N. Korean nuclear test could be tricky to detect

North Korea has vowed to carry out a third nuclear test, but scientists and concerned foreign governments may have a tough time verifying the actions of the reclusive state.

One critical question is whether uses or plutonium. North Korea's 2006 and 2009 tests involved plutonium, so a uranium would prove that Kim Jong-Un's regime has opened an additional way to make bombs.

After foreign detection of its 2006 , North Korea carried out its 2009 explosion deep underground, which gave scientists far less information. Most observers expect North Korea to be even more careful this time.

Some 270 stations and laboratories around the world monitor seismic and other activity under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, making up about 80 percent of the total envisioned under the 1996 UN treaty.

EARTHQUAKE DETECTION: is the most effective and quickest way to detect a nuclear test. Seismic waves travel about eight kilometers (five miles) per second.

Seismic detention put the May 25, 2009, test at around 4.5 magnitude with an explosive yield of a few kilotons, well below that of the nuclear bombs which the dropped on Japan in 1945. North Korea's 2006 test was detected at magnitude 4.1.

URANIUM OR PLUTONIUM?: Both uranium and plutonium can be used in . The United States devastated Hiroshima with a uranium bomb and Nagasaki with a plutonium bomb.

North Korea's was historically based on plutonium, but the regime disclosed in November 2010 to visiting US scientists that it was operating a uranium enrichment plant.

Experts have speculated that North Korea may have decided on a third test in hopes of trying out its uranium program or that it may simultaneously use both methods. But if North Korea prevents leakage, it may be impossible to know for sure.

A successful test with highly enriched uranium would alarm North Korea's adversaries as it is much easier to conceal work with uranium than with plutonium, which requires a reactor to produce the chemical element.

RADIONUCLIDE SIGNALS: This extremely sensitive technique, which could be crucial in determining the nature of a North Korean test, allows scientists to examine material that has seeped out of the ground or been released in the air.

Scientists use instruments that "sniff" fission products of the explosive material and then use modeling to determine the origin of the radionuclides and predict where the nuclear plume may be headed.

Two weeks after the 2006 test, the isotope Xenon-133 was detected across the Pacific Ocean in the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife. But the North Koreans were successful in 2009 in sealing off the test site.

INFRASOUND DETECTORS and HYDROACOUSTIC TECHNOLOGY: Undetectable to the human ear, infrasound waves have frequencies between 0.01 and 10 Hz. They are typically produced by explosions in the atmosphere but can also come from underground explosions.

A very small infrasound signal was detected following the 2009 North Korea test, but none in 2006.

Hydroacoustic technology can be used to detect in or near bodies of water by tracking sound waves.

Global monitors can detect an in-water explosion as small as one ton (0.001 kiloton) across most of the world's oceans.


The US Air Force was first tasked in 1947 with monitoring atomic explosions worldwide. Nearly 1,000 personnel work at the Air Force Technical Applications Center, based in Florida near the Kennedy Space Center.

AFTAC operates a WC-135 aircraft for detecting radioactive debris that could come from nuclear explosions. The plane flies to the location of the debris plume and collects particulates for laboratory analysis.

The United States also uses satellites to detect potential nuclear explosions in space or in the atmosphere—a capacity that is not part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization.

Satellites can collect data on electromagnetic pulses, optical flashes and nuclear radiation.

Explore further

Science ensures N.Korea nuclear test would be no secret

(c) 2013 AFP

Citation: N. Korean nuclear test could be tricky to detect (2013, February 7) retrieved 18 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2013-02-korean-nuclear-tricky.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Feb 09, 2013
You really are myopic frajo

1947–1948 Civil War - the intervention of a number of Arab Liberation Army regiments inside Palestine

1948 Arab–Israeli War - The Arab League members Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq refused to accept the UN partition plan and proclaimed the right of self-determination for the Arabs across the whole of Palestine...The invading Arab armies were initially on the offensive but the Israelis soon recovered from the initial shock of being invaded on all sides.

Six-Day War of 1967 began with a strike by Israel against Egypt and Syria...begun by the Egyptian closure of the Straits of Tiran...(thus "blocking all shipping to and from Eilat ... a casus belli...expulsion of UNEF peacekeeping forces...and stationing of 100,000 Egyptian troops at the peninsula

War of 1967-1970 initiated by Egypt to damage Israel's morale and economy

1973 Yom Kippur War began when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise joint attack


Feb 09, 2013
First Intifada, 1987–1993, an uprising of Palestinians against the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Gulf war 1990-1991 - To draw Israel into the confrontation and thereby make it difficullt for Arab regimes to remain in the coalition, Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles on Israeli cities and on Israel's nuclear facilities near Dimona.

The al-Aqsa Intifada, or Second Intifada, began in late September 2000...Widespread riots and attacks broke out among Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel in Jerusalem and many major Israeli cities, and spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The 2006 Israel-Lebanon crisis began on 12 July 2006, with an attack by Hezbollah on Israel.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran might be planning some sort of nuclear arms buildup, which might be considered for use in opposition to Israel.

Israel has ALWAYS been attacked first.

Further - hezbollah, hamas, the moslem brotherhood and many others have vowed to destroy israel.


Feb 09, 2013
If you need to blame somebody, blame the brits.

"His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object"

Balfour Declaration 2 November 1917

The creation of this bridgehead and garrison state was in keeping with the division of all the natural ethnic groups in the region into artificial countries for the Purpose of keeping their Inevitable conflicts small and confined.

It is easier to pit them against one another within the borders of countries and under the jurisdiction of one despot or another.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more