One of the most alarming news items recently is that North Korea’s secretive, eccentric regime claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb. If true, that would be a huge increase in the threat to South Korea, Japan and US forces in the region. The Stalinist state possesses missiles that can reach Alaska, northern Australia and most of Russia, and the prospect of them being able to arm one of them with a thermonuclear weapon is not pleasant.
Fortunately, they’re not telling the truth. North Korea did not detonate a hydrogen bomb last Wednesday. They might have tried to, of course, but if they did it was a failure. Pyongyang isn’t releasing any technical details about the weapon and of course they’re not allowing access to the test site, but we can tell quite a lot about it anyway. Seismic monitoring equipment – the same gear we use to measure earthquakes – can give a good idea of the size of the explosion from the shock waves it pumped into the ground. Air samples, even if they’re taken hundreds of miles downwind of the detonation, will hold chemical clues to what elements were built into the bomb.
Last week’s test was North Korea’s fourth nuclear explosion. The first was in 2006, and released less than a kiloton of explosive force – possibly as low as 200 tons. By comparison the first bomb tested by the Manhattan Project had a yield of 20 kilotons. Two more tests in 2009 and 2013 were still below the yield of 1945’s Trinity weapon – 2-7kt for the first, and 6-9kt for the second. Pyongyang’s weapons are slowly gaining power, but still haven’t reached what US, British and Canadian scientists achieved with their first attempt over 70 years ago. Intelligence also suggests their bombs are crude, large and heavy – too large and heavy to mount on a missile. The first US bombs were enormous, so large that the Air Force nearly had to borrow RAF Lancasters to carry them (eventually they decided to modify the B29 instead) – and the evidence is that North Korea’s nukes are a lot less sophisticated, so probably even larger.
So, how powerful was North Korea’s “hydrogen bomb?” Well, it created a magnitude 5.1 earth tremor. That’s exactly the same size as the 2013 test, which was a maximum of 9kt. Hydrogen bombs run from around 100kt into the megaton range, so if that’s what North Korea set off on January 6 it didn’t work.
Air sampling will probably reveal a lot about the latest device. If it was a standard nuke, the residue will be mostly plutonium. If there’s tritium – a radioactive form of hydrogen – in there too, it was either a failed hydrogen bomb or a failed boosted fission device. A boosted fission bomb is a standard atomic bomb that’s been doped with tritium to increase its yield – the UK managed to get 720kt out of one, the most powerful non-hydrogen bomb ever detonated. So, if North Korea was testing one of those, it didn’t work either.
So far, the evidence says that North Korea’s test was either just another atomic bomb, or it was a more advanced design that failed. It’s still worrying that they’re determined to keep testing though, and if air samples reveal that they’re working with tritium those concerns should be a lot stronger. Pyongyang is a rogue regime and it’s time for their last supporter, China, to start applying some pressure to keep them in line.
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