Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Amateurs Don't Do Nuclear Weapons

Picture of the towers at the Khusab heavy water processing facility, courtesy globalsecurity.org

Sad news out of Pakistan that two workers at the Khusab Heavy Water production facility in Punjab have died due to a chemical leak at the processing station.

Heavy water reactors allow you to go critical with natural uranium and breed plutonium. This works well for power plants, but it also works as a method of producing Pu-239 for warhead material (which is the impetus behind the Pakistani program).

I bring this up as a follow-up to the Iran War Porn post from a few days back. Nuclear weapons manufacture requires a significant industrial supply chain and wide-ranging expertise in physics, metallurgical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, logistics, civil engineering, explosives and twenty other science and engineering specialties.

For those that think you can just steal some used fuel rods, extract the plutonium and make a bomb from them, this is just another small reminder that amateurs don't do nuclear weapons. The entire supply chain, from R&D to production must be run by professionals or you don't get an effective device.

Amateurs talk nuclear weapons (like Messr. Andelman in the Forbes review of Iran, les choix des Armes?).

Amateurs hyperventilate about the ease in which "rogue states" will acquire these weapons and end the world.

Professionals talk logistics, maintenance and Quality Assurance/Quality Control programs.

Professionals worry about keeping the Pu-240 isotope at a small fraction of the Pu-239 isotope when breeding, making good lenses to focus the explosives, making the "physics package" robust enough to be launched in a missile or dropped as a bomb.

Professionals ask tough questions when Iran claims to be installing up to 6,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges, questions like what is the mean time between failure on each centrifuge? On each cascade? What is the purity of the hex going into the cascade? What is the max rotation speed? The tails assay coming out as opposed to what is being claimed?

Nuke's ain't easy, folks. Always remember that when a policy-maker or Beltway Genius tries to sell you on war, sanctions or diplomacy.

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