Nuclear Secrecy April 27, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
At the end of March, an interesting article appeared on CNN.com in the TECH section. Entitled “Former truck driver deciphers top secrets of first atomic bombs,” the article detailed the efforts of John Coster-Mullen to understand the physical aspects of Fat Man and Little Boy, the weapons that gave rise to the atomic age and the Cold War. Coster-Mullen’s book Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, of which we have a copy, is an exacting, detail-driven exploration of the construction of those two weapons (and the dozens of test and engineering articles that were also constructed).
Coster-Mullen’s book has much in common with Chuck Hansen’s U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History, in that they were both created through extensive research, exhaustive Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and obsessive mindsets. A detailed discussion of the two texts is something that we’ll probably do in the future, but for this post, we’d like to address two of the misunderstandings that are created by the CNN article’s title and the follow-on, user-generated commentary.
Every time a book (or even an article about the book) like Coster-Mullen’s comes along, there is an outcry that the author shouldn’t be making so-called secrets about nuclear weapons public. Really, though, there has never been any such thing as an atomic secret, at least not one that could be kept secret for very long. Despite the uninformed blathering of our elected class that took place during the Cold War, it was clear by 1945 to most of the Manhattan Project scientists that it was only a matter of time until other nations had learned the secrets of manufacturing nuclear weapons. As was said at the time, “No nation has a monopoly on the laws of nature.”
This acknowledged fact led to vigorous debate among top Los Alamos scientists about the advisability of simply making the designs for Little Boy and Fat Man open secrets, not really secret at all. The history and background on this debate is covered exhaustively in the Trinity chapter and Epilogue of Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The leading proponents for this open dissemination of the bomb designs were Nobel Prize winners Niels Bohr (known as not-so-tricky Nicholas Baker when extra security was employed) and Leo Szilard, holder of the patent for sustain chain reaction.
Even though the Manhattan Project designs were never released into the open scientific literature, a staggering amount of information about the design and implementation of nuclear weapons was publically available in scientific journals throughout the Cold War. Any sufficiently motivated group of scientists and engineers would have been able to build their own nuclear weapon, probably from the moment that the designs for the Manhattan Project weapons were finalized.
The clearest test of this thesis came about as a byproduct of the so-called “Nth Country Experiment,” which was run by the Atomic Energy Commission and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the 1960s. Predicated on the fact that the United States was the first country to develop nuclear weapons, Russia was the second, and so on, the experiment asked: What resources would it take for a small, presumably hostile (or at least moderately belligerent) nation to become the Nth-country?
The program took three recent physics Ph.D.s who had no prior exposure to nuclear weapons development, provided them with access to open literature and computational resources, and tasked them with developing a nuclear weapon. The young physicists took up the challenge of designing the more difficult Fat Man or implosion-type weapon. Their design was completed in two-and-a-half years—even though they weren’t working on this project full time—and adjudged by weapons experts to have a fair probability of having produced a plausible, working weapon.
Then, as now, the only technical activities that stand in the way of the production of nuclear weapons is obtaining and enriching the fissile materials: uranium and plutonium. That’s what we hear about in the news—acquisition and enrichment—because the secret was out before it could be kept.