Foreign Policy Blogs

The Atomic Trucker and Lessons for Proliferation

A funky little site called “Motherboard” recently posted an interview with a guy named John Coster-Mullen. Apparently, Mr. Coster-Mullen, a former truck driver with no college education taught himself how to reverse-engineer the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With jaw-dropping accuracy. So much so that Dr. Robert Norris, the highly regarded nuclear weapons expert at NRDC, lauded his work in a November/December 2004 review of Coster-Mullen’s book on the project titled “Atomic Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man”. Of the self-published book, Norris said that “Atomic Bombs fills an important gap in the literature about the making of the atomic bomb and deserves a prominent place on the shelf of books about the Manhattan Project.” A sheet of testimonials from such nuclear luminaries as Harold Agnew, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Philip Morrison, one of the physicists who helped invent the bomb, is included with the book, all of them laudatory.

In a December 15, 2008 profile of Coster-Muller, reporter David Samuels cataloged his excruciatingly detailed detective work in The New Yorker. His work uses declassified information, photos, and exhibits at the various science museums.  Coster-Muller’s intent was part nuclear history, part “diverting mental challenge”, and part a way to flout the years-long secrecy surrounding the exact makeup of the two weapons.  In the end, Coster-Mullen concluded that the secret of the atomic bomb “is how easy they are to make.” 

Pretty impressive stuff for a guy who never got a college degree.  But the whole enterprise raises a serious question, one alluded to by CNN International, which publicized the Motherboard profile of Coster-Muller’s work: that, while his project is a “neat example of the ingenuity that led America to be the first to develop the atomic bomb”, it is also “a stark reminder that our most powerful technologies can end up being reworked and used in other ways, by people much less friendly than truck drivers with lots of time on their hands.”

Several weeks ago, I posted a piece by Dr. Francis Slakey describing concerns regarding the licensing and commercialization of certain enrichment and reporocessing technologies.  The tipping point, argued Dr. Slakey, was the commercialization of these technologies which clearly demonstrated that those technologies worked.  Such an act instantly makes them covetable by would-be proliferators world-wide.  The solution?  Don’t license them, or at the very least, take a very hard look at their proliferation potential.

Coster-Mullen was able to reverse-engineer two nuclear weapons used on the Japanese nearly 66 years ago using totally unclassified, or formerly classified information.  What, then, would prevent a potential proliferator from doing the same thing with an enrichment plant?  Or a reprocessing plant?  Or some other nuclear technology?  We already know that, where there is a willing buyer, there is a willing seller of nuclear technology (North Korea anyone?)  Nuclear Suppliers Group restrictions be damned.

Some parts of the USG contend that the U.S. should not be precluded from building and operating certain nuclear technologies just because another country or party could misuse them.  These are elements of the USG that also work to prevent proliferation of nuclear technologies and materials.  Sorry, but this simply does not past muster.  Its hypocritical and blindingly arrogant. No wonder other countries question the USG’s commitment to disarmament.  Consistency in our policies would be a nice place to start.

John Coster-Mullen’s work starkly demonstrates that, with single-minded  dilligence, anyone can build a nuclear weapon, even a crude one.  While there is a question about whether or not Coster-Mullen’s creations would actually go “boom” is an important one, I belive that his work can be instructive to the nonproliferation community. /03/30/vbs.atomic.trucker



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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