Posts Tagged ‘2000s’

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Soviet drawings of an American bomb

Friday, November 30th, 2012

The United States government is pretty gun-shy on publishing drawings of nuclear weapon designs, even very crude ones. When it comes to implosion bombs, this is about all that’s allowed to come out of official sources:

From the 1977 edition of Glasstone and Dolan’s The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. “Then explodes” puts it a little mildly, I think.

Not extremely informative — a ball-within-a-ball — and a heck of a lot less information than you can find from other sources. The reasons for this are ostensibly based in security — terrorists, enemy powers, etc. — though I tend to suspect they are based in the fear of scandal more than anything else. Congressional oversight gets itchy when they see something that looks like a “bomb-making guide,” even when it is well-within the limits of security.1 (The basic implosion idea was declassified in 1951 as part of the Rosenberg trial, though there were knowledgable people arguing for it as early as 1945.)

I find the level of abstraction allowed in such drawings to be a little ridiculous, especially when far more detailed technical information is actually declassified. For reasons that I suspect are deeper than mere policy considerations alone, you can write a lot of things down that you can’t draw, if you’re someone with an actual security clearance. This isn’t totally nonsensical: drawings can make immediately clear lots of things that can otherwise hide in technical descriptions, which is one of the reasons that putative drawings of nuclear weapons are one of the topics that originally drew me to the topic of nuclear secrecy.

We aren’t really talking about blueprints here — these things aren’t usually to scale, they aren’t designed for engineers to use. Even if we were talking about blueprints, there are still quite a few steps in between a drawing of a thing and the thing itself. Drawings of this sort could certainly help an incipient nuclear program, but only in the sense that they can guide research questions or general directions. A drawing of an atomic bomb is not an atomic bomb.

But even though the US is fairly tetchy about its bowdlerized bomb drawings, it does better than most other nuclear states. The United States actually publishes things about their nuclear programs. Though the US has a well-deserved reputation for secrecy, they also have put out tons and tons of technical and non-technical information about how their bombs work(ed), how bombs in general work, technical details about the weapons themselves, and so on. Why? It’s a legacy, perhaps, of the Smyth Report, Atoms for Peace, and other gestures towards the positive role that nuclear information can play in the public sphere.

Ah, but there is one exception: post-Soviet Russia. The people working at Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear agency/corporation, have been publishing impressive amounts of raw historical documents information about the Soviet bomb project, as part of their on-going series Atomnyi proekt SSSR/Атомный проект СССР/USSR atomic project. The series started in 1998, and the early volumes have gotten a lot of good scholarly attention by folks like Alexei Kojevnikov and Michael Gordin, but only very recently did I find that they’ve been still publishing them, and from what I can tell, the newer volumes have not been used too much. The most recent volume that I’ve heard of — volume 3 — was published in 2009. Getting ahold of them is another matter altogether; in the United States, anyway, they’re devilishly hard to find to purchase, and even on Russian websites they are pretty rare. The Library of Congress has the first two volumes in their entirety, and I think I’ve found a source for purchasing the third (supposedly it is on its way), but not without some effort.

Here, for example, is the sort of drawing that the Russians declassified and published in one of the 2007 volumes:

Nuke aficionados will recognize immediately that this is a pretty good drawing of an implosion bomb, especially when compared to the ball-within-a-ball. The labels are pretty straightforward: A– detonator; B– explosive lens (1–Comp. B outer lens, 2–Baratol cone, 3–Comp. B inner lens); C–cork lining; D–aluminum pusher; E–uranium tamper; F–boron plastic shell; G–the Po-Be initiator. The only weird part is that they didn’t label the actual plutonium core itself (the cross-hatched sphere that surrounded the G sphere), but I guess it went without saying. Note also that they’ve indicated how the core can be added in after-the-fact with the removable “trap door” pusher. That’s one of those nice little touches that says, “I am not merely trying to explain an abstract concept, I’m trying to tell you how we might build one of these things.”

But more awesome than the drawing itself — which you can, incidentally, get on a T-shirt, if you’re interested and go for that sort of thing — is its source. It’s from the Soviet archives, part of a report dated January 28, 1946, titled “Notes on the design of the atomic bomb: Description of the construction of the ‘explosion inside‘ type bomb.”2 Get it, “explosion inside”? They hadn’t even formalized their terminology for “implosion” yet and were using a scare-quoted, made-up word in the meantime. As the report makes clear, this is a Soviet description of the American atomic bomb detonated at “Trinity,” based on intelligence received from Soviet spies at Los Alamos. (Other reports refer to Klaus Fuchs directly by name, though I’m not sure if the people drawing up this particular report knew he was the source.)

There is no way in heck that the American government would ever allow the release of so “detailed” a drawing from any source that had access to classified information. Granted, it’s a long way from being a “blueprint” — something the drawing itself acknowledges; the text at the bottom reads “schematic drawing, not to scale” — but it’s still the sort of thing that no weapons lab would want a Congressperson to see them handing out, much less publishing widely. But apparently Rosatom is not as burdened by this — when it comes to publishing pictures of American bombs, anyway!3

Here’s another fan-favorite — a series of drawings breaking the final assembled “Fat Man” bomb into its constituent parts, showing how they call go together, IKEA-style (click any of them to zoom):

The outer casing and the placement of the bomb within it. The caption at bottom says, “Bomb used on Nagasaki (Total weight 10,500 pounds – 4,650 kilograms).” I’m having trouble making out the “note” at the top left but it is seems to be saying something is tentative about the drawing.

The first four “spheres”: 1–initiator, 2–plutonium, 3–tamper, 4–aluminum pusher. Note that the publishers have omitted the exact measurements and replaced them with ellipses. It seems to indicate that the plutonium core is in “3 parts,” which jibes with an earlier post of mine (and indicates that the intelligence source really knew what he was talking about, not that we didn’t already know that). Actually, as is pointed out in the comments, if I had continued translating, I’d see that it says the plutonium must have impurities of only 3 parts per million. Still, a nice little detail.

Spheres 5 and 6: a layer of 32 blocks of chemical explosives, and then a layer of 32 blocks of explosive lenses. The detonator is labeled as a “booster” in English, oddly enough.

Sphere 7: the duraluminum casing, with “holes for detonators.” Comrade Beria likes his details! Compared with the Trinity Gadget.

Lastly, the overall arrangement of the bombs within the casing itself, with its electrical and detonating systems indicated. (You’ll perhaps recognize the first and last images here from another post I did, awhile back, as they are reprinted in a tiny form in another source.)

It’s a veritable nuclear Matryoshka doll, is it not? I wish I could make this stuff up, but I can’t. My favorite part about this document, though, is the fact that so much of the captions are in English — again, as if any indication were needed about where this information was coming from. The document itself was written by Igor Kurchatov for Lavrenty Beria, dated June 4, 1946.

There isn’t anything remotely like a security threat here — you can get better drawings on Wikipedia these days, without the numbers redacted — but to have stuff like this published by an actual nuclear power, based on data they derived in the course of making their own atomic bomb, data taken from a source working in a weapons lab… well, let’s just say, I don’t think it’s going to happen over here anytime soon.

Still, the drawings do have a talismanic power, and the Mandala-like quality of the implosion design doesn’t hurt that. It’s the bomb, right? And yet, it’s really not. It’s a drawing. A technically crude one, albeit more detailed than the other “official” releases. It’s no surprise, I suppose, how easily we get sucked in by the superficially technical — whether it carries any real power or not.

  1. See, for example, page 70 of chapter 2 of the Cox Report, which criticized Los Alamos for releasing exactly this kind of heavily-sanitized information. []
  2. Заметки о конструкции атомной бомбы. Описание конструкции бомбы типа “взрыва вовнутрь.” []
  3. This reminds me of a joke from the Brezhnev-era USSR that a Russian teacher of mine told me: During a visit to the United States, Premier Brezhnev and President Carter happen to see a protest. “No Carter, No Reagan!” the protesters shouted. “You see,” said Carter, “in our country we have freedom of expression, something you don’t have over in your country.” “Ah, Comrade,” says Brezhnev, “you are wrong! Come over and see!” So they go to Red Square, and indeed, there is a mob of protesters forming, shouting, “Nyet Carter, nyet Reagan!” []

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.


War from Above, War from Below

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

It seems that there are really two flavors of war these days. One is what we might call “war from above,” which involves getting quite literally above the people you’re trying to make war on, and dropping nasty things on them that blow them up. The other is what we might call “war from below,” in which involves blowing up people from an eye-level vantage point, and usually with somewhat more mundane weapons, like cars stuffed with homemade explosives. Two of my favorite “history of war” books dwell on each end of this extreme.

On the grand subject of “war from above,” Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing (New York: New Press, 2001), is fairly unknown amongst bomb scholars, in my experience, but immensely interesting. It’s an unusual book to say the least. The structure is something like a long, discursive timeline, with each entry numbered. You can read it front-to-back, which is fine enough, or, alternatively, the author offers up selective entry paths that lead to the development of different themes. It’s sort of a mixture of Choose Your Own Adventure with non-fiction history. While I am generally not a huge fan of “experimental” works of history, this one actually works for me. I picked it up on a whim at a used bookstore awhile back, and was surprised at how much I found it both interesting and compelling.

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