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How to build a nuclear bomb

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How to build a nuclear bomb



Why's everyone so paranoid about who is getting the bomb? Because with enough cash and political guile, it's never been easier to make your own. Gordon Corera reports on the technological shopping list fuelling the modern arms race


An ageing container ship docks at a port in the Middle East.


Paperwork on board the Al Hamed states that its cargo is cement.


Over the next two days, convoys of tarpaulin-covered trucks set about transporting the heavy material from the docks at Tartus hundreds of miles away to a point in the Syrian desert on the banks of the Euphrates, 90 miles north of the Iraqi border.




Movement of fissile material is closely monitored by the Atomic Energy agency as with this shipment of 31lb of bomb-grade uranium which is being transported by security from a university in Prague to safe storage in Russia


There, a building about 50m by 50m with a flat roof is being constructed by North Korean labourers.


Photographs of the building are taken by a succession of spy satellites sweeping overhead and the images transmitted to a group of data analysts stationed just across the border in neighbouring Israel.


They note that the dimensions of the new construction are similar to those of a nuclear plant in North Korea.


On a runway not far from the analysts, the crew of four F-15 and F-16 fighters make preparations for a bombing mission. They are scrambled the night after the ship leaves port, just after midnight.


Evading a Russian-supplied radar system, they fire off magnesium flares as they approach their target, illuminating the desert. Seconds later their missiles reduce the building site to rubble.


The inference of this activity, which took place last September, is that the Syrian site was part of a secret nuclear weapons programme.


But debate has raged over it ever since.


President Assad of Syria told the BBC it was an "unused military building". Others claimed it was variously a nuclear reactor under construction, a chemical warfare facility, a site for missile manufacture or a store for fertiliser and water pumps.


A report in The Spectator claimed the raid "may have saved the world from a devastating threat" and that "a very senior British ministerial source" had warned, "If people had known how close we came to World War III that day, there'd have been mass panic."


This was widely derided as sensationalist. After a three month investigation, acclaimed New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh wrote that the Spectator report was "overheated", and quoted Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): "Our experts who have carefully analysed the satellite imagery say it is unlikely this building was a nuclear facility."


Israel and the US refused to comment; Syria declined to invite in experts from the IAEA to inspect what was left, which could have proved its innocence.


Some have concluded the Israeli attack was only partly about destroying whatever the Syrians were building and the real motive was to warn Iran it might be next; Israel fears it is moving dangerously close to the nuclear threshold.


There is, however, one unavoidable truth that arises from the bombing raid: from an Israeli point of view, it was possible that the building could have been a nuclear bomb factory.


This is because for a well-resourced state, the undetected procurement of nuclear capability is no longer very, very hard.


Today, it is merely difficult. And paranoia, as the Israeli bombing example displays, has risen accordingly.


Becoming a nuclear power is a costly, time-consuming and risky exercise involving murky deals on the black market.


Players are forced to immerse themselves in a new international industry staffed by mercenary scientists, arms dealers and spies.


But it can be done, and the rewards are great. Having the bomb buys a regime or state power, prestige and security.


Saddam Hussein paid the price for seeking the bomb but never getting there, yet never making clear that he had stopped.


North Korea claimed it would stop building the bomb in return for oil; it was able to force the US to the negotiating table after it went on to test a bomb in 2006, buying a degree of security.


"The whole landscape shifted because now they had a nuclear device," US director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said recently.


"Everything changed with regard to how people thought about and treated a nation."


The path to developing a nuclear capability is so straightforward that there is effectively a shopping list: what is needed, who is needed, a timeframe and a costing; and what is required to complete the list without being detected – and therefore not have one's bomb blow up in one's face.



Cost Free. Time Minutes. Obtaining a design for an effective modern nuclear device is by far the easiest part. There are two forms of nuclear bomb.


In one, two sufficiently large chunks of fissile material – that is, material capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction – are propelled together.


The other is a more advanced implosion device in which very precisely shaped explosives simultaneously compress a perfect sphere of fissile material.


Both unleash the required power for an atomic chain reaction. Neither is beyond the work of a dedicated amateur.


Getting designs for either weapon is very straightforward. As far back as 1964, a US nuclear lab ran a test to check how far nuclear-weapons information had dispersed.


It found that two recent PhD students who were not experts on nuclear weapons design had managed to collect enough material to plan a device.


In 1977, an undergraduate at Princeton University managed in five months to write a thesis on designing an implosion weapon from publicly available information.


Members of his department were so concerned by his research that they handed it to the US government, who classified it as "secret"– although that didn't stop the Pakistan Government trying to get hold of a copy.


This was, of course, even before the internet age.




Obtaining a design for an effective modern nuclear device is by far the easiest part


More recently, in 2007, a physics master at a British public school had to remove from a website a step-by-step guide on how the first British atomic bomb was built, for fear of who might use the information. And now, thanks to one Pakistani scientist – AQ Khan – the detailed designs for a Chinese weapon are thought to be circulating on the black market.


So, the design is not the hard part. It's finding the ingredients and assembling them that is complicated.



Cost For a nuclear weapon with 15kg of enriched uranium you'd need to start with about 1,500 tons of uranium ore.


The rough price of uranium ore is currently £50 per lb, so the cost could run to around £200 million.


Most nuclear states develop their own mine – as Iran has done – to procure uranium more cheaply.


Time If bought illegally or stolen, then within days.


If processed in a centrifuge plant (see later), anything up to 15 years.


The tricky part is getting hold of the fissile material.


There are two equally hard ways of getting hold of it: either you steal it or you make it.


(i) Theft

Once again, there are two ways – neither easy – of stealing fissile material…


a) Smuggled radioactive material

Last November, Hungarian and Slovakian police detained three men with nearly half a kilo of enriched uranium, almost certainly originating from the former Soviet Union.


They were trying to sell it for £500,000.


Smugglers' routes tend to go through the Balkans into Europe and are run by organised crime operations.


But many fall victim to "sting" operations led by intelligence agencies, which are constantly scouring the market to pick up potential sellers.


Most of the amounts on sale are small, although in 1994 Czech police seized 3kg of highly enriched uranium.


This, of course, is only what we know – what we don't know is how many smugglers have got through.


These amounts are not enough to make a nuclear weapon, so are not much use to rogue states seeking the bomb proper. They are, however, enough for terrorists hoping to construct a so-called "dirty bomb" – a device in which conventional explosives spread out radioactive particles to contaminate an area – something Al-Qaeda is thought to have been trying to do for years.


b) Theft from an existing plant

The security of nuclear plants in some parts of the world has long been of concern.


During the Nineties, some of the former Soviet Union's facilities were protected by little more than a padlock and a sleepy guard.


According to experts in the US, much has been done to improve this but not enough. (The US has found it harder to be critical of the nuclear security of others since the US Air Force last year accidentally flew six nuclear warheads on a B-52 bomber without anyone knowing they were on board.)


Other countries have had their own scares.


Just after midnight last November 8, an armed gang launched a military-style assault on the sprawling Pelindaba nuclear facility 25 miles west of Pretoria, described as the nerve centre of South Africa's nuclear industry.


They deactivated a 10,000-volt electric fence and then headed to the operations centre in order to disable the security system.


Their knowledge of the layout of the plant suggested that they may have had insider help.


One officer at the facility was shot, which led to the alarm being triggered and the gang having to flee, dropping a stolen computer during their escape. The facility contained enough fissile material to make dozens of nuclear bombs. No one knows exactly what the gang was after.


But Pakistan remains the biggest concern for many experts.


It is by far the most unstable nuclear power, because of the Al-Qaeda leadership operating in the country.


Pakistan's weapons are kept at secret locations and in a disassembled form, so simply breaking in and stealing one would not be easy.


The real concern is the "insider threat" – the possibility of soldiers who guard the weapons coming under the influence of extremist ideology.


This fear is heightened because there have already been "leaks" from the Pakistani nuclear establishment, including two scientists meeting with Osama Bin Laden himself in Afghanistan just before 9/11 to discuss nuclear weapons.


Both a) and b) are terrorist entry-level nuclear bomb avenues, and even then the chance of stealing a ready-made bomb is low.


For a serious weapons programme you need to do the job properly: you have to manufacture the material yourself...


(ii) Manufacturing your own material

The real danger remains the threat posed by states seeking to create their own nuclear weapons, especially in the more unstable parts of the world.


For states, stealing a small amount of fissile material is of little use, since you need more than one bomb to deter opponents. What you need is a steady supply of fissile material, which requires a nuclear infrastructure.


Being able to manufacture your own material is the only guaranteed way to ensure the degree of independence and security that states seeking nuclear weapons desire. There are two ways of achieving this:


a) Pretending you are building a nuclear power facility

The infrastructure for developing a weapons programme is almost identical to that of a civilian nuclear-power programme.


And a country is fully within its rights to pursue one under the terms of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


There are 189 countries party to the treaty, including five with nuclear weapons – the US, UK, France, Russia and China.


Only four countries have not signed up – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – and are known to have their own nuclear weapons programmes.


One trick is to claim you are seeking civilian nuclear power by building reactors and reprocessing plants, and then seek to divert the capability towards weapons – or be ready to do so.


Some countries – notably Japan – have a huge civilian nuclear infrastructure, which experts believe could be shifted towards nuclear weapons relatively quickly.


Iran has recently used the argument that its nuclear work is for power (although the configuration of its facilities makes observers suspicious).


Other countries in the Gulf region are making noises that indicate that they, too, might be seeking to go down this path.


But this route is difficult – not least because it is so public and draws so much attention. That leaves one final option.


b) Make it in secret

Many states have sought to go down a very different, more secret path, involving a technology called uranium-centrifuge enrichment, which means engaging with the murky world of the nuclear black market.


This is at the heart of the nuclear matter.


Centrifuge designs are so tightly guarded that aspirant nuclear states are willing to pay millions for them.


As James Acton, a theoretical physicist and lecturer in science and security at King's College, London, says, "Centrifuge technology is certainly not plug-and-play technology.


"They are extremely complex devices. As the Libyans, Iraqis and Iranians have all found out, it takes skilled personnel and a lot of practice."


Centrifuges stand a few metres tall and are the crucial machines used to enrich uranium.


The raw material itself is surprisingly easy to find. Uranium can be mined from the ground – if you go to the Congo, you can find it lying around in the fields.


But in this raw form it's not much use, as more than 99 per cent of it consists of uranium 238, which is not unstable enough to be split.


Only about 0.7 per cent of natural uranium is uranium 235, which is fissile. In order to be useful, the concentration of U235 has to be increased.


To act as fuel for a nuclear power reactor, it needs to be at least four per cent U235; but to be useful for a bomb, uranium needs to be enriched to "weapons grade" – at least 90 per cent.


Centrifuges work by spinning at high speeds, which leads to the heavier U238 isotope separating from the U235.


Each machine only enriches the material a tiny amount.


So the product of one machine is fed into another centrifuge to be enriched further.


To be effective, thousands of centrifuges need to be organised into a cascade that will run continuously.


In terms of money and time, the cost ranges from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of pounds, and the centrifuges may have to run for years depending on the design and the engineering quality.


The complexity of centrifuges makes them highly valued pieces of equipment.


To spin that fast and operate over long periods, everything has to be done to reduce the friction and stress.


This requires the parts of a centrifuge to be made to extremely high specifications.


Even at the start of the 21st century, the materials, such as maraging steel (an esoteric low-carbon ultra-high-strength alloy) or in more advanced models carbon fibre, cannot be easily manufactured.


The rotors that spin round inside rest on intricately engineered magnetic bearings – even the oil in which they run is highly specialised. The tiniest flaw in any part of the centrifuge can lead to the rotors wobbling and crashing, destroying not just that centrifuge but sending it crashing into all those around it.


When Iranian engineers first built their own machines, they neglected to put on gloves.


As a result, the tiny beads of sweat from their hands were enough to unbalance the machines, leading to their destruction.


But there is an appeal to this route.


"It's easier to hide a secret uranium enrichment programme because it can be in a nondescript building," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department specialist on nuclear weapons, now directing the non-proliferation programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


"It gives off few detectable signals unless inspectors know what they are looking for and get very close."


Pakistan was the trailblazer for acquiring the bomb clandestinely.


The journey was begun by the scientist called AQ Khan, who was working in Amsterdam in the early Seventies at a facility linked to Europe's centrifuge-enrichment programme.


While there, he stole the designs for the most advanced centrifuge, as well as the list of suppliers, and built his own global network of dealers ready to supply everything his country needed to deliver nuclear weapons.


What makes AQ Khan, now 71, particularly important is that he not only built Pakistan's own bomb but also sold on the designs to other countries – including Iran, North Korea and Libya – and offered them to many more.


What was once the most sensitive material was burnt on to CDs in Khan's Dubai office so it could be easily distributed.


This means that the designs are now available on the black market.


When Libya surrendered its weapons programme in 2003, it provided enough evidence of Khan's dealings to force the reluctant Pakistani Government to put him under house arrest, where he remains now.


Khan also offered his contacts book of all those willing to supply the right parts.


It was at a series of secret meetings in Dubai in 1987, and again in the mid-Nineties, that he and his associates sold the plans, specific parts and the all-important contacts book to Iranian representatives in return for cash.


At the first meeting, Khan's people actually supplied a menu of possible purchases with a price list for each item attached.


These purchases were the foundation of Iran's enrichment programme.


One of the biggest unanswered questions is who Khan's other customers might have been and what he gave them, since he travelled to something like 18 countries in the years leading up to his arrest.


Cost Up to £2million

Time From days to months, depending on whether the supply originates in a closely observed country.


As well as the fissile material, a weapon also requires initiators, high explosives and electronic triggering circuits to ensure that the device works correctly.


It is not a question of stealing the items but rather of buying them under false pretences, using a web of front companies and businessmen who are more than happy to turn a blind eye to the final use of whatever they are procuring in order to turn a quick profit.


A triggered spark gap emits a powerful but very precise and synchronised electronic pulse.


In hospitals, it is used in machines that break up kidney stones using electrical shocks but it can also trigger a nuclear bomb.


Only a few firms produce the relevant type of high-energy triggered spark gaps.


In a recent case, Israeli businessman Asher Karni was caught trying to supply a batch of 200 to Pakistan through his firm in Cape Town in South Africa, which specialised in the import and export of hi-tech products.


He bought the components from a company in Massachusetts through a New Jersey-based broker, claiming that the destination was a hospital in South Africa.


A first package of 66 – costing around $5,000 each – was sent through DHL from the US to South Africa and then via Dubai to Pakistan.


Karni packed a crate full of the electrical devices, each about the size of a can of soup. Some surprise was expressed at Karni, an orthodox Jew, supplying an Islamic state's nuclear programme – but that just illustrates the way the business works.


Most of the items on the nuclear shopping list are similarly known as "dual use".


In other words, they have legitimate uses, often in hospitals, research or industry.


This means they are freely available, although their sale is supposed to be carefully regulated with the provision of certificates saying where they will turn up.


Simply fabricating where the items are heading is the usual trick, since the monitors rarely have the resources to check up on the real destination.


Other things a bomb maker might require include specialist ring magnets, vacuum pumps, furnaces and power inverters.


Individually, each may not look that dangerous, so buying piecemeal to avoid detection is crucial.


In the past, most of these items were only made in Western countries with advanced manufacturing industries, so you would need offices in places such as London, Berlin and Tokyo, plus front companies in Dubai to ship the material through.


But advances in technology mean that it's now becoming much easier to site production in less-observed corners of the world. "With globalisation and the use of computerised lathes, centrifuge parts can be made almost anywhere," explains nuclear weapons specialist Mark Fitzpatrick.



Cost Millions of pounds each.


More than one will be needed depending on the size of the arsenal.




An engineer's shadow on a set of diagrams for nuclear powered turbines and a nuclear-weapon


The Libyan programme, which was relatively minor, is estimated to have cost £50 million.


Time A year or two if you can buy them clandestinely, longer if you need to develop them yourself.


You'll need to think how to deliver a weapon and, in practice, this normally means a missile.


Heading to Asia is probably your best bet if you want to buy one.


A recent CIA report pointed out that, "North Korea's willingness to provide complete missile systems and related technologies continues to be an important and attractive selling point for potential and existing customers."


There's also a fine art to the process of miniaturisation in which scientists and engineers try to work out how to reduce the size of a nuclear warhead so it fits on a missile and can still be delivered accurately over a long distance. This requires time and scientific expertise more than money.



Cost Staffing a centrifuge plant the size of the Natanz facility in Iran would require around 1,000 scientists, support staff and guards.


Building costs would be in the tens of millions; staffing and material costs would run into the hundreds of millions.


Time At least several months.


An aspirant nuclear state needs to think carefully about where it is going to build its secret plant.


The site needs to be remote – a place where it is easy to hide activity underground and protect sensitive material from possible air strikes.


The North Koreans are masters of hollowing out mountains to create hiding places that are close to impregnable.


Other plants, such as the Natanz centrifuge enrichment facility in Iran, were detected during construction and, if that happens, a state needs to think carefully about whether it has the capability of deterring a military strike.


In Iran's case, a good tactic has been making clear that it has the capacity for reprisals in Iraq, across the Straits of Hormuz in the Gulf, through which much of the world's oil is transported.


Cost A state with nuclear ambitions needs to invest heavily in counter-detection.


The North Korean technique of burying plants in the sides of mountains costs several billion pounds.


Time Ongoing.

The US intelligence budget is about $50 billion and includes spy satellites, which makes evading detection difficult.


For example, what Karni didn't know when he sent off his crate of electrical devices was that the package was being tracked and the spark gaps had been disabled.


On New Year's Day 2004, Karni was arrested at Denver airport.


His arrest shed some light on the battle being waged by intelligence agencies such as MI6 and GCHQ in Britain and the CIA and NSA in the US, working closely with customs and police forces to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


They monitor the activity of businesses and recruit spies to watch their communications or infiltrate agents into those companies or the target country's secret programmes.


They use tricks like setting up their own dummy companies to supply parts for a nuclear weapons programme.


This material can then be either constructed to not work and damage the programme or even be installed with tracking devices so that the spies can work out the final destination for the parts and therefore, they hope, the secret locations.


Why did the Israelis bomb the Syrians?


Because they know what you now know.


For as little as £50 million, and in as little as five years, it is possible to attain nuclear capability (although this figure is based on the Libyan enterprise, which failed the detection test, and does not include facilities, scientists and many of the materials).


What's clear is that building a bomb is a long and very expensive process, and the variables are great.


But it is certainly becoming cheaper and quicker. This is a trend that few, other than rogue states, would see as good news.



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Technology will be our downfall. Building massive weapons is becoming too easy and cheap.


'technology will be our saviour, religion & superstition will be out downfall'


Always reminded of the section on Tom Clancy's book where the steps of a nuclear detonation were quite desriptive.



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