Skip navigationOf new weapons and nuclear genies



1. Who's got the bomb?

2. How nukes work

3. Bring forth the 4th generation

4. Never say "never"

5. An end to the search?


This warhead, for the Titan II missile, carried the multi-megaton W-53 hydrogen bomb. National Atomic Museum


You got a secret?
Pure fusion bombs (which omit the fission trigger) could also promote the spread of nuclear weapons. Why? Because fission fuel - highly-enriched uranium or plutonium -- is hard to make, and the production is easy to detect. Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says, "If fourth-generation nuclear weapons were ever to become a reality, that would truly be the death of arms control, would make it almost impossible to control nuclear weapons. The biggest constraint now is access to plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. If you didn't need those... it would become a much different proposition."

warhead dwarfs the 4 people apparently working on it

Then there's the leak problem: secrets don't stay secret. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, writes, "The history of the spread of nuclear weapons includes many cases where countries gained access to secret information enabling them to accomplish the goal of making nuclear explosive materials or the weapons themselves."

Albright, a former a nuclear inspector in Iraq, continued, "Iraq's detailed declarations ... about its foreign procurement efforts confirm the immense value it placed on obtaining sensitive information...." (see "Secrets that Matter" in the bibliography).

Mum's the word
Against this backdrop, you can better understand why nuclear physicist Hans Bethe said knowledge can be a bad thing. His 1997 letter to Bill Clinton asked, "Do you, for example, want scientists in laboratories under your administration trying to invent nuclear weapons so efficient, compared to conventional weapons, that someday, if an unlikely success were achieved, they would be a new option for terrorists?"

What the U.S. Government is thinking is hard to define. The website for the "stockpile stewardship" program has been withdrawn.

Other than a brief comment on the Z-pinch machine at Sandia, the Department of Energy did not respond to Why Files requests for interviews.

You can still visit the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is developing a "bunker-buster" upgrade to an existing weapon. Although not fourth-generation, the new nuke gives little comfort to those who thought the nuclear arms race would disappear along with the U.S.-Soviet rivalry.

Black and white photo of large, cylindrical bomb, dwarfing a man who rests his hand on one end. It's almost as big as a semi-trailer.
You can't take this one with you: The Mark 17 hydrogen bomb, in the National Atomic Museum's outdoor display, was the largest U.S. nuclear weapon ever built. National Atomic Museum.

Legally confused
In terms of international law, the 4-gen picture is contradictory. The United States has not tested nuclear weapons since 1992, but has pledged to abide by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected on October 13, 1999.

The Treaty "prohibits any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion," and includes language directly applicable to 4-gens. The preamble says the treaty takes a step toward nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation by " constraining the development and qualitative improvement of nuclear weapons and ending the development of advanced new types of nuclear weapons."

The Arms Control Association said 166 states had signed the treaty by October, 2002, including 41 of the 44 states required for the treaty to take effect. The Association also notes that the U.S. Senate "became the first and only [national] legislature to reject ratification, despite support from military leaders such as General Colin Powell and public opinion polls showing that 82 percent of all Americans backed the treaty."

Ironically, although the Senate rejected the CTBT, the "stockpile stewardship" program and the giant laser at Lawrence Livermore were both justified as necessary to ensure safety and reliability during a test ban.

It's a strange situation. The United States rejected the test ban treaty, but still observes the ban. Meanwhile, the research programs justified by the test ban are likely to remain even if testing resumes.

Will they work?
We can't leave the subject without stressing that 4-gen is a big deal, technically. Despite across-the-board advances in technology, today, only a fission bomb can concentrate enough energy to initiate fusion. But if 4-gens are even possible, the U.S. effort -- combined with others in France, Germany and Russia, may eventually find them.

"Progress" toward new nukes may have an element of inevitability. "I think there is something to the letting-the-genie-out-of the-bottle argument, but as a practical matter, people like to find out how things work," says Kidder. "That attitude is part of the human spirit. Seeing if you can make something that uses pure fusion, or uses antimatter, there will always be people who will think about it, or try it."

"It's like 10,000 monkeys at typewriters," says Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Eventually they may write Hamlet. Ten thousand weapons scientists laboring at [Lawrence Livermore] and Los Alamos may ultimately produce weapons, but they are not scientifically feasible today."

But this type of nuclear research is a lot more expensive than 10,000 Remingtons, and governments may decide that fourth-generation nuclear weapons, no matter how improbable, represent more threat than opportunity. Says Paine, "It's astonishingly unwise to be, at one and the same time, trying to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons -- we are about to go to war with Iraq because we think it might get one crude fission device -- and continuing to press ahead with a $6-billion weapons research program."

pull quote of last paragraph: This is a broad-based research program:...they keep working at it.

The prospects for a fourth-generation nuclear weapon depend not on individual research projects, but on advances across the entire nuclear research as a whole, Paine stresses. By itself, the Sandia Z-pinch fusion project, "won't lead to a fourth-generation nuclear weapon," he adds. But other weapons labs have used explosives to create the intense current that the pinch needs, making a dangerous combination, he says. "That's where the relevance for fourth-generation comes in. If you have a big facility that actually achieves fusion, then can you weaponize it by substituting some other driver?" This concern was what motivated former nuclear weapons designer Ray Kidder to propose banning just such a combination of ingredients...

"The important point to emphasize is that it's ... not any one machine, it's the combination," says Paine. "This is a broad-based, diverse weapons-physics research program, persistently pursued, at several billion dollars a year over many years, and ultimately it will turn up something. You can't say with certainty that it will replicate the sun in a hand-held or backpack device - it's not likely, but it's not inconceivable, and they keep working at it."

Things go boom in our bibliography.












the why files


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