After reading an article on the Daily Beast, I decided now was the time to tackle the issue of nuclear security. In the article the author suggested that the North Koreans could smuggle two spheres of uranium the size of a grapefruit into the United States, assemble a functional nuclear bomb and detonate it in a major American city.
Here is the quote from the article:
“Yet Kim does not need to launch a missile to deliver a nuke. He could, for instance, have his agents or diplomats smuggle the parts for a bomb across the open borders of the United States as well as bring in two half-grapefruit-size pieces of uranium. The device could then be assembled on site and set off.”
Making a bomb
One of the methods described in the article that was particularly ridiculous was the idea that North Korea could simply assemble a bomb from parts smuggled through a border and that the weapon would only be the size of grapefruit. This is absurd. A nuclear weapon requires hundreds of parts, made to incredibly precise tolerances. You cannot simply strap two hemispheres of uranium or plutonium together and create a nuclear bomb.
North Korea’s technical problems
Because the The North Koreans still haven’t reached a level of proficiency that would allow them to create a truly “miniaturized” bomb these additional parts are numerous, large, and very heavy. The North Korean bombs require dozens of high explosive lenses to shape the shockwave for the bombs implosion mechanism. The explosives alone would weigh hundreds of pounds and also require precise manufacturing. Remember, the completed bomb without it’s casing weighs about half a ton.
On site assembly.
North Koreas lack of technical proficiency means that their bombs require numerous other heavy parts in addition to the explosives and core, many of which are radioactive. These would also need to be smuggled in. For example, A large tamper made of an extremely dense material like lead or natural uranium is also required.
A neutron emitter or initiator would would also be needed, as would a deuterium-tritium core for boosted weapons. Without these two radioactive components the bomb will either fissile or fail to detonate altogether. These are not things thing that can be bought in a store. Every component would have to be pre-assembled inside North Korea.
Each of these components either weighs hundreds of pounds or emits a detectable level of radiation. To fit these parts would require a machine tools and a decent factory to assemble into a bomb and then a truck to place the device in position.
Fusing and detonating
Then there is the fusing. Because the North uses plutonium for their weapons they can only use implosion type bombs. These require extremely precise fuses that detonate each charge simultaneously. So, along with all of the basic internal components the DPRK would need to smuggle detonators, cables and a mechanism the ensure the precise timing of the detonation.
Then there is the politics. If a crude fission weapon like this could somehow be smuggled into the U.S it would be militarily ineffective. Yes, it might kill several thousand people. But, its certainly low yield explosion would be incapable of seriously affecting U.S military or economic strength.North Korea would only attack the U.S if it became irrational and thought the propaganda value of an attack would somehow overcome the detriments of the response.
In the article the author claims that the U.S would not be able to trace the source of the nuclear device because it does not know exactly where the fissile material was produced. The argument is then made that, because of the this the U.S would not know where to retaliate and deterrence would fail. I find this hard to believe.
Even if it Kim didn’t take credit for the attack, simple logic would provide the answer. There are only nine countries that process nuclear bombs. In eight of these countries we know where their facilities are located. North Korean bombs would be identifiable because they would not fit these signatures and because the 2006 test already resulted in a leak of radioactive material that the fallout could be matched with.
The result would undoubtedly be the annihilation of the Kim regime, possibly by the use of our own nuclear weapons. We would find out where the weapon came from and like after 9/11 we would direct our rage and weapons at the source of it. Therefore, deterrence is still established.
The idea of smuggling literally a ton of nuclear bomb components into the U.S is ludicrous. Not only would it require infrastructure to construct the bomb, But the current Korean warheads are far too big and complicated to be assembled on site. They would need to be built off site and then transported to the targets by trucks.
The plan would require shipping hundred of parts into the U.S; many of which are either too physically large or heavy to be concealed, or actually radioactive. It’s very likely the FBI, Coast Guard or NSA would intercept at least one bomb part before it could reach it’s destination. This would foil the plan.
The plot would also require smuggling valuable nuclear technicians, drivers and special forces into the country. In other words, the attack would be large, complicated, expensive and exactly the type of threat that is the easiest for intelligence agencies to uncover and dismantle.
Most important, the attack would be pointless. The U.S would know who set off the nuclear device and would retaliate by destroying the Kim regime.
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