Posts Tagged ‘1980s’


Elusive Centrifuges

Friday, June 1st, 2012

To round off this week of centrifuges, I thought we might actually look at a few of them. Photographs of real-life enrichment technologies are not too common. You can find quite a number of pictures floating around of Calutron (electromagnetic enrichment) technology from World War II, but that's because the United States decided pretty early on that Calutrons weren't too sensitive. (Rightly or wrongly; just because they are inefficient doesn't mean they don't work. Iraq famously pursued Calutron technology during its pre-1991 nuclear program; the major technical snag seemed to be that somebody bombed the facilities.)

But gaseous diffusion? Laser enrichment? Aerodynamic enrichment? Not so much, beyond photographs of BIG buildings or very schematic conceptual diagrams. With centrifuges, though, there are some images from a variety of time periods and sources. As I mentioned on Monday, you can find some pretty nifty Zippe-type centrifuge photographs in old research reports from the 1950s that the Department of Energy still hosts pretty accessibly. These are kind of amazing, given how they more or less disassemble the devices in what looks like a pretty helpful fashion.

"Scoop assembly for handling gas inside the rotor and parts of rotor." (1959)

"Molecular pump and rotor." (1959)

...and so on with the "powdered magnetic core, completed stator, and driven end of rotor showing steel plate and supporting needle," and "upper magnetic bearing, rotor, and top of scoop assembly," and even a nice little one of the rotors mounted up for stress testing. Interesting that these things are out there — especially when the CIA apparently decided, in 2003, that showing rotors of pre-1991 Iraqi centrifuges was too sensitive to put up on the web (after they had already put them up for awhile).

There are a few photos of URENCO centrifuge plants from Europe, but not as many as you'd think from a venture whose corporate slogan is "enriching the future." I'm partial to this gold-tinted one that's been floating around the web for awhile; it looks like Scrooge McDuck was the contractor (but I'm pretty sure it's just the lighting — other images I've seen show them to be silvery):

It's hard to get a sense of scale from cascade photos like this, though.

In the early 1980s, the United States' DOE built a prototype centrifuge plant at Piketon, Ohio, but abandoned it by 1985. Much more recently (the 2000s) the private United States Enrichment Corporation took over the site and has been building a demonstration plant on it. What's interesting about these centrifuges is that they are of a different model than the previous ones; the "American centrifuge" is a colossally large design. (The fact that they have to label them as "American" is a nice reflection of the fact mentioned on Monday that the US lost its initiative in developing centrifuges. We don't have the "American" gaseous diffusion method or the "American" electromagnetic method.)

The 1980s Piketon photos are pretty impressive. These are from the DOE Digital Archive:

The last one really gives you the sense of scale with those suckers — they are huge!

The current Piketon plant looks pretty similar. USEC has a few photos on their own website:

I find these less inspiring, photographically, than the ones from the 1980s, but they look like the same centrifuges. The length here — some 12 meters long — is functional, and not just an example of the Supersize-Me American culture.  The "American centrifuge" is much more efficient than the other models currently being used, apparently.

Now, all of the above is sort of interesting, but is just something of a prelude for the next batch of photos. In April 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an official visit to the Natanz site, one of Iran's controversial centrifuge facilities. Surprisingly, his office took several dozen photos of the visit and posted them on the official Presidential website. These have been a goldmine for wonky types wanting to understand Iran's centrifuge developments, and have, of course, served as the illustrations for half a million articles about Iran and the bomb since then. A few of my favorites:

The last one I like because of a small, easy-to-miss detail: you can see one of the blue IAEA safeguard cameras above Ahmadinejad's head. The blue box is a sealed case inside which the video camera is locked, and the closed-circuit camera feed is beamed back to IAEA headquarters in real-time (so I gather). (A correspondent e-mailed to say that at the plant in question, a pilot plant, the cameras aren't real-time — they just stored the footage for the IAEA to pick up, which is every other week or so. I thought I had heard somewhere that they were real-time, but I can't remember where. They do have real-time monitoring in their plants that can do up to 20% enrichment, though.)

Given how relatively few photos there are of centrifuges floating around, why did Iran post so many on its Presidential website? I think the message is pretty clear, personally: they are trying to demonstrate a lack of anything to hide. If the centrifuge program isn't "secret," then it isn't scary, right?

Of course, the obvious rejoinder to this is that they are of course being selective about what they show. Such is the nature of any kind of publicity like this. You show a little, to show that you aren't secretive, but of course, you do hold things back. Whether that holding back violates the NPT or the Additional Protocol and so forth is a question for another day. But I'm always fascinated by the theatre of "transparency," which has — since the early days of the bomb — been part of maintaining nuclear secrecy. Secrecy has never just been about holding things back: it has always been a game of simultaneously withholding and releasing, of giving a little so you can hold back a lot.

How do we distinguish between genuine transparency and transparency in the name of secrecy? That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? Because when you get it wrong, you get a situation like Iraq: trying to prove a negative (that they didn't have active WMD programs hidden away) turned out to be an impossible job (not because it is inherently impossible, but because of the various political and organizational forces stacked against the attempt). One can distinguish between the two in retrospect — once you've actually dismantled the country and its programs and whatnot — but that's disturbingly too late.


Visualizing the Stockpile

Friday, May 11th, 2012

How does one make visual sense out of the size of the nuclear stockpile?

On paper it's just a number. Or a lot of numbers, if you're talking about it historically. Or even more numbers, if you're concerned with things like delivery platforms, megatonnage, or megadeaths, what have you.

It's easy to make visual sense of one or two bombs. A few hundred is still within the realm of sensible representation. But thousands?

The standard method for awhile has been to use a graph showing stockpile sizes over time. In 2010, the Department of Defense declassified the size of the stockpile (present and historical) and included a rather ugly graph show its change over time:

I don't want to pick on the DOD, but whoever made this graph could use a little more Edward Tufte in their lives. Beautiful evidence it ain't. Why is it in pseudo-3D? Come on, guys, this is "How to Make a Chart 101": don't use 3D unless there's a really compelling reason to.

This is itself a variation on a graphic tendency that, as far as I can tell, only began as recently as the early 1980s. NGOs like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) began making systematic stockpile estimates around this time. Their original 1984 Nuclear Weapons Databook featured what I believe is one of the first attempts to give something of a comprehensive graph of past US nuclear warheads:1

Here's a more updated version of the NDRC historical stockpiles graph, something you've probably seen variants of before:

This is a sensible way to show historical trends, of course. But as a graphic representation of complicated information, it can be misleading as well.

For example, these graphs just show warheads. Warheads, by themselves, do not really represent the full nuclear threat. Yes, they're a big part of it! But one wouldn't realize from such a graph that by the early 1960s, even though the USSR had thousands of warheads, it didn't have really great ways to get them to the United States.

And not all warheads are the same — the huge apparent advantage of the USSR/Russia in terms of nuclear arms in the late Cold War is mostly tactical nuclear weapons. (So is the huge ramp-up in the US arsenal before it levels off.) Some warheads are "small" — under a kiloton — and some are massive, region-destroying monsters. In a graph like this, though, they're all just numbers. Even if you do add in separate lines for them (as in the original NDRC graph, and in many of their nation-specific graphs), it still doesn't quite convey what kind of nuclear world we're talking about.

There have been alternative visualizations. One which features prominently in another 1980s product, William Bunge's wildly unusual Nuclear War Atlas (worthy of its own posting at a later point), is what we might call a "dot graph" showing relative total megatonnage:2

This would be a little more useful to the expert if we were given some kind of numerical equivalent (I think the dots are about 2Mt each, and I'm not sure if this is meant to be the world arsenal or the US arsenal), but, in any case, it's a striking attempt to make visible the power of said weapons. It is, of course, not historical — it represents a specific moment in the history of the nuclear arsenal.

I bring all this up as a prelude to talking about another visualization which has been floating around the Internet this week, a visualization of the world nuclear arsenals by Andrew Barr and Richard Johnston of the National Post:

The dataset this is based on is from the Federation of American Scientists, who seems to have inherited the NDRC's old mission (and dataset) of making these kinds of estimates.

It's a cool graphic, and not a representation style I've seen before. What they're showing, here, are strategic launchers — not warheads — represented by little pictures of the weapons in question. This does two things that I like very much: it gets away from focusing just on warheads, and it also makes them feel more "tangible."

Warheads are important. They shouldn't be ignored. But if the worst were to happen, it's the launchers that are going to be what causes all the damage. The warheads stashed in a cave somewhere are politically important, and important from a safeguards and security perspective, but they're not part of the immediate calculus of nuclear war.

I like representing these as discrete entities, as opposed to just a line on a graph, or just a number. 1,379 launchers — the US estimate — doesn't sound that big in any of itself. And if you look at it historically, like the NDRC warhead graphs, it's hard not to see that as a huge improvement over the situation in the Cold War! But when you draw each of them out individually, and know that each of them has essentially a city-destroying, megadeath-creating consequence, it suddenly looks like quite a lot indeed

I also like that even the "small" arsenals of the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel, look pretty large enough when you draw them out this way.

And putting the poor little Earth at the center was a stroke of graphic genius. If the missiles were lined up in a row, pointing at the sky, it might be possible to see them as a sign of safety or security. But they're pointed at a tiny, vulnerable planet. They're pointed at all of us.

(Which is not actually an exaggeration. Even regional nuclear wars would be global in consequences. Anyone who thinks that it would be fine to let India and Pakistan blow themselves to hell should read this article. As with all expert estimates and simulations, there are those who will quibble with it one way or another, but it seems like reason enough to think that we're all in the same boat on this.)

There are, of course, issues to be taken with it. One that the authors acknowledge is MIRVs — putting more than one warhead on each missile. My understanding is that under the various arms control treaties, we don't actually do a whole lot of that these days (certainly not the maximum "12 warheads per missile" for some of them), but it's still worth noting that some of these missiles actually contain two or three nuclear weapons each — which multiplies the total destruction significantly. The authors do note this.

Another is that these are only strategic weapons — that is, the big bombs meant to be used only in the event of total nuclear war, destroying whole cities, etc. Lacking are tactical weapons — the little bombs that states might actually be tempted to use in local conflicts, blowing up bunkers, etc. The problem is that it's hard to get a handle on tactical weapons, as David Hoffman recently wrote, and ignoring them has consequences.

Furthermore, there is a lot of fuzziness in estimating actual launcher types. From this graph alone, you'd think that the USA was the only country that still used atomic bombs dropped from airplanes, and that everyone else used exclusively missiles. But that's probably not the case — all estimates about the Indian, Pakistani, and Israeli programs are very fuzzy, and it's likely that some of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal is delivered through gravity bombs as well.

Anyway, I'll concede that some of these are nit-picky, wonky points. On the whole, I think this new visualization is a great success: it actually conveys some realistic, wonky technical information in a way that your average Internet user can make sense of and recognize as being relevant to the world they live in, without wildly distorting the facts very much. That's not an easy thing to do!

  1. Thomas B. Cochran, William M. Arkin, and Milton M. Hoenig, Nuclear Weapons Databook: Volume I: U.S. Nuclear Forces and Capabilities (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing, 1984), on 14. []
  2. William Bunge, Nuclear War Atlas (New York, N.Y.: Blackwell, 1988), on 12. []

Nevada Test Site’s “Arnold” OPSEC Videos

Friday, April 20th, 2012

"OPSEC" is governmentspeak for "operations security." In practice, OPSEC programs are usually devoted to coming up with creative ways to  remind employees to keep secrets, and investigate breeches of secrecy. Google Ngrams suggests the term was birthed in the mid-1970s or so, and has proliferated since then. In the earlier Cold War, these functions were just dubbed "Security" by the Atomic Energy Commission.

"Silence Means Security" — Cold War "OPSEC" billboard from Hanford Site. (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)-

The media output is of course what I find most interesting — the ways in which employees, in the name of OPSEC, are cajoled, and often threatened, into maintaining strict cultures of secrecy. This sort of activity is a common and integral part of a secrecy system, because if you aren't "disciplining" the employee (to invoke a little Foucault) into acting contrary to the way they are accustomed to, the whole thing becomes as leaky as a sieve. It's not a new thing, of course, and we've already seen a few historical examples of this on the blog.

Sometimes it is done well — strong message, strong artistic execution. And sometimes... it is done less well.

The DOE OPSEC logo from the Arnold OPSEC era. "Propugnator causae" is something like, "Defender of the Cause."

In the category of "less well" falls a series of OPSEC videos the DOE Nevada Operations Office put together in what looks like the late 1980s or early 1990s, featuring the hapless character "Arnold OPSEC." They are little film clips (non-animated) demonstrating poor, dumb Arnold OPSEC as he accidentally divulges classified information through clumsy practices.

The DOE has helpfully put all of these online for your viewing pleasure. A few of my favorites follow. (You will probably need QuickTime Player to view these.)

Arnold goes jogging (and blabbing) with his "new friends," who happen to be Soviet spies! D'oh!

Arnold gets a cell phone the size of his head and uses it to blab about secrets while driving his sports car.

Arnold uses an "airfone" on a plane, brags how important he is to his girlfriend, and nefarious terrorists hear him, and then hijack the plane and keep him as an important hostage. Sometimes your days just don't work out.

Arnold gives a tour of Nevada Test Site, and tells a bunch of obvious-shady visitors (check out those evil eyebrows) things he shouldn't, so his supervisor (who is mysteriously missing legs) dresses him down.

Arnold takes work home to use on his new-fangled PC and modem service, "Prodigy," and accidentally posts it all onto the new-fangled Internet. (And you thought WikiLeaks was a new thing!)

Arnold irritates everyone at the office by publishing their birth dates and Social Security Numbers. "Arnold just doesn't realize the kinds of information that can be considered sensitive!" Arnold is both a leak and a jerk.

"Help make our security a sure-thing. Don't gamble with OPSEC." I find this one very perplexing. It's not a real situation. It's a metaphor, you know? Arnold is gambling with OPSEC, and hit the jackpot of, um, espionage. Then he is being served little black men by a blond woman whose dimpled rear has received a little too much artistic attention. So don't, um, do any of that. Got it?

It's a recurrent theme in these that new-fangled technology is the result of a lot of leaks. The Information Age did create a lot of challenges for places where information flow was meant to be restricted, not encouraged. Still, I can't help but feel sorry for the poor employees who must have been forced to sit through these scoldings.


Atomic TIME (Magazine)

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Time magazine has featured the bomb on its covers regularly over the years, and its cover archives are actually searchable online. Some of them are pretty iconic, others are just plain weird. Below are a few of my favorites, annotated and in chronological order.

First on the list, chronologically and thematically, is the July 1, 1946 issue featuring Albert Einstein ("All matter is speed and flame") and a mushroom cloud (which is interestingly an amalgam of the Trinity and the Nagasaki clouds) across which, amazingly, "E=mc2" is emblazoned. This is visually fascinating for at least two reasons: 1. Einstein = E=mc2 = the atomic bomb! Has the connection between theoretical physics and nuclear weapons ever been stated in a graphically more oversimplified way? 2. Einstein is wearing a suit! This might not sound very exciting, but consider that in both of Einstein's two other Time covers from his lifetime (19291938), he was exclusively wearing pajamas. Because that's what kooky, head-in-the-clouds theoretical physicists do, right? Until the bomb comes along, and then they get serious and put on a tie. (And shortly thereafter, the FBI shows up.)

Next we have our good buddy J. Robert Oppenheimer ("What we don't understand, we explain to each other"), from November 8, 1948. Here we essentially have the emblematic physicist-of-the-state — a concerned, serious, well-dressed man surrounded by an ocean of equations. The drawing of Oppenheimer (which is on display in the National Portrait Gallery, I can attest) captures his likeness well (compare with this Eisenstaedt photo, which is very similar), and also captures the ice-blue cool of his eyes (something which is not evident in the black and white photos of him, but can be seen in some photos of him when he was elderly). But moreover, it is a stunning contrast to the Oppenheimer depicted in 1954, just after losing his security clearance, who looks drawn and severe. Also note that when Edward Teller got his Time cover, in 1957, the visual scheme was essentially identical. I like to see this parallel as signifying, in a clean, visual way, Oppenheimer's decline and Teller's ascent as the model of what it meant to be a "government scientist" in the early Cold War. Both of these covers are framed in my office — the Yin and Yang of the early atomic age.

There are a lot of other "atomic portrait" photos — David Lilienthal (1947) and a flaming electric horse; Gordon Dean (1952) with a mushroom-cloud periodic table; Lewis Strauss (1953) with a searing radioactive sun, Archbishop Bernadin (1982) using his papal powers to bombard you with ICBMs and doves, just to pick a few creative ones — but none of them "do it for me" as much as the Oppenheimer one does.

The cover for the April 12, 1954, issue of Time is easy to underestimate. It's clearly recognizable as the mushroom cloud from the first hydrogen bomb test, Ivy Mike, from November 1952. But it's being shown in April 1954, not long after the Castle Bravo testing accident (in which an island of Marshallese and a Japanese fishing boat, along with a considerable amount of fish in the Pacific Ocean, were irradiated). Why didn't they put this on the cover in 1952? Because the test was secret, and images from it weren't widely released until April 1954. So even though it was a year and a half late, it still had a lot of symbolic relevance. And notice that Time chose not to depict it in color, but instead went with an austere black, white, and red scheme. (Life magazine also featured an Ivy Mike image on the cover that week, but chose the fireball instead of the cloud.)

Click here to see the rest of them.


Classified Cover Sheets, Then and Now

Friday, December 16th, 2011

"Cover sheets" are pieces of paper that you put on top of a folder to indicate its classification status. They presumably exist to allow people with clearances to know, at a glance, what the highest level of classification of documents in a given folder is, without actually opening up the folder. They're a reasonably simple part of the practice of secrecy: they help you quickly determine how secret something is supposed to be.

Today these are rather standardized. Below is one for SECRET/RESTRICTED DATA that I came across in the National Archives, denoting a variety of different classification statuses. My guess, based on the various form numbers assembled on them, is that this model form dates from the late 1980s, but it might be more recent than that.

These are terribly dull, but very effective. They scream out to you pretty vividly how fearfully they should be regarded, they are pretty unambiguous in their meaning, and they're on attractive card stock. They tell you both what it is, and what you should be doing (or not doing) to the contents. These things are littered throughout the files of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Let's look at some earlier models, though.

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