Plausibility Check: 580 kg HEU Goes Loose from Ulba, Kazakhstan

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In 1994, 580 kg of highly enriched reactor fuel for the Alfa class submarine was found in a room at Ulba Metallurgical Facility in Kazakhstan by an American engineer visiting from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Shortly after the finding, it was discovered that an Iranian delegation had visited the facility seeking to purchase reactor fuel (it's unclear on if it was before or after the discovery). The CIA launched Project Sapphire, which was able to successfully recover and secure the stockpile. The Ulba stockpile is the largest known stockpile of unsecured weapons grade fissile material from the fall of the Soviet Union. How plausible would it have been for the material to have found its way to a rogue state, or perhaps even a terrorist group? Could a state or group with sufficient resources have covertly assembled nuclear weapons using the material? Would 1990s technology have allowed for more advanced fission or even boosted fission designs to have been built without testing, as in The Sum of All Fears?
 
Moving the material is not that easy. If someone else had found it, it is possible, but the actual operation took six weeks and would have required, one would have to assume, some highly specialized equipment. That is hard for a nation state to manage who do not have experience handling this type of material - but feasible with Russian help. It seems unlikely that a 'group' would be able to logistically manage the removal of the entire load - in secret.

As for building weapons, it would almost certainly give a rogue state a helping hand - Pakistan perhaps could have tested a couple of years earlier. North Korea, Iran, Iraq or perhaps most likely Libya, may well have been able to progress a program more quickly with such a head start but there is still the issue of developing the capability to keep progressing once the windfall uranium is exhausted.

Even though it was weapons grade, I would be doubtful that a 'group' could produce anything buy a very simple device. I think it is more a problem of facilities for a non-state - unless there is collusion with a state. Nuclear facilities tend to be large, and hard to hide, although not impossible with the full weight of government involved.

Technology might allow the development of said sophisticated weapons, but the problem is getting your hands on it. I am sure that the US could develop a warhead without testing and be confident, and one suspects Israel have done so (Vela notwithstanding) - but I wonder how feasible it is without the mountains of data from previous tests.
 
This type of organisation would likely have the best chance - large, well funded and access to high tech equipment.

The limiting factor in developing weapons is almost always (presumed) to be the enrichment process, which is what takes the space and resources and in this case is bypassed.

I am not sure exactly how much information was in the public domain back in the early 1990's to work from in terms of nuclear weapons development.

I seem to recall reading something about a research project that took a group of physics graduates using public domain information coming up with what appeared to be a workable design for a bomb, but I cannot remember anything else about it, specifically when that was.
 

Delta Force

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This type of organisation would likely have the best chance - large, well funded and access to high tech equipment.

The limiting factor in developing weapons is almost always (presumed) to be the enrichment process, which is what takes the space and resources and in this case is bypassed.

I am not sure exactly how much information was in the public domain back in the early 1990's to work from in terms of nuclear weapons development.

I seem to recall reading something about a research project that took a group of physics graduates using public domain information coming up with what appeared to be a workable design for a bomb, but I cannot remember anything else about it, specifically when that was.

Also, a group in a country friendly to the United States would probably have an easier time acquiring more advanced computer technologies. In the 1990s there were still restrictions on exporting electronics to some states.

Specifically for Aum Shinrikyo, they were able to purchase industrial computers from a company in California, which they planned to use in creating advanced chemical and/or biological agents.
 
This type of organisation would likely have the best chance - large, well funded and access to high tech equipment.

The limiting factor in developing weapons is almost always (presumed) to be the enrichment process, which is what takes the space and resources and in this case is bypassed.

I am not sure exactly how much information was in the public domain back in the early 1990's to work from in terms of nuclear weapons development.

I seem to recall reading something about a research project that took a group of physics graduates using public domain information coming up with what appeared to be a workable design for a bomb, but I cannot remember anything else about it, specifically when that was.
You may be thinking of the Nth Country Experiment from 1967. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012...xamining-the-the-nth-country-experiment-1967/

If given 100kg of refined machineable weapons grade material then building a gun type weapon or two is probably something you could do in a garage. It might not give more than a few kilotons but it should be doable given basic skills and a willingness to die from the radiation. Serious skills and modedst facilities would give you a Little Boy or similar.
 
There was a US college student in the 1970's who was failing his physics course and needed an A from his professor who worked in the US nuclear program. In the space of a few weeks he designed a viable nuclear weapon and built a mock up which was seized by the FBI who then classified the paper.

The hardest part was identifying the correct explosives to trigger the device.

By the 1960's a nation state with access to a decent scientific library, a university physics department, a really good machine shop, a few post grad physics students and some fissionable material could build a bomb. Building a fusion device would be harder as I suspect a lot of the engineering info needed to build an H Bomb would be much harder to find (I hope).
 
There was a US college student in the 1970's who was failing his physics course and needed an A from his professor who worked in the US nuclear program. In the space of a few weeks he designed a viable nuclear weapon and built a mock up which was seized by the FBI who then classified the paper.
The version I heard was a New Mexico high school student using public domain material, but then I assume there was a lot of deliberate misinformation circulating around that incident. It provided the plot line for several TV shows. Point being that the necessary information was out there decades ago. By 1980 any halfway competent physics major could put a nuke together given time, funding, and equipment. The real problem would be finding and acquiring weapons-grade fissile material.

FWIW the Kazakhstan incident is by some accounts only the tip of the iceberg. As I recall, the Washington Post did at least one major article in the mid-1990s about Russian, U.S., British, and French special forces and scientific teams combing through ex-Soviet research labs and nuclear installations all over the FSU and shipping planeloads of "stuff" either back into Russia or to the West.
 
The version I heard was a New Mexico high school student using public domain material, but then I assume there was a lot of deliberate misinformation circulating around that incident. It provided the plot line for several TV shows. Point being that the necessary information was out there decades ago. By 1980 any halfway competent physics major could put a nuke together given time, funding, and equipment. The real problem would be finding and acquiring weapons-grade fissile material.

Right. And where is your hypothetical high school student going to get kilos of HEU or pure plutonium?

Or the machine shop to precisely mill it. Without poisoning everyone else in town.

or the electronics and explosives needed for an implosion to actually work.



Trust me. The 'design' is the least of your worries.
 
In terms of a group, I'm thinking perhaps something akin to Aum Shinrikyo.

This type of organisation would likely have the best chance - large, well funded and access to high tech equipment.

The limiting factor in developing weapons is almost always (presumed) to be the enrichment process, which is what takes the space and resources and in this case is bypassed.

I am not sure exactly how much information was in the public domain back in the early 1990's to work from in terms of nuclear weapons development.

I seem to recall reading something about a research project that took a group of physics graduates using public domain information coming up with what appeared to be a workable design for a bomb, but I cannot remember anything else about it, specifically when that was.

Also, a group in a country friendly to the United States would probably have an easier time acquiring more advanced computer technologies. In the 1990s there were still restrictions on exporting electronics to some states.

Specifically for Aum Shinrikyo, they were able to purchase industrial computers from a company in California, which they planned to use in creating advanced chemical and/or biological agents.

Somebody, please, write a TL about Aum Shinrikyo getting ahold of the Ulba HEU and using it to build one or more nuclear weapons.:D:eek::eek::eek:
 
Right. And where is your hypothetical high school student going to get kilos of HEU or pure plutonium?

Or the machine shop to precisely mill it. Without poisoning everyone else in town.

or the electronics and explosives needed for an implosion to actually work.



Trust me. The 'design' is the least of your worries.

This is right, what's more even if you did get it working with it isn't a backyard job. The plutonium for Fat Man was hot-pressed into shape as an alloy with gallium, and despite trawling through the catalogues in the mail I've yet to see a machine which hot-presses plutonium-gallium alloys into semi-spherical shapes on sale at Bunnings Warehouse. In fact all those sorts of machines needed to make nukes are on trigger lists, so much so that when any of these trigger items sell within set time parameters an investigation is launched.

This is probably why despite nukes being in the public domain for the better part of 70 years they haven't been set off like firecrackers by every douchebag with an imagined beef with the world and a mental instability.
 
The version I heard was a New Mexico high school student using public domain material, but then I assume there was a lot of deliberate misinformation circulating around that incident. It provided the plot line for several TV shows. Point being that the necessary information was out there decades ago. By 1980 any halfway competent physics major could put a nuke together given time, funding, and equipment. The real problem would be finding and acquiring weapons-grade fissile material.

FWIW the Kazakhstan incident is by some accounts only the tip of the iceberg. As I recall, the Washington Post did at least one major article in the mid-1990s about Russian, U.S., British, and French special forces and scientific teams combing through ex-Soviet research labs and nuclear installations all over the FSU and shipping planeloads of "stuff" either back into Russia or to the West.

The student (AKA "the A Bomb Kid") was John Aristotle Phillips, the college was princeton, and the prof was Freeman Dyson.
 
Right. And where is your hypothetical high school student going to get kilos of HEU or pure plutonium?

Or the machine shop to precisely mill it. Without poisoning everyone else in town.

or the electronics and explosives needed for an implosion to actually work.



Trust me. The 'design' is the least of your worries.

That was kind of the point. The design isn't the problem, it's getting the necessary capabilities to build the bomb itself.

Note, though, that "fizzles" are mis-named. Yes, they don't have the yield of a full-blown nuclear detonation, but they still have a pretty big yield, in the range to tons to low kilotons. Even a really crappy nuclear bomb is still potentially a very powerful weapon, by terrorist standards.
 
That was kind of the point. The design isn't the problem, it's getting the necessary capabilities to build the bomb itself.

Note, though, that "fizzles" are mis-named. Yes, they don't have the yield of a full-blown nuclear detonation, but they still have a pretty big yield, in the range to tons to low kilotons. Even a really crappy nuclear bomb is still potentially a very powerful weapon, by terrorist standards.

It depends on the weapon type, some fizzles can't even destroy the tower they were mounted on.


Fizzles are no rare thing, even in 2006 60 years after the A Bomb was proven to work Nth Korea had a test that fizzled. I'd guess that no NGO could amass the sort of resources that Nth Korea expended to fuck up their bomb.
 

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South Africa operated its nuclear program out of a small machine shop with relatively basic equipment, and only involved a few thousand people at most. For reliability and to avoid a test, they built the gun type design. Total costs were low, something in terms of $50 million per year, and with a program focused on design, enrichment, construction, maintenance, deployment, etc.

If an entity has material and simply wants to construct a few devices, all it needs in terms of infrastructure is the machine shop. The centrifuges, reactors, and other common giveaway signs wouldn't be present.
 
It depends on the weapon type, some fizzles can't even destroy the tower they were mounted on.
Ah, but you're missing that that was a really big tower (it was 300 feet high; you're looking at the lower 100 feet). Put even RUTH (which still developed an equivalent yield of ~200 tons) in a truck and detonate it next to a building or in a downtown, and you're causing mass casualties on par with the biggest terrorist attacks.
 
Ah, but you're missing that that was a really big tower (it was 300 feet high; you're looking at the lower 100 feet). Put even RUTH (which still developed an equivalent yield of ~200 tons) in a truck and detonate it next to a building or in a downtown, and you're causing mass casualties on par with the biggest terrorist attacks.

A nuke that can only demolish 200' for steel latticework, the equivalent of a construction crane, probably won't match the damage done in 9/11.

If you managed to locate fissile material and gather the resources to turn this into a working nuclear weapon that is your only chance for this to occur would you be satisfied with 200t? I sure as hell wouldn't.
 
South Africa operated its nuclear program out of a small machine shop with relatively basic equipment, and only involved a few thousand people at most. For reliability and to avoid a test, they built the gun type design. Total costs were low, something in terms of $50 million per year, and with a program focused on design, enrichment, construction, maintenance, deployment, etc.

If an entity has material and simply wants to construct a few devices, all it needs in terms of infrastructure is the machine shop. The centrifuges, reactors, and other common giveaway signs wouldn't be present.

South Africa's weapons programme may have been run out of a machine ship for $50 million a year, but it rested on a substantial nuclear industry. A HEU/light water reactor acquired from the US went critical in 1965, a domestic LEU/Heavy water reactor went critical in 1967. Uranium enrichment was begun in 1974 and 2 power reactors were completed in 1984-5.

It is on this base that a small and cheap weapons programme is possible.
 
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