NBC Weapons: Fizzles All Around




September 1, 2009: The Indian official who was in charge of preparing the Indian nuclear test site, in the Rajasthan desert (near the Pakistan border), for five nuclear tests in 1998, said that the bombs did not perform up to spec. Some may even have been "fizzles" (failed nuclear explosions).

There's been a lot of this lately. The U.S. CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) concluded that the 2006 nuclear weapons test in North Korea was a failure. This came after analysis of air samples, seismic (using earthquake detectors) and spy satellite data. There was a nuclear explosion, of about one kiloton, but it was the result of a improperly constructed nuclear weapon. Sort of a very low grade nuclear weapon that vaporized, rather than detonated, most of its nuclear material. This sort of explosion is called a "fizzle" and was last seen in 1998, when a Pakistani nuclear weapons test produced a very similar result.

What's interesting about this is that the group of Pakistani nuclear scientists (the Kahn group) who were secretly peddling nuclear weapons technology during the 1990s, were apparently selling a defective design. But the IAEA investigation revealed that the Khan group was offering several different designs. Exactly who got what is unclear, and the fizzle that North Korea detonated was either one of the primitive designs, or a poorly put together version of one of the better ones.

India first detonated a nuclear weapon in 1974, in the Rajasthan test site. That weapon was based on the American plutonium implosion bomb used in 1945. Officially, the 1974 test was 12 kilotons, similar to the American 1945 bomb. But at the time, and ever since, some observers have insisted that the actually yield was closer to two kilotons, which put it in the fizzle range. Indian officials have denied that any of the five 1998 tests were fizzles. But questions linger.


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