Building a Better Bomb

While condemning India for its nuclear testing, the U.S. government quietly funnels billions to research programs aimed at creating an ever-more-virulent nuclear arsenal

Even though we presumably aren't going to be manufacturing new physics packages in the future, two of the biggest machines being built for the Stockpile Stewardship program correspond directly to these two bomb parts. The DARHT X-ray machine at Los Alamos will mainly be used to test what happens with the high explosives in the primary. The NIF laser at Livermore will replicate what happens in the secondary.

Critics, including several physicists and former bomb designers, contend that the primaries and secondaries are already the safest and most reliable parts of our existing weapons. If anything, they should require the least virtual testing under a stewardship program.

For 50 years the best minds in nuclear physics, from early geniuses like the cantankerous Hungarian Edward Teller on down the line to today's designers, have studied what happens in the primaries and secondaries.

It is probably best, in fact, to tinker with the existing physics packages as little as possible, physicists agree, since any changes cannot be passed through the crucible of an actual underground test. "There are no meaningless changes," says Dearborn.

Yet stewardship proponents like Hogan and Dearborn argue that they need the new tools stewardship will provide. "We'll be able to use this data to convince ourselves by simulations that we know what's going on" with aging warheads, says physicist Drell.

But new insight into the workings of nuclear warheads cuts two ways. Information that is useful in tending to old bombs can also be used to design better bombs.

The NIF and the rest of the stewardship program, critics argue, are massive scientific overkill if the goal is just to monitor the warheads we already have.

"What's all that for?" asks Ted Taylor, a physicist and former bomb designer at Los Alamos who is now an advocate of dismantling the arsenal. "Why don't we periodically inspect our weapons, find out what's going on inside them, and if something is deteriorating, replace it?"

His silver-framed glasses and white lab coat make Ted Taylor look like an aging physics professor preparing to lecture. But his light-blue beret seems out of place. So does he, standing on the gravel shoulder of a two-lane road in Livermore, hands clasped behind his back.

About two dozen men and women are gathered, some clutching empty jars that once held Smucker's jelly or marinated artichoke hearts. In a few minutes, they will use the jars to collect soil samples around Lawrence Livermore.

It is one of the periodic demonstrations held to protest Livermore's role as a nuclear weapons lab. As the protesters listen to speeches by the roadside, a lab public relations spokesman and cadre of riot-equipped security guards watch from behind a chain-link fence. Today, the protesters are assuming the role of a United Nations weapons inspection team -- hence the white coats, the blue berets, the sample jars.

After a few brief remarks, the protesters are instructed to cross the street "in a calm, centered, and dignified way," and approach the lab's gate. They demand entrance to search for weapons of mass destruction. They are turned away. Then they scoop soil samples into their jars and go home.

The crowd consists mostly of Bay Area activists, people you see on the local news from time to time fighting the good fight against nuclear weaponry.

Taylor has joined them on this Thursday in March, flying in from Princeton University, where he is a visiting fellow. He looks so bookish, so unassuming, this 72-year-old man. He is easy to lose sight of, even in a small crowd.

Yet Taylor may be the only man in history who has used an atomic bomb to light a cigarette.

That was decades ago, when Taylor was an eager young physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, working alongside the likes of Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi. In the early days of the arms race, Taylor became known as something of a genius. Although he'd washed out of the physics program at the University of California at Berkeley after botching his oral exam, he became a remarkably gifted nuclear bomb designer.

Taylor started at Los Alamos in 1949, when he was 24 years old, and established a reputation as a nuclear visionary, able to perceive destructive potential where others could not. When no one else could see how to make a bomb smaller, or lighter, or more powerful, Taylor would see it. He had a hand in conceiving many of the arsenal's finest weapons.

"I've come to believe that I was born with a real addiction to certain kinds of violence. That is, bombs. And working on them was absolutely fascinating and a big challenge to one's creativity, and that's why I pursued that career for 16 years," Taylor says. "I got fascinated with trying to push extremes of various kinds: How small a nuclear weapon could be made. Could one be made that could be fired from a gun? And how big could we make them? Could we make one big enough to destroy all of Moscow?"

It was in the early 1950s, when a warhead called Scorpion was exploded above the Nevada desert, that Taylor lit his infamous Pall Mall. While waiting for the test to commence, Taylor found a parabolic mirror. He calculated where the mirror would focus light, and rigged up a wire holder for a cigarette. When Scorpion was detonated, the mirror captured energy from the blast and lit the cigarette. Taylor smoked it. (The incident, and others from Taylor's career, are included in author John McPhee's 1973 book The Curve of Binding Energy.)

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