I have a bachelor's degree in physics. A popular game among undergraduate physics majors is to try and figure out how to design a nuclear bomb.
Something that has kept me up all night worrying on more than one occassion is the realization that, in some respects, building a nuclear bomb is not really all that hard. It takes a lot of effort and investment, but it's not really rocket science. Not anymore.
Think of it this way: the two A-bombs that killed almost 200,000 people in Japan and forced a sudden end to World War II were built with the technology of the early 1940's.
Do you know what it was they called a "computer" at Los Alamos? It was a guy sitting at a desk with a table of logarithms and a mechanical adding machine. They'd have a whole big room full of these guys to calculate numerical solutions to differential equations.
It wasn't until after World War II that the first electronic computers were built. From the very start these were brought to bear on the problem of designing more powerful weapons, but even these were orders of magnitude slower, and had orders of magnitudes less memory than today's desktop computers.
You want to design a nuke? Get someone with a PhD in physics and give him a Linux box with Mathematica and MATLAB. You'll have your design in no time.
Today's modern nuclear weapons factories enrich uranium through diffusion of a gaseous uranium compound. It's a very difficult, tricky process, and has to be done on an enormous scale to produce significant quantities. But that's not how they did it back during the Los Alamos days. They used large mass spectrometers, devices they called calutrons.
They're hard to get working right too, but in principle they are very simple - you send a beam of electrically charged uranium atoms through a magnetic field, created by a large electromagnet. The charged particles travel a curved path, bent by the magnetic field, with the more massive isotopes traveling a somewhat less curved trajectory. At the end of the path you collect the material on a metal plate. One side of the blob produced will be somewhat enriched. Scrape it off and run it through again.
Fissile uranium occurs plentifully in nature. You just have to dig it up out of the ground. It's not concentrated enough to explode, but all you need to enrich it to bomb grade is a large industrial plant and lots of electricity.
The industrial facilities and electic capacity of the 1940's United States are within reach of many third world countries of the early 21st century.
Scientific American published an article a while back about what the UN inspectors found in Iraq after the first war. Underground facilities full of calutrons, powered by underground cables that were laid over a hundred miles from the power plants that fed them - see, so know one would suspect.
Manhattan project scientists filed a number of top-secret patents that described ways to make the calutrons work better. But with the invention of gas diffusion, these patents were declassified because the technique was thought to be obsolete. Copies of these now-publicly-available patents were also found in Iraq.
Fissile plutonium does not occur in nature. You have to make it in a reactor, and it is produced only in tiny quantities so it takes a long time. The bombs are hard to make, with explosive lenses and a delicately balanced initiator that starts off the reaction.
But to make a uranium bomb, you just shoot a chunk of uranium out a cannon into another chunk of uranium so the two of them form a critical mass. Simple as pie.
These kinds of bombs are often referred to in the press as "crude" and "primitive" compared to the modern, more compact and much more powerful weaponry possessed by Russia and the US. But it was two such crude and primitive bombs that rained Hellfire over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Now for the reading I promised:
I decided to finally finish my degree, and enter graduate school, as a result of reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb. As I finished the book, I said to myself, "Hey, I could do that", and went back to school.
I haven't read the hydrogen bomb book yet, but I looked through all the pictures while browsing in a bookstore. Especially disturbing are two pictures of the New York City skyline. On one is superimposed the mushroom cloud of a Hiroshima sized A-bomb, of such a size it could destroy the center of the city. On the other is placed the blast of a hydrogen bomb, so much bigger that it would vaporize New York in its entirety.
It really makes you stop to think: the bombs dropped on Japan were fifteen kiloton devices, equivalent to the explosive power of fifteen thousand tons of TNT. But hydrogen bombs are measured in MEGATONS. The first H-bomb test in the Pacific blew an island clean off the map and almost killed the observers who thought they were at a safe distance. I understand the most powerful bomb ever, tested by the Soviets, had a yield of I think 56 megatons.
There's a little joke I used to tell people, back in 1994, when the North Koreans were up to no good. I wasn't doing so well mentally, and was deeply worried, not just about the Koreans, but about every country that might have reason to want to become a nuclear power. I used to laugh in a manic sort of way when I would tell people. I felt it was my personal responsibility to warn the public so we wouldn't all get blown up.
Q: What did they call the first hydrogen bomb?
Thank you for your attention.
Live your fucking life. Sue someone on the Internet. Write a fucking music player. Like the great man Michael David Crawford has shown us all: Hard work, a strong will to stalk, and a few fries short of a happy meal goes a long way.
-- bride of spidy