We tend to think that because something is complex, it requires specialized knowledge only attainable through a select few gatekeepers. A nuclear bomb seems to fall under this model, as it has a destructive force that is literally unimaginable. A nuclear weapon feels like it is so far beyond our comprehension, that the only humans capable of assembling one are highly sought-after scientists. This is exemplified in cases like Iran, where their nuclear scientists keep mysteriously dying. The process of obtaining and weaponizing nuclear material is highly complex, and requires a specialized knowledge of the inner workings of the fabric of the universe, but the rest of the bomb is actually quite simple to assemble.
Despite nuclear weapons being one of the most top-secret government programs on Earth, John Coster-Mullen proved that there is enough information publicly available to reconstruct a duplicate of the nuclear weapons we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Per this incredible NPR story about a truck driver assembling his own nuke:
To make his models, he drove 1,300 miles to Los Alamos, N.M., the birthplace of the atomic bombs. The museum there has accurate, full-scale replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man that he could work from. As he designed his models, he decided he’d write a brochure to go with them.
“The brochure turned into a 431-page book,” he says.
Coster-Mullen never sold a single model, but he has been adding to his bomb brochure ever since, building up what are basically complete specs for America’s first nuclear weapons. He has traveled the country, and the world, to glean all sorts of supposedly secret details.
“Nobody leaked anything to me,” he says. “I found all this information was hiding in plain sight.”
Coster-Mullen began this journey by vowing to build a replica of Little Boy on its 50th anniversary—the nuclear bomb America dropped on Nagasaki. When NPR approached experts on the topic, many refused to comment on the record, but those who did were astounded by Coster-Mullen’s work.
Alex Wellerstein, a historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology who specializes in nuclear weapons, says Coster-Mullen’s work is the “gold standard.” “His view of how the bombs worked is the most compelling I’ve seen,” Wellerstein wrote in an email.
So next time you say that we must bomb North Korea to stop them from obtaining a nuclear bomb, take heed of the lesson John Coster-Mullen taught us. If a truck driver can build every portion of a nuclear weapon save for the nuclear fuel, then how are we going to militarily stop a nation-state from developing one? Nuclear fuel is obtainable on the black market, as the collapse of the Soviet Union has provided a litany of opportunities for scavengers to strike metaphorical gold—so if anyone can devote a significant time to studying these things, piece a nuke together, then purchase the fuel off the black market, what hope do we have of bombing an entire country into not building one? Diplomacy is and always has been our only real option when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
For more on Coster-Mullen, read this 2008 New Yorker piece detailing his mission.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.