By A. G. Moore July, 2016
As North Korea continues to refine its ballistic missile technology (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/north-korea-test-fires-musudan-ballistic-missiles-160622042047390.html), it warns that the missiles will be armed with nuclear weapons. Until last January those weapons would have been atomic bombs.
In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that his country had tested a hydrogen bomb (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35240012) . This was alarming news to the international community. While most people vaguely refer to “nuclear weapons” they draw little distinction between atom and hydrogen bombs. In fact, there is a significant difference, such a great difference that many scientists who worked on the Manhattan project (to create an atom bomb in WWII) refused to have anything to do with hydrogen development.
A look back at those early days of atomic weapons development will help to explain why North Korea’s hydrogen bomb is such a big deal. What follows is an except adapted from What is Radioactivity? The Basics, one of several books offered by Rhythm Prism that help to make complex ideas accessible to all readers.
Edward Teller and the Hydrogen Bomb
When Henri Becquerel and the Curies experimented with radioactivity in the late 19th century, they didn’t have government or institutional support. Interest in radioactivity grew quickly, however, as its potential uses, particularly its military uses, became clear.
By the 1930s, a race to build an atomic bomb was on. The race culminated in nuclear blasts over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The display of power stoked the desire in some for an even more destructive device. A chief advocate for the new bomb was Edward Teller, one of the physicists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. The device he envisioned was the hydrogen bomb.
Teller’s nuclear device would gain its power from fusion, rather than fission. Fission involves breaking up atoms. Fusion involves combining them. Both processes release a tremendous amount of energy, but fusion releases much more.
Fusion diagram: Two isotopes of hydrogen are forced to combine and become a new element, helium. An extra neutron is freed in the reaction.
Many of Teller’s colleagues, including Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer, did not believe the hydrogen bomb should be developed.
“Now I am become Death…” Oppenheimer had said, when the atomic bomb was first tested on July 16, 1945. This sense of Promethean overreach did not affect Teller, however. He thought the U.S. needed bigger, and more powerful bombs.
The disagreement between Teller and Oppenheimer grew so fierce that Teller left to work on the hydrogen bomb and Oppenheimer eventually (after WWII) became an activist in the anti-proliferation movement.
Teller persuaded Harry Truman, who had approved the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to go ahead with development of the hydrogen bomb. That first bomb, the Teller-Ulam hydrogen bomb, was tested on November 1, 1952.
Fusion Bomb Diagram: Fission reaction (Primary) triggers fusion (Secondary).
The hydrogen bomb actually uses both fission and fusion. Detonation is a two-stage process. The first is a fission trigger. The tremendous heat generated by fission causes the second part of the bomb to activate. In this second part, deuterium and tritium are fused. In building a hydrogen bomb, Teller, in fact, mimicked the power of the sun, where hydrogen atoms fuse together to make helium.
Ultimately, the United States entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. Both nations worked feverishly to amass thousands of the most powerful weapons on earth. Of course, many believe the irony of the weapons race and the nuclear age is this: if atomic warfare ever broke out the result would likely be catastrophic for everyone. With the hydrogen bomb, the path to Armageddon would just be a little shorter.