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Where'd I put that nuclear recipe again?
September 1, 2009 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Did America Forget How to Make the H-Bomb? Nobody in the general public knows exactly what it is, though there are guesses, but it seems the bombmakers themselves forgot how to make a crucial ingredient in US thermonuclear weapons, FOGBANK.
posted by kmz (56 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is calls for the obligatory comment... o.O
posted by Xoebe at 8:48 AM on September 1, 2009


One more reason to get rid of them.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:50 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just let the GNU folks at it, GFOGBANK should appear in a couple of years.
posted by tommasz at 8:54 AM on September 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


Nobody ever really forgets where they buried the hatchet.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:54 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


let's hope so!
posted by molecicco at 8:56 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Don't worry, there's a guy trying to build replica atomic bombs in his spare time. We can always just ask him.
posted by Copronymus at 8:57 AM on September 1, 2009


The article is misleading. We did not forget how to make an H-Bomb we forgot how to manufacture a component of a specific nuclear warhead that either increases yield or increases the miniaturization of the device. After reading "Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking" I've gained a cynical view on anything nuclear related. When I saw the headline my first thought was not that we lost the ability to produce high yield nuclear warheads, but what excuse will be used to increase funding or get testing back on slate.
posted by geoff. at 9:00 AM on September 1, 2009 [10 favorites]


Duct tape
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:01 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Anyone who's done bench chemistry knows that there's a huge gap between having the instructions for synthesizing a material and being able to actually do it, and that it can be awfully difficult to capture and communicate these practical matters of technique. It doesn't say much to me that a nuclear-antiproliferation activist discovers the lesson in this that our nuclear armament oversight is insufficient and dangerous doesn't really say much and I don't think the author or the tiny sample of "stunned nuclear policy experts" he marshals to comment on the situation really manage to connect the dots on how this is supposed to make me any more worried about the state of nuclear arms in this world. I think I'll stick with worrying about the part where we are too damn good at building working nuclear weapons.
posted by nanojath at 9:04 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


geoff., I think you've mentioned that book before. I'm going to have to pick it up.
posted by molecicco at 9:04 AM on September 1, 2009


That's just what they want us to think.
posted by swift at 9:08 AM on September 1, 2009


The US government's Fogbank snafu has stunned nuclear policy experts.

This tells you everything you need to know about the story: policy was unconnected, unconcerned and unaware of what was necessary to actually implement the program. Reading between the lines, it's one of the more common bureaucratic mistakes, lack of succession planning. No doubt, some mid-level manager somewhere was patting themselves on the back for being frugal and diligent in "managing human resources".

This is one of those cases where the end-result actually matters to a lot of people and squeezing a program which has been quietly delivering for years is exactly the wrong thing to do. Put the blame at the feet of the policy planners who dropped the ball and their enablers in middle management who had no sense of perspective.
posted by bonehead at 9:10 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


HAS AMERICA FORGOTTEN HOW TO UNLEASH THE AWESOME POWER OF FOGHAT??!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:10 AM on September 1, 2009 [49 favorites]


Loss of institutional knowledge is a big problem, especially with government contracting. As a former employee of a company that was a huge contractor for the U.S. government I can attest that there is a lot of specialized knowledge that is lost as people retire, programs are closed, etc. There is a massive paper trail that goes with manufacturing things to government specifications, but it takes the people who actually built the things to say "Yes, the specs said we had to do it this way, but to actually make it meet the final specs we really did this instead." I've heard of some missile refurbishment programs calling in machinists who retired 20 years ago just to show them how to make a certain part fit, because nobody in the shop knows how to do it any more.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 9:12 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


You say this like it's a bad thing.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:15 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Fogbank = Red Mercury.
posted by PenDevil at 9:16 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]



This will certainly embolden Osama Bin Laden.
posted by notreally at 9:17 AM on September 1, 2009


That's okay, we just have to ask some folks in the Middle East in a couple of years.

It's ultimately a little irrelevant if we cannot make an H-bomb, when "Little Boy" type (atomic, gun-style) nukes are relatively simple. Once you start heading towards "Fat Man" (atomic, implosion), it's quite literally about getting the most bang for your buck by, rather than getting a lot of enriched material together in one spot, getting a smaller amount of enriched material and squeezing it to a particular density threshold, making critical mass that much lower. That's what implosion style weapons are for, reducing the amount of enriched material you need. That's the hard part. If you've got scads of the stuff you're willing to blow, a gun-style nuke is probably within reach of a talented modern machine shop and the right mix of a few scientists.

It's a pity we didn't research and promote alternative reactor design earlier; once you go down the path of enriching U-235 to make a conventional fission reactor work (and more and more countries will be considering it as fossil fuels rise in price), you're also laying the groundwork for the highly enriched uranium required for a Little Boy. It's so simple, they didn't even test it.
posted by adipocere at 9:19 AM on September 1, 2009


From the Wikipedia article:

In 2008, following the expenditure of a further $69 million, the NNSA finally managed to manufacture FOGBANK, and 7 months later, the first refurbished warhead was handed over to the US Navy, nearly a decade after the commencement of the refurbishment program.

Crisis averted! Everything's going to be JUST FINE!
posted by Huck500 at 9:24 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of my duties at work is maintaining a documentation system. Granted we're not building anything anywhere near nukes, but one of the key things is getting people to writeup docs, blog about stuff, etc. The idea is to record this institutional knowledge, even in an informal manner, make it searchable, categorized, taggable, etc.
posted by SirOmega at 9:26 AM on September 1, 2009


After Mel Torme passed away we lost the ability to manufacture VELVETFOGBANK.
posted by GuyZero at 9:29 AM on September 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


There is a massive paper trail that goes with manufacturing things to government specifications, but it takes the people who actually built the things to say "Yes, the specs said we had to do it this way, but to actually make it meet the final specs we really did this instead." I've heard of some missile refurbishment programs calling in machinists who retired 20 years ago just to show them how to make a certain part fit, because nobody in the shop knows how to do it any more.

I spent some time as an apprentice pipefitter at a now closed Southern California shipyard whose biggest client was the US Navy. I helped install halon fire suppression systems, among other things. The navy provided very detailed drawings specifying where the halon bottles were to be installed, where the valves and sprayers were to go, where the pipes were to transit through the overhead and so on. Except in any given space, previous retrofits to ducting, or electrical components, or other piping systems, or whatever had not been installed where the drawings said they had been installed. That meant that our runs did not go where the drawings said they were to go, either. Close, mostly. Sometimes not close at all.

Once during inspection time, after the deviations from the drawing were explained to the sailor who came down to sign-off on the work, I asked if somebody would be communicating our changes back to the naval architects, "You know, so the drawings can be up-to-date?"

The sailor turned to my journeyman, and asked, "Do you want me to sign off on this today, or not?"
posted by notyou at 9:32 AM on September 1, 2009 [9 favorites]


Maybe I'm a bit jaundiced, but doesn't history suggests that the right answer is to make a few real nukes for tests, but build a giant faux-nuclear arsenal out of cardboard, look fierce, but be willing to negotiate.

Big nukes were a great deterent when you could only be as accurate as a city, but now that we can tell our missiles, "This building, third floor, second office on the right, the guy with brown hair, a mustache and a small mole on his neck." it's not like it really matters that much.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:42 AM on September 1, 2009


Depends. If you're at war with a foreign government, yeah, that precision means more than mass destruction. But if you think you're at war with a whole civilization — which is how some Americans felt about Eastern Europe during the cold war, and how some Americans feel about the Muslim world now — then you need to be able to wipe 'em all out or the sea of ZOMG GODLESS BARBARIANS will overrun us all.

A sound argument with garbage premises gives you a garbage conclusion. Keeping a few big nukes around is the smart thing to do if you buy into that moronic nationalist clash-of-civilizations nonsense.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:05 AM on September 1, 2009


HAS AMERICA FORGOTTEN HOW TO UNLEASH THE AWESOME POWER OF FOGHAT??!

we don't need it - CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CHERRY BOMB!!
posted by pyramid termite at 10:08 AM on September 1, 2009


The article is misleading. We did not forget how to make an H-Bomb we forgot how to manufacture a component of a specific nuclear warhead that either increases yield or increases the miniaturization of the device.

Repeated for emphasis. I love this place--BS detection at its finest.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:10 AM on September 1, 2009


The secret ingredient is love.
posted by LordSludge at 10:20 AM on September 1, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's not the length, it's not the size, it's how many square miles you can blow up before sunrise.
posted by jamstigator at 10:24 AM on September 1, 2009


build a giant faux-nuclear arsenal out of cardboard legos
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:39 AM on September 1, 2009


Hardened targets require the heat and overpressure of a fusion bomb. Even still, very deep hardened targets will only feel the EMP (electromagnetic pulse) a fusion bomb can produce, and at deep enough depth, even that can be attenuated by earth mass. Still, for sealing up rats in deep holes, successive fusion blasts still appear to be viable.
posted by paulsc at 10:49 AM on September 1, 2009


On a similar vein, I forgot how to make Chopped Liver. I can just email my mother for that, though.
posted by JeffK at 10:52 AM on September 1, 2009


The awesome power of FOGHORN?
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:01 AM on September 1, 2009


can't we just ask Russia?
posted by cport1 at 11:10 AM on September 1, 2009


Hmmm... I'd always read that the material in question was good old polystyrene... deliberate misinformation, or maybe, as geoff. said, they started using FOGBANK at some point instead because it was somehow better?

Anyway, not too surprised by this. In my introductory library science class, one professor made a point about digital technology vs. good ol' print by comparing the Domesday Book, still legible nearly a millenium down the pike (assuming you can read Latin, of course), to the (unnamed) U.S. Census that use some (unnamed) computer format or medium that the Census Bureau couldn't read ten years later because they'd disposed of the equipment to do so. He didn't take questions, so I couldn't ask "and then what happened?", the death of many a joke or anecdote, to see if he even knew whether or not the Bureau had been able to retrieve the data or not. (He did have a point, though, as evidenced by retrieval problems with, dig if U will the irony, the BBC Domesday Project.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:19 AM on September 1, 2009


The secret ingredient is love.
posted by LordSludge at 1:20 PM on September 1 [3 favorites +] [!]


Who's been screwing with this thing?
posted by Who_Am_I at 11:21 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is this like how Johnny Marr can't play How Soon Is Now?
posted by jimmythefish at 11:27 AM on September 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


It's ultimately a little irrelevant if we cannot make an H-bomb,

adipocere:
The w78 is one of the weapons that this is used in. That ain't your father's (or North Korea's) H-bomb.
posted by bdc34 at 11:50 AM on September 1, 2009


This will be a devastating blow to the emerging Cold War Reenactment community.
posted by Naberius at 12:00 PM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Neat story. Nukes as the hydraulic cement of the 21st century.
posted by rokusan at 12:10 PM on September 1, 2009


Turns out that you just teach the bomb phenomenology.
posted by generichuman at 12:21 PM on September 1, 2009


The Captain America origin story now seems less contrived.
"Doc, did you make sure to write down the formula to make more super sold..." *BLAM* "Doc!"

Also:Hias
posted by Smedleyman at 12:59 PM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


What would 'Dr Strangelove' think?
posted by Rashomon at 1:35 PM on September 1, 2009


I'm sure we could just buy some from Russia at a garage sale.
posted by edmo at 3:02 PM on September 1, 2009


Last night, in the electronics course I'm taking, our lab consisted of measuring voltage using an analog voltmeter, you know, one of those old-time deals where the needle swings back and forth, and then take a reading with a digital multimeter and report the difference. Of course there was a significant difference in accuracy between the two. The digital multimeter was accurate to four decimal places, whereas the the analog voltmeter was barely accurate to whole numbers.

So I'm sitting there smirking about how inaccurate this crusty, old, obsolete, analog equipment is, when suddenly the thought comes to me: They built the atomic bomb and the Lunar Lander using his crusty, old, obsolete, analog equipment.
posted by lekvar at 3:14 PM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


So, if we never figure this out again, we'll be forever limited to destroying the Earth only seven times.
posted by qvantamon at 3:23 PM on September 1, 2009


The digital multimeter was accurate to four decimal places, whereas the the analog voltmeter was barely accurate to whole numbers.

But which one was closer to the correct value?

This is the calculator syndrome: you actually need to know how many places after the decimal are usable.
posted by phliar at 4:29 PM on September 1, 2009


lekvar: The digital multimeter was accurate to four decimal places, whereas the the analog voltmeter was barely accurate to whole numbers.

Or was it?

As phliar intimates, precision != accuracy.

Which is more accurate - an analogue voltmeter that reads 4.0v when hooked up to a 4v reference, or a digital voltmeter that reads 3.990v?
posted by Pinback at 5:35 PM on September 1, 2009


Of course there was a significant difference in accuracy between the two. The digital multimeter was accurate to four decimal places, whereas the the analog voltmeter was barely accurate to whole numbers.

Actually, lekvar, that's a difference in precision, not accuracy. The digital meter is more precise, but as phliar pointed out, you've given us no data with which to determine the accuracy of either.
posted by krash2fast at 5:37 PM on September 1, 2009


After paying for secretaries, accountants, guards, high-security lab space*, managers, equipment, security clearances, travel...$69 million is enough to hire like 20 scientists for a year. Science is expensive and top-secret science is really expensive, so losing $69 million worth of time isn't that big a deal.

* One place I know of has whole labs enclosed entirely in Faraday cages, with independent power sources and a woodchipper-like shredder inside to destroy used equipment (including whole computers)
posted by miyabo at 7:04 PM on September 1, 2009


can't we just ask Russia?

I'm sure we could just buy some from Russia at a garage sale.

Or more seriously, the UK. We do manufacture our own warheads for Trident, after all.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 7:45 PM on September 1, 2009


The digital meter is more precise, but as phliar pointed out, you've given us no data with which to determine the accuracy of either.

So... since there probably isn't a platinum 'reference volt' in a vault in Zurich, does anyone know what _is_ the way to absolutely calibrate a volt meter?
posted by blenderfish at 11:15 PM on September 1, 2009


If you're doing real work, you have documentation on your voltmeter that shows it was calibrated against a standard which was calibrated against a standard which [repeat as needed] against a standard maintained by NIST. The general field of getting your instruments calibrated is known as metrology. There are physical effects which can be used to derive a precise volt, e.g. the Josephson effect. Since the volt is defined in terms of other SI units, it's also possible to create a volt standard if you have accurate second/meter/kilogram standards and access to well-characterized things like the vacuum.
posted by hattifattener at 11:49 PM on September 1, 2009


(Also, if it helps: the older way to calibrate voltmeters was to take advantage of the fact that electrochemical reactions have characteristic potentials associated with them, for instance the 1.5 volts of an alkaline or carbon-zinc cell; the 1.2 volts of a NiCd or NiMH cell; etc.. Some chemistries are particularly stable and were used in reference cells.)
posted by hattifattener at 11:58 PM on September 1, 2009


Heh. I did a short stint in the calibration labs when I was an apprentice.

Every Monday morning the Senior Technical Officer would come down from his office, sit in the chair that was reserved for him (none of us lowly apprentices, techs, or even technical officers were allowed to use that chair during the rest of the week!), note the temperature on the weekly calibration card, and spend half an hour carefully calibrating the high impedance galvanometers against a bank of BPO-made Weston cells in a glass-fronted timber case behind the workbenches. All in total, reverent silence.

Once done, he'd suddenly become very friendly and chatty, asking us all about our weekend and talking about the football, before disappearing back his office and leaving us to calibrate the incoming batch of hallowed AVO-8's and crappy APO MKII meters against the galvanometers.

All of which has nothing to do with forgetting how to build H-bombs, but is itself something of a forgotten part of engineering history. In this case, though, it was the mid-80's...
posted by Pinback at 1:02 AM on September 2, 2009


Not a big deal. All that has to be done to solve it is summoning up Belial again, and asking him for another vial of hellfire. Why do you think the Pentagon is that shape?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:47 AM on September 2, 2009


One volt is one kilogram - meter squared per Coulomb - second squared. You just dump all that shit onto a beam balance and calibrate.
posted by Bokononist at 6:55 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


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