Archive for the ‘News and Notes’ Category

The Reinventing Civil Defense project

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

This has been one busy academic year for me, and the non-stop news cycle has not helped matters. As is painfully obvious by my decreased production of blog posts. Don’t worry — I’m not going anywhere, and I will make up some of the difference in August when I visit Japan for the first time, in time for the Hiroshima bombing anniversary. Below is a description of one of the projects that has been occupying my time these last many months.

I am extremely pleased to be able to announce one bit of “secret” work that is finally going public: a sizable grant that I am involved with has been chosen for funding by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is one of 11 projects funded by a joint effort from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to support projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

The project is called “Reinventing Civil Defense,” and it’s been fun to tell people about the proposal and watch their eyes get very wide at the name. That’s intentional. When CCNY and MacArthur put out their call for proposals, they said they wanted new ideas, things from outside the box. So we decided to try and go pretty big in that direction.

Bendix dosimeters, for tracking personal radiation exposure. The two Civil Defense photos accompanying this post were all taken by me in order to illustrate the Reinventing Civil Defense website, from various Cold War bits and pieces I have lying around the apartment. I wanted something that nodded at the Civil Defense imagery we are familiar with, but also indicated that this was going to be a new take on it.

The “we” here is our team of co-PIs at the Stevens Institute of Technology, myself, Kristyn Karl, and Julie Pullen.  Together, we created and will run the Reinventing Civil Defense project, with key contributions from Ed Friedman. Kristyn Karl is a political psychologist who works across the hall from me, in the College of Arts and Letters, and whose work involves studying how people evaluate risk, especially in response to communications about it. She has researched the ways in which people evaluate different types of reporting about terrorism, and how that impacts their emotional responses and subsequent policy support (or lack thereof). Julie Pullen is an associate professor of oceanography and meteorology who I have known since I came to Stevens, who works in the School of Engineering and Science, who has done a lot of research into port and maritime security in the New York City area, and has studied technical issues relating to nuclear terrorism. Ed Friedman is an emeritus professor of physics, and one of the reasons I am at Stevens in the first place: it was Ed whose initial interest in my work brought me here to give a talk, at which point I not only realized where Hoboken was (I grew up on the West Coast, so my East Coast geography was pretty poor), but learned there was a job search going on in my field. Ed has had one of those lives that looks so jam-packed with interesting and important work (as a sample, he worked in Afghanistan for many years before the Soviet-Afghan war, teaching at the engineering school in Kabul) that no matter what one accomplishes, one feels like one has done almost nothing, but he is a generous and concerned scholar who is deeply interested in matters relating to nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Kristyn Karl, Julie Pullen, myself (Alex Wellerstein), taking a somewhat awkward picture (the weather was not entirely behaving) at Castle Point Lookout at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Ever since I took the job at Stevens, Ed, Julie, and I had been talking about ways in which we could leverage the essential principles and success behind something like the NUKEMAP in a way that would have even wider impact. This led to a lot of discussions about how digital tools might produce different ways to think about science and risk communication, beyond the more traditionally “didactic” modes associated with formal education. Study after study has shown that didactic, lecturing approaches to getting information across only works in a very limited way — and as a teacher, it is clear that it is extremely inefficient even within the confines of a formal educational setting (e.g., people who are taking out massive loans with the idea of getting an education). If your goal is to affect a much broader spectrum of people, about pressing policy issues, you have to find another way. Kristyn's work on science communication and risk perception was a natural fit with these interests, and so we brought her into these discussions not long after she was hired at Stevens.

Around the time of the Carnegie/MacArthur request for proposals (October 2016), I had been thinking about Civil Defense quite a lot. Ed and I were co-teaching a seminar on nuclear policy topics, and had dedicated a week to the subject, having the students (and ourselves) read various Civil Defense texts and critiques from a few different “eras” of US Civil Defense work. I had looked into a lot of these issues when designing the codes for the NUKEMAP (which are still being worked on, as an aside; there will be some interesting new features added in the very near future), and it seemed like there was a lot of discussion of this issue “in the air” then (and even more since). And, when I lived in DC, I had some very productive discussions with my friend Ed Geist (now at RAND Corporation; we recently co-authored an article on the Soviet H-bomb project in Physics Today), who wrote his dissertation on US and Soviet Civil Defense policies. The general feeling I had about Civil Defense was, some of it was nonsense (the quick evacuation of big urban centers always seemed infeasible), some of it certainly expressed a blasé approach to mass destruction, but it was not as crazy as the anti-nuclear activists often made it out to be, and indeed many of its core approaches have been integrated into preparation for other kinds of major hazards (Civil Defense eventually morphed into Emergency Management, which takes a somewhat different approach with regards to engaging the general public). It seemed highly politicized and polarized, by both the anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear folks (having Edward Teller be ones of its chief advocates was not going to “bridge that gap,” either).

A Victoreen radiation detector. The units of this are pretty high — it's not meant to budge unless you're in a bit of trouble. To get it at something other than a zero read I did a circuit check and let it work its way back down again.

So when I was thinking about the Carnegie/MacArthur request, suddenly this idea flashed in my brain (in the way of all of my ideas, both good and bad, it just appeared all at once): what if Civil Defense wasn’t politicized and wasn’t dumb? What if you approached it in a truly even-handed, non-partisan way? What if you thought very seriously about the deficiencies of Cold War Civil Defense, notably its approach to messaging, and thought about what that would look like in the early-21st century, where the more probable nuclear threat is not the multi-megaton, thousands-of-targets exchange of the late-20th century, but single-use detonations of terrorists or so-called “rogue states”? What would that look like? What would it look like if your approach was not the government producing lectures and pamphlets (because American trust in government has notably plummeted from the late 1960s onward), but non-governmental organizations producing digital products and tools?

And, of course, what would be gained from this approach? Potentially much, for people of all political stripes. Those who believe that Civil Defense should be embraced because it would lessen the consequences of a nuclear detonation (and if risk is probability times consequences, then you are reducing the risk by doing this) would be pleased by the reduction of preventable casualties that might come with such an effort. Those who are more concerned with galvanizing public opinion about nuclear weapons would, perhaps, be pleased that the lived experience of nuclear risk — nuclear salience — would be increased, in a way that it has not been since the height of the Cold War. It is my belief, and I will have a piece about this coming out pretty soon, that the elimination of Cold War Civil Defense education ironically allowed nuclear weapons to pass out of public awareness, which was certainly not what the people opposed to Civil Defense were interested in.

The logo of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, from the side of the aforementioned Victoreen detector.

And on top of all that, this kind of project would create an opportunity to explore new kinds of risk communication and messaging (with new media, like Virtual Reality), and its effectiveness (which someone like Kristyn designs experiments to test). So at its most ambitious, this project is about potentially altering American nuclear culture (and maybe non-American, ideally, but you’ve got to start somewhere), and potentially facilitating the means to save thousands of preventable casualties in the event of a nuclear detonation. And even if those very lofty goals are not possible to be achieved (changing culture is obviously a very difficult thing!), it could still be a catalyst for a lot of interesting prototypes.  Much of our budget is earmarked for sub-awards that will generate “deliverables” meant to be focal points for these conversations about nuclear salience (think VR apps, games, graphic novels, along with more traditional output like studies and whitepapers and reports), and two workshops where we will hash over these questions and come up with some recommendations (the workshops are invitation-only, but if you are interested please get in touch and we'll see what we can accommodate within our space and budget).

Ed, Julie, Kristyn, and I bounced this idea around, to great effect. The germ evolved into a full-fledged proposal. We also decided that we would need some kind of Advisory Committee to help make sure that we weren’t barking up the wrong tree, and to give us perspectives that a bunch of engineering-school professors might not have. You can see the list of the Advisory Committee members on our project website — I’m pretty amazed at the people we were able to convince to agree to be part of this project, and just getting them all together in a room, talking about this issue, will no doubt be an interesting conversation.

"Fallout protection: What to know and do about nuclear attack," was a pamphlet created in 1961, intending to spread the word about fallout shelters and radiation protection. Aside from having some pretty interesting graphics (which always brings things to my attention), and being printed in apparently huge numbers, it is notable to me in part because it was one of the few Civil Defense messaging techniques that was actually studied by social scientists at the time, to see how it changed people's views and understanding on fallout. You can buy well-preserved originals of it on eBay for a song.

Anyway, after various rounds of peer review and discussion, we finally got notice that we were funded, though we had to keep it under wraps until all of the coordination between the foundations was completed. I am pleased to be able to reveal it all now, at long last, and to promise that you will be seeing many interesting things coming out of this work in the near future. And if you know of someone whose work might fit into the category of a good project to fund, please send them the website link and tell them to be in touch (or get in touch yourself, if the person is you) — we are going to try and make the application/funding process as streamlined as possible, with a minimum amount of red tape, if we can.

To explicitly invoke Civil Defense — with full recognition of its controversy, its complications, and its ups and downs — was, as I indicated earlier, a very deliberate move. I’m well aware it is a polarizing subject, and the looks my colleagues and friends have given me when I tell them the name of what we’re working on have been... interesting. But I think that approaching nuclear risk through this lens will be productive and stimulating, and I also think that we live in a time when it is time to re-think, and re-invent, our approaches to these issues. And I’m grateful the funders and our peer reviewers agreed!

I just want to finish this note by thanking my three collaborators (Ed, Julie, Kristyn), the Carnegie Corporation of New York (esp. Carl Robichaud), the members of our all-star Advisory Committee who agreed to have their names attached to such an unusual venture, the N Square Collaborative (esp. Erika Gregory, whose efforts at getting nuclear people to network outside of their normal groups are deeply reflected in the makeup of our Advisory Committee and our approach in general),  Alex Glaser at Princeton (whose team also got one of the grants, and who helpfully shared ideas and thoughts with me during the process), and my ever-supportive Dean, Kelland Thomas, who is not just an impressively capable administrator, but has some pretty impressive musical chops.

Rumbles from North Korea

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

This past week and this next week are the last of my winter break before the new semester starts, which in the true fashion of academia means I am more busy than I usually am trying to cram as much non-teaching "work" into every day as possible. North Korea's test of a nuclear weapon earlier this week, of course, just added to the workload. Thanks, Kim Jong-un. I am behind on my annual Nuclear History Bibliography, but it is coming, soon. NUKEMAP usage has been about 10X higher than normal — over 300,000 users last week.

New Yorker - An H-bomb by Any Other Name

I have written up a piece for the New Yorker's Elements blog on the historical-technical-political dimensions of calling something a "hydrogen bomb," or disputing it, that went up yesterday. I also talked a bit to Business Insider about how the true "Teller-Ulam design" of a thermonuclear weapon is not merely a single bomb design but an entire system of designing a getting of possible effects — so one ought not necessarily be expecting the North Koreans to make something that looks like Ivy Mike, Castle Bravo, or, god forbid, the Tsar Bomba. The North Koreans themselves, in their official statement (a wild read in and of itself), claimed that the "technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb" — a lot of little qualifications that seem to be saying, "we're trying for miniaturization, not high yields, and this was a scientific test of a principle, not of a full-yield warhead."

Given their strategic situation, a smaller bomb would make a whole lot more sense than something the size of a school bus. And I would note that the tendency to test all weapons at full power (or even more than the projected yield) is something that, while characteristic of the American program, is not necessarily the only way to do things. (The Soviets typically tested large bombs at half-power, on purpose.)

The seismic waveform of the North Korean test.

The seismic waveform of the 2016 North Korean nuclear test, as detected by a station in Mudanjian, China. Click here to listen to it rendered as audio. Source: Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology.

Which is just to say, I don't think we (at least those of us in the unclassified world) quite have enough information to really parse out what the North Koreans were trying to do in that test. The yield estimates coming out — ranging from 6 to 30 kilotons or so — don't sound like much, in and of themselves. But there's still a lot we don't know, and might not know.1

Somewhere in between hysterically overestimating North Korea's capabilities and smugly underestimating them is some sort of middle ground, a place where we need to acknowledge that this is 60-year-old technology, and the sheer technical difficulty alone is probably not going to stop them from becoming a fully-fledged nuclear power.

Notes
  1. And there are also ways to reduce the seismic signature of nuclear tests — like setting off a test in the cavern created by a previous test. It isn't clear what incentive North Korea would have in making their tests look smaller than they actually were, but, then again, there is much about their thinking that is not intuitive to those of us on the outside. So I'm not sure that's a likely scenario, but I don't think it can be ruled out as impossible. []

In Memoriam: Richard G. Hewlett (1923-2015)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Richard Greening Hewlett, the first official historian of the Atomic Energy Commission, has passed away at the age of 92.1

I never knew Hewlett, but nobody can work in this field without acknowledging the huge debt they owe him for his work. Hewlett began working for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1957, working to write a volume on the Manhattan Project and establishment of the AEC. In doing so he was also establishing the History Office of the AEC, which was dedicated to cataloguing and preserving these vital records. One of his greatest coups was discovering, entirely by chance, a locked safe in a basement of an AEC building that turned out to contain the Bush-Conant files relating to the creation of the atomic bomb, one of the most important document bases for any history of the Manhattan Project (and one which I have relied upon extensively).

Richard G. Hewlett, posing in 1958 with the Bush-Conant document collection.

Richard G. Hewlett, posing in 1958 with the Bush-Conant document collection.

Hewlett continued at his post through the abolishment of the AEC and the subsequent creations of its successors, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Department of Energy. He retired in 1980, and went on to co-found History Associates, one of the only private companies dedicated to doing serious historical work.

Hewlett's volumes on AEC history are extremely useful resources, and I end up citing them often. They can be tricky to work with, though, since Hewlett was not always able to cite his sources very precisely (on account of many of them being classified or kept internally), and the sort of "official historian" he was meant that he rarely strayed too far beyond the most "orthodox" versions of these histories (he was never courting controversy). I have found in many instances that when I look up a document that Hewlett cited, it turns out that he basically just paraphrased what the document said and presented that as what happened — and sometimes that is valid, sometimes that is not. Documents require their own contextualization, their own careful reading, to get the full story, and Hewlett's approach can feel a little naive in retrospect. It is an old-style of history, official or not.

Still, he was essentially carving out the first draft of this historical work, and approaching it seriously, and that required a Herculean effort in its own right, both in terms of collecting the source material and navigating the federal bureaucracy to get these histories published. In a 1997 interview with Public Historian, Hewlett described how Admiral Hyman G. Rickover essentially abused classification restrictions in order to force Hewlett to write a book on the nuclear Navy, with Rickover at the center of it. Hewlett ran into further complications later when he attempted to write about nuclear waste — a topic that does not make the AEC look extremely on top of things.2

I've read a number of narratives from public historians working with secret topics. It seems like a tricky prospect. Barton Hacker, who wrote on the history of radiation exposure and protection, told me that his security clearance rarely got him anything that wasn't basically already knowable from the "outside," and caused interminable difficulties when he tried to get things published that made anybody currently in office, or any still-existing agency, look anything but perfect. As he put it later, some bureaucrats "objected to what they called 'editorializing,' which seems to be the bureaucratic term for drawing conclusions."3

I have never wanted a security clearance, and would never accept one, for this reason. To learn something interesting but not to be able to tell anyone about it seems like a bad exchange. I want to know things, but I also want to tell things — storytelling is my profession, in a sense. To get a clearance means you are in an entirely different category from the perspective of a classifying agency, and even innocuous information that everybody knows can end up on the cutting-room floor. No thanks.

AEC histories, volumes 1-3

Hewlett's AEC histories are all scanned and online, posted in various archives by the US federal government, some on the Department of Energy's History Publications page. Because they are all in the public domain (they are all "work for hire" for the US government, which makes them uncopyrightable), and they are all out of print, I am going to mirror them here:

I find these scanned copies perhaps most useful of all, because they are searchable. The Hewlett volumes can be dull reads in places (he embodies a certain model of official historian that tries to keep up an appearance of "just the facts"), but they make excellent resources to run keyword searches through. It is too bad nobody has really tried to do one of these kinds of volumes for the final chapter of the AEC's history (1962-1974).4

The source note to The New World has one of my favorite lines about nuclear history and the reason why there are more resources that one might expect:

The records have survived. For this, scholars can thank two much-maligned practices of the bureaucracy: classification and multiple copies. Classified documents endure; they do not disappear from the files as souvenirs. As for copies in sextuplicate, their survival is a matter of simple arithmetic. If the original in one agency is destroyed, the chances are better than even that one of the five carbons will escape the flames in another.5

To this we must add that people like Hewlett took the time to track them down, catalogue them, and get them eventually transferred into repositories (like the National Archives and Records Administration, for all their difficulties). This final action, so crucial for the later historian, does not happen on its own. This may be Hewlett's greatest legacy in the end. The texts he wrote will inevitably be superseded by later works of history — but those superseding works will be utterly reliant on the preservation work he did, those acts of finding and saving and cataloging of the records. Rest in peace.

Notes
  1. I thank Stan Norris for bringing this to my attention. []
  2. Richard G. Hewlett and Jo Anne McCormick Quatannens, "Richard G. Hewlett: Federal Historian," The Public Historian 19, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 53-83,  esp. 73-77. []
  3. Barton C. Hacker, "Writing the History of a Controversial Program: Radiation Safety, the AEC, and Nuclear Weapons Testing," The Public Historian 14, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 31-53, on 45. []
  4. My favorite, detail-heavy books that cover the latter period of AEC history well are Brian Balogh's Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power 1945-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1991), and J. Samuel Walker's The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (University of California Press, 2009), though they only cover the power and waste aspects of it (as opposed to, say, the weapons angles). []
  5. Richard Hewlett and Oscar Anderson, A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume 1: The New World, 1939-1946 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), 657. []

“Nagasaki: The Last Bomb”

Friday, August 7th, 2015

This is just a quick place-holding note (a longer post on this will follow next week): I have an article up on the New Yorker's Elements blog about the bombing of Nagasaki, which took place 70 years ago this Sunday. Check it out: Nagasaki: The Last Bomb.

New Yorker - Nagasaki - The Last BombAnd a few other media appearances by yours truly from this crazy, busy week:

 

H-bomb headaches

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Once again, the US government has gotten itself into a bad situation over the supposed secret of the hydrogen bomb. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) censors demanded that the physicist Ken Ford heavily redact a manuscript he had written on the history of the hydrogen bomb. Ford, however, declined to do so, and you can buy the unexpurgated text right now on Amazon in Kindle format, and in hardback and paperback fairly soon.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ford was a young physicist working with John A. Wheeler during the 1950s, and so a lot of his book is a personal memoir. He is also (in full disclosure) the former head of the American Institute of Physics (my employer from 2011-2014), and I was happy to give him some assistance in the preparation of the manuscript, mainly in the form of tracking down declassified/unclassified sources relating to his story, and helped him get solid citations to them. Ken actually just recently came to Hoboken so we could iron out a few of the final citations in a Starbucks near my apartment. I knew he was having some issues with classification review, but I didn't know he was going to play it like this — I am impressed by his boldness at just saying "no" to DOE.

Nothing I saw in his work struck me as anything actually still secret. Which is not to say that it might or might not be officially classified — just that the technical information is much the same kind of technical information you can find in other, unclassified sources, like the books of Richard Rhodes and Chuck Hansen, and people on the web like Carey Sublette, among others. And therein lies the rub: is information still a secret if it is officially classified, even if it is widely available?

This has been a tricky thing for the government to adjudicate over the years. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (and its revisions) charges the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and later the Department of Energy, with regulating "restricted data" wherever it appears, wherever it comes from. According to the law, they don't have any choice in the matter. But over the years they changed their stance as to the best way to achieve this regulation.

One of the earliest decisions of the Lilienthal AEC was to adopt a "no comment" policy with regards to potentially sensitive information published by people unassociated with the nuclear weapons complex. Basically, if someone wanted to speculate on potentially classified topics — like the size of the US nuclear stockpile, or how nuclear weapons worked — the AEC in general would not try to get in their way. They might, behind the scenes, contact editors and publishers and make an appeal to decency and patriotism. (Sometimes this got expressed in a comical fashion: they would have "no comment" about one paragraph but not another.) But they generally did not try to use threat of prosecution as the means of achieving this end, because they felt, correctly, that censorship was too blunt an object to wield very effectively, and that telling someone on the outside of the government that they had hit upon classified information was tantamount to revealing a secret in and of itself.

Howard Morland then-and-now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

Howard Morland then and now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

There were a few instances, however, where this "no comment" policy broke down. The best-known one is the case of United States v. Progressive, Inc. in 1979. This is the famous case in which the DOE attempted to obtain (and was briefly granted) prior restraint against the publication of a magazine that claimed to contain the "secret of the hydrogen bomb," written by the journalist/activist Howard Morland. The DOE convinced a judge to grant a restriction on publication initially, but in the appeals process it became increasingly clear that the government's case was on fairly shaky grounds. They declared the case moot when the researcher Chuck Hansen had a paper on hydrogen bomb design published in a student newspaper — in this case, it looked like an obvious attempt to back out before getting a bad ruling. Morland's article appeared in print soon after and became the "standard" depiction of how the Teller-Ulam design works, apparently validated by the government's interest in the case.

In this case, the issue was about the most egregious incursion of the Atomic Energy Act into the public sphere: the question of whether the government could regulate information that it did not itself play a part in creating. The "restricted data" clause of the Atomic Energy Act (after which this blog is named) specifies that all nuclear weapons-related information is to be considered classified unless explicitly declassified, and makes no distinction about whether said information was created in a laboratory by a government scientist or anywhere else in the world by private citizens. Thus nuclear weapons information is "born secret" according to the law (unlike any other forms of controlled national defense information), which in cases like that of The Progressive puts it in direct conflict with the First Amendment.

Ford's book is something different, however. Ford was himself a government scientist and had a security clearance. This means he was privy to information that was most definitely classified as both "restricted data" and national defense information. He worked on Project Matterhorn B at Princeton, which was part of the hydrogen bomb effort in the early 1950s. He signed contracts that governed his behavior, both while working for the government and later. He agreed to let the government evaluate his work for classified information, and agreed he would not give away any classified information.

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

There is a historical parallel here, and a better one than the Progressive case. In 1950, the magazine Scientific American ran a series of articles about the hydrogen bomb. The first of these was by the gadfly physicist Louis Ridenour. Ridenour had no connection with nuclear weapons work and he could say whatever he wanted. But the second was by Hans Bethe, who was intimately involved with classified nuclear work. Bethe obviously didn't try to publish anything he thought was secret. But the AEC got several passages deleted from the article anyway.

The passages removed were extremely banal. For example, Bethe said that it seemed like they would need to use the deuterium-tritium reaction to achieve fusion. This level of basic information was already in the Ridenour article that was published a month before. So why delete it from the Bethe article? Well, because Bethe was connected with the government. If Ridenour says, "tritium is necessary," it doesn't mean that much, because Ridenour doesn't have access to secrets. If Bethe says it, it could be potentially understood by an adversary to mean that the deuterium-deuterium reaction isn't good enough (and it isn't), and thus that the Los Alamos scientists had found no easy short-cut to the H-bomb. So the same exact words coming out of different mouths had different meanings, because coming out of Bethe's mouth they were a statement about secret government research, and out of Ridenour's mouth they were not. The whole thing became a major publicity coup for Scientific American, of course, because there is no better publicity for a news organization than a heavy-handed censorship attempt.

I have looked over a lot of Ford's book. It's available on Amazon as a e-book, or as a PDF directly from the publisher. I haven't had time to read the entire thing in detail yet, so this is nothing like a formal review. The sections that I imagine drew the ire of the DOE concern some of the early thinking about how the Teller-Ulam design came about. This is an area where there is still a lot of historical ambiguity, because tracing the origins of a complex technical idea is not straightforward even without classification mucking things up. (I am working on a paper of this myself, and have a somewhat different interpretation than Ken, but that is really neither here nor there.)

Ken Ford Building the H-bomb

There's nothing that looks classified in Ken's work on this to me. There are references to things that generally don't show up in government publications, like "equilibrium conditions," but the existence of these kinds of technical issues are common in the open literature on thermonuclear weapons, and a lot of them are present in the related field of inertial confinement fusion, which was largely declassified in the late 1990s.1

So why is the DOE pent up over Ford? It is probably not an issue of the content so much as the fact that he is the one talking about it. It is one thing for an unaffiliated, uncleared person like me to say the words "equilibrium conditions" and talk about radiation implosion and tampers and cryogenic cooling of plutonium and things of that nature. It's another for a former weapons physicist to say it.

It's also related to the fact that because Ken was a former weapons physicist, they have to review his work. And they have to review it against their official guides that tell them what is technically secret and what is not. And what is allowed by the DOE to talk about is not the same thing about what people on the outside of the DOE do talk about. So, for example, this is pretty much most of what the DOE considers kosher about thermonuclear weapons:

  • The fact that in thermonuclear (TN) weapons, a fission “primary” is used to trigger a TN reaction in thermonuclear fuel referred to as a “secondary.” 
  • The fact that, in thermonuclear weapons, radiation from a fission explosive can be contained and used to transfer energy to compress and ignite a physically separate component containing thermonuclear fuel.  Note: Any elaboration of this statement will be classified.
  • Fact that fissile and/or fissionable materials are present in some secondaries, material unidentified, location unspecified, use unspecified, and weapons undesignated. 

Now you can find a lot more elaboration on these statements in the works of Chuck Hansen, Carey Sublette, and, hell, even Wikipedia these days. (Fun fact: Howard Morland, of The Progressive case, is an active Wikipedian and contributor to that page.) And in fact there is a lot that has been released by the government that does lend towards "elaboration" of these statements, because it is impossible to full compartmentalize all of this kind of information in such neat little boxes.

But the job of the DOE reviewer was to sit down with the guide, sit down with Ken's book, and decide what the guide said they had to do regarding the book. And in this case, it was about 10% of the book that the guide said they had to get rid of. And in this case, they are bound by the guide. Now, at a certain point, one has to say, if the guide is saying that lots of stuff that is already in Richard Rhodes' Dark Sun, published 20 years ago, still needs to be kept under lock and key, well, maybe the guide needs to be changed. But there is arguably something of a difference between Rhodes (an outsider) writing things, and Ford (an insider) writing the same things. But it's hard to see how any of this is going to matter with regard to national security today or in the future — it doesn't seem like these kinds of statements are going to be what enables or disables future proliferators from acquiring thermonuclear weapons.

"How institutions appear / how institutions are." From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

"How institutions appear / how institutions are." From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree. In this analogy, Ken is the beaver.

What's amazing, again, is not that the DOE told Ken to delete things from his book. That is somewhat expected given how the classification system works. What's amazing is that Ken told them to shove off and published it anyway. That doesn't happen so often, that a once-insider won't play ball. And it has no doubt put the DOE in a tough situation: they've set things up for a good story (like the one in the New York Times) about the silliness of government secrecy, and as a result have probably resulted in a lot of book sales that wouldn't have otherwise happened. In this case, their attempt at preserving some form of secrecy has certainly resulted in them just calling more attention to the work in question.

What can they do to Ken? Well, technically, they probably could prosecute him under the Atomic Energy Act, or potentially the Espionage Act. But I'm pretty sure they won't. It would be a public relations nightmare for them, would probably result in the release of even more information they deem sensitive, and Ken is no rogue agent. Which just goes to highlight one of the points I always make when I talk to people about secrecy: from the outside, it can look like government institutions are powerful and omnipotent with regards to classification. But they are usually weaker and more frail than they appear, because those who are bound by secrecy usually end up losing the public relations war, because they aren't allowed to participate as fully as those who are on the outside.

Notes
  1. The Teller-Ulam design is perhaps better called the Equilibrium Super, to distinguish it from the Non-Equilibrium "Classical" Super design. In a basic sense, it refers to the fact that they were trying to achieve conditions that would result in a lot of fusion all at once, as opposed to a traveling "wave" of fusion along a cylinder of fuel. []