Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why Atomic Weapons Are Such A Conundrum

Y-12 gears up to dismantle B53 bomb parts | Frank Munger's Atomic City Underground | A fun read. Wow, that's a big ol' bomb! Just look at that photo. You'd need a honking-big plane or missile to deploy that puppy.

Nine megatons. My students have no clue about what an atomic weapon can do (thank God). I tell them that the Oklahoma City bomb was the equivalent of 5-10 sticks of dynamite, each weight about a pound. Now, a ton of dynamite/TNT would be 2000 sticks. A kiloton is a thousand tons, so that would be equal to ("I was told there'd be no math....?") 2,000,000 sticks. Hiroshima was 15-20 kilotons, so that's 30-40 million sticks. A megaton is a thousand kilotons, so a nine megaton hydrogen bomb like the B-53 would be 9 x 1000 x 2,000,000. That's 18 billion sticks of dynamite. How many acres would that cover to a depth of one foot?

So much power, my students wonder. Why did they ever develop it? "Because would you want to be caught without one if Hitler had one?" And there's the rub: the inevitable peacenik leap logic follows from one of my students that "then we should all agree to ban the bomb!" "What would you do if someone broke the ban?" "Uhhhhh..." And then at the end, I make the point of arguing thusly: if the Cold War and its ensuing consequences were so horrible, think how much more horrible it could have been if neither the United States NOR the Soviet Union had feared annihilation. Particularly someone like Stalin...

The Big One: too scary to use, but equally scary not to have.

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