[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Photograph by Dave Lepori

Bombshell: Pentagon hopes for next-generation atomic weapons were thrown a curve when one of its appointed physicists, SLAC's Bill Herrmannsfeldt, questioned the project's viability.

Battle Over a Bomb

Is a Pentagon push to exploit the explosive power of hafnium based on bad science?

By Najeeb Hasan

AN EXOTIC NEW potential technology that could fog the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons is being hotly debated by scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain's popular science magazine, New Scientist, speculated last August that the United States Department of Defense's plans to deploy the new bomb-making technology could spark a new global arms race. Now Stanford scientists are weighing in on the controversy over hafnium-based weaponry, suggesting that junk science underpins enthusiasm for the new-generation bomb.

A new process ostensibly releases energy from nuclei of the little-known element hafnium without nuclear fission. The energy emitted through the new process could be thousands of times greater than that of conventional weapons.

Bill Herrmannsfeldt questions the government's assumptions. The Stanford physicist believes that Department of Defense officials have relied on unconfirmed results to justify exploratory investment in the technology-- a step that could prompt other nations to do the same. Already, the New Scientist article has been circulated in several other nations, where sentiment runs high that the U.S. development of a new bomb would require that they, too, update their WMDs.

The ongoing debate in the scientific community reached a broader audience with the disclosure of Herrmannsfeldt's objections in a Sept. 28 San Francisco Chronicle article. What prompted an elder statesman in the conservative profession to sound the alarms?

"In the first place, I'm 72 years old," Herrmannsfeldt explains. "I don't have a future career. I've got no concerns about that.

"A lot of other people, including maybe the people who signed the letter, are a little bit nervous because they aren't in that situation. They might have some concerns about their future career. I didn't.

"Secondly, when I first felt that the situation had problems, I went to one person that I trust the most in an area like this, [Wolfgang] Panofsky [one-time director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and also a longtime weapons adviser]. And he gave me, in one word, his opinion of this whole program--it was a colloquial expression for male bovine excrement. OK.

"And the next question [to him] is, OK, he knows my situation. He knows my career. ... What should I do about it? He was just as quick. He said: it's up to you.

"That wasn't much help. But it told me, considering everything, that if I followed what I thought was my conscience and good judgment, I was doing the right thing."

Herrmannsfeldt claims no personal expertise in the subject itself. Last year, when Herrmannsfeldt was tapped for a seat on the Pentagon-created 12-member panel to explore the mass production of the hafnium isotope, one of his first acts was to type "hafnium" into Google.

At the time, he knew very little about the element--only that it was extremely rare but also that, because of its enormous energy content, the Pentagon was eyeing it as a potential energy source for military uses, including bombs. (As one lay description puts it, the energy from 1 ounce of pure hafnium could heat 120 tons of water at room temperature to the boiling point.)

With both its rarity and usefulness in mind, the question of how to produce larger quantities of it seemed a logical one to Herrmannsfeldt, who, employed at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center for the last 40 years, was included in the panel because his expertise with particle accelerators might help solve the mass production challenge.

Soon, though, Herrmannsfeldt began to learn more--most importantly, the fact that the major published experiment conducted that concluded that hafnium's energy could be unleashed was unable to be reproduced by other physicists. Moreover, Herrmannsfeldt was troubled by what he saw as a premature description of hafnium isomers by the Pentagon, in its Military Control Technology List (MCTL), as having "the potential to revolutionize all aspects of warfare." Even more troubling for Hermannsfeldt was the article in the New Scientist that predicted the Bush administration's interest in hafnium's military capacities could escalate global arms spending.

"I proceeded to try and understand both sides of [the issue]," Herrmannsfeldt recalls. "And eventually I came to [the conclusion] that there are two groups with two different results, and it doesn't make much sense to charge forward to any kind of program until you resolve that."

At first, Herrmannsfeldt says he attempted to resolve the issue internally. During a presentation last May by publishers of the study claiming that hafnium's energy could be exploited for military use, he says he begged organizers to invite the physicists from the opposing camp: physicists who argue that the hafnium energy dog just won't hunt.

"They wouldn't do it," he says. "That's pretty outrageous."

And so, last month Herrmannsfeldt drafted a letter, signed by several experts including four other members of the military's own hafnium panel, and sent it off to Pentagon and Energy Department officials. The letter, in essence, warned against investing in weapons that had no scientific basis and requested that
the federal government create an independent committee to investigate why different results occurred in the conflicting hafnium experiments. He says his goal is, simply, to require an independent scientific review--before the spending begins.

For those wishing to unleash hafnium's vast energy potential, the largest problem with the isomer is that it has a half-life of 31 years, which is an abnormally long time for an isomer. Most typically, half-lives are measured in milliseconds.

This half-life means, under normal circumstances, it would take three decades to exploit the isomer's energy content, a lifetime for impatient bomb-makers, who need immediacy to craft defense systems to fit each era's geopolitical threats.

In January of 1999, a research team led by the University of Texas physicist Carl Collins reported that, by irradiating the isomer by X-rays from a dental X-ray machine, measurable amounts of energy could be released. The report, detractors say, challenged even well-established theory, indicating an energy effect of seven orders of magnitude bigger than theory would expect.

All this led to attempts to duplicate Collins' experiment. Using a more sophisticated X-ray source than an ordinary dental X-ray, physicists at Argonne National Laboratory could not replicate the experiment.

"The whole point in physics, more so than in chemistry, and definitely more so than in biology, which is animals and plants that can have individual characteristics that are uncontrolled, you're down now to individual atoms, and they have certain characteristics that should be reproducible," Herrmannsfeldt explains.

Collins, though, contends that the Argonne physicists could not reproduce his experiment because they didn't perform the same experiment. "In the first place, the people that can't get the experiment to work aren't doing the same thing," he says by phone from Texas. "Strangely, they used a modern, sophisticated machine to emulate a dental X-ray machine. They never used monochromatic X-rays [which Collins says he did]. There are only certain X-ray energies that unlock the release of energies that are stored in an isomer. It's about finding the right key for the lock. The way you find the key is to find different discrete X-ray energies."

Further, a person knowledgeable about the scientific tangle revealed in an interview that a physicist who took part in the Argonne experiments conceded later that the measurements were not seen because they could not have been seen; the detector was blind at that energy.

"We're getting way, way too technical," says Herrmannsfeldt, when asked to respond. "There is that argument; it has been refuted. ... There are also other arguments."

Collins says he and his team have since replicated their experiment using modern machinery--a fact that he says Herrmmansfeldt and his supporters ignore. The Texas physicist resents Herrmannsfeldt's efforts to call for an independent inquiry; instead, he counters that an inquiry was already conducted when a European scientific journal that published his report received what he termed a "slanderous" letter demanding that his work be retracted. The editor of the journal, Collins says, appointed a topical editor to conduct a stringent re-examination of Collins' work and concluded there was no reason for retraction.

"[The editors] offered [the critics] the right to make a written statement, and they declined," says Collins, who went on to imply that he wouldn't agree to another inquiry. "The scientific method needs to be free from these witch hunts. If a group of people wanted to investigate [a newspaper's] editorial decision and wanted the editors to appear before a panel, the editors wouldn't want that, especially if they had already been through that."

And so, while Herrmannsfeldt may have raised some eyebrows by publicly criticizing a program that he was recruited to advance, he still hasn't achieved the reaction he sought. He's perfectly comfortable with the prospect of being removed from the military's panel for his criticisms ("I have enough to do without chasing after that stuff, so it doesn't bother me at all," he says with a grin, but, in fact, a response to the letter he crafted has so far been lacking).

"This is not the sort of thing that's going to interest the general public, unless somebody says, hey, the United States is doing this, and it's going to destabilize the safety of the world," Herrmannsfeldt says. "And there in that MCTL list, you can find a place which has a phrase that this will revolutionize warfare. If there's any bullshit in this, that's the bullshit. You don't have to look any further. But, what's it doing in there? On a public website, a statement like that is pretty crazy. And I think [some observers] said it was "not a very judicious statement"--that seems to pretty clear. So there ought to be some control, some sense, before somebody puts something like that on this list. So what's it on the list for? I don't know. What's it doing there? Why would anybody do that? Who are they trying to scare? I don't know."

Meanwhile, Collins is convinced that Herrmannsfeldt has another agenda. He says while he was not aware of Herrmannsfeldt "begging" that the opposition be included at his May presentation, the critics of his experiments have had ample opportunity to attend public presentations; indeed, he says, he invited them to an August presentation in Hamburg, Germany, and they didn't show up.

"Things are not as they seem," Collins continues, and tosses in some scientific one-upmanship. "Herrmannsfeldt sits on a panel that has a very heavy responsibility. ... It's provable that the facilities involved in the failed [Argonne] experiment are the most expensive laboratories in the world. And if a bunch of guys from universities from all over the world could do [these experiments], but those entrusted with our nuclear security couldn't do it ...I guess that might have something to do with [the dispute]," he says.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the October 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.