I had plans to tell you about my visit to the National World War II Museum in this column, but things have kind of gone tinfoil-hat-crazy with North Korea. And, it’s not often that atomic tourism, or just atomic stuff in general, happens in real time, and is covered so heavily by the media. Or at least Twitter. So let’s talk about it.

First, in case you’ve been holed-up in a bunker, here’s what’s going down in North Korea.

On February 13, 2013, the United States Geologic Survey and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Preparatory Commission (CNTBTPC)—you’re not going to remember that, so I’ll just use “we”—we1 detected a tremor that fell in line with that of an underground nuclear test. From what we can tell, the hypocenter was approximately one kilometer deep and the yield (the overall strength) was somewhere between six and fifteen kilotons, which is about the size of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Figuring out yields and depth of far away nuclear blasts is one of the things we learned from Project Dribble which I wrote about here.

Why is North Korea’s nuclear badassery such a big deal? Because of the test bans.2 There are lots and lots of atomic test bans floating around, and there have been since the late Sixties. Like most things governmentish, bans on nuclear testing are confusing. Especially with their partial, comprehensive, atmospheric and subterranean exclusions, but I’ll try to outline them here so that we all have a better idea about the shit-starting Kim Jong-un is up to. Or at least the saber fuel rod-rattling he’s doing.

Nuclear tests are generally categorized by the medium in which they are detonated. There are four types of tests:

  • Atmospheric
  • Exoatmospheric
  • Underwater
  • Underground

Atmospheric tests take place above ground, on dry land, or in the air. They are generally in the form of bombs dropped from airplanes, devices strapped to towers, or placed and detonated among armies of snazzily clothed mannequins at Frenchman Flat. Atmospheric tests are what you think of, complete with the mushroom cloud, when you think of the atomic bomb. And fallout. Fallout comes from this type of detonation. Unless your version of an atomic bomb is Dr. Strangelove, which is an exoatmospheric detonation.

Exoatmospheric tests are performed outside of our atmosphere. Space! Essentially nuclear devices are launched in rockets and then detonated outside our atmosphere. We’re building stars, motherfuckers! But exoatmospheric detonations only happen if they’re outside of our atmosphere. So even if a device has travelled outside of our atmosphere and then returns and hits something within our atmosphere, the detonation is considered to be atmospheric.

Underwater tests are performed underwater, obviously. Most underwater detonations have occurred in the South Pacific, in the Pacific Proving Grounds. Underwater tests consist of a nuclear device tethered to ships or other floatable objects. The device is detonated, and the ship and whatever else happens to be around is destroyed. And then Bikini Bottom is formed.3 The supposed aim of this type of testing is to see how ships and submarines would fair when in the vicinity of an underwater nuclear explosion.

Underground tests take place, well, underground. Most of the 2,000 plus nuclear detonations in the world have been of this type. Generally, a really deep hole is dug, and then the device and monitoring equipment is shoved way down the hole and the device is detonated. If done correctly, most of the radioactivity is contained, which is preferable to the fallout created by atmospheric tests. Subsidence craters and retarcs4 are formed when the roof of the cavity in which the explosion occurred collapses (crater) or buckles upward (retarc).

Okay. Is everyone still with me?

In 1959-1960, there was a voluntary testing moratorium agreed upon by the USSR, UK and US, who were the only players capable of Global Thermal Nuclear War at the time. The moratorium was mostly in response to the controversial Plumbbob test series conducted at the Nevada Test Site. This series released a lot of radiation. One of the aims of this particular series was testing the effects of the nuclear battlefield on your average soldier, so there were 18,000 troops stationed at the site. Lots of radiation + lots of people = bad stuff. It is estimated that there were between 11,000 and 212,000 cases of leukemia and thyroid cancer in the folks (locals and service men) exposed to the Plumbbob series’ radiation.

The moratorium was broken in 1960 when France tested a nuclear device of its own, becoming the fourth nuclear power. Not to be outdone, the USSR responded by detonating the Tsar Bomba, which is still the largest nuclear device ever detonated, with a yield of about 57 megatons. That’s 57,000 kilotons, or the strength of 3800 Little Boys. The US also broke the moratorium, so all systems were go again for nuclear testing.

Then 1963 rolled around and we decided that testing should only be conducted underground because it lessened the chance of innocents being exposed to fallout. The ban came about in the form of the “treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and underwater.” So right off the bat, we’re only left with underground atomic tests. This ban is often known as the Partial or Limited Test Ban Treaty (PTBT or LTBT). This ban was signed by the Soviet Union, US and UK. France didn’t sign.

Now, notice that the PTBT was aimed at “nuclear weapon tests.” Peaceful, underwater, exoatmospheric and atmospheric nuclear tests were still performed without consequence; other than the radiation. This is where the Plowshares program came into play. Plowshare shots were designed to test peaceful nuclear technology. Or at least that was the party line. Anyway, Plowshares did some pretty iffy things, including hatching plans to use a thermonuclear explosion to create an artificial harbor in Alaska. Luckily, this particular Plowshare never saw the light of day.

The weapons issue was clarified a bit in 1968 with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The aim of the NPT was to stop the proliferation of war/weapons-related atomic testing while encouraging the development and spread of peaceful uses for nuclear technology—power, mainly. The end goal of the treaty was the complete disarmament of the world, and expanded use of peaceful nuclear technology. The treaty went into full effect in 1970, and was to last until 1995, when the treaty was extended indefinitely.

In 1972 the US and Soviet Union agreed to limit anti-ballistic missile systems which were used to defend each country from attacks by the other, with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT). Star Wars—the Reagan kind, not the Lucas kind—in the early Eighties grew out of this treaty.

There were a handful of treaties put forth in the Eighties and early Nineties. In fairly quick succession, we had START I and II (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties), and the United States-Russia Detargeting program. Basically the US and Russia—remember, the Soviet Union fell in 1991—constantly ratcheted down their bullying of each other until now, when we mostly exist in peace as frienemies.

In 1993 negotiations began for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This ban is, as the name implies, comprehensive. The treaty bans all nuclear explosions of all types in all environments. Most nuclear testing was halted in most places once negotiations began. This abrupt stop left one of the coolest relics of the Cold War I’ve ever seen.

In 1992 the Icecap test was within a few months of being ready for detonation. Icecap was a joint atomic test project of the UK and Los Alamos National Laboratory, slated for detonation in the spring of 1993. The tower was built, complete with tiny Harrier jets carved into the framework, and monitoring equipment installed—basically the only thing left was seating the device, lowering it to a depth of 1,600 feet and detonating the sucker. But 1992 came along and George Bush signed the 1992 Underground Nuclear Testing Moratorium. So the test was put on hold. Then the moratorium was extended, the test put on hold again, the moratorium extended, and so forth, over and over again until the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was finally signed in 1996.

Instead of scrapping the Icecap setup, the fine folks at the Nevada Test Site left it up as a monument to the era. It is amazing! The cabling! The sheer quantity of monitoring equipment from countries across the globe! The early nineties technology in general. It’s kind of like being in the lair of a Bond villain, except you can tour it and then go home.

Anyway. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has a super weird setup. Some countries have signed it (pen to paper, saying we support this) but not ratified it (actually doing the things that they said they would do by signing the treaty). Some countries haven’t done either. And only certain countries “matter” when it comes to the treaty. There is something called the Annex 2 group of countries. The Annex 2 countries are those that were involved in negotiations for this treaty between 1994 and 1996, and also had nuclear reactors and/or research facilities during this time. Once all forty-four Annex 2 countries have ratified this treaty, it will go into effect 180 days later.

Even though most of the world follows the treaty whether or not they’ve signed or ratified it, or whether or not they are part of Annex 2, it isn’t officially in effect, and won’t be until the eight holdouts of the Annex 2 ratify the treaty. So, who are these nuclear cowboys? Well, we’ve got the countries you’d expect to be holdouts—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea—and then we have the US. Really. Apparently India and the US are at a stalemate, because India will only sign if there is a reduction of nuclear stockpiles requirement added to the treaty. The US won’t go along with this, so it hasn’t even signed, let alone ratified the treaty. But we haven’t done any nuclear testing since 1992, so we’re basically following the rules. I don’t know if the US is being kind of a douche or we’re actually trying to make a point here.

Anyway, it seems that the whole signing and ratification of the CBTB has become that one agenda item that comes up at every meeting, but never enters the realm of an action item. It’s kind of in ratification purgatory, and it doesn’t look like it will get its wings anytime soon.

Did you guys retain any of that?

Let’s get back to North Korea in current times. Even though the CBTB hasn’t been enforced, it has been followed by most countries with only a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is North Korea. North Korea has detonated three, possibly four nuclear devices since the early aughts. In 2004 North Korea probably detonated a nuclear device on the China/North Korea border; which, yes, it’s a big deal to detonate a nuclear device, but this also broke the armistice that ended the Korean War. Proof of this detonation has never surfaced, though a crater is visible in satellite images and a mushroom cloud two miles in radius was seen at the time of the blast. In 2006 North Korea detonated a 1-kiloton (relatively small) nuclear device. In 2009 they detonated a 10-20 kiloton bomb. In February 2013 they announced and detonated another device. Oh snap.

This pissed off a whole lot of the world.

Now North Korea has a third, or possibly fourth, strike on its membership card for the grown-up country club. In response to this, the United Nations (“we”) got together and came up with a list of sanctions to punish North Korea for its continued nuclear cowboy-ing. The sanctions “©ondemn in the strongest terms, North Korea’s ongoing nuclear activities.” They also block financial transactions supporting illicit activities (including buying weapon components, transferring monies in relation to weapons), enhance cargo inspections (we’re really going to keep an eye on the stuff coming and going to and from the country), enact an individual travel ban and a luxury goods import ban, in addition to the super enforcement of earlier sanctions.

Things were made worse in North Korea’s eyes when China, its key ally, signed the newest condemnation of their nuclear cowboy-ery, effectively switching sides. So because they’re not grownups, North Korea essentially gave the world a giant Fuck You by threatening to launch a preemptive atomic strike on the US, leaving Washington DC a sea of fire in the blink of an eye.5 This sounds like something that could have happened during the Atomic Age, fifty or sixty years ago, but no. This was last week. In 2013.6

Now maybe (probably) I’m overreacting, but it’s not often that something comes up in current times that fits so perfectly in my wheelhouse. And this does. So, I’ve done a good deal of thinking about and researching the “What if?” of all of this.

Could North Korea actually wipe out Washington in the blink of an eye? Probably not. We would likely be able to stop a plane carrying a device before it made it into our airspace (Thanks, [Reagan] Star Wars!). And even though North Korea likely has around 800 ballistic missiles, most of them can’t make it to Washington. I mean the furthest-flying missile they have, the Taepodong 3, could maybe make it 9000 miles. And if it did make it this far, that would still only put the impact somewhere in northern middle America (somewhere between New Mexico and Illinois). Which, maybe this is why our nuclear arsenal is smack in the northern middle of the country in North Dakota?

I know. Getting bombed by the North Koreans anywhere in America, or anywhere in the world for that matter isn’t desirable. And North Korea is such a young, inexperienced, and downright bad-at-science (their nuclear fuel is probably of very low quality) nuclear player, that if they were to launch a first strike, no one would have a clue as to what it would do. They could take out an unassuming country like Sweden. Or probably more likely, South Korea. Or the whole thing could make a giant u-turn after launch and take North Korea back in time to the (radioactive) Stone Age.

You can obviously see that I’m full to the brim with conjecture about this. And even though none of this will probably happen, I still like to think about it. The entire Atomic Age started in a similar manner. We were desperate to put an end to WWII, so we unleashed the atomic bombs on Japan.7 And we were just standing up to the aggressors then, just like Kim Jong-un says he’s doing now 8. I don’t know—it’s just a lot to think about.

Or maybe Dennis Rodman shouldn’t be allowed to visit North Korea. Perhaps this is all his fault.

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1 The United Nations in general, the US specifically. Sometimes.

2 And because nuclear shit is cray. Not to be soapbox-y, but nuclear- anything, particularly weapons, is diety-like in its ability to alter and destroy life.

3 SpongeBob SquarePants has to be about the effects of subaquatic nuclear testing. I mean, come on—the show is based on a tie-wearing, sentient sponge and his gaggle of fun loving mutant friends, living beneath the Bikini Atoll, where some serious nuclear shit went down in the forties. How else was this magically mutated world be formed?

4 Retarcs! It’s craters backrwards! Because a bulge is opposite of a crater! I want to marry this term coiner.

5 Kind of sounds like Kim Jong-un got a hold of some Michael Wigglesworth.

6 This whole thing makes me think of an Independence Day type movie trailer (“In a world…”) set to the tune of “Ring of Fire”. Like the way The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo promo is set to “Immigrant Song” (Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross/Karen O. version) and it is absolutely perfect. And the Johnny Cash/NIN circle is complete. Call me, Hollywood.

7 Luckily, it seems that history generally seems to think this was the right call.

8 I’m not saying he’s not bat-shit crazy, by the way.