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The myth of the home-bake terror nuke 'cookbooks'

Who needs Iraqi A-bomb plans anyway?

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Analysis Predictably, the Nov. 3 New York Times revelation that sensitive documents on a-bomb design, recovered from Saddam Hussein's regime and released on-line, became a political football. If there was value in it, as opposed to red meat for Democrat blogs, it was swept away by the mania inspired by a Times source, one anonymous diplomat, who was quoted as claiming them to be a "cookbook" of methods.

An eye-rolling statement, it was used to rip Republicans. And they had it coming, enamored as the GOP has become of declaring that about half the United States' citizens are unpatriotic slugs who want to lose the war.

But the Times has become infamous for its clowning claims about all types of weapons of mass destruction, and this was quickly noted by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientist's Secrecy Project. Aftergood criticized journalist William Broad's piece, writing "the New York Times story failed to include an appropriate note of skepticism about the significance of the disclosures" and that its reporter "also has a penchant for telling and retelling a sensational, counterintuitive story that the government is failing to protect sensitive national security secrets." (For more Times overcooking, see also, or anything by Judith Miller).

What the Times declined to include in its story was that the methods for building atom bombs have not been particularly secret for decades. While some information on design is, for want of a better word, secret - and I'll get to this in a moment - the basic principles can be worked up from scratch by a dedicated team of scientists with skills in a wide range of complex disciplines. The requirement writes off the simple-minded notion of a "cookbook" - ready to download - on atom bomb design.

This information has been conveyed in seminars and courses on nuclear proliferation for years, although perhaps many might not be expected to know it. The nub of it is illustrated by a read of the semi-technical paper, "Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?", written by atom scientists J. Carson Mark, Theodore Taylor and others, published in 1987. Mark had been the director of the Los Alamos Theoretical Division for 26 years. He died in 1997.

Theodore Taylor was the creator of the smallest as well as largest a-bombs in the US arsenal and was legendary for efficiency and elegance in design, passing on in 2004.

The scientists wrote, "Schematic drawings of fission explosive devices of the earliest types showing in a qualitative way the principles used in achieving the first fission explosions are widely available."

Broad described the Iraqi a-docs as "roughly a dozen in number, [containing] charts, diagrams, equations and lengthy narratives about bomb building that nuclear experts who have viewed them say go beyond what is available elsewhere..." In this case, "information on how to build nuclear firing circuits and triggering explosives, as well as the radioactive cores of atom bombs."

But here the lay of the land gets squishy. Language is inexact when describing what constitutes detailed information and how much of it encompasses not only the science and engineering, but also the art of the work. The New York Times~, in any case, came up short in this area:

"...the detailed design drawings and specifications that are essential before it is possible to plan the fabrication of actual parts are not available," wrote Mark and Taylor. "The preparation of these drawings requires a large number of man hours and the direct participation of individuals thoroughly informed in several quite distinct areas: the physical, chemical and metallurgical properties of the various materials to be used, as well as the characteristics affecting their fabrication, neutronic properties, radiation effects... technology concerning high explosives and/or chemical propellants, some hydrodynamics, electrical circuitry and others."

Hmmm, sounds more complex, requiring an integrated effort and a library of plans, rather than just an electronic dozen.

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