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Subject: The Nth Country Experiment
TheArmchairCmd    4/10/2006 9:49:14 AM
This is an interesting read AFAIC (it's a good story), and holds value and perhaps data points with regard to the proliferation issues in Iran and with terrorism. I'll let this excerpt speak for itself, but it's probably best read in its entirety. ;) target=_blank>Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: No experience necessary The Nth Country experiment showed that three post-docs with no nuclear knowledge could design a working atom bomb. By Dan Stober March/April 2003 pp. 56-63 (vol. 59, no. 02) © 2003 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Thirty-nine years ago, in the dusty ranch town of Livermore, California, the U.S. government secretly chose three newly minted post-doc physicists, put them off in a corner of a laboratory with no access to classified information, and told them to design a nuclear weapon. What can the unsettling results of that experiment tell us about the likelihood that today's Al Qaeda, or some other terrorist group, will build the bomb? [...] Much of the proliferation debate centered on industrial capabilities for enriching uranium or producing plutonium. But there was a second argument, one with a whiff of elitism and scientific arrogance. Were the scientists from a small, possibly Third World country, smart enough to design an atomic bomb? Or did it require an Oppenheimer? There was also the myth of the "secret" of the atom bomb, reinforced by the publicity surrounding the Fuchs and Rosenberg spy cases of the 1950s. David Lilienthal, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had argued as far back as 1948 (in the Bulletin) that the idea of a "secret formula" was "nothing less than a gigantic hoax upon the people of this country." But many still believed that if only the "secret" could be guarded, proliferation might be prevented. [...] They were briefed by physicist Art Hudgins, who handed them a copy of the "operating rules," stamped "Secret" on every page. [3] The first paragraph said it all: "The purpose of the so-called 'Nth Country Experiment' is to find out if a credible nuclear explosive can be designed, with a modest effort, by a few well-trained people without contact with classified information. The goal of the participants should be to design an explosive with a militarily significant yield. A working context for the experiment might be that the participants have been asked to design a nuclear explosive which, if built in small numbers, would give a small nation a significant effect on their foreign relations." Although banned from classified information, Dobson and Pipkorn needed security clearances--and any sketches they drew would be "born secret." As Hudgins put it years later, "It's against the law to design nuclear weapons without a clearance." They were to represent an imaginary Nth Country, assumed to have a good university library, some competent machinists to shape plutonium or uranium, and an explosives team. They envisioned their nameless country having more resources than Ghana, but less than an industrialized nation. They were given no directions on how to proceed. If they wanted to conduct an experiment, perhaps involving high explosives, they would describe the experiment in great detail, and their memo would be passed on to an anonymous team of experienced bomb designers who would calculate the results and pass them back through Hudgins. They began in isolation, with a simulated technical staff. They worked in a plain office in barracks left behind by the navy after World War II. Dobson had a desk and a filing cabinet protected by a combination lock. Their notebooks were bound and numbered sequentially, to preserve a record of their progress. [...] Dobson had never heard the terms Trinity, Little Boy, or Fat Man. Gun design versus implosion was unknown to him. His knowledge of nuclear fission was limited. "I had seen an exhibit with a model of a chain reaction made up of mousetraps and ping pong balls," he wrote in a later report. By the end of 1964, seven months after they began, Dobson and Pipkorn made their first crucial choice. They opted to design a Nagasaki-style plutonium implosion bomb instead of a Hiroshima uranium gun-assembly weapon. They picked plutonium not because it was easier, but specifically because it would be more difficult. It was a career-enhancing move: The gun bomb was too simple a project to build a reputation on. The implosion method "seemed to be a more sophisticated, challenging, and hence appealing problem," as they later wrote in their report. Designing a mere gun bomb would have been "a pretty crummy showing," Dobson said. [...] They continued to mine the open literature. As Selden described it, "You just go to the library and you start looking under all the subjects, you look under plutonium and uranium and high explosives and you look under nuclear physics and you ju
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fullamongo    RE:The Nth Country Experiment   4/10/2006 10:14:54 AM
Pretty shocking but when you think about it, not surprising.
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reefdiver    RE:The Nth Country Experiment   4/10/2006 12:34:43 PM
The most interesting aspect of this is the statement that generating plant grade reactor material was apparently successfully tested, meaning that any country with a "peaceful" electrical nuclear reactor system can build a nuke. That is scary indeed. No wonder the Israeli's don't want Iran to have even an electrical plant - even if they don't control the fuel cycle they'll have the fuel.
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TrustButVerify    RE:The Nth Country Experiment   4/27/2006 10:10:31 PM
An excellent article- I should like to see it receive more coverage. Tom Clancy clearly came to the same conclusion while he was writing "Sum of All Fears", although he resorted to deus ex machina to produce some of the materials. ("You need a rare radioisotope? Why, my old college buddy just happens to have some in his basement...) Fortunately there are a few giveaways that someone is gunning for a nuclear weapon- purchase of certain components, for instance. Some time ago I recall hearing that an extremist group had been caught trying to buy (I think it was) kryton switches, which tipped the authorities off to just what the hell they were actually doing. Presumably there are similar items which you must either buy or construct entire manufacturing lines to produce. BTW, I'm happy to say that kryton switches still aren't avaiable on Ebay or Froogle.
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Carl D.    RE:The Nth Country Experiment   7/29/2006 3:47:27 PM
This reminds me of the college student in the late 70's who had his master's thesis(?) classified and confiscated by the Feds. It also, as the original post states should make one wonder how far Al Queda may have gotten. Of course Khan may have just given them one or more....
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french stratege    RE:The Nth Country Experiment   7/31/2006 5:05:07 PM
To make a fission bomb theorical design need today a team of few good Phd for sure, but to transform it in a reliable weapon for a IRBM with indigeneous components and to get the full infrastructure to produce them and maintain them is NOT so easy and cheap. And to get a thermonuclear device is a complete different things.Two magnitude more difficult.
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Carl D.    RE:The Nth Country Experiment   8/12/2006 7:56:37 PM
Link to .pdf of declassified summary report
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