Chemical Compound That Revolutionized Hydrogen Bomb Makes It Possible

By WILLIAM L. LAURENCE. (New York Times, April 7, 1954).

The new chemical compound that has revolutionized the production of the hydrogen bomb now makes it certain that the most dreaded weapon of allthe cobalt bombalso can be successfully built.

The cobalt bomb is a hydrogen bomb of the type tested successfully at the Eniwetok Proving Grounds in the Pacific March 1
and 26. The principal difference is in the material of the shell surrounding the active ingredients.

Instead of a shell of steel, which becomes only mildly radioactive as it turns into a cloud of vapor, a shell of cobalt encases
the fission and fusion substances. On being vaporized in the explosion, it is transformed into a deadly radioactive cloud 320 times more powerful than radium.

This cloud can travel with the prevailing winds over distances of thousands of miles, destroying all life in its path. The bomb could be exploded from a ship in the Pacific, for example, hundreds, even thousands of miles from the coast and the cloud would travel with the winds toward the United States West Coast and the rest of the North American Continent.

It Cannot Be Tested

It is this type of hydrogen bomb of which Albert Einstein said: "If successful, radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere, and hence annihilation of any life on earth will have been brought with in the range of technical possibilities."

At the time Professor Einstein spokeearly in 1950the cobalt bomb was merely a theoretical possibility, as was the hydrogen
bomb. The successful tests at Eniwetok in March have thus brought Professor Einstein's prophecy into the realm
of fact.

It is, of course, obvious from the nature of the weapon that it can never be tested in the Pacific, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. But the successful tests at Eniwetok also make it obvious that no such tests are necessary.

Such tests, in fact, have already been made on a small laboratory scale. These have proved that when cobalt is bombarded with neutrons, it is transformed into a deadly radioactive element, giving off tremendously powerful gamma rays, that is, powerful radiations similar to X-rays, 320 times more powerful than the gamma rays given off by radium.

It had therefore been known for some time that if a hydrogen bomb could be successfully built and tested, all that would be necessary would be to substitute a shell of cobalt for the conventional steel shell of the weapon.

Thus, the successful tests March 1 and 26 of the latest model hydrogen bombs"tremendous blast in the megaton range"also may be said to have been successful tests of the cobalt bomb in the megaton range. A megaton is equal to a million tons of TNT.

The hydrogen bomb, as it explodes produces enormous quantities of neutrons in two ways. It is first triggered by a powerful fission bomb of the latest design, which is in itself equal to 500,000 tons of TNT. The fission process releases great quantities of neutrons.

The fission process also produces tremendous temperatures, of the order of several hundred million degrees Centigrade. This temperature produces fusion of nuclei of heavy hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, which, in turn, yield much greater quantities of

Whereas the fission process yields only 1 per cent of the weight of the fissionable elementsUranium 235 or plutoniumin free neutrons, the fusing of the nuclei of deuterium and tritium (the D-T reaction yields as much as 20 per cent of the total weight of the two hydrogen variants (isotopes) as neutrons). The fusing of the nuclei of 600 grams of tritium with the nuclei of 400 grams of deuterium, that is, one kilogram or 2.2 pounds, would thus yield 200 grams of free neutrons.

Possible in Large Size

This rather small amount of neutrons would create an amount of deadly radioactive cobalt, (atomic mass 60) equal to 12,000
grams. This is equal in its radioactivity to the tremendous quantity of 8,448 pounds of radium.

Because the cobalt bomb could be exploded from an unmanned barge in the middle of the ocean it could be made any weigh
desired. It could, for example, in addition to its normal fission and fusion constituents, incorporate as much as a ton of

Such a monster would yield as much as 250 pounds of free neutrons. These would produce 7.5 tons of radioactive cobalt, equal to nearly 5,000,000 pounds of radium.

What has made this monster at last possible is the new chemical compound lithium 6 deuteride, composed of the light isotope of lithium of atomic mass six (three protons and three neutrons) and the heavy isotope of hydrogen, that is, deuterium of atomic mass two (one proton and one neutron).

It is this revolutionary substance that has made it possible to design a hydrogen bombas well as a cobalt bombthat
produces its own tritium as it explodes. It has also made it possible to eliminate the requirement to liquefy the hydrogen elements, as the deuterium in the compound is in solid form, and the tritium is produced out of the lithium six in the time interval,
measured in microseconds, before the assembly explodes.

Another "Cobalt Bomb"

Ironically, there is another type of "cobalt bomb" being used as a substitute for radium in the treatment of cancer. This
"cobalt bomb" consists of a small quantity of cobalt exposed to neutrons in a nuclear reactor.

A cobalt bomb, incorporating a ton of deuterium, according to Prof. Harrison Brown, nuclear chemist at the California Institute of Technology, could be set on a north-south line in the Pacific about a thousand miles west of California. "The radioactive dust," he said, "would reach California in about a day, and New York in four or five days, killing most life as it traverses the continent."

"Similarly," he added, "the Western powers could explode hydrogen cobalt bombs on a north south line about the longitude of Prague that would destroy all life within a strip 1,500 miles wide, extending from Leningrad to Odessa, and 3,000 miles deep, from Prague to the Ural Mountains. Such an attack would produce a 'scorched earth' unprecedented in history."

Prof. Leo Szilard, of' the University of Chicago, one of the principal architects of the atomic bomb, has estimated that 400 one-ton deuterium-cobalt bombs would release enough radioactivity to extinguish all life on earth.

Radioactive cobalt has a "half­life" of five years, decaying in that period at the rate of 50 per cent. In other words, a quantity of radioactive cobalt equal to100 pounds of radium today will equal fifty pounds in 1959, twenty-five pounds in 1964, etc.

In talking about the cobalt bomb, nuclear scientists quote an entry in The Journal of the Goncourt Brothers of April 7, 1869, exactly eighty-five years ago today.

The entry describes a conversation between leading scientists of the day, in which they predicted that in a hundred years "man would know of what the atom is constituted" and "would be able to create life (synthetically) in competition with God."

"We have the feeling," the Goncourt Journal states, "that when this time comes to science, God with His white beard will
come down to earth swinging a bunch of keys, and will say to humanity, the way they say at 5 o'clock at the saloon: 'Closing time, gentlemen!'."


New York Times. April 7, 1954.

Copyright © 2022 by Patrick Scrivener

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