Posts Tagged ‘1960s’

Redactions

The final switch: Goldsboro, 1961

Friday, September 27th, 2013

The threat of nuclear weapons accidents isn't a new one. Even in 1945, Los Alamos physicists sweated when contemplating all that could possibly go wrong with their bombs, if they went off at the wrong place or the wrong time. Or didn't go off at all. That's the bind, really: a nuclear state wants a weapon that always goes off exactly when you tell it to, and never goes off any other time. That's a hard thing to guarantee, especially when the stakes are so high in both directions, and especially since these two requirements can be directly in tension.

Schlosser - Command and Control book

I recently heard Eric Schlosser give that elegant formulation at a talk he gave last week in support of the release of his new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. I haven't had a chance to read the book, yet (it's currently en route), but I'm looking forward to it. I read Schlosser's Fast Food Nation a decade (!) ago and found it completely eye-opening. But I went to his talk last week not sure what to expect. From McDonald's to nuclear weapons accidents? Stranger things have happened, but I worried that maybe he would take the "easy" route with regards to the accidents, not bothering to learn to nitty-gritty technical details that let one talk about such things sensibly, or, at the very least, sensationalize the findings. So I was pretty pleased to find that neither seemed to be the case. Schlosser has seriously done his homework, spending 6 years digging through records, FOIAing documents, and interviewing weapons designers. His discussion of the risks seemed right on the mark so far as I could tell — they don't need to be exaggerated one bit to be perfectly horrifying. He answered questions expertly, even a tough, devil's-advocate one from Hugh Gusterson. So I've been looking forward to reading the full book.

Last week, the Guardian released a new document, obtained by Schlosser through a FOIA request, regarding one particular accident, the 1961 crash of a B-52 near Goldsboro, North Carolina, which resulted in the jettisoning of two Mark-39 hydrogen bombs. The document in question is a government nuclear expert's evaluation of a popular account of the Goldsboro accident, in which he finds some major errors (like overstating the yield of the bomb), but ultimately concludes that at least one of the bombs was, in fact, pretty damned close to accidental detonation: "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe ... It would have been bad news – in spades."

The bomb in question, stuck in the mud.

The bomb in question, stuck in the mud.

I've been watching how the above document has been discussed by people on the web. The most interesting response has been people saying, "I thought that bomb lacked a nuclear core?" You know that there have been too many nuclear weapons accidents when people start getting them confused with one another. The missing-bomb-that-maybe-lacked-a-core is the 1958 Tybee bomb, where a Mark-15 hydrogen bomb was lost near Savannah, Georgia. Different bomb, different day.

The other response I commonly saw was one that assumed that any such fears of a bomb going off accidentally were exaggerated. Now this is kind of an interesting response. For the one thing, they're discounting a contemporary, internal, once-classified evaluation made by a relevant expert. In exchange, they're parroting either general skepticism at the idea that a nuclear weapon could technically be unsafe, or they are parroting a standard line about how hard it is to set off an implosion bomb accidentally, because all of the lenses need to detonate at exactly the same time. Which is sometimes the right approach (though not all American bomb designs were "one-point safe" — that is, there were designs that ran a real risk of producing a nuclear yield even if just one of the explosive lenses accidentally fired), but in this case, it's entirely irrelevant, for reasons I'll explain below.

I've been in touch with Schlosser since the talk, and he shared with me a video he had (somehow) gotten his hands on produced by Sandia National Laboratory (the weapons lab that specializes in making bombs go off at just the right moment) about the Goldsboro accident. He's put it up on YouTube for me to share with you. It is only a few minutes long and worth the watch.

I love the CGI — "all the sudden, now that weapon system is free." The bomb looks so... liberated. And the part at the end, where they talk about how they had plenty of opportunities for future data, because there were so many accidents, is wonderfully understated. But the stuff that really hits you in your gut is the description of exactly what happened:

"All of the sudden now that weapon system [the Mk-39] is free. As the weapon dropped, power was now coming on, and the arming rods were pulled, the baroswitches began to operate.1 The next thing on the timing sequence was for the parachute to deploy. When it hit the ground, it tried to fire." "There was still one safety device that had not operated. And that one safety device was the pre-arming switch which is operated by a 28 volt signal." "Some people could say, hey, the bomb worked exactly like designed. Others can say, all but one switch operated, and that one switch prevented the nuclear detonation." "Unfortunately there had been some 30-some incidents where the ready-safe switch was operated inadvertently. We're fortunate that the weapons involved at Goldsboro were not suffering from that same malady."

What's amazing about the above, in part, is that everything in quotation marks is coming from Sandia nuclear weapons safety engineers, not anti-nuclear activists on the Internet. This isn't a movie made for public consumption (and I've been assured that it is not classified, in case you were wondering). It's a film for internal consumption by a nuclear weapons laboratory. So it's hard to not take this as authoritative, along with the other aforementioned document. Anyone who brushes aside such concerns as "hysterical" is going to have to contend with the fact that this is what the nuclear weapons designers tell themselves about this accident. Which is pretty disconcerting.

There are further details in another document sent to me by Schlosser, a previously-classified review of nuclear weapons accidents from 1987 that clarifies that one of the reasons the Goldsboro bomb in particular almost detonated was because of the way it was tossed from the aircraft, which removed a horizontally-positioned arming pin. That is, an arming pin was supposed to be in a position that it couldn't be removed accidentally, but the particulars of how violently the aircraft broke up as it crashed were what armed the bomb in question. The other bomb, the one whose parachute didn't fire, just had its HE detonate while it was in the mud. From the 1987 review:

Before the accident, the manual arming pin in each of the bombs was in place. Although the pins required horizontal movement for extraction, they were both on a lanyard to allow the crew to pull them from the cockpit. During the breakup, the aircraft experienced structural distortion and torsion in the weapons bay sufficient to pull the pin from one of the bombs, thus arming the Bisch generator.2 The Bisch generator then provided internal power to the bomb when the pullout cable was extracted by the bomb falling from the weapons bay. The operation of the baroswitch arming system,3 parachute deployment, timer operation,4 low and high voltage thermal batteries activation, and delivery of the fire signal at the impact by the crush switch all followed as a natural consequence of the bombing falling free with an armed Bisch generator. The nonoperation of the cockpit-controlled ready-safe switch prevented nuclear detonation of the bomb. The other bomb, which free-fell, experienced HE detonation upon impact. One of the secondary subassemblies was not recovered.5

The secondary subassembly is the fusion component of the hydrogen bomb. Normally I would not be too concerned with a lost secondary in and of itself, because bad folks can't do a whole lot with them, except that in this particular bomb, the secondary contained a significant amount of high-enriched uranium, and lost HEU is never a good thing. The government's approach to this loss was to get an easement on the land in question that would stop anyone from digging there. Great...

Mk-39 ready-safe switch

From the video, I was also struck by the picture of the ready-safe switch then employed. I'd never seen one of these before. Presumably "S" means "safe" and "A" means "armed." It looks ridiculously crude by modern standards, one little twirl away from being armed. This little electronic gizmo was all that stood between us and a four megaton detonation? That's a wonderful thing to contemplate first thing in the morning. Even the later switches which they show look more crude than I'd prefer — but then again, probably all 1950s and 1960s technology is going to look crude to a modern denizen. And again, just to reiterate, we're not talking about "merely" accidentally igniting the explosives on the primary bomb — we're talking about the bomb actually sending a little electrical charge through the firing circuit saying "Fire!" and starting the regular, full-yield firing sequence, stopped only by this little gizmo. A little gizmo prone to accidentally firing, in some of the bombs.

Lest you think that perhaps Sandia overstates it (which seems rather unlikely), take also the testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara into account. In January of 1963, McNamara explained at a meeting between the Defense and State Departments that he was opposed to Presidential pre-delegation of nuclear weapons in part because of the danger of accidental detonation — either ours or the Soviets'. In the meeting notes, posted some time back by the National Security Archive and forwarded to me by Schlosser, McNamara's participation is listed as follows:

Mr. McNamara went on to describe the possibilities which existed for an accidental launch of a missile against the USSR. He pointed out that we were spending millions of dollars to reduce this problem to a minimum, but that we could not assure ourselves completely against such a contingency. Moreover he suggested that it was unlikely that the Soviets were spending as much as we were in attempting to narrow the limits of possible accidental launch. He went on to describe crashes of US aircraft[,] one in North Carolina and one in Texas, where, by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.

This one's interesting because it embeds these accidents in a context as well — the possibility of either us, or the Soviets, accidentally launching a nuke and wondering if a full-scale nuclear exchange has to follow. It's not quite Strangelovian, since that would require a rogue commander, but it is very Fail-Safe.

As to what the Goldsboro blast would look like, the only time we tested this warhead at full yield was the shot "Cherokee" at Operation Redwing, in 1958. It was a pretty big boom, far more impressive than some of the Hiroshima shots that have been posted along with the Goldsboro story:

Redwing_Cherokee_005

And, of course, you can use the NUKEMAP to chart the damage. I've added the W-39 warhead to the list of presets in NUKEMAP2, using 4 megatons as the yield (the tested yield was 3.8 megatons, though the W-39 is often stated as an even 4. I rounded up, just because quibbling over 200 kilotons seemed pointless), and a fission fraction of 55%.6 It's a pretty big explosion, with a fallout plume capable of covering tens of thousands of square miles with hazardous levels of contamination (and nearly a thousand square miles with fatal levels). Note that the Cherokee test was a true airburst (the fireball didn't touch the ground), and so didn't generate any significant fallout. The Goldsboro bomb, however, was meant to operate on impact, as a surface burst, and would have created significant fallout.

Again, one doesn't have to exaggerate the risks to find it unsettling. The bomb didn't go off, that final switch thankfully did work as intended. But that's cold comfort, the more you learn about the accident. Our current nuclear weapons are much safer than the Mk-39 was, back in 1961, though Schlosser thinks (following the testimony of experts) there are still some unsettling aspects about several of our weapons systems. If we are going to have nukes, he reasons, we should be willing to spend whatever it costs to make sure that they'll be safe. That seems to me like an argument guaranteed to appeal to nobody in today's current political climate, with the left-sorts wanting no nukes and no modernization, and the right-sorts not really wanting to talk about safety issues. But I'll get to that more another day, once I've read the book.

If that bomb had gone off, we'd speak of "Goldsboro" as a grim mnemonic, in the same way that we do "Chernobyl" today. One wonders how that would have changed our approach to nuclear weapons, had the final switch not held strong.

Notes
  1. The "arming rods" were pull-out switches that would activate when the weapon left the bomb bay. The baro(meter) switches were pressure sensitive switches that would make sure the bomb was nearing the appropriate height before starting the next sequence of arming. In the World War II bombs, the next stage in the sequence would be to consult radar altimeters to check the precise distance from the ground. The Goldsboro bombs were set to go off on ground impact. []
  2. A Bisch generator, as the context implies, is an electrical pulse generator. []
  3. Again, a pressure-sensitive switch that tried to guarantee that the bomb was roughly where it was supposed to be. []
  4. Timer switches were often used to make sure that the bomb cleared the aircraft before seriously starting to arm. []
  5. R.N. Brodie, "A Review of the US Nuclear Weapon Safety Program - 1945 to 1986," SAND86-2955 [Extract] (February 1987). []
  6. Chuck Hansen, in his Swords of Armageddon, estimates that shots Cherokee and Apache of Operation Redwing had an average fission fraction of 55%, but isn't able to get it any more precise than that. Given what I've read about the bomb — that it used an HEU secondary, for example — I would expect it to be at least 55%, if not more. It seems like a pretty "dirty" weapon, emphasizing a big yield in a relatively small package over any other features. See Chuck Hansen, Swords of Armageddon, V-224 (footnote 325). []
Meditations | Visions

What the NUKEMAP taught me about fallout

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

One of the most technically difficult aspects of the new NUKEMAP was the fallout generation code. I know that in practice it looks like just a bunch of not-too-complicated ellipses, but finding a fallout code that would provide what I considered to be necessary flexibility proved to be a very long search indeed. I had started working on it sometime in 2012, got frustrated, returned to it periodically, got frustrated again, and finally found the model I eventually used — Carl Miller's Simplified Fallout Scaling System — only a few months ago.

The sorts of contours the Miller model produces.

The sorts of contours the Miller scaling model produces.

The fallout model used is what is known as a "scaling" model. This is in contrast with what Miller terms a "mathematical" model, which is a much more complicated beast. A scaling model lets you input only a few simple parameters (e.g. warhead yield, fission fraction, and wind speed) and the output are the kinds of idealized contours seen in the NUKEMAP. This model, obviously, doesn't quite look like the complexities of real life, but as a rough indication of the type of radioactive contamination expected, and over what kind of area, it has its uses. The mathematical model is the sort that requires much more complicated wind parameters (such as the various wind speeds and sheers at different altitudes) and tries to do something that looks more "realistic."

The mathematical models are harder to get ahold of (the government has a few of them, but they don't release them to non-government types like me) and require more computational power (so instead of running in less than a second, they require several minutes even on a modern machine). If I had one, I would probably try to implement it, but I don't totally regret using the scaling model. In terms of communicating both the general technical point about fallout, and in the fact that this is an idealized model, it does very well. I would prefer people to look at a model and have no illusions that it is, indeed, just a model, as opposed to some kind of simulation whose slickness might engender false confidence.

Fallout from a total nuclear exchange, in watercolors. From the Saturday Evening Post, March 23, 1963.

Fallout from a total nuclear exchange, in watercolors. From the Saturday Evening Post, March 23, 1963. Click to zoom.

Working on the fallout model, though, made me realize how little I really understood about nuclear fallout. I mean, my general understanding was still right, but I had a few subtle-but-important revelations that changed the way I thought about nuclear exchanges in general.

The most important one is that fallout is primary a product of surface bursts. That is, the chief determinant as to whether there is local fallout or not is whether the nuclear fireball touches the ground. Airbursts where the fireball doesn't touch the ground don't really produce fallout worth talking about — even if they are very large.

I read this in numerous fallout models and effects books and thought, can this be right? What's the ground got to do with it? A whole lot, apparently. The nuclear fireball is full of highly-radioactive fission products. For airbursts, the cloud goes pretty much straight up and those particles are light enough and hot enough that they pretty much just hang out at the top of the cloud. By the time they start to cool and drag enough to "fall out" of the cloud, they have diffused themselves in the atmosphere and also decayed quite a bit.1 So they are basically not an issue for people on the ground — you end up with exposures in the tenths or hundreds of rads, which isn't exactly nothing but is pretty low. This is more or less what they found at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — there were a few places where fallout had deposited, but it was extremely limited and very low radiation, as you'd expect with those two airbursts.

I thought this might be simplifying things a bit, so I looked up the fallout patterns for airbursts. And you know what? It seems to be correct. The radiation pattern you get from a "nominal" fission airburst looks more or less like this:

The on-side dose rate contours for the Buster-Jangle "Easy" shot (31 kilotons), in rads per hour. Notice that barely any radiation goes further than 1,100 yards from ground zero, and that even that is very low level (2 rads/hr).

The on-side dose rate contours for the Buster-Jangle "Easy" shot (31 kilotons), in rads per hour. Notice that barely any radiation goes further than 1,100 yards from ground zero, and that even that is very low level (2 rads/hr). Source.

That's not zero radiation, but as you can see it is very, very local, and relatively limited. The radiation deposited is about the same range as the acute effects of the bomb itself, as opposed to something that affects people miles downwind.2

What about very large nuclear weapons? The only obvious US test that fit the bill here was Redwing Cherokee, from 1956. This was the first thermonuclear airdrop by the USA, and it had a total yield of 3.8 megatons — nothing to sniff at, and a fairly high percentage of it (at least 50%) from fission. But, sure enough, appears to have been basically no fallout pattern as a result. A survey meter some 100 miles from ground-zero picked up a two-hour peak of .25 millirems per hour some 10 hours later — which is really nothing to worry about. The final report on the test series concluded that Cherokee produced "no fallout of military significance" (all the more impressive given how "dirty" many of the other tests in that series were). Again, not truly zero radiation, but pretty close to it, and all the more impressive given the megatonnage involved.3

Redwing Cherokee: big boom, but almost no fallout.

Redwing Cherokee: quite a big boom, but almost no fallout.

The case of the surface burst is really quite different. When the fireball touches the ground, it ends up mixing the fission products with dirt and debris. (Or, in the case of testing in the Marshall Islands, coral.) The dirt and debris breaks into fine chunks, but it is heavy. These heavier particles fall out of the cloud very quickly, starting at about an hour after detonation and then continuing for the next 96 hours or so. And as they fall out, they are both attached to the nasty fission products and have other induced radioactivity as well. This is the fallout we're used to from the big H-bomb tests in the Pacific (multi-megaton surface bursts on coral atolls was the worst possible combination possible for fallout) and even the smaller surface bursts in Nevada.

The other thing the new model helped me appreciate more is exactly how much the fission fraction matters. The fission fraction is the amount of the total yield that is derived from fission, as opposed to fusion. Fission is the only reaction that produces  highly-radioactive byproducts. Fusion reactions produce neutrons, which are a definite short-term threat, but not so much a long-term concern. Obviously all "atomic" or fission bombs have a fission fraction of 100%, but for thermonuclear weapons it can vary quite a bit. I've talked about this in a recent post, so I won't go into detail here, but just emphasize that it was unintuitive to me that the 50 Mt Tsar Bomba, had it been a surface burst, would have had much less fallout than the 15 Mt Castle Bravo shot, because the latter had some 67% of its energy derived from fission while the former had only 3%. Playing with the NUKEMAP makes this fairly clear:

Fallout comparisons

The darkest orange here corresponds to 1,000 rads/hr (a deadly dose); the slightly darker orange is 100 rads/hr (an unsafe dose); the next lighter orange is 10 rads/hr (ill-advised), the lightest yellow is 1 rad/hr (not such a big deal). So the 50 Mt Tsar Bomba is entirely within the "unsafe" range, as compared to the large "deadly" areas of the other two. Background location chosen only for scale!

The real relevance of all of this for understanding nuclear war is fairly important. Weapons that are designed to flatten cities, perhaps surprisingly, don't really pose as much of a long-term fallout hazard. The reason for this is that the ideal burst height for such a weapon is usually set to maximize the 10 psi pressure radius, and that is always fairly high above the ground. (The maximum radius for a pressure wave is somewhat unintuitive because it relies on how the wave will be reflected on the ground. So it doesn't produce a straightforward curve.) Bad for the people in the cities themselves, to be sure, but not such a problem for those downwind.

But weapons that are designed to destroy command bunkers, or missiles in silos, are the worst for the surrounding civilian populations. This is because such weapons are designed to penetrate the ground, and the fireballs necessarily come into contact with the dirt and debris. As a result, they kick up the worst sort of fallout that can stretch many hundreds of miles downwind.

So it's sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't sort of situation when it comes to nuclear targeting. If you try to do the humane thing by only targeting counterforce targets, you end up producing the worst sort of long-range, long-term radioactive hazard. The only way to avoid that is to target cities — which isn't exactly humane either. (And, of course, the idealized terrorist nuclear weapon manages to combine the worst aspects of both: targeting civilians and kicking up a lot of fallout, for lack of a better delivery vehicle.)

A rather wonderful 1970s fallout exposure diagram. Source.

A rather wonderful 1970s fallout exposure diagram. Source.

And it is worth noting: fallout mitigation is one of those areas were Civil Defense is worth paying attention to. You can't avoid all contamination by staying in a fallout shelter for a few days, but you can avoid the worst, most acute aspects of it. This is what the Department of Homeland Security has been trying to convince people of, regarding a possible terrorist nuclear weapon. They estimate that hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved in such an event, if people understood fallout better and acted upon it. But the level of actual compliance with such recommendations (stay put, don't flee immediately) seems like it would be rather low to me.

In some sense, this made me feel even worse about fallout than I had before. Prior to playing around with the details, I'd assumed that fallout was just a regular result of such weapons. But now I see it more as underscoring the damnable irony of the bomb: that all of the choices it offers up to you are bad ones.

Notes
  1. Blasts low enough to form a stem do suck up some dirt into the cloud, but it happens later in the detonation when the fission products have cooled and condensed a bit, and so doesn't matter as much. []
  2. Underwater surface bursts, like Crossroads Baker, have their own characteristics, because the water seems to cause the fallout to come down almost immediately. So the distances are not too different from the airburst pattern here — that is, very local — but the contours are much, much more radioactive. []
  3. Why didn't they test more of these big bombs as airdrops, then? Because their priority was on the experimentation and instrumentation, not the fallout. Airbursts were more logistically tricky, in other words, and were harder to get data from. Chew on that one a bit... []
Visions

The story behind the IAEA’s atomic logo

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Since my post last week was such a bummer, I thought I'd do something a little more fun and trivial today.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has, without much competition, the coolest logo of any part of the UN.1 Heck, I'll go so far as to say that they have the coolest logo of any atomic-energy organization in history. I mean, check this thing out:

IAEA flag

It's not only an atom, it's an atom with style. It's got a classic late-1950s/early-1960s asymmetrical, jaunty swagger. Those electrons are swinging, baby! This is an atom for love, not war, if you dig what I'm saying. An atom that knows how to have fun, even when it's doing serious business, like investigating your nuclear program. The James Bond of atoms.

The staid seal of the US Atomic Energy Commission cannot really compete for hipness, though it gets major nostalgia points and I love it dearly. The emblem of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is arguably the only real runner-up — check out that minimalism! Most worldwide atomic energy organizations/commissions have variously tacky rip-offs of the original AEC logo. The UK's Atomic Energy Authority gets props for having the least cool emblem of any atomic energy agency, and also the least obviously atomic (the little sun at the top, and the Latin, somewhat give it away). On the other hand, it's the only one that looks like it would be perfectly at home inside a Lewis Carroll book.

For awhile, I've been kind of obsessed with finding out who drew this thing. It looks remarkably similar to the aesthetic adopted by the Swiss designer Erik Nitsche, who did a lot of other groovy atomic posters for General Dynamics. This poster of Nitsche's from 1955 has similarly jaunty orbitals, though I don't think they're meant to be electrons:

But upon further investigation, I've not found any evidence that Nitsche was involved, sadly. In fact, all signs point to an anonymous staffer in the US State Department, but the story is a bit more fun than just that.

The IAEA was founded  in 1957 as the UN organization that would try to enact the "Atoms for Peace" plans of the Eisenhower administration. It wasn't yet the nuclear watchdog organization; that came later, with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its first head was W. Sterling Cole, a former US Congressman who had been a member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. From pretty much the very beginning, the IAEA started using a little atomic logo on its letterhead:

IAEA letterhead, July 1957

The first instance of this I've found is the above, dated July 1957 (though the document was published in August), which is the same time as the IAEA came into being, more or less. By October 1957 they were using a white-on-black approach but it was basically the same thing. An internal IAEA history chalks its creation up to someone within the US State Department or the US Atomic Energy Commission — which is another way of saying, they have no real idea, except that it seems to have come from America. Fair enough, I suppose, though looking at what the Atomic Energy Commission's own stab at an "Atoms for Peace" logo, I find it really unlikely that they had anything to do with it:

It's a pretty different aesthetic: that staid AEC atom (perfectly symmetrical), plus a dog's breakfast of other generic symbols (microscope! medicine! a gear! wheat!). It's a lousy emblem — it's messy, it's generic, and it has finicky details that wouldn't reproduce well at a small size, which means that it always looks too big.

Anyway, the first IAEA logo, as you can see, was a somewhat informal thing — it's not as stylized, and its lines aren't very confident, but the essence of the final emblem is there, hidden within it. It doesn't have little dots for electrons, and the asymmetry looks only somewhat intentional. They used this up until 1958 without anybody raising any fuss, and without formally adopting it.

But at some point in 1958, someone with just enough education to be dangerous noticed that their little peaceful atom had three electrons. What element has three electrons, typically? Lithium. What's lithium most associated with, in the area of atomic energy? Hydrogen bombs. Lithium deuteride is the main fusion fuel in hydrogen bombs. When the lithium nucleus absorbs a neutron, it turns into tritium and helium. Tritium and deuterium readily fuse. It's a nice little reaction — if you're a weapon designer. If you're an "Atoms for Peace" agency, it's a little more problematic. So someone — again, nobody seems to know who — flipped about this. An easy fix was proposed: add another electron! Then it's no longer lithium... it's beryllium. Let's all collectively ignore the fact that beryllium is also used in nuclear weapons, and is also fiendishly toxic, to boot. If they'd just added one more orbital, it would have made boron, which is a neutron absorber that keeps you from getting irradiated — a little more on target, but nobody asked me.

You can see the extra orbital somewhat crudely added to the original emblem in this backdrop at the Second Annual General Conference of the IAEA, from 1958:

They've also added little dots for the electrons, too. The version above is somewhat wildly, problematically asymmetrical — the orbitals don't intersect well in the upper-left corner at all.

Once they started messing with it, though, things got a little out of control. Why stop with just another electron? Now here's the part where I can clearly see an American governmental influence... they started mucking it up. To quote from that IAEA internal history I referenced before:

Once the process of altering the emblem had started, further suggestions were made and soon a design evolved in which the central circle had been expanded into a global map of the world and five of the eight loops formed by the ellipses contained respectively: a dove of peace with an olive branch; a factory with smoking chimneys and surcharged with a train of three gear wheels; a microscope; two spears of grain; and finally a caduceus, to symbolise respectively the peaceful, industrial, research, agricultural and medicinal uses of atomic energy.2

If that isn't the most god-awful design-by-committee creation, what is? Another fun fact: they made it gold.

I'd love to show you a version of that one, but I can't find a copy of it. It sounds wonderfully awful. The helpful folks at the IAEA archive have been unable to track down a drawing of it — at least, within as much energy as they are willing to expend on such a folly, which is understandably limited. I've gone over every image I could find from the time period looking for a picture of it. No dice. But, just to have some fun, here is a "creative interpretation" of the above, which I have myself drawn up for you:

IAEA 1958 logo (artist's interpretation)

Ah, but they didn't stop there. Cole, the IAEA Director General, apparently enjoyed this enough that he had the new emblem printed in gold on a blue flag, and put it up above the United Nations flag outside of the Third General Conference of the IAEA in 1959.

Apparently in UN-world, this was seen as a major scandal. A representative of the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, saw it, flipped out, and had it immediately removed. And it was never seen again. 

Shortly after this flap, it was decided that perhaps they ought to have a formal procedure before creating their emblem. They rolled back all of the modifications except the extra orbital, and cleaned up the layout a bit, and added a set of olive leaves to match the UN flag. On April 1, 1960, this finalized emblem was adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors, in a document that the IAEA archives folks were willing to dig up for me and post online:

INFCIRC/19 - The Agency's Emblem and Seal

As with all things, we're left with the final product and generally no indication that there was a process to get to it. But, as with all things, there is a process: there is a history. Emblems don't just pop out of nowhere fully formed, just as institutions, organizations, and policies always have to follow a messy path when coming into existence. The emblem, aside from being a piece of natty graphic design, is one of those typical organizational by-products. Somebody started drawing it, not knowing what it was, and they'll continue drawing it forever just because... with a slight detour to make it especially ugly after having found a conceptual problem in their original, ad hoc, implementation.

Anyone who has dabbled in graphic design will also recognize this process. You start with half an idea, one imbued with a germ of goodness inside it, somewhere. You try to elaborate on the idea, inevitably making things worse temporarily  Finally, scaling things back, you return to the original, and find that beautiful thing that was hiding in it all along, just out of sight. The snazzy, modern emblem wasn't achieved on the first go round — it had to pass through design hell before its potential for good could really emerge.

UPDATE (9/2014): The ugly logo has been located! Read all about it here.

Notes
  1. Technically the IAEA is autonomous from the UN though under its aegis. []
  2. Paul C. Szasz, "The Law and Practices of the International Atomic Energy Agency," [IAEA] Legal Series No. 7 (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 1970), 1001-1002. []
Meditations

Doomsday on the Cheap

Friday, January 4th, 2013

One of the really salient issues about nuclear weapons is that they are expensive. There's just no way to really do them on the cheap: even in an extremely optimized nuclear weapons program, one that uses lots of dual-use technology bought off-the-shelf, to make a nuclear weapon you need some serious infrastructure.

A piece of gold the weight of Little Boy would have cost between $5 and $6 million in 1945. The fissile material for Little Boy cost well over $1 billion. So it would actually have been a pretty good bargain at the time if Little Boy had cost its weight in gold. Also, I knew that making a highly-realistic model of Little Boy in Blender would come in handy someday.

A piece of gold the weight of Little Boy would have cost between $5 and $6 million in 1945. The fissile material for Little Boy cost well over $1 billion. So it would actually have been a pretty good bargain at the time if Little Boy had cost its weight in gold. Also, I knew that making a highly-realistic model of Little Boy in Blender would come in handy someday.

That's not to say that you need to redundantly overspend as much as the Manhattan Project did, or the US did during the Cold War, but even "cheap" nuclear weapons programs are pretty costly. There are a few multinational corporations that could probably pull it off if they were given carte blanche with the technology, but basically you're talking about a weapon that is made for, and by, states. (I'm not, of course, ignoring the possibility of hijacking someone else's infrastructural investments, which is another way to think about theft of fissile material.)

Solid gold B61s aside, this is a good thingIt actually makes nuclear weapons somewhat easy to regulate. I know, I know — the history of trying to control the bomb isn't usually cited as one of the great successes of our time, but think about how much harder it would be if you couldn't spot bomb factories? If every university physics department could build one? If they were really something you could do, from scratch, in an old airstream trailer?

Herman Kahn, 1968, by John Loengard, via Google's LIFE image archive

Herman Kahn, the great thinker of unthinkable thoughts, has a bit about the relationship between cost and doomsday in his 1965 book On Escalationwhich a someone in the audience of a talk I gave last month helpfully sent along to me:1

Assume that it were possible to manufacture a "doomsday machine" from approximately $10 worth of available materials. While it might be "unthinkable" that the world would be destroyed by such a "doomsday machine," it would also be almost inevitable. The only question would be: Is it a matter of minutes, hours, days, months, or years? About the only conceivable way of preventing such an outcome would be the imposition of a complete monopoly upon the relevant knowledge by some sort of disciplined absolutist power elite; and even then one doubts that the system would last.2

If the price of the "doomsday machine" went up to a few thousand, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars, this estimate would not really be changed. There are still enough determined men in the world willing to play games of power blackmail, and enough psychopaths with access to substantial resources, to make the situation hopeless.

If, however, the cost of "doomsday machines" were several millions or tens of millions of dollars, the situation would change greatly. The number of people or organizations having access to such sums of money is presently relatively limited. But the world's prospects, while no longer measured by the hour hand of a clock, would still be very dark. The situation would improve by an order of magnitude if the cost went up by another factor of 10 to 100.

It has been estimated that "doomsday" devices could be built today for something between $10 billion and $100 billion. [Multiply that by 10 for roughly current price in USD]3 At this price, there is a rather strong belief among many, and perhaps a reasonably well-founded one, that the technological possibility of "doomsday machines" is not likely to affect international relations directly. The lack of access to such resources by any but the largest nations, and the spectacular character of the project, make it unlikely that a "doomsday machine" would be built in advance of a crisis; and fortunately, even with a practical tension-mobilization base, such a device could not be improvised during a crisis.

In other words, since Doomsday Machines are phenomenally expensive, and thus only open as options to states with serious cash to spend (and probably serious existing infrastructures), the odds of them being built, much less used, are pretty much nil. Hooray for us! (Nobody tell Edward.) But as you slide down the scale of cheapness, you slide into the area of likelihood — if not inevitability — given how many genuinely bad or disturbed people there are in the world.

Cost and control go hand-in-hand. Things that are cheap (both in terms of hard cash as well as opportunity cost, potential risk of getting caught, and so on) are more likely to happen, things that are expensive are not. The analogy to nuclear weapons in general is pretty obvious and no-doubt deliberate. Thank goodness H-bombs are expensive in every way. Too bad that guns are not, at least in my country.

But area where I start really thinking about this is biology. Check out this graph:

Cost of sequencing a human-sized genome, 2001-2012. From the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Cost of sequencing a human-sized genome, 2001-2012. From the National Human Genome Research Institute.

This graph is a log chart of the cost of sequencing an entire human genome, plotted over the last decade or so. Moore's Law is plotted in white — and from 2001 through the end of 2007, the lines roughly match. But at the beginning of 2008, sequencing genomes got cheap. Really cheap. Over the course of four years, the cost dropped from around $10 million to about $10,000. That's three orders of magnitude. That's bananas. 

I was already reeling at this graph when I saw that Kathleen Vogel has a very similar chart for DNA synthesis in her just-published book, Phantom Menace or Looming Danger?: A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons Threats (John Hopkins University Press, 2012). (I haven't had a chance to read Kathleen's book yet, but flipping through it, it is pretty fascinating — if you are interested in WMD-related issues, it is worth picking up.)

Everything regarding the reading and writing of DNA is getting phenomenally cheap, really quickly. There's been a blink-and-you-missed-it biological revolution over the last five years. It's been caused by a relatively small number of commercial players who have made DNA sequencing into an automated, computer-driven, cheap process.4 It will probably hit some kind of floor — real-world exponential processes eventually do — but still.

I don't have anything much against DNA sequencing getting cheap. (There are, of course, implications for this, but none that threaten to destroy the world.) DNA synthesis makes me pause — it is not a huge step from DNA synthesis to virus synthesis, and from there to other bad ideas. But as Kathleen emphasizes in her book (and in talks I've seen her give), it's not quite as easy as the newspapers make out. For now. We're still probably a few decades away from your average med school student being able to cook up biological weapons, much less biological Doomsday Machines, in a standard university research laboratory. But we're heading down that road with what seems to me to be alarming speed.

Don't get me wrong — I think the promises of a cheap revolution in biology are pretty awesome, too. I'd like to see cancer kicked as much, and maybe even more, than the next guy. I'm not anti-biology, or anti-science, and I'm not in fan of letting a purely security-oriented mindset dominate how we make choices, as a society. I don't necessarily think secrecy is the answer when it comes to trying to control biology — it didn't really work with the bomb very well, in any case. But I do think the evangelists of the new biology should treat these sorts of concerns with more than a knee-jerk, "you can't stop progress" response. I'm all in favor of big breakthroughs in medicine and biology, but I just hope we don't get ourselves into a world of trouble by being dumb about prudent regulation.

What disturbs me the most about this stuff is that compared to the best promises and worst fears of the new biology, nuclear weapons look easy to control. The bomb was the easy case. Let's hope that the next few decades don't give us such a revolution in biology that we inadvertently allow for the creation of Doomsday Machines on the cheap.

Notes
  1. Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (Transaction Publishers, 2010 [1965]), 227-228. []
  2. Note the implicit connection here between knowledge and the importance of cheapness — when materials are cheap, knowledge becomes everything. Or, to put it another way, this is why computer viruses are everywhere and atomic bombs are not. []
  3. Here he cites his own On Thermonuclear War, page 175, but in the copy I have, it is page 145, footnote 2: "While I would not care to guess the exact form that a reasonably efficient Doomsday Machine would take, I would be willing to conjecture that if the project were started today [1960] and sufficiently well supported one could have such a machine by 1970. I would also guess that the cost would be between 10 and 100 billion dollars." $10 billion USD in 1960, depending on the conversion metric you use, is something in the neighborhood of 100 billion dollars today, with inflation. []
  4. I thank my friend Hallam Stevens for cluing me in on this. His work is really must-read if you want to know about the computerized automation of sequencing work. []
Visions

A glove box Christmas tree

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

Well, it's not actually a glove box, but it's meant to approximate one, I think. Decorating a tree, Hanford-style:

Hanford glove box Christmas tree

The photo was taken at the Hanford Science Center in the 1960s, and was from an exhibit probably meant to illustrate how dextrous the remote-handling equipment was.

But let's imagine it's a real glove box, and that the tree is dangerously radioactive. Just for fun, and in the spirit of Christmas cheer. 

Happy Holidays, from Restricted Data!