Skip to comments.Scientist views nuke 'deterrent'
Posted on 01/21/2004 3:00:47 PM PST by knak
A TOP US scientist's gave a dramatic account today of how he held a dense, grey and warm lump of North Korean plutonium, during a rare tour of the Stalinist state's notorious nuclear factory.
Siegfried Hecker carved a vivid new angle on the North Korean nuclear crisis with his first public testimony about his visit two weeks ago to Yongbyon, a nuclear complex at the centre of a Cold War-style showdown between Washington and Pyongyang.
Hecker described how North Korean boffins offered to show him their nuclear "deterrent".
"When I expressed my scepticism, they said, 'Well, would you like to see the product?'" Hecker, senior fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told a hushed hearing room used by the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Proud scientists took a red metal box into the conference room where Hecker and the non-governmental delegation of which he was a part, was waiting. Inside was a white wooden box with a slide-off top.
Inside that lay two "jelly jars" each with a tightly taped screw-on lid, Hecker said.
One contained green plutonium oxalate powder, a chemical form of plutonium which is a by-product of reprocessing plutonium to turn it into weapons-grade material.
"The second jar, they said 'Well, that's the product. It's 200 grams of plutonium metal'."
(Around six kg of plutonium would be enough for a crude nuclear weapon, according to US congressional estimates.)
"I looked at it very closely and it looked like it could be plutonium," Hecker told the senators including Republican committee chairman Dick Lugar and ranking Democrat Joseph Biden, congressional aides and a phalanx of journalists.
"I looked at the metal. It was a peculiar shape that I, to this day, have not figured out why - and that is a funnel shape, thin-walled - and I described the dimensions in my testimony."
Then Hecker, a thin grey-haired figure using language easily understood by his audience of nuclear neophytes, said he decided he needed to hold the sample, noting that plutonium does not have a field of penetrating radiation that makes it dangerous to handle.
"Inside a heavy-wall glass jar, that plutonium is not going to do anything to you, you know, and in spite of the popular belief that plutonium is the most dangerous (thing) in the entire world, that's just not true.
"The first comment I made was, 'You know, it's not very warm,' but it was warm", a property consistent with processed plutonium.
"In terms of the weight, you know, it seemed about right."
Hecker cautioned that he was unable to give iron-clad confirmation that the metal in his hand was plutonium, stressing that he was on an observation mission and did not carry measuring instruments.
He could not say if the metal had been recently reprocessed from 8000 spent fuel rods taken by North Korea from a holding pond where they had been under international observation before the nuclear crisis erupted in October 2002.
Pyongyang has said it completed reprocessing the rods, which US experts say could give it sufficient plutonium for five or six nuclear devices.
Hecker was part of two non-governmental US delegations that visited Yongbyon earlier this month, part of what North Korean officials said was a bid to break a stalemate in diplomatic efforts to end the nuclear crisis.
He said he believed he had been invited so the Stalinist state could prove that it had processed the spent fuel rods and had made a nuclear "deterrent".
But he was unable to go that far, asserting instead that Pyongyang had proven its capacity to process plutonium, but not that it had done so or taken the difficult step of weaponising the material.
Perhaps copper-clad or aluminum-clad. Some kind of metal-clad.
Wait a minute. Does this mean that we aren't getting correct facts on nuclear power/weapons from the popular media? This can't be true, can it?
But it could make a heckuva dirty bomb?
Another message from Kim Ill no doubt.
Is the SpecOps chopper warmed up yet?
If you can hold the stuff in your hands, I doubt scattering it about a few city blocks would be as harmful as other radioactive elements.
I'm no physicist, but I think all the hoopla about plutonium being "the most dangerous stuff on the planet" may only mean it's half life is very long, and/or you can make nukes from it.
Maybe it's chemically toxic? The guy here did have it in a glass jar.
Now, now. You're being unkind to the "great ex-president." You have to put some of the blame on Wild Willy and Mad Maddie, after all.
I'm actually intrigued by the testimony about the funnel shape of the plutonium. That could be a result of machining it to act as the first stage of a multi-stage device (an H bomb). A single stage fission device in Times Square would destroy much of the center of New York City. A multi stage fusion device in the same place could destroy all five buroughs of New York City and much of the surrounding suburbs.
Well, hopefully they based their design on the technical information in Tom Clancy's Sum Of All Fears. He built in some intentional errors to throw off any terrorists (he actually acknowledged that it was so easy to find the design info that doing so was virtually a useless gesture, but he did it anyway).
I just flashed on this great image of Edward Teller, the "father of the H Bomb," sitting on a cloud in heaven (yeah, I'm assuming alot for old Doc Strangelove) and arranging a nudge on a convenient comet to impact on North Korea. If he could he'd do it too.
||Plutonium - Pu
Plutonium was discovered by G.T. Seaborg, A.C. Wahl and J. W. Kennedy in 1940 in California, USA.
Plutonium is a radioactive silvery metal that tarnishes in air to give an oxide coating with yellow tinge.
The greatest source of plutonium - and one that produces 20,000 kilograms every year - is the irradiation of uranium in nuclear reactors. This produces the isotope 239Pu, with a half-life of 24400 years.
Plutonium was used in several of the first atomic bombs, and is still used in bomb-making. The complete detonation of a kilogram of plutonium produces an explosion equivalent to over 10000 tonnes of chemical explosive. Plutonium is also a key material in the development of nuclear power. It has been used as a compact energy source on space missions such as the Apollo lunar missions.
Plutonium has no known biological role. It is extremely toxic due to its radioactivity.
Plutonium is attacked by oxygen, steam and acids, but not by alkalis. The metal is warm to the touch because of the energy given off in alpha decay, and a large piece of the metal can boil water. Plutonium forms compounds with oxygen, the halides, carbon, nitrogen and silicon.
|Relative Atomic Mass (12C=12.000)||244 (radioactive)|
|Density/kg m-3||19840 (298K)|
|Ground State Electron Configuration||[Rn]5f67s2|
|half-life||24400 yrs||3.79x105 yrs||8.2x107 yrs|
|Enthalpy of Fusion/kJ mol-1||2.8|
|Enthalpy of Vaporisation/kJ mol-1||343.5|
|others||Pu+2, Pu+3, Pu+5, Pu+6,|
|Ionisation Energies/kJ mol-1|
|M - M+||585|
|M+ - M2+|
|M2+ - M3+|
|M3+ - M4+|
|M4+ - M5+|
|M5+ - M6+|
|M6+ - M7+|
|M7+ - M8+|
|M8+ - M9+|
|M9+ - M10+|
No, it's inhalation of particles that will do you. So it's a very specific type of radiotoxicity. Chemically I doubt it is much worse than lead.