December 16, 2019
An atomic bomb can fail for inexplicable reasons, like any other manmade creation that is a harnessing of chemical, electrical, mechanical or other natural forces.
Failures in manmade systems that remain unexplained might be rooted in the quantum realm, the area of science that deals with mysteries of the physical universe. Converting mass into energy, as an atom bomb does so well, is easily understood by Einstein’s formula, but everything about mass and energy is an enigma: why does light/energy reign supreme with an absolute, measurable speed such that everything slower than light is just ‘relative’? Why is the realm of mass, conversely, homogenous with its binding energies that absolutely has no exceptions to its rules?
There is unreliability in everything—including the nuclear realm. Scientists don’t actually know when any particular radioactive atom will decay. (Decay is the shedding of mass or energy from an unstable—radioactive—atom.) Decay is not predictable. The decay of an atom is only understood by probabilities.
In a sense, the detonation of an atom bomb is also an event rooted in probability. At very extremely rare moments, even atom bombs will fail for no clear reason. This is despite the massive effort put into stockpile studies. Much effort goes into backup systems of these bombs and ‘stewardship’ to ensure that the plutonium, the compression, the chain reaction, etc. is so well understood that 'reliability' of arsenals is near guaranteed. We have faith that atom bombs will work when they’re needed and a great amount of work goes into this 'reliability.'
But the quantum world that spawns failures in manmade systems as well as perhaps even unexplained phenomenon in the natural world could allow for a failure of fission, a failure of chain reactions, and so on, culminating in a failure in the detonation of the bomb itself.
We don't think of the possibility that at the moment that atom bombs will be used there could be an anomalous failure in supercriticality (the name for the nuclear explosion). What if this anomaly occurs when the bombs are dropped? What if this quantum anomaly extends across a footprint of the entire Earth rendering all nuclear bombs duds? What if all nuclear bombs become impotent all of a sudden for a brief moment in time?
Until these anomalies of nature are understood, the tiny, tiny risk that a nuclear weapons state will be left defenseless because an anomaly renders their nukes as duds is considered negligible. The odds are so incredibly small that the anomaly will occur when the bombs are dropped such that this isn't a real concern.
But what if these anomalies are understood by an enemy? What if an anomaly that negates supercriticality can be predicted by an enemy and exploited over a short window of time of that anomaly? Certainly, the security of nuclear weapons states could be imperiled if their nuclear technology becomes impotent at a predictable time and place.
As a civilization, we might be approaching a point in our understanding of the quantum realm such that the impossibly rare anomalies, as discussed above, could be predictable. Not only would this breakthrough severely dent faith in nuclear deterrence, but the nations that are too slow in making this quantum leap in understanding would be vulnerable and left behind in the dust with their arsenals suddenly rendered less reliable.
Copyright © Andrew Kishner 2019