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All boom, no alpha
October 13, 2006 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Air samples over North Korea show no radiation "It is possible there was no radiological data. That could be the case if: the North Koreans successfully sealed the site; it was such a small detonation and so deep underground there was no escape of nuclear debris; or the test was actually conventional explosives."
posted by Artw (57 comments total)

 
October surp --- oh, not so much.
posted by dhartung at 2:23 PM on October 13, 2006


of course it is hard to prove, but as time goes by I am more and more leaning towards the theory that there was no nuke and that either they waited till there was a convenient seismic tremor, or used conventional explosives to produce the tremor.
posted by edgeways at 2:25 PM on October 13, 2006


But there are distinct differences between a natural tremor and nuclear explosion-caused seismic activity.

I'd imagine that the signature between conventional and nuclear explosives could be distinguished from one another?
posted by porpoise at 2:34 PM on October 13, 2006


I blame Clinton for this.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:35 PM on October 13, 2006


The Koreans have always had a knack for theatre.

Au-thor! Au-thor!

Let's all go to the lobby.
posted by CheeseburgerBrown at 2:38 PM on October 13, 2006


If it turns out that this was faked with conventional explosives, well, it's just more confirmation for my weird feelings about North Korea. Kim's awful, and it would be hell to live there, and even a moment's thought makes me feel terrible for the people stuck living under that shitty regime. But the sheer weirdness and audacity of the bastards is almost admirable. It's reality that's way weirder than fiction.
posted by COBRA! at 2:39 PM on October 13, 2006


Reminds me of this.
posted by Krrrlson at 2:45 PM on October 13, 2006


The consensus on this is that a 'newbie nuke' should be in the 5-15 kiloton range, and the the seismic data suggests around a 1 kiloton yield (equivalent to about 8 shipping containers of high explosive). This would be considered a failure.

If they wanted us to believe it was a success, then it seems like they should have used about 50 shipping containers of explosive, otherwise all they would have 'faked' was a failure.

It is actually VERY difficult to intentionally make a 1 kiloton nuke.
posted by ernie at 2:45 PM on October 13, 2006


It is possible there was no radiological data. That could be the case if: the North Koreans successfully sealed the site; it was such a small detonation and so deep underground there was no escape of nuclear debris; or the test was actually conventional explosives.
posted by smackfu at 2:50 PM on October 13, 2006


e can 't trust those guys. They have WM D--time to invade.
posted by Postroad at 2:54 PM on October 13, 2006


Oh, come on. The DPRK news channel said that there was no leakage and that they conducted the test with scientific wisdom and knowledge, 100%. They wouldn't lie, right?
posted by bokane at 2:55 PM on October 13, 2006


from the article:

One intelligence official said "lack of confirmation is not proof of a non-event."

Love it.
posted by thethirdman at 2:55 PM on October 13, 2006


Nonuke of the North
posted by kirkaracha at 2:56 PM on October 13, 2006 [5 favorites]


there is also the possibility that the linked article is a lie...
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:03 PM on October 13, 2006


The trick with 50 shipping containers of explosive is to make it go off fast enough to look like a nuke detonation. You want every bit of it to detonate at the same instant, for fairly precise values of "instant." Stacking it all up and setting it off with a single blasting cap wouldn't quite get it.
posted by pax digita at 3:10 PM on October 13, 2006


it doesn't make a great deal of sense to announce that you've tested a nuke when you haven't ... and when your neighbors are going to be very unhappy with you for testing one and will slap sanctions on you

unless, of course, you're fishing for a reason to go to war

who knows? ... i don't think anyone knows what they're up to
posted by pyramid termite at 3:13 PM on October 13, 2006


pyramid termite - well, theres a reason why North Korea stories get the "batshitinsane" tag...
posted by Artw at 3:16 PM on October 13, 2006


I can't shake the feeling that the whole nuke business is just Kim Jong-Il putting on a show in order to quell dissent at home, and possibly among his own armed forces.
posted by clevershark at 3:18 PM on October 13, 2006



posted by Rhomboid at 3:25 PM on October 13, 2006


So, he's got, a) the material to make a nuke and, b) a place to process it into weapons-grade material (where it could have been for at least four years. Thanks George.) The common refrain is that you can find, c) instructions on how to make a nuke online and that a) and b) are the tough bits.

Seems like they could have pulled off a more sucessful test. There is a slight, coppery taste of odd about the whole thing.
posted by Cyrano at 3:25 PM on October 13, 2006


Wouldn't this explosion be kinda large for what would be necessary to trigger the nuclear blast? Having never made a nuclear weapon, I can't say for certain that the yield from this explosion is out of the ballpark...
posted by Yeomans at 3:29 PM on October 13, 2006


KJ-I is a nasty little shut-in who was pissed that some South Korean dude was gonna run the UN, so he took a dump on his birthday cake. And it worked.

Then again, maybe we sent the Dear Leader a year's subscription to FHM and a gallon of Courvoisier to blow up his old TNT stockpiles. By over-reacting to fake WMD, it makes Bush's Iraq policy look consistent... and pushes Foleygate to page A-17. (But that's just tinfoil-hat talk.)
posted by turducken at 3:31 PM on October 13, 2006


Officials emphasize this is preliminary data, and it provides no conclusive evidence about the North Korean event.

so...really this article says very little. He probably has a nuke in possesion. The seismic readings would make for an explosion of a failed nuke. That seems to be the more logical direction here.
posted by destro at 3:36 PM on October 13, 2006


More from ACW:

Nuclear volleyball

Intelligence photographs of North Korea’s nuclear test site showed technicians playing volleyball this week near the tunnel where a nuclear device was unsuccessfully set off on Sunday.

The facility where the test took place was identified by U.S. officials as a North Korean science and technology research center near the town of Kilchu and the northeastern coast.

Very high-resolution satellite images obtained by the Defense Intelligence Agency showed the volleyball game being played near dormitories at the facility.

The Japanese intelligence agency also had access to the photographs, and according to U.S. defense officials, they reported that a sports activity so close to a nuclear site was inconsistent with post-nuclear testing precautions, since the underground tunnel where the test took place was located several hundred yards away.

posted by ernie at 3:38 PM on October 13, 2006


nuclear volleyball
posted by turducken at 3:45 PM on October 13, 2006


I assumed the thing was faked the moment I heard the north Koreans themselves claim no radiation was released. The weird low yield was another obvious tip off. I mean It seems to have a lower yield like that randomly would be very rare, if it's so difficult to do intentionally.
posted by delmoi at 3:52 PM on October 13, 2006


And next Osama comes back with a super duper stinky bomb, affecting only the fine noses
posted by elpapacito at 4:11 PM on October 13, 2006


CNN now has this:

"The United States now has preliminary evidence of radioactivity from North Korea's nuclear test ground, indicating it did indeed carry out a test, a U.S. official tells CNN."

at the top...
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 4:29 PM on October 13, 2006


curiouser and curiouser..
posted by HyperBlue at 4:33 PM on October 13, 2006


It's worth pointing out that one way to 'hide' an underground nuclear detonation is to decouple it from the surrounding rock as much as possible. Depending on the size of the gap, apparently it's possible to make a detonation appear up to 10 times smaller than it was, than if it had been well-connected to the bare rock.

It doesn't seem hugely likely that the NK's would do that intentionally - the whole point of the detonation seems to be to say 'hey! we have nukes! back off', but it's another possible option than the rubbish nuke.

That said, Cyrano, you missed the step d) making a precision detonation system and assembling it properly. Without that, the nuke can fail altogether, or not detonate as efficiently as possible. Making a 1 Kton nuke is actually harder than making a 10 Kton one according to experts, because with less fissile material, it's harder to sustain a chain reaction at all (too many neutrons escape) So you need all sorts of clever kit like neutron reflectors and minaturization to build small bombs, which you usually can only build after some experience testing nuclear weapons already.

So either the NK scientists fluffed it, or they're a lot better at this than you'd expect, or they're a lot more cunning in hiding the blast to make us *think* it was a failed detonation. Glad *I* don't have to make that guess as to which it was.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:55 PM on October 13, 2006


you missed the step d) making a precision detonation system and assembling it properly.

Hey, I know building a nuke isn't easy. But the hard part is getting the weaponized, gonna-blow-up-your-shit-up stuff. That was my point. It's just a matter of tinkering after you've got that.

North Korea's got the bomb, they just haven't figured out how to put the parts together.

Yet.
posted by Cyrano at 6:00 PM on October 13, 2006


Well that makes the post look a little foolish.
posted by Artw at 6:49 PM on October 13, 2006


Frankly, I think NK had a small nuke, and now they don't.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:12 PM on October 13, 2006


So, let me get this straight: CNN switched the stories at the same URL, erasing the first "no radiation" version and replacing it with a "yes, there was radiation" version without posting a correction?

Is that really what just happened here? If so, does anyone else see that as a strange thing for a news organization to do? Take advantage of the ease of online correction to mask the fact that a story has been hanged?
posted by mediareport at 7:25 PM on October 13, 2006


Er, "changed?"
posted by mediareport at 7:26 PM on October 13, 2006


Yeah, it's strange. It's also a lot more common than it really should be. Major news organizations do it all the time.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:29 PM on October 13, 2006


mediareport - even weirder the quoted text is still there.
posted by Artw at 7:35 PM on October 13, 2006


CNN switched the stories at the same URL

CNN does it all the time. I think it's from their TV mentality, where only "right now" matters and so all the links on the site reflect the current facts.
posted by smackfu at 7:46 PM on October 13, 2006


It is actually VERY difficult to intentionally make a 1 kiloton nuke.

No, it's not. Operation Ranger had a couple of 1kt yield shots, and the fission model for those devices was used repeatedly in future nuke test series as a calibration benchmark.
posted by brownpau at 8:06 PM on October 13, 2006


If, as I still think is the case, NK tried to detonate a plutonium-based nuke and got a low-yield misfire, then since there wouldn't be much of a blast, it's entirely believable that there wasn't much radioactivity released to be detected by enemy spy planes (that is, ours).

If it had been a fully successful test, more would have been released and the seismic readings would have been greater.

We cannot definitively rule out the idea that NK successfully developed and tested a peanut nuke, but in my opinion the odds are very strongly against it. First, NK engineering just isn't very good. (Their missiles suck too.) Second, it isn't in character for them to try for a small bang when a big bang would be a lot easier and cheaper and have a higher chance of success.

Third, in terms of their strategy, they would rather have a working 12kt weapon than a working 0.5kt weapon. There isn't anything they could do with an 0.5kt weapon that they couldn't also do with a 12kt weapon, but the contrary is not true. There's no reason for them to try to develop a peanut weapon even if it was easier and cheaper. Since in reality it's harder and more expensive but would be less useful to them, it doesn't make any sense that they'd do it.

So I think they're trying to develop a 10-20kt weapon, and they botched their first test. Given the inherent difficulty of making a plutonium bomb work, and their record of technological failure (and pretty much every other kind of failure), it isn't really a surprise.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:07 PM on October 13, 2006


Speaking of faking a nuclear blast with conventional explosives, also reference the "100 Ton Test," a blast of 100 tons of TNT, laced with fissile material, detonated just a few days before the Trinity shot, for calibration.

Of course, 100 tons of TNT isn't enough to fake a 4kt blast, but it's possible to use lots of conventional explosives laced with radioactive matter to achieve the same effect. Not sure that it isn't easier to just make the damn nuke though.
posted by brownpau at 8:10 PM on October 13, 2006


Brownpau, yes it is difficult. The reason the US was able to do that in 1951 is that the US had six years of experience making and detonating larger nukes, and had at its disposal the finest collection of nuclear physicists collected in one organization that the world has ever seen.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:11 PM on October 13, 2006


...it's possible to use lots of conventional explosives laced with radioactive matter to achieve the same effect. Not sure that it isn't easier to just make the damn nuke though.

The isotope mix is different. The result of a true fission explosion isn't the same as the result of a slow burn in a nuclear reactor.

You can produce a cloud of radioactivity that way, but it won't fool anyone unless you go to preposterious amounts of trouble to separate out isotopes from spent fuel rods and remix them in the proper proportions.

And if you can do that, you can create the real thing much easier.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:14 PM on October 13, 2006


A bit more on that: a fission explosion will create isotopes with short half-lives (hours or days). Those are also created in a slow-burn nuclear reactor, but they've already burned themselves up and won't be present in the fuel rods in significant amounts by the time you try to use them in a spoof with conventional exposion.

If the radioactivity you capture consists only of relatively long-lived isotopes, it's a fake.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:17 PM on October 13, 2006


I can't shake the feeling that the whole nuke business is just Kim Jong-Il putting on a show in order to quell dissent at home, and possibly among his own armed forces.

I think clevershark is onto something.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:25 PM on October 13, 2006


FWIW, it is easy to conceive of a conspiracy in which DPRK would have reason to develop mini nukes. Maybe Pakistan (for whom mini nuke development would be extremely risky, but possesion very beneficial) contracted with DPRK to do mini nuke R&D for them in exchange for fuel oil or whatever, and after the breakup of the Kahn network DPRK continued the project because of the value of mini nuke tech and product on the open market.
posted by Ptrin at 9:13 PM on October 13, 2006


CNN does it all the time.

Well, at least I'm not the only one who remembers when news organizations were actually embarrassed about doing that sort of thing. In this case, the switch is fundamentally misleading and obscures a major part of the story - the uncertainty surrounding the blast.

And you know, honesty when altering posts is valued in Blogland - change your post without noting it and your credibility won't last long. It's fucking hilarious that mainstream news outlets no longer aspire to that standard, but feel free to regularly bemoan the unreliability of bloggers.

Fucking assholes.
posted by mediareport at 10:13 PM on October 13, 2006


We should have another blog where the re-writing of breaking-news stories is being reported.

Come to think of it, it wouldn't be difficult to simply create an auto-updated changes archive. Sounds completely scriptable.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:26 PM on October 13, 2006


Five Fresh Fish:

DO IT!


...please?
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:44 PM on October 13, 2006


I got Automator to download, name, and archive the page, and can set it to do so on a timed basis. Got distracted by all the actions and never did find a compare action. There's surely an adaptation of grep available. The results, if interesting (ie. there has been a change/significant change), could then be automagically emailed to you, or perhaps added to your calendar.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:37 PM on October 13, 2006


fff: diff
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:41 AM on October 14, 2006


We should have another blog where the re-writing of breaking-news stories is being reported.

Come to think of it, it wouldn't be difficult to simply create an auto-updated changes archive. Sounds completely scriptable.


Didn't the memory hole do this already?
posted by fake at 3:13 AM on October 14, 2006


Didn't see a diff block for Automator, but didn't go digging too deeply either. The temptation to explore a bunch of other stuff became too great!

I'm not sure why I wrote "grep" above.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:24 AM on October 14, 2006


If the radioactivity you capture consists only of relatively long-lived isotopes, it's a fake.

Um, radioactivity is pretty much radioactivity. Almost all radioactive isotopes produce some mix of alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron radiation. Air samples may be more conclusive, but from the article it sounds like they are tracing down trace amounts at the threshold of detection.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:37 AM on October 14, 2006


I was using the term "radioactivity" loosely. What they're doing is looking for radioactive gases (e.g. radon) and radioactive dust. They don't gather very much, but what they do gather they then feed into a mass spectrometer in order to analyze it.

Mass spectrometers are extremely sensitive and can detect truly minute quantities of materials. That's why they use them. From here:
The most definitive signature of a nuclear explosion is the presence of radionuclides, a collective term for the radioactive isotopes produced by a nuclear reaction. While "fallout" was most obvious when early tests were conducted above-ground, underground and underwater tests also tend to leak radiation into the atmosphere. The detection process, which looks for key indicators like the ratio of different xenon isotopes, takes several days and can't pinpoint the exact origin of the blast. But once a signal is detected, there's no doubt a nuclear explosion has taken place.
It's also not true that everything produces every kind of radioactivity. In fact, I think it's impossible for an isotope to produce them all. (I'm pretty sure that if alpha radiation is possible, beta radiation is not and vice versa.)

Alpha and neutron emission is impossible for any radioactive isotope of any element below iron because they would consume energy. If you move towards iron, you produce energy. If you move away from iron, you consume energy.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:05 PM on October 14, 2006


Stephen C. Den Beste: I was using the term "radioactivity" loosely. What they're doing is looking for radioactive gases (e.g. radon) and radioactive dust. They don't gather very much, but what they do gather they then feed into a mass spectrometer in order to analyze it.

I figured that. I'm just a bit bothered by playing fast and loose with the terminology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:39 PM on October 14, 2006


I can't believe anyone actually thinks they have a working device, let alone that they detonated it. The original thread is a fine testament to terrible schooling kids get these days. Look, folks, if it were easy enough for the North Koreans to pull off, don't you think that other nuclear-lacking countries—almost all with far greater GDP's and lots more college grads—would have done it already?

The gullability of the American people should never be underestimated. Hey, you know who else has the bomb? Your neighbor. Yeah, told me himself. He's got the bomb. Better watch out.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:02 PM on October 15, 2006


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