As recommended by a fellow attendee at the unofficial summer ‘grill thrill’ barbecues, I am currently reading Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. While the book can be detailed to the point of exhaustion sometimes, it does contain a lot of interesting information, on everything from atomic bomb design to the differences in governmental structure and operation in the United States and Soviet Union.
One thing the book has definitely done is diminish my concerns about terrorists building nuclear weapons. Even the ‘simple’ gun-type configuration uranium bomb is a lot more complicated that many of the diagrams and descriptions I have seen would make you believe. A plutonium implosion device is far more complex still. Getting from a sufficient quantity of fissile material to a working bomb is an extremely complex undertaking, requiring a lot of equipment and expertise. It also requires a lot of exotic materials and manufacturing processes. It is certainly easier now than it was for the Russians in 1949 (largely because more information is available), but the degree may not be as great as most people think. Because of espionnage, the Russians actually had the plans for the American bombs while they were building their own. Even under intense pressure from Stalin and Beria and with considerable resources (including access to industrial facilities and thousands of forced labourers), it took the Soviets four years to copy them. That makes it seem unlikely that terrorists without significant support from a state, access to industrial facilities, and high degrees of technical knowledge could emulate them.
Another interesting topic covered in the book is the hasty abandonment of Los Alamos at the end of the war. It would make interesting reading for those who saw the advent of atomic weapons as an immediate sea change in warfare. As it happened, there was apparently a long period after the war where no usable weapons were assembled and available, and the teams of people who would be required to make them so were dispersed around the United States, doing other things. The first bombs definitely weren’t designed with simplicity or shelf-life as a top priority. As a consequence, most of the deterrent effect of the bombs in the immediate post-war period was based around faulty information.
I will write a full review of the book when I have finished it.
[Update: 12 April 2010] My full review was online quite a while ago: Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.