Against the law to make a "replica" A-Bomb?

I was watching an episode of “Barney Miller” the other day and one of the people brought to the station was a college student that made a fully-functional atomic bomb (except for the fissionable material) as his master’s thesis. Granted, he was brought for routine questioning before they knew what he had built because of complaints from his landlord about suspicious behavior, but the “bomb” was then confiscated by the authorities (FBI, IIRC). In any event, does anyone out there know if it is illegal to build a fully-functional atomic bomb if you leave out the “fissionable material”? Just curious, I don’t have any plans for such a project (although me and a buddy are working on a crashed flying saucer site for a Halloween decoration for his front yard).


A fully-functional A-bomb minus fissile material is still technically a loaded cannon if it’s a Hiroshima-style gun-type bomb, and will contain a few tens of kilograms of powerful conventional explosive if it’s a Nagasaki-style, convergent-shockwave-implosion bomb. Both of which are likely to be frowned upon by the FBI and your neighbours.

I doubt the student case you mentioned used real explosives. However, if it was truly a functional device it would incorporate solutions to the problem of generating a convergent shockwave, simultaneous triggering of multiple detonators and a neutron generator, and other stuff which is probably still classified. It’s this information which got him into hot water.

If you were to make a mock-up bomb which didn’t included a whole lot of technical solutions, I don’t think you’ll be breaking any laws. However, if you worked out the correct shapes for HMX-TNT explosive lenses, actually made them out of plastic rather than explosive and built them into it, you’re going to upset some people. Likewise for a simultaneous firing circuit which would really works - it’s the information rather than the device itself which causes trouble.

If you’re going to fit cardboard fins to a beer keg, spraypaint the whole thing grey and write “A-Bomb” on the side, I doubt you’re going to upset anyone.

I’ll have to hunt down documentation 'cause I don’t remember the source … a physics student at an Ivy-league school (Stanford?) did a paper design (calculations & blueprints) for a working A-bomb for an undergraduate thesis. He didn’t get arrested, but the thesis was confiscated by the feds. :wink:

I remember this too, SCSimmons! If memory serves, this happened while I was a freshman or sophmore in high school… so that makes it about 1980, '81, or '82… I have no idea how to scare up a link to it though…

I’ll give it a shot and see what I can come up with…

Yeah, I’ll give it a try too when I have a few minutes. I don’t think it was Stanford, though, now that I think about it again-I’m almost positive it was Princeton.

Sounds suspiciously like the film, ‘The Manhattan Project’ with John Lithgow. Entertaining piece of celluloid about a high-school prodigy who builds a working A-Bomb.

This reminds me of the story of the “Radioactive Boy Scout” that appeared in Harper’s a couple of years ago.

Here’s another link.

The man was John Aristotle Phillips who was a 2nd year Physics undergraduate at Princeton in 1979 when he designed an atomic bomb from publicly available documents. This is something any reasonably intelligent Physics student can accomplish. He later wrote a book called Mushroom: the Story of the A-Bomb Kid which was made into a TV movie. John went on to found Aristotle International, Inc. , a political technology company.

Oh, on the OP, he didn’t break any laws by designing the weapon. IIRC, though, if he had attempted to build any part of it, that would have been illegal. In some jursidictions, it’s called “Possession of an Infernal Device” or sume such thing. It’s a class A felony where I live and could get you 15 years in jail.

There was a Reader’s Digest article many months back about a kid who was building a miniature nuclear bomb (fissionable material included). I don’t recall the details but it was confiscated. I’ll see if I can look it up and give more info.

FEotU, tell me, just how would you know it was an A-Bomb from the looks of it? You can’t tell right?

So, you got someone with a fake A-Bomb, the only way to know that’s what it is, is if the person says, ‘hey, Lookee I have an A-Bomb!’

Then the question is, ‘how do you know it’s not got any active explosive in it?’ You don’t.

So, would you stay around to find out or would you consider calling in the FBI?

That’s why they aren’t legal to possess in my opinion. BTW, you should read the news, people get shot just for having a fake gun.

Thanks Robby, that was the story I was thinking of, now I don’t have to dig through all my old copies of RD .
The guy wasn’t charged with anything though, I guess because he wasn’t trying to build a bomb but a breeder reactor. It appears that possesion of that much radiactive material wasn’t a crime though I bet it is now. Guess this doesn’t help answer the OP much.

Actually, the physics of the thing make it pretty obvious what it is. The gun type has a length and diameter that are dictated by the need to slam the two sub-critical masses together accurately and quickly given the type of explosive used. The other type uses a single mass that is compressed by a spherical shockwave to produce the necessary density needed to start the chain reaction. Producing the spherical shockwave takes a precise alignment and detontation sequence of many individual pieces of explosive. This naturally influences the shape of the thing to a very large degree. Neither type resembles a normal bomb made of high explosives only. There is no design requirement that would cause a normal bomb to be long and narrow with explosives and detonators at each end like the gun type. In the same way, no one in his right mind would build a bomb to implode like the other type of A-Bomb.

Actually building the thing would be illegal. If nothing else, you have built an explosive device of considerable power. I don’t know specifically what the laws look like, but think about it for a minute. They made cherry bombs (the real powerful ones from waaayy back) illegal because they were too powerful. They could blast a typical rural mail box into scrap. Now compare the size of a cherry bomb to the amount of high explosive you are going to need to build your A-Bomb (minus fissionables, of course.) At the very least you will need a license to handle high explosives, and I would expect that the licensing agenc(y)(ies) would take a dim view of such goings on.

He got investigated by the FBI partially because he had to ask for specific information from the manufacturers of certain explosives, and they reported the strange inquiries. Also, his professor had a security clearance at the time the guy submitted his work. Under the terms of his clearance, he had to report any one he found in posession of information he knew to be classified. The individual sources and bits of information were not classified - the student was working partially from publically available, declassified documents - but the completed plans for such a bomb are considered classified. This caused the professor to have to report the student and to turn the documents over to the government (FBI, military, whoever it was that had given him his clearance) for proper holding and disposal. The student got some uncomfortable visits from the agencies involved. The agencies checked his background and his notes and calculations to be sure that it was actually his work and not information leaked from somewhere or given to him by his professor (who had access to such things.) Once he was cleared, he got an ‘A’ on his work, and neither he nor the professor ever got to see the paper or notes again. Pheew. All that from memory. I think I got the main points right, although I don’t remember the names of the agencies and that kind of thing. Hey, I am thirty four years old, and was only twelve when this happened. Not the sort of thing that interests most twelve year olds, but then again I had read books about the history of the A-Bomb when I was nine.

This was a dweeb who had no concept of what he was getting into. Brilliant kid, he manages to separate radium from watch dials and use a neutron gun to make more radioactive materials with the goal of building a nuclear reactor. Hello, ever hear of lead? Ever hear that neutrons emitted by radioactive substances can change other non-radioacive isotopes of normal substances (like the carbon in wood or the steel in tools) into radioactive isotopes of the same substance? The tongs used to handle a radioactive piece of material become radioactive themselves. Stupid kid couldn’t even calculate the amount of material he would need to sustain a continuous chain reaction (that would be one more hell of a lot more than he could get together by scraping watch dials, even if radium were a fissionable.) How was he going to control the reactor? What was he going to with the heat generated by the reaction? Turn it to electrical power? What was he going to do with the power if his reactor had worked? He never said, and I doubt he had ever thought that far ahead. This kid was a nut case who only managed to contaminate his workspace, his yard, and himself. Anyone want to take bets on when he gets cancer and what type it will be?
His actions are in no way comparable to the actions of the Princeton student who designed an A-Bomb. The Princeton student made plans, knew what he was after and how far he was going to take the project, and where he was going to stop. He calculated the effects, materials, and quantities needed. He endangered no one (arguably - a foreign government could have bought the plans from him, though they would still have had to get the fissionables.) The screw loose high school kid wandered off into the wild blue yonder with hardly a plan in his head and made an incredible mess. Were he truly interested in the scientific principles involved, he would have realized at some point during his investigations just how dangerous it would be work with radioactive materials, and that it is not possible to build a reactor without fissionable materials.
Radioactive does not mean fissionable. You can make radioactive isotopes of any of the elements. You cannot make fissionables out of most of them. If it were possible, then they wouldn’t need uranium or plutonium in the nuclear powerplants. They would just zap a big chunk of iron or something cheap and use that instead. Breeder reactors (which is what the kid claimed to be after) use plutonium to fuel the reaction and transmute the normally non-radioactive Uranium 235 isotope to the radioactive U-238. Uranium in any isotope is fissionable. U238 can self start the reaction and is used for this purpose in commercial reactors. A nuclear reactor uses a mixture of U238 and U235. U238 as a source of radioactivity (specifically, neutrons) and U235 as the fuel to sustain the reaction.
A breeder reactor needs a highly radioactive, easily fissionable material to operate. This kid had a snowball’s chance in hell of producing useable quantities of fissionables, and was too stupid to realize it. Did he think he was going to find a way to do what many countries (did some one say Iraq?) wish they could do? Did he really think he was going to find a way to make fissionables out of junk when many a terrorist (or countries without other fissionable materials sources) would have long since have done if it were possible? He just never thought it out. He was just a punk kid wanting to say “Hey, looka me! I’m cool, I built a reactor!” If what he were attempting to do were actually possible, we would have had terrorists with A-Bombs and probably WWIII by now.
The kid should have been charged with reckless endangerment and made to pay for the clean-up.

Jeez. That comes off an awful lot like a rant, and maybe it really belongs in the pit. I’m not going to start a new thread just for that, though.

Laws? Heck, breeder reactors are against several international treaties. My guess on why he wasn’t charged with anything is that the Navy bailed him out, since they wanted to stay on his good side.

If nothing else, I’m sure he could have been charged with reckless endangerment of human life, or somesuch.

Seeing Mont Furd’s post on preview, a couple of addenda: First, U238 is the (almost) stable isotope, and 235 is the stuff used in bombs and reactors, not vice-versa. There’s also U234, which is extrememely unstable, but shows up as an intermediate step in many reactions. Also, breeder reactors transform U238 not into another isotope of uranium, but into plutonium.

Second, an interesting note about the college student who designed a bomb: The whole reason he was doing the project in the first place is that he was flunking physics, and needed the extra credit.

Third, the idiot in his back yard actually did build a “breeder reactor” of a sort, but not one capable of producing fissionable materials. It was still plenty dangerous, though.

Sorry, Chronos. I should have checked first. It has been a really long time since I read up on this type of thing, and I really should have checked on the isotopes first. Thanks for correcting me.

In a very loose sense, he did build a breeder reactor in the sense that he created a device to make more radioactive materials. In the conventional sense of a reactor designed to produce more fissionables, he failed and made a mess.

FWIW, the Barney Miller episode came out a short while after Phillips did the Readers Digest article (it might have also been a book) and was based on his story.

Someone may have already said this (sorry, too busy to read this afternoon), but, along with the FBI investigation, his phone was ringing off the hook with offers from Pakistan. They wanted his thesis on A-bomb design to help them with their peaceful atomic energy work. :rolleyes:

Also, he was approached by the FBI after he had received the classified information and submitted his paper. So much for security…

Sorry. He did not receive any classified information. He used declassified, openly available documents about the development of the first A-Bombs, commonly available engineering sources, and asked direct questions of explosives manufacturers regarding propagation rates, ignition methods, and such. The plans that he created were classified after he completed them because they represented a threat to national security, and the information contained in them would have been classified if it had been produced by any one officially working in that field.
I also seriously doubt that he received any phone calls until after the whole thing became public and he no longer posessed his notes and completed plans.