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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Race for the Bomb - Then and Now (a Retrospective)

(Here is an oldie but a goodie. This first appeared at Intellectual Conservative.)

By Timothy Birdnow, on January 4th, 2008

Why do our intelligence people think it will take six years or more for Iran to develop a nuclear device, when the United States was able to do it from scratch in just four, using Second World War technology?

In 1933 a startling idea occurred to a transplanted Hungarian at a traffic light at Southampton Row in London. This physics professor and former student of Albert Einstein had once read H.G. Wells' 1913 The World Set Free in which "atomic disintegration" was used as a superweapon to destroy the industrial world. Our young physicist, a Hungarian-born gentleman by the name of Leo Szilard, knew about the research of Ernest Rutherford in which the great man had discovered the inner structure of atomic nuclei. Daydreaming while at the stoplight, the thought occurred to Szilard that it should be possible to hit atoms with fast moving neutrons and thus split them. At this time there was not a name for such a thing, and it was not even considered theoretically possible. Szilard imagined a superweapon, Wells' "atomic disintegration," which would utilize a chain reaction, neutrons striking atoms, splitting off more neutrons that would strike more atoms, etc.

He went with this to see Rutherford, who summarily tossed him out of his office as a crank.

Szilard began searching for an element that would react as he envisioned. He would have to search for 5 years.

It was the purest of chance. In 1938 Dr. Lise Meitner, a physicist and Jewish woman who had once been at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin but had fled to Sweden to escape the rising anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, received a letter from an old friend. Dr. Otto Hahn, a longtime collaborator and former student of Rutherford, had bombarded uranium with neutrons, and some of the uranium seemed to have turned into barium. He scribbled out a letter to Meitner, realizing that he was about to either make a total fool of himself or go down in scientific history. Meitner's nephew, Viennese-born Dr. Otto Frisch, happened to be visiting as she was reading the remarkable letter from her old friend. Frisch discussed the matter with a friend who happened to be a biologist, and dubbed the new phenomenon "nuclear fission," naming it after the process of cell division..

Frisch was a staff member of the great Niels Bohr, and he casually related this story to the famous professor. Bohrs was going to Princeton to spend several months at the Institute for Advanced Study, and he leaked the word of Hahn's discovery to some of the members of the Institute. On January 25 he was made a last-minute speaker at the fifth annual Washington Conference, where he gave the details of nuclear fission. The conference exploded.

Still, the matter was considered only of intellectual interest. Szilard and his friend, fellow Hungarian Edward Teller (later to be known as the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb), began agitating for the Roosevelt Administration to fund a project to develop this point of intellectual interest into a superweapon. Nazi Germany had been systematically gobbling up Europe, and the Thousand Year Reich was better positioned to develop such a weapon. They had the scientific firepower, the uranium, and the will to do it. Szilard understood that whoever possessed such a weapon could dominate the world.

But the Roosevelt Administration did not grasp this fact, and they offered lukewarm support, even after Albert Einstein wrote his famous letter (at Szilard's request) advocating the development of an atomic bomb. (He ended up writing a second letter since the first drew virtually no response.)

It would take pressure from the British government and Hitler's amazing early success in Russia before the Roosevelt government would get serious about the effort. Even then, the "Uranium Committee" was given a small budget, and unclear goals. They did not even invite Szilard, Teller, or Enrico Fermi to sit on the committee, since they were immigrants and not considered reliable! The idea of using nuclear power for submarines seemed more promising than building a bomb.

The project was not given full support by Roosevelt until a meeting on October 9, 1941; fully two years after Einstein sent his letter.

On August 6, 1945 the city of Hiroshima disappeared in a mushroom cloud and hellfire. Nearly 140,000 people perished.

This most lethal of weapons was developed entirely from scratch in under 4 years, just 7 years after the uranium atom was first split, 12 years after the vaguest idea that such a thing was even remotely possible occurred to Szilard. Here is a timeline of events. Go here for more on the Manhattan Project.

Consider the difficulties; computers had just been invented, and they did not have calculators, so most of the calculations required had to be done by slide rule and with paper and pencil. There were no transistors or other such electronics, so any equipment they needed had to function with vacuum tubes. They did not have centrifuges that were powerful enough to enrich the Uranium, so they had to use magnets to pick the U235 out atom by atom. (Nobody had ever done such a thing before.) They did not know the critical mass needed; since neutrons strike the atomic nuclei and send more neutrons to strike more atoms-much like one of those domino displays-the exact amount and shape of the Uranium was crucial. Too much and the neutrons would bog down and the chain reaction would fail, too few and it would not get started. The researchers had no idea how much they would need, some of them thought they would need tons. They didn't know how to trigger the reaction, and all sorts of ideas were considered and discarded. (They would finally hit on the idea of using a gun firing uranium bullets for the U bomb but would be forced to develop a means of triggering an implosion for the plutonium variant, since the reaction would have to occur in 1/1,000 of a second.)

They solved all of these problems in under four years with 1940's technology. In fact, they solved it twice, since they not only developed Little Boy which was a uranium-based device, but also Fat Man which was plutonium-based. These were two completely different approaches to the problem, and both worked.

Seven years later the first fusion bomb was exploded by the United States at Enewetak.

On August 29, 1949 the backward Soviet Union had their "First Lightening" atomic test; this from a nation with no known Uranium reserves. Four years later, in 1953, the Soviets detonated a fusion bomb of their own. By 1955 they were testing thermonuclear devices in the megaton range.

Recently our intelligence community put out a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which stated "with moderate confidence" that Iran could not be capable of producing enough Highly Enriched Uranium (HEW, at or above 20% U235, as opposed to Low Enriched Uranium LEW below 20%) to produce an atomic bomb before 2009, and they believe it unlikely before 2013, although they admit that Iran has been running an enrichment program and is currently seeking to purchase more centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium. They judge with "high confidence" that Iran is incapable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before 2015.

They say that Iran had suspended its nuclear program in 2003.

Huh? They have an enrichment program, but that does not constitute a nuclear weapons program? Somebody please explain to me the difference; enrichment of uranium IS the nuclear weapons program!

Iran does not need to work out any technical details. They could obtain design blueprints from North Korea, or purchase them from the Russians or Chinese, or could have gotten them from A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb, before his little cottage industry was broken in 2003 (interesting year, wasn't it?). The myriad details that were worked out by the Manhattan Project in less than four years are of no concern to the terror masters in Iran. For that matter, they could probably download a schematic from the Internet.

The crucial issue is the procurement of nuclear material; a nuclear weapons program requires little more than that.

Granted, that is not an easy thing to do. One must either obtain material already processed (something that would be difficult, but not necessarily impossible since the collapse of the old Soviet Union has left materials scattered about and there is no reason to believe that the Chinese would not sell a little on the side — or North Korea) or do the processing oneself.

To make weapons-grade uranium, it is necessary to separate out the highly fissionable U235 from the unrefined ore. (U235 constitutes just .72% of most ore.) This can be accomplished through electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS), the method first used at the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in which electromagnets separate uranium ions. Another early technique requires that the uranium be processed into uranium hexafloride gas and then passed through a filter which allows more of the U235 to penetrate. Rinse, lather, then repeat until you reach 95% U235. Perhaps the most efficient method is to whirl the uranium hexafloride in centrifuges; the heavier isotopes tend to settle to the outside (just like processing sugar). This technique requires far less energy, but necessitates rather sophisticated centrifuge technology; the Manhattan Project could not make this method work, for example. A really high-tech method is to use lasers to selectively excite atoms. The Iranians experimented with this, but abandoned it because it would not allow them to produce what they needed in abundance. Here is a website explaining the enrichment process.

Making plutonium requires a nuclear reactor; U238 is bombarded with neutrons inside a "breeder" reactor to produce U239, which then decays into Neptunium239. The highly radioactive Neptunium then decays into Plutonium 239 which can be "harvested" and used in atomic weapons. The technicians had best be careful; plutonium is highly poisonous, and will kill anyone who is accidentally exposed to it. Should a terrorist try to build a bomb from purchased plutonium he will likely wipe out his entire cell by mishandling the material. Go here to learn more about plutonium production.

In both cases, it is difficult to hide a clandestine nuke program; the enrichment process generally requires a large amount of space and energy, and things which can often be detected. Plutonium requires running a nuclear reactor — something we should not miss.

But difficult is not impossible, and North Korea developed their atomic weapons right under our noses. This from a nation under intense scrutiny and with extremely limited resources. Of course, the Chinese likely assisted them in their quest, but they still managed to catch the intelligence community by complete surprise. It should be pointed out that they have been partnering with Iran, and had been assisting the Syrians to build a reactor for plutonium production.

The conclusions of the latest NIE not only contradict their own report from '05, but disagree with aspects of this Congressional Research Services report from September of `06.

Here is a list of Iranian enrichment sites.

Iran has had a nuclear program since before the Revolution, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, coupled with the proliferation of nuclear technology, has made it much easier to advance these programs. Why do our intelligence people think it will take six years or more for Iran to develop a nuclear device, when the United States was able to do from scratch in just four, using Second World War technology? They have a clandestine network assisting them. They have all the blueprints and schematics necessary. They have merely to acquire enough fissile material, and they may well have that supplied to them. Granted, their centrifuge technology may require more time to complete, but where there's a will there's a way. This report takes the Iranians at their word, something extraordinarily foolish in such a dangerous world. I wouldn't be surprised if they already have a bomb; they won't test it until they have more than one. Despite what the culprits responsible for this report (Donald Kerr, Van Vann Diepen, etc.) may believe, closing an official office hardly means shutting down the entire operation. As long as Iran continues to enrich uranium, they continue to have a nuclear program.

The thought occurs to me that perhaps this is some sort of ruse; we may be preparing some sort of action and want to catch the Iranians by surprise? It would be a very sound strategy, but President Bush simply does not operate in such a devious realm, and the political fallout would be very damaging if the public were not prepared.

No, it seems far more likely that the loose cannons in the CIA and at State have taken it upon themselves to undermine the President and our national policy. They have effectively removed the stick from our diplomatic position, and this will allow Iran to openly flaunt what they are doing, without fear of our response.

The idea that it will take Iran considerably longer to COMPLETE their program than it took America to develop one from scratch with inferior technology is ludicrous. A casual glance at history should tell us otherwise.

The clock is ticking, and time may be shorter than we think.

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