All Things Nuclear, Part I



Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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104 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Wow. That was pretty damn impressive.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Though no Nuclear Winter, this book always makes me assume that the effects of a blast from a nuclear weapon would only be part of the cost:

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I wanted to write more about fallout, but frankly the damn thing was taking too long as it was.

        An air-burst nuclear weapon doesn’t generate much fallout, since it doesn’t pick up a lot of dirt and debris in the fireball to be irradiated.

        Chernobyl’s effects are still a topic of a lot of research and/or debate, as is Hiroshima’s.

        Computing the amount of fallout due to a nuclear weapon, and the epidemiological effects of that radiation on the local community is going to be difficult until you have a fairly solid body of longitudinal data.

        Fallout and radiation, though, aren’t quite as scary as people are predisposed to think. From the Chernobyl page:

        In the aftermath of the accident, 237 people suffered from acute radiation sickness (ARS), of whom 31 died within the first three months.[10][90] Most of these were fire and rescue workers trying to bring the accident under control, who were not fully aware of how dangerous exposure to the radiation in the smoke was. Whereas, in the World Health Organization’s 2006 report of the Chernobyl Forum expert group on the 237 emergency workers who were diagnosed with ARS, ARS was identified as the cause of death for 28 of these people within the first few months after the disaster. There were no further deaths identified, in the general population affected by the disaster, as being caused by ARS. Of the 72,000 Russian Emergency Workers being studied, 216 non-cancer deaths are attributed to the disaster, between 1991 and 1998. The latency period for solid cancers caused by excess radiation exposure is 10 or more years; thus at the time of the WHO report being undertaken, the rates of solid cancer deaths were no greater than the general population. Some 135,000 people were evacuated from the area, including 50,000 from Pripyat.

        Bold emphasis mine.

        216 deaths out of 72,000 direct exposures isn’t an astronomically high death rate and predisposes me to be critical of the studies that put Chernobyl’s death toll at a very high range.Report

  2. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    I forgot to mention: nuclear devices made by the U.S. (and presumably by the former Soviets) are designed to be tamper-fail.

    That is, if you tried to take apart a W78 warhead, it would “brick” itself, becoming inoperative. So the “backpack bomber” scenario would probably require someone to disassemble a bomb and then re-assemble the fissile material into a form factor that would be capable of generating critical mass.

    This is much more likely to result in a fizzle (and perhaps a “dirty bomb” working scenario) than a nuclear explosion of significant magnitude.Report

    • I wonder how foolproof this actually is, and how much it’s just “it would be really, really hard.”Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Generally, I’d consider it significantly hard enough to basically render the process un-doable by anyone who doesn’t already have the know-how (and the tools) to replicate it independently.

        If you can build one, you can probably take another nation’s apart and muck with it. If you can’t, you probably don’t have the knowledge necessary to take one apart without bricking it.

        You can still learn quite a bit by bricking it, of course. Given enough time and enough smart people, you could certainly re-engineer it.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I’ve studied enough security that “tamper-proof” makes me laugh, but “tamper-resistant” is usually good enough for what it’s trying to resist.

        When it comes to nukes, “tamper-resistant” is, “We don’t want anyone playing with this thing and have it still be operable”.

        I don’t have much insight into the Russian military, so their idea of securing their nuclear arsenal might be different from ours. But ours is pretty freakin’ paranoid, on a scale of how paranoid things can get.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          If it’s more complicated to successfully tamper with the weapon than it is to build a new one, then it’s “tamper-proof”.Report

          • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to DensityDuck says:

            I’m not so sure. It’s more complicated to put together a car with parts from other cars than it is to buy a new one, but if you don’t have the means to do the latter you can still have the ability to do the former.

            Or maybe a better example is counterfeiting money. Figuring out how to create a system that copies the original is more complicated than just printing the original; but if you don’t have access to everything the printers of the originals do you choose to create that system.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              Neither of those is particularly good examples, because the raw materials are rather more plentiful and the engineering is considerably less more complicated.

              At least, in the case of a thermonuclear device. A simple gun-type nuke isn’t terribly complicated, but the raw material is still hard to come by.

              It would be difficult to make a gun-type nuke out of the spare parts from a disassembled implosion device, though.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Yep; the complexity of a nuclear weapon comes from making it small (and, therefore, lightweight.) Remember that, in the 1940s, a whole B-29 was needed to carry a single 20-kt weapon. These days you can fit dozens of kilotons into a bazooka rocket.

                There’s also some degree of improvement in explosive yield. I believe that less than ten percent of the fissile material in the Little Boy and Fat Man weapons actually reacted; the rest just got spread around.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

                You can fit dozens of kilotons into a bazooka rocket? You’re going to have to point me at a link for that one.

                I get 2 kT for a 90 lb device being the smallest nuke hitting kTage range.

                Gun-type devices are all going to dump a lot of their reaction mass as waste.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Fair point; “some”, not “dozens”.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

            > If it’s more complicated to successfully
            > tamper with the weapon than it is to
            > build a new one, then it’s “tamper-proof”.

            More or less this; although one can tamper with a hydrogen bomb and still get a usable dirty weapon or low-grade device out of the deal. So if that’s all you need to make your point, it’s not quite “tamper proof”.

            Let’s just say I don’t think it’s very easy to make a very dangerous weapon by using a scrounged nuke as a source of either data or technology.Report

  3. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    Fixed a broken tag.Report

  4. Avatar Peter says:

    In your coverage of the US nuclear arsenal you neglect the naval portion of the triad. You write “Currently the U.S. has only one major member of its arsenal, the Minuteman III” and “Almost all of the current arsenal of U.S. nuclear devices is composed of W87 warheads mounted on Minuteman III missiles.”

    However, there are 14 Ohio-class submarines designed to carry and launch the Trident II missile that carries the W88 warhead. I haven’t thought much about this, but I’d guess there are about as many W88s out there as W87s. This would be knowable via treaty documentation, I imagine.

  5. Avatar North says:

    Elegantly written Pat. Thank you for putting the time in. Pure tonic for the nuclear hysteria that rampages about on both the left and right.

    I’ve always been fascinated by nuclear, it strikes me as the closest to real life magic that we’ve practically gotten. I look forward to you getting to civilian nuclear power.Report

  6. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    One question: Given Iran’s projected desire to set off one of those “EMP” (or whatever) devices you so eloquently wrote of, do you think the US should strike first and nuke as many of their installations as we know of, or wait until they launch?Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      The bunker buster bombs linked earlier are of debatable use against the Iranian nuclear facilities, as far as I’ve read, Bob. Here’s one link among many.

      It’s also going to generate a very large volume of fallout, unlike an air burst nuke, because the thing will go off in the ground. Since we have a bunch of American troops next door (and downwind), this might be somewhat problematic.

      Since Iran doesn’t have a really robust delivery mechanism, I doubt their propaganda matches their real intentions when it comes to weaponized nuclear power. But to really make a judgment on that, I’d need a much higher security clearance than I’m ever likely to possess.

      My gut impulse would be to say this is not a good idea, but from a civilian death toll standpoint, it’s probably less than regime change via invasion. Not that this is a great selling point.

      Personally, that’s a pretty high barrier to justify preemptive military action, to me.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      Feh, if we seriously were worried about Iran firstly managing to make a bomb and then smuggling the bloody thing over here and then detonating it over the US we could solve the whole problem with little concern. Publicly invest a bit of the DoD’s bloated budget into EMP-proofing the military infrastructure, then have Hillary offhandedly mention that anyone who tried to EMP us could be expected to be nuked back to the stone age for their troubles (though I suppose the Mullahs would consider the stone age an great leap forward so lets say twigs and berries age instead).Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        And that’s assuming the the DoD’s infrastructure is not already EMP-proofed incidentally, most of it was built during the nuke scares in mid last century. I’m pretty sure EMP was a concern then. Either way it’d cost less than even the cost of shipping some infantry over to Iran let alone invading the poor benighted buggers. Hell I doubt there’s anything the Mullahs fantasize more about (other than goats) than the Great Satan invading and giving the Iranian public someone to loathe more than their own government.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to North says:

          North and Pat, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Iranians had a decent rocket that might be launchable from a specially constructed merchant vessel off our shore? And, while our military may or may not be emp proof, I’m surely going to miss a few of the Rush Limbaugh radio shows, assuming our commerical people aren’t up to snuff? Yes, no?Report

          • Bob, assuming that Iran has the capabilities to go to war with us using the weapons you describe, why do you believe they would?Report

          • Bob, I’ll respond more fully when I’m not on a mobile device, but in short:

            I don’t think this is a probable scenario. Detonating a nuclear device inside the borders of a nuclear power is national suicide unless you have extreme deniability *and* a sufficient arsenal to provide a MAD scenario.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              What, I think, you don’t understand is that the Muslim is neither a Russian or a Christian. MAD, does not hunt for the Muslim, they could care less. They have a different perspective on death and dying than the West.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                This might be true, Bob, but they said the same thing about the Japanese.

                Turns out, they weren’t all crazy enough to die rather than give up, after all.

                In any event, “they’re crazy enough to use them if they get them ’cause they’re Muslim” hasn’t panned out. Pakistan has more crazy Muslims than Iran (if we’re measuring crazy by “willing to engage in what Pat thinks of as nihilism”), and no crazy fundamentalist nihilist Pakistani Muslim has gotten their hands on a nuke yet.Report

              • This might be true, Bob, but they said the same thing about the Japanese.

                Turns out, they weren’t all crazy enough to die rather than give up, after all.

                To be fair, it took the closest thing there is to Wrath of God to make them surrender.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to James K says:

                To be fair, it took the closest thing there is to Wrath of God to make them surrender.

                Aha. JamesK. Now we’re getting somewhere.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to James K says:

                Well, we actually killed more people firebombing Tokyo (not to mention the rest of the urban centers list in Japan) than we did with Little Boy.

                I’m not so sure that an extended conventional bombing campaign wouldn’t have turned the same trick as a pair of nukes.

                Only alternate reality knows for certain.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                you only had one person to convince, and that’s the emperor. Given Japan’s history of sending people out to steal new tech from America/Western Countries, I believe that nuclear weapons were more potent propaganda than any mere conventional strike would have been.

                That said, I’d argue a decent chemical war might have gotten the Emperor to give up.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                The stoic Japanese would have survived extended bombing much like the stoic British did. ONE massive bomb struck terror in everyone’s heart, since they were easily able to imagine whole squadrons of those things wending their way.

                As for nihilistic Muslims getting ahold of Pakistan’s weapons, don’t think they wouldn’t love to. Fortunately the military there for better or worse likes those boomers in the vault a lot more than out in the wild. Enough of a regime change might change their minds on that however.

                Nukes are strange weapons. They have more value /waiting/ to be used than used. The countries (other than Iran) around Israel always have to wonder if Israel would launch her nuke(s) – that wonder changes things. Opponents of the US don’t wonder, they assume we won’t launch 99.99999999999% of the time.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                WS’s analysis on Comment NO. 48 is spot on, while the beloved Kimmi is obviously the intellectual product of our unionized teacher’s cult.Report

              • I wrote a pretty exhaustive article on the topic a while back. It was – in fact – my first blog post ever:


                I’ve gotten sloppier and lazier since then.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

            Back to Bob:

            I’m not sure what your proposition is, here, Mr. Cheeks. Are you making a policy proposal or a moral argument? I’m not sure how anybody can make a moral case that preemptive nuclear attack is justifiable; since you take such umbrage at abortion I’m not sure how you can suss out a position that nuking the crap out of another nation on the basis of propaganda is justifiable. I’d love to read it, though, just to see how much of a pretzel you can make out of your moral framework 🙂

            From a policy proposal standpoint: firing off a nuclear weapon, either as an act of aggression or retaliation, has occurred exactly twice in the history of the world, and those both occurred in rather exceptional circumstances. I don’t think we have enough data to make any sort of credible projections about the geopolitical ramifications of nuking Iran preemptively. We have no idea how other nations would react (excepting possibly Israel). We have very little idea how non-nation state groups would react. We have very little idea how our own populace would react, for that matter.

            On the other hand, if Iran sets off a ~4kt device in the U.S., I can state that it’s pretty likely we can nuke the crap out of them (or just level the country with conventional weapons, for that matter) without anywhere near the geopolitical fallout.

            I can’t do a risk analysis to compare “we nuke Iran to eliminate the possibility that they might attack us someday” with “we let Iran nuke us and then we vaporize the country”. Calling this out, in my opinion, one way or the other is then pretty much an act of political faith.

            I don’t generally like nuking people on faith.Report

            • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Why would we nuke their entire country and kill millions and millions of innocent Iranians who had nothing to do with the decision to set off a nuclear weapon inside the United States?

              Especially when it’s only one small bomb.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Oh, I didn’t say we *would*.

                We probably *could*, though.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                If Iran nukes something, they must pay. Civilians will be involved even under best surgical practice, but under the rules of justice and ethics, their deaths are on the regime’s head.

                One of our most ethical and wise dynamics is that if you rob a bank and the guard shoots a civilian by accident, it’s the robber who is morally and legally culpable, guilty of murder.

                Even if his gun was unloaded…Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Let’s say that as far as geopolitical reality goes, Tom, “proportional response” is likely going to occur, in the event nuclear terrorism occurs.

                And the definition of “proportional” is going to be “significantly retributive to discourage anyone else from doing this”.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                PatC, you done read my mind. Deterrence is only a chimera when it is one. My daddy only took the belt to me once: when I raised my hand to my mother.

                I was 15 or so. Never did raise my hand to a woman again, ever. I’m sure my dad regrets [the necessity of] the belting in his way, but I am grateful to him.

                Just as we regret Hiroshima. But Nanking hasn’t been raped since. In their way, the Japanese are grateful to us for their humbling, as I am to my dad.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Oooops—I was probably 12 or 13. I was in college by 16. Sorry. The story holds. I’d just got bigger than my mother and decided I wasn’t going to take her shit anymore, I reckon.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                I have to be honest, Tom, I was surprised that the U.S. didn’t drop a pony nuke on Tora Bora after 9/11, airburst to prevent fallout.

                One of the 5 kT W80s or thereabouts.

                Or, at least, make a phone call to the Taliban to the extent of, “We want Osama bin Laden on a plane to the United States within 10 days, or we will fire a Tomahawk at our best guess as to his current location. We’ll continue playing whack-a-mole until public statements by Al Qaeda are no longer issued.”

                We would have killed a damn sight smaller number of civilians than invading the country, and I imagine it’s possible that the regime would have changed internally a lot faster.

                I can imagine all sorts of bad consequences, as well, mind you; but the discussion must have occurred.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                PatC, we’re not at war with Afghanistan, but Pakistan, pop. 170 million Muslims, give or take a few.

                Afghanistan was the “good war” if you recall, supported by most all of us as the harboring state of 9-11.

                Pakistan is severely fucked up and big as hell. Who knew that bin Laden was hiding not in the frontiers of Waziristan, but


                The rest is just commentary. This remains a transnational problem.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                I’d wager he wasn’t in Pakistan two weeks (or even a couple of months) after 9/11, Tom.

                Who knows the route the guy took from wherever he was on 9/11 until he was killed in Abbottabad. Well, the guys who are digging through all those USB drives recovered in the raid will probably make a report that will be declassified in 15 years and we’ll have a pretty good guess, then.

                Also: it wouldn’t surprise me if Osama had wound up on a plane somewhere if a nuke dropped on Afghanistan a month or so after 9/11, wherever he was at the time. As James K comments above, it’s the closest you’re going to get to the Wrath of God. There is nothing in the history of the world that says, “We’re not screwing around, no more” like a mushroom cloud.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                just look at who went scurrying, when we downloaded the data. that’ll tell you a good deal about who got Bin Laden there. And taht’s more important than the route taken.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              Pat, no I’m not advocating, just askin’. Re: nukes and war, well I’m thinking Christians are permitted to engage in ‘just’ wars. Being attacked and going to war with the attacker strikes me as a ‘just’ war. I was trying to get some sense of a nuke ground from someone who knows about nukes.
              You are right that Muslims haven’t got the bomb, yet, other than the ones the Pakistani’s have, and I wonder why they haven’t wrapped one up and presented it to Al Qaeda?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Most likely because they’re not quite as insane as the righties like to put on they are. As Pat noted before nukes are extremely tracable. There’s really no such thing as an anonymous nuke.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to North says:

                True N-man, but Pakistan has a thing with India and a certain ‘western’ tradition that, say an Iran, Iraq, etc. don’t share. Given the chance the true believing Muslim would lite one off today, no problem getting volunteers.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                That’s an assertion that’s neither provable nor disprovable since no “true believing Muslim” is in posession of nukes. It is important to note that the Iranians, muslim or no, are also Persian and have a long history of being pretty sensible and hard headed. Nothing the Mullas of Iran have done suggests they are suicidal and while they may be religious fanatics pretty much every time they’ve had to choose between their faith and material benefit for themselves they’ve chosen the latter.Report

    • Nukes are hardly necessary. Conventional bombing that takes out all of their electricity generating and transmission service should be sufficient. Every dam, every thermal power plant, every substation, every transmission line. Even a deeply-buried nuclear generating plant requires cooling, hence entry and exit points for either air or water. If you fill those points with rubble, the generator is effectively shut down. It may be possible in theory for a country to build nuclear weapons with no electricity except that generated on-site deep underground; in practice, it’s simply not going to happen.Report

  7. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    For a bunch of books where (spoiler alert) some of these issues come up, you should really try Charlie Stross’ Merchant Princes series. They’re phenomenal.Report

  8. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    It’s entirely possible to test nuclear weapons without setting one off.

    For one thing, that’s why they made supercomputers.

    For another, there’s all kinds of ways to “not set one off”. You could set off the explosives with the fissile materials replaced by metal, and look at the resulting shape. You could set one off with insufficient amounts of fissile material, and monitor the “fizzle” that results.

    Most of the “testing” that’s done these days is model validation. Our model says that thus-and-so will result from this-and-that initial conditions. The model also says that, if you change a small part of this-or-that, you get the earth-shattering kaboom. If the tests show that the model was right about this-or-that producing thus-and-so, then it’s probably right about the rest.Report

    • Yeah, Duck, but the reason we can use models is that we have a large body of test data to work with. This is a lot less useful of a technique if you’re working entirely from theory.

      It’s possible that nations have a greater capability than is reflected by their test data, but I doubt the delta is significantReport

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

      A more detailed response:

      Duck, sometimes I think you read something until you get to the point where you think you have an objection, and then you state your objection. I’m not sure you’ve done much research to support the idea that a non-nuclear entity can develop nuclear weapons without testing. Have you?

      Given that we’re just exchanging non-expert opinions here, I don’t have much grounds to dismiss your objection without more or less relying upon, “I haven’t read anything to make me believe this is a credible scenario, but the only counter I have is: nobody has set off a nuke at an enemy without trying it in testing first”.

      If you have read something that provides some sort of convincing analysis that it is possible to engineer implosion devices (and/or thermonuclear ones) from supercomputers, I’d like to read it.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I would suspect that a gun type bomb is doable without testing after all the Hiroshima bomb was the first one of that type with no prior testing. How deliverable it might be is another question, but take a 6 inch gun, and a target fixed to the end and fire it, since the critical mass is in the range that 1/2 could be handled by a gun.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Lyle says:


          These are extremely inefficient, though. You can’t get a mT blast out of one, and a tens of kT blast is a very difficult target as well.

          You’re looking at something that’s probably in the range of Little Boy, in yield. Also about that, in size.

          This limits your delivery capabilities, from a logistical standpoint.Report

          • Avatar Lyle in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            Agreeded but a well placed Hiroshima type bomb, can still disrupt a lot of things. Put it on a ship and sail it into a harbor where the town is right by the harbor and boom. Yes you wont take out the entire metro area, but could kill and render the US burn treatment system non functional.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Please edit your OP to indicate that “the one glaring difficulty with nuclear weapons is that it is impossible to test these turkeys without lots of immediate, recognizable side effects that are easily measured by the scientific community” is referring to testing by nations that lack the technological sophistication to perform sub-scale or sub-critical testing for purposes of model validation.Report

  9. Avatar Kimmi says:

    How accurate do you believe the reporting is?
    If a non-state actor decided to test a nuclear weapon in Siberia, say…
    Do you really think we’d hear about it?

    Would Russia really want to admit that someone had tested a nuclear weapon without their consent?Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi says:

      Well yes Kimmi, the seismic monitors in various locations would do little jiggles and frankly Siberia would probably be one of ~the worst~ places to test a nuke on the DL since the US et all likely still has a bajillion legacy passive nuclear detection devices of all sorts pointed at the former USSR. Much better to test it, say, in the Sahara perhaps or Antarctica.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to North says:

        I’m not saying the seismographs wouldn’t pick it up. I’m saying that you and the other shmucks wouldn’t hear about it.
        (I’m not sourcing any info on this. take it or leave it — which is why it’s staying general, and indicating skepticism on my part.)Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Kimmi says:

          I’m sure I wouldn’t. I’m not DoD or a nuclear analyst. But the peeps in charge of worrying about various things nuclear would hear about it. And the Russians would sure as hell hear about it and then the shit would hit the fan for the non-state actors. Uncle Putin has a pretty good thing going for himself in Russia and he’d look very dimly on people rocking the boat for him there. You can be sure he and his buddies would exterminate anyone even remotely connected with such behavior (and their friends and their family and their neighbors and their dogs) and then sit down for tea without a second thought.

          The other thing about non-state actors is they’d likely simply not have enough nuke to test. The only remote chance they’d have of obtaining one would be by stealing it (no one who has one’d willingly give it away) and if they managed to steal a nuke and jimmy it into what they considered a working state they couldn’t afford to try it out in Siberia. They’d only have the one shot and they wouldn’t use it on russian reindeer.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Kimmi says:

      Yes, we would hear about it. Just like there were models made of the “ultra secret” stealth bomber before it came out, some secrets just have too much leakage to cover.

      The USGS seismology record is public, and it’s collected in real-time. Hell, you can get text alerts sent to your phone (if you like constant pinging in your pocket) for quakes above pretty much any magnitude you want.

      Unexplained seismology reports get play. EMP effects (if it’s high altitude) are kinda hard to explain away.

      These things move the Earth. Too many people pay attention to this sort of thing.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        The models were laughably inaccurate. The closest they came was the notion of the bomber being a tail-less flying wing.

        As for detecting a test: You’re right about seismology; there are also many orbital assets (DSP satellites, for example) with the ability to detect the kind of large energy release involved in a nuclear reaction.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

          The early ones certainly were. The later ones weren’t 🙂

          The B-2’s first public display was in 1988, I remember it pretty vividly. Sweetman’s “Stealth Aircraft: Secrets of Future Airpower” was published in 1986, I think I still have my copy around somewhere – he certainly didn’t get everything correct. The Testors “F-19 Stealth Fighter” model isn’t close to the F-117 or the B-2, but it looks an awful lot like an amalgam of the two. That came out in 1986.

          People have been talking about the Aurora forever, too. It’s not impossible to keep details secret, mind you. It’s just really hard to keep major manufacturing projects secret. Details just leak out.

          Nukes are even harder, because you have to truck fissile material around. And that stuff shows up.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            Aurora? That’s the thing that’s hangared right next to Blackstar, isn’t it?

            Neither of the “F-19 stealth fighter” kits look anything like anything. The Monogram kit is based on some artist’s fancy, and the Testors kit was entirely their own work (The ironic thing is that the “MiG-37 Ferret” that Testors invented at the same time looks more like an actual stealth aircraft…)

            Monogram’s “stealth bomber” is a tailless flying wing, like the B-2, but that’s about it. And it was released a year before the public rollout of the aircraft (and after its existence had been revealed, including design details like “tailless flying wing”.)

            I know that it’s fun to imagine these model-kit manufacturers being the ones who broke the story of stealth to everyone, but seriously–that didn’t happen. Any “stealth aircraft” kits you saw before public rollouts of the aircraft in question were fiction, extrapolated from hearsay and half-understood concepts about electromagnetic-wave physics.Report

        • Avatar Fish in reply to DensityDuck says:

          GPS satellites also carry a full suite of nuclear detonation detection equipment:

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        … explanations given are not always what’s there.
        Wecht could tell you oodles about that one.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kimmi says:


          “Training accident” works for most military things. “Swamp gas”, or whathaveyou.

          You can’t really convince the worldwide geological research community that a nuclear detonation is actually a fault they didn’t know anything about, I’d wager.Report

  10. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.Report

  11. Avatar NoPublic says:

    I wonder how well we track SADM devices and structure crackers. They’ve always seemed a more likely scenario than someone wandering off with a ton of warhead.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to NoPublic says:

      This is the range of real speculation.

      On the one hand, the U.S. military has done a pretty good job of only losing nuclear weapons where it’s hard to recover them (most of those are underwater). One would presume an equal level of utter paranoia on the part of the Russians and Chinese, not to mention the UK and France, and the other nuclear-armed nations don’t exactly have thousands of these things lying around. The fewer you have, the more likely you are to count them obsessively.

      On the other hand, given enough time, all security is breakable.

      Still, if someone got their hands on an old Davy Crockett or something of that size, they really wouldn’t be doing that much more damage than Timothy McVeigh did. You could blow up a major landmark, and cause something of a fallout hazard, but the U.S. military is equipped to clean up the mess behind something of that size.

      You’d kill more people than 9/11, probably, but you can accomplish that in a couple hundred different ways without the use of a fissile device. Ramming a plane into the proper type of chemical plant would probably do the trick, if all you’re looking for is a body count and environmental persistence.

      About the only real exception scenario that I can think of that is enabled by something like that would be blowing up the State of the Union, which would be difficult to accomplish without a WMD.Report

      • Avatar NoPublic in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I see it more as a propaganda victory. Even if it did less damage than the Murrah bomb it would have a real psychological impact on a very large percentage of the population. That whole perceived risk thing.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to NoPublic says:

          Oh, sure.

          Even if you did less damage than 9/11, you’d freak out the U.S. populace if you detonated a bomb here.

          Note: our last freakout over something like this resulted in a major invasion and an overthrow of the government that was in place there. Now, this was what Al Qaeda was looking for, but I’m pretty sure the Taliban guys were a little put out about losing control of the country.

          I’m not so sure any country is going to be hosting a safe haven for anybody that might commit a nuclear attack. The practical fallout for that nation state would be likely disastrous.Report

  12. Avatar Fish says:

    Really enjoyed this, and looking forward to the next installment.Report

  13. Avatar wardsmith says:

    Patrick, Don’t have time to post now, about to hit the road home, but can give you something else for your tidbit jar. I’ve sat on Teller’s knee when I was a kid (and even asked him if he was a Russian spy, since he had a movies accent – he was quite amused). My dad used to have him over for dinner occasionally (he worked for the AEC). My mom told me he liked to play our baby grand piano. I told him I was going to be a nuclear physicist when I grew up, but fortunately changed my mind when I actually /did/ grow up.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to wardsmith says:

      Fortunately? Hell, Ward, you’d be sitting on a double pension and the federal government begging you to take a consulting gig if you stuck with the nuclear physics.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I believe Ward mentioned doing very well in the private market for himself in another thread.
        That said I wish I’d come to my interest in nuclear in my younger years when I was casting about for a passion… though I fear I could never have penetrated the math. Ah maths.Report

  14. Pat, I just want to say I really appreciate this post. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Hopefully, I’ll be less busy so I can participate more in the thread discussion.Report