Atomic politics: Who needs the H-bomb?


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Jun 8, 2009
Atomic politics: Who needs the H-bomb?

In the pantheon of devices worshipped by nuclear weapons' boffins, there are bombs and there are bombs. There's the old-fashioned clunker of the kind dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki now consigned to the museum; the garden variety atomic bomb that fills the inventory of the nuclear five; smart bombs fitted on multiple-warhead missiles; dirty bombs made with not-very-enriched fuel; mini-nukes or tactical battlefield weapons; new-fangled neutron bombs...

And oh, then there is the father of all bombs, the thermonuclear weapon, better known as the Hydrogen Bomb - a device that is typically hundreds of times, or even thousands of times, more potent than the ones dropped on Japan; a monstrosity powerful enough to vaporize whole countries and cause a gaping hole on Earth.

That's the kind of weapon India was trying to perfect in one of the five 1998 tests - and didn't entirely succeed, according to dissident scientist K Santhanam.

But consider this: Even at its planned 45 kiloton yield, India's thermonuclear device would have been a mini H-bomb, a sort of "technology demonstrator". It would have been a puff of dust compared to the most powerful H-bomb of all times, the so-called Tsar bomb tested by the former Soviet Union in 1961.

The Tsar bomb was originally meant to be 100 megatons (one megaton = 1000 kilotons), which is about 7000 times more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan (around 15 kilotons). But the Soviets took pity on the planet, not to speak of the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Circle where it was to be tested, and scaled it down to 50 megatons - only about 3500 more powerful than Fat Man dropped on Hiroshima. Even that halved version, when tested, could be seen and heard in Finland and broke window panes in Sweden. The seismic waves could be measured on its third passage around the Earth.

Fortunately for the planet, that vulgarity, the single most powerful weapon ever made in the history of humanity, was considered so impractical (it was too heavy and the shock waves and fall out would have impacted its users) that it never entered service. Even the United States, equally mindless in these matters, tested only a 25 megaton H-bomb, which actually fizzled to give only a 15 megaton yield.

In contrast to the USSR's Tsar bomb, India's "Saar" bomb (because it was an operation run mostly by South Indians) would have been a mere pop even if it had realized its full yield of 45 kilotons. H-bombs are typically measured in megatons and India's 45 kiloton thermonuclear device, at only two or three times the yield of Fat Man and Little Boy (as the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were named), was a modest stab at mastering the technology. Santhanam says even that coy effort failed, and therefore India should not rush to sign the upcoming comprehensive test ban treaty - because it needs to test again to get it right.

What exactly is an H-bomb and how is it different from the A-bomb? Well, shorn of tech overload, an atomic bomb is a one-stage fission device that uses fissile material (typically uranium or plutonium) assembled in a chain-reacting critical mass. The H-bomb uses fusion in two or three stages to boost the primary fission device, giving it more bang for the buck. It is considered more compact, scalable, and cost-effective; in other words, it causes much greater destruction at about same cost.

Indian bomb-makers kept their H-bomb small for several reasons, including not vaporizing villages around the Pokhran region, and containing fall-out. Besides, say weapons experts, low-yield tests are not entirely wasted - they too can lead to mastering H-bomb technology because they can provide information on the behaviour of the primary device without the full ignition of secondaries (which is what Santhanam is suggesting happened). That is pretty much what the Indian scientific establishment seems to be relying on - saying "we have the hang of it" even if did not produce the expected bang.

But contemporary nuclear pundits even question the basic H-bomb quest. Thermonuclear weapons, they say, belong to an era when ballistic missiles were not as sophisticated and accurate, nor were there multiple-warhead delivery systems. They were made to a monstrous scale because nuclear weapons states were not sure of the accuracy of delivery. H-bombs, even if they were dropped far from the intended target, could still do the job of decimating a wide area.

Crudely put, they could pulversize twin-cities, even if they were not precisely targeted. Today, with fast and accurate delivery systems, and missiles capable of carrying multiple war-heads, mega-tonned TN bombs may be redundant. In fact, so mindlessly powerful and destructive are TN weapons that the man known as the father of the H-bomb, Andrei Sakharov, eventually became a peacenik after helping the former Soviet Union master the frightful technology.

But for some Indian weapons boffins, nailing the TN bomb technology is a matter of pride; not to speak of the security angle of China having one (and therefore Pakistan inevitably getting the design). Of all nuclear weapons' states, China also made the fastest transition from fission-based atom bombs to H-bombs (less than two years) with its thermo-nuclear test measuring 3 megatons. Pakistan too has made known its intention to master TN technology. Can India bank on the knowledge gleaned from its sole TN test without an assured, working weapon? Will it be worse off against China is a confrontation if it does not have a H-bomb?

Not really, say US nuclear pundits, who are apprehensive that Santanam's bombshell presages some corrective tests by India. "There are people who say American nuclear bombs won't work because we have not tested for so long," says Gary Milholin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "I don't think anyone would want to test that assumption."

Similarly, he says, it would be risky for any country to count on India's thermonuclear weapon to have a low yield. "There are now ways other than testing to increase confidence," Milholin added. "And I think India has enough computing power to do that." Milholin also cautions that "An Indian test would be very toxic to cooperation it has just gained under the nuclear deal."

Whether India attempts to certifiably nail a working H-bomb with more tests will mostly be political decision based on security perceptions. But there will also be important scientific inputs into this - and right now a majority of scientists seem to be saying they have mastered the big one even if the bang, as Santhanam says, wasn't big enough.

Atomic politics: Who needs the H-bomb? - US - World - NEWS - The Times of India

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