10/11/2006

Daily Kos: North Korean Nuke: Fake or Failure?

There are only two real possibilities for what happened in North Korea. Either this was not a nuclear device at all, but a blast generated through conventional explosives, or it was a nuclear test gone wrong -- "a fizzle."

It was a fake, or a failure.

How could it have failed?

If the device was a fake -- just a lump of TNT or C4 playing a role -- we should know when we get the results of planes "sniffing" the air for released isotopes. But if it was a failure... well, there are several consequences.

If they failed to take extreme care in compressing the plutonium, the bomb could have become uneven, blowing some of the material off to the side before it could all be driven to criticality. Or the initiator could have been poorly designed, causing a slower start to the explosion and leading the device to fall apart physically before getting the full effect.

In either case, the result is called a "fizzle." In that case, you can get a lot of radioactive isotopes, a good deal of heat, and a much smaller explosion than the design would suggest. In essence, only a tiny part of the material is converted into energy. Even in a well-design nuclear bomb, the amount of matter converted into energy is about the size of a stick of gum. In a fizzle, it can be microscopic.

My initial inclination is to go with the idea that this was faked. After all, North Korea has made similar threats of tests before, and coming only a short time after the US had (foolishly) moved to cut off their access to banks, this was clearly intended as an effort to gain the isolated North Koreans some means of leverage. They have incentive to make us believe they can do this.

However, most experts believe that North Korea has enough plutonium on hand to create half a dozen or so devices, so a failure is just as likely. If that's true, we'll know soon even if the data from the sniffer planes is never made public. If this was a real test and it failed, North Korea will be keen to do it again. Soon.

Fake, or failure, we've little choice but to treat North Korea as if they've joined the "nuclear club."

Daily Kos: North Korean Nuke: Fake or Failure?

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