Monday, October 09, 2006

A Deadly Kind Of Fizzle

Yesterday evening, North Korea exploded what has every indication of being a test of a nuclear bomb. While American authorities have not yet confirmed that a seismic event centered on North Korea's test facility resulted from a nuclear explosion, Russia has said it is 100% certain that a test did occur.

However, there is uncertainty about whether the test was a success or a fizzle. The seismic event recorded was very small indeed for a test that, according to the Russians, was supposed to have a yeild in the 5 to 15 kiloton range. Indeed, some have assessed the yield at as little as 550 tons - which would definitely mean an incomplete detonation.

Still, those like the neocon Ed Morrissey who are trying to play down the importance of even this small a yield are trying to play down the possible horror for political reasons, perhaps to create an impression of "do-ability" within the uber-right base for what will surely be calls from neoconservative spokespeople for U.S. military action in the very near future.

North Korea has enough plutonium for an estimated minumum of eight to a dozen bombs - more if they strip fuel from reactors for military purposes. The website Nukefix puts it thusly:
When eight low-tech 20 Kt nuclear weapons are detonated simultaneously in an encirclement pattern (5 mile radius, 4.3 miles between zero points in a circle) in a high population density urban area, at least as much destruction would tend to be produced as with a single one megaton thermonuclear weapon. The reason for this is firestorms and the interaction of blast forces.

A one megaton weapon would cause 105 square miles of 3+ psi destruction. With firestorms, the 20 Kt encirclement pattern can readily envelope 105 square miles in total destruction, leaving no escape for the inhabitants. At a population density of 12,000 per square mile the 20 Kt encirclement pattern might well produce 53% more deaths than a single one megaton weapon, which is to say, approximately 1,082,884 deaths with 20 Kt encirclement versus approximately 708,426 deaths with a one-megaton blast.
Need I mention that accurate intercontinetal missiles are hardly needed at a time when the Bush administration has consistently underfunded and ignored port security, particularly radiation detectors?

Nor should the dangers posed by a firestorm from even a far smaller "fizzle" of 550 tons yield be underestimated. The Tokyo firestorm which resulted in 185,000 casualties, 80,000 of them dead, was caused by only 2,000 tons of conventional incendiary explosives. A nuclear fire, even a fizzle, burns far hotter but even at comparable casualty rates a 550 ton yield explosion in a built-up area would result in around 20,000 dead and wounded. That is never an insignificant threat.

Meanwhile, around the world, condemnation of the North Korean test is flooding in. Here in the U.S., we're about an hour away from President Bush's address to the nation on the subject.

  • Tony Blair has called it a "completely irresponsible act".

  • Amazing, Pakistan - who sold the North Koreans their nuclear and missile technology in the first place - have condemned the test. That shows a lot of gall from the world's primary proliferator, which also happens to be a state sponsor of terrorism and a destabilizer of neighbouring democracies.

  • Iran, on the other hand, has called for "a world free of nuclear weapons" in the wake of the test.

  • James Joyner at Outside The Beltway has a good round-up of comment from the American press and bloggers, including the view that China is worried that this will push Japan into its own nuclear weapons program, destroying the balance of power in the region.

  • Steve Clemons, who notes the failure of Bolton-style "big stick" bluster in deterring this move, agrees that Japan is about to overcome its nuclear allergy. (Back in July, Steve also pointed out that the Bush administration has been actively hampering the efforts of its own chief negotiator.)

    I've previously agreed with Steve that Japan's new neocon Prime Minister has been looking to North Korea as a useful pretext for reclaiming Japanese military might. It has the technology and the raw materials to be a nuclear power within months.

    So its three days late, but wow, what an October surprise.

    Update 4.10pm: Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, posting at DefenseTech, agrees - the test was a fizzle with a yield only in the 500 to 1,000 ton range.
    A plutonium device should produce a yield in the range of the 20 kilotons, like the one we dropped on Nagasaki. No one has ever dudded their first test of a simple fission device. North Korean nuclear scientists are now officially the worst ever.

    Of course, I want to see what the US IC says. If/when the test vents, we could have some radionuclide data -- maybe in the next 72 hours or so.

    But, from the initial data, I'd say someone with no workable nuclear weapons (Kim Jong Il, I am looking at you) should be crapping his pants right now.

    First the missile, then the bomb. Got anything else you wanna try out there, chief?
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