticality would have exposed those two guys to all four varieties of radiation.

      And these kinds of weapons are still considered legal internationally. Think about that.

      The gentleman values harmony, not uniformity; the small man values uniformity, not harmony. -- Confucius (early pundit)

      by wheatdogg on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 05:56:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The movie "The Fourth Protocol" (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, Simplify, KenBee

    Based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth, the story of a nuclear device intended to be detonated near an American base in Britain.  The scenes depicting the assembly of the bomb illustrate the points made here vividly.  Get thee to Netflix...

    There’s a killer on the road.
    His brain is squirming like a toad...

  •  Useful. Tiny addenda: (6+ / 0-)

    It's very unlikely that Slotin's Pu would have exploded in any way. The time frame for that was long past in the milliseconds before he knocked things apart.

    According to my father, who knew them, Slotin was Daghlian's boss, and had been distraught over his death. My dad interpreted Slotin's actions as semi-deliberately suicidal. Odd when you put it in perspective of how many deaths that the whole operation had caused, but it's our nature to feel differently about one friend than about 100,000 strangers.

    Another Los Alamos memory of my dad's: He and his two close buddies carefully instructing the guy (Klaus Fuchs) who was officially supposed to make a record of all the procedures on how to put together "mumblium-mumblium" for the initiator. They must have done a good job since Fuchs was specifically congratulated for that information in a Soviet commendation.

    Unlike the politicians, most of the scientists knew right away that the only big secret was that it was doable. Transmitting the details only slightly accelerated the timing of the project.

  •  The nuclear fallout from New Mexico and Nevada (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mark Sumner, kurt

    tests drifted east across the Midwest and Southern states. The increase in miscarriages in the months after and the rise in childhood leukemia followed the rain patterns as the cloud slowly crossed the US. Never acknowledged by the government and the extraordinary claims/evidence rule brought to bear even though the evidence was there. But as long as the neo-conservatives have political influence the Randy Newman song "Political Science"  better known as Let's drop the big one is mroe than a joke.

    There is never a good time to end a bad war.

    by OHdog on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 08:51:12 AM PST

  •  This is an excellent read, and having done so (0+ / 0-)

    I'm not uplifted. Thanks?

    Sometimes I sits and I thinks; sometimes I just sits. - Archy

    by Captain Sham on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:01:05 AM PST

  •  Very Very Good Post (0+ / 0-)

    Now educate on the START treaties.

    It's all about where is the material.

    The USSR made A LOT - where is it?

  •  Wow, that was cheery! n/t (0+ / 0-)
  •  Excellent piece, Mark. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, happymisanthropy

    The core Truth that comes out of this is the statement:

    When it comes to nuclear weapons, the material is the weapon.

    That is the one thing most people don't realize about nuclear material - that the substance itself is the dangerous part, the deadly part.

    Even nuclear material which is considered to be non-weapons-grade can and will produce dangerous and quite deadly events when not handled with utmost care.  The failure at Chernobyl is the best known example of that.  There are others.

    Accidents happen.  The three deaths you detailed in this were certainly accidental.  When nuclear material is part of the accident, there is great risk to human life.

    One has to wonder if we're yet smart enough to realize that this stuff is dangerous beyond our capabilities to handle it without harming each other.

    Celtic Merlin

    I support the Palestinians, so I may be suspended OR BANNED for it without notice or explanation.

    by Celtic Merlin on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:25:07 AM PST

    •  Natural Nuclear Reactor (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Odysseus, KenBee, JeffW, happymisanthropy

      This is fascinating to read, because it punctuates the point precisely:

      In Gabon, Africa, for about two hundred thousand years, geologic activity pushed enough underground uranium together such that, when groundwater flooded the strata, the water acted as a neutron moderator and kicked off a fission reaction.

      This happened about two billion years ago.

      No man.  No intelligence.  No intent.  Just enough stuff together to produce 100kW and lots of radiation, thanks to physics and chemistry.

      •  Two billion years ago? (0+ / 0-)

        Who was there to see it?

        That's a pretty wild supposition based upon evidence which is so old.  Are there any other theories as to what may have occurred there?

        Either way, it confirms the "this material is dangerous" assertion.

        I support the Palestinians, so I may be suspended OR BANNED for it without notice or explanation.

        by Celtic Merlin on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 12:56:03 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  isn't the e=mc2 efficiency of a fission/fusion (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    weapon still very low ?

    I seem to remember that they convert "only" a few percent of mass to energy.

    big badda boom : GRB 080913

    by squarewheel on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:38:58 AM PST

    •  that's not because of the e=mc2 (6+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mark Sumner, Odysseus, Simian, KenBee, kurt, JeffW

      The low efficiency of the bomb is a function of pure mechanics.

      When the explosion first begins, it produces heat--the heat causes the reacting mass to expand, thereby increasing the difference between its nuclei and reducing the number of fissions.  The key to a good explosion, then, is holding the reacting mass together as long as possible (and by "long" we mean a few millionths of a second) so as many nuclei as possible are split before the mass expands too far for effective fission.

      In implosion bombs, a big heavy layer called a "tamper" is used. The sheer weight and momentum of the tamper is enough to resist the expansion and hold the reacting mass together for a few additional microseconds--and since fission is an exponential process, those few additional generations of fissions produce a disproportionately large increase in the bomb's yield. The longer the mechanics of it are able to hold the reacting mass together, the higher percentage of plutonium atoms will be able to fission.

      In Little Boy, the target uranium was surrounded by a heavy steel tamper to help hold together the reacting mass, but the efficiency was only 1 or 2%.  In Fat Man, the implosion wave itself produced a large momentum in the tamper, which allowed it to hold together the reacting mass longer than the static Little Boy tamper, and the efficiency was much higher.

      I hope that all makes sense.

      •  right, so the efficiency _is_ low (0+ / 0-)

        compared to the ultimate, possible, efficiency which is e=mc^2.

        it's just that the efficiency is limited by mechanical constraints.  so you have devices that are capable of wiping out a city that are converting only a few percent of the rest mass to energy.

        hope nobody figures out how to get that number to 10 or 20 % or we're really in trouble.

        thank you.

        big badda boom : GRB 080913

        by squarewheel on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 07:55:36 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  mumble-mumblium (0+ / 0-)

    What the hell is "mumble-mumblium"!

    I googled it, and the only thing found was this article!

    I'm guessing... that it just stands for some undefined secret substance, an element doubtless from the heavier end of the Periodic Table. A writer using the term either does not know or may not say what it actually is.

    Distant cousin of "unobtainium", I would think.

    Anyone have any ideas?

  •  Gaia's revenge: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    If you can't stop the flow of nuclear material you can't stop nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, you can't stop the flow of nuclear material.

    Präsidentenelf-maßschach;Warning-Some Snark Above;Cascadia Lives

    by annieli on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 09:55:41 AM PST

  •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Every time I read you I learn things. BTW, loved your book. Keep up the good work.

  •  I there is one subject to be gloomy about... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Odysseus, KenBee, happymisanthropy is the proliferation of nuclear technology.  We have placed the elemental powers of destruction in the hands of beings whose evolutionary biology has them wholly unprepared to handle it.  We are left to trust in rational thinking coupled with survival instincts to keep us from destroying our planet, and we must extend this trust into the foreseeable future.  

    I am sure he was drawing inspiration from others before him, but on topics like this I am drawn back to the recurring themes of Michael Crichton novels.  We place tremendous power in the hands of people who have not earned it or shown the discipline to use it.  Willy nilly, science and technology will advance, whether we need, want or are endangered by whatever advances are made.  Especially if $$$ is to be made, we will be told X, Y or Z is essential to progress.  There is no body of wise people, no institutions, no legislatures, which are in place globally to provide a check.  It is full speed ahead and pray for the best...

    One of the iconic Hollywood images will always remain Charlton Heston falling to his knees before the half-buried Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, throwing up his hands and shouting:


    "Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people." - Jaron Lanier

    by FDRDemocrat on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 11:04:39 AM PST

  •  Nicely written piece, cogently presented. (0+ / 0-)

    I agree with Joseph Rotblat's assessment of the nuclear weapon proliferation problem. The only way to contend with it is to ban them worldwide.
    I can't imagine when such a fantastic circumstance might prevail but I believe he is well qualified to make the judgment.

  •  If you don't mind, I'll worry about THEM, too (0+ / 0-)

    When you think "loose nukes," don't think about some "suitcase bomb" being ferried out of a former Soviet republic by a disgruntled night watchman, or a warhead being brokered off by a cash-starved former general.

    And I'll continue worrying about simple non-fission dirty bombs that just spread radioactive materials over a few square blocks of downtown New York or Washington, D.C.

  •  kudos! great post eom (0+ / 0-)

    If you didn't like the news today, go out and make some of your own.

    by jgnyc on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 12:52:59 PM PST

  •  Great diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Interesting and scary. Makes me think of the scariness of the weapons I had to courier in the military.  Frightening and awesome in their utter destructive potential.

    A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism. -Carl Sagan

    by jo fish on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 01:02:52 PM PST

  •  too bad (0+ / 0-)
    we have so many people that don't see the potential for clean energy, instead they want an anti-science 16th century windmill..crazy
  •  Nice article however... (0+ / 0-)

    Look at a map. The only thing to the west is the Charleston range and California.

    The range is to the north-northwest. Google earth has the test shot locations mapped out.

    Nobody watching a test would mistake it for the sun, unless they were really hung over.

  •  With out a doubt, the most interesting story I (0+ / 0-)

    have read at DailyKos

    "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." ~ Mark Twain

    by VoiceFromIowa on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 03:52:22 PM PST

  •  Thanks for scaring me (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "Universal health care for every man, woman & child. That is our cause." -John Edwards 1/30/2008

    by jesses on Sun Jan 09, 2011 at 07:43:44 PM PST

  •  Explains why Obama made this issue his # 1. (0+ / 0-)

    Interesting instincts.

    Career criminals + Angry White Males + Log Cabin Rethugs + Personality Disorder delusionals + Paid bloggers =EQ= The GOPer Base

    by vets74 on Mon Jan 10, 2011 at 04:53:22 PM PST

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