The power of nuclear weapons with dr alex wellerstein

Alex Wellerstein Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Stevens Institute of Technology 1 Castle Point on Hudson College of Arts and Letters, P-308 Hoboken, NJ 07030-5991
  • E-mail: [email protected]
  • Download Curricula VitaeLast updated January 2016
  • Employment
  • Education
2004–2010 Harvard University Ph.D., History of Science

  1. Dissertation: Knowledge and the Bomb: Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, 1939-2008.
  2. Advisors: Peter Galison, Sheila Jasanoff, Mario Biagioli, David Kaiser.
  3. History of the modern physical sciences (Peter Galison)

Filed and accepted October 2010. General examination fields. Fall 2006. Science, politics, and STS (Sheila Jasanoff) Modern biology and society (Sarah Jansen) Modern United States history (Ernest May)

1999–2002 University of California, Berkeley B.A., High Honors, History (emphasis in History of Science).Bachelor's thesis: Compulsory Sterilization in California, 1909-1950. Advisor: Richard von Mayrhauser. Spring 2002.Honors thesis: Berkeley and the Bomb: Discourse, Nuclear Weapons, and the University of California. Advisor: Cathryn Carson. Fall 2002.


The Power of Nuclear Weapons with Dr Alex Wellerstein

I am an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the College of Arts and Letters at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. My training was in the history of science and STS.

In the past, I have been an Associate Historian (a postdoctoral position) at the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Managing the Atom Project (MTA) and the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I maintain an affiliation with the MTA program as a Research Associate. I also have a long association with the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at the Harvard Kennedy School.

My general research interests are in the history of nuclear technology, government secrecy, and Cold War science. A more detailed description of my research projects, talks, and publications can be found here.

My dissertation, Knowledge and the bomb: Nuclear secrecy in the United States, 1939-2008, was a history of attempts to control nuclear technology through the control of knowledge. My work looks at the overall dynamics of secrecy policies as they unfolded over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first.

For more information, click the link. I completed my dissertation as of October 2010. My final year of writing and research was assisted by a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Early Career Fellowship Program.

I am currently in the late stages of turning the manuscript into a book, under contract with the University of Chicago Press.

I've been blogging my research at Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog since November 2011. My work there has been featured numerous times in the New York Times, on various NPR shows (On the Media, Radiolab, Morning Edition), the website of The Atlantic Magazine, the BBC, the Japanese television station NHK, and many other venues.

My nuclear effects simulator applications, the NUKEMAP and the (now defunct) NUKEMAP3D have been surprisingly popular and the subject of stories on NPR, TIME magazine's website, Fox News, various international publications and radio shows, and a brief cameo on The Daily Show.

I occasionally write for the Elements Blog on the website of of The New Yorker.

For my work on the patenting policies of the Manhattan Project, I was a guest on NPR in March 2008 (story) and I was interviewed on the PBS show “History Detectives” in June 2009 (video).


At Harvard I was at different times a teaching fellow (section leader), a course coordinator (“head teaching fellow”), and an advisor to four undergraduate senior theses. At MIT I have been a teaching assistant (mostly grading).

I am a three-time recepient of the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard for my work as a teaching fellow. I have given a number of guest undergraduate lectures at Harvard and MIT.

Along with general history of science tutorials, my teaching experience has been in the history of the physical sciences and the history of biology.

In Spring 2011, I was a Lecturer in the History of Science, at Harvard University, teaching an introductory “Tutorial” course for sophomores (covering the “big ideas” in the discipline of science studies), and an entirely new course on “Science in the Cold War.” The syllabi for these courses are posted here. For my work as a Lecturer at Harvard, I received a Harvard University Certificate for Teaching Excellence from the Bok Center.

I taught a course on “Science and the Cold War” in the History Department at Georgetown University in the Spring 2014 semester.

Currently I teach or have taught a number of courses at the Stevens Institute of Technology, including:

  • HST-415: The Nuclear Era: The History, Science, and Politics of Nuclear Technology
  • HST-325: Visualizing Society: The Theory and Practice of Interactive Web-based Visualization of Socially-Relevant Data
  • HST-120: Introduction to Science and Technology Studies
  • HST-370: Biology, Eugenics, and Society: The Nature/Nurture Debate in the United States
  • HST-320: Science and the Media

Other work

I have worked, both inside and outside of the university setting, as a web developer, graphic designer, and database programmer, for well over a decade.

As a graduate student I was a research assistant for a half-dozen professors at three different universities (Harvard, UC Berkeley, and MIT).

For the academic year of 2007-2008, I was the Edward Teller Graduate Fellow in Science and Security Studies for the Office of History and Heritage Resources at the U.S. Department of Energy, working to help develop their historical resources on the web.

I was also a researcher for the documentary film Secrecy by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. I have been for many years associated with the work of the Program on Science, Technology & Society at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Hobbies, etc.

I also have a rather large postcard collection of California state mental hospitals. I started collecting these some time back as part of my work on the history of compulsory sterilization in California in the early-twentieth century.


The Power of Nuclear Weapons with Dr Alex Wellerstein

I am originally from Stockton, California. I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Greater Boston Metro area, and Washington, D.C. I am married to Ellen Bales, who is an upper-school history teacher at an independent school in New York City. Ellen received her Ph.D.

in the History of Science at UC Berkeley in 2009, and has taught at Berkeley, MIT, and Harvard.

Ellen's dissertation work was on the history of risk assessment in the twentieth century, looking at radon as a health threat in the contexts of both early Cold War uranium mining and the late- old War suburban household.

Ellen has also worked as a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School on a project relating to the use of scientific evidence in courtrooms. Ellen and I have a little dog named Lyndon, and we currently live in Hoboken, New Jersey, very close to the Stevens Institute of Technology, just across the river from Manhattan.

This site

The flashing images used at the top of this page and on the home page have all been taken from various research projects of mine. For more information about the design of this site itself, click here.

Last updated February 2016.

> Back

No one can stop President Trump from using nuclear weapons. That’s by design

Sometime in the next few weeks, Donald Trump will be briefed on the procedures for how to activate the U.S. nuclear arsenal, if he hasn’t already learned about them.

All year, the prospect of giving the real estate and reality TV mogul the power to launch attacks that would kill millions of people was one of the main reasons his opponents argued against electing him.

“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” Hillary Clinton said in her speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. She cut an ad along the same lines. Republicans who didn’t support Trump — and even some who did, such as Sen.

Marco Rubio (Fla.) — also said they didn’t think he could be trusted with the launch codes.

Now they’re his. When Trump takes office in January, he will have sole authority over more than 7,000 warheads. There is no failsafe. The whole point of U.S.

nuclear weapons control is to make sure that the president — and only the president — can use them if and whenever he decides to do so.

The one sure way to keep President Trump from launching a nuclear attack, under the system we’ve had in place since the early Cold War, would have been to elect someone else.

When the legal framework for nuclear weapons was developed, the fear wasn’t about irrational presidents but trigger-happy generals.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which was passed with President Harry Truman’s signature after nine months of acrimonious congressional hearings, firmly put the power of the atomic bomb in the hands of the president and the civilian components of the executive branch.

It was a momentous and controversial law, crafted in the months following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with an eye toward future standoffs with the Soviet Union.

The members of Congress who wrote the law, largely with the backing of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, framed it explicitly as a question of who controls the power to use nuclear weapons: Is dropping an atomic bomb a military act or a political one? If it is inherently political, above and beyond a regular military tactic, then that power could not be entrusted to the military. Ultimately, the president was supposed to be the check against the Pentagon pushing to use nukes more often.

The scientists’ fears were based in their experiences in World War II. Their work under the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Air Forces left them with a sour taste: Generals, they concluded, cared little about ethics, democracy or international politics.

Even during the war, some civilians involved with atomic-bombing work feared that the military had become too eager to leave German and Japanese cities in cinders. The secretary of war, Henry Stimson, learned about the ruinous firebombing of Tokyo from the press.

He warned Truman that letting the military run the show might cause the United States to “get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”

This division between military and civilian control over nuclear weapons has been weaker or stronger at various points. In the late 1940s, U.S. nuclear weapons could have their nuclear components — the plutonium or uranium “pits” needed to start their reactions — removed and inserted as needed.

The nuclear parts of the atomic bombs were in the custody of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (the precursor to the present-day Energy Department), while the military controlled the nonnuclear parts. The president had the power to transfer these pits to the military and order their use.

During the Eisenhower administration, more compact and complex weapons were developed whose nuclear and nonnuclear parts could not be separated. Fearing a Soviet sneak attack, President Dwight D. Eisenhower put the military in charge of most of the U.S.

nuclear stockpile to streamline a possible response.

Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” authority to the military to use tactical nuclear weapons (aimed at tanks, not cities) without getting specific presidential approval in certain situations, such as if Soviet tank columns rolled into Germany’s Fulda Gap.

Who could stop nuclear war in the Trump era? Maybe these scientists.

Fears of low-level commanders setting off nuclear conflagrations during the tensions of the early 1960s persuaded President John F. Kennedy to dial some of this back. Miscommunications during the Cuban missile crisis almost led to the use of nuclear weapons by both U.S. and Soviet troops, and U.S.

weapons stationed abroad, such as the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, could be used by any army that seized control of them. There were also lingering concerns about “Strangelove”-esque rogue generals. The head of the Strategic Air Command, Gen.

Thomas Power, was an enthusiastic proponent of preemptive nuclear war.

Similar concerns within the upper reaches of the Kennedy administration led to a push for technologies to “lock” the nuclear weapons and prevent their use without some kind of codes or authorization.

Some early versions were as primitive as combination locks, but later versions were complex electro-mechanical systems that could physically disable a weapon if it were tampered with or if the wrong code was entered too many times.

Eventually, the brass adopted the idea that, when it came to nuclear matters, they were at the beck and call of the president. It was not generals’ responsibility to make the order; it was their responsibility to carry it out.

America’s nuclear-weapons policy isn’t what you think—it’s much worse

  • In the chaos that currently makes up the day-to-day of American foreign policy—a trade war here, tearing up international agreements and treaties there—it can be easy to miss the larger developments.
  • One of these, which occasionally rears its head in a frightened headline, is that there is a new nuclear arms race well under way.
  • In the United States, we typically get this in the form of news about the capabilities of other countries: Russia is developing a “doomsday torpedo,” China is developed “hypersonic missiles,” and so on. Whether these specifics are real or hype (experts are divided about the reality of the “doomsday torpedo”), they are part of a broader reality:

We’re back in an arms race. But it’s not a new one.

Developments in the technologies of nuclear weapons, their delivery, and their defense are rapidly changing.

The popular perception of global nuclear development is that after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race between the superpowers ended.

And to be sure, there were a few years there in which the US and the Russian Federation worked together to get rid of redundant and unnecessary weapons systems and pare down their arsenals.

But those numbers not only weren’t going down to zero, they also concealed a grimmer reality: the nuclear arms complexes were never really dismantled, and the broader military-industrial complexes in both nations readily adapted to the new situation.

Nuclear is back, baby.

270 – Nuclear Weapons

Published/Veröffentlicht: Nov 26, 2017

Rate/Vote (average: 4.59)
 Loading …

Guest: Alex Wellerstein    Host: Markus Voelter    Shownoter: Andy Joiner

In this episode we chat about the science and engineering involved in nuclear weapons. Our guest is Alex Wellerstein of the Stevens Institute of Technology. We talk about atomic bombs as well as hydrogen bombs, how to refine the necessary fuels as well as a little bit of history.

A few specific links, as mentioned on the episode:

And as is almost an unfortunate tradition, I forgot to mention all of those of you who helped me prepare the episode with your input: Patrick Hosford, Daniel Merrlin Rüscher, Christopher Fredette, Sebastian Knapp, Benn Britton, Bernd Hart, MalteJ, Szymon Bartus, and Karsten Schmidt. Thank you 🙂

00:03:54.000 Introduction Alex
00:06:37.000 Science Fundamentals
00:19:44.000 Critical Mass
00:26:54.000 Fusion
00:34:02.000 Weapons Effects
00:54:19.000 Atomic Bomb
01:18:54.000 Hydrogen Bomb
01:50:16.000 Hydrogen Bomb Development
02:17:52.000 North Korea

History and context

This page provides information about where you can find more details on the internet about nuclear weapons, their development, and the science behind them.

History and development of nuclear weapons

The world's first nuclear weapon was exploded in July 1945 in the 'Trinity' test in New Mexico following the work of a team of international scientists on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The history of the Manhattan Project and the earliest years of nuclear weapons development is given in a timeline which has been prepared by the Atomic Archive.

Following the Trinity test nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945. After World War II the USA was joined in 1949 by the Soviet Union as a nuclear weapons power, signalling the beginning of the Cold War nuclear stand-off, followed by the UK in 1952 and France and China in the 1960s.

  • Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, gives a brief history of the nuclear age in a lecture to the Carnegigie International Non-Proliferation Conference which is available to watch in two Youtube videos here and here.
  • The US National Nuclear Security Administration website has a timeline of key events in the history of the USA's nuclear weapons programme, and Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto has created a video and multimedia presentation giving the timeline for every nuclear weapon test conducted between 1945 and 1998.
  • For more advanced studies, Alex Wellerstein has published a list of web-based primary sources for nuclear history on the 'Restricted Data' blog site.

How nuclear weapons work

Nuclear weapons are manufactured principally from highly enriched uranium or plutonium. The Center for American Progress has produced an infographic which outlines how materials suitable for use in a nuclear weapon are produced.

Early nuclear weapons, including the types exploded in warfare in Japan in 1945, employ the principles of nuclear fission to create a chain reaction in a critical mass of either enriched uranium or plutonium.

In the simplest design, the 'gun assembly, a mass of fissile uranium is fired at a uranium target in a similar manner to firing a bullet along a gun barrel. The two masses achieve a critical mass when they combine.

In more sophisticated implosion devices a fissile mass of uranium plutonium, or a combination of the two is surrounded by high explosives which are triggered to compress the mass and bring about criticality.

Modern thermonuclear weapons derive their destructive power from a two-stage reaction: a 'primary' nuclear fission explosion which initiates a much more powerful 'secondary' nuclear fusion reaction. The principles involved are explained in straightforward terms in the Wikipedia article on thermonuclear weapons.

Also recommended is a video from the Institute of Global Leadership in which Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor at Harvard University, explains in simple terms how different types of nuclear weapon work.

  A slightly more detailed account of nuclear warhead science written by scientists from the UK Ministry of Defence and Atomic Weapons Establishment is given in an article published in 'Nature' in 2002.

The destructive effects of nuclear weapons can be simulated using the Nukemap application by Alex Wellerstein at the 'Restricted Data' blog, which models the effects of detonating different types of nuclear weapon at any location in the world. The controversial 'Protect and Survive' videos produced by the UK government in the early 1980s to advise the public on steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack are now available to watch on Youtube.

Links between nuclear materials and human health are discussed in a video presented for Earth Focus by Dr Jeffrey Patterson, former president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. The video considers what kinds of radiation we are exposed to and what, if any, dose of radiation is safe.

Nuclear weapon states and their forces

Five nuclear weapon states are recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – the main international treaty which controls the spread of nuclear weapons. These are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

India and Pakistan have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty but have both tested nuclear weapons and declared that they possess nuclear weapons.

Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not formally confirmed whether or not it possesses nuclear weapons, but is widely believed to do so.

North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state but in 2003 announced that it had withdrawn from the Treaty and in October 2006 conducted its first nuclear weapons test.  The CNN website has a 'Who has what' interactive web page showing information about the nuclear programmes of these nations.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists regularly publishes a series of 'Nuclear Notebooks' outlining the status of nuclear forces for each state which possesses nuclear weapons, and Carey Sublette's Nuclear Weapons Archive website also provides information on the nuclear weapons arsenals and development programmes of the declared nuclear states.  The Guardian newspaper has prepared a set of infographics to show the number of nuclear warheads deployed by those nations which possess nuclear weapons.

The UK's nuclear weapons

  1. Nuclear Information Service has prepared an interactive timeline showing the history of the UK's nuclear weapons programme which you can visit here.

  2. The UK's nuclear weapons – past, present, and future – are discussed from a political perspective by Professor Lord Peter Hennessey of Queen Mary University of London in a video filmed by the Royal United Services Institute and available on Youtube.

  3. Information about early designs of UK nuclear weapons is available from Brian Burnell's nuclear weapons history website.

The UK currently deploys only a single nuclear weapons system – the submarine-based Trident system – as a 'minimum deterrent'.

Details of the UK's current nuclear forces are given in a 'Nuclear Notebook' report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and a timeline for steps taken in the programme to replace the Trident system has been prepared by the Defense Industry Daily news website.

The story of the UK peace movement and opposition to nuclear weapons is told in the video documentary 'Beating the Bomb' and in a parallel vein, Scilla Elworthy, founder of the Oxford Research Group, talks about alternatives to nuclear weapons such as non-violent means for resisting conflict and overcoming oppression in a 'Tedtalk' lecture on the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) channel.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.