What’s the deal with nuclear weapons?

Atomic test

NUKES! Yup, these are the big threat in the international arena. There have been only two nuclear weapons dropped in human history; both by the United States in Japan.

There is a lot to be said about the weapons, including development, history, engineering, delivery systems, and theory. This writeup will give the reader a sweeping, general view of 1) why (and how) the bomb was developed/works, 2) some theory behind nuclear defense, and 3) the contemporary problems with nuclear weapons.

So, if you don’t know anything about nuclear theory or weapons, this is your place! It’s going to be pretty readable (as always!) and hopefully informational.


Why do we even have these things!? How are they made!?

Why?

There are a lot of people in the world who demonize nuclear weapons when they don’t even fully understand why they were developed in the first place. For instance, one of the world’s most-known pacifists (Albert Einstein) helped develop the bomb. Why? Because it was the lesser of two evils.

Einstein was a professor in Germany who visited the United States in 1933, and never went home; he became a US citizen in 1940. Why did he do this? Because he didn’t think much of the Nazis nor of Hitler. Later on, I believe the Nazis repossessed his boat and house, and burned all his works in Germany. … So they didn’t get along very well.

Obviously Einstein was a fervent anti-Nazi, and he went to great lengths to prevent the Germans from attaining weapons of mass destruction (he saw the territorial ambitions of Hitler as very dangerous). Einstein ultimately urged president Roosevelt that there must be development with nuclear technology. Initially the United States was interested in the Naval application; however, at the urging of prominent scientists, the Manhattan Project was clandestinely created with the sole purpose of weaponizing the technology. In the end, Einstein was once again pacifist following the dropping of the two nuclear weapons.

The primary worry was that the Nazis would end up with the technology first; which most certainly would have been horrible for the world.

Design

There are two basic designs with nuclear weapons. You can have an implosion-style weapon (where the uranium is in the middle surrounded by explosive material), or a shotgun-style weapon. The first relies on stages of incineration (with uranium or some other nuclear material in the middle); the more stages, the bigger the blast. The shotgun-style shoots a uranium “bullet” into an explosive target, which causes detonation.

The two bombs dropped in Japan reflected these designs; Fat Man was an implosion-style delivery, and Little Boy was the shotgun-style delivery. These basic designs remain unchanged. What has evolved in design is the delivery of the actual weapon, the stage designs, and designs for both offensive and defensive weapons.

One final note on increasing bomb potency: The way you increase the intensity of the blast is to add stages, or layers, to the material fusion (these weapons are referred to as thermonuclear weapons). Usually the first stage is plutonium followed by more stages of uranium. The more stages you add, the greater the blast.

Enrichment

The process of enriching uranium is pretty interesting, and very expensive, which is part of the reason there are only eight (but really nine) states who have nuclear weapons; they are the United States, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and (most likely) Israel. The idea of enrichment is to take out the “enriched” portion of uranium to use.

There is a small portion of the original uranium that is highly reactive. The application for energy requires far less enriching than that of weapons. It all has to do with separating U-235 from U-239 — but I’m not going to get all boring and science-y here. What you want to remember here is that uranium is naturally U-239, and U-235 is the enriched stuff … it’s a lighter element because the 235 has less protons. These two are isotopes because they have the same chemical makeup, but the number of protons differs; hence the two are kinda separate, but not at the same time.

To separate the protons out and filter through to get the enriched stuff, the uranium is spun around really fast, then the weaponized stuff is separated. It spins around in tens of thousands of cylinders before it’s actually separated to the point of energy-grade or weapon-grade application. The stuff that is left over is called “depleted” uranium, which is bad for anybody to touch.


What happened after nuclear development and delivery?

An arms race

In 1945, the United States dropped two bombs in Japan to end World War II, display their new bomb to the world, and implicitly challenge the Russians. … There were other reasons, but I’ll let the reader investigate that if they want. But what happened after World War II was a Cold War (writeup to come). In a nutshell, the two remaining world powers had an arms race with nuclear weapons.

At the Cold War’s height, each state had about 10,000 nuclear weapons, give or take. At any moment a nuclear weapon could be fired, which would trigger a chain reaction of thousands of nuclear weapons being fired. This is horrible, so defensive weapons were developed to counteract nuclear weapons. Defensive weapons were meant to hit nuclear weapons in the air to prevent it hitting its target — and you can imagine the engineering complexity when firing one projectile into another that travels probably faster than the speed of sound. Today, there are around 3,500 nuclear weapons for the Russians as well as Americans — so around 7,000 between the two.

So there were lots of nuclear weapons (and still are). The problem is that once nuclear weapons exist in the world, you can’t make them un-exist. What to do? Develop theories on how to contain them, and there were several theories about how to prevent human destruction.

Theory

Nuclear Peace: There were (and still are) theorists who advocate the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Some people say that nuclear weapons actually 1) prevented war and 2) ensured they wouldn’t be used during the Cold War.

Why? Because the use of these weapons would yield clear no-winner scenario. If the US launches first, it knows there will be a reaction; and the same for the Soviets. Some people say it’s the same for India and Pakistan. Further, some people advocate Iran getting the bomb to act as the regional power. The idea is that it causes peace because everyone is guaranteed to loose if they want to play the game.

This kind of goes along with the military theory of deterrence:

Deterrence: This theory is more for military strategists. It says that the more nuclear weapons the better, because it will “deter” any opposing force from striking. This is different than just scaring people, because it says that you actually NEED lots of weapons to back your claims. So if you don’t actually have the weapons, then the theory doesn’t work.

So, if a strike were to occur, then you have enough to retaliate PLUS more. So, the military needed lots of weapons for this to ensure deterrence. This, in turn, sparked an arms race, and that’s why there were so many nuclear weapons during the height of competition between the US and Soviet Union.

Mutually Assured Destruction: Here is another theory (really it was a military doctrine). This basically says: “Hey, there is no clear winner.” This happened when deterrence theory got out of hand, and both sides had 10,000 nuclear weapons each. It basically assumed that there should be no use of nuclear weapons because it ensures the destruction of BOTH sides if that were to happen.

The slogan of the theory was “kill people not nukes,” or something like that. The idea was that the nuclear weapons, because they ensured destruction of both sides, created a stable policy, and the US/Soviet relationship could calm down a bit because of this — because both sides are winners. It’s like taking lemons and making lemonade.

Thoughts: You really have to consider whether or not nuclear weapons can possibly bring peace. If you think about it, the United States and the Soviet Union never had an overt war … they just had smaller countries do the fighting (with the exception of Vietnam and Korea for the US, and Afghanistan for the Soviets).

I would say that a lot of the theories do work when there are two states, but what if there are more? This is something similar to the Russian strategy, which was to have an ally tip the scales in the Communist direction. The Soviets helped China get the bomb because they were Communist too … but the two were never super compatible. It seems to me like big states have less-powerful states become nuclear for their own interests (look at North Korea getting the bomb with Soviet/Chinese hand-me-down equipment). Similar arguments could be made with the US helping Israel get a bomb (IF they have a bomb … which I’m sure they do, and I’m sure the US helped make happen).

But, maybe it is better that regional powers have nuclear weapons … or not …. I’m not sure. Think about it for awhile.


What are the contemporary problems with nuclear weapons!?

The biggest threat is non-state actors could get a hold of weaponized uranium or plutonium. This generally means terrorist or criminal cartels or organizations.

What’s really scary is that there are some parts of the world where nuclear material is minimally locked up (RUSSIA). Not to mention you could bribe your way into nuclear facilities, or perhaps take advantage of corrupt government officials. While terrorist groups have yet to figure out a way to create a nuclear weapon on the cheap, they can in fact diffuse biological weapons fairly easily.

One of the most-famous biological weapons detonated by terrorists occurred by a Japanese terrorist organization — it was sarin gas in subway tunnels. From what I understand, it was a religious-based domestic terrorist organization, and they released the gas in five locations. Twelve people died, and plenty were injured and temporarily blind. Had the delivery systems worked as they wanted, many more would be dead. This incident is a pretty scary example of terrorists engineering the delivery of deadly substances, and the worry is that they develop better biological (or maybe nuclear) devices.

Another problem is getting rid of nuclear material. What do you do with uranium once it’s weaponized? Nothing. You can’t get rid of it. I think you can de-weaponize it, but it can be enriched very easily again … so it’s pointless. Also, it’s super dangerous for people to even be near (ask those from Hiroshima). To this day, I don’t think people can live in Bikini Atoll (where nuclear tests occurred).

I know there are facilities deep beneath the earth’s surface where the United States discards nuclear waste and material, and the tunnels are designed to collapse after 100 years … thereby keeping the material locked under the surface. Hopefully that works as it should. What Russia is doing with their nuclear waste … who knows?

But the two biggest worries are 1) terrorist organizations getting nuclear material, and 2) trying to figure out what to do with nuclear material — after all, we’ve reduced the number of nuclear weapons in the world quite a bit. But really, there’s only so much that can go in the ground or in the ocean.


Hopefully you know more about nuclear weapons! I hope you have a bright day after learning about all these deadly threats in the world.

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