May 23, 2004
Paranoid Musings II

Let us consider a few apparently unrelated facts:

  1. North Korea is widely assumed to have built several nuclear bombs in the last few years.
  2. Kim Jong Il's regime is so evil and incompetent that it cannot or will not fulfill one of the most basic functions of any government: keeping its people from starving to death by the millions.
  3. The town of Ryongchon was recently the site of a massive explosion that killed (so far as we can tell) thousands of people.
  4. A Dog's Life quotes an Asian source with interesting new information (I've bolded the most significant parts):

Japan's Kyodo News, citing numerous diplomatic sources in Vienna, reported Saturday that the force of April 22's train explosion at the North's Ryonchon Station was about that of an earthquake measuring 3.6 on the Richter scale, which would have required about 800 tons of TNT -- about eight times that officially announced by North Korea.

The sources referred to earthquake figures gotten by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency had previously reported that the destructive power of the blast was that of 100 tons of dynamite, and explained that the accident was caused by "the electrical contact caused by carelessness during the shunting of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and tank wagons".

The CTBTO feels that the cause of the explosion may differ from the North's explanation, and noted the explosion might have been caused by highly-explosive materials like military-use fuel going off. Officials at the CTBTO plan to look into the causes of the accident.

The CTBTO said the explosion at Ryongchon was observed using seismological observation stations in Korea, Japan, the United States and Russia. The stations were built to detect nuclear tests.

Putting all this together, I wonder why no one in the press is asking whether the Ryongchon explosion was some kind of nuclear 'work accident'.* It certainly looks as if the CTBTO may be thinking along those lines. I hope the CIA and the Pentagon have taken steps to check radiation levels downwind, just to make sure. Maybe the UN and the IAEA should check into it, too. They could send Hans Blix . . . Never mind: scratch that last thought. Let's just hope the CTBTO is up to the job.

Perhaps I should say that I consider my hypothesis highly unlikely, and that the Pentagon and CIA have probably already considered and refuted it by checking for fallout. But I'm still flabbergasted that no one in the press is even asking the obvious questions.

Postscript: Yes, I know that 800 tons is less than one kiloton (duh!), which would be on the low side for a nuclear explosion. On the other hand, Russia's 'suitcase nukes' are said to have a yield of one kiloton, just 25% larger than the Ryongchon explosion. They are also said to be capable of killing 100,000 people each, which is a lot more than the 3,000 reported to have died at Ryongchon. However, I imagine the larger figure is a 'worst-case' estimate ('best-case', if you're on the other side) and assumes that the bomb goes off in (e.g.) Times Square on New Year's Eve or a well-packed stadium during a playoff game.

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*Either that, or an unsuccessful assassination attempt by a team willing to kill thousands of innocent bystanders to make success more likely. The media reported at the time that Kim Jong-Il had been in Ryongchon just a few hours before. I imagine he constantly changes his schedule on very short notice like any other paranoid dictator, so it's quite possible that he was supposed to be in town when the train blew up. Maybe I should check Democratic Underground: some of them have probably already concluded that it was a nuclear assassination attempt, that Bush did it, and that the 3,000 dead bystanders were part of the plan.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 23, 2004 08:50 AM

800 tons is on the low side for most nuclear
weapons, in most cases. The possibility that comes to my mind is that it could have been an accidental detonation, where the nuclear fuel was not completely consumed.

Getting a plutonium bomb to explode properly is a complex process; the plutonium core must me saturated with fast neutrons just prior to the implosion wave that compresses the core to critical mass. The implosion must be generated by precisely timed and located explosive charges. If any part of this sequence goes wrong it results in a nuclear dud, which can still be in the range of several hundred tons.

There are similar failure modes for a uranium bomb.

It's easy to imagine a badly designed Nork bomb, with poor quality control, having its implosion charge accidenty detonated due to mishandling or an accident. Of course, as you state, the proof wil be in the fallout. Their should be LOTS of radioactive material sprayed into the atmosphere after a dud, since very little of the plutonium is consumed before the bomb disassembles itself.

See Richard Rhodes' book _The Making of the Atom Bomb_ for a very accesible to non-technical people explanation of the workings and potential mis-workings of nuclear weapons.

Posted by: Man Mountain Molehill on May 23, 2004 06:23 PM

I f you have the sesmic records of an explosion, you can determine with a high degree of accuracy the type of explosion: each type has a fingerprint or set of geologic spectra. The CTBTO would be able to differentiate between a nuclear event and an HE event.
As well, there are reports that one of the trains was carrying missile components bound for Syria, and thus possibly fuel: fuels for a SCUD missile tend to be rather energetic.


Posted by: J.M. Heinrichs on May 23, 2004 06:47 PM

When I posted about this story, I deliberately avoided suggesting that it was nuclear. A ground detonation in a location near the Chinese border would likely have left radiological traces that would be relatively easy to detect. Unless, of course, someone isn't telling us something.

Posted by: Greg Hlatky on May 24, 2004 07:06 AM

If there was any possibility this was a nuke accident, I'd expect to see mass hysteria in the Japanese media already. They're far more paranoid about this than you.

Galveston, Texas was once blown up by a shipload of ammonium nitrate, so it's certainly possible that this really was a fertilizer explosion, except that I find it rather dubious that the Norks have enough fertilizer to have the thousands of tons needed to equal 800 tons of TNT in the switching yard at one time. (Not to mention how incredibly stupid that would be - ships carry thousands of tons so having quite a lot in one place is unavoidable, but with trains it is easy to disperse it.) OTOH, NH3NO3 can also be feedstock for making conventional explosives, gunpowder, and rocket fuel, and I have no doubt that before Kim Jong Il's regime goes down they will spend their last dollar on weapons.

But I don't think it's that easy to detonate NH3NO3. IIRC, that ship in Galveston caught fire and burned for hours before it blew up. Chances are, it was an accident with military explosives that provided the "detonator".

Posted by: markm on May 30, 2004 01:32 PM