Nuclear Friday: It’s all in the Budget

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.

Bonus Pictures:

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.

Atomic Ham for Christmas, straight from the smokehouse.

Mad scientist’s garage

Grandpa’s makin’ moonshine again.

Video Links:

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.


9 thoughts on “Nuclear Friday: It’s all in the Budget

  1. You click on “my site” at the top left, and then “WordPress Admin” in the menu, and then go down to “media” and that is your media library, where you can upload images directly or from links, and caption them. I have a free theme, it’s part of the free deal. Formatting the images I know less about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I found the button. For some reason it doesn’t say “add media” on it. I checked a draft post and found that if I hover the pointer over the blank square next to the paragraph button, the hover text says “add media”.

      This changes everything. I think I’ll leave this post the way it is, but pictures are coming soon.


  2. All the free themes have the Add Media button. It’s in the classic editor (I don’t use their “new, too-blue, less functional” editor. It’s located right under the title, it’s the first one next to Add Poll, Add Contact Form, Add Location.

    I almost always use Flickr for photos/pictures on the blog posts. Flickr recently changed their embed coding, so you have to remove the last line starting with “script” as WP won’t allow scripts. Flickr has an incredible selection of Creative Commons pictures available for us to use in several sizes, so you don’t have to use a tiny thumbnail. All photos used must link back to the original photo on the photographer’s Flickr page. I also put a caption on the pics denoting the photographer’s name and Flickr.

    If you want your picture/photo to show up in the WP Reader, it must be larger than 350 px on both sides. I generally use a 640 X 420 size picture to be on the safe side.

    Feel free to ask me for more info on how to do this. You have my email address, so email me.

    Here is the Advanced Search on Flickr for Creative Commons photos:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your help. I think I have the “too blue” editor you are talking about. In any case. I found the “add media” button. For some reason it’s small and blank in this editor.

      And the great thing about the pictures in this post is that they are copyright free US government photos, property of the American people.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s