How to Build an H-Bomb
IntroductionWhen the Feds clamped down on The Progressive magazine for attempting to publish an article on the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb, it piqued our curiosity. Was it really true that atomic and hydrogen bomb technology was so simple you could build an H-bomb in your own kitchen? Seven Days decided to find out. Food editor Barbara Ehrenreich, investigative reporter Peter Biskind, Photographer Jane Melnick and nuclear scientist Michio Kaku were given three days to cook up a workable H-bomb. They did and we have decided to share their culinary secrets with you.
Not that Seven Days supports nuclear terrorism. We don't. We would prefer to die slowly from familiar poisons like low-level radiation, microwaves, DDT, DBCP, aflatoxins, PBBs, PBCs, or food dyes, rather than unexpectedly, say as hostage to a Latvian nationalist brandishing a homemade bomb. In our view the real terrorists are the governments, American, Soviet, French, Chinese, and British, that are hoarding H-bombs for their own use, and worse still, those governments (U.S., French and German) that are eagerly peddling advanced nuclear technology to countries like South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina so that they can make their own bombs. When these bombs are used, and they will be, it will be the world's big-time nuclear peddlers, along with corporate suppliers like General Electric, Westinghouse, and Gulf Oil, that we can thank for it. Gagging The Progressive will do no more for national security than backyard bomb shelters because like it or not the news is out. The heart of the successful H-bomb is the successful A-bomb. Once you've got your A-bombs made the rest if frosting on the cake. All you have to do is set them up so that when they detonate they'll start off a hydrogen-fusion reaction.
Part 1: Making Your Bomb
Uranium is the basic ingredient of the A-bomb. When a uranium atom's nucleus splits apart, it releases a tremendous amount of energy (for its size), and it emits neutrons which go on to split other nearby uranium nuclei, releasing more energy, in what is called a 'chain reaction'. (When atoms split, matter is converted into energy according to Einstein's equation E=MC2. What better way to mark his birthday than with your own atomic fireworks?)
There are two kinds (isotopes) of uranium: the rare U-235, used in bombs, and the more common, heavier, but useless U-238. Natural uranium contains less than 1 percent U-235 and in order to be usable in bombs it has to be "enriched" to 90 percent U-235 and only 10 percent U-238. Plutonium-239 can also be used in bombs as a substitute for U-235. Ten pounds of U-235 (or slightly less plutonium) is all that is necessary for a bomb. Less than ten pounds won't give you a critical mass. So purifying or enriching naturally occurring uranium is likely to be your first big hurdle. It is infinitely easy to steal ready-to-use enriched uranium or plutonium than to enrich some yourself. And stealing uranium is not as hard as it sounds.
There are at least three sources of enriched uranium or plutonium...
Enriched uranium is manufactured at a gaseous diffusion plant in Portsmouth, Ohio. From there it is shipped in 10 liter bottles by airplane and trucks to conversion plants that turn it into uranium oxide or uranium metal. Each 10 liter bottle contains 7 kilograms of U-235, and there are 20 bottles to a typical shipment. Conversion facilities exist at Hematite, Missouri; Apollo, Pennsylvania; and Erwin, Tennessee. The Kerr-McGee plant at Crescent Oklahoma -- where Karen Silkwood worked -- was a conversion plant that "lost" 40 lbs of plutonium. Enriched uranium can be stolen from these plants or from fuel-fabricating plants like those in New Haven, San Diego; or Lynchburg, Virginia. (A former Kerr-McGee supervisor, James V. Smith, when asked at the Silkwood trial if there were any security precautions at the plant to prevent theft, testified that 'There were none of any kind, no guards, no fences, no nothing.')
Plutonium can be obtained from places like United Nuclear in Pawling, New York; Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tennessee; General Electric in Pleasanton, California; Westinghouse in Cheswick, Pennsylvania; Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) in Leechburg, Pennsylvania; and plants in Hanfford, Washington and Morris, Illinois. According to Rolling Stone magazine the Israelis were involved in the theft of plutonium from NUMEC.
Finally you can steal enriched uranium or plutonium while it's en-route from conversion plants to fuel fabricating plants. It is usually transported (by air or truck) in the form of uranium oxide, a brownish powder resembling instant coffee, or as a metal, coming in small chunks called "broken buttons." Both forms are shipped in small cans stacked in 5-inch cylinders braced with welded struts in the center of ordinary 55 gallon steel drums. The drums weigh about 100 pounds and are clearly marked "Fissible Material" or "Danger, Plutonium." A typical shipment might go from the enrichment plant at Portsmouth, Ohio to the conversion plant in Hematite Missouri then to Kansas City by truck where it would be flown to Los Angeles and then trucked down to the General Atomic plant in San Diego. The plans for the General Atomic plant are on file at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's reading room at 1717 H Street NW Washington. A Xerox machine is provided for the convenience of the public.
If you can't get hold of any enriched uranium you'll have to settle for commercial grade (20 percent U-235). This can be stolen from university reactors of a type called TRIGA Mark II, where security is even more casual than at commercial plants.
If stealing uranium seems too tacky you can buy it. Unenriched uranium is available at any chemical supply house for $23 a pound. Commercial grade (3 to 20 percent enriched) is available for $40 a pound from Gulf Atomic. You'll have to enrich it further yourself. Quite frankly this can be something of a pain in the ass. You'll need to start with a little more than 50 pounds of commercial-grade uranium. (It's only 20 percent U-235 at best, and you need 10 pounds of U-235 so... ) But with a little kitchen-table chemistry you'll be able to convert the solid uranium oxide you've purchased into a liquid form. Once you've done that, you'll be able to separate the U-235 that you'll need from the U-238.
First pour a few gallons of concentrated hydrofluoric acid into your uranium oxide, converting it to uranium tetrafluoride. (Safety note: Concentrated hydrofluoric acid is so corrosive that it will eat its way through glass, so store it only in plastic. Used 1-gallon plastic milk containers will do.) Now you have to convert your uranium tetrafluoride to uranium hexafluoride, the gaseous form of uranium, which is convenient for separating out the isotope U-235 from U-238.
To get the hexafluoride form, bubble fluorine gas into your container of uranium tetrafluoride. Fluorine is available in pressurized tanks from chemical-supply firms. Be careful how you use it though because fluorine is several times more deadly than chlorine, the classic World War I poison gas. Chemists recommend that you carry out this step under a stove hood (the kind used to remove unpleasant cooking odors).
If you've done your chemistry right you should now have a generous supply of uranium hexafluoride ready for enriching. In the old horse-and-buggy days of A-bomb manufacture the enrichment was carried out by passing the uranium hexafluoride through hundreds of miles of pipes, tubes, and membranes, until the U-235 was eventually separated from the U-238. This gaseous-diffusion process, as it was called is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Gaseous-diffusion plants cover hundreds of acres and cost in the neighborhood of $2-billion each. So forget it. There are easier, and cheaper, ways to enrich your uranium.
First transform the gas into a liquid by subjecting it to pressure. You can use a bicycle pump for this. Then make a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the rope (and attached bucket) around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes. Slow down gradually, and very gently put the bucket on the floor. The U-235, which is lighter, will have risen to the top, where it can be skimmed off like cream. Repeat this step until you have the required 10 pounds of uranium. (Safety note: Don't put all your enriched uranium hexafluoride in one bucket. Use at least two or three buckets and keep them in separate corners of the room. This will prevent the premature build-up of a critical mass.)
Now it's time to convert your enriched uranium back to metal form. This
is easily enough accomplished by spooning several ladlefuls of calcium
(available in tablet form from your drugstore) into each bucket of uranium.
The calcium will react with the uranium hexafluoride to produce calcium
fluoride, a colorless salt which can be easily be separated from your pure
enriched uranium metal.
A few precautions:
|Step 2: Assembling the A-Bomb
Now that you've acquired the enriched uranium, all that's left is to assemble your A-bomb. Go find a couple of stainless steel salad bowls. You also want to separate your 10 pounds of U-235 into two hunks. (Keep them apart!) The idea is to push each half your uranium into the inside of a bowl.
Take one hunk of your uranium and beat it into the inside of the first bowl. Uranium is malleable, like gold, so you should have no trouble hammering it into the bowl to get a good fit. Take another five-pound hunk of uranium and fit it into a second stainless steel bowl. These two bowls of U-235 are the "subcritical masses" which, when brought together forcefully, will provide the critical mass that makes your A-bomb go. Keep them a respectful distance apart while working because you don't want them to "go critical" on you... At least not yet.
Now hollow out the body of an old vacuum cleaner and place your two hemispherical bowls inside, open ends facing each other, no less than seven inches apart, using masking tape to set them up in position. The reason for the steel bowls and the vacuum cleaner, in case you're wondering, is that these help reflect the neutrons back into the uranium for a more efficient explosion. "A loose neutron is a useless neutron" as the A-bomb pioneers used to say.
As far as the A-bomb goes, you're almost done. The final problem is to figure out how to get the two U-235 hemispheres to smash into each other with sufficient force to set off a truly effective fission reaction. Almost any type of explosive can be used to drive them together. Gunpowder, for example, is easily made at home from potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon. Or, you can get some blasting caps or TNT. (Buy them or steal them from a construction site.) Best of all is C4 plastic explosive. You can mold it around your bowls, and it's fairly safe to work with. (But, it might be wise to shape it around an extra salad bowl in another room, and THEN fit it to your uranium-packed bowls. This is particularly true in winter, when a stray static electrical charge might induce ignition in the C4. A responsible bomb maker considers it impolite to accidentally destroy more of the neighborhood than absolutely necessary.)
Once the explosives are in place all you need to do is hook up a simple detonation device with a few batteries, a switch, and some wire. Remember though that it is essential that the two charges -- one on each side of the casing -- go off simultaneously.
Now put the whole thing in the casing of an old Hoover vacuum cleaner and you're finished with this part of the process.
The rest is easy.
|Step 3: Make More A-Bombs Following the Directions
A Word to the Wise About Wastes
Going First ClassIf you're like us, you're feeling the economic pinch, and you'll want to make your bomb as inexpensively as possible, consonant of course with reasonable yield. The recipe we've given is for a budget-pleasing H-bomb, no frills, no flourishes; it's just a simple 5-megaton bomb, capable of wiping out the New York metropolitan area, the San Francisco Bay area, or Boston. But don't forget, your H-bomb will only be as good as the A-bombs in it.
If you want to spend a little more money you can punch-up your A-bomb considerably. Instead of centrifuging your uranium by hand, you can buy a commercial centrifuge. (Fisher Scientific sells one for about $1000.) You also might want to be fussier about your design. The Hiroshima bomb, a relatively crude one, only fissioned 1 percent of it's uranium and yielded only 13 kilotons. In order to fission more of the uranium, the force of your explosive "trigger" needs to be evenly diffused around the sphere; the same pressure has to be exerted on every point of the sphere simultaneously. (It was a technique for producing this sort of simultaneous detonation by fashioning the explosives into lenses that the government accused Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of trying to steal).
Part 2: Putting Your H-Bomb Together
Place the lithium deuteride or hydride in glass jars and surround it with four A-bombs in their casings. Attach them to the same detonator so that they will go off simultaneously. The container for the whole thing is no problem. They can be placed anywhere: Inside an old stereo console, a discarded refrigerator, etc...
When the detonator sets off the four A-bombs all eight hemispheres of fissionable material will slam into each other at the same time creating four critical masses and four detonations. This will raise the temperature of the lithium deuteride to 100 million degrees C fast enough (a few billionths of a second) so that the lithium will not be blown all over the neighborhood before the nuclei have time to fuse. The result, at least 1000 times the punch of the puny A-bomb that leveled Hiroshima (20 million tons of TNT vs. 20 thousand tons.)
Part 3: What to do With Your BombNow that you have a fully assembled H-bomb housed in an attractive console of your choice you may be wondering, "What should I do with it?" Every family will have to answer this question according to its own tastes and preferences, but you may want to explore some possibilities which have been successfully pioneered by the American government.
1. Sell Your Bomb and Make a Pile of Money
Unfortunately for the family bomb business, big government has already cornered a large part of the world market. But this does not mean that there is a shortage of potential customers. The raid on Entebee was the Waterloo of hijacking, and many nationalist groups are now on the alert for new means to get their message across. They'd jump at the chance to get hold of an H-bomb. Emerging nations which can't ante up enough rice or sugar to buy themselves a reactor from G.E. or Westinghouse are also shopping around.
You may wonder about the ethics of selling to nations, or groups, whose goals you may disapprove of. But here again, take a tip from our government: forget ideology -- it's cash that counts. And remember, H-bomb sales have a way of escalating, almost like a chain reaction. Suppose you make a sale to South Yemen which you believe to be a Soviet puppet. Well within a few days some discrete inquiries from North Yemen and possibly the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Ethiopians as well can be expected. Similarly, a sale to the IRA will generate a sale to the Ulster government; and a sale to the Tanzanians will bring the Ugandans running, and so forth.
It doesn't matter WHICH side you're on, only how many sides there are. Don't forget about the possibility of repeat sales to the same customer. As the experience of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. has shown, each individual nation has a potentially infinite need for H-bombs. No customer -- no matter how small -- can ever have too many.
Is It For You?
The following quiz will help you find out whether you have what it takes for home H-bomb ownership. If you can answer "yes" to six or more of these questions, then you're emotionally eligible to join the nuclear club. If not, a more conventional weapon may be more your cup of tea, try botulism-toxin, laser rays, or nerve gas.
1. I ignore the demands of others.
2. I subscribe to one or more of the following: Soldier of Fortune, Hustler, Popular Mechanics, Self.
3. Though I have many interesting acquaintances, I am my own best friend.
4. I know what to say after you say "Hello," but I am seldom interested in pursuing the conversation.
5. I have seen the movie "The Deer Hunter" more than once.
6. I know that everyone can be a winner if they want to, and I resent whiners.
7. I own one or more of the following: handgun, video game, trash compactor, snowmobile.
8. I am convinced that leukemia is psychosomatic.
9. I am aware that most vegetarians are sexually impotent.
10. I have read evidence that solar energy is a Communist conspiracy.
Myths About Nuclear WarEver since the first mushroom cloud over Hiroshima ushered in the atomic age, a small group of nay-sayers and doom-mongers has lobbied, campaigned and demonstrated to convince Americans that H-bomb ownership, along with nuclear power, is dangerous and unhealthy. Using their virtual stranglehold over the media, these people have tried to discredit everything nuclear from energy to war. They have vastly overrated the risks of nuclear bombs and left many Americans feeling demoralized and indecisive; not sure where the truth lies. Well, here are the myths, and here are the facts.
Myth: After a nuclear exchange the earth will no longer be suitable for human habitation.
Fact: This is completely false. According
to one scientist (quoted in John McPee's The Curve of Binding Energy)
"The largest bomb that has ever been exploded anywhere was 60 megatons,
and that is one-thousandth the force of an earthquake, one-thousandth the
force of a hurricane. We have lived with earthquakes and hurricanes for
a long time." Another scientist adds, "It is often assumed
that a full blown nuclear war would be the end of life on earth. That is
far from the truth. To end life on earth would take at least a thousand
times the total yield of all the nuclear explosives existing in the world,
and probably a lot more." Even if humans succumbed, many forms of life
would survive a nuclear free-for-all, cockroaches, certain forms of bacteria,
and lichens, for instance.
Myth: Radiation is bad for you.
Fact: Everything is bad for you if you
have too much of it. If you eat too many bananas you'll get a stomach-ache.
If you get too much sun you can get sunburned (or even skin cancer). Same
thing with radiation. Too much may make you feel under the weather, but
nuclear industry officials insist that there is no evidence that low-level
radiation has any really serious adverse effects. And, high-level radiation
may bring unexpected benefits. It speeds up evolution by weeding out unwanted
genetic types and creating new ones. (Remember the old saying, "Two heads
are better than one.") Nearer to home, it's plain that radiation will get
rid of pesky crab grass and weeds, and teenagers will find that brief exposure
to a nuclear burst vaporizes acne and other skin blemishes. (Many survivors
of the Hiroshima bomb found that they were free from skin and it's attendant
We hope this clears up any misconceptions you may have had. Enjoy your H-Bomb!