What is going on with North Korea and nuclear weapons?
First question is always: Where are the carriers?
Well as of May 28th 2013….
There are two Atlantic carriers in port, two in the Indian Ocean, two in the yard (with CVN-71 Theodore Roosevelt taking her own sweet time coming out from a 3½ year major overhaul); but in the Pacific there are four either in port or at sea.
A carrier is a very complex machine and has a lot of time in port to prepare; but it strikes me as a bit unusual that there are two in the Pacific apparently at a rather high level of preparedness.
Very few would – in view of North Korean belligerence and mental instability – blame the US Navy for suiting up to being able to deal with an assortment of pleasantness. Considering the firepower of a carrier this is apparently not only in the nastier end of the spectrum of discomfort; but also from a volume point of view what one might term a problem.
What precisely these carriers are up to has – strangely enough – not been revealed to the general public; but – again – as North Korea has made every effort to draw attention to themselves and their nuclear capability one could look somewhere else.
Now the chemical department of the University of Manchester has some rather informative and entertaining videos of the periodic system.
Starting with Plutonium, which is the normal (if normal is indeed the word) in nuclear bombs:
The most striking is the visit to the British National Nuclear Laboratory, in Sellafield. Notwithstanding the obvious editing to avoid security breaches it is openness not usually connected with nuclear handling facility.
The gist of it is that Plutonium is nasty every which way you look at it. Disregarding the radioactivity it is highly toxic to any life form, as an artificial element life as such has never come into contact with it – at all. There is however indications that the most stable isotope 244 PU with a half life of 80 million years might actually have minute traces of the original batch made in the “Big Bang” some 15 odd billion years ago, but that is more indicative of the sensitivity of modern chemical analysis – otherwise it is a mistake the Allmighty have regretted.
The article is rather thoroughly describing the elements difficult character. Among others things it has 6 allotropes as solid (graphite and diamond are to allotropes of carbon). 240Pu and 238Pu – actually breaks apart spontaneously – not decay, which they do as well to 236U and 234U – but simply fall apart. It is so reactive that it must be kept in a vacuum or in Argon – otherwise it will form oxides that will eventually burst into flames all on its own initiative. Other brilliant ideas as carbon tetrachloride (CCL4 which has been used a fire extinguishing agent) – will make it explode instantly. When you go to such lengths as to consider CCL4 you are pretty desperate. It does put out electrical fires well enough, but the heat will convert some into Phosgene (COCl2), which was used as a chemical weapon during World War One.
Even experienced chemists in the field of actinides (the row in the periodic system under “rare earths”) are scared of it – I mean really scared. I attribute the continued operation of nuclear power stations to some degree as a method of getting rid of the nasty stuff.
Comment: To be quite honest, I think going public is the one way of actually getting in touch with North Korea. Military personnel in North Korea would have in some form to handle the “Hannibal Lecter” of the periodic table, so there will be intelligence out there.
North Korea should be afraid of its own weapons
It is a way to tell the North Koreans: Please don’t even try! For your own sake! You can’t handle this evil substance there are so many way it can go terribly, terribly wrong – and not a single one without killing yourself. Otherwise why would such information as:
- Plutonium has a metallic taste.
- All the deaths from just handling the stuff.
- Magnesium oxide sand is probably the most effective material for extinguishing a plutonium fire. It cools the burning material, acting as a heat sink, and also blocks off oxygen.
- Plutonium in solution is more likely to form a critical mass than the solid form due to moderation by the hydrogen in water.
Be made available? The general public is not likely to neither eat Plutonium with a spoon nor keep their coffee warm in mug of Plutonium.
This is probably the reason why the West does not think North Korea is capable of making a nuclear device using Plutonium – we would have heard of it – one way or another. There probably isn’t a single chemist in North Korea that would stand a chance being near that substance and live long enough to actually work on it. It is a possibility that the continued test firings of rockets is actually North Korea getting rid of the paraphernalia for serious nuclear weapons. This does not, however, address the real problem of dealing with Plutonium, because knowing the problems involved there is no way North Korea can handle even minute amounts of it. Only a handful of nations have the knowhow
But it would also explain why terrorist have not used Plutonium in some way. They might have tried, but have probably died in the attempt even getting it into a suitcase. Considering the abysmally low skill in handling conventional explosives which generally just end up killing them – there is no way they can enter into that area. Even a corrupt Russian would have died trying to steal it – much less living long enough to collect any money.
Turning to the more primitive Uranium:
You can make a nuclear bomb from Uranium – provided you can get it enriched. That was actually how the Hiroshima bomb was made – it didn’t work terribly well (as a bomb) yielding only 12 KT as opposed to the Nagasaki device of about 20 kT. But yes, it will work – and much easier than a Plutonium bomb; but it will be bulkier.
Uranium (especially depleted – where the fissile 235U has been removed) has a number of mundane uses besides nuclear power plant. It is – if not abundant – then far from rare. The original weapons limitation arrangements tried to control the access to Uranium – which turned out to be flop, as Uranium is nowhere near “rare”. This means – in economic terms – that attempts to corner the market of any one substance is likely to be a short term position. Either alternative sources are found/developed or alternatives to the substance are found. The whole fuss about rare earths is thus not only a misunderstanding of the basic economic principle of substitution; but a serious underestimation of the power of a functioning chemical industry and research.
The alpha particles emitted by Polonium can be converted to neutrons using beryllium oxide, at a rate of 93 neutrons per million alpha particles. Thus Po-BeO mixtures or alloys are used as a neutron source, for example in a neutron trigger or initiator for nuclear weapons.
The relevant problem is that 210Po has a half life of 138 days or a little over four months. This means you could make a nuclear bomb – and indeed make it go off; but then you would have to get new supplies, as your bomb goes off – not with a bang; but like sour milk.
Comment: I think this is the position at present. The US is waiting the North Koreans out, as the device within their technological capability probably won’t work – unless the milkman comes by regularly. The problem is not new. After the two bombs in Japan the USA was not ready with a third for a long time.
Everything about nuclear bombs is difficult – even though the principles are quite easy to grasp.