Not just a bigger boom


A kiloton is an abstract concept. Let’s face it – most of us have no direct understanding of what a kilogram of TNT can accomplish, let alone a million times that amount. A kiloton is just a number – like the national debt – that we know intellectually to be huge, but without a visceral context in which to place it. My submarine could carry nuclear weapons – not the city-annihilating strategic weapons, but the somewhat more diminutive tactical nukes (and many of us speculated on the yield such a weapon might have) but who can look at a metal cylinder a few feet long and a foot or so in diameter and visualize Hiroshima? What made nuclear weapons real to me was not the innocent-looking metal in the torpedo room. What made them real to me was my first visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima in Y2K – over a decade after I left the Navy.

Even getting off the train in Hiroshima was more of an intellectual exercise than it was an emotional one. I looked around and the first thought in my mind was “This was all gone.” But the city itself looks pretty much like any other Japanese city – big and bustling and a lot of signs I couldn’t read. But when I stepped inside the museum; when I saw not only the photos, but the remnants of concrete and asphalt and brick with the shadows of victims burned into them; when I saw the iron that had melted, the glass that had flowed, and the evidence of lives that had been shattered – this was when the atomic bomb became a more visceral reality for me and when I understood in my heart not what nuclear weapons can do but what an atomic bomb had done.

Although many of the Manhattan Project scientists had an inkling that nuclear weapons were more than just really big bombs it seems fairly likely that the political and military leaders who chose to develop and to drop them took the more simplistic view. It wasn’t until reports began coming back from Occupied Japan that the full impact of what these new weapons could do began to sink in. And over the next few decades of testing – atmospheric and underground – we developed an ever-more sophisticated understanding of what would transpire should out nuclear weapons ever be used again in anger. Calculations and modeling of blast and thermal effects as well as fallout patterns – and the effects of fallout on the population beneath – helped to solidify this understanding by showing how many people could die in a nuclear war. But I suspect that the visual images of houses blasted apart by nuclear tests, the film footage of an entire (mock) forest swaying from the blast wave, and the photos of those civilians caught by fallout – I suspect that these are what made the potential impact of a nuclear attack seem real to our leaders and to those in the other nuclear powers. It sounds incredibly trite to put it this way, but nuclear weapons are far more than an easy way to make a bigger explosion.

This is one of the reasons – in my humble opinion – that Eisenhower’s suggestion that the world develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosions (the Plowshares program), as well as the Soviet and other programs on peaceful nuclear explosions that I discussed in an earlier posting, was fated to fail. Even leaving out the emotional impact of using nuclear weapons in a world that was becoming increasingly fearful of them, nuclear explosives (peaceful or military) produce a LOT of radioactivity and this limits where and how they can be used. And this – from the strictly rational standpoint – is the fundamental difference between any nuclear explosion and a chemical one.

First, think about non-nuclear explosive. Any explosive compound that can blow apart an enemy army or factory can also be used to blow apart a stubborn rock or to blast a tunnel through a mountain. But when the dust has settled (literally as well as figuratively) the work left is simply to scoop up the rubble and haul it away. But do the same thing with a nuke and you also have to figure out how to handle the radioactivity. And if the explosion breaches to the atmosphere then you also have to deal with the fallout and all the problems that can cause. From a purely scientific standpoint this is the fundamental drawback to nuclear explosives – they produce all that pesky radioactivity.

But in addition to the purely left-brain reason that we can’t treat nuclear explosives as just a way to make a bigger boom there are some right-brain reasons as well, and they get back to the first part of this posting. Nuclear explosives are forever linked with nuclear weapons – with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with nuclear winter and the crew of the Lucky Dragon (a fishing boat caught by the fallout from America’s first thermonuclear test), and with our Cold War fears of nuclear extinction. Setting off a nuclear explosion for any reason at all – peaceful or military – is fraught with emotion and symbolism. Even without the radioactivity it is simply not possible to have a nuclear explosion devoid of social and political impact.

The Plowshares program was a laudable attempt at finding a way to turn nuclear explosives into more than weapons of mass destruction. But it ran into snags that its promoters – such as President Eisenhower – failed to envision. And it is a good object lesson as well – the dangers of nuclear weapons extend beyond the battlefield and go beyond our calculations into the realm of politics and emotion. And as long as they carry this baggage – radiological as well as psychological and political – it is likely best that they not be used.

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2 Responses to “Not just a bigger boom”

  1. J. Boling July 26, 2012 at 2:51 PM #

    Given the poster’s correct in describing the hazards of nuclear explosives as working “tools,” I still see one use for which they are eminently suited: Blasting huge caverns well below the earth’s surface to use as disposal pits for nuclear waste which shares the same characteristics – highly dangerous levels of persistent radiation. No one seems to be able to agree on a safe storage location ABOVE ground…..

    • Mark L. July 27, 2012 at 12:07 PM #

      This was considered as part of Project PLOWSHARE, and I believe the Russians actually did this with non-nuclear waste, although I may be misremembering.

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