Shot Heard ‘Round the World…or Maybe Not

Oct 9, 2006 1:01pm

The world this morning is a little scarier than it was yesterday, if the reports about North Korea are to be believed.  The U.S. Geological Survey reports the nuclear test was enough to set off a small earthquake–magnitude 4.2–with the epicenter at a depth of "0 km."  (Most quakes happen several miles down, sometimes hundreds of miles.) 

This statement from Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency: "The breaking of a de facto global moratorium on nuclear explosive testing that has been in place for nearly a decade and the addition of a new state with nuclear weapon capacity is a clear setback to international commitments to move towards nuclear disarmament."

There’s a provocative theme beginning to build, though–that the test may have been a dud.

Jack Date of our Washington bureau provides this from someone who asked only to be identified as a senior intelligence community official:

"The Intelligence Community detected a Sub-Kiloton explosive event in North Korea. We cannot confirm if it was a nuclear explosion. For an initial test a yield of several Kilotons has been historically observed."

And the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, a consortium of earth scientists who, among other things, say they work toward the verification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, adds some context. 

–The first American atomic-bomb test, at Trinity Site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, yielded a 21 kiloton explosiion.
–The first Soviet test, in 1949: 20 kilotons.
–Britain, 1952: 25 kilotons.
–France, 1960: 60-70 kilotons.  (Thanks to Luis Martinez and Jacqueline Shire for helping out here at ABC.)

Jeffrey Lewis, author of a blog called ArmsControlWonk.com, does some quick math and says, "A plutonium device should produce a yield in the range of the 20 kilotons, like the one we dropped on Nagasaki. No one has ever dudded their first test of a simple fission device. North Korean nuclear scientists are now officially the worst ever." 

Still, the North Koreans claimed success.  What to think? 

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