The Nth Country Experiment?

In 1964, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory conducted a top-secret experiment with enormous global ramifications. The project remained classified until 2003 when heavily-excised documents were finally released to the public. What was the Nth Country Experiment?

The Chaos Book Club

Today is Day 16 of the Chaos book club. Chaos is an adventure thriller along the lines of Indiana Jones or books written by Clive Cussler, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, or Steve Berry. Thanks to those of you who’ve bought the novel already. If you haven’t already done so, please consider picking up a copy at one of the following locations:

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The Nth Country Experiment?

In May 1964, the Livermore Radiation Laboratory offered a special assignment to a man named Bob Selden. It was the culmination of a strange couple of days that began when Selden – who held a PhD in physics – was interviewed by Edward Teller, the “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb.” Teller grilled him on the physics of making nuclear weapons, a topic of which Selden knew little.

The assignment? Selden was tasked with developing a working nuclear weapon design using nothing more than publicly-available information.

“The goal of the participants should be to design an explosive with a militarily significant yield. A working context for the experiment might be that the participants have been asked to design a nuclear explosive which, if built in small numbers, would give a small nation a significant effect on their foreign relations.” ~ Summary Report of the Nth Country Experiment

At that time, only four countries knew how to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. was the 1st country to achieve this feat, the USSR was the 2nd, the UK was the 3rd, and France was the 4th. That begged the question: How difficult would it be for the “Nth country” to follow suit?

Could the “Nth Country” develop Nuclear Weapons?

Selden was brought into the already-existing project to replace David Pipkorn. He joined Dave Dobson and the two men got to work. According to a 2003 article on the subject from the Guardian, it was an uphill battle from the start:

“Dobson’s knowledge of nuclear bombs was rudimentary, to say the least. ‘I just had the idea that [to make a bomb] you had to quickly put a bunch of fissile material together somehow,’ he recalls.” ~ Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

Two and a half years later, in late 1966, Dobson and Selden ceased work. They’d developed a design for an implosion-style atomic bomb, similar to the one dropped on Nagasaki. Interestingly enough, much of the information they’d used came as a result of Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, which “propelled a huge amount of technical detail into the public domain.”

“We produced a short document that described precisely, in engineering terms, what we proposed to build and what materials were involved. The whole works, in great detail, so that this thing could have been made by Joe’s Machine Shop downtown.” ~ Bob Selden

For two weeks, the two men heard nothing about the success of the Nth Country Experiment. Instead, they were sent to defense and scientific agencies to give lectures on their results. But eventually, they learned that they’d succeeded in creating a credible design for an atomic bomb.

The Nth Country Experiment’s Influence on Chaos?

The Nth Country project officially ended on April 10, 1967. Prior to the Nth Country Experiment, “there were two schools of thought [in regard to nuclear weapons] – that the ideas could be kept secret, and that the material could be locked up.” But Dobson and Selden proved that the ideas were easily accessible to any country that employed reasonably intelligent physicists. Thus, nuclear proliferation efforts became focused on keeping the materials, namely uranium and plutonium, under tight wraps.

I love history and bits and pieces of it are scattered throughout the plot of Chaos. This is the case for the Nth Country Experiment. While it doesn’t play a gigantic role, its implications are daunting…(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

Chase ignored me. “Theoretically, it’s not difficult to build a nuclear weapon. The U.S. Army proved that in 1964. They secretly hired two physics professors to design an atomic bomb using only public information. In just two years, those professors had developed the blueprints for a Hiroshima-sized weapon that could be built in a normal machine shop.”

His eyes tensed. Then, his hand reached to his collar and scratched his neck. I caught a glimpse of a large ugly welt underneath his shirt’s fine fabric.

“Just blueprints?” I asked.

“Even with a working design, an atomic bomb was out of their reach. They lacked the appropriate fissionable materials. Specifically, Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239. That’s the secret of non-proliferation efforts. While the knowledge to build a bomb is available, the materials are nearly impossible to procure. Red Mercury will change that.”

“And in the process, put nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.” I shook my head. “Are you crazy?” ~ David Meyer, Chaos

Chaos by David MeyerMoments afterward, all hell breaks loose as Cy launches a daring counterattack. If you want to know what happens next, treat yourself to a copy of Chaos today.

That’s all for now. Tomorrow, we’re going to examine one of the most explosive controversies in history. Were the atomic bombs dropped on Japan really necessary? Or was their an ulterior motive behind their deployment? Stop by tomorrow to weigh in on the debate…I hope to see you then!


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