Saturday, December 27, 2008

Nuclear weapons: Certainties we are safer without

In "Atom John: A truck driver uncovers secrets about the first nuclear bombs," David Samuels introduces us to a truck driver who corrected the record on the first atom bombs (New Yorker, December 15, 2008):
Among other things, Coster-Mullen’s book makes clear that our belief in the secrecy of the bomb is a theological construct, adopted in no small part to shield ourselves from the idea that someone might use an atomic bomb against us. Surely, hostile powers could easily obtain the kind of information that Coster-Mullen has acquired, however painstakingly, in his spare time. Any nation that can master the challenges of the atomic-fuel cycle and produce a critical mass of uranium or plutonium, as Iran is reported to be on the verge of doing, would have little difficulty in producing a workable bomb. Given a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, a small number of engineers working for a terrorist group like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah could easily assemble a homemade nuclear device.

I recently wrote to Coster-Mullen and suggested that we take a trip across the country to visit his Little Boy replica, which is currently housed at Wendover, a decommissioned Air Force base in Utah. After some negotiation, we agreed to ride together on his late-night delivery route between Waukesha and Chicago. We would then drive to Wendover. Along the way, he would explain the inner workings of the first atomic bombs, and I would learn how he got it right and the experts got it wrong.

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Coster-Mullen’s research project can be construed as a danger to mankind or as a useless antiquarian endeavor. Given that a functional atomic weapon can be constructed in myriad ways, why does it matter precisely how the first bomb worked? Yet Coster-Mullen is proud to have helped establish “a public, permanent record of the facts” about the Manhattan Project. As maddening as his personality can be, it is hard to imagine what America would look like without the small and shrinking number of people who engage in painstaking, firsthand research in order to separate the truth from the body of supposed facts, and who keep the rest of us honest. A corollary of this insight, of course, is that much of what we think we know is wrong.