What It Take to Build a Nuclear Weapon?

Nuclear weapons have been making a lot of noise lately. Whether it's a new START agreement, a United Nations summit or a hard-fought consensus on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, everybody and their diplomat mother is talking nukes—and terrorism.

In this day and age, you really can't have one without the other—but not so long ago, nuclear weapons were strictly the domain of the world's most formidable armies.

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Since then, proliferation's spread, superpowers have crumbled, and now nukes are the must-have accessory of fashionable terrorists from Indianapolis to Islamabad.

Want your own?

You have three choices: you can steal a nuke, buy a nuke, or build a nuke.

All options are available, but in terrorism knitting circles across the globe, more and more fanatics are spinning their wheels about building their own. And why not? By expert accounts, going DIY on a nuke ain't exactly rocket science.

All it takes is a one enterprising goon, a few science fair winners, and a fistful of dollars.

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And just to prove it, the TakePart crew set about building our own—then realized we're more debate club than science fair, so we're giving the plans to you.

Dust off the tool box and stub out your open flames, this is TakePart's pocket guide to building a nuke.

Please note: TakePart assumes no responsibility if the following lands you in dutch with just about every living person on the planet, law enforcement agencies far and wide, and whichever heavenly deity you call your own.

Getting Started

Options are a-plenty when it comes to making the world's most dangerous weapon. You got your fission bombs, fusion bombs, highly enriched uranium (HEU), plutonium-239, gun assembly, implosion device, or if you can't decide, Neopolitan.

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Assuming you're a terrorist cave-dweller short on resources, or a weekend warrior on a time crunch, you'll want to pass on enriching your own uranium or home brewing plutonium.

Instead, find some brazen thieves hell-bent on revenge against the modern world, flash a stack of coin, then tell them to steal some nuclear material ASAP—but ask politely.

The Nuclear Material

The most important ingredient in a nuclear bomb is the nuclear stuff itself, which is also the hardest to get. No way can you find nuclear material like plutonium or highly enriched uranium stockpiled in a tool shed behind some half-hearted padlock. Right?


Every nuclear-powered nation on the planet has nuclear material, and not all of it's under lock and key. Civilian stockpiles in Europe and Japan aren't staffed by armed guards, nor are most nuclear research reactors on U.S. college campuses.

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But if you're looking for a truly easy score, try Russia.

Russian nuke plants never bothered with a "mass balance" accounting system to keep track of their nuclear material, nor did they pay a decent wage during the Soviet era.

So when Soviet plant employees needed extra cash, they stole office supplies from the job and sold them on the black market. Unfortunately, if their gig was at a nuke plant, the big-ticket office supply was usually plutonium or HEU.

There have been 15 known cases of stolen nuke material over the past 20 years. Every time the goods were traced back to a source, the Soviet bloc was on the return address. In all of those cases, the recovered nuclear material wasn't known to be missing until it was found, and the bust itself came about mostly by luck.

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That means if you're al-Qaeda, and you're out looking for HEU, it's only a matter of time before you find it, and just a matter of bad luck if you get caught.

Russia, by the way, holds onto about 200 tons of plutonium. It only took six kilograms of the stuff to level Nagasaki in 1945.

The Device

Even before you track down your nuclear material, decide whether you want a gun assembly or implosion device.

An implosion-triggered fission bomb creates criticality by compressing fissile masses together through an explosive charge. A gun assembly device is the no-frills way to get 'er done.

If you're a terrorist looking for maximum yield with minimal effort, you'll love what a gun assembly can do for you. They're easy to make, easy to use, and while relatively inefficient, they can leave a very nasty impression.

But don't take our word for it, just take a peek at history: the nuke that destroyed Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War was a gun assembly device. In fact, the brains behind the Manhattan Project were so confident in their simple design that they skipped testing the thing altogether and went straight to dropping it on Japan, killing 150,000 people.

The Shopping List

Making life at once easier for terrorists and impossible for the rest of the world, all the ingredients for a gun assembly device are commercially available, save the nuclear material itself (which is always HEU in gun assemblies, never plutonium).

For the motivated terrorist, you'll need a lathe, a furnace, a surplus artillery gun, and about 15 friends who know a thing or two about weapons design, machining, metallurgy, ballistics, electronics and physics.

You'll also need a workshop, and about 150 acres of open space to blast some artillery tests. For the unmotivated terrorist, that's significantly larger than your parents' basement; so don't even ask.

As far as budget, the New American Foundation's Jeffrey G. Lewis figures on spending upward of $10 million; that's about $1.4 million to cover parts, pay, and facilities, with a ballpark $9 million leftover for HEU.

How much HEU can a terrorist get for nine large?

In 1994, Osama bin Laden bought a three-foot cylinder of weapons-grade uranium from a Sudanese military officer for $1.5 million. Fortunately for mankind, bin Laden got bamboozled on the sale, and the cylinder turned out to be a fake. The price, however, serves a good indicator of what terrorists would cough up for a little nuke material.

Comparing costs to 9/11, which ran bin Laden about $500,000 and killed 3,000 people, spending $10 million to kill 100,000 is a bargain. Grim math to be sure, but trust that bean-counting terrorists have already crunched these numbers. For them, maximizing casualties while minimizing cost is key.

The Build

The basic premise behind a gun assembly device is, well, pretty basic: if you shoot one piece of HEU at another, you take out Toledo.

The process is a little like getting a ball of HEU, removing the core as you would an apple's, bolting the pitted end to the muzzle of an artillery gun, then firing the core back into its center.

To do this, your metallurgist needs to cast the enriched uranium into the requisite shapes. Uranium melts at around 2,069 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 1,132 Centigrade for terrorists still clinging to the metric), so don't skimp on a good furnace—you can find one used on eBay for around $50,000.

Once you've fired up the furnace and softened your HEU into a workable goo, shoot it over to the lathe for shaping (but don't spill any on the carpet).

If you've never used a lathe, any high school machine shop teacher can show you the ropes, although he's likely to ask questions about what you're building. If one of your terrorist friends can work a Jedi mind trick, now's the time.

While you mold your subcritical masses, send somebody out to cop the surplus artillery gun. Recoilless army rifles are widely available in the U.S., but they usually come disassembled, so plan on some wrenching. If you're more manager than mechanic, any hobbyist can refurbish a recoilless rifle for just a few grand.

Get your electrical team off the XBOX and have them craft some circuitry for all your timing, arming, and detonating needs. Ideally, this thing triggers remotely, as anything within a half-mile of the blast will be instantly vaporized, with complete and utter destruction reaching a mile outside its hypocenter. Massive fires and radioactive fallout will claim everything within five miles, so if your target's Times Square, get across the bridge to Jersey.

Of course, if you're the suicidal terrorist type, like all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers, setting this thing off is about as easy as pulling the trigger on your homemade rig. If you can fire an artillery round and pish paw sublimation, you can decimate a beloved world city.

And there you have it, your very own nuke. It's about nine feet long—bigger than a breadbox, but the perfect size to ride coach in a white panel van—so feel free to take it on the road. Preferably someplace far away from civilization, where you can get down to vaporizing yourself, your terrorist buds, and all your worst-laid plans.

The Point

If any of this sounds alarmingly easy, you're right—and it's only one scenario where proliferation bites the world in its badonkadonk.

But like any avoidable event—from 9/11 to the Gulf oil spill—an ounce of prevention will buy a ton of cure.

The first step? Stop believing nuclear weapons are too big of an issue to tackle.

While nine nations have nukes, 184 countries signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have refused to develop the bomb. If you're feeling like nukes are an issue beyond your means, remember that the vast majority of the world has already stood up to the weapon of most destruction.

That doesn't mean the work's done. Three countries—Israel, India and Pakistan—have refused to sign the NPT and continue to expand their nuclear arsenals. If we ever hope to see an end to nukes, we have to get these naysayers involved. To take part in some serious Israeli-IndoPak arm-twisting, sign up for Global Zero.

If you don't want to see a gun assembler in your neighborhood, locking down nuclear materials is a must. The lands of the former Soviet Union may be a little loosey-goosey, but so are civilian stockpiles across the rest of the nuclear-powered planet.

Pressure Missouri Senator Kit Bond to drop his hold on the Markey-Upton bill, a measure that promotes the use of HEU's more congenial cousin, low-enriched uranium (LEU).

According to Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Markey-Upton bill, otherwise known as the American Medical Isotopes Production Act, "would restore controls over HEU exports over time and provide funding for the U.S. to develop LEU-based methods for medical isotopes."

LEU grants its users all the basic benefits of HEU, but serves zero purpose for terrorists looking to build a bomb. Senator Bond is preventing Markey-Upton from advancing in the Senate at a time when the threat of nuclear terrorism has never been greater. Let him know that whatever reason he has for delaying the bill, it's nowhere near as important as protecting the country from a homemade nuke.

There have been recent strides in running down the world's nuclear material, but we're not safe until every kilogram's secure. This is the world's most dangerous weapon—it shouldn't feel like loose couch cushion change. Professor Joseph Cirincione of Georgetown University makes it plain: "We have never lost an ounce of gold from Fort Knox. We shouldn't lose an ounce of highly enriched uranium." Check out TakePart's action page and stay up on what's going down with nukes.

You have both a plan to build the bomb and the solution to end the threat of nuclear weapons. Be a hero, work for ZERO.