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Posted by on Dec 11, 2008 in At TMV | 11 comments

Fusion vs. Fission: Not All Nukes Are Created Equal

Holly’s recent post about Obama offering Israel an “umbrella” of deterrence contained an assertion that I’ve often seen and drives me absolutely crazy.

1) A nuclear strike against Israel could kill almost half of the Jews in the world (as well as many Christian and Muslim Arabs) and would threaten the survival of the Jewish People. Both the State of Israel and the Jewish People are far more interested in survival than revenge.

The implication is that a single nuclear attack would be sufficient to “wipe Israel off the map” which is absolutely not true in the slightest. The problem is that in common parlance we call both fusion and fission based weapons “nuclear” even though fusion bombs are orders of magnitude more powerful. The measurement for large explosives is to talk about the equivalent amount of TNT that would be needed to produce the same effect. A 2000 pound bomb is a standard sized bomb dropped by planes to attack targets in war, while nuclear weapons are talked about in terms of tons of TNT. Fission weapons use either enriched uranium or plutonium to produce the explosion, and most weapons are between 14 and 20 kilotons. Fusion weapons use hydrogen to create the primary explosion (there is actually a fission-based trigger that explodes in order to start the fusion) and those weapons range between 500 kilotons for independently targeted warheads to 20 megatons for large but mostly obsolete bombs. When talking about the individually targeted warheads, multiple warheads detach from the same missile (the missile is known as MIRV‘d) with the currently used Trident missile containing 8 warheads for a total of around 4 megatons. This means that one fusion missile is 300-1000x more powerful than a fission bomb.

Hiroshima was attacked by a uranium-based weapon, and an attack by Iran would be similar to this scale, not the hydrogen-based weaponry that we were worried about Russia using during the Cold War. In Hiroshima, around 70,000 people died from the direct effects, with another 70,000 dead within a few months. The area of total and massive devastation was around 2 miles in diameter, however, Hiroshima was not a modern city and they were not prepared for an attack. As it’s made clear in the book Hiroshima, many of the deaths were actually due to the firestorm that raged through the city’s wooden buildings and the reason why around 70,000 died in the aftermath was because they had no clean water, food or medical attention. A modern city with properly stocked bomb shelters would see much less devastation.

In order to destroy Israel, Iran would need to build many weapons. To obliterate even 1/100th of Israel’s territory (85 sq mi) would require over 25 bombs, assuming the same destruction patterns as Hiroshima. Even if Iran was competent at producing its uranium, it would still take over 6 months to create enough for one bomb. This means that Iran is over a decade away from being able to threaten Israel even if they were technically proficient and had the desire. Meanwhile, one US Ohio class submarine has 24 Trident missiles, for a total destructive power of nearly 100 megatons, and while Israel’s full capabilities are not known, they are believed to have dozens of weapons and submarine based missiles with the 4-20 megaton range.

There is no possible way that Iran can threaten Israel on a fundamental level with fission based weaponry, and to even do serious damage would require decades of production. Meanwhile, a single sub from either Israel or the United States could destroy most of Iran. The only purposes for building fission bombs are for a) propaganda and b) to potentially be able to attack forward operating bases during an invasion. It is the latter reason that we are so intent on countries not having nukes. When it comes to terrorism it should be noted that each bomb has a unique atomic signature and the source could quickly be determined, so the whole, “What if they give a bomb to a terrorist group that detonates it and then we can’t retaliate because we don’t know where it’s from?” is not a realistic question. The far greater terrorist threat would be in detonating a dirty bomb that contained ordinary radioactive material, and this material is widespread with thousands of pounds unsecured in the former Soviet states, or even medical and industrial waste. This is why Obama’s mission with Sen. Lugar to coordinate the securing of such material did far more to help deter a massive terrorist attack than trying to stop nations from developing weapons.

If Iran started a fusion program then obviously the calculus would change, and there are real consequences of Iran having The Bomb — namely giving it a freer hand to harass its neighbors more conventionally and thus leading to a weapons race — but any serious discussion needs to take the facts into account. Hyperbole will not serve us well.

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Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice
  • Thanks for the reality check. I suppose we’ll always fight the last war, and in this case, the Cold War that has been over for decades. As you say, in terms of real threat from “terrorists,” a dirty bomb is much more likely and we are much less prepared. For that matter, no bomb is necessary. Imagine the terror and fiscal damage from radioactive powder released into the wind, tossed into the subway or sent through the mail.

    Military contractors and war tech groupies like Tom Clancy love to talk about high tech weaponry like missile defense shields. But how hard would it be for armed terrorists to raid the isotope stash at your local hospital? Believe me, it would not take much to cripple a major American city and trash our economy. Imagine all of Manhattan being contaminated for centuries…

    • mikkel

      In the near future I’m going to talk about the missile defense shield math and how it is the biggest waste of money imaginable. It’s even worse of a use than the financial bailout.

      As for radioactive contamination, I was surprised when I read that it is a minor threat to life and limb except at the shortest time scales. Even a a nuclear blast designed to maximum fallout would “only” produce enough to be dangerous for a few weeks to a couple months — as long as you didn’t eat or drink contaminated sources. Even then, there are well accepted ways to clean up the contamination relatively quickly.

      I have to say that the threat of contamination is overblown simply because you need thousands upon thousands of pounds of radioactive material* to cause long lasting damage. Look at Bikini Atoll or Chernobyl…the former is thriving since humans avoid it and the latter has only minor pockets that are dangerous and could be reinhabited with a good cleaning.

      A “dirty” attack is primarily an economic attack because it is insanely expensive to clean up and of course it is also a psychological attack. Looking at all the evidence, I’m not too concerned with terrorism or unconventional weapons except as triggers to good old fashioned bombs and bullets war. And of course the millions of people that die because we are too busy using resources to build/protect against ineffectual weapons instead of more productive things.

      * The only thing I’ve read that is truly a major threat when it comes to contamination would be an attack against an enrichment facility. If we bombed the Iranian stockpiles it would release so much radioactive material that it would have a real danger of blanketing the entire Middle East and much of Eurasia and making them completely uninhabitable.

  • DLS

    “Fission weapons use either enriched uranium or plutonium to produce the explosion, and most weapons are between 14 and 20 kilotons.”

    They are, in fact, larger (of higher yield) than this.

    Moreover, “destroy Israel” or ending its existence should not be confused with, because it doesn’t require, complete destruction. Destroying much of its major cities would be sufficient. You should consider the situation in the United States up to World War II, which was still, at that time, effectively run by the Northeast (the megalopolitan “Northeast Corridor”). Striking Washington, New York, and one or more other cities in this region with the first-generation nuclear weapons you confuse with all fission weapons would have been sufficient to cripple government and society as well as the land and the structures on it to end the ability of the USA to function anything as it used to be like. It is even more of a problem with Israel given how small Israel actually is and where the population is located (hardly evenly dispersed along all Israel’s land area).

    • mikkel

      Um, which? I’ve looked at all the estimations of countries that have fission weapons as their primary weapons; i.e. India, Pakistan and supposedly what North Korea and Iran are making and none of them break 20 kilotons with their basic designs. Yeah with advanced designs you can achieve higher yields, but that takes advanced manufacturing capability that I don’t think Iran will have for a long time. [This is an edit, I did just look at learn that Pakistan has larger weapons maybe on their ballistic missiles of several hundred KT, although they’ve never had a test with greater than around 30, so who knows]

      Oh and also for some reason Iran is supposedly making uranium based weapons, not plutonium where most of the refinements have taken place (ok that “some reason” might be that uranium is used for power plants as well so it gives it cover). There are just tons of theoretical hurdles to try and make a powerful uranium weapon. So they would have to make a completely new plutonium infrastructure for those bombs. In order for them to make advanced weaponry it will take decades.

      Let’s be generous and say they do have 80 kilo yields. The effective area of damage would be 1.58x larger due to the fact that it is an r^3 force. So they’d still need over a dozen, which like I said my calculation was destruction of 1% of land area.

      Also, the whole “not rational actor” premise isn’t built on the idea that you cripple the government and manufacturing capability…it is that everyone gets wiped out. Especially when you consider the immense retaliation that would occur, I don’t think that knocking out a few parts of the cities that could be rebuilt in a couple of decades really plays into that. If you are worried about a realistic massive attack on Israel from Iran they’d do what North Korea did which is build up so much conventional bomardament that they can take out most of major South Korea infrastructure within an hour.

  • Holly_in_Cincinnati

    Mikkel, I don’t believe you. If anything, I am under-estimating the threat from Iran.

  • DdW

    While all the “theory” and science discussed here might be correc t (and that needs to be verified), when “regular” people talk about a nculear attack (regardless of the exact nature of the weapon(s), its delivery system(s) or mode, etc., etc) and about a country or a city being “wiped off the map,” I honestly don’t think they are thinking in such theoretical, scientific, or abstract terms.

    They worry about the mass casualties, the physical destruction, the damage to the infrastructure, the damage such an attack can do to the psyche of a nation, the psychological and emotional aspects, AND the far-reaching and tragic consequences, including the effects of retaliation and counter-retaliation and–especially in the case of the Middle East– the fact that the whole damn place may go up in flames.

    Now, we can discuss the practical correctness and scientific facts of “the whole damn place going up in flames…..”

    Anyway, interesting piece

    • mikkel

      Yes I agree and that’s why it’s a shame that political leaders don’t do more to discuss the threats. People tend to try and avoid the unknown even if it means a high chance of more common problems occurring.

      Iran is potentially a very dangerous foe and (another) war erupting in that region has the chance to spread very quickly. Of course the United States and others need to try to get Iran to stand down, with the explicit goal of helping with regional stability. Iran is nearly bankrupt and with the collapse of oil prices it is going to get much worse in the next couple years; that goes for many of the Arab states as well…and it is clear who those countries scapegoat when they have domestic issues.

      That is where the main threat is for Israel and the region in general, and a nuclear arms race is just adding fuel to the fire, but I fear that by focusing on an unlikely and ineffectual (if the goal is to destroy the whole country) attack Israel and the US are being blinded to the more traditional and potentially growing danger.

  • jdledell

    Holly – Mikkel laid out a very compelling analysis complete with factual information. Your vapid emotional response makes you look ridiculous. However, as a Jew with 35 relatives living in Israel/Palestine I think Mikkel’s analysis leaves out one VERY important psychological factor that would come into play with an nuclear attack on Israel. Even though the vast majority of Israelis would survive such an attack, a significant percentage of Jews would then leave Israel for safer ground in Europe and America. This would be especially true of the younger as well as the best and the brightest of the Israeli Jews. Israel would then die fairly quickly as a viable Jewish state.

    • mikkel

      Yeah I hadn’t considered that. I don’t have any relatives that I know of in Israel as my ancestors all came here roughly at the same time during the pogroms and stayed put, so I must confess I don’t know much about how Israelis think.

  • rudi

    Global Security and Wikihas many articles on enhanced and boosted nukes. Making boosting work requires significant testing and technology, which only few countries possess without help from the West or the Soviet bloc..

  • persiancat123

    As far as I know, Israelis owes money to Iran for the oil they bought and did not pay for when shah was alive. Iran is asking Islael to pay the money. This is the extent of their engagement. And Israelis should buy California’s bad pistachios and not Iran’s delicious pistachios. Everyone else, please relax and have a & hot chocolate. Life is beautiful dear for everyone. Read your history books…Iranians have been the protectors of the Jews throughout history. Peace.

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