Idolatry and the Bomb

 

In the news today, I see reports that American technicians yesterday dismantled the B53, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever built. 

The B53 nuclear bomb was made to deliver a 9-megaton blast about 600 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.

Starting in 1962, about 300 of the 10,000-pound, minivan-size bombs were made, meant to be carried on bombers kept on 24-hour alert at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions.

“Obviously, this was one of the largest weapons we had. It was a big one,” says Greg Cunningham of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration’s Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. At the plant, a ceremony marked the removal of high explosives from the last of the final 50 B53 bombs held in a reserve after the weapon’s 1997 retirement.

“Monster really is the word. It would have created a fireball several miles wide,” says noted nuclear history author Richard Rhodes.

When I read the caption accompanying the photo, I was surprised to see that the photo is not of the Bomb itself–that’s an “inert non-nuclear training weapon.” It’s as if the very image of the real thing would make viewers’ eyeballs melt.

I was dismayed that it seemed to be considered quite normal to pass about the footage of Qaddafi’s lynching on the Internet. But I suppose I’m relieved to see that we still have a few important taboos. I think that’s what this is, anyway. 

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson
    Kervinlee: To paraphrase Thomas Sowell’s latest column: “…it was a question of whose ox was gored. That is, what groups were in vogue at the moment among the intelligentsia.”

    I guess our national defense isn’t in vogue anymore. Whatever makes Obama look like a tough guy must be, at least among the intelligentsia, so we can’t see the real bomb but we get the Qaddafi snuff film. · Oct 25 at 11:54pm

    This move doesn’t have much impact on national defense. We have much better weapons now–more accurate, faster, more reliable, cheaper, less susceptible to defenses.

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  2. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @Percival

    The thinking in putting one out on display where it was being photographed might have been: “What are we gonna do if one of the ‘photographers’ chains himself to it/throws pig’s blood on it/starts hitting it with a hammer/starts singing Kumbayah or some combination?”

    It would save a lot of time and effort (and be really funny to boot) if the press officer just tells him “dude, that one is full of concrete.”

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  3. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Talleyrand

    So this is an example of the weapons that kept the peace during the Cold War. Hardly terrifying, similar to conventional weapons in appearance; and yet there is something unsettling about its presence, like some old hidden evil. Felt the same way when I was visiting an plague cemetery.

    I am more concerned about the tactical nuclear bombs with their ease of deployment, small size, and difficulty in tracking.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @DavidFoster

    Claire said…”I think there’s probably a deep awe and horror of that weapon that most people can’t even fully articulate”

    A Los Alamos scientist wrote: Weapons designers play the societal role of witches in fairy tales–we scare people into behaving.

    See of witchcraft and weaponry

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  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Spin

    Whatever the case, I wish there had been an episode of Gilligans Island where that thing floated to shore, and the professor turned it into a submarine and made Gilligan ride in it.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheKingPrawn
    Mendel: There are certainly enough published photos of “real” nuclear weapons if one looks for them (see, for instance, this picture showing comparable destruction potential published on a website popular with school children). · Oct 26 at 12:55am

    That photo is most likely of a training scenario with training warheads.

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  7. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @Instugator

    The photo is from a museum, but I don’t know which one. Claire, the B53 was not the ‘most powerful ever built’ it might be the most powerful deployed. If the guy who imbedded it in the article had access to a ‘real photo’ he would have used it, I am not seeing evidence of a taboo.

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  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Mendel
    The King Prawn

    Mendel: There are certainly enough published photos of “real” nuclear weapons if one looks for them (see, for instance, this picture showing comparable destruction potential published on a website popular with school children). · Oct 26 at 12:55am

    That photo is most likely of a training scenario with training warheads. · Oct 26 at 6:13am

    As soon as I posted that link I feared you would emerge to put my claim in its place.

    Either way, those warheads sure look a lot more menacing than that gray tube in Claire’s post.

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  9. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy

    One minor correction: The most powerful nuclear weapon ever built was the Tsar Bomba, which had a yield of 57 megatons.

    It was never practical as an operational weapon. Rather, it was detonated just to scare the pants off the West. Only one was ever built and detonated, taking a sizable chunk out of an island in the Barents Sea.

    The fireball was about 5 miles wide

    The largest nuclear device ever built by the US was the Castle Bravo, which was 15 megatons.

    The B53 was the largest operational nuclear weapon.

    Not that it matters…

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @DavidKnights

    My younger brother just retired from the Air Force after 20 years as a B-52 Bombadier. As far as live (potentially functional) nuclear weapons are concerned, the Air Force is particularly sensitive. They generally are never seen by the public and most of the photos of supposedly live weapons are either photos by Air Force PR personnel or are actually inert training weapons or mock ups. With very rare exceptions, non military personnel NEVER get near potentially functional nuclear weapons. My brother tells many stories of how serious the Air Police (Air Force MPs) are when the nukes are out of their bunkers on base. Serious doesn’t begin to sum it up, as you would expect.

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  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BlueAnt
    Misthiocracy: The B53 was the largest operational nuclear weapon.

    To show the other side of the coin, the M-28 Davy Crockett tactical nuclear rifle was (I think) the smallest operational nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. It was only deployed for 10 years in Europe before being retired, but the Armed Forces later came up with better designs to do the same job.

    A good analysis of its shortcomings is here, with more pictures here.

    Whatever modern taboo exists around nukes, it is worth remembering that we once needed to seriously consider irradiating eastern Europe to stop waves of conventional tanks.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheKingPrawn
    Mendel

    Either way, those warheads sure look a lot more menacing than that gray tube in Claire’s post. · Oct 26 at 6:43am

    Warheads are simply more elegant than bombs. Either way, whether it’s a VW with fins or a snow cone of death, they’re all frighteningly powerful. The potential energy and destruction contained in such a small object is worthy of awe, if not reverence.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson
    The King Prawn

    Mendel

    Either way, those warheads sure look a lot more menacing than that gray tube in Claire’s post. · Oct 26 at 6:43am

    Warheads are simply more elegant than bombs. Either way, whether it’s a VW with fins or a snow cone of death, they’re all frighteningly powerful. The potential energy and destruction contained in such a small object is worthy of awe, if not reverence. · Oct 26 at 9:06am

    Speaking of awe, here’s what the last seconds before the end of the world would look like (and here’s a grainier, eerier version). Each of those bright points is one of those conical warheads from Mendel’s photo.

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  14. Profile Photo Member
    @Sisyphus

    Taboo? Not at all. It is just much easier to get a photo of the training mockup cleared for publication. I have always lived way to close to the real ground zero to take these toys for granted, and the risk of attack is rising not falling.

    Just waiting for the news release that Obama sent Iran top nuclear scientists to help out so that Iran would be a nice nuclear power. It will probably be a WikiLeak right after his reelection.

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  15. Profile Photo Member
    @SouthernPessimist

    Claire, You are right to be dismayed at the disintegration of taboos, but that photograph got it right: Getting The Job Done.

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    @DavidFoster

    It’s interesting that so many on the Left are opposed to missile defense, but believe Iran (for example) can be contained by the threat of nuclear retaliation…for example, Hillary Clinton’s comments about a “defense umbrella.” As I said in my post at the time:

    What does she mean by a defense umbrella?…given this administration’s hostility to antimissile technology, it should be pretty clear that she doesnot mean a comprehensive missile defense system. Rather, she means that the U.S. will retaliate against Iran with nuclear weapons should it launch a nuclear weapon at any of the protected countries…Why do the same liberals and “progressives” who react with horror to any suggestion of conventional military action often speak so glibly about “nuclear umbrellas” and “massive retaliation”–phrases that in reality refer to the killing of millions of people? I think it is partly because they feel sure that these things will stay in the realm of words and never become part of the realm of reality.

    See my post deterrence for thoughts on this subject.

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  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Kervinlee

    To paraphrase Thomas Sowell’s latest column: “…it was a question of whose ox was gored. That is, what groups were in vogue at the moment among the intelligentsia.”

    I guess our national defense isn’t in vogue anymore. Whatever makes Obama look like a tough guy must be, at least among the intelligentsia, so we can’t see the real bomb but we get the Qaddafi snuff film.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    I’m not sure I agree. I think there’s probably a deep awe and horror of that weapon that most people can’t even fully articulate. And while it may be superstitious and primitive to fear gazing upon it, I think that’s a good thing. Taboos exist for a reason.

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    @StarvetheBeast

    Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ll miss ’em.

    • #19
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    @Mendel

    I don’t think there’s any taboo at all against photographing the “real” thing, it’s just too dangerous and/or threatening to other military secrets to allow photographers to get up close with that kind of nuclear material. Much easier to put an empty mock-up in a museum and let people see that instead.

    There are certainly enough published photos of “real” nuclear weapons if one looks for them (see, for instance, this picture showing comparable destruction potential published on a website popular with school children).

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I think there’s probably a deep awe and horror of that weapon that most people can’t even fully articulate. And while it may be superstitious and primitive to fear gazing upon it, I think that’s a good thing. Taboos exist for a reason. · Oct 26 at 12:30am

    I see your point about taboos, Claire, and I can confirm the strange uneasy hard-to-articulate sensation one feels when gazing upon a powerful weapon.

    However, I would guess it’s for mundane practical and safety reasons they showed a photo of an inert weapon rather than a live one. Live ordnance is extremely hazardous and is stored in secure facilities that prohibit photography and nonessential personnel.

    There are whole bunches of inert weapons of all kinds just laying around on the surface for this exact purpose–visual examples, loading and unloading training, public display, so they don’t have to be near live ordnance any more than absolutely necessary. It may just be that nobody has ever had a camera near a live one (and lived to tell about it–just kidding). Any existing photos are possibly classified.

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Member
    @RobertELee

    The B-53 is a “crowd pleaser.” It’s sad to see such a useful tool go.

    If you’ve got a bag full of tools you can usually find the tool for the job. If all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything becomes a nail.

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  23. Profile Photo Member
    @RobertELee
    wilber forge: Not pass up the point there are more bio weapons in storage that make this thing a moot scrap yard item when it comes to killing folks. · Oct 27 at 10:48pm

    But it makes a dandy rock remover if we ever have to break open a North Korean mountain.

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  24. Profile Photo Inactive
    @wilberforge

    Not pass up the point there are more bio weapons in storage that make this thing a moot scrap yard item when it comes to killing folks.

    • #24
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