Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

Stanislav Petrov – the man who probably saved the world from a nuclear disaster

As Vladimir Putin is forcing the world to contemplate nuclear war once again, it’s time to remember one time when one Soviet military may have saved the world from disaster.

It was September 26, 1983. The Cold War was at one of its most tense periods ever. With the United States and the USSR at each other’s throat, they had already built enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other (as well as the rest of the world) a couple times over — and the slightest sign of an attack would have lead to a worldwide disaster, killing hundreds of millions of people.

Stanislav Petrov played a crucial role in monitoring what the US was doing. In the case of an attack, the Soviet strategy was to launch an all out retaliation as quickly as possible. So a few minutes after midnight, when the alarms went on and the screens turned red, the responsibility fell on his shoulders.

The Soviet warning software analyzed the information and concluded that it wasn’t static; the system’s conclusion was that the US had launched a missile.  But the system however, was flawed. Still, the human brain surpassed the computer that day; on that faithful day, Stanislav Petrov put his foot down and decided that it was a false alarm, advising against retaliation – and he made this decision fast.

He made the decision based mostly on common sense – there were too few missiles. The computer said there were only five of them.

“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

However, he also relied on an old fashion gut feeling.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

There’s also something interesting about that night. Petrov wasn’t scheduled then. Somebody else should have been there; and somebody else could have made a different decision. The world would probably have turned out very different.

The fastest man-made object is a manhole cover that was blasted into space by an underground nuclear test

A 1.7 kiloton nuclear weapon was detonated in an underground tunnel at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) on September 19, 1957. The test, known as Rainier, was the first fully contained underground detonation and produced no radioactive fallout. A modified W-25 warhead weighing 218 pounds and measuring 25.7 inches in diameter and 17.4 inches in length was used for the test. But before scientists could design a fully contained nuclear test, they had a few blotched experiments. One of them became the stuff of legends. Credit: Public Domain.

Let’s play a game of trivia. I’ll go first: what’s the fastest man-made object that humans have ever launched. A hypersonic jet? Wrong. Maybe a super powerful Apollo-era spacecraft or a fancy SpaceX rocket? Nope. The correct answer is a manhole cover that was shot into freaking space by a nuclear bomb detonated in a shaft that it was covering. Here’s the story behind this ridiculous, but true event.

The top secret Manhattan Project that saw the development of the first nuclear bomb at the end of WWII was just the beginning of a long era of nuclear weapons research and development. Between 1945 and 1992, the United States alone detonated more than 1,000 nuclear warheads during tests, some more powerful than others.

For obvious reasons, these weapons of mass destruction were detonated in highly secluded areas of the country, like in the New Mexico and Nevada deserts, or in the Marshall Islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Even so, scientists were rightfully worried about the nuclear fallout from these tests that could travel through the atmosphere and affect civilians.

So in the late 1950s, the Pentagon decided that the vast majority of its tests should be performed underground. These weren’t the first nuclear tests underground, but these would be the first that would be designed with absolute nuclear containment in mind.

“Small Boy” nuclear test, July 14, 1962, part of Operation Sunbeam, at the Nevada Test Site. Yield was 1.65 kt. Credit: Public Domain.

This brings us to Pascal A, the first such test, which was conducted on the night of July 26, 1957. The bomb was placed at the bottom of a hollow column approximately 150 meters (485 feet) deep. A 900 kilogram, 10-cm (4-inch) iron cap was welded on top. Within just a couple milliseconds of the bomb’s detonation, the cap was jettisoned as the explosion climbed up the column, forming a Roman candle-like plume in the atmosphere above the shaft.

For Pascal B, the second underground planned test, scientist Robert Brownlee was ordered to calculate the bomb’s shockwave inside the underground shaft, including the time and specifics of the shockwave as it reached the metal cap. In a 2002 essay, Brownlee recounts an exchange with Bill Ogle, the deputy division leader, which would go on to become the stuff of myth.

Ogle: “What time does the shock arrive at the top of the pipe?”
RRB: “Thirty one milliseconds.”
Ogle: “And what happens?”
RRB: “The shock reflects back down the hole, but the pressures and temperatures are such that the welded cap is bound to come off the hole.”
Ogle: “How fast does it go?”
RRB: “My calculations are irrelevant on this point. They are only valid in speaking of the shock reflection.”
Ogle: “How fast did it go?”
RRB: “Those numbers are meaningless. I have only a vacuum above the cap. No air, no gravity, no real material strengths in the iron cap. Effectively the cap is just loose, traveling through meaningless space.”
Ogle: And how fast is it going?”

This last question was more of a shout. Bill liked to have a direct answer to each one of his questions.
RRB: “Six times the escape velocity from the earth.”

“Bill was quite delighted with the answer, for he had never before heard a velocity given in terms of the escape velocity from the earth! There was much laughter, and the legend was now born, for Bill loved to report to anybody who cared to listen about Brownlee’s units of velocity. He says the cap would escape the earth. (But of course we did not believe that would ever happen.),” Brownlee wrote.

Except that’s exactly what seemed to happen. In order to measure the velocity of the metal cap, Brownlee’s team decided to mount a high-speed camera that would record the event. But once the bomb was detonated on August 27, 1957, the cap appeared above the hole for just one frame, so there could be no direct velocity measurement. Instead, Brownlee estimated it was “going like a bat!!” which doesn’t sound very scientific but makes for a very visual description.

Brownlee later calculated that the cap must have been traveling at about 125,000 miles per hour or five times the escape velocity of Earth.

Everyone expected to find the manhole cover somewhere, but they never found it. In fact, it might have very well ended up in space — months before the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. In fact, its velocity must have sent it well beyond Earth’s orbit and gravitational grasp, likely shooting off into outer space.

So not only was this daring manhole cover the fastest man-made object in history, but it may have also been one of the first objects that reached outer space.

Later tests were designed better such that total containment of the nuclear blast was eventually reached.

“I’ll add that we learned a lot with our series of low-yield tests. Plugs helped, but the closer to the nuclear device, the better. “Tamping” the device is better yet, and there are some ways to do that which are more clever than others. Mostly we learned that even an empty hole could cause a reduction to the atmosphere of as much as 90 percent, depending on specific design parameters. Later we were to see that if the hole is deep enough and the yield is high enough, an empty hole will close completely, allowing nothing whatsoever out except the initial light, which is not radioactive of course. In time, the tests became very sophisticated-and expensive, but we were able to achieve complete containment for almost every test, and for all but a handful of those that had containment “failures”, nothing was detected off-site. So I would judge our containment efforts to be quite successful,” Brownlee said.

This article was originally published in January 2021.

Scientists discover new quasicrystal formed by first-ever nuclear explosion at Trinity Site

The red trinitite sample containing the newly discovered quasicrystal. Credit: Luca Bindi and Paul J. Steinhardt.

On July 16, 1945, the United States Army performed the very first atomic bomb detonation at Trinity Site, New Mexico. The traumatic event obliterated the 30-meter-high test tower, as well as all the miles of copper wires that were connected to measuring and recording instruments. Strikingly, this vaporized debris fused with sand to form a new glassy material known as trinitite, which scientists have recently found at the site — a testament to the devastating, matter-altering power of nuclear weapons.

The red trinitite (Si61Cu30Ca7Fe2) has 5-fold rotational symmetry, which is not possible in a natural crystal. For this reason, it is classed as a “quasicrystal”, exotic materials that do not follow the rules of classical crystallization.

Most crystals are composed of a three-dimensional arrangement of atoms that repeat in an orderly pattern. Depending on their chemical composition, they have different symmetries. For example, atoms arranged in repeating cubes have fourfold symmetry. Atoms arranged as equilateral triangles have threefold symmetries.

Quasicrystals have an atomic structure of the constituent elements, but the pattern is not periodic (it never repeats itself).

They’re remarkable for two reasons: firstly, they’re incredibly rare in nature, and secondly, they’re incredibly unlikely. In fact, when the existence of quasicrystals was first predicted, it cost the career of Daniel Shechtman, the Israeli chemist who first discovered them and lost his job because everyone thought he was mad.

“The head of my lab came to me smiling sheepishly, and put a book on my desk and said: ‘Danny, why don’t you read this and see that it is impossible what you are saying,’” Shechtman, now employed at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, once recounted.

Shechtman was vindicated decades later after he was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

An aerial view of ground zero 28 hours after the Trinity Test on July 16, 1945. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Now, physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have published a new study showing how the extreme shock, temperature, and pressure caused by a nuclear blast can birth new quasicrystals. Using scanning electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction, the researchers revealed the atomic structure of the 20-sided quasicrystal and its five-fold rotational symmetry that used to be considered impossible by conventional standards.

Back-scattered scanning electron microscope image of the sample containing the quasicrystal. Credit: Luca Bindi and Paul J. Steinhardt.

The scientists still don’t know exactly how the trinitite formed step by step, but it seems like the thermodynamic shock under which this quasicrystal formed is comparable to the conditions that led to the formation of natural quasicrystals found in the Khatyrka meteorite, dating back hundreds of millions of year ago.

“This quasicrystal is magnificent in its complexity—but nobody can yet tell us why it was formed in this way. But someday, a scientist or engineer is going to figure that out and the scales will be lifted from our eyes and we will have a thermodynamic explanation for its creation. Then, I hope, we can use that knowledge to better understand nuclear explosions and ultimately lead to a more complete picture of what a nuclear test represents,” said Terry C. Wallace, director emeritus of Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-author of the paper.

This trinitite is effectively the oldest artificial quasicrystal and could someday help scientists better understand illicit nuclear blasts and curb nuclear proliferation.

fusion vs fission

What’s the difference between nuclear fission and fusion

fusion vs fission

Fission vs fusion reaction. Credit: Duke Energy.

In both fusion and fission, nuclear processes alter atoms to generate energy. Despite having some things in common, the two can be considered polar opposites.

For the sake of simplicity, nuclear fusion is the combination of two lighter atoms into a heavier one. Nuclear fission is the exact opposite process whereby a heavier atom is split into two lighter ones.

Fission vs fusion at a glance

Nuclear Fission Nuclear Fusion
  • A heavy nucleus breaks up to form two lighter ones.
  • It involves a chain reaction, which can lead to dangerous meltdowns.
  • The heavy nucleus is bombarded with neutrons.
  • There is established, decades-old technology to control fission.
  • Nuclear waste, a byproduct of fission, is an environmental challenge.
  • Raw material like plutonium or uranium is scarce and costly.
  • Two nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus.
  • There is no chain reaction involved.
  • Light nuclei have to be heated to extremely high temperature.
  • Scientists are still working on a controlled fusion reactor that offers more energy than it consumes.
  • There is no nuclear waste.
  • Raw materials are very easily sourced.
  • Fusion reactions have energy densities many times greater than nuclear fission.

From Einstein to nuclear weapons

On November 21, 1905, physicist Albert Einstein published a paper in Annalen der Physik calledDoes the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content? This was one of Einstein’s four Annus Mirabilis papers (from Latin, annus mīrābilis, “Extraordinary Year”) in which he described what has become the most famous physical equation:  E = mc2 (energy equals mass times the velocity of light squared).

This deceivingly simple equation can be found everywhere, even in pop culture. It’s printed on coffee mugs and T-shirts. It’s been featured in countless novels and movies. Millions of people recognize it and can write it down by heart even though they might not understand anything about the physics involved.

Before Einstein, mass was considered a mere material property that described how much resistance the object opposes to movement. For Einstein, however, relativistic mass — which now takes into account the fact that mass increases with speed — and energy are simply two different names for one and the same physical quantity. We now had a new way to measure a system’s total energy simply by looking at mass, which is a super-concentrated form of energy.

It didn’t take scientists too long to realize there was a massive amount of energy waiting to be exploited. By the process through which fission splits uranium atoms, for instance, a huge amount of energy, along with neutrons, is released. Interestingly, when you count all the particles before and after the process, you’ll find the total mass of the latter is slightly smaller than the former. This difference is called the ‘mass defect’ and it’s precisely this missing matter that’s been converted into energy, the exact amount computable using Einstein’s famous equation. This mass discrepancy might be tiny but once you multiply it by c2 (the speed of light squared), the equivalent energy can be huge.

Of course, this conservation of energy holds true across all domains, both in relativistic and classical physics. A common example is spontaneous oxidation or, more familiarly, combustion. The same formula applies, so if you measure the difference between the rest mass of unburned material and the rest mass the burned object and gaseous byproducts, you’ll also get a tiny mass difference. Multiply it by  c2 and you’ll wind up with the energy set free during the chemical reaction.

We’ve all burned a match and there was no mushroom cloud, though. It can only follow that the square of the speed of light only partly explains the huge difference in energy released between nuclear and chemical reactions. Markus Pössel, the managing scientist of the Center for Astronomy Education and Outreach at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, provides us with a great explanation for why nuclear reactions can be violent.

“To see where the difference lies, one must take a closer look. Atomic nuclei aren’t elementary and indivisible. They have component parts, namely protons and neutrons. In order to understand nuclear fission (or fusion), it is necessary to examine the bonds between these components. First of all, there are the nuclear forces binding protons and neutrons together. Then, there are further forces, for instance the electric force with which all the protons repel each other due to the fact they all carry the same electric charge. Associated with all of these forces are what is called binding energies – the energies you need to supply to pry apart an assemblage of protons and neutrons, or to overcome the electric repulsion between two protons.”

Nuclear binding energy curve. Credit: hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu

Nuclear binding energy curve. Credit: hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu

“The main contribution is due to binding energy being converted to other forms of energy – a consequence not of Einstein’s formula, but of the fact that nuclear forces are comparatively strong, and that certain lighter nuclei are much more strongly bound than certain more massive nuclei.”

Pössel goes on mentioning that the strength of the nuclear bond depends on the number of neutrons and protons involved in the reaction. What’s more, the binding energy is released both when splitting up a heavy nucleus into smaller parts (fission) and when merging lighter nuclei into heavier ones (fusion). This explains, along with chain reactions, why nuclear bombs can be so devastating.

How nuclear fission works

Nuclear fission is a process in nuclear physics in which the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei as fission products, and usually some by-product particles.

Based on Albert Einstein’s eye-opening prediction that mass could be changed into energy and vice-versa, Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear fission reactor in 1940.

When a nucleus fissions either spontaneously (very rare) or following controlled neutron bombardment, it splits into several smaller fragments or fission products, which are about equal to half the original mass. In the process, two or three neutrons are also emitted. The resting mass difference, about 0.1 percent of the original mass, is converted into energy.

Nuclear fission of Uranium-235. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Nuclear fission of Uranium-235. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The energy released by a nuclear fission reaction can be tremendous. For instance, one kilogram of uranium can release as much energy as combusting 4 billion kilograms of coal.

To trigger nuclear fission, you have to fire a neutron at the heavy nucleus to make it unstable. Notice in the example above, fragmenting U-235, the most important fissile isotope of uranium, produces three neutrons.  These three neutrons, if they encounter other U-235 atoms, can and will initiate other fissions, producing even more neutrons. Like falling dominos, the neutrons unleash a continuing cascade of nuclear fissions called a chain reaction.

In order to trigger the chain reaction, it’s critical to release more neutrons than were used during the nuclear reaction. It follows that only isotopes that can release an excess of neutrons in their fission support a chain reaction. The isotope U-238, for instance, can’t sustain the reaction. Most nuclear power plants in operation today use uranium-235 and plutonium-239.

Another prerequisite for the fission chain reaction is a minimum amount of fissionable matter. If there is too little material, neutrons can shoot out of the sample before having the chance to interact with a U-235 isotope, causing the reaction to fizzle. This minimum amount of fissionable matter is referred to as critical mass by nuclear scientists. Anything below this minimum threshold is called subcritical mass. 

nuclear chain reaction

U-235 fission chain reaction. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

How nuclear fusion works

Fusion occurs when two smaller atoms collide at very high energies to merge, creating a larger, heavier atom. This is the nuclear process that powers the sun’s core, which in turn drives life on Earth.

Like in the case of fission, there’s a mass defect — the fused mass will be less than the sum of the masses of the individual nuclei — which is the source of energy released by the reaction. That’s the secret of the fusion reaction. Fusion reactions have an energy density many times greater than nuclear fission and fusion reactions are themselves millions of times more energetic than chemical reactions.

Nuclear fusion is what powers the sun's core. Credit: NASA.

Nuclear fusion is what powers the sun’s core. Credit: NASA.

Nuclear fusion could one day provide humanity with inexhaustible amounts of energy. When that day may come is not clear at this point since progress is slow, but that’s understandable. Harnessing the same nuclear forces that drive the sun presents significant scientific and engineering challenges.

Normally, light atoms such as hydrogen or helium don’t fuse spontaneously because the charge of their nuclei causes them to repel each other. Inside hot stars such as the sun, however, extremely high temperature and pressure rip the atoms to their constituting protons, electrons, and neutrons.  Inside the core, the pressure is millions of times higher than the surface of the Earth, and the temperature reaches more than 15 million Kelvin. These conditions remain stable because the core witnesses a never-ending tug of war of expansion-contraction between the self-gravity of the sun and the thermal pressure generated by fusion in the core.

Due to quantum-tunneling effects, protons crash into one another at high energy to fuse into helium nuclei after a number of intermediate steps. Fusion inside the star, a process called the proton-proton chain, follows this sequence:

The proton-proton fusion process that is the source of energy from the Sun. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The proton-proton fusion process that is the source of energy from the Sun. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Two pairs of protons fuse, forming two deuterons. Deuterium is a stable isotope of hydrogen, consisting of 1 proton, 1 neutron, and 1 electron.
  2. Each deuteron fuses with an additional proton to form helium-3;
  3. Two helium-3 nuclei fuse to create beryllium-6, but this is unstable and disintegrates into two protons and a helium-4;
  4. The reaction also releases two neutrinos, two positrons, and gamma rays.

Since the helium-4 atom has less energy or resting mass than the 4 protons which initially came together, energy is radiated outside the core and across the solar system.

To shine brightly, the sun gobbles about 600 million tons of hydrogen nuclei (protons) every second which it turns into helium releasing 384.6 trillion trillion Joules of energy per second. This is equivalent to the energy released in the explosion of 91.92 billion megatons of TNT per second. Of all of the mass that undergoes this fusion process, only about 0.7% of it is turned into energy, though.

Though scientists have been trying to harness fusion for decades, we’ve yet to fulfill the fusion dream that promises unlimited clean energy.

While it’s relatively easy to split an atom to produce energy, fusing hydrogen nuclei is a couple of orders of magnitude more challenging. To replicate the fusion process at the core of the sun, we have to reach a temperature of at least 100 million degrees Celsius. That’s a lot more than observed in nature — about six times hotter than the sun’s core — since we don’t have the intense pressure created by the gravity of the sun’s interior.

That’s not to say that we haven’t achieved fusion yet. It’s just that all experiments to date put more energy in enabling the required temperature and pressure to trigger significant fusion reactions than the energy generated by these reactions.

Promising new technologies like magnetic confinement and laser-based inertial confinement could one day surprise all of us with a breakthrough moment. One of the most important projects in the field is the  International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) joint fusion experiment in France which is still being built. Its doughnut-shaped fusion machine called tokamak is expected to start fusing atoms in 2025.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the Wendelstein 7-X reactor, which uses a complex design called a stellarator, was turned on for the first time late 2016. It worked as expected, though still inefficient like all other fusion reactors. The Wendelstein reactor, however, was built as a proof of concept for the stellarator design which adds several twists to the tokamak ring to increase stability. The UK and China have their own experimental fusion reactors as well. 

The United States, on the other hand, wants to significantly revamp the classical fusion reactor. Physicists at the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) are proposing a more efficient shape that employs spherical tokamaks, more akin to a cored apple.  The team writes that this spherical design halves the size of the hole in the doughnut, meaning we can use much lower energy magnetic fields to keep the plasma in place.

It seems like we’re still decades away from seeing an efficient fusion reactor. When we do get our own sun in a jar, though, be ready embrace the unexpected for nothing will be the same again.

Only five nuclear explosions are enough to change the climate and trigger a ‘nuclear autumn’

nuclear explosion

War is hell. Credit: YouTube.

The anxiety of nuclear annihilation was the specter that loomed over the Cold War. Though things seem a lot calmer nowadays, there are still some 17,000 intact nuclear warheads around the world, according to recent estimates. About 7,000 of these warheads are awaiting dismantlement but that still leaves us with a mind boggling 10,000 armageddon-causing bombs idly waiting for their launch codes. That sounds like an absolute nightmare — and that’s no coincidence.

Why are we still alive?

Throughout the Cold War and even well into the post-Cold War era, nuclear powers have relied on a deterrence doctrine. The argument says that if a nation has the capability to inflict unacceptable damage on another, then the latter will refrain from attacking the former—it will be deterred from doing so. This scenario is often called MAD short for Mutually Assured Destruction. Essentially, deterrence relies on holding the entire civilian population hostage. It’s like having peace between two people aiming guns at each other, both finger on the trigger. This is precisely why North Korea, for instance, has invested so many resources into its nuclear program. What’s arguably the most authoritarian regime in the world knows very that the only way it can ensure its existence is by having a big gun pointed at everyone else — just like everyone else has already been doing it for decades.

So, why are we still alive? That’s a good question. The reason why all-out nuclear war hasn’t begun yet is that deterrence generally works but only as long as the players involved act rationally. But since humans are rational yet also deeply emotional beings, simply consider it a miracle you’re still alive. In 1983, peace in the world hinged on the make-or-break decision of a single person, and there are other similar examples of when things had gotten way too hot.

What’s concerning is that some nuclear powers have shifted towards a tactical doctrine where it’s deemed acceptable to use limited nuclear strikes, such as to put an end to a conventional war. The thinking is, well, one bomb couldn’t hurt, right? A new study recently published in Environment Magazine says otherwise. The authors of the paper found even as few as five conventional nuclear bombs are enough to trigger dramatic changes in the climate or so-called ‘nuclear autumns’.

You might have heard the term ‘nuclear winter’ before. It describes the climate effects of nuclear war as a result of debris and smoke — especially black, sooty smoke from burning cities and industrial facilities — that block out the sun for years. What results are cool, dark, dry conditions that would prevent crop growth for at least a growing season and likely many years after the first bombs were triggered. The social impact is not difficult to predict: mass famine throughout the world. More people might die in noncombatant countries than in those where the bombs exploded because of this effect. Even a nuclear war between India and Pakistan — two neighboring countries which view each other as nemesis — could produce so much smoke that it would produce global environmental change unprecedented in recorded human history. A ‘nuclear autumn’ isn’t as devastating as a nuclear winter but it’s still bad. Sad, as someone who actually has the launch keys for American nuclear warheads might say.

The Dong Feng-5 (DF-5) is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The two-stage, liquid-propellant missile has a range of 10,000 - 13,000 km.

The Dong Feng-5 (DF-5) is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The two-stage, liquid-propellant missile has a range of 10,000 – 13,000 km. Credit: Norbert Brügge.

The team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln analyzed records on 19 types of nuclear weapons held by only five nuclear powers: the USA, Russia, China, the UK, and France. They looked at virtually all the possible types of modern nuclear bombs and of varying magnitudes, from missiles to land-based missiles to air-dropped ones. Based on this data, the scientists calculated how many bombs that fall in each category of strength would be enough to trigger a nuclear autumn.

The conclusion was stark. The US, Russia, and China all have weapons that could trigger a nuclear autumn by detonating no more than five bombs. China’s DF-5 ICBM, armed with a single 5-megaton warhead, can alone trigger a nuclear autumn. If the DF-5 were to be detonated over Los Angeles, the 5 megaton warhead would have a fireball more than two miles wide, and guarantee third degree burns 15 miles from the point of detonation.

“The use of only one 5-MT land-based missile deployed by China could burn an area similar in size to that of one hundred 15-KT explosions. Alternatively, if the United States dropped only three 1.2-MT bombs, or used two Trident D5 SLBM (each with four 475-KT warheads), the size of the explosions would exceed the land area required to produce similar climate impacts. Use of only four 800-KT Russian ICBMs or ten 300-KT French gravity bombs would also have similar climate impacts. Thus, use of as few as 1 to 10 deployed nuclear weapons, and fewer than 25 of these prevalent types, from the five official nuclear weapons countries could produce a nuclear drought,” the authors wrote.

Major Types of Deployed Nuclear Weapons in 2014 by Delivery System, With Explosive Yields and the Equivalent Number of Bombs Needed To Ignite 1,300 Square Kilometers. Credit: Environmental Magazine.

Major Types of Deployed Nuclear Weapons in 2014 by Delivery System, With Explosive Yields and the Equivalent Number of Bombs Needed To Ignite 1,300 Square Kilometers. Credit: Environmental Magazine.

I can only hope some of the ‘bright minds’ in charge who are thinking about using nuclear weapons for tactical purposes are reading this.

 “Nuclear policy analysts have found recent troubling developments in the policies of Russia, Pakistan, and India concerning the first use of nuclear weapons. Many analysts agree that the shifting nuclear force postures and doctrines of these states makes a limited nuclear exchange much more probable to occur. Pakistan and India have come close to a regional nuclear exchange three times in recent decades,” the authors caution.

“As long as conventional nuclear weapons are prevalent, the breadth of existing research indicates that the question is not whether a nuclear drought can occur, but what factors increase its probability of occurring and what actions can be taken to mitigate the potentially devastating global impacts,” they concluded.

So what do we do? Some might argue we should ban the damn things once and for all and lo and behold on July 7, almost 72 years after the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert, 122 nations voted at the United Nations headquarters in New York to permanently ban nuclear weapons under international law. That would have sounded extraordinary were it not for the fact that not one single state of the nine that possess nuclear weapons even attended the negotiations. The ban treaty will be open for signatures from all UN member states beginning in September and will officially enter into force after 50 states have accepted it. So what happens in the ban enters force and, predictably, Russia or the USA refuse to dismantle their arsenal? Nothing — but at least someone’s trying.

floppy-disk

The U.S. Military is still using floppy disks to coordinate its nuclear arsenal

In your pocket lies a device with more computing power than all of NASA’s processors combined that were used during the Apollo era to put man on the moon. That’s just so you can get an idea of how far we’ve come tech-wise. But while consumer tech is definitely advanced, the same can’t be said about some government sectors. Some might be surprised to learn that the country’s entire nuclear arsenal is still programmed on floppy disks, and army personnel is still reliant on the antiqued IBM Series/1 computer to implement the launch codes.

floppy-disk

Source: GAO.gov

The fact that the U.S. government is using archaic tech for one of the country’s most important strategic weapon was suspected for a while by pundits, but only recently confirmed by the Government Accountability Office in a new report which laments the deprecated nuclear arsenal tech and calls for the urgent need to “address aging legacy systems”.

“Federal legacy IT investments are becoming increasingly obsolete: many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported. Agencies reported using several systems that have components that are, in some cases, at least 50 years old. For example, the Department of Defense uses 8-inch floppy disks in a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces. In addition, the Department of the Treasury uses assembly language code—a computer language initially used in the 1950s and typically tied to the hardware for which it was developed,” the report reads.

Using floppy disks might actually be a good thing, in this case. “This system remains in use because, in short, it still works,” a Pentagon spokesman told AFP. Besides practicality, a closed system made of ancient tech means a hacker won’t be able to gain access easily. Still, we’re in the 21st century. Can’t we do any better than floppy disks?

Elsewhere, governmental agencies which are less pressed for security like the Department of Defence are crying for a much-needed upgrade. The report mentions 12 agencies are currently using unsupported operating systems and components.  Commerce, Defense, Treasury, HHS, and VA reported using 1980s and 1990s Microsoft operating systems that stopped being supported by the vendor more than a decade ago.

Old tech is suffocating the American government. It’s also draining the treasury. According to GAO, the federal government spent 75 percent of its IT budget on maintenance for the fiscal year of 2015. “Specifically, 5,233 of the government’s approximately 7,000 IT investments are spending all of their funds on O&M activities,” the authors of the report said.

The nuclear floppy disks will be replaced by the end of the fiscal year of 2017, GAO says, and other agencies will see their IT legacy systems replaced with modern ones up to 2020. But not all. The Department of Health and Human Services, some agencies part of the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Treasury will not see upgrades because the budget is too tight.

 

The site of North Korea’s three underground detonations,

North Korean nukes are getting bigger, geology finds

The site of North Korea’s three underground detonations,

The site of North Korea’s three underground detonations,

While the world was asleep, a few days ago North Korea made its latest nuclear test, the third that we know of. This has prompted intense international pressure on the North Korean regime, as you might imagine, what’s interesting, rather frightening actually, is that seismic activity shows the nukes are getting ever bigger.

Pyongyang said that the test was designed to bolster its defenses due to the hostility of the United States, which has increased sanctions on the country after the latter demonstrated long-range missile capabilities. The claim is rather preposterous itself, since South Korea warned the world that the North was prepping for a new nuclear test since last year. A failed, so called satellite launch, also from last year prompted increase concerned, even from behalf of China, North Korea long time and traditional ally.

Politics aside, however, let’s see what science can tell us about North Korean nukes. This latest test, the third, seems to follow previous trends, since the first one was made in 2006, while 2009 saw the second. As you can imagine, the North didn’t test their nukes on the surface or in the ocean – this wouldn’t have gone unretaliated.

Obviously, these tests were made underground, and like any explosion, nuclear or otherwise, it causes a seismic event. Now, seismic waves aren’t uniform and the science behind seismology is rather complicated, however based on the speed of the wave and magnitude of the caused earthquake (5.1 on the Richter scale), scientists can extrapolate the data and estimate the yield of the nuclear weapon. An increase in seismology monitoring stations around North Korea has help a lot in this respect.

Based on this, it’s believed the 2006 test yielded a blast of less than 1 kiloton, the 2009 test was caused by a blast between 4 and 7 kilotons, while this third one must have been around 10 kilotons. So in less than seven years, North Korean has reached a tenfold increase in their nuclear weapons damage capabilities.

North and South Korea have been at war for more than half a century, and although in the past few decades the countries have been at truce, various skirmishes between them have occurred. Tension and pressure felt by the two countries, and the whole world for that matter, seem to have never been as great as today, however. While North Korea is believed to be significantly technologically outdated in terms of military power, it still boasts a one million, well trained army and loads of chemical and biological weapons. Security analysis predict that if a full blown conflict were to erupt between the two countries, the death toll would reach one million in the first 24 hours.

 

 

Nuke the moon

The US wanted to nuke the moon during the cold war

Nuke the moonParanoia, fear and the prospect of total global annihilation. These thoughts constantly plagued the leaders of the developed world during the cold war, as the two super power of the time, the US and USSR, pranced back and forth in a potentially deadly dance. It was during this time that some of the most devious, inconceivable plans were made. On more than one occasion, life on Earth as we know it came dangerously close to extinction.  Bombing the moon with nukes, though today might seem like cruel joke, was just another wild proposition whose file sat on American officials’ desk.

The classified project was called ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights‘ and nicknamed ‘Project A119’, but don’t let the name fool you. The nearest the project came to scientific research was when it studied the potential hazards of blowing up a chunk of the moon. Make no mistake, it was all about showing muscles.

In the height of the space age and cold war, tension between the two super powers grew strong. What would a nuclear blast on the moon look like from Russia? It would have surely deterred any soviet ideas of attacking continental US with nuclear weapons, US officials of the time thought. Under the scenario, a missile carrying a small nuclear device was to be launched from an undisclosed location and travel 238,000 miles to the moon, where it would be detonated upon impact.

A119 details were revealed by former US Air Force physicist, Leonard Reiffel, who lead project, during an interview with the BBC. Curiously enough, part of the research team was also a young Carl Sagan, then a graduate student, who was tasked with studying behaviour of dust and gas generated by the blast.

Also part of the project, a nuclear launch facility based on the moon was also discussed, which would have served a double purpose: further assert the US’ nuclear domination and act as a final global annihilator, in case land-based launch sites would become compromised.

Needless to say, the project was abandoned out of impracticability. Don’t laugh just yet, though. Like I said, there were some wacky stews cooking on both ends of the fence; some never left the drawing board, some become reality and caused a great deal of suffering, as for others, we might never find out.

Iran almost completed their first nuclear reactor. Should we worry ?

This seems to be the one of the most asked questions these days; what’s my opinion on it ? You should worry about it just as much as you worry about a brick suddenly falling in your head – probably less.

After decades of development and hard work (yeah, that’s right, people from all around the world work), Iran’s first nuclear power plant is almost operational. The engineers have already begun loading the fuel into the core of the Bushehr plant. It’s been in construction since 1979 and it will have a 1000-megawatt capacity, comparable to that of the United States nuclear plants.

So, there are some hundreds or thousands of nuclear plants throughout the world, why is this news ? Well, it’s news because the US claims it’s actually nuclear power that Iran is after, not nuclear energy.

“There are some fairly rigorous … checks and balances built into the operation of the plant,” said Middle East analyst David Hartwell at IHS Jane’s, a global risk consultancy. Uranium enriched to about 5 percent fissile purity is used as fuel for power plants. If refined to 80-90 percent purity, it provides the fissile core of nuclear weapons. [Reuters]

Furthermore, Iran will be required to return the spent fuel which can be potentially turned into weapons to Russia. Now how much can Russia be trusted with such an affair ? That’s a whole different problem, but let’s hope they will do everything right.