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US Couple Arrested For Transmitting Nuclear Secrets In Sting Operation 372

Posted by timothy
from the when-alabama-gets-the-bomb dept.
DesScorp writes "Recalling the famous Rosenberg nuclear spy case of the '50s, the US Justice Department has arrested a couple working at a 'leading nuclear research facility' for giving nuclear secrets to Venezuela. Pedro and Marjorie Mascheroni 'have been indicted on charges of communicating classified nuclear weapons data to a person they believed to be a Venezuelan government official and conspiring to participate in the development of an atomic weapon for Venezuela,' the department said in a statement. If convicted, the couple would receive life in prison."
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US Couple Arrested For Transmitting Nuclear Secrets In Sting Operation

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  • by guanxi (216397) on Friday September 17, 2010 @07:49PM (#33616464)

    If you read the TFA, you will learn that the government of Venezuela was not involved at all. The accused didn't sell secrets to anyone but an undercover FBI agent. While trying to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign government is definitely a problem, it's not true that they were "giving nuclear secrets to Venezuela".

  • Re:FTFA (Score:0, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:25PM (#33616660)

    Money is only "dirty" to the people on the other side of the fence.

  • by marcobat (1178909) on Friday September 17, 2010 @08:54PM (#33616798)
    According to your reasoning about A (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki) and B (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20427730/) the USA should not be allowed to have nuclear Weapons.
  • Re:FTFA (Score:5, Informative)

    by cyn1c77 (928549) on Friday September 17, 2010 @10:00PM (#33617072)

    You did some damn fine engineering while keeping secret the things that needed to remain secret.

    You know, a funny thing I've noticed is that there are a lot of people in the US who think that *everyone* should have a gun. But when you pressure them a little, it turns out that they don't think that *really* everyone should have a gun. Those damn illegal Mexicans, for example, they shouldn't be allowed guns. Or those Muslims, no guns for them. So really what they want is for only the people they think are the right sort of people to be able to have guns.

    I believe the argument is that every US citizen who can qualify on a shooting range with a gun should be able to carry one. So non-US citizens would not meet that criteria.

    Now, consider that a nuclear weapon is really just another kind of gun...

    You fail completely with this statement. The method of operation is different. The energy release is orders of magnitude different. Ignoring the difference in energy magnitudes, a nuclear weapon is really just another kind of BOMB. Note that this is different than a gun. Is it legal for you to own a bomb in the US?

  • by Mashiki (184564) <mashiki&gmail,com> on Friday September 17, 2010 @10:06PM (#33617098) Homepage

    It wouldn't be nearly as bad if it were, say, Canada or Brazil.

    Canada is already a nuclear power, we just don't have nuclear weapons. But we could build them in a very short time frame, as we have the infrastructure to do so.

  • by Defenestrar (1773808) on Friday September 17, 2010 @10:12PM (#33617128)
    No - the accidental triggering is not going to be that sort of critical (you may get criticality depending on the design, but it'll be the sideways fizzle kind that leave a nasty mess, but not vaporization of the small city). Mostly it doesn't work and makes pollution. If you are that bad at designing the initiation sequence for your explosives you're probably going to design yourself into oblivion with a poor road system before you even get that far.
  • by IgnoramusMaximus (692000) on Friday September 17, 2010 @10:51PM (#33617278)

    Any 14 year-old could probably make an atomic bomb with a critical mass of uranium or plutonium. Such a bomb would be huge and require lots of shielding to be safe to handle - like attaching to an aircraft or loading into a shipping container.

    Err, a bare-sphere (no neutron energy manipulation or reflective shielding) critical mass of a plutonium-239 core is only 10kg and with the density of plutonium that translates to a sphere smaller than an orange (9.9cm to be exact).

    The reason the original plutonium weapons were so huge is because of low purity of the fissionable materials available, massive over engineering resulting from poor understanding of materials and nuclear processes etc

    On the other hand, what is required to detonate a subcritical mass is a little bit tricky.

    No such thing exists. All nuclear explosions are accomplished by achieving criticality in some fission material. The critical mass however varies with shape and external factors such as shielding materials capable of changing energies of neutrons or reflecting them back onto their source, temperature of the material, its degree of compression etc.

  • by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Friday September 17, 2010 @11:35PM (#33617426) Homepage
    If you read TFA, you will discover that they THOUGHT they were selling secrets to Venezuela. Very disingenuous there. Would they have sold the secrets to Zambia, or Bulgaria? Spies often act from idealogical reasons, not financial ones.
  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @02:22AM (#33618008) Journal

    Err, a bare-sphere (no neutron energy manipulation or reflective shielding) critical mass of a plutonium-239 core is only 10kg and with the density of plutonium that translates to a sphere smaller than an orange (9.9cm to be exact).

    A bare sphere of critical mass will not produce an (efficient) nuclear explosion, however. It will immediately begin disintegrating itself, and as soon as the mass drops below critical (due to chunks of radioactive fuel blown out), the process stops. The efficiency of such device is very, very low.

    Hence you either need a lot more than critical mass (so that, even with low efficiency, the overall yield is high enough), or you need some way to raise the density rapidly and keep it there for at least some time while explosion is going on. The latter is what implosion-type devices do, but their assembly requires some very high precision to get everything right; throw it even a little bit off balance, and it will fizzle. The former approach works even with crude activator such as a gun assembly, but the amount of material needed for it is quite prohibitive. For example, Little Boy, which used this method, contained over 60kg of U, of which less than kg actually contributed to fission - the rest was just blown into radioactive dust. Very inefficient.

    To conclude: implosion-type devices require some advanced engineering to assembly, while more crude activators need significantly more radioactive fuel (which is damn hard and expensive to obtain). So we aren't going to see 14 year olds assembling nukes in their basements anytime soon.

  • Re:FTFA (Score:4, Informative)

    by georgewilliamherbert (211790) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @03:29AM (#33618224)

    The Wikipedia article is intentionally not useful for designing anything.

    However, we do have an online textbook (at roughly upper-division engineering/physics college student difficulty level) on the subject:
        http://www.nuclearweaponarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq0.html [nuclearweaponarchive.org]

    In terms of what's been published online -

    * There's a book with precise dimensional drawings and measurements on the Little Boy type Uranium gun type bomb. Not online, but purchasable at Amazon. It's not "a blueprint" but any competent draftsman / mechanical engineer could produce blueprints to build from, given the book.

    * The dimensions and materials of all the layers of the Fat Man / Mark 1 type nuclear weapons are published in numerous sources. The precise shape of the lens in the outer layer has not been, though a rough back-of-the-envelope version of the equation for the lens shape is published. A precise and buildable lens shape would require someone with a fair talent in explosives engineering and shockwave engineering, especially someone aware of what the published equation left out, but the Fat Man design is fundamentally so brick-solid-simple that one could get the lens fairly imprecise and still have a functional weapon.

    Some effort has gone into not actively publishing newer weapon design details in public. But that's not nearly the same as "they're not out". A number of more modern weapons are understood to at least close to the level Fat Man and Little Boy are. There are accurate internal component photos declassified for some weapons and parts. There are detailed hands-on descriptions of some parts, by people who worked on them. Check out the Wikipedia article on the B61 bomb, for example; the fission and fusion components were shown in a declassified film (but not the explosives to compress the fission parts).

  • Re:CITE PLEASE (Score:3, Informative)

    by Kidbro (80868) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @04:19AM (#33618326)

    Europe, on the other hand until the last couple of centuries required everybody to be armed and made it a national obligation

    I'm a European, and this sounds very odd to me. Nothing I remember from history classes (and yes, I usually paid attention).
    Are you sure you're not confusing "everybody" with the aristocracy, that was supposed to be able to support the king in times of war?
    Also, remember that Europe is a divided place. If you think we've managed to squeeze many countries into a small area here today, it pales with how it (effectively) looked some hundreds of years ago.

  • Re:FTFA (Score:3, Informative)

    by ultranova (717540) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @08:04AM (#33619028)

    This is the truth, why was this marked as Troll?

    Because it contradicts the "welfare queens and retirees suck up our tax money" meme, and might even imply that the amount paid by Social Security is insufficient.

  • Re:FTFA (Score:3, Informative)

    by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @08:05AM (#33619032) Homepage

    If you can get your hands on fissionable material you can build a bomb. Getting your hands on the fissionable material is the hard part. The rest is just engineering.

    Fortunately, no. Or else Iran would have had a bomb 20 years ago. Heh perhaps the shah would have used one on the paedophile khomeini. There are many known locations where you can pick fissionable material off off the ground. One of those is even in Iran.

    The problem is that for a neutron cascade ("the bomb"), you don't need fissionable material. What happens in a nuclear bomb starts with one nucleus falling apart. This produces 2 fast neutrons. IF both of those neutrons hit the correct fissionable material, it will cause 2 nuclei to split, producing 4 neutrons. Then 8. Then ... we all know where this is going.

    So far so good. There is one problem, though. If you're the size of a neutron, hitting your neighbor nucleus is like attempting to hit the moon, if it were in the andromeda galaxy. It's just not going to happen. Of course there are many neighbor nuclei, increasing your chances. But if the neutrons hit non-U235 nuclei, nothing will happen.

    So in a bomb you must make sure that there are enough U235 nuclei in the vicinity. That translates to concentration. How much concentration ? 98% pure at least, preferably more (if you want to be sure it blows up).

    Easy enough, let's separate them. Unfortunately, U235 is never found alone, but generally in ore form (bonded to oxygen, for example). You need the pure metal U235. Furthermore it's at least 5% U238 and smaller concentrations of various isotopes. So you got to separate these things out. This is easy enough until you get to having only uranium nuclei, of various weights.

    You need to appreciate just how similar U235 and U238 (for example) are. They are nuclei with the exact same magnetic field. Same magnetic moment. They react to the same light frequencies. Everything is the same, except the weight, but that isn't all that different either. U235 and U238 differ about 1.2% in weight. The only known way to separate them is to vaporize them into a highly positively charged plasma, then throw that plasma into a strong magnetic field, where the flow will start to rotate around the center of the field. This will create a minute difference in isotope concentration : less than 0.1% more U235 in the center, slightly over 0.2% more on the other side (the problem is thermalization, constantly remixing the isotopes). That's what's happening in those big tubes the US dislikes so much. Then the purified output of centrifuge 1 can go into centrifuge 2, restarting the process, slowly increasing the purity of the isotopes. You need to connect about 3000 in series.

    It is not known exactly how efficient this process is. But it is known that about 200 kg of ore (5% uranium) is needed to create 1 kg 95% U235 (which is what the first nuclear power plants ran on). Undoubtedly it's at least 10 times that for 98%, but ... (the "losses" of this process are the fuel for it. You use the less pure output to fire a nuclear reactor to power the whole purification system, which eats a LOT of power).

    Fissionable uranium, explosion-grade, is not easy to get. Not even if you're sitting on tons upon tons of fissionable material.

    And quite frankly : thank God this is so.

  • by daem0n1x (748565) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @08:42AM (#33619178)

    Yeah, so much bullshit. Nobody can stand Chavez anymore [wikipedia.org].

    Since he's in power, poverty rate has plummeted from 42% to 28%. Oh, the horror. He nationalised mineral resources and now the poor foreign oil companies can no longer take all the oil they want for free. This is outrageous. For the first time in their lives, millions of Venezuelans have health care and education. I don't know how they can't stand so much misery.

    Really, Chavez has to go before Venezuela ceases to be a third world country. I don't think the people can stand that kind of suffering.

It is wrong always, everywhere and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. - W. K. Clifford, British philosopher, circa 1876

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