Corrections for The Day We Lost the H-Bomb

The Day We Lost the H-BombA note from the author:

Since the book was published in April 2009, I have received numerous letters and e-mails from readers, some of whom noticed errors in the text. In the interest of full disclosure – and in my desire to get the story as straight as possible – I am posting the corrective correspondence here. Many of these errors have been corrected in the Kindle edition, and will also be corrected in the next edition of the book.

Received from Tom Oliver, June 6, 2010, via e-mail
Dear Ms. Moran,

I just started reading your book and it looks quite interesting. However, I found a couple of glaring errors in the first few pages. Page 9 near bottom: “B-17 Stratofortress”. The B-17 was called the “Flying Fortress, The B-29 was the “Superfortress”, and the B-52 eight engined jet bomber is the “STRATOFORTRESS”.

Author’s note: This error will be corrected in the next edition.

Received via e-mail, September 24, 2009
Dear Ms. Moran:

My name is travis and I’m sending you this email from New York. The reason I’m writing is that I thought you might be interested to know that the ransom demanded by Spectre was £100 million pounds sterling, not £1 million pounds sterling. I hope this might be of interest to you.

Received via e-mail August 23, 2009
Dear Barbara Moran,

I just finished reading your book “The Day We Lost the H-Bomb”. I found the book very easy to read and interesting. I also, as a physicist, found the science to be good. However, there is one section that is not quite correct and I thought you might want to know about it.

At the bottom of page 54 you are talking about alpha radiation and state ‘The “alpha type” radiation that Ramirez …’. This paragraph is fine. It is the next paragraph where you say “When, however, alpha particles get into the bloodstream – usually because someone inhales them – they can be lethal.” that is a little off. The inhalation of alpha particles will not cause any damage and I have done it several times. Alpha particles are also known as helium, or more precisely helium-4 (one might quibble as to the charge state of the particles) and people inhale the helium in a helium ballon to make their voice sound funny which is very safe (unless they do it too many times and do not get the oxygen they need). What you mean to say is that when the emitters of the alpha particles are inhaled (e.g., plutonium), that can be lethal.

Sincerely, Bret Beck

Received from Thomas C. Reed, August 16, 2009

Pages 12 & 13, starting with last paragraph on page 12: Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, not August 7. Nagasaki was bombed three days later (on August 9) not “nine days later.”

Author’s note: I have no idea how these errors slipped through the fact-checking process. They will be corrected in the next edition.

Page 48, last paragraph, first line: You state that elements with an atomic weight of more than 209 are not stable: “No amount of glue can hold their nucleus together.” You apparently pick lead (Pb) as the end of the stability line, but some nuclei with even numbers of nucleons are quite happy well above that number. Exhibit A is uranium 238, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, about the age of the earth. A lot of it is still here.

Bottom of page 48: You describe uranium as radioactive. Absolutely not. As noted above, U-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. The U-235 isotope is not radioactive in the real-world sense; it has a half-life of 704 million years. That is why terrorist devices utilizing U-235 would be so hard to find. The decay of U-235 is detectable by sensitive meters. That is how prospectors look for it, but one can sleep with U-235 components under the pillow with no harm done.

Page 51, first complete paragraph: States that plutonium is “highly radioactive”. Absolutely not. Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years. This is the core material in most nuclear weapons. Many military people, especially on submarines, spend months in very close proximity to nuclear warheads containing multi-kilogram plutonium components. The health of these people is carefully monitored; there appear to be no adverse effects to living in close proximity to plutonium.

Even Pu-240, the bothersome neutron-emitter, has a half-life of 6,563 years. (For comparison, the bad stuff, like strontium-90, has a half-life of 29 years.) Plutonium weapon components are warm to the touch because of this very slow Pu-240 decay, and this disintegration does offer some opportunity to look for plutonium-based terrorist devices inside containers, but it is tough challenge. Author’s note: Some of these finer points on radioactivity will be corrected in the next edition.

Pages 50-51 include a description of how an H-bomb works. Bomb designers from Los Alamos to Sarov will be entertained, but no harm done. As you point out, it is all highly classified.

Page 54, third paragraph: You again describe the scattering of “radioactive plutonium” across the Spanish countryside. This is my main problem with your book. Plutonium is not radioactive in the health-hazard sense; it can be carcinogenic if absorbed into the body. That is why weapon accidents must be followed by massive clean-ups. The very marginal radioactivity of plutonium makes it findable, but the alpha decay only does harm if the metal is inhaled or ingested.

Author’s note: I don’t agree that plutonium is not radioactive in the health-hazard sense. I took care in the book to explain how, exactly, plutonium can be dangerous. (I consulted closely with a health physicist during my research and had him review the sections on plutonium to make sure I was on the mark.) Plutonium dust can be deadly if inhaled, and I do contend that the initial situation in Palomares was VERY dangerous – the winds created a large cloud of plutonium dust that luckily blew away from the town. The re-suspension of contaminated dust in recent years has been a major concern for government scientists.

Page 147, end of third paragraph: You imply that permissive action links (PALs) were installed in American nuclear weapons as a result of Palomares. In fact, U.S. nuclear authorities began to pay serious attention to this problem once B-47s began to crash and burn in 1958.

Harold Agnew, later to become director of Los Alamos, “invented” PALS in 1960. On February 15, 1962, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy warned President Kennedy about the “fictional nuclear weapons custody system now in use.” On June 6, 1962, Kennedy signed National Security Action Memorandum 160, which directed the development and installation of PALs within American nuclear weapons. The Palomares events four years later only confirmed the wisdom of that decision. (See Nuclear Express, Chapter 9, “Struggling with the Barn Door,” for details.)

Author’s note: I agree with Reed about the history of PALS, but the book does not imply that they were installed as a result of Palomares. Rather, I explain that several other nuclear mishaps led to Kennedy’s concern.

Page 148, end of the second complete paragraph: you note that “some” boasted that Palomares demonstrated how safe American nuclear weapons were. In fact, that was the universal view within the nuclear community. The weapons fell to earth; the Spanish farmers gave them a kick; no nuclear yield; nothing could have happened.

Page 207, Epilogue, last paragraph: You correctly point out that Palomares and Thule inspired Los Alamos to develop insensitive high explosives (IHE) for the next generation of nuclear weapons, but that was not a straightforward process. IHE is bulkier and less energy-rich than conventional high explosives. In missile warheads, where weight and diameter are constrained, it took a lot of time and effort to get TATB into the next generation of those weapons.

Received from Tony Richardson, May 5, 2009, via e-mail
Hi Barbara—

I am still reading your wonderful book and find it exciting and highly accurate from my recollection of events.

I did note one thing, however, that did not correspond to my notes and may be questioned by your more statistically oriented readers. You state that prior to the day the bomb was found, the SEP in search cell C-4 was 98%. The report I prepared after the operation states specifically that it was between 35% and 50%. If it had been as high as 98% I probably would have argued against putting more search into C-4 (if I had been asked). With the actually SEPs as stated in my report, I would have concurred with the idea.

Author’s note: The “98%” statistic comes from my interview with Brad Mooney on March 30, 2007, but I defer to Richardson’s records. The mistake will be corrected in the next edition.

Author’s note: This error will be corrected in the next edition.