I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #9 - Donna Leon

Yesterday, I finished A Noble Radiance, the 8th Brunetti novel by Donna Leon.

As usual, Leon’s crime novels with Commissario Brunetti are always a pleasure to read. But this time Leon made a mistake that invalidated the whole plot.

*** WARNING: Spoiler ***

In A Nobel Radiance, somebody dies when he opens a briefcase containing enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb.

Now, bombs are built with either Plutonium or highly enriched Uranium 235. To build an implosion bomb, in which a volume of fissile material is highly compressed by means of conventional explosives, you need between 5 and 15 kg of fissile material.

As both Uranium and Plutonium are very dense, it is conceivable to use a briefcase to carry enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb. It would be a heavy briefcase, not least because it would be lined with lead.

So far so good, but Leon didn’t consider that fissile materials generate heat, with a power of the order of ½ kW / kg. In other words, the, say, 8kg of fissile material in Leon’s briefcase, would have continuously generated as much heat as four cloth irons set to maximum.

As lead melts at less than 330°C, I’m not even sure that, with so much heat being generated by the fissile material, the radiation-absorbing lining of the briefcase would have remained solid.

Can you imagine going around with a 20kg briefcase too hot to touch? And then shipping it to Istanbul claiming that it is a pack of ten thousand plastic syringes?

There are perhaps other issues, like the partitioning of the material to avoid approaching criticality (which would significantly increase the generated amount of radiation and heat) and the fact that the material was in the form of small blue pellets (while both U and Pu are grey), but the heat is the critical one (pun intended!)

No comments:

Post a Comment