Nuclear physics isn’t exactly brain surgery, … or rocket science, you know.

In the pages of the L.A. Times, Barbara Demick interviews Sig Hecker, who reassures us that North Korea is years away from having a nuclear weapon that it can deliver to its target.  As welcome as that reassurance would be if it were credible, Hecker is not exactly a rocket scientist.

Sig Hecker is a nuclear scientist and a metallurgist, but he isn’t an oracle.  Hecker spent most of the decade leading up to 2010 explaining how far North Korea was from having a uranium enrichment capability that posed any significant threat.  Then, one day, the North Koreans invited Hecker to Yongbyon, dressed him in red paisley smoking jacket, lit him a Cuban, and gave him a tour of that room full of scantily clad women enriching uranium. Here’s how he explains himself now:

In spite of their repeated denial of having a uranium enrichment program, I knew they had one. However, I was stunned at the size and sophistication of the 2,000-plus-centrifuge facility I was shown. It was another lesson that one should not underestimate the skill and determination of the North Koreans.

Right.  Like when Hecker said this in March 2007:

Our judgment is that Pyongyang’s enrichment program is still at the research and development stage and poses little threat of additional weapons capability or export of HEU at this time. Its fuel fabrication capabilities, however, would allow it to supply the key feedstock, namely natural uranium hexafluoride.

Or this, in the May/June 2008 edition of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

Hence, the uranium enrichment issue remains unresolved. In my estimation, it is highly likely that North Korea had a research and development uranium enrichment effort, but there is little indication that they were able to bring it to industrial scale.

I respect Hecker for being honest enough to admit his misjudgment, but I fear he’s compounding his error.  First, he brings no technical expertise to the missile question.  Second, as was the case with North Korea’s HEU program, Hecker is working with an incomplete set of facts.  Third, his biases are strong enough that, in the absence of complete facts, he tends to make assumptions that support conclusions he favors.  So take Hecker’s claims about North Korea’s progress with a truckload of salt.

Finally, consider that if I can think of other ways for North Korea to deliver a nuclear weapons — by tunnel, with an air cargo flight over a city, or by freighter — so can the North Koreans.

3 comments

  1. Andrew Logie says:

    I was just thinking, haven’t nuclear bombs traditionally been dropped from planes: which might not pose such an immediate threat to US, but certainly SK or Japan. NK only needs a large catapult to hurl a dirty-bomb (or plenty of chemical and biological weapons besides) into Seoul.

  2. james says:

    I’m calling mini porcine’s bluff. they are so f’ing desperate. some report showed they were confident about being sanction proof because they are going to have some sort of banner year agriculturally. are you shitting me?

    I mean, he is being such a media whore first uploading a video that was taken down by the super powers of activision and I guess yesterday he put up another one with Barack in flames. they wish they were getting as much interest domestically as that rogue cop dormer did…or as much as blade runner is getting all the attention right now.

    they are screaming for attention and that shows a sign of weakness.

    if the measure of being a nuclear power is to just deliver kilotons of c4 by freight, a Cessna, or a Uhaul, then there are plenty of nuclear powers in this world already.

  3. Wayne B. Norris says:

    I heard Sig Hecker speak once, and I have a theory. I’d guess that, having headed the world’s most sophisticated nuclear lab, Sig may think much more complex institutions are necessary to create weapons than really are necessary – in essence, a Big Bureaucracy Blind Spot.

    Incidentally two minor comments… 1) So-called “dirty bombs” are terribly overrated – only two have ever been created, both by Chechens, with one being really just a “tease”. There is no way to disperse radioisotopes far enough to cause much damage. 2) Weaponizing a nuclear weapon [preparing it for actual delivery] is MUCH harder than you might think. The Los Alamos Lab knew basically how to build Little Boy before they even started. Weaponizing it was the challenge for the next many years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *