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Public Affairs : Nuclear lecture

Physicist lectures

on H-Bomb origin

Story and photo by Kathy Eastwood
Staff Writer

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Feb. 28, 2013) — Dr. Richard Garwin, a nuclear physicist and one of the designers of the first hydrogen bomb tested in 1952, spoke at a colloquium to senior cadets in the NE400 class Feb. 21 at Thayer Hall. The lecture, titled “Reflections on Nuclear Weapons: Then and Now,” was about the evolution of nuclear weapons, the dangers of nuclear weapons when stockpiled and unguarded, the dangers we face today and deterrence.

Garwin presented a brief biography at the start of the colloquium.

“I received my B.S. degree in physics from Case Institute of Technology in 1947,” Garwin said. “I received my Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago in 1949 and began working with nuclear weapons shortly after as a faculty and research member at the University of Chicago.”

Garwin said as a trained physicist, it seemed natural to study nuclear weapons, especially during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.

“After I received my Ph.D. in physics, it was common to take a three-month summer job in an industry or government laboratory,” Garwin said. “I worked for a three-month period at Los Alamos.”

As a faculty member, he did not work during the summer months.

“I worked with the physicist Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi (one of my professors) on designing a more efficient nuclear weapon,” Garwin said.

Garwin and other influential physicists, including Robert Oppenheimer (the Manhattan Project) and Teller, considered in some circles as the father of the hydrogen bomb, studied the idea of using fusion for nuclear weapons instead of fission like the one exploded over Hiroshima.

Fission is the splitting of a large atom into two or more smaller ones while fusion is the fusing of two or more lighter atoms into a larger one. A fusion bomb is more cost efficient and produces less radioactivity, if the correct atoms are used.

“The idea of a fusion bomb had a low priority at Los Alamos compared to the conventional nuclear weapon (used in Hiroshima) until the Soviet Union tested a nuclear bomb in 1949,” Garwin said.

Since then, a large number of countries have nuclear weapons or the capability of making them.

The threat of a nuclear weapon explosion has not gone away, in fact with today’s unstable governments in Iran and North Korea, the threat of a nuclear explosion somewhere in some city is a very real possibility. However, Garwin says it will likely be terrorists who will use an improvised nuclear device.

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Dr. Richard Garwin, nuclear physicist, stands with Class of 2013 Cadet Tyler Sutherland after speaking to NE400 cadets Feb. 21 at Thayer Hall on nuclear physics. Garwin was one of the nuclear physicists who developed the hydrogen-fusion bomb named “Ivy Mike” in 1952.

“An improvised nuclear device isn’t the same thing as a dirty bomb,” he said. “A dirty bomb is just some radioactive material that somebody has stolen from someplace else. It may kill a few people and contaminate a small area. You can put it in an itemizer and spray it on someone.”

Garwin explained an improvised nuclear device explosion could run into a few thousand tons, especially if they were detonated simultaneous, it would be worse than Hiroshima.

“The explosion would be mixed with debris, which would fall locally and miles away and contaminate an area for years,” he said.

Garwin said the only way to protect anyone from a nuclear attack is through intelligence and deterrence.

“To protect us from nuclear weapons, we rely largely on intelligence to an extent, to understand which ones (terrorists) are where and what they want to do,” he said. “Terrorists cannot be deterred. We really need to do everything we can to catch them.”

Garwin explained there is a worldwide effort to secure high-end uranium because there is not much use for it except for nuclear weapons and research reactors.

“And, of course, deterrence is still a most effective weapon,” Garwin said. “Deterrence can’t prevent an attack, but it is assured the other side would be destroyed. We know that, and that is our policy. However, it is uncomfortable because the people you are going to kill (aren’t all) the ones that are threatening.”