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

Taylor left the nuclear fold more than 30 years ago. He had a change of heart and became convinced it was insane to develop any more nuclear weapons. He has devoted his life since then to working for disarmament, a self-appointed Paul Revere warning against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. That's why, as often as he can, he joins protests like the recent one at Lawrence Livermore.

Because they are so well informed, Taylor's views on the nation's nuclear weapons programs are not easily dismissed. He is particularly concerned about what is happening at Lawrence Livermore these days. Taylor, as he is wont to do, sees the dark potential in the stewardship program.

Clearly, Taylor says, the U.S. intends to continue amassing as much data as it can on nuclear warheads, and using the knowledge to continue improving its arsenal. "Everyone from the president on down has said we're not developing any new types of weapons, which is certainly not true," Taylor says. He points to the B-61 Mod 11 as just the beginning of a whole new potential strain of weapons work.

The NIF laser, in particular, worries Taylor. He believes it could provide the scientific data needed to vault the United States to the next level of weapons development, making possible warheads that until now have been thought impossible -- pure fusion bombs. (See the accompanying article, Page 10.)

If that happens, Taylor asserts, the U.S. will have unleashed an entirely new threat to the planet's safety, a class of weapons that makes the shock of India's recent nuclear tests pale in comparison.

"I think it is reasonable and practical to say that this is technology that should be internationally forbidden," Taylor says. "Because if by chance it does work, we're in deep trouble globally, as human beings."

Many other scientists disagree with Taylor's notions. They say the prospects of the NIF laser leading to development of a pure fusion bomb are so remote they're not worth any worry. But they protest with some reserve, an unwillingness to criticize Taylor too harshly. So many times before, Taylor has seen outcomes they could not.

"There are people who don't think such a thing is remotely practical, that it is not achievable," says Henry Kendall, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has long been involved in examining nuclear weapons development. "I don't know. No one really knows. But it's unlikely."

Time will tell if a pure fusion bomb is practicable. Even if it does not come to pass, however, Taylor argues that it is inevitable that the "virtual testing" envisioned in the stewardship program will mean breakthroughs and new discoveries that will be used to beef up our arsenal.

"What feeds the weaponeering process is money and this addictiveness of the process of working on extremely fascinating things," he says. "I don't know how to take that away as long as people are given a job to do what they can."

A nuclear explosion takes just a few seconds, but dissecting precisely how the mushroom cloud is born is a task that has consumed more than 50 years.

The sum total of everything scientists have learned about nuclear warheads in that time is contained in the most classified of all data -- the nuclear codes.

The codes are not, as the name implies, some magical formula or precise recipe that can be followed step by step to produce a nuclear blast. They are mammoth computer simulations containing the best knowledge scientists have gathered from all the testing and research conducted over the decades. There are holes in them, assumptions that have not been fully tested, best guesses that have yet to be proven wrong, but might be.

Dearborn likens the codes to the computer models that weather forecasters use to predict storms. "Right now people don't do weather well," he observes. "We don't do these calculations perfectly. We feed it into a computer, we get an answer. But a butterfly flies somewhere, and his wings flutter, and the storm doesn't come."

The codes attempt to track how every part of a nuclear weapon, from the tiniest bolt to the nuclear physics package, will react during an explosion. Some of the codes take weeks to run on the fastest computers available, says Randy Christensen, who is overseeing assembly of the new supercomputer system at Livermore.

"Inside the code I basically set off the weapon and the code predicts how the high explosive detonates, how the metal moves, all the physical processes that take place," Christensen says. "If you tell me how the weapon is at one point in time, I use them to tell you how the weapon will be at another point in time."

Even with the data from 1,030 nuclear tests, there are still gaps in the codes, lapses in our understanding of precisely how the weapons work, say several physicists. They want to make the codes better.

"There are some important aspects of performance that we still don't understand as well as we need to to be able to scrutinize some aspects of the weapons," says Kent Johnson, the chief of staff for defense and nuclear technologies at Livermore.

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