10/11/2006

CNN.com - Dud or deception? Experts examine N. Korea claims - Oct 10, 2006

PARIS, France (AP) -- Was North Korea's nuclear device a partial dud?

That is one of several theories that Western experts say might explain the apparent low explosive force of the communist nation's first declared nuclear test.

Other suppositions are that North Korea deliberately chose a small device to save its limited stocks of bomb-making plutonium or that it somehow muffled the shockwaves from the underground blast to make it appear smaller than it was.

Even if North Korea got helpful pointers from nuclear-capable Pakistan, as many experts suspect, the technology of efficiently splitting atoms to make a controlled explosion is still tricky for novices to master. For North Korean scientists, working largely in isolation, that could be especially true.

"The devil is in the details," said French nuclear proliferation expert Bruno Tertrais. "It's like cooking. The fact that you have the recipe does not make you a chef."

One explanation could that the device -- if nuclear -- fizzled rather than truly banged, with the plutonium only partially detonating, he said. Or, the device's timing may have been slightly off, creating a weaker chain reaction with less explosive force than planned.

But because of the intense secrecy that shrouds North Korea, it may never be known exactly how large an explosion it was hoping for and, therefore, whether the test was successful, as it claimed.

"I think they got a partial result," said Philip Coyle, a U.S. former assistant secretary of defense and now a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

"For them it was enough for them to say that it was a success. It helps them to claim that they are a nuclear power, and that the world should take them seriously, which is what they want. But I wouldn't be surprised if after several months they don't try again."

He said North Korea may have muffled shockwaves from the device by detonating it in a very large underground cavity.

A lack of knowledge about the test site's geology -- a factor that can affect the spread of shockwaves -- could also complicate the efforts of scientists overseas who are poring over seismic data and other readings to try to pinpoint the exact nature of the blast.

According to Hankyoreh, a South Korean newspaper that has good ties with the communist North, a North Korean diplomat at its embassy in China acknowledged Tuesday that the nuclear test caused a smaller blast than expected, but he also claimed that Pyongyang had the ability to detonate a more powerful device.

"The success in a small-scale (test) means a large-scale (test) is also possible," the unidentified diplomat said in comments posted on the newspaper's Web site.

Figuring out in advance how powerful a bomb will be is a problem that has confronted scientists since the dawn of the atomic age. The United States tested the first bomb on July 16, 1945, partly because its scientists weren't sure that it would work. Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the U.S. weapons program, on that historic day lost his $10 bet that the bomb -- nicknamed "the Gadget" -- would not detonate.

That device, and the first weapons that Russia and other nuclear powers tested were about 20 times more powerful than North Korea's appeared at first glance to be.

France, South Korea and others estimated that the device had an explosive force equivalent to 500-1,000 tons of TNT. The French defense minister commented "that there could have been a failure."

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the sensitive situation with North Korea, said Tuesday that Washington's working assumption also continues to be that "more likely than not" Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test that was not particularly successful.

CNN.com - Dud or deception? Experts examine N. Korea claims - Oct 10, 2006

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