Skip navigationOf new weapons and nuclear genies
POSTED DEC 5, 2002



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?


Hunting for nukes
International inspectors are finally back in Iraq, searching for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. At stake is another war in the Middle East.

Fourth-generation nuclear weapons could represent 'progress' -but in the right direction? These days, nuclear weapons get less attention than they did during the long atomic standoff called the Cold War. Yet long after the "nuclear genie" escaped the bottle, the bomb is spreading faster than ever. Since the United States invented the atomic ("fission") bomb in 1945 and then the vastly more powerful hydrogen ("thermonuclear ") bomb, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and probably Israel have built nuclear weapons.

North Korea, and perhaps Iraq and Iran could be poised to join the once-select "nuclear club." Despite treaties designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and to wean the nuclear powers from the bomb, the nuclear arms race continues. Indeed, in the past couple of years, it seems to have accelerated:

The Bush Administration has renounced the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and backed away from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Bush administration's recent Nuclear Posture Review calls for a reliance on nuclear weapons for decades to come.

This spring, India and Pakistan - enemies since they were born in 1947 - went to the brink of war over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Both nations exploded nuclear bombs in 1998.

This fall, North Korea revealed that, despite its assurances, it has material for a few bombs.

The United States is modifying a trusty warhead for a new mission. The improved B-61 is intended to penetrate deep into the earth, to knock out underground factories and bunkers. Critics charge that the "bunker buster" is a retreat from treaty obligations and represents a trend toward greater reliance on nuclear weapons (see "Nuclear Study..." in the bibliography).

The U.S. arsenal contains about 10,656 warheads, deliverable on ballistic missiles, sub-launched missiles, cruise missiles, fighters and bombers.

The Russian arsenal contains about 10,000 warheads, riding a similar collection of steeds.

That is a lot of nukes - plenty to cook our home planet. Between rogue nations, technical blunders, political errors, terrorists and nuclear-armed psychopaths, there's plenty of reason to worry.

1: The gadget, covered with cables, hangs from a hook, with a rumpled guy looking on.  2: The misshapen blast over the desert is a splotch of yellow against a red sky.
The first atomic bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert in July, 1945. Physicist Isidor Rabi recalled: "Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right thorough you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds.... A new thing had just been born...." From "The Making..." (see bibliography). National Atomic Museum.

Indeed, many of the scientists who invented the atomic bomb showed remorse about the genie they had released, and went on to start the Federation of American Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, both of which have longstanding interests in controlling the spread and hazard of nuclear weapons.

There is already plenty to worry about, nuclear-wise. But are the nuclear wizards content with what they've invented? Or are they trying to build bombs based on new physical principles, which would represent a new category of threats?

With thermonuclear weapons now able to fit an artillery shell, many observers dismiss the threat. "It's hard see how any new thing would come to the level of things we've had for 40 years," says Ray Kidder, a veteran weapons designer who started working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1956, and eventually directed work on theoretical aspects of weapons development and high-energy lasers.

Are the nuclear wizards content with what they've already invented?

"You hate to say the problem has been solved, but it's been oversolved, from my point of view," Kidder continues. "We have high-yield weapons that can create fires all over the place, and weapons that can blow cities down ... that you can put in a small suitcase. All these talked-about new things, it's not quite clear what improvement they would be."

Not only would there be little reason to search for new nuclear principles, Kidder says, but there is little prospect of success - at least in the near term. The ideas discussed in this article, he says, "do not present any kind of immediate risk, in terms of being put into practice in 10 years, if ever."

However, technology has never moved this fast, and it's impossible to predict 20 or 50 years into the future. "Ten years is about all you can say," Kidder admits. Kidder, and all responsible scientists, never say "never."

At any rate, nuclear weapons labs -- both here and, presumably elsewhere -- have tried to build nuclear devices that might be smaller, cheaper, or less powerful or radioactive.

The concern about -- and interest in -- new nukes is driven by one physical fact: The fusion of a single gram of hydrogen or helium packs more wallop than the largest conventional bomb. Whether, in the post- 9/11 world, it makes sense to find new ways to ignite fusion in a super- compact weapon is something we'll leave to your imagination.

Why me worry?
We have lived under the shadow of nuclear weapons for decades. A few new-style bombs, what's the big dif? Here's fuel for fretting:

Smaller bombs would blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, making nukes more acceptable.

Low-radioactivity bombs would, well, ditto. "Thermonuclear weapons are dirty, essentially all of them create a lot of fallout," says Arjun Makhijani, a physicist who is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, "and that has a pretty serious liability in terms of occupying a country with your soldiers, or irradiating your own people."

Once invented, technologies spread. It's much harder to invent, say, a computer than to take one apart and copy ("reverse engineer") it. But just knowing something is possible creates an incentive to try to build it.

Hussein scowls, holds up a pistol, ready to shoot. He's wearing a beret. Politically, the message that the United States is not content with its overwhelming military superiority may cause other nations to ramp up their own research. In other words, fourth-generation research could trigger a new nuclear arms race.

This world leader wants to join the big boys - with his own nuclear toys. Courtesy Gendercide Watch.

A defining moment
What is this 4-gen jargon, you ask? "Fourth-generation nuclear weapon" essentially refers to any nuclear weapon yet to be invented. Some 4-gens would simply miniaturize the atomic bomb, but many would create fusion -- a hydrogen bomb -- without setting it off with an atomic bomb.

All these weapons, we must add, remain to be built. In other words, you are reading informed speculation about weapons not yet invented.

Word about new nuclear gadgets leaked in the 1970s, when the United States deployed the enhanced-radiation ("neutron") bomb. Derided as the ultimate capitalist weapon (it was more effective against people than property), the neutron bomb had little military utility, and was later withdrawn from the arsenal.

More frightening was the X-ray laser, physicist Edward Teller's conception of a thermonuclear ray gun that supposedly would destroy hundreds of Soviet warheads. For years, the X-ray laser was at the heart of Star Wars, President Ronald Reagan's anti-missile program. Despite the investment of billions on research and development, the laser fizzled.

Reality check
So much for third-generation nukes. What about the fourth-generation? To some people, they are a hodgepodge of unlikely, impossible, impractical and unnecessary ideas. Even critics of the nuclear establishment worry more about today's threats than those that may not materialize for decades.

photo of mushroom cloud (Nagasaki), with the words, 'One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.'

While the pace of technological change has never been faster, the nuke that could ruin your whole day -- today -- was invented half a century ago.

Nevertheless, 4-gens represent a long-term menace, if they are possible at all. Inventions get around. Important discoveries like the jet plane and Jell-O. Trivial ones like movie sequels and prequels. Malignant ones like bagels with the consistency of Wonder Bread.

And dangerous ones, like nuclear weapons.

If you don't worry about advanced nuclear-weapon research as long as it's done by the "the good guys," consider this: 67 years after the first atomic bomb was detonated, at least seven countries have them.

We asked the Department of Energy and some of the national laboratories about their work on 4-gens, but they, with one limited exception which we'll describe later, did not answer our phone calls and e-mails.

Too bad. But then again, in the nuclear business, the only safe bet is that those who tell don't know, and those who know don't tell.

If the U.S. Department of Energy were working on fourth-generation nuclear weapons, we would not expect them to tell us, especially in the current climate of secrecy. (Websites run by the weapons labs have lots of dead links to pages apparently withdrawn in the name of national security.)

What me worry?
You might think the end of the Cold War and the rise of arms-control treaties would have dampened nuclear research. The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation Treaty of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), for example, is described by the United Nations as a "binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States."

It ain't necessarily so. The new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and the "Science Based Stockpile Stewardship" program both indicate a renewed interest on the part of the Bush Administration in modernizing existing weapons and perhaps inventing new types.

Spending at the U.S. nuclear complex, $5.9 billion per year, "is well above Cold War average spending," which averaged $4 billion in current dollars, says Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Ten years after the Cold War ended, what are these people doing?"

And is what they are doing wise? Would inventing fourth-generation nuclear weapons really make us better off? Or would we, in 30 or 50 years, be worrying that Pakistan, China, or even al Queda version 3.0 has weapons invented at a U.S. Department of Energy Lab?

The issue raises a question seldom heard in science: Is some knowledge too dangerous ? Are some genies best left in the bottle?

Nuclear physicist Hans Bethe: "The United States already has a wide range of nuclear weapons and needs no more. Since any new types of weapons would  spread to others and present a threat to us, it is logical for us not to pioneer in this field."

Hans Bethe, a professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University, who directed theoretical physics at Los Alamos when the atomic bomb was invented, has urged restraint. In a 1997 letter to Pres. Clinton, he argued: "The United States already possesses a very wide range of different designs of nuclear weapons and needs no more. Further, it is our own splendid weapons laboratories that are, by far and without any question, the most likely to succeed in such nuclear inventions. Since any new types of weapons would, in time, spread to others and present a threat to us, it is logical for us not to pioneer further in this field."

In nuclear weaponry, it's tough to innovate; much easier to play copycat.

Please quell my nuclear confusion. How do conventional nukes work?












the why files


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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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