- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

When Norwegian physicist Morten Bremer Maerli published an essay two years ago concluding that terrorists could do the "trivial" job of building a nuclear bomb, he suddenly saw his footnotes disappearing.
In place of references to technical sources, editors of the U.S.-based journal Nonproliferation Review repeatedly substituted a note saying citations were being removed to keep "unwanted actors" from gaining information.
Such is the nervousness over the growing universe of information, on the Internet and elsewhere, about making ultimate weapons.
Experts have long said sufficient information is publicly available for a dedicated team to build a crude nuclear weapon of the "gun" type like the one that the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, killing about 75,000 people.
In that bomb, two loads of highly enriched uranium-235, totaling about 92 pounds, were slammed together by an explosive charge, forming a "critical mass," a self-sustaining fission reaction and a nuclear explosion.
In his essay, Mr. Maerli cited early U.S. weapon scientist Luis W. Alvarez's statement that "even a high school kid," if he had enough enriched uranium, could achieve a high-yield explosion simply by dropping one half onto another.
Mr. Alvarez didn't say, however, how much is "enough."
The complex relationship between the amount of bomb material and sophistication of bomb design is what makes it difficult to fix minimums for fashioning a nuclear weapon. Other variables are involved, too, especially the level of fissionable U-235 isotope within the uranium. Although a weapon can be made with far less plutonium, that material is more dangerous to handle and more difficult to engineer.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has its own standard: 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium is considered "significant," that is, sufficient for a bomb.
That standard has the practical effect of exempting smaller amounts from the most stringent IAEA safeguards in the civilian nuclear sector. Some specialists say much smaller amounts should be strictly safeguarded, but that would require a vote of member states to change the benchmark. These specialists say a bomb could be built with as little as 18 pounds, or even 7 pounds of highly enriched uranium, depending on the sophistication of the design.
At a Washington hearing in March, senators were told that U.S. national laboratories, whose technology can produce weapons using minuscule amounts of bomb material, had gone back to review primitive methods, to see what terrorists might do.
Their findings, like Mr. Maerli's footnotes, will not be made public.


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