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27 August 2005

Tickling the dragon's tail / 60th anniversary Hiroshima/Nagasaki

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I showed up for The Draft (universal military conscription) on Friday 21 March 1969 (a day late -- but the lady who answered the phone at the Draft Board said that would be okay because "Fresh meat on the hoof doesn't spoil.").

From the Draft Board in Washington DC we were bussed to Fort Holabird, Baltimore, where a doctor cradled my testicles with his fingers and told me to turn my head to the right and cough, after which we were given the oath that made us all members of the U.S. military. (One guy wouldn't take it, and he was immediately handed over to the F.B.I. to be prosecuted for the felony of draft refusal. He almost certainly spent a year or more in federal prison. If he didn't, I want the name of his lawyer.)

From there we were bussed through the night to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I was to take my eight weeks of Army Basic Training. But first there was a week of Reception -- marched to place after place to get haircuts, uniforms, dog tags, vaccinations, and an intensive battery of intelligence tests.

Did I mention that the USA was at that moment involved in a ferocious war in Asia, and our enemies were non-white non-Christians (atheists and Buddhists -- our allies were non-white Christians)?

Well, we were, and it was a very important war for America's national security, although the exact reasons why this war was so terribly important for us to win seem dim and hazy to me now -- probably an early sign of Alzheimer's. I remember something about Dominos. Perhaps a reader who remembers more clearly why winning the Vietnam War was so necessary to American national security can chime in and Leave A Comment.

Anyway, we lost, the Asian atheists and Buddhists won, so I guess all the Terrible Things which would happen to America if we did not Stay The Course and Win The War happened. (Large numbers of our troops were maimed, became addicted to heroin, acquired Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and about 52,000 of them were killed during ten years of America's second-longest war.)

Let that be a lesson to those who suggest we withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan like immediately. (Many Americans are calling for Today or Tomorrow; I prefer Yesterday.) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently predicted American troops would be required to stay in Iraq for twelve years.

~ ~ ~

So far I owed the U.S. military two years of active service.

On the last day of Reception, I had an interview with a Recruiting Sergeant. It seemed odd -- I was already in the Army, what did a Recruiter want with me? Well, I owed the Army two years, and he wished to persuade me to sign up for an extra year or more.

"If you stick with the two-year obligation," he explained, "they'll make you an Eleven-Bravo, ship you to Vietnam, and you'll die there." (Eleven-Bravo is Army job code for Light Weapons Infantryman.)

My intelligence test scores had come back. He told me they were so good that I could have my choice of any Army job training school that had an opening that week. He showed me the list; there were about twenty schools I could choose from -- if I signed up for a third year.

I was extremely determined not to spend a day longer in the Army than I had to, but neither did I particularly want to die, so I looked at the list.

One school did catch my eye. I suspected I might find it, and the job it trained me for, very interesting:

Nuclear Weapons Maintenance and Repair School, in Sandia, New Mexico.

I detested the Vietnam War, and I really hated the Army I'd just been drafted into. I was one Very Very Angry Young Guy.

And although up to that time (and, for that matter, to this day) I'd never been a violent person, the National Weather just then was very violent -- overseas, a huge, senseless War, and at home, those citizens opposed to the War were becoming increasingly violent. They had long since ceased to say "Please" when they asked President Nixon to stop the War.

I suspected my anger wasn't unique. If the Vietnam War is earlier than your Memory Horizon, you can get a pretty vivid sense of the National Anger with some documentaries, in particular "The Ten Thousand Day War."

As a civilian, you could pretty much express your anger quite openly in a variety of very candid and public ways. As a soldier, it was much more difficult to Go Public with your opposition to the War -- so antiwar soldiers, Marines, sailors, etc., expressed their feelings more privately and secretly.

(It is a ridiculous and naive mistake to believe that nearly all soldiers and Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan support the wars. The only absolute certainty is that any soldier facing a TV news camera and microphone knows to absolutely keep his mouth shut about his political feelings. Vleeptron has posted several news stories about American soldiers and marines -- volunteers -- escaping to Canada, deserting, trying to become conscientious objectors, smoking dope to flunk drug tests to get kicked out of the military, etc.)

So. Here I was, furiously angry, as goaded toward violence as I had ever been in my life -- and the nice Recruiting Sergeant was offering to teach me all about the guts of atomic and thermonuclear bombs, in exchange for pretty much guaranteeing that I would get out of the Army alive and with both testicles and a penis.

There was a lot about this deal that I was finding Very Tempting.

But I turned him down. Decided it wasn't worth another whole year of my life.

Two months later, the Army made me a journalist, and two years later, I was discharged, alive and without wounds, and have been a civilian again ever since.

~ ~ ~

But the deal must have seemed good to a lot of other very angry draftees, and Sandia trained them all throughout the intensely angry decade that combined the Vietnam War with the draft.

And I'm sure they all remember everything they learned about the insides of atomic and hydrogen bombs.

I sure hope every one of them got completely over his anger.

~ ~ ~

What did I miss
by not going to Nuclear Weapons Maintenance and Repair School? Well -- I don't know, I didn't go.

But I've done quite a bit of reading, entirely of public, declassified books. I particularly recommend "Lawrence and Oppenheimer" by Nuel Pharr Davis, "The Curve of Binding Energy" by John McPhee, and "The Los Alamos Primer" by Robert Serber.

When Serber was in chemistry grad school in the mid-1930s, his advisor told him that the top tiers of American academic chemistry had very few Jews, and advised Serber to switch to physics. He became a protege of the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who taught at the University of California at Berkeley. When Oppenheimer was named science chief of the American atom bomb project -- The Manhattan Project -- he took Serber to the new secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

(The school I was invited to attend, Sandia National Laboratories, is an outgrowth of the World War II Los Alamos bomb lab.)

At Los Alamos, Serber's job was to lecture newly-arrived scientists and teach them everything that was known so far about building an atomic bomb. His lecture notes were called "The Los Alamos Primer." In 1992, long after most of the scientific content of the Primer had been declassified, he published the Primer, along with personal memoirs of the bomb project.

One review of "The Los Alamos Primer" begins:

To make an atomic bomb, take a few kilos of plutonium, shaped into half spheres, in either hand and slap them together.

Building a good bomb is harder.

~ ~ ~

A "good bomb" is a bomb that will go off far away from the bombers, a bomb which gets the maximum efficiency -- the biggest bang -- from its fissile material, and a bomb that can be detonated at a precise height above a target city to produce the maximum blast and heat damage.

Prior to the atomic bomb, the world's greatest man-made explosion had resulted when a munitions ship bound for World War I in Europe caught fire and then blew up in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1917; Los Alamos physicists visited Halifax to study that explosion and determine the best height for the maximum destruction of an enemy city.

The above recipe calls for plutonium, but a naturally-occuring but rare isotope of uranium will also work. Either metal will "be" an atomic bomb if enough of the metal -- known as a critical mass -- is brought together and forces keep it together for just a tiny fraction of a second.

A mass of enriched uranium or plutonium less than a critical mass -- subcritical -- can be transported and handled relatively safely.

One of the biggest questions the Los Alamos scientists didn't know was just how much of these substances were needed to go critical -- how much would spontaneously generate an atomic explosion.

A small, crude shed was built quite far away from the other buildings and activities at Los Alamos to answer this question, and the experiment a few chemists, metallurgists, physicists and engineers devised became known as "tickling the dragon's tail."

The idea was simple. A solid ingot of fissile metal known to be subcritical was dropped through the hole in a doughnut (oh, okay, a torus or hollow cylinder) of fissile material that was also known to be subcritical. In the fraction of a second that the ingot and the doughnut were together, before the ingot (hopefully) kept falling, instruments could detect a sudden spike in neutron flux, other radiation spikes, a heat spike, etc.

Each time the ingot was dropped and nothing particularly dramatic happened, they would repeat the experiment with a slightly more massive ingot.

The experiment was incredibly crude, incredibly hit-and-miss, incredibly trial-and-error -- but it eventually yielded an answer that worked for the first test bomb (Trinity) detonated in the New Mexico desert, and for the bombs dropped from B-29 bombers over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

They tickled the dragon's tale hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. The dragon growled. The next time they tickled its tail it growled a little louder.

But it never quite woke up.

This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of the only atomic bombs ever dropped on enemy cities in warfare. The first one, Little Boy, was a uranium bomb, the other, Fat Man, was plutonium.

After Japan surrendered, Serber led the first American science team that entered Hiroshima and studied the effects of the bomb.

~ ~ ~

Although the Manhattan Project was the largest and most expensive project the United States had ever undertaken, most of the technology involved was incredibly crude by today's standards.

My neighbor who turns junked clunkers into beautiful classic cars in his garage probably has almost everything (except the fissile material) you need to tickle the dragon's tail. I suspect you could reproduce the dragon-tickling experiment today for less than $10,000, and get most of what you need from an auto supply store or Home Depot. (I own a geiger counter; I bought it from a magazine ad for about $25 when I was 14; it still works.)

But a much quicker way to find out how much fissile material you need to make a "good bomb" is to hire one of thousands of nuclear weapons experts who have been trained by Los Alamos/Sandia or Lawrence Livermore or their comparable nuclear weapons labs in the former Soviet Union. Since the Cold War ended, many of them have been let go, and are on the open market, looking for new jobs to support their families.

And lots of other countries are eager to hire people with just those skills.

In "The Curve of Binding Energy," former atomic-bomb designer Theodore Taylor suggested in 1974 that the skills needed to make a fission bomb were now so public and well known that fission bombs were within reach of violent subnational groups.

The "how" part is easy. More difficult is getting one's hands on weapons-grade plutonium or enriched uranium.

Plutonium is produced as a biproduct of nuclear power reactors, which have proliferated all over the world.

Enriching uranium in sufficient quantities to make a bomb was for decades thought to be beyond the reach of any but the most technologically and industrially advanced nations.

But we know now that when Iraq was on the verge of producing uranium bombs, it had relied on ancient, 1940s-era, small-yield centrifuge technology.

Uranium in gas form is mechanically spun at high speed, and the tiny difference in weight/mass between the desired fissile isotope and the unwanted non-fissile isotope slowly seperates the two. Patience and time are the only other ingredients required to get enough weapons-grade uranium to make a bomb.

Other players who have publicly or secretly tried to make atomic bombs or have succeeded are Brazil, Apartheid South Africa, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea. France and the United Kingdom had atomic bombs soon after the USA and the Soviet Union did, and like the USA and Soviet Union, went on to add hydrogen/thermonuclear bombs to their arsenals. The Peoples Republic of China has atomic and hydrogen bombs. France and the USA tested their hydrogen bombs in the Pacific; the UK tested some of theirs in Nevada.

~ ~ ~

Okay, that's it for now. I'll have more about the past, the present and the future of nuclear weapons on Earth. (Vleeptron doesn't have any.)


Blogger Joana said...

Very interestng, but sad.

Portugal is till burning away, I cannot watch the news Iburst into tears. yesterday 10 people died.

Give us more Elmer :)


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