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How hard is it to build a bomb? Mr. Biden might want to pay attention.
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And it is even harder to master the deep subtleties of a hydrogen bomb. This requires a conventional explosive to trigger an atomic bomb, whose radiated thermal energy then compresses the plutonium core so rapidly and compactly as to fuse hydrogen atoms and generate a thermonuclear explosion.
NOW THE BAD—VERY BAD—NEWS: You do not need a full U.S. weapons-grade fuel to build a bomb. Less than 20 percent-enriched uranium suffices. In 1962 the United States tested a uranium bomb at its Nevada underground test site, and obtained a nuclear explosion with fuel enriched somewhat short of 20 percent (the exact figure remains classified). It was, in the parlance, suboptimal. Such a bomb would cause less devastation and kill fewer people than a fully enriched bomb.
Also, a weapon fueled with highly enriched uranium but of crude design may “predetonate,” thus greatly reducing its explosive yield. Supercritical chain reactions in uranium typically at least double with each fission. Think of the parable about the king who offers a peasant serial doublings of wheat stalks for each square on a chessboard—one stalk of wheat on square one, two on square two, four on square three, etc. Before reaching 64 doublings the kingdom goes broke; the final squares are never covered, as there is no wheat left with which to do so. The difference in the nuclear case is that doublings go past the 64th square. Exponential progressions look like the famed “hockey stick” curve, which rockets upward at an ever-increasing rate.
In an 84-doubling sequence not uncommon in a fission weapon, after 70 doublings, only 1 percent of the energy will have been released. After 80 doublings, only 5 percent will have been released, and after 83 doublings, only 50 percent. North Korea’s early tests fell far short of the Hiroshima bomb in yield, due to pre-detonation. A primitive weapon releases far less energy than a well-engineered one.
But a low-enriched or crudely designed bomb could still could inflict vast damage. Consider the consequences wrought by conventional explosives: The 1,336-pound truck bomb that exploded in a garage of the World Trade Center in 1993, had it been more carefully placed a few yards away, would have toppled one tower into the other, killing many tens of thousands. The much bigger 1995 Oklahoma City bomb, which destroyed a large federal building and killed 168 people, used two and a half tons of conventional explosives. A nuclear bomb that unleashes just 1 percent of the 14 kilotons of energy released at Hiroshima would be the equivalent of 140 tons of TNT—200 times the explosive energy of the 1993 World Trade Center bomb.
A “puny” A-bomb (like that detonated in North Korea’s 2006 plutonium test, for example) could easily be equivalent to a few hundred tons of high explosives. Such a primitive device would embarrass any self-respecting bomb designer, but elegance is not a terrorist’s criterion. Terrorists may find a nuclear jalopy more useful to their purposes than the search for a nuclear Ferrari.
ONCE ONE REALIZES THE IMPLICATIONS of the metrics presented, and contemplates nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamists, it becomes clear that the nuclear threat to civilization is growing:
• Commercial nuclear power puts a country near a weapons capability.
• Going from commercial to weapon status takes far less time than going from non-nuclear to commercial.
• A crude design can rapidly be assembled, with no need to be tested.
So American policymakers—and the population as well—should understand that nuclear capability can be acquired by hostile powers leveraging off a commercial program, upon intent formed on the spur of the moment, and with a path to rapidly attain weapon status once all necessary materials are in place. Which makes denying access to critical materials the front line of defense against proliferation by America’s enemies.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?