Posts Tagged ‘North Korea’

Meditations

Global Hiroshima: Notes from a bullet train

Monday, August 7th, 2017

I am writing this blog post while on a bullet train between Hiroshima and Kyoto, having spent the last seven days in the city that was, 72 years ago, destroyed by the first atomic bomb, but was reborn as something quite vibrant and alive. I intend to write several blog posts about my visit to Japan; this first one focuses on the more formal academic issues that have come up during my stay in Hiroshima.

After a very long plane ride (though frankly I have been on worse ones — ANA, like most foreign air carriers, puts American air carriers to shame), I am in Japan. This visit is part work, part tourism; work provided the excuse to come (and helped defray much of the cost), but as someone who has spent so much time writing and teaching about Japan, especially in the context of World War II, it seemed an absolute requirement that if I could make the time for it, that I ought to spend more time here. So I am staying in country until August 13th, splitting my time between Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

The beginning of the Hiroshima lantern lighting ceremony, August 6, 2017. These photos are all from my trip. Photo by author.

The main “work” reason for coming to Japan was to participate in a conference hosted by Princeton University and the Prefecture of Hiroshima called “Global Hiroshima: The History, Politics and Legacies of Nuclear Weapons,” as well as to sit in on the “Hiroshima  Roundtable.” The former conference focused on the history and legacy of the atomic bomb decision, whereas the latter was focused more on the present day and future of nuclear weapons. Both were of immense interest and I am extremely grateful to Princeton and the Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture for making them all happen (and especially to the indispensable Cynthia S. Ernst and Takuya Tazuma, who together made this trip so much easier than I think it otherwise would have been).

The Roundtable involved an interesting number of political scientists and a few historians, representing at least seven countries. The US representatives, John Ikenberry, Jeffrey Lewis, and Scott Sagan, are all heavy-hitters, and there were a handful of other Americans there (myself included) as observers. The discussion focused on major questions related to the future of nuclear weapons, with three issues really taking center stage.

One was North Korea, whose missile capabilities seem to grow by leaps and bounds each week. I have personally felt, and was glad that other more informed people seemed to feel the same way, that the current US rhetoric about finding a “solution” to the problem of the North Korean ICBM capability seems both misguided and terrifying. (The North Koreans have made very clear that they would consider any attempt at a “decapitation” of any sort of their high leadership as a “line” that, if passed, would result in a nuclear response against either the United States or its allies. I see no reason not to believe them.) I feel quite strange arguing that the old Cold War policy of “containment” seems like a better solution, but really almost anything seems like a better solution that starting (yet another) war, much less one with a state whose nuclear capabilities are not as trivial as people make them out to be. (These discussions inspired me to make some real progress on my new MISSILEMAP web application which I will be launching very soon, with any luck.)

A koi feeding frenzy in the Shukkei-en park, which was completely destroyed by the bombing, but, like most of Hiroshima, eventually rebuilt. The Japanese translate the koi as "carp," and the Carp is the baseball team of Hiroshima. Photo by author.

Another issue that ran through these discussions was the precarious position of the US leadership in nuclear matters. I have been asked several times over the past few months what I, personally, am “afraid of” — i.e., what looms highest on my list of “threats” at the moment? I’m not sure (we live in a world where many very unpleasant possible future paths are acutely visible), but I will say that if the question is which nation do I think is most likely to defy the “nuclear taboo” in the next few years, the United States has shot to the top of the list. Aside from the rather disturbing research by Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino which was published last week, which indicates significant American public support for the use of nuclear weapons against Iran (a “clear majority” would be willing to kill millions of Iranians, if they believed it would save a much smaller number of American lives, and even more Americans would be willing to kill 100,000 Iranians if they thought it would “intimidate” Iran into surrendering in a war), nothing I have read and seen about the Trump administration has reassured me that the adults are running the show.

It is hard to believe that a President who cannot follow a rather simple conversation about policy is going to be able to make good decisions on nuclear matters, and I am not as optimistic as many about the supposed restraining force the military would play, or any other imagined restraining force (fear of impeachment, Twenty-Fifth Amendment, etc.). I hope I am wrong, but it seems a dark thing when Kim Jong-un seems like a more traditional “rational actor” (in the sense that his actions seem quite in line with deterrence theory, and you can see the logic of them, even if you don’t agree with them) than the sitting US President.

A small group of the conference attendees stayed in Hiroshima a few more days, to attend the anniversary ceremonies. Here, from behind, I am following Kiichi Fujiwara, David Holloway, and Shampa Biswas into the seating area. Photo by author.

But most of the discussion was focused on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed a few weeks ago (and which the nuclear-weapons states and those under their nuclear umbrellas predictably did not sign). I’ll admit I haven’t wrapped my head fully around that yet — I’ve read some of the arguments for and against it, and given that I have not yet wrapped my head around whether pushing for nuclear disarmament is a good idea (I can see the arguments for and against it very clearly, and am truly not sure whether total disarmament leads to a safer world than, say, a minimal deterrence posture), I suppose that is not a surprise.

But the position emphasized at the Roundtable, though, was one I hadn’t thought about at all: that this Treaty is a reflection of a growing chasm between the nuclear-weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for example, requires relatively close cooperation between these two groups, even as it maintains that they retain different legal statuses. As an American, it is easy to assume that the non-nuclear weapon states recognized, even when they signed it but certainly now, that the United States had no real interest in total nuclear disarmament. That much has always seemed obvious, and it is clear that from the beginning the US regarded the NPT’s requirements for the nuclear-weapon states to pursue “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” as extremely non-binding.1

One of thousands of statues at the Daisyoin buddhist shrine complex on the island of Miyajima, about a 30 minute boat ride from Hiroshima. The specific symbolism is unknown to me, but those who study nuclear matters often find themselves contemplating skulls. Photo by author.

But if the non-nuclear weapons states grow frustrated enough with the lack of progress (and the current nuclear “modernization” programs pursued by the major nuclear powers can be easily read as flying right in the face of NPT’s Article VI), what will the results be? I don’t know, and it seems like a development that bodes ill for the long-term goals of arms control, yet another tension that has been a long time simmering, perhaps put temporarily on hold during the hopeful aspects of the Obama administration, but back with a vengeance once those hopes were not realized, and in the face of the present “America first” position on foreign policy.

The historical workshop, "Global Hiroshima," was quite interesting as well. Along with the people already mentioned, there were a great number of others as well: Michael Gordin (Red Cloud at Dawn), Frank Gavin (Nuclear Statecraft), David Holloway (Stalin and the Bomb), Nina Tannenwald (The Nuclear Taboo), Mark Walker (Nazi Science), Sean Malloy (Atomic Tragedy), Shampa Biswas (Nuclear Desire), Campbell Craig (The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War), Sonja Schmid (Producing Power), among others, and a wonderful group of Japanese scholars whose work I (and presumably most American scholars) are less familiar with: Yukiko Koshiro, Wakana Mukai, Takuya Sasaki, and Kiichi Fujiwara, among others. For my own part, I gave the latest version of my research into the sparing of Kyoto. My thoughts on it have evolved since I first wrote about them on this blog; the blog post has aged reasonably well, in my mind, though there are a few things I have nailed down that I did not have at the time. (More on this in a future post.)

Three of the many, many statues of "Jizo" scattered around the Daisyoin complex on Miyajima. The baby-like monks are all wearing knit caps or bibs, usually bright red (these ones are unusual in that they have been allowed to grow moss), and are apparently doted upon by parents who have lost children. Photo by author.

Of the papers (that I cannot hope to do justice in a brief summary), a few brief thoughts on the ones that stuck out to me, to give a flavor of the proceedings: Campbell Craig had a very ambitious paper which attempted to parse Franklin Roosevelt’s feelings about the atomic bomb as an instrument of national strategy, a matter of particularly interesting difficulty given how little of his thinking on this topic Roosevelt shared with others, but I thought the effort interesting and credible (e.g., Craig looked closely at Roosevelt's lack of interest of communicating with the Soviets on the matter, even though he had been told that they had penetrated the project with espionage); Sean Malloy’s paper on the issue of racism and the use of the atomic bomb was provocative and gave me much to think about; Yukiko Koshiro’s discussion of pre-August 1945 projections by the Japanese military about the Soviet entry into the war was new to me (much of it apparently is discussed in her book published a few years ago) and really strengthened, in my mind, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s contentions (even as it brought up some contradictions and questions; this is perhaps a subject for another blog post); Nina Tannenwald’s paper on the future of the “nuclear taboo” (the belief that nuclear weapons cannot be used, not just the act of non-use) was important if depressing (there are some worrying indications, as noted already); Kiichi Fujiwara’s discussion of the changing ways in which the Japanese people have viewed Hiroshima (it did not become a “special” city to them until the Bravo accident in 1954, which I thought was interesting), and the way its role in Japanese domestic political discourse has shifted over the decades, was a particularly appropriate and important way to end the conference. There were many other interesting papers, to be sure (two, Holloway's and Schmid's, looked at the Soviet context, while others looked at the postwar nuclear situations of Brazil, Japan, and West Germany); these are the ones that meshed most closely with my present interests (and my ability to process new information — the jet-lag has not been as bad as I thought it might be, but it’s been a factor).

The conference, in a sense, was quadruply juxtaposed. You had the juxtapositions of nationalities (not just American and Japanese, but several others as well: Australia, UK, Sweden, Brazil), and juxtapositions of specialties (political scientists and historians were both heavily represented in several different flavors, but there were other approaches on offer as well).  Does traveling to Japan change the discourse of American scholars? Could we have had this same conference in New Jersey, to the same effect? In some sense, yes; the conversation was entirely in English, considered many of the same topics that we tend to talk about whenever this sort of group comes together (and a nearly identical group had a similar conference in 2015, in Princeton). On the other hand, there is something more resonant and “destabilizing” to have these discussions in a different context, and especially of that context is Hiroshima itself. Historians, at least, will almost always agree that context matters, that who is in the room, and where the room is, affects what is said and thought in the room. As one elderly Japanese man remarked to me and my wife when we visited Shukkei-en, a historic garden in Hiroshima, “there are many sad stories here.”

I will try to write at least two more posts while I am here: one on my thoughts on being in Hiroshima on 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombings, and another on my latest findings on the sparing of Kyoto and its impact on nuclear history. 

Notes
  1. Article VI of the NPT states: "Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." At the NPT Review Conferences, the US typically points to progress made in arms reductions since the Cold War, and its willingness to enter into discussions on various treaties, as a sign of its good faith negotiations. My understanding is that the most recent NPT Review conference, in 2015, was marked with unusual lack of consensus. []
Visions

Mapping the US nuclear war plan for 1956

Monday, May 9th, 2016

A few months back, the National Security Archive made national headlines when they released a 1956 US target list they had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The target list outlined over a thousand Strategic Air Command nuclear targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, the People's Republic of China, and North Korea. The Archive had posted a small graphic of the ones in Eastern Europe, but hadn't digitized the full list. Several weeks ago, the people at the Future of Life Institute did just this, digitizing the complete dataset — no small task, given that these were spread over several hundred, non-OCR-able pages of smudgy, 60-year-old government documents.1

A sampling of the 1956 target list obtained by the National Security Archive. The digits encode latitude and longitude points, among other bits of information.

A sampling of the 1956 target list obtained by the National Security Archive. The digits encode latitude and longitude points, among other bits of information.

I recently attended a conference that the FLI put on regarding nuclear war. FLI was co-founded by the MIT physicist Max Tegmark and his wife Meia (among a few others), both of whom I was glad I got to spend some time with, as they are interesting, intelligent people with interesting histories. They are interested in promoting work that decreases existential threats to the human race, which they see as possibly including things like nuclear war and nuclear winter, but also unhampered artificial intelligence, climate change, and the possible negative futures of biotechnology. These are all, of course, controversial topics (not always controversial among the same groups of people, to be sure). They're an interesting group, and they are stirring up some interesting discussions, which I think is an unambiguously positive thing even if you don't agree that all of these things are equally realistic threats, or threats on the same level.2

The FLI's digitized version of the target list. Click the image to view their interactive version.

The FLI's digitized version of the target list. Click the image to view their interactive version.

The target list, mapped out as the FLI did above, is already pretty impressive. While I was at the conference, I got the idea that it wouldn't be that hard to reconfigure a few parts of the NUKEMAP code to allow me to import huge numbers of target lists in the right format. NUKEMAP already supports the targeting of multiple nukes (the feature is a little cryptic — you create a detonation, then click "launch multiple," then move the cursor and can then create another one, and repeat as necessary), but it didn't have any automatic way of importing a large number of settings. Once I had done that, I then thought, what would it look like if I used realistic weather data to determine the fallout patterns from surface bursts? It only took a little bit of further work to write a script that can poll OpenWeatherMap's public API and grab information about real-time wind speed and direction information about any given set of coordinates.3 This renders quite an impressive image, though to do this for some 1,154 targets requires a lot of RAM (about 1.5 GB) and a fast computer. So it's not something one wants to necessarily do all the time.

I have captured the results as a series of interactive screenshots, to better save you (and your web browser) the trouble of trying to render these yourself. You can see how changing the yield dramatically changes the fallout (assuming surface bursts, of course). The interactive viewer is available by clicking the image below, or this link.4

Screenshot of my interactive viewer for the nuclear war plan. Click to view.

Screenshot of my interactive viewer for the nuclear war plan. Click to view.

I also sampled weather data from a few days in a row, to see what differences it made from a practical standpoint. It is remarkable how different wind speed and direction can vary from day to day. In some of these "simulations," Copenhagen, Denmark, avoids fallout. In others, it does not. Under some weather conditions (and yield selections), northern Japan gets some fallout from an attack on the Soviet-controlled Kuril Islands; in others, it does not. The NUKEMAP's fallout estimator is, of course, a very simplified model, but even with that you can get a sense of how much difference a shift in the winds can make.

Having done that, I started to wonder: what would the casualties of such an attack look like? I don't have population density data of the relevant areas from 1956 that has sufficient granularity to be used with my normal NUKEMAP casualty estimating script, but I figured that even the present-day population figures would be interesting. If you try to query the casualty database with over a thousand targets it just says "no," so I wrote another script that would query it target-by-target and tally the results.

The results were a bit staggering. I mean, I assumed it would be a large number. But they are really large numbers. Some of this is because the casualty script is double-counting "victims" when they are inside the relevant blast areas of multiple detonations. At the moment, there's no easy way around that (even for a small number of detonations, keeping track of who is already "dead" would require a lot of time and processing power, and to do it on the scale of a thousand is just not possible with the way it is set up currently).

An example of an area where a lot of "double-counting" is taking place — St. Petersburg. The circles show various pressure rings for 1 Mt weapons, which are used by NUKEMAP to calculate casualties. Maybe just a little overkill...

An example of an area where a lot of "double-counting" is taking place — St. Petersburg. The circles show various pressure rings for 1 Mt weapons, which are used by NUKEMAP to calculate casualties. Maybe just a little overkill...

On the other hand, the casualty estimate does not take into account fallout-related casualties, or the long-term casualties caused by the destruction of so much infrastructure. The target list also doesn't tell us how many targets were, in fact, targeted redundantly with multiple weapons — the idea that it might have been "one nuke, one target" is definitely an incorrect one. Even before World War II had completely ended, US planners for nuclear war against the Soviet Union understood that not every bomb would make it to a target, and so planned for multiple weapons to be targeted on each. So "double-killing" those people in some of these locations is probably not so wrong. It likely isn't all that crazy to think of these numbers as back-of-the-envelope estimates for what would result if you waged this kind of attack today (which is not to imply that the US would necessarily do such a thing). But I don't want anyone to think I am implying any kind of real certainty here. I would, in fact, be dubious of anyone, at any time, implying a lot of certainty about these kinds of things, because we (fortunately) lack very much first-hand experience with this kind of "data," outside of the results at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were in many ways particular to their time and place.

Casualty figures, of course, require making assumptions about the size of the nuclear weapons used, as well as the fuzing settings (airbursts generate far less downwind fallout in comparison to surface bursts, but they can greatly increase the casualties for people in civilian structures). For 1956, there would have been a "mix" of yields and types of weapons. We don't have data on that to my knowledge. As a simplifying assumption, I just ran the casualty calculation with a number of yields, and with both surface burst and airbursts (optimized to increase the range of the 5 psi blast area) options. For the sake of space and avoiding the appearance of false precision, I have rounded them to their nearest million below:

surface burst airburst
injuries fatalities injuries fatalities
10 Mt 259 239 517 304
5 Mt 210 171 412 230
1 Mt 120 70 239 111
500 kt 89 46 185 77
100 kt 39 16 94 30
50 kt 25 10 66 19

At first I thought some of these numbers just seemed fantastical. Russia today only has a population of 140 million or so. How could we get up to numbers so high? Some of this is, again, because of double-counting, especially with the very big bomb — if you run a 10 Mt bomb on Moscow kills 5.5 million people, and injures 4 million, by NUKEMAP's estimate, which combined is 70% of the 13 million people in the area of the 1 psi blast radius of such a weapon. (If that seems high, remember that a 10 Mt bomb goes well outside the city of Moscow itself — the Great Moscow Metro Region is about 16 million people total.) Since a large number of nukes were targeted around Moscow, that's a lot of double counting, especially when you use them with such high-yield weapons.

So the very-big numbers I would take with a very hefty grain of salt. NUKEMAP's casualty estimator really isn't meant for guessing multiple, overlapping damage areas. At best, it attempts to give back-of-the-envelope estimates for single detonations. Separately, the US arsenal at the time was around 10,000 megatons worth of destructive power. So they obviously couldn't have been (and wouldn't have been) all multi-megaton monsters. But, all the same, I don't think it's at all improbable that the multi-megaton monsters that were in the arsenal would have been targeted at heavily populated regions, like Moscow. Especially given the fact that, again, there would have been multiple nukes aimed at each target.

I also thought it would be interesting to take the casualties and break them apart by region. Here's where I found some really startling results, using a 1 Megaton (1,000 kiloton) airburst as my "model" detonation, again in millions:

injuries fatalities
Soviet Union 111 55
Warsaw Pact 23 10
China + North Korea 104 46
239 111

To make this point more clearly: 820 of the 1,154 targets were inside the Soviet Union proper. They are responsible for 48% of the casualties in the above scenario. Non-Soviet countries in the Warsaw Pact (Eastern Europe, more or less), were responsible for "only" 188 of the targets, and 9% of the casualties. China and North Korea had only 146 of the targets, but were accountable for 43% of the casualties. Which is to say, each "detonation" in the USSR on average produced around 203,000 casualties on average, each one in Eastern Europe around 176,000, and each one in Asia is over 1 million. That's kind of bananas.

Now, these use modern (2011) population density figures, not those of 1956. But it's still a pretty striking result. Why would this be? Partially because the Asian targets seem to be primarily in large cities. Many of the Soviet targets, by contrast, are of pretty isolated areas — remote military airfields in some cases — that only kill a few hundred people. It would make for a very interesting study to really get into the "weeds" of this target plan, and to sort out — systematically — what exactly was being targeted in each location, as best as we can. If we did that, we'd possibly be able to guess at whether an airburst or a surface burst was called for, and potentially even be able to judge target priorities, though the "bomb-as-you-go" method of attack used in the 1950s probably means that even low-priority targets would get nuked early on if they were on a path to a higher-priority one.

Total megatonnage of the US nuclear stockpile — nearly 10 gigatons by 1956, climbing to a peak of over 20 gigatons in 1959. Source: US Department of Energy

Total megatonnage of the US nuclear stockpile — nearly 10 gigatons by 1956, climbing to a peak of over 20 gigatons in 1959. Source: US Department of Energy

What does this exercise tell us? Two things, in my mind. One, this 1956 target list is pretty nuts, especially given the high-yield characteristics of the US nuclear stockpile in 1956. This strikes me as going a bit beyond mere deterrence, the consequence of letting military planners have just a little bit too much freedom in determining what absolutely had to have a nuclear weapon placed on it.

The second is to reiterate how amazing it is that this got declassified in the first place. When I had heard about it originally, I was pretty surprised. The US government usually considered target information to be pretty classified, even when it is kind of obvious (we target Russian nuclear missile silos? You don't say…). The reason, of course, is that if you can go very closely over a target list, you can "debug" the mind of the nuclear strategist who made it — what they thought was important, what they knew, and what they would do about their knowledge. Though times have changed a lot since 1956, a lot of those assumptions are probably still at least partially valid today, so they tend to keep that sort of thing under wraps. These NUKEMAP "experiments" are quick and cheap approaches to making sense of this new information, and as the creator of the NUKEMAP, let me say that I think "quick and cheap" is meant as a compliment. To analyze something quickly and cheaply is to spark new ideas quickly and cheaply, and you can always subject your new ideas to more careful analytical scrutiny once you've had them. I hope that someone in the future will give this target data some real careful attention, because I have no doubt that it still contains many insights and surprises.

Notes
  1. Because there has been some confusion about what this list is, I want to clarify a bit here. It is a "Weapons Requirements Study," which is to say, it's the way in which the US Air Force Strategic Air Command said, "here are all the things we might want to nuke, if we could." The might and if we could parts are important, because they are what makes this difference from an actual war plan, which is to say, "what we would actually do in the event of a nuclear war." The might means that not necessarily all of these targets would have been nuked in any given war situation, but indicates the sorts of things that they considered to be valid targets. The if we could means that this would require more weapons than they could afford to use at the time. In 1956, the US stockpile contained "only" 3,692 warheads. This target list is meant to imply that it needed to be bigger, that is, that by 1959 they would want more weapons to be produced. So by 1959 they had 12,298 weapons — more than three times as many. Why so many weapons for the same number of targets? Because, as noted in the post below, the idea of one-nuke, one-target isn't how they planned it. Anyway, the long and short of it is, this isn't exactly the same thing as a war plan, much less for 1956. It may over-count, but it also probably under-counts (because it ignores tactical use, targets of opportunity, the overkill that would occur when targets were multiple-targeted, etc.). But it does give you a flavor of the war planning that was going on, and is probably closer to that than any other document that has been released for this time. As for how that would affect what would have happened in 1956, it's hard to say, but this is in line with many of the other things we know about nuclear war planning at that time, so I think it is a fair illustration. []
  2. I think my students were probably the most happy that FLI digitized all of this target data because if they hadn't, I was going to force my undergrads who take my data visualization course to do it in the name of a practical example of what "crowdsourcing" can mean. []
  3. In some cases, OpenWeatherMap did not have information about some of the coordinates. In such cases, the script averaged the missing point from several surrounding points, weighting them by distance. The results it gives in doing this seem plausible enough. For each time I ran it, there were only about two or three missing pieces of data. []
  4. For those who want to look at the dataset themselves, the CSV file that the visualization uses is available here. []
News and Notes

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. []
Visions

The Atomic Energy Commission Seal (1949)

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Jeffrey Lewis recently posted at ACW a rare piece of stationery that contains the seal of the General Department of Atomic Energy in North Korea. I thought it was interesting:

It's basically the Juche Tower surrounded by some standard graphical representations of electron orbitals. (I also learned, from talking to a friend last week, that the North Korean missile names like Taepodong-2, Nodong, etc., are Western designations given based on the region in which they were first seen by intelligence agencies. The exception to this so far was the Unha-3 rocket that fizzled yesterday, which got its name from the fact that it basically had "Unha-3" written on the side of it. Unha apparently means something like Galaxy or The Milky Way. All of this was news to me, but I'm not a Korea-watcher. But I'm digressing.)

It got me thinking back to a topic I'm perennially interested in, which is the way in which atomic energy programs are self-represented. I have a long post in the works about the origins of the emblem/seal/logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has an interesting story behind it. But for today, I want to share some things I found in the National Archives relating to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) seal.

A cast-aluminum, painted version of the AEC seal. The Department of Energy's History Office had one of these on its walls the last time I visited.

The AEC seal is one of those great totems of the atomic age. A largely symmetrical and stylized representation of an atom (the highly toxic beryllium, but who's counting?), it is strikingly more straightforward than the seals of its successor organizations, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Department of Energy:

ERDA's seal is entirely misleading (unless one interprets that "sun" to be an exploding nuclear fireball, I suppose), while the DOE's is a design-by-committee monstrosity. (You can imagine the committee meeting. "Let's have sun, and an atom, and an oil well, and a windmill, and, uh, a turbine, I guess, and maybe, um, lightning? And all of it on a shield. With a bald eagle's head on top of it. That would look so killer.")

By contrast, the AEC seal is simple, efficient, and reasonably accurate. A real triumph of late-1940s government graphic design. It also reproduces well when reduced in size, which is more than you can say about the DOE logo:

So where'd it come from? One thing that I was surprised to come across in the AEC's records is the fact that the famous AEC seal was created no sooner than January1949 -- two years after the AEC was created (the AEC officially came into existence and took over from the Manhattan Project in January 1947, but was being organized and meeting as early as 1946). For the first few years, they didn't use a seal at all, they just wrote "ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION" on everything.

Not exactly the historical revelation of the year, but it's interesting how easily we take for granted something like this. I guess I had always assumed that the seal was born with the organization.

Read on to see an early draft design...