How to Dismantle a Nuclear Bomb


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The Human Element

Danagoulian believes putting the new method through the testing stage has been a significant step forward for his research team.

“Simulations capture the physics, but they don’t capture system instabilities,” Danagoulian says. “Experiments capture the whole world.”

In the future, he would like to build a smaller-scale version of the testing apparatus, one that would be just 5 meters long and could be mobile, for use at all weapons sites.

“The purpose of our work is to create these concepts, validate them, prove that they work through simulations and experiments, and then have the National Laboratories to use them in their set of verification techniques,” Danagoulian says, referring to U.S. Department of Energy scientists.

Karl van Bibber, a professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, who has read the group’s papers, says “the work is promising and has taken a large step forward,” but adds that “there is yet a ways to go” for the project. More specifically, van Bibber notes, in the recent tests it was easier to detect fake weapons based on the isotopic characteristics of the materials rather than their spatial arrangements. He believes testing at the relevant U.S. National Laboratories — Los Alamos or Livermore — would help further assess the verification techniques on sophisticated missile designs.

Overall, van Bibber adds, speaking of the researchers, “their persistence is paying off, and the treaty verification community has got to be paying attention.”

Danagoulian also emphasizes the seriousness of nuclear weapons disarmament. A small cluster of several modern nuclear warheads, he notes, equals the destructive force of every armament fired in World War II, including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. and Russia possess about 13,000 nuclear weapons between them.

“The concept of nuclear war is so big that it doesn’t [normally] fit in the human brain,” Danagoulian says. “It’s so terrifying, so horrible, that people shut it down.”

In Danagoulian’s case, he also emphasizes that, in his case, becoming a parent greatly increased his sense that action is needed on this issue, and helped spur the current research project.

“It put an urgency in my head,” Danagoulian says. “Can I use my knowledge and my skill and my training in physics to do something for society and for my children? This is the human aspect of the work.”

The research was supported, in part, by a U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration Award.

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