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The H-bomb - the other jubilee

Sixty years on, the reality is that there is no need to carry out nuclear tests.

Sixty years ago, on 1 November 1952, a terrifying explosion rocked Enewetak Atoll in the North Pacific. Ninety seconds later, a mushroom cloud reached the stratosphere.

The H-bomb’s diamond jubilee will no doubt be on Lassina Zerbo’s mind. On 23 October, the physicist from Burkina Faso was appointed executive secretary of the preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation. It is Zerbo’s task to persuade national leaders to ban further tests of nuclear weapons.

Almost all of the world’s 19,000 nuclear warheads are H-bombs, also known as thermonuclear devices. These employ nuclear fusion, in which atoms release energy as they fuse together, as well as fission, in which the energy is released by breaking atoms apart. Bombs that use fusion are far more powerful than fission-only devices. Close to 5,000 of those 19,000 warheads are operational and 2,000 are on high alert, ready for launch at a moment’s notice.

Before we despair of our astonishing gift for destructive innovation, it is worth dwelling on how, in the past 60 years, not one of these weapons has been used in anger. Some say human beings will eventually destroy themselves. So far, however, such pessimism is without foundation.

Zerbo’s task is to give us more cause for optimism. It won’t be easy. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has been around since the 1990s but eight nations with nuclear technology refuse to sign it. Only when it is ratified can we begin to reduce the nuclear arsenals that have kept us on the edge of our seats for so long.

The outcome of the US election will be crucial. Barack Obama will attempt to push the US Senate into ratifying the treaty. If he is elected – and if his push is successful – other nations will be far more likely to follow suit, which would make controlling proliferation easier. If Mitt Romney wins, there will be no ratification; instead, there will be proliferation. The Republicans are committed to ramping things up. The party’s platform has declared that the US “is the only nuclear power not modernising its nuclear stockpile” and that it needs to maintain “an effective strategic arsenal at a level sufficient to fulfil its deterrent purposes, a notable failure of the current administration”.

The reality is that there is no longer any need to carry out nuclear weapons tests. Thanks to our supercomputing capacity, those in charge of nuclear stockpiles can perform accurate simulations of their arsenal’s capabilities and current state. In the US, for instance, a program known as Qbox performs 360 trillion calculations per second to simulate the properties of thousands of atoms at once. This allows scientists at the US department of energy to know just how the weapons would perform on detonation.

Chest fever

Tests are about shows of strength. Nuclear posturing is ingrained in leadership psyches and data released last month by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) shows that puffed-out chests are hard to deflate.

Since Russia and the US signed the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the US has reduced the number of deployed warheads by 78 and Russia by 38. Both figures, according to the FAS, are within the fluctuations created by maintenance schedules. It is possible that nothing concrete has been done towards the treaty’s goal of cutting the number of the signatories’ warheads.

The FAS was formed in 1945 by some of the scientists who built the first atomic bombs. Their founding mission was simple: to prevent nuclear war. It has to be said that, hairy though things have been at times, so far so good. Let’s hope Zerbo can help us do even better.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?