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Monday, May 08, 2006

Here's an Idea: READ A BOOK

Originally Posted: April 25, 2006 --11:53 PM
Fool Boards Link: http://boards.fool.com/Message.asp?mid=24020188

An informal review of a world-class book that might shed some light on current strategies for slowing proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies.


All of the recent concern about the consequences of a nuclear Iran makes me wonder if people really understand the logistics involved in creating a nuclear weapon.

Might I suggest one REALLY good, Pulitzer Prize winning, book? The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, published in 1986.


Besides being one of the best written, most interesting books about science and technology, this book will probably give you a better perspective on the real requirements to create a viable nuclear weapon. I would break them down to the following categories:

1) understanding the physics of uranium / plutonium enrichment
2) understanding the theory of initiation a chain reaction
3) physical construction of enrichment processes
4) physical design of a "gadget" that can initiate a chain reaction
5) delivery of the gadget to a target

In the case of those "rogue states" whose nuclear ambitions concern us, here's the state of "do-ability".

Any 4th year physics students probably understand the basics behind item #1.

Any 4th year physics students probably understand the basics behind item #2.

Any country with missile technology capable of launching a satelite has nuclear weapon delivery technology worthy of concern. Don't forget, the REAL reason we "chose to go to the moon" was to demonstrate our ability to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of delivering an H-Bomb to Nikita Kruschchev's dacha doorstep.

Development of a "gadget" that can assemble a critical mass involves an incredible amount of sophisticated mathematics, high-powered computers to help perfect your explosive "lense" and firing design OR a huge head start from stolen plans of actual working devices. At this point, I'm guessing there are probably quite a few designs both from the United States and Russia, not to mention our "ally" Pakistan, floating around the nuclear black market.

That leaves development of enrichment processing plants. This item is partly why I recommend the Rhodes book. Modern understanding of physics and modern computers can help enormously with some of the aspects of bomb building but enriching uranium or plutonium can only be done via a handful of practical methods. All of them require enormous scale to produce usable quantities of weapons-grade material. Scales not likely to escape detection.

I believe Iran, North Korea and others

1) have the basic knowledge of physics required
2) have access to suitable "delivery technology"
3) understand HOW to perform enrichment
4) fear America enough to WANT nuclear weapons

However, I have strong doubts they have the "big science" chops to construct and operate plants capable of producing the enriched material needed for an actual fission or fusion bomb. The classic "mushroom cloud" fear the Bush Administration likes to foster to scare the public into cowering in the corner while they initiate another military disaster just doesn't seem likely.

What DOES seem likely is the potential for a "dirty bomb" nuclear threat. There is enough sub-weapons-grade uranium and plutonium missing from "civilian" nuclear facilities to produce more than enough dirty bombs to worry about. However, the material for a dirty bomb attack isn't limited to the borders of Iran -- that material is now probably floating all over the world. For a terrorist not concerned with his/her own life, it is very do-able to smuggle low-grade uranium or plutonium into a target country and detonate it using traditional explosives or the TONS of high-explosives we left unguarded in our race to conquer Baghdad.

And THAT is the problem with the latest Bush Administration fixation. An attack on Iran will do NOTHING to alleviate the most likely nuclear threat we face and will exacerbate the problems we have with an over-stretched military fighting an unsustainable mission in support of a poorly defined objective.



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