Learning to play the game

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By Gabriel Vasquez

Quickly approaching the cusp of an alternative energy revolution, the benefits of nuclear technology have become more appealing than ever before.

Understanding both sides of the nuclear paradox, however, is necessary to “win the game.”

The challenge?

Harnessing the power of nuclear energy for good, while keeping its destructive capacity at bay from itchy trigger fingers, according to former LANL Director Sigfried Hecker.

“These benefits need to be visible, which has been a problem until now. We need to play the benefits in order to win this game,” Hecker said during a talk he gave Wednesday to a group of mostly summer lab interns at the Oppenheimer Study Center.

Avoiding war, Hecker said, and the conditions that could possibly lead to the detonation of nuclear weapons, remains difficult because there is still a large number of nuclear-capable countries in the world, and plenty of bombs as well.

The only way to lessen that threat, Hecker said, was to eliminate the weapons.

“The fewer fingers on the trigger of these nuclear weapons, the better,” he said.

Prior to 1968, only five countries had nuclear capabilities, Hecker said. The U.S., U.K., France, China and the Soviet Union. After the non-proliferation treaty of 1968, that number increased.

The treaty was designed to curb the spread of nuclear arms, but handed over sensitive information necessary to build nuclear facilities to other countries, on the condition that they would not create, test or use any new nuclear weapons.

Only four recognized sovereign states are currently not parties to that treaty: India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – some of the current players in the cat-and-mouse game of today’s nuclear politics.

Other players include Syria, Iran, and Israel.

Although Israel has never confirmed that it has nukes, Hecker said the existence of weapons there is widely recognized by the international community.

Hecker also gave students a crash course on the basic requirements of constructing a nuclear weapon, including the building, design, testing and manufacturing process of such an undertaking.

The two paths to a bomb are either uranium or plutonium, Hecker said. With uranium, only a simple gun-type assembly or the concentration of materials into a small space is required to lay the groundwork, while with plutonium, which is generally more difficult to produce, it usually requires an explosive around it for successful detonation.

The good news, Hecker said, is that it is relatively difficult to produce bomb-capable uranium and plutonium. The bad news is that little material is needed to make a bomb, a lot of nuclear weapons have already been made, not all of those weapons are securely stored, and once a country acquires the “fissile materials” required for detonation, it is likely it can quickly produce a bomb.

The efforts by some countries to keep these weapons and their weapon-manufacturing facilities covert has been a focus of recent international efforts to impede the proliferation of nuclear arms, Hecker said.

A nuclear reactor site in Syria, destroyed by Israel in September 2007, had been disguised to look like a ruined Byzantine fortress at ground-level. With the aid of open-source satellite software like Google Earth, and the comparison of similar reactor designs in North Korea, independent experts were able to confirm the structure was actually a nuclear reactor.

Hecker showed the crowd pictures of the Syrian facility side by side with pictures of authentic Byzantine fortresses in the area, to show just how similar they were in external appearance.

He said other common features that indicate a country may have an under-the-radar nuclear operation are disguising nuclear programs as legitimate well-to-do organizations, and encompassing nuclear operations as part of a national agenda (such as to increase energy output or similar beneficial causes).

Hecker, who served as LANL director from 1986-1997, visited North Korea in 2004 as part of a U.S. delegation assigned to assess North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

In hopes that it could use evidence of their nuclear strength as a bargaining chip, North Korea complacently showed Hecker its ability to make fuel for bombs at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

“Would you like to see our product?” officials asked.

Their offer was just that barefaced, Hecker said.

North Korean officials brought out a glass jar containing plutonium for Hecker to examine, and simply by analyzing its features while the jar was sitting on the palm of his hand, Hecker said he was able to determine that it was most likely was real plutonium metal.

He mentioned three of the characteristics that helped him make the ascertainment were the color, temperature (slightly warm) and density of the jar’s contents.

Hecker is currently a professor at the Management Science and Engineering Department at Stanford University, and is co-director of the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation. He also acts as advisor to the Nuclear Threat Initiative board of directors, and often makes unofficial visits to other countries to help gauge their nuclear potential.

Over the past 15 years, he has fostered cooperation with Russia to secure and safeguard the stockpile of ex-Soviet fissile materials.

He joined LANL as a graduate research assistant and postdoctoral fellow, where he led the laboratory’s Material Science and Technology Division and Center for Materials Science prior to being director.

Overall, attendees seemed to find Hecker’s talk compelling and spirited; a few students said his visit was a welcome change from some of the humdrum lectures they have grown accustomed to.

The next round of LANL’s Summer Lecture series is Monday July 18, and will feature lab researcher Roman Movshovich, whose topic will be unconventional superconductivity in heavy fermions.