February 15, 20189:51am
STATE-sponsored experiments at an ion research facility in China have raised questions about the potential they could be used to build a devastating bomb dreamt up during the Cold War but never seen.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences recently announced that scientists had successfully fired superheated beams of a radioactive isotope of tantalum, a rare metal that can be added to warheads with potentially devastating consequences.
The experiment was carried out at the Institute of Modern Physics in Lanzhou in the north of the country, in part to “meet a critical strategic demand of China’s national defence,” researchers said.
Those responsible reportedly confirmed the project had potential military applications but would not elaborate.
At the centre of the physics experiment tantalum. The rare metal is used as a minor component in alloys and electronics but when you learn it’s named after Tantalus, a villain from Greek mythology, you know it must have some potentially nasty uses.
It is part of a group of heavy metals that could theoretically be added to a nuclear warhead to increase the release of radioactive fallout, causing lasting environmental contamination and rendering a large area uninhabitable in the near future.
These bombs can use elements like gold, cobalt or tantalum to produce a radioactive isotope that maximises the fallout hazard from the weapon rather than generating additional explosive force.
The term refers to the way such bombs are manufactured but also takes its name from the phrase “to salt the earth”, meaning to render the soil unable to host life for years to come.
No salted bomb has ever been atmospherically tested, and as far as is publicly known none have ever been built, according to the online Nuclear Weapon Archive.
But some believe the new research by Chinese scientists could be applied to make such a bomb, or at least be used for other military applications such as shooting the tantalum beam at China’s own military equipment to test its durability in extreme events.
This potential prompted Hong Kong newspaper, the South China Morning Post, to hypothesise that China could be “rebooting a nuclear doomsday device”.
It’s highly unlikely that a salted bomb is the end goal of its latest experiment, but two experts told the Post that they believe the experiments could be used for future military applications such as a laser-like device to achieve targeted damage.
Han Dejun, a professor of nuclear science and technology at Beijing Normal University, said of the tantalum accelerator experiment: “The most likely application that I can think of is in nuclear research.
“By generating a powerful beam of tantalum ions we can observe how the metal interacts with other elements and change form in high-speed collisions. It simulates what will happen in a real nuclear reaction.”
Beijing National Space Science Centre associate researcher Cai Minghui said: “In theory, the particle beam of a heavy element such as tantalum can be used as a directed energy weapon.”
Meanwhile a third expert from China’s Arms Control and Disarmament Association said the likelihood the research could lead to the Chinese Communist Party stockpiling salted bombs was “very low”.
“These are highly immoral weapons,” he said.
A COLD WAR CREATION
The idea of a salted bomb was initially proposed by Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard during the Cold War.
The scientist was instrumental in the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Along with Albert Einstein, he helped write a letter to US president Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraging him to begin building the atomic bomb.
The British did test a kind of salted bomb that used cobalt as an experimental radiochemical tracer in September 1957. The device was exploded underground in the Maralinga range in Australia, however the experiment was regarded as a failure and not repeated.
The US also tested a dirty bomb in an open field in 1953. While dirty bombs use conventional explosives rather than nuclear devices, the weapon was loaded with 30kg of the same isotope used in the Chinese test, releasing a lethal dose of gamma rays over the target area, according to a declassified US Defence Technical Information Centre document.
China doesn’t want to fall behind in nuclear technology and research. But given the serious environmental consequences and the threat of the spread of contamination from the detonation of salted bombs, it is highly unlikely it would seek to resurrect such devices.
A NEW NUCLEAR MINDSET
Compared to the United States and Russia, China has a maintained a relatively small nuclear arsenal since its first nuclear test in 1964.
At last count, the Communist Party was estimated to contain just 270 warheads, compared to the 6800 held by the US and Russia’s 7000, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
However the Asian superpower has stepped up the quantity and quality of its nuclear arsenals in recent years.
According to Science and Global Security website, Beijing is estimated to have between 14 and 18 tons of highly enriched uranium and 1.3—2.3 tons of weapon-grade plutonium stockpiled. This enough for anywhere between 750 and 1600 nuclear weapons
In November, China unveiled a next-generation nuclear weapon that is said to be able to strike “anywhere in the world”.
The nuclear warhead, called the Dongfeng-41, will be capable of reaching distances of at least 12,000km — putting the US well into the line of target. With a speed of up to Mach 10 (around 12,000kp/h), it can carry up to 10 nuclear warheads.
The weapon is scheduled to enter China’s arsenal this year.