A recent Washington Post article reports about a challenge that Sen. Joe Biden put to scientists from the government’s nuclear laboratories back in 2002: Could they build a nuclear weapon from parts legally available on the open market?

Biden was trying to figure out how tough it would be for terrorists to make a nuke. A few months later, the scientists “returned to the soundproof Senate meeting room with a workable nuclear weapon, missing only the fissile material” such as uranium or plutonium. The Delaware Democrat described the weapon as “bigger than a breadbox and smaller than a dump truck.” As it turns out, designing a nuclear weapon isn’t that much harder than getting the parts for one. As I wrote in Next News last September, a secret U.S. government program from the 1960s called the “Nth Country Experiment”—meant to gauge how hard it would be for a nonnuclear country to design a nuclear bomb—showed that a couple of physicists without any specific bomb-making expertise or access to secret information could probably do it in less than three years. As one of the scientists from that program, Robert Selden, told me, “We were surprised about the amount of information that was available, including the number of articles that purported to describe how to design a bomb.” Given the ease of the design and manufacturing, Selden thought it was pretty fortunate that terrorists apparently haven’t yet put a bomb together.



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