How to dismantle a nuclear bomb (before it dismantles you)

old Russian nuclear bombNo, it’s not a U2 reference; in the wake of the proposed nuclear reduction initiatives between the US and Russia, those helpful folk at the BBC have an article on how nuclear weapons are decommissioned – only the procedure they witnessed was a simulation. [image by mikelopoulos]

The dismantlement experiment is a joint exercise between the UK and Norway – the first of its kind – and was held a few miles from Oslo.

The five-day exercise has been keenly anticipated internationally as a way of building trust between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states.

It is designed to see if one country can verify the disarmament of another country’s nuclear weapon, but without any sensitive information about national security and weapon design being compromised.

This is one of the things that has always baffled me about these sorts of agreements: everyone saying “oh yes, we should be mutually disarming!” but then tacitly acknowledging that “actually, we’d best be keeping the technology secret, because we don’t really trust you not to build more – and if you do we’ll want to have better ones”. So much for building trust, eh?

Still, the descriptions of the procedure are kind of interesting – not so much from a technical standpoint (you don’t get a list of the wrench sizes you’ll need) but as a physical manifestation of nation-state psychology:

From the start inspectors watch, photograph, seal and tag key items. They cover entry and exit points to the disarmament chamber, sweeping all those going in and out to ensure no radioactive material is smuggled away.

“It is a very choreographed process, almost like a ballet,” says Mr Persbo. “Timings are very precise.”

The amount of fissile material in a nuclear bomb is itself classified, so a number of techniques have to be employed by the inspectors to ensure nothing is diverted when they are not able to measure it in detail themselves.

Each country’s scientists have separately designed and built their own prototype devices known as “information barriers”, which can confirm that an agreed amount of radioactive material is present in any container.

If nothing else, you’ve got the switcheroo-loophole plot mechanics for a fissile re-run of The Italian Job right there. That should make for a cheery movie… but if you want some real nuclear angst to set you up for the weekend, you can read this (PDF) report from the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament that looks at the possibility of the old and flaky nuclear command and control infrastructures of the superpowers being hacked by terrorists in order to kick off a modern-day Ragnarok. I can hear Dan Brown firing up his word processor as we speak… [via SlashDot]