Posts Tagged ‘Special’


Forbidden spheres

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Spheres are special shapes for nuclear weapons designers. Most nuclear weapons have, somewhere in them, that spheres-within-spheres arrangement of the implosion nuclear weapon design. You don’t have to use spheres — cylinders can be made to work, and there are lots of rumblings and rumors about non-spherical implosion designs around these here Internets — but spheres are pretty common.

A photograph of a rather suspicious sphere-within-a-hemisphere, from the inside of Israel’s secret nuclear site, Dimona, taken by Mordechai Vanunu in 1986.

Spheres also happen to be fairly common sights in the non-nuclear weapons design as well. What interests me is what happens when you take a perfectly non-nuclear sphere, like, say, a soccer ball, and move it into a nuclear context. To the trained eye, it takes on a rather interesting new meaning:

Image from the cover of A.Q. Khan on Science and Education.

Presumably Dr. Khan was not using the ball above to express his love of sport, but instead was using it to convey in broad terms what the truncated icosahedron shape has to do with implosion weapons — it is the geometry of the explosive lenses used in the Trinity “gadget” and “Fat Man” bomb designs, similar to the one sketched on the upper-right side of the chalkboard above.

(I will just also note that somebody — presumably not Dr. Khan himself, but who knows — has rendered in chalk a truly excellent reproduction of figure 2.07a from Glasstone and Dolan’s Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 1977 edition.)

All of which is to say that spheres are important from a nuclear point of view, and the context of spheres can change their meaning dramatically. Nothing too surprising or controversial there, I hope.

Such is the background I want you to be thinking of when you read the below line item from the notes of a Technical Board Meeting at Los Alamos, from May 1947.1

8. The Director [Norris Bradbury] asked for an expression of opinion as to what might be the difficulties that would arise if he asked that all possibly revealing shapes in the various Tech offices be removed. For example, spherical ash trays and such things that are not actually bomb parts or models, but cause security people concern because they feel that the presence of such items makes security policing difficult. It was agreed that the Director would bring this up at the next colloquium.

Imagine the scenario: you’re a security officer working at Los Alamos. You know that spheres are weapon parts. You walk into a technical area, and you see spheres all around! Is that an ashtray, or it is a model of a plutonium pit? Anxiety mounts — does the ashtray go into a safe at the end of the day, or does it stay out on the desk? (Has someone been tapping their cigarettes out into the pit model?)

You must admit, there’s a certain familial resemblance.

All of this anxiety can be gone — gone! — by simply banning all non-nuclear spheres! That way you can effectively treat all spheres as sensitive shapes.

What I love about this little policy proposal is that it illuminates something deep about how secrecy works. Once you decide that something is so dangerous that the entire world hinges on keeping it under control, this sense of fear and dread starts to creep outwards. The worry about what must be controlled becomes insatiable — and pretty soon the mundane is included with the existential.

I’ve posted this quote before, from Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer, but it never gets old. Secrecy is contagious:

If something is secret, and something else touches it, it too becomes secret. Secrecy becomes a disease. Everything around the secret issue becomes secret, so the trial became a secret, so I became a secret.

So, did Los Alamos actually end up adopting the policy of No Spheres in the War Room? It may very well have! Below is an excerpt from Joseph Masco‘s highly-recommended book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico:

One weapons scientist explained to me how he breached security at Los Alamos simply by bringing a sack lunch into the plutonium facility. He left his lunch on his office desk and stepped out for a minute. He came back to find a commotion. A security officer informed him that the orange he left on his desk was, in fact, a classified object.

He learned that any spherical object became a nuclear secret once it passes over the line demarcating the secure from the open areas of the laboratory, as it could be taken as a model for the plutonium pit that drives a nuclear weapon.

The weapons scientist was told that in the future he could eat the fruit or store it inside his office safe with the rest of his classified documents, but if he left the orange out on his desk unsupervised it was a security infraction that could be referred to the FBI for investigation.

Truth, rumor, exaggeration? A distinction that’s not mine to know. But it’s still pretty amusing. One wonders how many “inappropriate lunch” cases the FBI has to investigate.

Image source: floating around the Internet.

I’ve asked some contacts I have at Livermore if they had such a policy out there, and they said they hadn’t heard of one. But maybe they’ve just never made the mistake of bringing a sphere to lunch. 

  1. Citation: Los Alamos Technical Board Notes (2 May 1947), copy in Chuck Hansen papers, National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., Box 51, “U.S. Nuclear Testing Program, 1944-1947, 1959.” []

Please Do Not Smoke Next to the H-bomb

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Some sage advice, plucked from the archive, to brighten your Monday morning.

I was poking around DOE’s OpenNet site last week, as I am wont to do, and I stumbled across a fair number of documents from 1959 labeled as a “Special Weapons Retrofit Orders.

These are basically instructions on how to make some sort of mechanical changes. So on this one, for example, the part that needs alteration is a caster — that is, a wheel:

Pretty run of the mill… until you see that the caster is mounted to a 10 megaton H-bomb. (That’s what the “special” is meant to tell you.)

…all of which makes it a bit more surreal. (That’s a Mark 21/Mark 36 casing there, for those who are keeping track at home.) I can see the importance of fixing these things — imagine if you were the one stuck with the H-bomb that had a squeaky wheel, or one that was always pulling to the right. That kind of thing gets sooo annoying.

But also, check out the “safety precautions”:

Be sure that no open flame, lighted cigarette, or other spark potential is present when the bomb is uncovered and opened or when cleaning and/or stenciling operations are being performed.

Don’t smoke near the H-bomb, please… it’s bad for your health. Also, always remember to wear rubber gloves.

News and Notes

Welcome to

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Nuclear secrecy is a special kind of secrecy, because the atomic bomb is a special kind of bomb. Just as the atomic bomb has been treated as something above and beyond any other category of warfare, so has its secrecy. In the United States, nuclear weapons related information has a separate and parallel structure from other types of state secrets, one that in many ways rests on a very different epistemological foundation than military, diplomatic, or political secrets. When the bomb was thrust upon the consciousness of the world, again and again it was emphasized that it was built by science and by secrecy. In the years since the Manhattan Project, this connection between secrets and security, between nuclear technology and nuclear knowledge, has continued, although it has not been constant, nor evinced the same responses.

Shot Greenhouse Item — the "question mark" is natural and un-retouched, as is the turquoise glow. Source: NARA, Still Pictures Division, RG 326, 434-RF-12.

This blog takes its name from legal definition of American nuclear secrecy, as defined by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.1 For me, “Restricted Data” represents all of the historical strangeness of nuclear secrecy, where the shock of the bomb led scientists, policymakers, and military men to construct a baroque and often contradictory system of knowledge control in the (somewhat vain) hope that they could control the spread and use of nuclear technology.

It is these sorts of matters that this blog is concerned with: the history of nuclear weapons in general (in particular from an epistemological, or knowledge-centric, point of view), and the history of nuclear secrecy in particular. It serves as an outlet for some of the interesting documents, stories, and observations that I’ve come across in my research (both for my Ph.D. dissertation on the subject, Knowledge and the Bomb, and for the subsequent book am I writing).

For more about me, visit the “About me” page. I should say up front that I do not have, nor have I ever had, nor have I ever sought or desired, any kind of security clearance. Everything on this blog was posted in good faith with regards to its classification status, and I am perfectly happy to trade certainty for the ability to speak and speculate.

  1. Atomic Energy Act of 1946, Sect. 10(b)(1). []