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Nuclear weapons, FOIA, general public, and "need to know"

  1. Feb 13, 2016 #1
    I am preparing a couple questions for the Nuclear Engineering forum, about nuclear weapons. During the past few weeks, I've been reading a number of interesting articles and books, most notably "The Goldsboro Broken Arrow" by Joel Dobson, and a number of articles reported through the book and in the bibliography.

    While reading those articles, and going through the pages of "The Goldsboro Broken Arrow", I noted something that I find quite puzzling. So I decided to ask the fine people here, not only for personal curiosity, but because I live in a country where, in modern times, intellectual curiosity is often looked at with suspicion (and not only when it comes to things that go boom).

    Well, I saw that the US government, various agencies (AEC) and the military, through the years, declassified a number of documents regarding various aspects of nuclear bombs (both fission and thermonuclear). Many documents were also declassified after requests under the Freedom Of Information Act. Obviously, the vast majority of those documents, if not all of them, were more or less heavily redacted, the output results ranging from deletion of a few words or lines, to documents that were almos entirely blanked (including the index).

    So my question is: why on Earth should a government be willing to release any document, no matter how heavily redacted or censored, about atomic weapons?
    In the USA, England, and many other countries, when it comes to matters concerning national security (like atomic weapons), the ruling principle - even between different offices and compartments of the same organization - is the "need to know": one is given only the amount of information necessary to carry out his/her task, nothing more, sometimes less. In my opinion (please HOLD the objection :oldbiggrin: ) the technical and engineering aspects of a nuclear bomb are none of the business of the general public, except for pure curiosity (like in my case). But pure curiosity can hardly be seen as "need to know". If I were the government, I guess that I would not see any valid reason to declassify and release any information about nuclear weapons to the general public.

    My question might be considered quite contradictory, as satisfying curiosity, to me, is a primal need just like breathing or eating, and because I myself am going to ask questions about these very matters. And for sure I would be disappointed if I could not obtain at least a fraction of the information I'm going to ask in the other forum :-p
    So please consider my question just for what it actually is: pure curiosity... :angel:
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 13, 2016 #2


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    Who said "government is willing"? Quite often it is forced to declassify and release documents after legal battles.
  4. Feb 13, 2016 #3
    @Borek I know that. But, following the principle of the "need to know", if I were a government obliged to declassify, I would only declassify documents redacted to the point of having nothing more than page numbers left visible (and they already did that, you can find quite a few examples on the Web).
    What I want to say is: okay, I'm happy that it's possible to find some interesting information out there, but if I were any government, I would not see any reason to give the general public any information about the innards and guts of an atomic bomb. I find that very strange, to the point that I wonder whether the (little) information released is truthful or not.

    (Example of an actual redacted page "the way I mean" - source: Wikipedia)
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2016
  5. Feb 13, 2016 #4


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    Sometimes, putting a total blanket over something just increases people's curiosity about what is going on. You get a lot of questions like, "What is the government hiding?", or, "Is there something being covered up that they're not telling us?" Look at things like whether the moon landings were real, or was it just Oswald who shot JFK in Dallas, and it doesn't take much to gin up a hardy conspiracy theory or theories which refuse to die, even after all sorts of information have been made public.

    With nuclear weapons, it's kinda difficult to embargo all knowledge of these devices and how they work. For the most part, it's physics, and you can't keep physics classified for very long. The plants which produced these things were sprawling industrial complexes located all over the country employing many thousands of workers, so you can't keep all these people from saying something.

    The most sensitive details about the theoretical aspects of fusion devices are still highly classified, and a lot of the engineering details about both types of weapons are still considered sensitive, so much so that as many devices in the nuclear arsenal have been dismantled over the years and no new ones are being designed or manufactured, it has been difficult to retain the knowledge possessed by key people involved in this work, as they have since retired or died.

    It's relatively easy to put together a fission device once you have enough uranium or plutonium fuel to make one. You can't make a fusion device until you've made a successful fission device, however, and even then, the physics and the engineering present some daunting challenges. Even if you made everything public about the design and construction of most nukes, there probably is very little which is not already known or guessed by most scientists. Knowing the details and turning them into a working device are two very different things, however.
  6. Feb 13, 2016 #5
    @SteamKing Yes, I know, you can't classify physics, or calculus, or math. But for that very reason, I (as "the government") would not give away any more detail in addition to the things generally known since the days of Trinity. Why should I make things any easier to anybody? Instead, today we know that there is a thing called the "X unit", there is another thing called the "MC-772 low voltage safe/arm switch", a "MC-845 Bisch Generator Assembly"... Why should the public know all this? An atomic bomb is something that go boom, seriously boom, a helluva BOOM. And that's enough. Why should I the government tell any more than that? Again, as a keen technician and designer, I am glad that I can know something more than "boom". Nevertheless I am still surprised.
  7. Feb 13, 2016 #6
  8. Feb 13, 2016 #7


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    OK, so you know there is such a thing as an "MC-772 low voltage safe/arm switch". Could you pick one of these devices out of a line up? Do you know how it works? Could you wire it up to a home made bomb, assuming you got all the other pieces parts together to make one?

    Unlike a lot of countries, the public business of the government in this country is largely carried out in public. That's a feature, not a bug. Some things are rightly classified, due to the sensitive nature of the information, but not everything is going to stay classified forever. It's when anything and everything gets a classified stamp on it that the possibility for mischief or malfeasance increases, not decreases.

    If we take your views on these things to their extreme, then anyone who worked on the Manhattan project who had technical knowledge of the workings of the bomb should have remained sequestered by the government after the war, to prevent the escape or dissemination of any and all facts related to bomb design and construction. I don't think even the Soviets went that far with their atomic scientists.

    And there are a lot of things associated with making bombs which are also useful in non-bomb making activities. It would be pretty silly and counterproductive to forever put this technology off-limits for civilian use. To cite two technologies which found widespread use in civilian applications after the war: teflon and photolithography. Both of these technologies were developed in connection with the gaseous diffusion process to separate U-235 from U-238.

    Teflon was used to make seals for pumps and other parts of the diffusion system because large amounts of corrosive fluorine were used to make UF6 gas, and exposure to fluorine or UF6 gas led to rapid failure of pumps and other equipment. After the war, teflon wound up stuck to the inside of frying pans and bakeware to make a non-stick surface.

    In order to make the baffles for the gaseous diffusion apparatus, thousands of tiny holes needed to be drilled in sheets of nickel used to fabricate each baffle. Since thousands of baffle plates needed to be produced in a hurry, conventional manufacturing techniques were not suitable. Someone working in the Manhattan project remembered that certain chemicals, when exposed to light, changed their composition. By taking a blank baffle plate and coating it with such a chemical, a mask could be made so that the pattern of tiny holes was projected onto the surface of the plate. When the plate and mask were exposed to light, the hole pattern changed composition and could then be dissolved away. After that, the baffle plate could be etched with a strong acid to make the diffusion holes.

    This technology languished for a time after the war, until the invention of the integrated circuit made photolithography a key technology in the fabrication of complex semiconductor circuits on a single wafer of silicon.
  9. Feb 14, 2016 #8
    @SteamKing Ok, I can see your point. And of course I am not blaming the US government for not killing the engineers and technicians that worked on the Manhattan Project, like the pharaohs in ancient Egypt did to some of the personnel who built the pyramids... :eek:
    Another famous case that I found in books, was the SR-71 Blackbird versus the Concorde. Since the Blackbird was developed under the utmost secrecy, there wasn't any technology transfer to the Concorde project. Something that, years later, the Concorde designers would have lamented about: they pointed out that the resources, time and money spent to go through problems that had already been solved in secret, actually doing the same work twice, could have been saved by administering secrecy more "open-mindedly".
    In addition, I myself found just "illuminating" - and useful in other applications - some of the concepts behind the safety features built in nuclear warheads. I guess that my doubts arose from the fact that I am assuming that any bit of information released to the public is automatically used by my enemies to improve their weapons and weapon systems, so why should I help them?..
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2016
  10. Feb 14, 2016 #9
    Yes, I can... :cool:

  11. Feb 14, 2016 #10


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    I'm not sure what technology that was used on the SR-71 would have found an application on the Concorde. Each aircraft flew in very different flight regimes and speeds, with the SR-71 being a Mach 3 aircraft with a ceiling of about 100,000 feet while the Concorde poked along at Mach 2 with a ceiling of about 60,000 feet.

    The SR-71 was such a radically new design that its chief engineer, Kelly Johnson, reportedly offered a substantial reward to his design team if they could find an off the shelf component which could be used in the aircraft without modification. Supposedly, this reward went unclaimed. Even the paint used on the exterior of the aircraft had to be formulated specially to withstand the high temperatures produced at Mach 3.0 an not be degraded by exposure to the special jet fuel used to power the aircraft. The only thing I suspect that the SR-71 could have done for the Concorde program was to make it about two or three times more expensive than it actually was. The SR-71 did spur a lot of innovation in fabricating titanium parts for aircraft, which found application in other military planes of the same or later vintage.

    As far as information being released about bomb designs and actual components, it's one thing to write general or even technical articles about these things. Without access to detailed design or testing information, it's not clear how useful such information would be in the hands of a foreign weapons design team. There are still regulations in place to prevent the transfer of weapons and technology to foreign governments without prior clearance by the government. (The ITAR and EAR govern such transfers) These regulations govern not only the transfer of actual arms and other hardware, but even things like software, some of which has no direct use in actual weapons design but which is nevertheless put on the list of embargoed items.

  12. Feb 14, 2016 #11
    I read that in the book "Concorde - New shape in the sky", by Kenneth Owen. I read it several years ago so I am not able to give you more details right now, but since it was a designer being interviewed, I suppose that he knew what he was saying.
  13. Feb 14, 2016 #12


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    It may be that these are safety devices, but they are not part of the critical technology, so as such it would appear they are unclassified. There is a publicly available (unclassified) report (SCDR 81-61) on an "analysis of the safety aspects of the Mk39 Mod 2 bombs involved" in the crash of a B-52G near Goldsboro, NC in 1961 and it is heavily redacted.
  14. Feb 15, 2016 #13
    I know that report, I have it saved among several other documents.
    Ok, before getting too far from my initial point... I am just surprised by the fact that there is so much information (albeit not detailed beyond certain limits) available to the general public. If I remember right, at least in the initial phase of the works at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer and Gen. Groves found themselves in strong contrast about the secrecy guidelines to be followed by the team there. Groves was all for compartmentalized information and "need-to-know" distribution criteria, while Oppenheimer's position was for free discussion within the team member, like in civilian research environment. It's a matter of fact that the Soviets claimed to have had 29 sources of information within the Los Alamos personnel, that Stalin wasn't surprised at all at the announcement of the successful Trinity test, and that the Soviets successfully detonated their first nuclear device (very similar to "Fat Man") only 4 years later...

    I don't know, I just don't know.
    Thank you to everybody for your contributions.
  15. Feb 15, 2016 #14


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    Certain details about the Manhattan Project had been released early even before Japan had officially surrendered. The Smyth Report was the first official account of the Manhattan Project to be released publicly. Although the report did not go into much technical detail about how the bomb designs worked, except for a discussion of the physics behind atomic fission, it still became a best-seller:


    The Smyth Report was approved by Gen. Groves before its release and it served multiple purposes. By declassifying certain details about the atomic bomb and how it was developed, it permitted people to talk about certain of their wartime activities in connection with bomb development without fear that they would be arrested for exposing secrets. With something as big as the A-bomb, people are going to want to talk about it and others are going to be curious about it. It's better to allow certain aspects to be discussed in public, in the hope that eventually, all of this curiosity would eventually die down. The Smyth Report also served as an official government account of the bomb project.

    The Smyth Report omitted many key engineering details about how the materials in the bomb were made, so as a how-to guide to building an A-bomb, the report was a dud. A copy could have been sent to Stalin personally and it would have brought the Russians no closer to building a bomb than they already were through their own espionage activities on the Manhattan Project. Even with access to plenty of German atomic scientists and their own scientists, plus knowledge that the bomb was feasible, it still took the Soviets four years to build and test their own bomb, even though this project was a top-priority program supervised from the highest levels of the state.
  16. Feb 18, 2016 #15
    govt job is to serve the people.

    remember that. in vn war, we came out w two politicians, kerry a dem and mccain a rep.
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