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Tuesday, June 24, 2003
On making a bomb

Many years ago, I read an article about how two post-graduate students had been involved in a bizarre attempt to see how easy it would be to build a nuclear weapon. I think it was in The Sunday Times. At the time, there was not the hysteria about 'rogue states', 'axes of evil', and terrorism. The story has resurfaced now, here.
It's one of the burning questions of the moment: how easy would it be for a country with no nuclear expertise to build an A-bomb? Forty years ago in a top-secret project, the US military set about finding out.
This article has a few more details than I remember, although the original purported to be accompanied by some of the students' engineering drawings. I do not recall, though, that the task was conducted at Lawrence Livermore laboratories, in California; I had thought they did it as a college research project.

When the project was finished,
after a valedictory presentation at Livermore attended by a grumpy General Edward Teller [father of the A-bomb], [the students] were pulled aside by a senior researcher... 'I bet you guys want to know how it turned out,...If it had been constructed, it would have made a pretty impressive bang...on the same order of magnitude as Hiroshima.'
Well, blow me down, how one's memory plays tricks. My recollection is that the verdict was that there was only a fifty percent chance of a serious explosion but it would have been very 'dirty'.

Finally, although it further degrades the whole story, and we learn it by reading the whole article, the students did not actually make a bomb; they only produced plans, instructions and specifications for doing so.

It is pisspoor journalism to headline an article 'How two students built an A-bomb' when, manifestly, they did not. Nul points, Grauniad. We expect better.

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