How to Become a Nuclear Power

Sarcastic, yet a bit too close to the truth.

Posted on March 25, 2010 at 12:36 PM • 26 Comments


GreenSquirrelMarch 25, 2010 1:26 PM

Good find, Bruce.

Indeed it is sarcastic (which is a winner in my book) and, as you say, painfully close to the truth.

On the positive side, its not as if every aspirational nuclear nation doesnt already know this....

MailmanMarch 25, 2010 2:49 PM

@GreenSquirrel: "On the positive side, its not as if every aspirational nuclear nation doesnt already know this...."

I'd love to see the United Nations, the IAEA or NATO criticize Der Spiegel for irresponsible disclosure.

GuntherMarch 25, 2010 3:20 PM

If you try to post this URL on Facebook your Account will be disabled... apparently it's "abusive content".

AndrewMarch 25, 2010 3:59 PM

I would be very happy if nation states remained the only owner-operators of nuclear weapons. Despite much thoughtfulness and planning by both nuclear and non-nuclear powers, I am not confident that this will remain the case.

Clive RobinsonMarch 25, 2010 6:37 PM

He forgot to elaborate on UAV's as poor mans cruise missiles.

The problem with missiles is they go up and up and up and get picked up on every radar from Athabasca to Zargreb.

They might be well neigh impossible to stop but they are probably more dificult to design than a working relativly small physics package.

So the ultimate wheeze a Nuclear Powered UAV that will stay aloft for years...

Oh and if you are realy smart but on a "home build" budget go for weather ballons.

As a man in the UK has recently shown you can get up with the big boys for less than 8000USD. His photos caused NASA to give him a ring to find out how he got the pictures...

Oh and the advantage of weather ballons over missiles, belive it or not a lot of radar systems won't detect them because they move to slowly...

Not just that but as the Japanes showed in WWII the jet stream is your inter continental friend.

Who cares if they try to shoot it down just detonate as high up as possible and let the EMP do the talking (caus' yer mobile sure won't be ringing)

AntonMarch 25, 2010 7:37 PM

Spiegel is one of Germany's most renowned weeklies.

Don't see why cynicism and humor should be outlawed. A good belly laugh because something is so true is healthy for all concerned, a scathing laugh is an assertion of power to put someone down. So which do you prefer?

LetsGetRealMarch 26, 2010 1:32 AM

There is a typo in the Spiegel's article:

...the "double standards" of the Nuclear Weapons States,.....
should read:
...the double standards of the Nuclear Weapons States,....

KeithMMarch 26, 2010 3:08 AM

Having spent the best part of the last decade working in the civil nuclear industry, I can really agree with this. The article is sarcastic in tone, but its pretty much spot on - what is there to disagree with?

Despite this we suffer under government policies that do nothing to change things and, if anything, encourage rogue states to arm.

I am a big fan of nuclear power (for obvious reasons) but think there need to be better controls - especially when it comes to allowing exports. The question is will our government take this step? Maybe the next one will....

Paul HockenosMarch 26, 2010 4:09 AM

Please be aware that this article was first published in Internationale Politik, a German foreign affairs magazine, not in Der Spiegel.

Clive RobinsonMarch 26, 2010 7:30 AM

@ KeithM,

"I am a big fan of nuclear power (for obvious reasons)"

I'm not (currently) for a number of reasons.

High on my list at number 2 is your,

"but think there need to be better controls - especially when it comes to allowing exports."

Oddly for many is my reason above that,

1, It's the only energy production system that is truely "non-renewable".

My other main reasons are pragmatic,

3, The design of our current systems are very inefficient,

4, The design of our current systems is technicaly inelegant.

5, In many cases the systems are not truley "fail safe".

6, In most cases the "waste" contains "weapons grade" material due to (3).

7, We have not thought out the issues to do with waste in our current systems.

8, Why oh why do we have to build the dam things as "blots on the landscape".

You will note that only the first item on my list is not fixable within our current knowledge...

HarryMarch 26, 2010 8:32 AM

Wow that was well done.

Do you think he could do an article expanding his last paragraph? The world could use more scathing humor denouncing nuclear proliferation.

PragmatistMarch 26, 2010 9:10 AM

6, In most cases the "waste" contains "weapons grade" material due to (3).

You forget that this was a "feature" not a bug.

As I understand it nuclear power started as a weapons enrichment program, the fact that it was power positive was mostly a perk.

Jim A.March 26, 2010 9:13 AM

I'm not sure what he means by saying that a design like the first American bomb needs no testing. After all, the first nuclear bomb WAS a test. Now South Africa DID use a "gun type" design that needed no testing, despite the inherrent inefficiency.

gregMarch 26, 2010 9:56 AM

@Clive Robinson

I don't really know what you mean by 1.

Fossil fuel is truly non renewable in the mega year range. So if by finite fuel source then its not the only one.

But even as a finite fuel source, current U deposits *with* reprocessing puts the peek U time in the 1000 year bracket. That's without ocean sources. Th adds about 2-5x times that depending on who we listen too.

Ocean deposits are considered economic by the UK and Russia if the U price climes 3 or 4 fold from current prices.

Back to the topic.

As for the threat of weapons. Nukes were hard in the 60's and 70's. Really they are not even as hard as this article make it out to be for modern levels of technology.

Homogeneous reactors can be very small and provide the tritium for "boosting" with natural U235/U238 ratios. Boosting has the nice side effect of making the whole design more robust.

And you don't need a delivery system, a shipping container is good enough...Its not that hard to skip around a customs check in the departing port.

If a rich *person* really wants a nuke, and has 5-10years to wait around then they can get one in a way that would be hard to detect.

Note however that this is *not* the same as a weapons program.

And like crypto attacks always get better. Its only getting easier to make nukes.

Peter A.March 26, 2010 10:48 AM

@Clive Robinson:

Could you comment on 1. above? I think I get your point but why "theoretical renewability" is your concern number 1?

I assume what you're trying to say is that once we use up all the useful isotopes in the Earth's crust (or even the core) there are no more to be found unless we capture the output of some supernova :-) (well, we'll probably go for mining other rocky bodies in our system before), so nuclear energy is truly non-renewable; while oil, coal etc. is theoretically renewable - if we can afford to wait long enough :-) But if we take such a timescale into consideration we should conclude that "renewable" energy sources (wind, solar radiation etc.) are ultimately non-renewable too, as Sun would die eventually.

That is, regardless of what our main energy source would be at some point in the future - "untruly non-renewable" fossil fuels or "truly non-renewable" fissile isotopes - once we run out of it we're doomed anyway.

Peter A.March 26, 2010 11:18 AM

@Clive Robinson: #8

Actually any major power plant (or any major industrial facility) is a "blot on the landscape". Well, one can argue that hydroelectric plant actually improves the landscape for the most part, but that's a point of preference - some may value deep canyons and wild rivers more that still lakes, some otherwise.

The thermal plants are at least theoretically possible to be hidden underground (at what cost?) - not so with windmill farms or large solar arrays.

One way to solve the landscape problem a bit is local generation - solar array on every roof[*] etc. - but it's not feasible in all cases and again, some may consider cities to be blots, too.
How to power a major metallurgic or chemical plant? You just add a blot to already existing blot...

[*] I completely disregard such issues as efficiency, availability of raw materials to launch such a massive production of photovoltaics, recycling, total environment costs etc. etc. etc.

Clive RobinsonMarch 26, 2010 11:25 AM

@ greg, PeterA,

My point 1, should have had two small riders "on this planet" and "in reasonable human time expectations ;)

Peter, yes unless we go off plannet then they are non renewable (within our current knowledge and abilities).

With regards bio derived fuels such as oil coal etc we currently know how to synth these up (all be it very ineficiently) so we don't have to wait millenia for nature to do it's work, if there is the requirment (which might be a lot sooner than the 40years or so we thought only a couple of years ago).

There are some bods in one of the US natural "sun traps" using solar reactors in the first steps to synth "petrol" and other hydrocarbons.

The real issue of course is will it be worth it if other fuel sources become usable in cars etc.

With regards,

"once we run out of it we're doomed anyway"

We humans are an inventive bunch so I don't think that will be our endstop...

The real issue i suspect in the end is not the energy but the heat polution...

With regards "weapons getting better" there was research done into heavy lift for very large payloads (2000tonne +) that would use sub 1Kton nukes. Apparently (so the story has it) the design of such small devices was solved before the design of the lift platform (though I feel the need for a "pinch of salt" on this).

The problem with many new reactor designs is not the low efficiency and the weapons grade waste or the fail safe, but the political will to give the nuclear industry a sufficiently good name (part of 2 on the list).

Things like the pebbled bed reactors and the new hybrid ideas need between 5 and 40years research to get then up to the standards we know we can make them to, but...

Peter A.March 26, 2010 12:04 PM

@Clive Robinson:

Now I get what you intended to say, but as soon as we start using synthethized hydrocarbons on a large scale, we should stop calling them fossil fuels :-) And we'll be using them as energy _carrier_ not an energy _source_ (like hydrogen powered cars we are trying to make today)

mooMarch 26, 2010 12:08 PM

Nice article.. very funny =)

It would be even funnier if it wasn't so true. Its been painfully obvious for at least 5 years that Iran is trying to join the nuclear club, and I don't see western nations doing much about it.

DCMarch 26, 2010 1:02 PM

As another interesting thing, IAEA made the training docs used by inspectors public, on the web, and I happened to get a copy. It divluges quite a bit that even I didn't know and I worked on the fringes of the business with all the required security clearances! It's a very good list of the tools you need and the steps to take to get there, only a few things are left out of it -- important things to be sure, but -- those things are also in the open literature, even on Wikipedia.

The only good thing I see is what amounts to obfuscation. Most of the public dox assume you need to make a nuke as efficient and as small as the USA can (even down to artillery shell size). That is one heck of a lot harder to do for your basic backward country or terror organization than it is to simply make a larger wasteful one, but that's rarely mentioned.

KTCMarch 26, 2010 7:36 PM

@Jim A.

It needs no testing, present tense. We know those designs work because we have seen it work in Hiroshima & Nagasaki.

Clive RobinsonMarch 27, 2010 3:34 AM

@ Doug C,

"As another interesting thing, IAEA made the training docs used by inspectors public, on the web, and I happened to get a copy."

The US has a history of publishing such information, the first lot I saw as a curious school boy in the 1973 Encyclopedia Britanica. It was suprisingly detailed.

A few years later as an even more curious teenager I wrote to a certain US dept, and they posted back a rather usefull book or two of information (Project Y the Frenchman's flat experiment) which had all the basic hydro codes required. I made the Prime Computer blow it's stack programing them in for a project.

Also the design of exposive lenses to ensure uniform compression (although you can actually work this out with two bits of string and a couple of drawing pins and a pencil, the same as you can the design of a paradolic reflector).

The only information I ever had any difficulty getting was for the "golf ball" which needed two letters to a US Uni. But as you say a low yeild device does not realy need a high tech design...

gregMarch 27, 2010 1:40 PM


Any low yield bomb can quite easily be moved to high yield with boosting. Its a dirty secret how easy decent nukes are to make these days. They *only* really hard part is the bomb grade isotopes of whatever.

Hence the grams of tritium needed would be hard to buy on the open market without someone getting far to interested. But if you could get the other material you can easily make your own tritium.

PeterMarch 29, 2010 1:04 PM

In the game "Civilization" I always appreciated the line used by the computer player when they achieved nuclear weapons: "Our words are backed by nuclear weapons!"

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