I watched an hour fifteen minute physics lecture available on the internet about the physics and politics of nukes. It was quite enlightening, and I learned quite a bit. (Yes, I have studied physics in college; no I never got a lecture that laid things out this clearly before.
Here are the highlights. It should frighten you, at least a little bit. Hopefully it will inform as well.
First, there are two substances with which you can build a nuclear bomb, at least the easy-to-build ones: Uranium and Plutonium.
A Uranium bomb is extremely easy to build. Making it blow up with a big blast is kind of hard, but not terribly difficult. You need somebody who understands the fine art of nuclear physics and somebody who understands the fine art of building guns. The hard part is getting the Uranium refined. There are several methods, some of them very simple, others more difficult, and some very difficult. It is mostly a matter of time and money.
The scary thing about the Uranium bomb is how easy it is to do, given the right effort and information. The reassuring thing is that it takes time and money. As the sole superpower, it is our duty to make sure bad guys do not get these nukes.
The plutonium bomb, on the other hand, is extremely easy to get the materials for. All you need are spent nuclear rods and high explosives. Putting them together is very, very difficult. If you mess up, you get a fizzle not a boom. The US has been pretty adamant about countries it doesn’t trust not processing spent fuel rods. The program with Iran and North Korea was all about giving them the rods and then collecting the spent ones so we could do the processing, not them.
It is highly doubtful that either North Korea or Iran could assemble a functional plutonium bomb. That is, without great expense and effort. Unfortunately, both Iran and North Korea are actively pursuing these programs, and they are not being shy about it.
One area that the lecture doesn’t cover is what happens if you shoot a nuclear bomb up into space to blow it up. I do not know what exactly will happen, although I believe it is something like we would lose all of our satellites. I do not know what kind of nuclear bomb you would need to knock out the satellites either. Perhaps North Korea wasn’t trying to build a bomb to attack cities, but to attack our satellites. I do not know enough to say anything affirmatively. I do know that any country who wants to engage our country in a full-scale war would need to eliminate our eyes in the skies if they wanted any hope of surviving more than a few hours.
Finally, I want to talk about nuclear energy. Chernobyl happened because Communism doesn’t work. We have no similar event to Chernobyl in the US. Three-mile island doesn’t even compare. The nuclear reactors that the civilized (not ex-Soviet) world uses nowadays are absolutely safe. At least it is far safer than our coal and oil economy. And best of all, unlike oil, there appears to be no limit to the amount of useful Uranium in our earth.
What shall we do with the waste? Right now, we don’t reprocess it, but we probably should. Plutonium is a nifty substance, with a variety of uses outside of building bombs. Imagine a home who had no heating costs, consumer electronics that never needed to be recharged, and cars that ran on absolutely nothing. This isn’t a fairy tale. We could have such things if we extended our understanding of radioactive substances such as plutonium and other by-products of nuclear reactions. If you’re truly green, in that you value the cleanliness of the environment over the economy, then you should be looking into a plutonium economy to replace our oil-based one.