The Blast!

April 7, 2017

Upcoming Events at the Museum


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Movie Night at the Museum TONIGHT

Join us tonight at 6 p.m. for Movie Night at the Museum, featuring Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film “Fail Safe.”  The Cold War classic stars Walter Matthau and Henry Fonda in a story about American Fighter jets mistakenly deployed to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow.  The President of the United States must work with his Soviet counterpart to prevent an all-out war as the film comes to a shocking conclusion!

As always, our movie nights are FREE.  Popcorn, water and candy will be available for purchase (and they’re quite a bargain!).  Hope to see you there!


Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker to Present at NATM in May


We are pleased to announced that Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker will give a distinguished lecture at the National Atomic Testing Museum on Thursday, May 25 at 6 p.m.  His talk is titled “Doomed to Cooperate: How Lab-to-Lab Nuclear Cooperation Helped Avert Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers.”

It is difficult to imagine today how dramatically global nuclear risks changed 25 years ago as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Instead of the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation, the world became concerned that Russia and the 14 other former Soviet states would lose control of their huge nuclear assets–tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, more than a million kilograms of fissile materials, hundreds of thousands of nuclear workers, and a huge nuclear complex.  Dr. Hecker will describe how scientists and engineers at the DOE laboratories, with a focus on Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories, joined forces with those at the Russian nuclear weapon institutes for more than 20 years to avoid what looked like the perfect nuclear storm–a story told in the recently released two-volume book “Doomed to Cooperate.”  Dr. Hecker will make the case that Russia and the U.S. must continue to cooperate to reduce today’s nuclear dangers in spite of deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington.

From 1986 to 1997, Dr. Hecker was the fifth director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.  He is currently a professor emeritus in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, and his current research interests include plutonium science, nuclear weapons policy, nuclear security, and the safe and secure expansion of nuclear energy.  During the past 25 years, he has fostered cooperation with the Russian nuclear laboratories to secure and safeguard the vast stockpile of ex-Soviet fissile materials.  He has also made several trips to North Korea to assess the plutonium program.

His achievements have been recognized with the Presidential Enrico Fermi Award, the American Physical Society’s Leo Szilard Prize, the American Nuclear Society’s Seaborg Medal, the Department of Energy’s E.O. Lawrence Award, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal, among other awards including the Alumni Association Gold Medal and the Undergraduate Distinguished Alumni Award from Case Western Reserve University, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in metallurgy.

The event will begin with a reception at 6 p.m., with Dr. Hecker’s talk beginning at 6:30 p.m.  A book signing will follow the presentation.


A Major Milestone–NATM’s Blueprint for the Future by Linda Smith


On Thursday, March 23, the NTS Historical Foundation’s board members and NATM key stakeholders gathered for a milestone event:  a presentation of a final interpretive master plan that outlines some exciting new concepts and changes for our permanent exhibition.

Informally called our “Blueprint for the Future,” the plan was developed and presented by Merriell & Associates-a nationally recognized museum interpretive planning and design firm located in Santa Fe, NM.  This project was made possible by a grant from National Security Technologies, Inc., management and operating contractor for the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS).

As outlined in the report, the National Atomic Testing has operated since 2005 with very little change to our core exhibits, which focus almost exclusively on the nuclear testing events of the Cold War period.  The plan recommends that half of the permanent exhibition space be redesigned to tell the story of current NNSS programs, such as science-based stockpile stewardship, global nuclear security and other related activities.  These exhibits would be portrayed in a “media-rich” environment, bringing the latest technology into play by offering virtual reality experiences, along with several hands-on exhibit components.


The plan also proposes some upgrading and reconfiguring of the testing history portion of the museum (the period ending in 1992).  This would include adding an orientation theater, updating video displays, and offering some virtual reality opportunities (e.g., experiencing an above-ground test).

The interpretive plan will serve as a key fundraising document for next steps:  detailed exhibit design, fabrication and installation work.  The Foundation Board and NATM are now working on a fundraising plan and proposed timeline for transforming this vision into reality.  Stay tuned!


Jack Doyle Presents “Operation Morning Light”


On Thursday, March 23, docent Jack Doyle gave a presentation on Operation Morning Light to a group of new CCSD teachers for continuing education credit.  He’ll be doing another one of these great sessions later this month, but we wanted to make a video of his lecture available to all of our supporters–it’s not one to be missed!

Operation Morning Light remediated the radioactive debris scattered in Northern Canada when Russian Satellite Kosmos 954 reentered Earth’s atmosphere in 1978. Jack was a part of the recovery team, and shared some historic photos, along with a lot of great information about the operation.  You can watch his complete presentation here.

In the News

To help keep you up to date on local and global current events in the nuclear world, we share links to relevant items in the news.  The National Atomic Testing Museum does not endorse any views or opinions expressed in these stories; we are sharing for informational purposes only.

The American Nuclear Society’s Nuclear Cafe blog reports on the Westinghouse Electric bankruptcy filing here.

The New York Times reports on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in article here, focusing on a recent online ad from a North Korean secretary selling lithium 6.  For more on North Korea, continue reading below…



It is our mission at the National Atomic Testing Museum to document the history of and current events in nuclear testing. We never take a political stance on any issue; rather, we do strive to keep you informed.  In each newsletter, my Spot On column will highlight history and happenings in the nuclear world and at the museum.              

Michael Hall

North Korea Update 6:
The World Is Now Watching
Final Preparation for a Nuclear Test


The world is now watching hour by hour while a new nuclear test is expected in North Korea. This would make their sixth detonation under the snow-capped Mount Mantap at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. The website 38 North, run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington posted this week: “New commercial satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site from March 28 shows a heightened level of activity over the past few days. Despite the recent snowfall, there has been continued pumping of water out of the North Portal, presumably to keep the tunnels dry for communications and monitoring equipment; the removal of material (probably rubble) and dumping on the tailings pile immediately to the east of the portal; and the probable removal of one or more vehicles or equipment trailers from in front of the portal.  This activity is consistent with previous reports, while the rest of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site has been generally quiet. However, there is now one vehicle and a large contingent (70-100) of people standing in formation or watching in the courtyard of the Main Administrative Area. Such a gathering hasn’t been seen since January 4, 2013, which was followed by a nuclear test on February 12.”

Other analysts have pointed out satellite photos are now showing cables laid out on the ground which is very indicative from past experience of final preparations for a nuclear test.


Are there any options beyond sanctions and diplomacy to contend with North Korea’s growing threat? Former United States Ambassador to the UnitedNationsJohn Bolton recently stated that we are quickly running out of time. He feels the situation is extremely serious.On the other hand, Christopher Hill, former ambassador to South Korea under President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2005, recently stated that there are just no good military options. Most agree that even taking minor pre-emptive military action could lead to a very deadly response from their prolific conventional weaponry. They, in fact, have the fourth largest standing army in the world. This feeling of impending threat coupled with an inability to take action is not a new development.

History of Illusion

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has been a significant issue since the close of war in Korea in 1953 when combatants agreed on an armistice but not a peace treaty. To this day that war remains on hold.

North Korea did not really gain its own true autonomy until the last Chinese troops withdrew in 1958. Prior to that Party Leader/Prime Minister Kim Il Sung resisted numerous attempts by both China and Russia to manipulate and even depose him. Although, he had earned a following and respect after years of resistance to the Japanese occupation of Korea and remained a determined leader into the 1950s.

The gradual rise of North Korea to a nuclear power began in 1956. In that year the Soviet Union started training North Korean scientists and engineers in basic principles of nuclear fission which served as the genesis of their nuclear program. Kim Il Sung had asked both China and the Soviets for help in making a nuclear weapon but were refused. Instead, the USSR decided to help North Korea develop a “nuclear energy program” which included that training of scientists and engineers. In 1959 North Korea and the Soviet Union signed a nuclear cooperation agreement. In 1962they completed construction of a research reactor at what became known as the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. They also began mining uranium ore.

By 1974 Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung, gradually assumed key political offices although Kim Il Sung remained the primary leader until his death in 1994. Both father and son favored nuclearization. Kim Il Sung would never forget the implied threat from U.S. nuclear weapons, which helped force the North Koreans to the bargaining table in 1953. The current leader of Korea, Kim Jong Un, had these lessons impressed upon him both by his father and grandfather.  Since assuming power on December 28, 2011, following Kim Jong Il’s death, he has committed North Korea to nuclearization. It is now an integral part of the national identity of North Korea, and is impressed upon every citizen.

By the mid-1980s North Korea was already well on the way to that path when it mastered a significant enrichment capability as a result of Soviet technical assistance. In 1984, they completed construction of a radiochemical laboratory which served as a reprocessing plant where plutonium could be produced. The next year the DPRK sent a deceptive signal by signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which had been signed by the Soviets and Americans in 1968. By 1993, they were clearly not complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and withdrew after considerable controversy with the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency. They then suspended their initial withdrawal.

In the 1990s North Korea gained access to Pakistan’s nuclear technology. This fact became known a decade later, but we still do not know the exact details. Undoubtedly, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, sold sensitive technology to North Korea and apparently other rogue nations. (Pakistan developed their own nuclear weapons during the 1970s and 1980s to attain parity with India all the while receiving significant economic and military assistance from the United States.)

On October 21, 1994, North Korea further deceived the world by signing an agreement with the United States agreeing to freeze operations of its nuclear reactors. The plan was to replace the old reactors with nuclear proliferation resistant light water power plants in exchange for an agreement on North Korea’s disarmament. However, in October of 2002 it was revealed that North Korea was operating a secret nuclear weapons program and negotiations fell apart.

On January 10, 2002, they again withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and also in 2003. By 2003, North Korea admitted they had nuclear weapons or at least made that claim. In December of that same year North Korea again offered to make a deal. They proposed to “freeze” its nuclear program in exchange for concessions from the United States; however, President George W. Bush refused and insisted on a dismantling of their nuclear program.

On September 19 of 2005, another false start arose when the DPRK asked for a non-aggression pact with the United States in exchange for North Korean nuclear disarmament. Again, and only a day later, negotiations broke down. It seemed each successive U.S. administration spent the bulk of its tenure just learning the lesson that negotiations with North Korea were simply an illusion of dialog that never went anywhere.

In July of 2006,North Korea began a series of long-range missiles tests. As a result, the United Nations became involved with a resolution demanding the suspension of their nuclear program.

First Nuclear Test

On October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear detonation in the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site’s granite tunnels under Mount Mantap. This is in the heavily forested Hamgyong mountain range fifty miles from Chongjin. The detonation was estimated at less than a kiloton that may have actually been an underperformed chain reaction. Seismic instruments around the world recorded this test so there was no way to hide the detonation even though it proved small. Xenon and krypton isotopes were also detected in the atmosphere by aircraft with specialized sensors, confirming a nuclear test had occurred and also proving Pyongyang had used a plutonium-fueled device.  In response, the U.N. imposed trade and travel sanctions. Then in December,Six-Party talks began involving the United States, South Korea, China Japan, and Russia in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the threat imposed by the DPRK’s weapon’s programs. North Korea agreed to close its main nuclear reactor in exchange for a $400 million aid package and then agreed to begin disabling its nuclear weapons facilities. However, North Korea missed its end-of-year deadline to disable its weapons facilities. So, the talks proved fruitless once again.

Second Nuclear Test

On May 25, 2009, North Korea conducted a second underground nuclear test, estimated by seismographs to be between 2 and 5.4 kilotons. It became clear by that point North Korea had an established enrichment capability. In that test they used a new, more confined tunnel so atmospheric gases could not be detected. The deeper tunnel was located about halfway up the 7,200-foot mountain complex. In all, there are three visible main entrances, or portals, into a series of horizontal tunnels stretching a mile or more into the mountain. Studies of this second test suggest it has the shape of a fish-hook, just as is used in past testing in Pakistan. Of course, great assistance probably came from Pakistan in the first place. The tunnels are believed to be about 9 feet wide and 9 feet high with multiple sharp corners and various dead ends which defuse and absorb the blasts. In that test bulkheads were probably installed to confine the gasses while sand, gravel, or other materials mixed with concrete served to plug the tunnel.

The second 2009 test lead to further sanctions by the U.N. Once again, in February of 2012 the DPRK suggested it would halt its nuclear weapons tests, missile launches, and nuclear enrichment activities in exchange for food aid.

Third Nuclear Test 

Then on February 11, 2013, a third underground test took place with a yield at 14 to 16 kilotons. On March 30and 31, 2014, the DPRK fired hundreds of artillery shells across its Yellow Sea border with South Korea. The South responded by firing 300 shells in return.

Fourth Nuclear Test 

On January 6, 2016, a fourth underground test supposedly involved a hydrogen bomb, but this claim has not been verified. U.S. analysts do not believe that a hydrogen bomb was detonated because the seismic data collected only estimated a 6 to 10 kiloton yield which is not consistent with the power that would be generated by a hydrogen bomb explosion. (Seismographic data is really all we have to go on because these were all underground tests.)

Fifth Nuclear Test 

On September 9 of last year, the fifth test occurred, which has been calculated at between 10 and 25 kilotons. That is about the size of the 15 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There is some debate as to exactly what this test revealed. David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists stated that, “My guess is that the North is happy to have the world see that it is testing and get an estimate of the yield-at least as long as it is increasing-but likes keeping the world guessing about how advanced its program really is.” Other experts are concerned that the North is trying to develop a true thermonuclear bomb with the use of lithium-6. This material enhances the power of a nuclear weapon. There is also speculation that aside from research into fusion, North Korea may be developing composite fission designs, using cores of both plutonium and enriched uranium. Such a design would be smaller and easier to put on long-range missiles. It would also economize, making the most out of their ongoing production of enriched materials.

In 2016, North Korea also made dramatic advances in missile technology evidenced by recent trials. In the last twelve months, North Korea made the big step of launching a solid fuel ballistic missile from a submerged submarine and then a week before the latest nuclear test, they launched three missiles into the Sea of Japan with an apparent high degree of precision. Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said, “Looking at the fact that the three missiles have landed on almost the same spot at almost the same time. I think their missile technology has substantially improved.”

After the fifth nuclear test and subsequent missile trials, more international sanctions followed, as well as U.N. and U.S. condemnations. In early 2017, China, which facilitates more than 90 percent of Korean trade, finally imposed sanctions on North Korea’s chief export commodity, coal.  However, it now appears that China may be purchasing their coal through discrete channels. So, as so often in that part of the world, nothing is ever as it seems or is as reported. It is largely an illusion.

Recent Days

On January 1 of this year, Kim Jong Un boasted that his country would soon have an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States mainland. Then in January, the U.S. deployed a sophisticated ocean radar designed to detect any long-range missile launch from North Korea. On February 12, the North tested a medium range ballistic missile and on March 6 fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. On March 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a significant statement during a tour of Japan, South Korea and China. He explained that pre-emptive military action against North Korea may be an option if their nuclear, ballistic missile, and weapons of mass destruction programs continue. He commented that it has been 20 years of non-productive talks and policies with North Korea that has gotten us to this present situation.

Tillerson added that all options are on the table saying, “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action.” On March 18, he concluded his tour in China in an effort to seek cooperation on the threat posed by what is called the “Hermit Kingdom.” China does now seem to be to the point of losing patience with Kim Jong Un; however, it is equally despondent over what they see as provocative U.S. and South Korean military exercises currently under way. China is also in great opposition to the deployment of the new Thaad missile system. Both China and Russia are concerned about the advanced radar system used by Thaad’s radar-controlled firing system. This system can reach into neighboring Chinese and Russian territory, and is thus considered, from their perspective, to be an “invasion of national security.”

President Donald Trump’s recent suggestion of arming Japan with nuclear weapons is another highly contentious proposal to surface in recent weeks. That same day, North Korea stole the headlines by testing a new rocket engine which analysts say appears to represent a significant advancement in design and thrust capability. Kim Jong Un claims this engine is for his country’s space program, which since 2012 has succeeded in launching three satellites of very questionable performance. His endorsed statement read as follows, “This new-type, high-thrust engine would help consolidate the scientific and technological foundation to match the world-level satellite delivery capability in the field of outer space development.”

On March 20, the Trump Administration announced that it is considering more sanctions against North Korea and against Chinese banks with business ties to North Korea. That same day, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said diplomacy wouldn’t work. On March 22, North Korea had a failed missile launch; however, as in the early American tests in the 1950s, engineers know that as much useful information can be gained from a failed test as a successful one. It seems North Korea’s effort to build an ICBM is analogous to our attempts in the 1950s to perfect the long-range Atlas Rocket.  That was a two-year project from start to finish; however, North Korea is moving considerably slower because they do not have the same technological resources to draw upon.


We tend to forget it’s not only North Korean nuclear weapons that are contravened by U.N. resolutions but ballistic missiles, as well. The most recent missile launches, just like their recent nuclear tests, are not rebellious acts of saber-rattling or posturing to leverage an easing of sanctions-not that Kim Jong Un does not welcome that impression. Instead, and unfortunately, the missile tests and nuclear trials demonstrate methodical research and development attempting to strive toward engineering advancements.

On March 31, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stated, “Right now, [North Korea] appears to be going in a very reckless manner … and that has got to be stopped.” It remains to be seen what will happen. On April 6 and 7, President Trump will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. North Korea is expected to be the main topic of discussion. President Trump has already made the   statement that if China does not exert more pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear program, then the United States will act unilaterally. It is not clear, however, what kind of action he means. A military solution seems almost unthinkable now because of the retaliatory threat North Korea could pose. Yes, the DPRK would lose any military conflict, but even in the best-case scenario they could kill thousands if not tens of thousands before they could be neutralized. Logically, that is why the new Administration must want to get China to use its leverage to avert a military conflict. Such a conflict would certainly lead to a greater U.S. involvement in Korea and perhaps unification, neither one of which would be desirable to China. So, it’s definitely in China’s interest to attempt to talk some sense into Kim Jong Un, if that is even possible. A number of analysts, including Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies, feels that North Korea may now hold off their pending nuclear test until after Xi Jinping’s American visit. However, on Tuesday April 4 of this week, the North Koreans did launch another ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

Meanwhile, Congress passed a bill that basically relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terror. (It had been on that list before since 1988, but had been removed in 2008 in return for a promise to suspend uranium and plutonium enrichment as part of the Six-Party Talks. That, of course, never happened.) The new resolution also officially denounced the DPRK’s nuclear and missile development projects. At the same time the U.S. Treasury implemented more sanctions on North Korea.

What will happen next? Two key and highly emotionally charged anniversary dates are on the horizon for the North. The first is the 105th birthday of Kim Il Sung, which falls on April 15, and the second is the 85th anniversary of the creation of the Korean People’s Army on April 25. Those dates may pose an opportune time for North Korea to conduct their next nuclear test or attempt more ballistic missile tests. Stay tuned to our updates because it is assured there will soon be more on which to report.



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