Stories tagged North Korea

May
13
2010

He's fusing hydrogen isotopes in his brain right now: Such is the power of Kim Jong-Il.
He's fusing hydrogen isotopes in his brain right now: Such is the power of Kim Jong-Il.Courtesy JJ Georges
Check it out: North Korea claims to have produced nuclear fusion. Fusion has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments, and, as I understand it, fusion can be achieved in fission-based nuclear weapons, but scientists have never been able to create it on the right scale to produce lots of cheap, controlled energy (for electrical power generation, which is sort of the ultimate goal.) Except, you know, North Korea now.

(Fusion, by the way, is all about forcing two light atoms to merge together. The atoms have to release some of their components to do this, and when those components go flying off, there's a lot of energy to be had from them. More or less.)

Some folks are pointing out that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and they can barely get their national act together in a lot of other ways, so it seems very unlikely that they've made any huge advancements towards fusion power (which has eluded scientists around the world for decades). But you never know. After all, they claim that the discovery coincided with the birthday of North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-Il, and stranger things have happened on that day—according to official biographies, a new star appeared in the sky on the day Jong-Il was born.

la la la

Uh-oh. North Korea is trying to pull a fast one on everyone by posting a photograph of a "healthy" Kim Jong-il that appears to have been doctored. Look at the image accompanying the story and see if you don't agree that something fishy is going on. In recent months, rumors have abounded regarding the North Korean leader's failing health, although the government there continues to claim otherwise. This recent picture doesn't really help their case.

Since the advent of digital photography and image manipulation programs such as Photoshop, it's becoming more and more difficult to trust the veracity of photographs. We covered a similar ethics incident on the Buzz involving the a photo showing the launch of Iranian missiles.

Oct
10
2006

Nuclear test detection: photo from wikimedia
Nuclear test detection: photo from wikimedia

Was N. Korean nuclear test a dud?

James Acton of Vertic, an independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) in London that specialises in verification research, noted enormous discrepancies in the estimated size of the blast.

“I’ve heard from three different sources that it (the North Korean blast) was less than one kilotonne,” “If it turns out to be less than a kilotonne, it could look very much like a fizzle,” a bomb that failed to detonate properly and achieve a full chain reaction," said Acton, a nuclear physicist by training. Kahleej Times.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, however, has been quoted as saying that the nuclear device tested by North Korea ranged between five and 15 kilotons. That is the normal size of a successful test.

What data, besides seismic, can be used?

  • In addition to seismic sensors run by national governments, the UN’s Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CBTO) in Vienna also has a network of 189 seismic and hydroacoustic monitoring stations designed to detect nuclear tests.
  • Radioactive particles and gases that can vent from an underground nuclear blast are also a telltale, providing clues as to the type of material (uranium or plutonium) that was used and to the size of the weapon.
  • A third monitoring technique is to use satellites with ground-scanning radars, which record the topography of a test site before and after an event. Movement or subsidence of the soil is the sign of a big blast.

How do we tell if it was a nuclear explosion?

Like earthquakes, large explosions send out shockwaves that can be detected on seismographs. Big nuclear bombs make big waves, with clear signatures that make them fairly easy to detect, analyze and confirm that they were caused by splitting atoms. But smaller blasts - as North Korea's appears to have been - are trickier to break down. York Daily Record

A nuclear explosion has a more instant shockwave than a chemical one. The differences between regular bombs and a nuclear explosion are very fine and subtle, and you need time to analyse the signatures.

"People have different way of cross cutting the data and interpreting them,"
The CTBTO's stations are more extensive than those used by most countries. They monitor seismic events but also underwater data, radioactive particles in the air and radiowaves.
"Within 72 hours we will have full data. Then all this will be available to member states," said Lassina Zerbo, director of the International Data Center at the CTBTO, which is based in Vienna, Austria.

While the North Korean explosion was small, potentially complicating monitoring efforts, sensors in South Korea were likely close enough to categorize it as nuclear, if that is what is was, said Friedrich Steinhaeusler, professor of physics at Salzburg University.

A nuclear blast also gives off a clear signature - a clear graph of peaks and curves - that differentiates it from other kinds of shocks, he added.

"We'll have the confirmation soon," he said.

Additional reading can be found on Rueters.
For updates I recommend this Wikipedia page