What Does a Nuclear Blueprint Look Like?

Lots and lots of computer files.

Are nuclear blueprints actually blue?
Are nuclear blueprints actually blue?

The notorious A.Q. Khan smuggling ring had its hands on the design for a sophisticated and compact nuclear weapon, according to a new report from a former U.N. arms inspector. In 2006, electronic blueprints for the device were discovered on hard drives in several countries. What does a nuclear weapon blueprint look like?

Lots of diagrams, instructions, and lists of materials. While the word blueprint may conjure images of white schematics on blue paper, the designs found on the computers of two Swiss businessmen associated with Khan contain gigabytes of digital information. The bomb in question is considerably more advanced than the first generation of atomic weapons, like those the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and schematics for such a weapon require extremely precise specifications for parts and materials. For example, the documents may prescribe which metal alloys to use and the precise milling—or cutting—of component pieces. Assuming the electronic blueprints described this week are fairly complete and authentic, they contain far more than just a set of pictures.

Khan’s smuggling network is also known to have sold designs for a Chinese ballistic nuclear missile, as investigators discovered after Libya gave up its nuclear aspirations in 2003. That weapon, which China tested in 1966, was heavier and less potent than the one at issue in this week’s news. David Albright, the former inspector who authored the new report (PDF) tells the Explainer that the Chinese designs included about 100 drawings, mostly of component parts for the bomb, and an instruction manual based on a series of lectures that the Chinese had given to Pakistani scientists.

Most experts say it is more important to stop the proliferation of the nuclear material needed to create an atomic weapon than the designs for the bombs themselves. But many fear that the blueprints could contain sensitive nuclear secrets that are classified in the United States. Even if a nation or terrorist group with nuclear ambitions lacked the knowledge or materials to construct the precise weapon from the blueprints, the instructions may offer some pointers for the development of a more general program.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, Matthew Bunn of Harvard University, Philip E. Coyle III of the Center for Defense Information, Randall Larsen of the Institute for Homeland Security, and Jon Wolfsthal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.