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Monday, October 05, 2009

The World's Worst-Kept Secret

What you are about to learn is a secret -- a secret that the United States and four other nations, the makers of hydrogen weapons, have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect.

The secret is in the coupling mechanism that enables an ordinary fission bomb -- the kind that destroyed Hiroshima -- to trigger the far deadlier energy of hydrogen fusion.

The physical pressure and heat generated by x- and gamma radiation, moving outward from the trigger at the speed of light, bounces against the weapon's inner wall and is reflected with enormous force into the sides of a carrot-shaped "pencil" which contains the fusion fuel.

Progressive Magazine cover -- 'THE H-BOMB SECRET'"That, within the limits of [the previous] sentence, is the essence of a concept that initially eluded the physicists of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China," wrote Howard Morland for The Progressive in 1979, "that they discovered independently and kept tenaciously to themselves, and that may not yet have occurred to the weapon makers of a dozen other nations bent on building the hydrogen bomb."

You can get the entire issue of the magazine, in PDF form, here. What nefarious methods did Morland employ to get this top secret info? I guess you'd call it journalism. Most of what he learned about how to make a hydrogen bomb he gained from published science papers. To fill in the gaps, he asked physicists. Turns out that, as closely guarded government secrets go, the H-bomb wasn't one. You can't really take a chunk out of physics and keep it secret -- the information is all there, all it takes is putting it together and solving mechanical problems.

All of which makes a United Nations report out this weekend a little perplexing.

New York Times:

Senior staff members of the United Nations nuclear agency have concluded in a confidential analysis that Iran has acquired “sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable” atom bomb.

The report by experts in the International Atomic Energy Agency stresses in its introduction that its conclusions are tentative and subject to further confirmation of the evidence, which it says came from intelligence agencies and its own investigations.

But the report’s conclusions, described by senior European officials, go well beyond the public positions taken by several governments, including the United States.

Asked on CNN's State of the Union if he agreed with the UN's report, National Security Adviser James Jones said, "No, we stand by the reports that we've put out." Those reports contradict the UN's, although indirectly, by reporting that Iran stopped working on nuclear weapon development in 2003. At that point, pretty much everyone agreed that Iran was years -- perhaps decades -- away from a weapon.

Which raises the question; what does "all the data" actually mean? According to the NYT, the UN report -- titled Possible Military Dimensions of Iran's Nuclear Program -- "draws a picture of a complex program, run by Iran's Ministry of Defense, 'aimed at the development of a nuclear payload to be delivered using the Shahab 3 missile system,' Iran’s medium-range missile, which can strike the Middle East and parts of Europe. The program, according to the report, apparently began in early 2002."

At least one top official at the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disagrees with the report, with the paper reporting that "he has raised doubts about its completeness and reliability."

Last month, the agency issued an unusual statement cautioning it “has no concrete proof” that Iran ever sought to make nuclear arms, much less to perfect a warhead. On Saturday in India, Dr. ElBaradei was quoted as saying that “a major question” about the authenticity of the evidence kept his agency from “making any judgment at all” on whether Iran had ever sought to design a nuclear warhead.

So, if "all the data" means the physics, then yeah, Iran has that. But so does a kid looking to win a ribbon at the fifth grade science fair. But if it means the actual engineering involved, then probably not -- unless the whole thing came to some Iranian engineer in a dream.

But this preliminary report, controversial even within the agency that released it, has given Republicans a new tool to try to get everyone to wet their pants over the possibility of Iran blowing up the world.

Raw Story:

Two senior Republican senators say the United States, and not Israel, should attack Iran if military action becomes "necessary."

They also say a simple strike at the country's nuclear capability wouldn't be enough -- the US would have to launch an "all-or-nothing" war against Iran with the aim of crippling the country's military capabilities.

"I think an Israeli attack on Iran is a nightmare for the world, because it will rally the Arab world around Iran and they're not aligned now. It's too much pressure to put on Israel," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told FOX News' Chris Wallace.

"If the sanctions fail, and Iran's going down the road to get a nuclear weapon, any Sunni Arab state that could, would want a nuclear weapon," Graham said. "Israel will be more imperiled. The world will change dramatically for the worst. Military action should be the last resort anyone looks at, and I would rather our allies and us take military action if it's necessary."

We all remember the last time a Republican said war was the "last resort," don't we? That didn't turn out very well. The other Republican senator "reluctantly" considering all-out war is Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

"The problem with military action also is that you're probably not going to be able to stop the production of uranium by just a simple airstrike," he said on the same program. "Lindsey's right. It's an all or nothing deal. And is it worth that at this point in time, when we know they have the capability? We can slow them down, but a full-out military strike is what it would take."

So, is typical Republican belligerence the answer here? Let's compare results. The Bush administration also had Iran to deal with, so let's allow middle east expert Juan Cole to make the Bush v. Obama comparison.

"For 8 years, Bush-Cheney practiced what I call 'belligerent Ostrichism' toward Iran," Cole explains. "They refused to talk to Tehran. They wanted to ratchet up sanctions on it. Bush sent 2 aircraft carriers to the Gulf to menace Iran. Bush's spokesmen professed themselves afraid of Iran's unarmed little speedboats in the Gulf. Aside from issuing threats to attack and destroy Iran the way they did Iraq, Bush-Cheney had nothing else to say on the matter. During the 8 years, Iran went from being able to enrich to .2% to being able to enrich to 3.8%, and increased its stock of centrifuges significantly. Bush-Cheney gesticulated and grimaced and fainted away at the horror of it all, but they accomplished diddly-squat.

"Barack Obama pwned Bush-Cheney in one day, and got more concessions from Iran in 7 1/2 hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling."

And those concessions aren't insignificant. Iran will send uranium overseas to be enriched for energy -- not military -- use and will accept international inspectors to its nuclear research facilities. Under the Bush administration, the headlines would've been "Crisis in Iran." Under Obama, it's "Inspectors to Visit New Iran Nuclear Site at Qom Oct 25."

When we developed the first atomic weapon in WWII, we knew we'd let the genii out of the bottle. Once it they were demonstrated and proved possible, non-American nuclear weapons became an inevitability. But I suppose we thought it was worth it. Whether or not it actually was is an open question, but it doesn't seem likely that no one would ever have developed them if we hadn't done it first. After all, we didn't make them possible, the universe did that.

What is clear is that diplomacy is working and that the Republican impulse toward violence and intimidation has not. I think we should probably go with what's working.


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Dale said...

Nobody outside of the major nuclear powers is even trying to make a hydrogen bomb. You have to make a successful fission bomb first, and Iran hasn't done that yet, neither has North Korea. Once you've got that, there's no point in making the huge investment required for making a fusion device.

The physics of the fission device is well known, getting it to work is mostly in the engineering and the execution. But really the hardest part is getting enough uranium or plutonium for it, so for a country with limited resources it's very important to get the design right so you don't waste the explosive material.

And then, aside from just getting it working, you have to get it small enough to easily shoot at someone. Nobody's going to throw a bomb the size of Little Boy or Fat Man very far on the nose of a missile.

M said...

Our Republican representatives are violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by openly calling for the destruction of Iran.

A nuclear power cannot threaten non-nuclear nations.

I have little doubt that if McCain were the President, we would have already dropped bombs on Iran.

Republicans in power know dick about foreign policy.

These recent developments are the de facto fact-checker on that.

They should just shut the fuck up.

M said...

The GOP's New Foreign Policy: Undermine American Diplomacy

I love Jim Demint traveling to Honduras to encourage the military coup-run government and directly undermine the world community.

This guy is a fucking moron and a Confederate.

But Mark Kirk in China encouraging the Chinese government to crash our economy by initiating a run on America takes the cake.

Mark Kirk(R-IL): "the budget numbers that the US government had put forward should not be believed."

Kirk is going to run for the U.S. Senate.

With representatives like these overtly undermining American policies and stability, who needs terrorists?

vet said...

Iran is four times the size of Iraq. And unlike Saddam in Iraq, its government is pretty popular. For the US to invade and occupy it would mean taking casualties in the tens of thousands.

The Republicans know that. They want a Democratic administration to get the blame, whether for invading it, or (just as good) for not invading it. Works either way. By the time the Republicans are back on top, the situation will have changed and they'll no longer be recommending anything so stupid.

And the Iranians know it too, which is why Bush's sabre-rattling accomplished so little. But they also know that America has invaded two of their neighbors, and is doing its very best to sponsor political unrest inside Iran itself.

There's only one thing, as far as they can see, that would make them really "safe" from American imperialism: the Bomb. It's worked for North Korea, India, Pakistan, South Africa - when did you last hear any senator, of either party, suggesting military action against any of them?

It seems to me ironic that the most hawkish on the topic of Iran getting the bomb, also tend to be vehemently against gun control in their own country. As I see it, free nukes for all - is just like the freedom to bear arms, scaled up a bit. If you believe in the theory of deterrence, if you believe in free people living together with mutual respect... what's the problem?

Realtor Toronto said...

The statements of Republican senators are really dangerous for keeping peace in the region. I think that even if Iran possess the knowledge and resources for making nuclear bomb it will not strike first. The reason is that also Israel has got undefined number of nuclear weapons ready to use in critical situation.