North Korea and the Hydrogen Bomb


By A. G. Moore    July, 2016

As North Korea continues to refine its ballistic missile technology (, 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 ( .  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.

fusion diagram scaled 3

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).

fusion bomb diagram 2

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.


North Korea’s Hydrogen Adventure and The Atomic Age: A Look Back at History

By A. G. Moore

nagasaki blast scaled for site
Atomic Cloud Rising Over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945 Photo credit: Hiromichi Matsuda (松田 弘道) August 9, 1945

It was June, 1942.  The world was at war.  In Europe, the war had begun in 1939; in the US active engagement had not begun until 1941.  Fighting was fierce and the outcome uncertain. After much prodding by scientists, including Albert Einstein, US President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to approve development of an atomic bomb. Thus commenced The Manhattan Project.

A debate about the location of the project ensued.  It was eventually decided that physical construction of the bomb would take place in a remote location–Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was to be a top-secret effort, joined by scientists from several nations.

Work proceeded feverishly.  The race was on, participants believed, to beat the enemy in the development of a catastrophic weapon.  They were convinced that whoever got the weapon first would likely win the war. When researchers thought they finally had a workable bomb, many wondered if they should test it. Would the world blow up? This was a question actually asked by one of the researchers, Edward Teller.

On July 16, 1945 the first atomic bomb was detonated in Los Alamos. Though a few scientists thought the device might not work at all, Enrico Fermi, a lead scientist, took bets on whether or not the explosion would ignite the atmosphere. He speculated that if this happened it was possible that not only New Mexico would be incinerated, but also that the world would be destroyed. While some colleagues thought Fermi was jesting, it was seriously considered that the bomb could turn the whole planet into a bomb.

Nonetheless, scientists proceeded with the detonation.  As it turned out, they did have a workable bomb. The results of their labor–the first atomic bomb in history–was given to politicians. At this point, WWII in Europe was over.  Germany had surrendered in May of ’42.  Germany’s defeat allowed the US and its allies to focus energies on the remaining opponent, Japan.
Throughout the war there had been two fronts, one in Europe, against Germany and the other in the Pacific, against Japan. Japan was a tenacious and fierce opponent. As German forces withdrew, Japan fought on and showed no intention of bowing before an invading army.

Faced with a grueling and bloody ground assault, the US decided to choose a more efficient road to victory over Japan.  On August 6, 1945 the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.  Two days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Some observers estimate the number of deaths from the Hiroshima blast to have been about 135,000 and from the Nagasaki blast to have been about 75,000.  Neither of these figures include long-term exposures to the blast.

The Japanese quickly surrendered.  Faced with what appeared to be the obliteration of their nation, they agreed to almost every demand made of them.   WWII came to an abrupt end and the world entered a new era: the Atomic Age.


Much of the above essay was adapted from the book, What is Radioactivity? The Basics, which is a Rhythm Prism publication.

Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Niels Bohr and the Atomic Bomb

By A. G. Moore

(Adapted from the book: What is Radioactivity? The Basics)


bohr einstein

(This article was adapted from the book What is Radioactivity? The Basics)

It would be difficult–perhaps impossible–to write about the development of atomic science without mentioning the contributions of Niels Bohr and Lise Meitner.

While Ernest Rutherford is credited with describing the nucleus of an atom, it’s Bohr who gave him the clue as to how electrons are arranged on the outer shell of the atom.

Niels Bohr collaborated with many of the most important physicists of the 20th century. In the picture above, he is shown with Albert Einstein. Not only did the work of both men contribute to the development of the atomic bomb, but both were refugees from Nazi ideology. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Nazis in Germany and Hitler’s genocidal policies, these two scientists probably never would have added their voices to the chorus that urged the bomb be built.

Bohr was born in Denmark. When Germany invaded Denmark, Bohr fled to Sweden and, when Sweden became unsafe he fled with his family to England.  In the race to unlock the power of the atom, Niels Bohr played a critical role, but he was only one of several people who were responsible for understanding how nuclear fission worked. Energy derived from nuclear fission–splitting the atom–powered the atomic bomb.

It was a colleague of Bohr’s, Otto Frisch, who came up with the term ‘nuclear fission’.  Before 1938, the two words ‘nuclear’ and ‘fission’ had never been put together.

Frisch worked in Bohr’s Copenhagen laboratory.  His aunt, Lise Meitner, was  a remarkable physicist who, before 1938, was working with German scientists. These physicists and chemists were trying to split the atom and unlock the enormous energy contained within.  However, Meitner was forced to flee from Germany in ’38.  It was then that she met up with her nephew, Otto, in Stockholm and told him about the work her German colleagues were doing.

Frisch was excited. He and his aunt discussed the issues that prevented the Germans from making progress.  Together, Frisch and Meitner came up with a solution. They discovered a way to unleash the power of the atom.

Frisch contacted Bohr, who was in the US at the time.  Bohr told American scientists about the German efforts to make a bomb and about the progress Frisch and Meitner had made toward splitting the atom.  This information was the final push that led to the American and British determination to build a bomb. The feeling was,  if Germany was so close to owning the weapon, the world was in danger.  The scientists, and the governments who hired them, believed the US and Britain needed to get the bomb before Germany did.

Ironically, Germany never did make an atomic bomb, despite the progress Meitner had witnessed when she worked there. Germany’s failure, many believe, was the result of Nazi ideology.  All the Jewish scientists, including Meitner, Einstein and Frisch, had to leave the country. And, many excellent scientists who might have helped to build the bomb were ordered instead to join the military.  This ‘brain drain’ likely resulted in the failure of Germany’s nuclear program.

Once the US and British governments made the commitment to build a bomb most of the brightest nuclear scientists aided in the effort.  One who did not, who refused to build such a weapon, was Lise Meitner.  As a matter of fact, to the end of her life she expressed regret for the contribution she made to physics which enabled the bomb to be built.

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