While world capitals are reeling from the aftershock of North Korea 's nuclear test on Monday, some officials have declared it a fizzle or even a well-planned ruse.
But experts in detecting atomic explosions say the odds are close to zero that a conventional blast was set off to deceive leaders into believing the isolated maverick state is the latest member of the nuclear club — thereby improving its diplomatic bargaining position and winning face time with Washington's top officials.
It may not be the test they wanted, but there's very little doubt that it happened," says Philip Coyle, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, and the longest-serving director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Defense.
"The test was about 20 times smaller than the ones carried out by some of the other nuclear powers. But North Korea has a pattern of saying in advance what it intends to do, and then doing it. This appears to be part of the pattern."
U.S. scientists are puzzling over why the blast was such a small one, registering less than one kiloton — a fraction of the 15 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Some speculate it was a partial failure, as happened with an earlier missile test that flopped into the Sea of Japan, thestar.com reports.
It was clear that something had happened. It was undoubtedly an explosion -- the location was in an area that was not general active seismically, and the indications were that the depth was too shallow to be anything other than a blast. However, almost from the start, it was equally clear that something was just not right. There seemed to be a mismatch between what the North Korean government was reporting, and what instruments on the ground were showing.
After a day of reflection, it seems clear that what happened in North Korea was either a fake, or a failure. Unfortunately for the world, that doesn't matter.
Those first US weapons produced yields equivalent to between 5,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. That's typical for a "standard" nuclear warhead. In fact, it's easier to produce a blast this size than it is to go much larger or smaller. But the numbers for the North Korea event suggest what would be expected from an explosive yield of about one-twentieth to one-tenth of a kiloton - something about 1/100th the size of the Hiroshima bomb.
Now, it is possible that the North Koreans attempted to build a small weapon. They have a limited amount of plutonium available, and they may have been trying to divide it into as many devices as possible. But building a small bomb is difficult, requiring much more sophistication than a device in that 5K to 20K window. And building a "successful" device that yields 1/20th of a kiloton? No. You just can't get a nuclear blast that size.
There are only two real possibilities for what happened in North Korea . Either this was not a nuclear device at all, but a blast generated through conventional explosives, or it was a nuclear test gone wrong -- "a fizzle."
So what went wrong in North Korea ? If they failed to take extreme care in compressing the plutonium, the bomb could have become uneven, blowing some of the material off to the side before it could all be driven to criticality. Or the initiator could have been poorly designed, causing a slower start to the explosion and leading the device to fall apart physically before getting the full effect.
In either case, the result is called a "fizzle." In that case, you can get a lot of radioactive isotopes, a good deal of heat, and a much smaller explosion than the design would suggest. In essence, only a tiny part of the material is converted into energy. Even in a well-design nuclear bomb, the amount of matter converted into energy is about the size of a stick of gum. In a fizzle, it can be microscopic.
My initial inclination is to go with the idea that this was faked. After all, North Korea has made similar threats of tests before, and coming only a short time after the US had (foolishly) moved to cut off their access to banks, this was clearly intended as an effort to gain the isolated North Koreans some means of leverage. They have incentive to make us believe they can do this.
However, most experts believe that North Korea has enough plutonium on hand to create half a dozen or so devices, so a failure is just as likely. If that's true, we'll know soon even if the data from the sniffer planes is never made public. If this was a real test and it failed, North Korea will be keen to do it again. Soon.
Fake, or failure, we've little choice but to treat North Korea as if they've joined the "nuclear club", Political Cortex says.
Prepared by Alexander Timoshik