More split nuclei


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security

On 16 July 1945, the United States did it. The Soviets followed suit on 29 August 1949, followed by the UK on 3 October 1952. The French followed on 13 February 1960, followed by China on 16 October 1964. On 18 May 1974, India joined the club, with Pakistan doing so on 28 May 1998. Israel and/or South Africa may have tested on 22 September 1979, in an incident detected by an American satellite.

As of 9 October 2006, North Korea seems to have tested a nuclear bomb. It makes you wonder how many more states will do so in the next fifty years, as well as what the security character of the Southeast Asian area, in particular, will be by then.

That said, while they seem to have scientists and engineers capable of making nuclear weapons, the North Koreans don’t seem to have staff capable of producing a particularly cogent English press release:

The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent. It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the KPA and people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defense capability.

Since this test was pretty clearly meant for American audiences, you might have expected them to pay more attention to their wording. I suppose multi-kiloton underground blasts speak louder than press releases.

Despite such nationalist rhetoric, the test seems more likely to endanger the average North Korean than help them. In the short term, there is the danger that someone will try to strike their nuclear capability before they develop credible delivery systems. Also, as The Economist identifies: “[T]he immediate threats from North Korea’s new capability come from radioactive leaks into the atmosphere and North Korea’s groundwater.” Finally, the test risks sparking a nuclear arms race in Asia that threatens the security of the whole region, at least.

[Update: 1:30pm] Based on my server logs, lots of people have been looking for these photos of test sites in Nevada during the last few days. Google still hasn’t figured out that this site has moved to WordPress. In any case, the photos show one of the ugly legacies of testing and reinforce the point that, while world should be moving towards nuclear disarmament, the converse seems to be taking place.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous October 9, 2006 at 1:44 pm

So, what is the electoral fallout from this?

Do people punish the Republicans for partially letting this happen with their Iraq and Iran obsessions? Or do people abandon the Democrats for the sturdy seeming arms of the ‘daddy’ party?

Anonymous October 9, 2006 at 2:53 pm

The Chinese-Japanese joint statement telling North Korea not to test was certainly a surprising show of cooperation.

Of course, look at how well it worked…

Milan October 9, 2006 at 5:17 pm

It does seem as though this could prove to be a big strategic mistake. If China, Japan, the US, and South Korea manage to coordinate policy, the North Koreans could really lose out from this – both in terms of the leadership and the people in general.

R.K. October 9, 2006 at 2:25 pm

The probable strategic fallout is much more worrisome.

Of course, this might actually push China, Japan, and the US to cooperate. Together, they could probably manage both N. Korea and the region generally.

Milan October 9, 2006 at 7:50 pm

Those interested in technical information related to nuclear tests might be interested in this blog entry about PINNACLE/NUCFLASH broadcasts.

. May 25, 2009 at 8:56 am

Governments Urge Security Council Action

Published: May 25, 2009

PARIS — Across the globe from Washington to Moscow to Beijing, North Korea’s underground nuclear test met with strong opposition Monday and some governments threatened to punish the secretive regime in Pyongyang with deeper isolation and possible tighter sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.

Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan said his government will seek a new United Nations resolution to condemn the test. He said an urgent meeting of the Security Council was expected to be held on Monday in New York at Japan’s request.

China, a key player whose response was closely watched around the world, said it was “resolutely opposed” to the test, according to a Foreign Ministry statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency, Reuters reported.

Russia said the test breached a United Nations Security Council resolution and would “endanger security and stability in the region,” according to the Russian foreign ministry in a statement.

. May 26, 2009 at 3:31 pm

First, Take a Deep Breath
Obama shouldn’t respond too quickly, or too aggressively, to the North Korean nuclear test.
By Fred Kaplan
Posted Tuesday, May 26, 2009, at 3:06 PM ET

So North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb. What should President Barack Obama do about it? Ideally, nothing. A shrug may be the response that Kim Jong-il fears most.

This, after all, was only the second A-bomb that Pyongyang has ever tested. (The first was in October 2006,) And recent long-range missile test, last April, seems to have been a dud—as were both of the other such tests it’s attempted in the past decade. If the big fear is that this loathsome dictatorship might fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile with the range to hit Japan or beyond, the worry seems premature by many years.

. September 2, 2009 at 11:14 pm

North Korea: The Implications of Weak Seismographic Data

As far as nuclear weapons go, almost everything can be learned from less-than full-scale testing except the actual yield of the untested device. Thus, this could have been a scaled-down test. It also would fit with a geological concern particular to North Korea — the water table is so high that an underground test runs a very real risk of irradiating a portion of the nation’s water supply. And, of course, the water tables of the Korean Peninsula do not split nicely along the 38th parallel. In a nation the size of Nevada — the state in which the United States has done much of its weapons testing — there will very likely be observable environmental consequences regardless of whether the test was full-scale.

Ultimately, however, the possibility of a scaled-down test is unconvincing. Environmental considerations aside, hydronuclear and hydrodynamic testing — two common forms of subcritical experimentation with weapons design — both have yields much lower than those observed Oct. 9, on the order of tens of tons and lower. These experiments test the function of the weapon without using enough fissile material to create a supercritical mass. Also, scaled-down tests with yields in the hundreds of tons often indicate boosted fission and thermonuclear devices with yields measured in megatons and of substantially greater complexity. Such complexity is almost certainly beyond North Korea’s current reach.

. November 22, 2010 at 8:32 pm

N Korea showed US scientist ‘vast new nuclear facility’

An American nuclear scientist says he was shown a vast new nuclear facility when he visited North Korea last week.

Dr Siegfried Hecker said he had been shown “more than 1,000 centrifuges” for enriching uranium, which can be used for making nuclear weapons.

The Stanford University scientist was stunned at how sophisticated the plant was, according to reported remarks.

When international weapons inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009, the plant did not exist, officials say.

Dr Hecker’s discovery was first reported in the New York Times, where he spoke of being taken to see an “ultra-modern control room”.

In subsequent remarks obtained by AP news agency, he said that unlike other North Korean facilities it “would fit into any modern American processing facility”, and spoke of more than 1,000 centrifuges “all neatly aligned and plumbed below us”.

. August 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm

“Monitoring for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty had already reached such a sophisticated level by 2006, when the monitoring network was only 60 percent complete, that more than twenty CTBT seismic stations detected the first North Korean nuclear test of 9 October as far away as South America, even though the explosive yield was less than one kiloton. [The Hiroshima bomb was 13.5 kilotons.] Besides 170 seismic stations arrayed across the world, the CTBT’s monitoring system includes eleven hydroacoustic stations capable of hearing the explosion of a fifty-pound TNT test charge ten thousand miles away; sixty infrasound stations listening for low-frequency sound waves from above-ground nuclear tests; and eighty radionucleotide stations sniffing for bomb-derived radioactive particles and radioactive nobel gases. Once the CTBT is fully in force, wrote the Science magazine reporter Daniel Clery, “its executive council, if faced with a suspected test… can call on the CTBT’s ultimate verification measure: an on-site inspection. Within days of a suspected test, a team of up to 40 people can be on the scene and scouring an area of up to 1000 square kilometres using overflights, mobile radionucleotide detectors, microseismic arrays to detect aftershocks, gamma-ray detectors, ground-penetrating radar, magnetic and gravitational field mapping, and electrical conductivity measurements.””

Rhodes, Richard. The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons. (2010) p.295 (hardcover)

. December 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm

North Korea is ready to conduct a third nuclear test, satellite photos show

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has repaired flood damage at its nuclear test facility and could conduct a quick atomic explosion if it chose, though water streaming out of a test tunnel may cause problems, analysis of recent satellite photos indicates.

. February 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm

North Korea nuclear test: live

North Korea says it has carried out a successful nuclear test, drawing widespread international condemnation. Follow the latest reaction from around the world as the UN prepares to hold an emergency meeting.

. February 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm

It will take a while to know what exactly went on at the Punggye-ri test site. The official news agency, KCNA, said the bomb was smaller, lighter and more powerful than the previous two tested in October 2006 and May 2009. Whether that is true or not, the regime’s goal is surely to make a warhead compact enough to sit atop its Unha-3 rocket, one of which put a satellite into space in December. With the right re-entry and weapons-guiding technologies, North Korea would then have an intercontinental ballistic missile with the ability to strike America.

. January 5, 2016 at 10:47 pm
. July 9, 2016 at 2:15 pm

North Korea’s nuclear programme
A nuclear nightmare

No country in history has spent such a large share of its wealth on nuclear weapons. North Korea is thought to have a stockpile of around 20 devices. Every six weeks or so it adds another. This year the pace of ballistic missile testing has been unprecedented. An underground nuclear detonation in January, claimed by the regime to be an H-bomb (but more likely a souped-up A-bomb), has been followed by tests of the technologies behind nuclear-armed missiles. Although three tests of a 4,000-kilometre (2,500-mile) missile failed in April, North Korean engineers learn from their mistakes. Few would bet against them succeeding in the end.

Understandably, therefore, Mr Obama has preferred to devote his efforts to Iran. Because the mullahs depend on sales of oil and gas to the outside world, embargoes on Iran’s energy exports and exclusion from the international payments system changed their strategic calculus. But this logic will not work with North Korea.

Without any good options, what should America’s next president do? A priority is to strengthen missile defence. New THAAD anti-missile systems should be sent to South Korea and Japan, while America soothes objections that their radar could be used against China’s nuclear weapons. China should also be cajoled into accepting that sanctions can be harsher, without provoking an implosion. Were that to lead initially only to a freeze on testing, it would be worth having. Because a sudden, unforeseen collapse of Mr Kim’s regime is possible at any time, America needs worked-out plans to seize or destroy North Korea’s nuclear missiles before they can be used. For this China’s co-operation, or at least acquiescence, is vital. So clear and present is the danger that even rivals who clash elsewhere in Asia must urgently find new ways to work together.

. July 9, 2016 at 2:17 pm

For a start, North Korea was a lot further down the road to a nuclear-weapons capability than Iran, which had remained within the NPT and was still a few years from being able to test a device. And Mr Obama realised there was also much more leverage to be had over Iran than North Korea. Bill Clinton had come close to authorising an air strike on Yongbyon in 1994, but pulled back in the belief it would trigger a new war on the peninsula that, by some estimates, could cost a million lives. After the nuclear test in 2006 the military option was off the table for good. That was never true of Iran. The Iranian leadership could not fully discount the threat of a pre-emptive strike by either Israel or America.

Lastly, Iran always (if implausibly) denied that it was seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons—the supreme leader Ali Khamenei even issued a fatwa that described possessing nuclear weapons as a “grave sin”. Mr Kim believes that nuclear weapons are essential. Like his father before him he has built them into the national narrative and iconography, seeing them as fundamental to the dynasty’s survival. Even without nuclear weapons, Iran is a regional power that America has to take seriously. North Korea has no other claim to fame except its nastiness. Its ruler sees nuclear weapons as the key to gaining the respect he demands from the outside world. They are not bargaining chips to be traded for other benefits.

The next issue is whether the North Koreans have graduated from devices that can be tested to devices that can be fitted onto either its existing medium-range Nodong missile (developed from the Soviet-era Scud C) or its two missiles under development, the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Mr Schilling thinks that they would not have carried out four nuclear tests on something they did not think they could deliver. On March 9th, Mr Kim was photographed paying a visit to what may have been the Chamjin missile factory outside Pyongyang. In a hall packed with several ballistic missiles, Mr Kim posed beside a plausible-looking re-entry vehicle that would be consistent in size with a fission device about 60cm in diameter and weighing up to 300 kilograms. Both American and South Korean officials are convinced that North Korea can indeed make a warhead small enough to fit on the Nodong, which can reach targets in Japan, including American bases.

Another ground test on April 9th has, according to Mr Schilling, put to rest any doubts about North Korea’s ability to build an ICBM sooner rather than later. Two engines from Soviet-era R-27 submarine-launched ballistic missiles were coupled together to provide the propulsive power and range for a warhead carried by a KN-08 to hit the east coast of the United States. It is not known how many R-27s North Korea has, but up to 150 went missing from Russia in the post-Soviet 1990s. Mr Schilling reckons flight testing of a KN-08 enhanced in this way could begin soon, leading to a “limited operational capability by 2020”.

Mr Pollack says that if Mr Kim wants the sort of bells-and-whistles deterrent deployed by the large nuclear powers, with submarine-launched and mobile missiles, the ruinous expense would make such a policy impossible. If, on the other hand, Mr Kim just wants what Mr Pollack calls a “don’t fuck with us” deterrent—one that keeps outside powers from interfering with his regime—he probably has one now.

Mr Elleman has calculated that, faced with 50-missile salvoes, a layered defence consisting of two THAAD batteries and South Korea’s existing Patriot systems would be able to stop all but 10% of what was fired. He and Michael Zagurek, in a paper for 38 North, base their calculations on what is known in the jargon as “single-shot probability of kill” (SSPK). With two layers of defence, the SSPK of each interceptor need only be a bit over 0.7 for 90% of the incoming missiles to be destroyed.

That would be an impressively effective defence against conventionally armed missiles. But only one or two nuclear warheads need to get through for the casualties to be immense (420,000 killed and injured in Seoul for each 20 kiloton warhead, reckon Mr Elleman and Mr Zagurek). And if nuclear-tipped missiles were launched alongside or behind conventional decoys the system would be clueless as to which was which. If Mr Kim were to add submarine-launched missiles to his arsenal, defence would be harder still; they could be fired out of sight of THAAD’s radar.

. September 9, 2016 at 9:58 am

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