Thursday, 5 November 2009

Timothy Hampton and the March of Time

Anyone looking for a motive for the murder, in Vienna, of Dr Timothy Hampton, needs to do much more than look in the right geographical region for the secrets that he might have uncovered, that others wanted covered up again most urgently. They also need to look in the right timeframe:

A few years ago, when sophisticated software was being developed, to continuously scan seismographic sensors and sound alarms when anything resembling a nuclear test was detected, one of the people developing the software argued that there was a lot of perfectly good seismic data in the archives going back to years before the software was even thought of, let alone developed, and it might be a good idea to run the new software over that, as well.

So, what happens when you run the software that Dr Hampton was using in his official, contemporary work, over archive seismic data for the period 1975-1988, for example?
And if you go to a different time, aren't the politically critical parts of the world all different?

This link is to a document which comment poster, Dave K9, offers as relevant.
Briefly, this document suggests that the second Korean nuclear test might not have been nuclear at all, or the test site had somehow achieved a much better containment of radioactive material than the first test. (Medawar believes that this site is actually a coal mining area: not an ideal choice for containment!) If the "test" was actually a stunt, pulled with thousands of tons of conventional explosives, then the cavity fusing effect that makes underground nuclear explosions self-sealing, wouldn't happen and hundreds of tons of gas would be vented or seep from the site. Medawar thinks this would be forensically detectible, for months, although not by any mechanism in the nuclear test monitoring network.
Depends a little on what conventional explosive used:
ANFO w0uld be the most cost-effective material in the west, and this is fairly clean-burning.
TNT/ammonium-nitrate (Amatol) has been used in very large conventional explosions in the past: this would definitely leave distinctive chemicals in the plume.
More modern RDX/TNT even more so. (But would cost millions: roughly £1 per 1lb.)
Thousands of tons of HMX/TNT (Octal) would be so expensive that a genuine nuclear bomb would be cheaper.

Also, it would be a huge labour to transport thousands of tons of explosives to the same depth as a nuclear device lowered down a shaft that could be drilled like an oil or water well.

However, it's also noteworthy that this document describes and ever-tightening noose of monitoring for nuclear test activity, making it harder by the month, never mind the year, to get away with doing this undetected. This means that any secrets about nuclear tests apply to tests that have already happened some time ago, before doing it in secret became difficult.

And at the same time as doubt is being cast on the technical capabilities of North Korea, it has emerged that Iran has access to a fairly advanced form of nuclear warhead design.

Actually, Medawar thought this had to be the case, a few years ago when inurgents in Southern Iraq suddenly started to use Explosively Formed Penetrator devices in roadside bombs. An EFP and a two-point implosion or "Swan" nuclear device both represent essentially the same technology.


DaveK9999999 said...

I give up - what's the answer ?

Medawar said...

Medawar doesn't know, what year of archive data Hampton (or anybody else) might have got up to.

But the mid to late seventies was the window of opportunity, between the more industrialized southern hemisphere states having the capacity to make atom bombs, and the world getting organized to spot any tests. For northern hemisphere countries, the window of opportunity to make a bomb without anyone knowing, probably closed a few years earlier than that, due to denser population and more monitoring in general.

It is more or less general knowledge that South Africa got something done in this time, but you don't murder someone to cover up what the world already knows. Argentina developed the "Condor" missile which was a nuclear delivery system if ever there was one, but there's no known trace of a warhead programme there.

The point is this: the surprises will be in the historical data and analysis of this, nothing that happens now can be secret, really.

DaveK9999999 said...

If you google [ "South Africa" Israel nuclear test IAEA Vienna ] you hit which gives a good history of the affair.

Near the end it also says "In the last three years North Korea conducted two tests", which of course is exactly what Timothy Hampton wrote about in his article in September's "Spectrum", the in-house journal of CTBTO, .

It seems the second test was not a nuclear test at all, but a 4,000 tonne TNT explosion, since it left no Xenon-133 signature at all - which Hampton said was 99.9% unlikely.

With all this excitement going on in Vienna, and with the Iranian talks just about to start, and with Israel foaming at the mouth wanting to take Iran out before it is too late, you can see why Hampton may have decided it was a good time to kill himself.

Medawar said...

Still think that it could be a recently-detected past event, as it were.

To a regime like North Korea's, the point of nuclear weapons is that you can prove you've got them by a test, without using them in anger. This is why there are countless stories of political prisoners being "executed" with assorted bio-toxins. These aren't "secret experiments", they are demonstrations and the outside world is meant to hear.

Re: the faked test: I'd be interested to see figures on how much harm the carcinogenic residue from 4,000 tons of "TNT" (almost never used pure) would do compared to the fallout from a 4kt nuclear bomb. If the TNT was in the form of clean-burning Amatol, possibly not much, but 4 kilotonnes of RDX/TNT mix would be pretty toxic as well as pretty explosive. Medawar doesn't believe that you cannot tell the difference on a seismograph. The USA did a dummy "tactical nuclear" explosion using thousands of tons of ANFO once, for a number of purposes, and it was said at the time that they thought the shockwave would be different from an actual nuclear explosion.

Countries wanting nuclear weapons simply as a last resort to keep the USA and USSR/Putininia out of their backyards, might go about their business far more quietly. As Sweden evidently did in the forties and fifties. Even Switzerland had an advanced design for a bomb, but presumably never assembled it.

Medawar said...

An HEU gun-type device doesn't really need a test: the Americans didn't test their gun-type device before using it, the New Mexico test in July 1945 was the plutonium implosion device.

A device weighing one ton would be child's play for a SAAF Buccaneer bomber to deliver. The diameter is okay for the central rotating bomb bay, too, as this was designed to take a 4,000lb HC as a conventional model for possible nuclear weapons. (If you see "7,000lb" it's because something like "7,000lb Target Marking" was RAF/FAA code for a Red Beard weapon, which weighed a lot less. No actual Target Marking cluster bomb weighed more than 1,000lb)

And the alleged test was in the right time-frame, when the detection technology wasn't up to being conclusive about tests in the southern hemisphere.

But there's nothing surprising about this: the South Africans have owned up to having built the above and nobody seriously doubts that Israel has advanced weapons. No reason there to top someone.

DaveK9999999 said...

The Guardian report on Iran's supposed double implosion warhead says that the origin of the report was "western intelligence sources" - in other words Iran's enemies, including MOSSAD.

So I wonder if it is just the same tired old collection of files found on laptops that were acquired in scarcely believable circumstances, that Iran has already denounced as forgeries.

The timing of the release of the information must be significant. Is there a need to distract people's attention from Iran's decision on the west's enrichment offer ? Hardly.

Well how about to distract from the report by IAEA inspectors on the so-called enrichment facility near Qom? Reuters reports that ElBaradei said "It's a hole in a mountain," and "The idea was to use it as a bunker under the mountain to protect things" and "nothing to be worried about."

Oh dear, Obama himself said it was a secret enrichment facility with 3,000 centrifuges. Israel said this was conclusive evidence that Iran was working on a nuclear weapon and that it was totally unreasonable to delay attacking any longer. And it turns out its a hole in the ground that has been declared to IAEA well before any radioactive materials have been brought there.

Sounds like a good time for a distraction. Why don't we pretend that the high-speed cameras Iran got to help develop its IEDs were actually to develop an implosion device ? No, a double implosion device ! Scientists say the revelations are "breath-taking" !

Medawar said...

Iran has a lot of Thorium. As the NAZIs worked out, the Thorium/U233 fuel cycle gets you to a bomb with a fraction of the industrial effort as natural uranium or plutonium. It's also the only form of nuclear weapons programme you could genuinely hide, as the separation of U233 from irradiated Thorium is purely chemical and no more complicated than pulling platinum out of nickel. And that HAS been done covertly, in South Cambs, for a couple of years before the authorities smelled a rat, or at least noticed thefts of ammonium chloride to complete the process with. *

If the Iranians were really trying, this is what they would do, and the centrifuges and so on would be decoys or bargaining counters.

The Iranians should be handled by confronting the unambiguously illegal things they do, such as occupy Abu Musa, and not by getting sucked into a web of half-truths and posturing.

Medawar doesn't find the Iranian regime innocent, but they are too cunning to have actually done what they are accused of. Their troops on Abu Musa are there illegally, getting them to remove these would be legally sound and would also make the huge volume of passing international trade immediately safer.

* The illegal platinum refinery was interesting: they had someone at a platinum/nickel mine in South Africa, relabel drums of platinum/nickel ore dissolved in aqua rega as "processed" waste from which the platinum had already been precipitated, using ammonium chloride, and removed. This isn't exactly "waste" but you can buy it for its nickel value... They did, their man on the inside loading the relabeled drums on their lorry.
Shipped it to Erith, I think, swiped a lot of ammonium chloride from a printed circuit factory in Baldock, precipitated away in a rented workshop, applied a welding torch to the precipitate and, bingo! they had turned dangerous-looking sludge into platinum sponge.

Getting U-233 out of irradiated Thorium is more dangerous than this, and uses different reagents, but it's about as complicated and clearly COULD be done in facilities a fraction of the size that the Americans are looking for.