So, suppose you are a government who wants the international prestige of being an official nuclear armed power. Furthermore, you have a decent supply of uranium ores within your borders and can also rely on some friendly nations nearby to sell you a bit of ore as well. And you want to do things right. You want a complete nuclear weapons infrastructure to minimize intervention from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
What will be the biggest challenge for the workers and scientists of your brave nation? Well it might be a good idea to take a look at the budget of a successful nuclear weapons program: The Manhattan Project.
- Site Cost in 1945 dollars Percent of budget
- Oak Ridge, TN 1.19 billion 62.9%
- Hanford, WA 390 million 20.6%
- Special Operating Materials 103 million 5.5%
- Los Alamos, NM 74.1 million 3.9%
- Other R&D 69.7 million 3.7%
- Government Overhead 37.3 million 2.2%
- Heavy water plants 26.8 million 1.4%
I would bet if you asked a bunch of people where the Manhattan Project was, those who could give only one location would say Los Alamos, New Mexico. The budget seems to say otherwise. Looks like it was in Tennessee more than anywhere else.
So what did they do there? They made enriched uranium, and only 50kg of weapons ready uranium along with a somewhat smaller amount of 50% enriched uranium. They also made 30 tons of reactor-grade uranium, but that was easy compared to the enriched uranium.
The problem with uranium is that natural uranium here on Earth at this time is only 0.72% uranium-235, the isotope necessary to create a fast “supercritical” chain reaction in an atomic bomb. Almost all the rest is U-238, which does not fission easily or fast enough for a bomb. As isotopes of the same element, there is no way to chemically separate them. You have to divide them by tiny differences in their mechanical properties. This takes huge machines running 24/7 consuming vast amounts of electrical power. A starting sample of uranium in its natural ratio has to pass through the machinery literally thousands of times to get to moderate levels of enrichment, and a few thousand more to get all the way to the 80%+ weapons ready level of enrichment.
The picture in the header is a control room at the Y-12 enrichment facility at Oak Ridge. Here’s what it looks like from the outside. This building is half a mile long. Click here to see the picture. I can’t figure out how to do an embedded thumbnail. This is Big Science. Well worth looking at.
The 30 tons of reactor grade uranium was still quite difficult to make. It went to Hanford to make plutonium, which is a story for another day. The cost of uranium enrichment at Oak Ridge combined with plutonium manufacture at Hanford was over 80% of the total. All this for 50kg of very highly enriched uranium and a little less than that of 50% enriched uranium to cut stronger uranium with, and three plutonium cores. The uranium went into the Little Boy bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The first plutonium core was detonated in the Gadget test device at Alamogordo, NM. The second core went into Fat Man and fell on Nagasaki. Truman ordered a halt to putting the third core into a bomb based on diplomatic contacts from Japan.
Your own nuclear program probably wouldn’t have to spend so much on fissionable materials. Oak Ridge used three different methods of uranium enrichment. We know one better way now. And you might want to bypass the highest levels of uranium enrichment and just go for reactor-grade to make plutonium based devices. Thanks to Klaus Fuchs, the Soviets went straight for plutonium since they knew how cost effective that would be. Even so, the Soviets still had to make a tremendous effort to get even this lower level of enrichment to work. The UK and France had an even easier time building their nuclear weapons since they both had a civilian nuclear industry going before they went for the bomb. But even with all the advantages an emerging nuclear power has these days, acquiring and processing fissile material will always be the hardest step.
Contrast the gleaming Big Science of Oak Ridge with the garage-tech Mad Scientist look of Los Alamos. I had wanted these to have embedded thumbnails with goofy captions, but I just have links for now.
The good scientists of Nottingham explain modern methods of uranium enrichment.
Some leaders have sought world domination, among other things, for a number of years now. So close, yet so far. I hope, anyway.
A plea for technical assistance:
WordPress seems to allow me only the header image, at least in the Intergalactic theme. I checked their support info, and they said to use the Add Media button, which I don’t have. Is that a paid premium thing? WordPress also dislikes my attempt to use third party imbedded thumbnails. I would appreciate suggestions in the comments.
And everyone, feel free to comment. If you are unclear about any technical point in this post, ask a question.