Nuclear arms vary in strength of explosions

This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) taken on Aug 29, 2017, shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off from the launching pad in Pyongyang.
This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) taken on Aug 29, 2017, shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off from the launching pad in Pyongyang. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK • Not all nuclear arms are created equal.

They have four main designs that progressively raise the destructive power of the weapons and their ability to obliterate large targets.

The most basic kind of nuclear weapon - the kind experts say the North began with - is known as an atomic bomb. It gets its energy from splitting heavy atoms in chain reactions. The main fuels of atomic bombs are uranium or plutonium.

A cheaper and more powerful way of freeing the atom's hidden energies is to fuse two light atoms into one. The main fuels are deuterium and tritium, both rare but inexpensive forms of hydrogen. They are known as thermonuclear fuels because their ignition requires the blistering heat of an exploding atomic bomb, which acts like a match.

In 1951, the United States injected a tiny amount of thermonuclear fuel into the core of an atomic bomb, enhancing its power. The explosion was roughly three times as strong as the Hiroshima blast. Some experts say the North is now taking this second step in bomb design.

Others say the isolated state may have raced ahead to the third stage. That method wraps alternating layers of thermonuclear fuel and uranium around atomic bombs, and burns more hydrogen than simple boosting. A recent report indicated that the Russians, who first tried that approach, produced a blast more than 25 times as strong as the Hiroshima bomb.

  • 4-16

  • How many times more powerful Sunday's blast was compared with North Korea's previous largest explosion.

The most destructive nuclear weapons are known as city busters. A true hydrogen bomb, this fourth stage of development works by positioning near the triggering atomic bomb a separate capsule that can hold a much larger amount of thermonuclear fuel.

In 1954, on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, the US tried that approach. The fireball expanded for kilometres. The shock wave swept neighbouring atolls clean of vegetation and animals. In minutes, the mushroom cloud rose some 40.2km. Slowly, its radioactivity spread around the globe.

The destructive force of that single hydrogen device turned out to be far greater than all explosives used in World War II, including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blast was 1,000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

Despite that range of fiery outcomes, and the unthinkable consequences, nuclear experts say that unusually large test explosions can be achieved in a variety of ways, making the field of atomic forensics quite difficult for distant experts.

With Sunday's large North Korean blast, Norsar, short for the Norwegian Seismic Array, a research group based in Kjeller, noted that global shock waves alone provide insufficient information to determine if the detonation was a true hydrogen bomb, as the North declared.

Nuclear experts said the blast on Sunday was somewhere between four and 16 times as powerful as North Korea's previous largest explosion, which was about the size of the Hiroshima bomb.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Nuclear arms vary in strength of explosions'. Print Edition | Subscribe