The Second World War was not won on the battle fields but in the lab. The heroes of the World War II were not frontline soldiers but nuclear physicists who unveiled the secret of nuclear, or better, the atom.
They include Enrico Fermi, J Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, Edward Teller, Albert Einstein and others. We can’t leave out the Russian Andrei Sakharov.
Working in labs, some secret, they paved way for the atomic bomb and later the hydrogen bomb. Other types of bombs such as neutron followed. The neutron bomb can emit lots of destructive radiation and leave physical structures intact. It is paradoxical that the world’s most brilliant minds have shown their clout in war and destruction.
In the early part of the last century, Albert Einstein paved way for the nuclear age with his discovery that matter and energy are interconvertible. He came up with the most famous equation, E=mc^2. Light travels at 300,000km per sec. Do your maths and tell me how much energy is in one kilogramme of matter if converted into energy.
To be objective, the secrets of the nuclei have been bare, but far away from us in the stars with the nebulae and constellations, with the birth and the death of stars closely mirroring the fission and fusion, the basis of nuclear weapons.
In fission, atoms split and release energy at the same time. The splitting atoms lead to more splits leading to a chain reaction and an explosion. But for fission to take place there must be a critical mass of radioactive material, mostly uranium or plutonium. The critical mass is a closely guarded secret by scientists and military establishments.
In fusion, atoms join together and release more energy than in fission, the secret of the hydrogen bomb. The atoms could be hydrogen or deuterium. Interestingly, the fusion reaction on which the hydrogen bomb is based is triggered by fission first to “force” fusion. Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam are considered pioneers in the design of Hydrogen bomb. Both were immigrants to the USA; Teller was Hungarian while Ulam was Polish.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs exposed the raw power of the atom in war. After WW II, the arms race between the two superpowers, USA and USSR (which in early 1990s split into 15 republics) led to development of more powerful bombs. Later UK, France, China, and more recently India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club.
There are unconfirmed reports that Israel and South Africa were possible members. Iran was almost there. Today, there is every possibility that the club has a new member, North Korea. It seems we are back to the nuclear age.
Should we worry about more members joining the nuclear club? Do nuclear bombs make economic sense?
First, developing such weapons is expensive and drains resources that could go elsewhere. Think of the supply chain of developing a nuclear bomb, from mining radioactive uranium, purifying it into weapons grade and all the advanced technology involved. One big hiccup is the delivery system using rockets, another byproduct of WW II. It is no wonder only the relatively well-off nations have developed and own nuclear weapons.
We could argue there are positive spillovers from nuclear weapons development such as nuclear reactors used to generate cheap electric power in many parts of the world. Kenya could soon join the “peaceful” nuclear club by generating power from nuclear reactors. Don’t we have Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board?
The main reason nations desire to own nuclear weapons is bragging rights and intimidating power. That is why North Korea can stand up against the USA. Such weapons act as a deterrent, no one would want to use them for fear of being destroyed too.
In the aftermath of WW II, the term mutually assured destruction (MAD) was used to refer to destruction resulting from a nuclear confrontation. It would be so dire, no one would dare start the war. That is why our prediction is that the North Korea–USA conflict will most likely remain verbal - if it is true North Korea has advanced nuclear weapons.
Let us have a glimpse into the economics of nuclear weapons. Where did a country such as North Korea get her nuclear technology from?
It can be home-grown industry harnessing the power of her scientists; intelligence is normally distributed and every nation has its share. Collaboration with other nuclear powers is another possibility.
The other likely source of nuclear technology is age old espionage, stealing technology secrets. Espionage is a big industry, with lots of spies lurking in the shadows. It had its heyday after WW II. There is persistent belief that Russians got the secret of the hydrogen bomb from USA through espionage.
Espionage can be profitable. Imagine using billions of dollars to develop a new weapon then someone gets the blueprints for free? Espionage is big business in high technology. It can dent a nation or a firm’s competitive edge overnight. One Kenyan who visited a high-tech firm in the East narrated how they could not get into the factory with phones or cameras.
The other source of nuclear technology is pure business; just buy it. Since the end of the cold war, the threat of nuclear war faded and lots of technology was left floating around. It is possible a black market or even open market exists. Don’t we have such a market for other types of weapons from guns to jet fighters?