MadSci Network: Physics

Re: Is it possible for someone to build a nuclear weapon in their garage?

Date: Wed Apr 7 11:02:51 1999
Posted By: Bernadette Baca, Health Physicist, Uranium Licensing Project, Texas Dept of Health-Bureau of Radiation Control
Area of science: Physics
ID: 923424039.Ph

First I'd like to mention that radon comes from radium and not directly off 
uranium.  Often there are signifcant natural concentrations of just radium 
ores.  These radium ore bodies have been mined in the past for industrial 
and medical purposes without significant concentrations of uranium in them. 
 So even though there is radon, it does not necessarily mean there are 
signifcant concentrations of uranium available.

Now back to your question of building an atomic weapon.  One of the first 
problems "someone" might encounter trying to remove uranium from bedrock is 
the LOW natural concentration of uranium in soils.  It takes TONS, I mean 
tons, of naturally bearing ores to even produce a significant amount of 
uranium.  This may mean tearing up one's entire neighborhood, if not town, 
to access enough of the ore to obtain uranium.  However, if one could get 
this access, there would still be additional obstacles to overcome.

The process seems so simple and lesser technology could be used; but just 
the cost and time needed alone would be massive.  Many of the chemicals and 
processes used are quite hazardous, if not governmentally regulated.  For 
someone to attempt to build a "nuclear" bomb would undertake quite 
elaborate processes and equipment just to get the first few steps 
accomplished.  The next additional steps normally take sophisticated 
laboratories to make sure no additional contaminants enter into the process 
and make the product useless, much less protect the workers from the 
chemical dangers.  Even though the uranium is giving off minor amounts of 
radiation, the biggest dangers are the toxic effects of the chemical nature 
of uranium and the other chemicals used in the uranium recovery process.  
More accidents and injuries have happened because of "chemcial" explosions 
than anything radioactive.

If one would be able to control the chemical dangers during the processing 
and keep the product pure enough, quite a bit of uranium would still be 
needed and would need to be greatly enriched to be effective in a weapon.  
So now even more time and money is spend to accomplish this as well as 
dealing with the LARGE amount of waste products generated.  Once this is 
done, if it could be done at all in a garage, the construction of the 
mechanical parts of the bomb would need to be devised.  Just because 
uranium or plutonium may be in something does not by any means make it a 
nuclear weapon.  Certain reactions must be gauranteed to occur in a 
specific order and interact with other parts of the device to become a 
bomb.  The nuclear reaction part (not just the natural radiation emitted 
from the uranium or plutonium but the actual fission process) must interact 
in a specific manner with the rest of the mechanical parts to become an 
atomic weapon.  This is by no means easy and something I would not try in a 
garage let alone a scientific lab.

So in fewer words, it would be greatly unlikely someone could make an 
atomic bomb in their garage as television and movies would have you 
believe.  They leave out all the other non-glamourous but important 
information like the other health and safety hazards that go along with 
process, the amount of materials needed and wastes produced, much less the 
GREAT COST to make an atomic weapon.  It's so easy to say "OOO, look I 
found a piece of uranium.  Let's make a bomb," and get a great movie out of 
it.  Unfortunately reality doesn't quite work that way.  Reality is a lot 
of hard work and expense and this is no exception.

In my option, it's a lot easier to build a bicycle in your garage (even 
though the instructions with most bicycles now days leads you to believe 
building a bomb would be easier) than an atomic weapon.

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