Tag Archives: North Korea

Estimating the strength of an atom bomb

As warfare is a foundation of engineering, I thought I’d use engineering to evaluate the death-dealing power of North Korea’s atomic/hydrogen bomb, tested September 3, 2017. The key data in evaluating a big bomb is its seismic output. They shake the earth like earthquakes do, and we measure the power like earthquakes, using seismometers. I’ve seen two seismographs comparing the recent bomb to the previous. One of these, below, is from CTBTO, the Center for Test Ban Treaty Oversight, via a seismometer in western Kazakhstan (see original data and report).

Seismic output of all North Korean nuclear tests.

Seismic output, to scale, of all declared DPNK nuclear tests as observed from IMS station AS-59 in Western Kazakhstan

North Korea’s previous bomb, exploded 9 September 2016, was reported to be slightly more powerful than the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suggesting it was about 20 kilotons. According to CTBTO, it registered 5.3 on the Richter scale. The two tests before that appear somewhat less powerful, perhaps 7-10 kilotons, and the two before that appear as dismal failures — fizzles, in atomic bomb parlance. The MOAB bomb, by comparison, was 9 Tons, or 0.009 kiloTons, a virtual non-entity.

To measure the output of the current bomb, I place a ruler on my screen and measure the maximum distance between the top to bottom wiggles. I find that this bomb’s wiggles measure 5 cm, while the previous measures 5 mm. This bomb’s wiggles are ten times bigger, and from this I determine that this explosion registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, 1.0 more than the previous — the Richter scale is the logarithmic measure of the wiggle amplitude, so ten times the shake magnitude  is an addition of 1.0 on the scale. My calculation of 6.3 exactly matches that of the US geological survey. The ratio of wiggle heights was less on the, NORSAR seismometer, Norway, see suggesting 5.8 to 5.9 on the Richter scale. The European agencies have taken to reporting 6.1, an average value, though they originally reported only the 5.8 from NORSAR, and a bomb power commensurate with that.

We calculate the bomb power from the Richter-scale measure, or the ratio of the wiggles. Bomb power is proportional to wiggle height to the 3/2 power. Using the data above, ten times the wiggle, this bomb appears to be 10^3/2 = 31.6 times as powerful as the last, or 31.6 x 20kTon = 630kTon (630,000 tons of TNT). If we used the European value of 6.1, the calculated power would be about half this, 315 kTons, and if we used the NORSAR’s original value, it would suggest the bomb had less than half this power. Each difference of 0.2 on the Richter scale is a factor of two in power. For no obvious reason we keep reporting 120 to 160 kTons.

NORSAR comparison of North Korean bomb blasts

NORSAR comparison of North Korean blasts — suggests the current bomb is smaller; still looks like hydrogen.

As it happens, death power is proportional to the kiloton power, other things being equal. The bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in the 15 to 20 kTon range and killed 90,000 each. Based on my best estimate of the bomb, 315 kTons, I estimate that it would kill 1.6 million people if used on an industrial city, like Seoul, Yokohama, or Los Angeles. In my opinion, this is about as big a bomb as any rational person has reason to make (Stalin made bigger, as did Eisenhower).

We now ask if this is an atom bomb or a hydrogen-fusion bomb. Though I don’t see any war-making difference, if it’s a hydrogen bomb that would make our recent treaty with Iran look bad, as it gave Iran nuclear fusion technology — I opposed the treaty based on that. Sorry to say, from the seismic signature it looks very much like a hydrogen bomb. The only other way to get to this sort of high-power explosion is via a double-acting fission bomb where small atom bomb sets off a second, bigger fission bomb. When looking at movies of Eisenhower-era double-acting explosions, you’ll notice that the second, bigger explosion follows the first by a second or so. I see no evidence of this secondary-delay in the seismic signature of this explosion, suggesting this was a hydrogen bomb, not a double. I expect Iran to follow the same path in 3-4 years.

As a political thought, it seems to me that the obvious way to stop North Korea would be to put pressure on China by making a military pact with Russia. Until that is done, China has little to fear from a North Korean attack to the south. Of course, to do that we’d likely have to cut our support of NATO, something that the Germans fear. This is a balance-of-power solution, the sort that works, short of total annihilation. It was achieved at the congress of Vienna, at the treaty of Ghent, and by Henry Kissinger through détente. It would work again. Without it, I see the Korean conflict turning hot again, soon.

Robert Buxbaum, September 11, 2017.