Jewish World Review Nov. 12, 2002 / 7 Kislev, 5763
Thomas H. Lipscomb
Forgotten in the current speculation over progress in Iraq is the history of the United States' own atomic bomb program. Los Alamos wasn't even opened until April of 1943. At the time, under the comparatively primitive computing and measuring systems available, there was barely enough fissionable uranium 235 or plutonium to weigh on a scale.
A mere 28 months later, the United States had not only dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was producing bombs at the rate of three a month for additional use if necessary. Perhaps most amazingly, the two bombs dropped on Japan were based on entirely different systems of ignition and fissionable material.
The Hiroshima bomb, "Little Boy" was ignited by a very simple "gun" mechanism, achieving critical mass by firing two masses of U235 into one another. It was so "low tech" it was never even tested before being dropped on Japan. The second bomb, the Nagasaki bomb "Fat Man," was based upon the far more difficult to extract plutonium imploded by highly sophisticated explosive lenses. It was the basic model used in the first atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and established the direction of the American atomic weapons program for years to come.
The basic physics of a possible atomic bomb was quickly understood by the leader of the Nazi atomic effort, Werner von Heisenberg, as well as Enrico Fermi at Columbia University as soon as the news came out about the Germans' success in achieving nuclear fission at the end of 1938. They could both see that if the fission of one atom could make a grain of sand jump, one kilogram of U235 could have the explosive effect of thousands of tons of TNT.
What was missing were the experiments and engineering that would enable the production of a nuclear weapon. But today the elements required for the production of a simple Hiroshima-type U235 based bomb are well understood and generally available. The problem remains getting the fissionable U235. Can Iraq can either produce or gain access to U235?
In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991 the coalition force inspectors estimated that Iraq had spent over $8 billion dollars trying to duplicate the 50-year-old American U235 extraction program devised by Ernest Lawrence back in the early 40's. That is almost as much as the entire American atomic bomb project cost in World War II. And it is now eleven years later and UN inspectors haven't even been in Iraq since 1998. And the Iraqis have been working on this problem for more than 20 years, as the Israeli's acknowledged by destroying the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. By comparison it is estimated that North Korea had enough plutonium on hand for at least two bombs eight years ago.
But even assuming after eleven years of playing shell games with the West and UN inspectors and spending billions more on the best computers and finest minds they could hire, the Iraqis somehow still haven't managed to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU), much less plutonium, to make one bomb. Does that make an Iraqi bomb unlikely?
Unfortunately not. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left the location of hundreds of kilograms of weapons grade fissionable material in doubt. As Berkeley physicist Richard A. Muller pointed out in MIT's latest Technology Review: "The bookkeeping of the former Soviet states makes Enron's accounting look scrupulous. How much more HEU is still out there, undocumented? Nobody knows." According to Muller, one of the former Soviet states, Kazahkstan alone, is missing 205 kilograms. And the International Atomic Energy Agency regards any quantity of HEU above 25 kilos a "significant amount" which could be the basis of an effective bomb.
Intercepts have already taken place over the past 11 years of fissionable materials bound for Iraq. Is it prudent to assume through incredible luck they have all been intercepted?
Unfortunately the low tech HEU approach to producing a bomb Muller describes Iraq as following is not easy to discover by passive monitoring. And it is possible to transport a finished weapon by low tech means as well. The West may feel comforted by current evidence that Iraqi missile delivery systems haven't the range or throw weight required to deliver the kind of atomic bombs Saddam may be able to build. But the best anti-missile defense in the world is useless against trucks and shipping containers.
How hard would it be to move one the short distance from Iraq to critical American forward bases like Kuwait and Qatar? Or any major seaport from London to New York?
When the Nazi atomic scientist interned in England in August of 1945 were informed of the Hiroshima bombing, British intelligence agents eavesdropping on their conversation learned a lot about why the German program failed. Von Heisenberg scoffed at the possibility of an airdropped bomb because according to his calculations it would require dropping two tons of U235 and a nuclear reactor. But another scientist understood the real American advantage: "It shows the Americans are capable of real cooperation on a tremendous scale. That would have been impossible in Germany."
With all the questions still facing those Nazi scientists in 1945 solved, there are far fewer problems for Saddam Hussein's scientists in 2002. The only real question remaining may be just whose graveyard the Bush Administration is whistling past.
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Thomas H. Lipscomb is the director of the Center for the Digital Future in New York. An editor and publisher for many years, most recently as head of Times Books, he is also the founder of two public companies in digital technology. To comment, click here.