Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 3

So now we’ve nuked the surface, we’ve nuked the ocean depths, and we’ve even nuked outer space. And Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to nuke. What’s a superpower to do?

Well, just make bigger nukes, obviously.

Enter, the H-bomb. The hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb is a much fancier lad than the a-bomb that preceded it. The A-bomb is purely a fission device, in which heavy elements are split, releasing colossal amounts of energy. But you can also fuse lighter elements to release energy. The problem is, it’s hard to compress and heat lighter elements enough to ignite fusion. Re-enter the A-bomb, which can provide more than enough heat and compression to ignite a fusion reaction. And then re-enter the A-bomb again, because we’re going to surround the fusion stage of the weapon with a massive amount of unenriched uranium, called the tamper. Unenriched uranium is stable under normal conditions, which is why we can cram so much of it into our thermonuclear device in the first place. But when exposed to the fusion reaction, unenriched uranium completely loses its shit. It kicks off a second round of fission, which in most thermonuclear devices provides the majority of the megaton-range yield.

It’s also much dirtier. While only increasing the yield by three- or four-fold, it multiplies the radioactive byproducts of the bomb by a thousand times. Behind closed doors, the military fucking loved that part, because a single bomb could effectively bring strategic targets to ruin even if strategic assets within those targets survived the initial blast and fireball. Oh and, by strategic targets, I mean cities, factories, and ports. And by strategic assets, I mean the people who live and work in them.

In public, the tone was very different. The official line in the U.S. was that radiation release did not scale with the increasing yield of nuclear weapons. Which, I guess, is technically true. It didn’t scale, because in the H-bomb, radiation growth exceeded yield by several orders of magnitude.

Which brings us back to Bikini Atoll, where we started this wild and wonderful journey. It was early 1954, about a year and a half after the first ever detonation of a thermonuclear device in the Ivy Mike test. The problem with the Ivy Mike H-bomb, however, was that it was literally the size of a building and thus completely impractical for military use. The Castle Bravo test sought to rectify that by detonating a thermonuclear bomb weighing about ten tons. That’s still pretty heavy, but it’s getting into the deliverable range.

The Castle Bravo bomb was expected to yield a blast in the 4 to 8 megaton range, but the designers made a critical error. They assumed that most of the mixture of fusion fuel in the second stage would prove functionally inert, unable to contribute to the nuclear reaction within the millisecond timeframe of the detonation sequence. This was due to the fact that they had never actually tested the fuel's response to high-energy particles, like those released by the first stage. If someone had stopped and said, “You know, maybe instead of assuming the mix will work a particular way, we should put it in a nuclear accelerator and actually test that shit,” then things might have gone differently.

But who has time for that? We’ve got stuff to nuke. Snap to it!

That very same “fuck it, let’s just light it off and see what happens” attitude was also operative on the day of the test, when it was decided they would go ahead with the detonation despite prevailing winds that were veering from north to east, where they could carry fallout over populated islands. The deciding factor, apparently, was that they’d done a lot of work setting up observation instruments around the blast site, and would have to do it all over again if the test was delayed.

Who needs that kind of hassle? Just blow the damn nuke already.

Which they did. And it was a fucking disaster.

Or a stunning success, depending on your perspective. Like, if you were an insane person, as seemed to be the case for many of our military and civilian leaders at the time, you’d call it a big win, because the yield was a full fifteen megatons. At the time, that made it the largest nuclear detonation in history, leaving a crater over a mile wide and 250 feet deep. The fireball was four miles wide and the resultant mushroom cloud seven miles wide. America, fuck yeah.

Even better, it spread a cloud of radiation over five thousand square miles of ocean. I mean, you can neutralize a lot hell of a lot of strategic assets that way.

The test was so successful that indigenous strategic assets had to be evacuated from islands which were rendered uninhabitable by fallout. Five strategic assets on the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru were exposed, resulting in the death of one of those strategic assets. Radioactive contamination from the test was carried by wind and ocean currents all around the Pacific Rim, from the west coast of America to Japan and Australia.

So, it was a rousing success, unless you happen to be afflicted by sanity.

Speaking of sanity and the lack thereof, you know what nuclear weapons would be great for? The construction business.

From that nugget of an idea came 1961’s Operation Plowshare, a proof-of-concept plan to demonstrate the myriad peaceful applications of multi-kiloton nuclear devices. The goal of Plowshare was to develop a toolbox of nuclear earth moving techniques—whose concepts ranged from merely frightening to utter, batshit insanity—and then hand them over to the private sector. Because, really, what damage can the private sector possibly do with nukes that the government hasn’t already?

Techniques developed by Plowshare were to be used to excavate rock and to fracture fossil fuel deposits for collection of their now-radioactive natural gas. If that sounds familiar, it’s basically just frakking, except instead of fracturing the rock with water, you use a nuclear warhead. What could be less controversial?

Similar methods were proposed for leached copper recovery and steam generation. And hey, wouldn’t nuclear devices make strip mining that much more wonderful?

If you’re already floored by this nuclear hubris, you may want to take a moment, because it gets worse from there. A Plowshare subproject codenamed Carryall planned to use twenty-two nuclear bombs to cut through the Bristol Mountains in California. Then a highway and rail line could be constructed across them. Complete, I imagine, with signs instructing motorists to please keep their windows rolled up.

And if you did happen to ride the crazy train through Carryall mountain pass, the next stop would be a nuclear-blasted sea-level link connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, to be called the “Pan-Atomic Canal.”

Once those ships transit Central America, though, they’ll need a harbor to dock at. And won’t it be easier to find that harbor if it glows in the dark? Enter project Chariot, which would chain several nuclear bombs to blow open an artificial harbor.

Now that you’ve docked your cargo ship, though, you have to get your goods out to the people. You’d like to use a river barge, but the only river nearby doesn’t connect to the river you need to send your product up. Well shit, man, with nuclear bombs we can make rivers into whatever shape we want. Project Tombigee/Tennessee River would have done just that, combining the aforementioned little rivers into one big river.

But, you ask, what if blowing up all those rivers creates a water shortage? Well, my friend, nuclear bombs have you covered there, too. Plowshare proposed to use nuclear bombs to connect two aquifers for easier water access. In another proposal, Plowshare would create a rubble chimney above porous rock, which would allow rainwater to seep through the rubble and collect in an artificial aquifer. Think of it as a value-add proposition, because your drinking water would be suffused with expensive radioisotopes.

Thankfully, someone finally came to their sense and cancelled the program in 1977, before it could do any major harm. But for the decade and a half in between, someone thought all of this was a good idea.

If I may come back to the present day for a moment before I wrap this up, I’m reminded of a bit of common wisdom that’s become popular over the last decade: "we have to keep nuclear weapons out of the wrong hands." On its face, the statement is indisputable, more a truism than a proposition, but something about it has always bothered me. It wasn’t until I was doing research for this series of articles that I finally realized what it was.

The problem is that it rests upon an unfounded, unspoken premise: that there’s such a thing as the right hands.

I leave you now with a song.

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