Posted by: Tobias | December 11, 2008

The origins of the bomb

The New York Times on to very interesting new books on nuclear proliferation:

In 1945, after the atomic destruction of two Japanese cities, J. Robert Oppenheimer expressed foreboding about the spread of nuclear arms.

“They are not too hard to make,” he told his colleagues on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M. “They will be universal if people wish to make them universal.”

That sensibility, born where the atomic bomb itself was born, grew into a theory of technological inevitability. Because the laws of physics are universal, the theory went, it was just a matter of time before other bright minds and determined states joined the club. A corollary was that trying to stop proliferation was quite difficult if not futile.

But nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth. In the six decades since Oppenheimer’s warning, the nuclear club has grown to only nine members. What accounts for the slow spread? Can anything be done to reduce it further? Is there a chance for an atomic future that is brighter than the one Oppenheimer foresaw?

Two new books by three atomic insiders hold out hope. The authors shatter myths, throw light on the hidden dynamics of nuclear proliferation and suggest new ways to reduce the threat.

Neither book endorses Oppenheimer’s view that bombs are relatively easy to make. Both document national paths to acquiring nuclear weapons that have been rocky and dependent on the willingness of spies and politicians to divulge state secrets.

[…]

Dr. Younger disparages what he calls myths suggesting that “all the secrets of nuclear weapons design are available on the Internet.” He writes that France, despite secretive aid, struggled initially to make crude bombs — a point he saw with his own eyes during a tour of a secretive French atomic museum that is closed to the public. That trouble, he says, “suggests we should doubt assertions that the information required to make a nuclear weapon is freely available.”

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