Thursday, April 13

[Almost] Everything you ever wanted to know about *nuke-you-ler weapons* but were (understandably) afraid to ask.

Castle Bravo: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, March 1, 1954.

I hope nobody gets too freaked out by this, but I've had a long-standing fascination with nuclear weapons. That's a fascination, you understand, not a fetish: I hope to God we never ever use one again, and that one never ever gets used on us, but that said, I still find it immensely fascinating that any human being or group of human beings could have ever packed such awesome destructive force into such a comparatively small object. I've watched videos of the Operation Ivy and Operation Castle thermonuclear test detonations, and as awe-inspiring as those explosions are even in a tiny QuickTime viewing window, I can only imagine the mix of emotions I would've felt had I been standing there in 1952 or 1954 witnessing them in person.

I mention this because of the recent and much-publicized New Yorker article in which Seymour Hersh quotes numerous government officials who believe that a full-scale military operation against Iran may be in the offing. It's worrisome enough that we're already planning for a third full-scale attack in less than five years without having brought stability to the first two countries we invaded (Afghanistan and Iraq), but to me, at least, it's altogether terrifying that people are talking about using tactical nuclear weapons in such an operation, which would basically be the first instance in history in which a nuclear first strike had been leveled against a country that did not provoke it.

As Tristero alludes to in the post "How To Make A Tactical Nuclear Weapon," the qualifier "tactical," particularly when used in reference to a very useful, utilitarian-sounding weapon like a "bunker buster," seems to have the effect of making some people believe that it really isn't that big a deal. Technically, there is a difference between tactical nuclear weapons and the strategic nuclear weapons that were used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki and thus have pretty much defined our perception of nuclear weapons for the past 60 years; however, the discrepancy is largely arbitrary, and has much more to do with intent and strategy than with the actual design of the weapon itself. Theoretically, you could take a warhead that had been designed or classified for whatever reason as a strategic weapon, come up with a more specific military target for it, and abracadabra, now it's merely "tactical." Though merely, as I hope to explain, would be a poor choice of words indeed.

The "bunker-busting" tactical nuke that Hersh's piece specifically cites as a possible weapon of choice is the B61-11, also known as the B-61 Mod 11, which you can read about here. As the article says, this tactical weapon can carry a nuclear yield ranging from less than a kiloton to several hundred kilotons; conventional wisdom dictates that anything under a megaton can be called a tactical nuclear weapon. But what does all this mean?

First of all, it means that as bunker-busters go, the B61-11 can do considerably more damage to a bunker than, say, Tiger Woods.

Here's the part where I get to drop some science I've been wanting to talk about on this blog for a while now, some info I found endlessly fascinating, and more than a little scary, when I was researching all this stuff a few years ago. A kiloton is the basic unit of measurement in determining the yield, or destructive force, of a nuclear weapon; a one-kiloton (kt) bomb would explode with the destructive force of roughly 1,000 tons of TNT, a 12-kt bomb would be equivalent to 12,000 tons of TNT, and so on.

A megaton, as you can probably guess, is an order of magnitude bigger than a kiloton -- one megaton (Mt) equals 1,000 kilotons, or one million tons of TNT. Theoretically, then, it would be possible to have a gigaton weapon, or the equivalent of one billion tons of TNT, though all the nuclear explosions that have ever occurred on earth "only" add up to a total of 510.4 megatons.

The majority of nuclear weapons in the stockpiles of countries like the United States and Russia are in the hundreds-of-kilotons range. However, the Ivy and Castle nuclear tests the U.S. conducted in the South Pacific in the 1950s included detonations of bombs with yields above 10 megatons; the most powerful device ever detonated by the U.S. was in the Castle Bravo test, which yielded 15 Mt. Seven and a half years later, the Soviets detonated "Tsar Bomba," which had a yield of 50 Mt -- to this day the largest nuclear device, by a wide margin, ever exploded.

Tsar Bomba, the "king of bombs": Novaya Zemlya, Russia, October 30, 1961. The mushroom cloud reached about 60 km into the sky; the shockwave could be detected by seismometers even on its third pass around the earth.

Now, all these measurements still may be a little difficult to conceptualize, so maybe it'll be a little easier if we compare them to the two most famous nuclear detonations in history -- those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The "Little Boy" device dropped at Hiroshima had a yield now estimated at about 15 kilotons, or 15,000 tons of TNT; the "Fat Man" device dropped on Nagasaki was somewhat more powerful, with a yield of 21 kt. If you look closely at the progression of American and Soviet nuclear development since those first detonations in 1945 (FYI, this site is an excellent place to start doing that), you start to get the impression that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, as horrific as they were, were almost cream puffs compared to some of the artillery we'd be packing later. Do the math and you discover that Ivy Mike, the United States' first successful detonation of a fusion-based thermonuclear device, packed the explosive force of nearly seven hundred Hiroshimas. In this Laughing Boy post, which I credit with having inspired a lot of the research I did into nuclear weapons and their various detonations, he quotes a book that records some of the statements and emotions of America's top nuclear scientists as they witnessed the Ivy Mike shot. Upon viewing the lingering, 135,000-foot-tall, thousand-mile-wide mushroom cloud, some of those scientists started wondering "if things had gone too far." The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was ratified in 1963 based on fears that, among other things, a too-powerful nuclear detonation might accidentally ignite the entire atmosphere.

Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945: A yawner of a fireworks display compared to most of what's in our nuclear stockpile these days.


Hopefully I've already made the point that a nuclear weapon, any nuclear weapon -- whether it's a big-daddy multi-megaton "strategic" device or something that folks at the Pentagon try to minimize as just a "tactical" nuke -- is some serious shit. But just to make sure there's no misunderstanding, let's go back to that original Hiroshima explosion, which was 15 kilotons. Those in the know about the B61-11 "bunker buster" project say that it can be loaded up with anywhere from <1 kt to many hundreds of kilotons, but again going back to the article, the government has stated that only 10 kilotons is probably not enough to "survive penetration into many types of terrain in which hardened underground facilities are located." What this means is that if we're going to wield a B61-11 with any efficacy against the underground nuclear-research targets Hersh talks about attacking, it'll probably have to pack considerably more than 10 kilotons of force -- meaning we'll be using bombs, "tactical" or no, that are more powerful than what we dropped on Japan in 1945. The consequences of which, of course, will be enormous.

So let's be very clear about this: Whether or not the Bush administration can make the case that invading Iran is a necessary option, whether we attack the entire country of Iran or just the particularly evil-looking military ones, whether or not we restrict our use of nuclear weapons to tactical bunker-busters, if we drop a B61-11 on an Iranian nuclear facility, we will at that point be involved in a nuclear war. That's the reality, folks. So whatever else is said over the course of the discussions this country will have with respect to an invasion of Iran, I certainly hope nobody will be foolish enough to say that it won't be that big a deal, or that all we have to do is throw a few B61-11s into a few nuclear-research facilities and boom, problem solved. Problem solved? Problem created, kiddo. Because at that point, not only will we still be the only country in the world to have ever used a nuclear weapon against another country, we will also have earned the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to have launched an unprovoked nuclear first strike against another country. No ifs, ands, or buts about it -- if we do this, that's what we'll be.

I can only hope that with this knowledge, America as a whole will be more circumspect about this potential invasion of Iran than they were about Iraq. As one commenter pointed out, the American public is pretty sour on Bush's handling of the Iraq situation right now, so I'm not too worried about the general populace suddenly getting a hankering to go bomb the crap out of another country. The Bush administration, however, is gonna do what the Bush administration is gonna do, and if any administration in the history of this country has proven itself to be incapable of learning from its mistakes, it's this one. Before, the question "Do you trust these guys with their finger on the nuclear button?" was one that could be shrugged off as that's-probably-never-gonna-happen irrelevant, but that's looking less and less like the case now.

Let's all be very clear and un-misinformed about the stakes here, kids. It's bad enough that we as a country were overly blasé about Iraq, carelessness that we have paid for with a miserable quagmire in that country and nearly 2,400 flag-draped coffins. But if we swagger toward Teheran with that same sort of nonchalance, the consequences will be immeasurably worse.


Bill from JC said...

Nice research.

Michael said...

I've also been fascinated by atomic bombs, the history, and testing. I picked up this DVD years ago, I still watch it.

Trinity and Beyond: the Atomic Bomb Movie

billy pilgrim said...

Very informative Doug. You're throwing us all for a loop.

In a related note, Juan Cole wrote about the reality of Iran's nuclear rogram, and just what it means when they say they've enriched uranium; Probably needless to say, but the warbloggers are overstating the case, to say the least. To sum it up, they are only about 2% of the way to obtaining highly enriched uranium necessary for weaponry, let alone a realistic delivery method...

In other words, imminent threat? Not so much. Sounding familiar yet?

I rant about it a bit here:

Anonymous said...

I see no reason to be concerned about Iran and their nuclear program. If they want to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and turn the middle east into one big Sunni theocracy, that's no concern of ours as long as they don't export their Islamism to our borders through their terrorist agents. They are sure not to be that stupid. Right? Besides, $5 a gallon gas will force us to finally confront our reliance on oil.