To tell the truthThere are two types of nuclear bombs: plutonium and uranium. Plutonium nuclear bombs inevitably emit radioactive vapor when they’re being created, so it’s hard to build these bombs in secret.
The uranium nuclear bomb, however, is easier to keep under wraps. Even so, there are still many obstacles in producing this kind of nuclear weapon.
Most difficult is finding enough of the radioactive uranium isotope U-235. The uranium in a nuclear bomb must be 90 percent U-235. But only 0.7 percent of all the uranium found in nature is U-235. The vast majority of the naturally occurring uranium on earth is the U-238 isotope.
Thus, in order to create nuclear bombs, nuclear engineers must use a centrifuge. A centrifuge is a device that spins its contents rapidly. When an engineer puts uranium into the centrifuge, the heavier U-238 uranium will move toward the walls of the centrifuge, while the lighter U-235 will gather in the center.
Using a centrifuge sounds deceptively simple. To make dozens of kilograms of condensed uranium, a processing facility must use dozens of thousands of centrifuges. It’s pretty hard to keep a huge factory housing thousands of centrifuges a secret.
Not long ago, a German tried to export aluminum pipes into North Korea. His actions raised suspicion because aluminum pipes are a key part of a centrifuge. Thus, he was detained.
But to his credit, this German man did try to be a bit sneaky. He tried to send the pipe through a North Korean trading company, which was listed under a Beijing address.
The company’s CEO was a former North Korean diplomat who had once worked in Vienna, Austria, where the International Atomic Energy Agency is headquartered.
While security officials stopped this incident, the United States still assumes that North Korea has already purchased a great number of aluminum pipes from Russia.
The uranium debate between North Korea and the U.S. has never been hotter. The U.S. has requested North Korea to confess to uranium enrichment “completely and accurately.” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Our patience is touching bottom.” But the North argues that they’re being wrongfully accused of uranium enrichment.
So who’s telling the truth? It’s not like we can put two countries under a lie detector. But the fate of North Korea, the Pyongyang-Washington relationship and the geopolitical future of the Korean Peninsula all rest upon the truth.
The writer is a deputy political editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yeh Young-june [email@example.com]