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back to article Duff UK nukes risk 'popcorn' multi-blast accident apocalypse

Last week many Britons were amazed to read in the quality press that the UK's nuclear weapons are thought to have a "design fault" which could see a transport accident detonating multiple warheads in a devastating chain reaction apparently known as "popcorning". "More than 1,700 warheads are affected by the problem which would …

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no way to know

Given that it's over 40 years since any major power has tested a nuclear SYSTEM (i.e. put a bomb on a missile, fired it, got to the target and have it detonate) it's not unreasonable to say that none of the nuclear weapons we have today have ever been fully tested. Letting one off in an underground facility doesn't simulate the rigours of launch/space-travel, so there's no way to know if the device would work - or detonate, or fail due to adverse conditions whilst in flight.

Even worse is that with the passing of time, all the engineers and designers who gained experience from the "live" tests are now either dead or retired. The people working on nukes today learned their trade second-hand from the people who actually blew things up. If they're new to the industry, their knowledge and experience is probably third-hand.

While you can run some intensive computer programs to simulate the explosion and even the aging process inside a device, you're limited to simulating things you know about and can test in the real world. Will a nuclear device detonate if someone hit it in many places simultaneously? We'll never know, but I personally don't ever want to give one a kick, to find out.

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Coat

So it's a long shot then.....

..... But as anyone who reads Terry Pratchett will know, a Million to 1 chance will come off 99 times out of a hundred!

We're doomed!

The lead lined one with the tinfoil hat please.

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Coat

"Nuclear technology equals little children dying in agony."

Whereas with coal mines they just got blacklung and died by 15. If they weren't caught in a pit collapse.

Coal mines and fossil fuel combustion technologies in general have killed more people in the last 100 years than Nuclear power has. Hell, the sun, wind and rain- all those lovely friendly smiling renewables loved so much by anti-nuke campaigners- have killed more in the last 100 years than Nuclear power. This is mainly evidenced by the fact that we can name the different nuclear accidents (chernobyl [incidentally, human error caused this rather than design flaws], 3-mile-island [human error + design flaws], Nagasaki, Hiroshima) but cant' remember where was flooded- it's a frequent occurance so no-one cares.

What people don't realise is that anything suitably energetic to power our civilization is incredibly dangerous.

Also, nuclear technology rocks and is still futuristic- even after 50 years. Its derived weapons have been used in war twice rather than at 600 rounds per minute somewhere around the world pretty much 24/7.

Oh, and to get back on-topic, Popcorn nuclear detonations are unlikely, so don't worry about them.

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Anonymous Coward

Shock! Horror! Probe!

Nuclear weapons are dangerous?! Well blow me down and vapourise me.

What will journalists find out next?

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Stop

Design fault? Yes.

"It isn't that the current ones are thought likely to go off in such a scenario; it's just that you can't prove they won't, as this wasn't part of the design spec.

Not really a design fault as such, then."

No, hang on. If it *was* designed to withstand multiple impacts and it *didn't*, that would not be a design flaw, it would be a total f*** up.

If it wasn't designed to withstand multiple strikes, that's a design flaw. It SHOULD have been designed that way. That's like saying vulnerabilities in Windows aren't design flaws because Windows wasn't designed to be secure. It should have been; ergo design flaw.

Monsieur Sarkozy, can we borrow a pacific atoll to test one of our warheads please?

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Sorry, but...

... I think you'll find that smoking fags is the most evil thing you can ever do.

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Anonymous Coward

I already stopped.

Is it me, or have pretty much all papers resorted to blog style overtly inflamatory stories of late?

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Flame

yes Lewis

But as I will be staying this summer in a flat that lost all it's windows to a accidental munitions explosion I would have to say why risk it with a nuke?

It's not like I will ever benefit from these devices after all it doesn't actually bother me which bunch of ass hats I pay my taxes to.

Would you really notice if you lived in a dictatorship?

The only person I know who's tried it can't see much difference.

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Paris Hilton

And I thought that video games were the greater danger...

... and it turns out that nuclear weapons are actually more dangerous. Who'd have thought it?

Paris: because a nuclear blast is 'hot'.

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Unhappy

Re: summer news drought

gov.uk have spent the last year making statements that would have had "August" written all over them in my youth. (I think the best recent one was "let's meet our energy requirements in an environmentally sound fashion by chopping down every tree in the land".)

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Duff headline, more like it!

"Duff UK nukes risk 'popcorn' multi-blast accident apocalypse"

Is this one of the worst headlines ever in journalism?! Quite possibly. Sort it out, please.

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Coat

Popcorn

More worrying is the propellant used, it's not that forgiving of being bashed around. A missile was dropped from a crane at Faslane sub base on the Clyde a few years back. If it had gone off, it would have likely spread the fissile core across much of Glasgow and surrounding towns due to prevailing winds. Not good.

Incidentally, Faslane's emergency protocols for such an event extend as far as the perimiter fence, which is very reassuring for the rest of West Scotland.

Mine's the one with lead lining

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Coat

Other great article, but...

So "popcorn warhead design fault will lead to innocent kids dying in agony" can probably be filed in the same place you'd file "terror threat means all civil liberties must be suspended"

It that the likelihood then mines the CRB suit with the lead lined codpiece

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Anonymous Coward

JSP 538

At a shelf worrying 552 pages long JSP 538 may well be dull but makes a fantastic door stop and pest control weapon.

For further JSP related fun try "JSP 536 - Ethical Conduct and Scrutiny in MoD Research Involving Human Participants"; "JSP 320 - Permitted uses of Farm Animals" and "JSP 813 - Instructions for Service Bands and Military Musicians: The policy for all MoD bands and for the provision of musical support to the Services." A wealth of highly tenuous scary stories can be generate by a wilfull misreading of any of these, secure in the knowledge that no one (apart from Mr. Page) will try to wade through them to discover the mundane truth.

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Joke

A Prize for the best idea...*

"Popcorning requires many implausible events to happen in sequence...."

So if you think hard and create a near-impossible scenario, you can imagine people dying half a mile away from an accident with a nuclear bomb? Fine.

I suggest that Reg readers start thinking about possible but implausible scenarios with tree-hugging institutions like bird reserves where the same numbers might die. For instance, boatloads of glacier-watchers could output so much diesel smoke that the snow around them melts and swamps their boat... (Oh, I forgot - that's already happening..)

*prize offer invalid for persons living on planet Earth...

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Stop

Hmmm popcorn

Now who's going to supply the salt/sugar for all that popcorn then?

And who the f*#k has a screen big enough to need a nuclear 'accident' to create enough popcorn for the viewing.

That being said, it might be enough to watch the lord of the rings trilogy in full. whilst only dying of boredom rather than hunger (is popcorn good enough substinance?)!

But then I read the story and found it had nothing to do with cinema style food, more like hollywood style plots.

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Anonymous Coward

Implausible = flying an airliner into a New York building

Well, we were told it was implausible. Till it happened. Twice.

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Anonymous Coward

@steve dixon

You must be new here. </slashdot>

Personally, I think it was a great headline. I remember thinking that the New Scientist article seemed a little bit FUDdy.

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Fatal radiation exposure?

For people within 1 km of the epicentre of a nuclear munitions dump going critical?

I think these people will have other things to worry about - such as being pulverised by overpressure, burned to cinders, shredded by flying glass and buried under tons of rabble. A gamma ray overdose will not really matter much by that stage.

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quality press

In the UK?

That was a joke, wasn't it?

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Anonymous Coward

@Pete

If you really can provide a powerful enough kick to compress a plutonium core enough to trigger a nuclear explosion then I certainly wouldnt want to meet you!

Note the article at no point mentions a nuclear blast - this is describing a situation that triggers part of the conventional trigger and subsequently dispersing bits of core and tritium over the surrounding area. Of course, a lot of the warhead is made of u-238 and is not radioactive.

Note that even in the 'worst case' they dont suggest a fizzle or low yeild explosion.

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Boffin

They're tougher than you think

The world has a long and glorious history of 'broken arrow' incidents.

The Americans have blown up, dropped, burnt and just plain lost a variety of nukes. To this day there is one sitting in the shallows off the East Coast of the US (oops, now just where exactly did I drop that nuke??)

The design of them is inherently safe from accidental full detonation. You need to arm them with a mighty complex process that isn't fully completed until it's been dropped from the aircraft or even moments before intended detonation. Even if the initiating explosives go off in a fire you won't get a lot of nuclear energy released - mostly bits of plutonium spattered around the site.

What is of more interest is what happens when you fly a nuke in just after another one has gone off properly. There is a huge amount of radiation and spare neutrons floating around that can prematurely trigger (fizzle) the following warhead if it's the wrong design. For this reason alone, the designs are made so that quite severe nearby nuclear events are highly unlikely to ignite a fully armed and ready to go warhead. This makes unarmed warheads pretty safe indeed.

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Black Helicopters

No wonder

all kind of jabber around the nuclear threat helps pushing the right-wing go-get-those-mullahs agenda

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Coat

@Implausible = flying an airliner into a New York building

Meh, it doesn't rly count when it's a conspiracy by the gov :P

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Am I the only one....

that thinks that it it wont make much difference whether 1 nuke goes off or 3+ for this popcorning to happen (if it can) i am guessing that the nukes would have to be pretty close to each other so the over all result wont be that much different...

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Bottom line, we don't need them

These weapons have no use in the British military arsenal; given that we cannot even complete manufacture without components from the States they aren't even properly British!

It's a complete waste of money renewing them; our submarine "fleet" would be more effective as a deterrent with weapons we would actually deploy like conventional warheads. If South Africa can give up their nukes in an arguably much more unstable part of the world then we certainly can!

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Bloody dangerous stuff, popcorn

Broke a tooth on some at the cinema last week. Damn right it should be banned.

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Unhappy

To paraphrase "Broken Arrow"

I don't know what's scarier, popcorning nuclear accidents, or that it happens so often there's actually a term for it

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Paris Hilton

1,700 warheads?

Where does the Telegraph pick that figure from?

We have fewer than 200 - the usual number quoted is about 170. Even at the height of the Cold War we never had more than 350.

Bad typo, methinks.

(Paris, because even she can tell the difference between 1,700 and 170, especially when it's the price of a frock.)

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Alert

Extreme Po[pco]rn

Can't we just amend the new law on Extreme Porn and ban this horrifying threat to out precious bodily fluids?

(New Scientist seems to be setting a new record here, even worse than when Farmers' Weekly reported on Chernobyl.)

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IT Angle

Small point...

Do ANY of you have any idea just how tricky it is to make a fission (never mind fusion) bomb actually go BANG? As opposed to just 'fssstttt'?

Trust me on this. It ain't easy. Indeed, if it were, there's quite enough unaccounted for bomb grade fissile material kicking about out there that we'd have heard just how easy it is - literally.

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Coat

Does it matter?

Surely in the astonishingly unlikely event of a popcorning event with a selection of warheads, the most likely outcome is that one or more of them will go BANG properly.

Thus neatly rendering any issues with the others irrelevant and determining whether popcorning was the cause impossible.

Arses covered? Check. Next risk please.

Right. Who vapourised my coat?

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Coat

Straw Man

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html

Spreading FUD from such implausible extrapolation is just a variant of the Straw Man approach. More usually they conclude with a "think of the children", so nice to see a variation.

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No popcorn?

Ceilidhman: "A missile was dropped from a crane at Faslane sub base on the Clyde a few years back. If it had gone off, it would have likely spread the fissile core across much of Glasgow and surrounding towns due to prevailing winds"

...um, doesn't the fact that it didn't pop off demonstrate that they are safe? Sounds like a single impact event to me..

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Thumb Down

So...

...it wasn't news then? Just propaganda?

ElReg: Can we have a hammer and sickle icon please? For propaganda dressed up as 'news'.

Thanks

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Anonymous Coward

@Calvin Davidson

>... I think you'll find that smoking fags is the most evil thing you can ever do.

Well, it is pretty cruel, but I didn't think we were allowed to call them fags anymore?

>Implausible = flying an airliner into a New York building

>Well, we were told it was implausible. Till it happened. Twice.

When were we told that? Tall buildings have been an aircraft risk since aircraft first started flying. It's why they have flashing lights all over them.

On the whole though, the nukes are useless and expensive, we should ditch them.

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Coat

Re: So it's a long shot then.....

I think you'll find it's 9 times out of 10 (but it might just work....)

Mines the black leather one with "PEDANTIC" sewn on the back in shiny studs....

(another Pratchett reference)

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Next Rockstar title

Grant theft nuclear paedo terrorist. Can't wait!

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Coat

Nuclear technology equals little children dying in agony

And it could cause the mutation of the general public into a zombie army of pedo-terrorists!

Think of the children people!

Coat > Mines the one with the chainsaw and boomstick

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Testing.

The danger the article seems to be concerned with is that the triggering machanism is accidently set off.

No amount of bumping and banging will ever upset tritrium, uranium 235 etc.

The hydrogen isotopes need to be saturated with gamma rays to set of the fusion reaction. The only practical way to acheive this is a conventional nuclear explosion (either classic WW II uranium 235 or the more rock n' roll fifities plutionium isotopes).

So the mechanical triggering mechansim is the one to set of the conventional nuclear explosion. This involves putting lots of the stuff together to acheive critical mass very very quickly -- do this too slowly and you just get lots of heat and radation but no bang.

There are lots of ways to acheive this but they all involve using chemical explosives (usually WW I vintage cordite) to move the lumps of isotope together withing the required timescales.

So the only thing that could be set off by bumping and banging is the conventional explosive trigger. This mechanism can quite easily be tested to destruction by replacing the lumps of isotope with lumps of lead and putting it through various stress test (hitting it with punic war vintage rocks for example).

Historicly nuclear weapons have an excellent saftey record and only killed the people they were pointed at.

Now dont get me wrong I have always objected to nuclear weapons. But purly a matter of principle -- its wrong to kill civilians and infately more worng to do it en mass.

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@Adam Foxton

"name the different nuclear accidents (chernobyl [incidentally, human error caused this rather than design flaws], 3-mile-island [human error + design flaws], Nagasaki, Hiroshima)"

sorry to be a pedent but Nagasaki and Hiroshima where delibrate not acdients

and you missed winscale/selifeild where the graphate at the core or the recator caught fire in one of tehre tests

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Coat

From experience...

From my experience, it is always the thing that seems least likely, and the most remote of possibilities, that always happens.

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RE: Implausible = flying an airliner into a New York building

How was that implausible? Granted, not something most people would think about when talking terrorism -- but once the idea has been proposed it doesn't seem implausible (yes, I know there's hindsight involved here, but hijacking and suicide bombing in vehicles have been used for decades).

I used to read Pravda ^H^H^H^H^H^H New Scientist back when it was about science, such a shame it's turned into Political Hype weekly.

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Boffin

New Scientist...

...that'll be the type with a media degree then. aka: scientist mediocre.

Dear HR department, a scientologist is NOT a geologist/phycisist/chemist/otherist that specialises in science!

Seriously though where have all or scientists actually gone? and can I come too? theres just loonies left here....

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Bronze badge

Counterfactual testing?

It's hard to know what to make of this story, even though sublining in D.Tel is usually clear enough to decipher.

Is it a mish-mash pot-boiler alluding to the Elitzur-Vaidman bomb-tester (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elitzur-Vaidman_bomb-tester), a cover story for the re-working of Trident warheads into bunker-busters (arguably in contravention of arms limitation treaties to which the UK is committed), or part of a softening-up exercise for nuclear waste storage proposals which neglect the more effective denaturing that fourth generation reactors could afford?

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Heart

*Sigh* It's not nuclear...

...it's neucular. Neu-cu-lar.

Excellent stuff. Always looking forward to your next article Mr. Page. Without exception they are engaging, educational and hysterio-bullshit-free. Hats off to you sir.

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What am I missing here?

The warheads used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were measured in kilotons. They devastated whole cities. The warheads we have today are measured in megatons. There is no missile shielding in the world that will not melt if standing 10 feet away from a megaton warhead going off. Of course they'll "popcorn" in that scenario. Who cares? One warhead going off at location A, ten going off at location A ... everyone's going to die anyway.

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Alert

@What am I missing here?

The difference between going Critical and going SuperCritical!

but hey science hand carts and hell.. who cares.

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Boffin

@Eddie Edwards

Nuclear Reactors dont detonate like a bomb they blow apart like Chernobyl. This is the difference between going critical (chernobyl) and going supercritical (a-bomb) basically you have to contain the mass more and hold it together well beyond its critical mass, if its not held together it burts apart.

Bombs do this very fast with very carefully balanced explosives, in a massivly controlled manner any other mechanism of joining the material together (eg nearby explosion) wont be in perfect balance and will cause criticallity and nuclear predetonation (aka fizzle) causing it to burst apart but not detonate this causes lots of radiation as stated 1km = 16xDeadly but not a very big blast.

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Flame

What are you missing here?

You're missing your brain and associated thought processes, if any.

A nuclear weapon is NOT an explosive. It's a machine, built to create the conditions which prevail in the Sun (for a short time!). If you hit or burn most machines, they do not start to operate, they break. So would a nuclear bomb.

Explosives are used to move parts of this machine, in a similar way to large springs. These might explode if you hit the machine hard, but that's not a nuclear explosion. That would be the same as some springs in a clock jumping out if you hit it with a hammer or put it on a bonfire. But, like the clock, that doesn't mean the machine is operating, it means it's disintegrating....

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