1. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Getting expert information on explosions without bringing the FBI to your door

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Catrin Lewis, Jan 27, 2016.

    Concerning my WIP, which I'd thought was just about ready to publish:

    Towards the end of the novel, my Mr. Big Bad blows up his own massive ammunition and explosives cache, hoping it will cover his escape with the suitcase nuke he still hopes to use someday. Ms. Female Protag, witnessing the explosion from a fairly safe distance, concludes from its effects on the landscape and from the nature of the debris cloud that the suitcase nuke (which she has seen for herself and believes to be real) was not in the big blow up. Her goal from then on and up to the climax is to keep law enforcement, who don't believe it's real, from doing anything that might detonate it in their final confrontation with Mr. Big Bad.

    OK, fine. But tonight at work it hit me that Mr. Big Bad has told her and Mr. Male Protag that he has more of these suitcase nukes in production in his underground lab. Even if these bombs aren't yet armed, presumably he's got the fissile material (stolen from a breeder reactor) somewhere on the premises. Meaning it would blow up with everything else.

    I don't think that'd result in a "nuclear" explosion; at least, I hope not. But there'd be radioactive fallout from that debris cloud, wouldn't there?

    Now, in real life I can stand in my front yard and see the cooling tower steam off the local nuclear power station. Wow, why don't I just ring them up tomorrow and ask their public affairs liaison all about it?

    Uh, maybe not. Not in today's climate. "Hi, sir, I want to ask you what happens if you blow up nuclear material, like from a power plant like this one." I'd be asking the FBI agents in for tea within thirty minutes.

    So what do you think? Have you had success asking officials questions like this, without giving them the wrong idea?
     
  2. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    o_O Could you not simply open the conversation with "I'm writing a book, I need help with X Y Z" ?

    Pyrotechnics experts? Film studios don't get put on federal investigation when they want realistic SFX, do they? (I honestly don't know.)

    Do you know any nuclear physicists, by chance?
     
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  3. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Why do you need to go to a power plant? You can find much more than that with an Online search.
     
  4. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, an online search was my first inclination. But anybody can say anything online, and how do I know it's accurate?

    And yeah, I admit it, I can't think off the top of my head how to word the search. I don't want to spend forever sorting through irrelevant trash . . .
     
  5. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    Compare notes. Try to find sciencey articles published by big universities, would be my first goal.
     
  6. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    A college chemistry professor?

    Google is definitely your friend, as long as somebody else has also asked the same question you're wanting answered. But speaking as somebody who uses Google all the time, I can assure folks that the answers you need aren't ALWAYS there. Just try to find out how many people slept in each bed berth on a cross-country train trip in 1886. Or (more bizarrely) how did people ascend to the top 'bunk.' Every photo I've seen of the made-up beds does NOT show how people got up there, and I've never seen a photo that has more than one person in each bed. But the seats they used to make up the beds seat 4 people. So ...what's the answer? I've read dozens of books on rail history and first-had accounts of rail travel during that time, been googling various combinations of words for years, and hey. This information is NOT there.

    So if you can find a living, breathing human being whom you can question (without getting arrested) that sometimes is the best way to go.
     
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2016
  7. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    My understanding is that a nuclear explosion results from a critical mass of fissionable material being brought together in one place. That place has to be pretty small...Fat Man was only 128 inches long, with two sub-critical masses in opposite corners, so critical mass has got to occur closer than that! That being the case, a regular explosion would only go nuclear if the individual fissionable items were brought together, and you'd hope the containment would be more secure than that. In fact, I'd suggest that Mr. Big Bad is such a Health and Safety Nazi (as should anybody playing with nuclear be) that he's overdosed on the containment, and his nuclear stockpile is secure against almost anything except a direct nuclear hit.
     
  8. Samurai Jack
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    Samurai Jack Active Member

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    For who to ask, I've always found community college professors to be a willing fountain of information. For the cost of lunch I can pick a brain for an hour or more at a time.

    As for the threat of explosion, if Mr. Big Bad has fully formed, ready to detonate nuclear bombs in the compound, there is a threat of a partial explosion. A full nuclear nuclear reaction requires a chain reaction to complete. If the chain reaction is stalled due to the quality of the material, or the deformation of the bomb, you get AN explosion but not a NUCLEAR explosion. Then yes, the fissionable material will be spread, but there is no threat of radiation sickness in an area. Someone would actually have to come into contact with the expelled pieces.
     
  9. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    For the sake of argument we will say that the fissionable materials are 'weapons' grade. You are talking about radioactive substance that can cause radiation sickness/death with unprotected contact. A simple Uranium/Plutonium bomb can be detonated by slamming the fissionable materials together with a small amount of explosives, causing a reaction from the high speed collision resulting in a high energy explosion as the particulate reacts on an atomic level exciting the atoms to disperse (think of a matter/anti-matter reaction just with less energy released). You would need to shield the crap out of each bomb just so the bad guy can tote them around. Not to mention that using such materials means that there would have to be fairly small amounts of the heavy metals as they are extremely dense and weigh a lot more than a standard metal or alloy (will say about a kilo per bomb just to make them portable by a man). Supposing this guy has the money for such materials, building each with a pair of Uranium plates and will say TNT triggers in each case (yeah if you are crazy enough to do it that is basically all you need, but going to federal prison is not a good thing so don't do it), inside of sealed tubes or other structure inside the case (should be air tight).

    Now comes the tricky part. You have the good guy blow up a weapons cache (small calliber to .50 BMG, and say standard fragmentation grenades, and maybe some C-4 (Plastic Explosives). This is dangerous to do even if the only thing to worry about are bullets, as they will fire off wildly and ricochet off of things even more erratically until their energy dissipates from slowing down or getting stopped in something. This could possibly set off one of the bombs through chance, and depending on how many bombs (as well as how much material in each) are in the facility. More than likely you will not have much more than a crater and debris where the facility is, and worst case one to a few blocks will also be damaged (and there will be fallout as well). Though if the bad guy is smart enough, he will have an underground base to hide from satellite detection of the fissionable materials, in which case it should contain the blast and radioactive fallout in the rubble and surrounding earth in theory any way.

    So unless the cases are able to stop a bullet that tears through brick walls like tissue paper, and still be light enough to be portable then your scene could work. Realistically speaking everyone in the area just kissed their ass goodbye the moment they blow up a munitions cache. Wow this hole thing is like consulting for an 80's action flick, Does that mean Arnold or Stallone are going to show up? :D Basically you can do what you want in your story, but the reality is saying playing with nukes and weapons caches is not a good idea. I say go for it cause your protagonist has some brass balls just for even considering doing something so insane, where the odds of surviving it are so slim they are practically in the negative side of statistics.

    (Dun, dun, dun, dun,..:p)

    T2joke.jpg
     
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  10. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    If you blow up the plant I can't see you detonating the nukes or the reactor. As the others have said you need a controlled implosion for the nukes to work - that means that both charges on both sides of the fissile material trying to compress it, have to fire simultaneously. That's unlikely to happen by chance. You're much more likely to get one charge detonating before the other.

    But what you might get is an uncontrolled release of radioactive material. So no nuclear detonation but radioactivity scattered over some distance. This would be the equivalent of a dirty bomb. You should google that term. Also since there's a reactor involved you should look at the incidents in Chernoble, Three Mile Island and Fukishima. They will be the main examples of what happens when the plants overload / overheat and radioactivity escapes.

    The critical thing with the plant though it would seem to me, would be whether people have time to shut it down before the gunfight ensues.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  11. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks; this is useful.

    My situation (as the writer of this novel) is that I don't dare add a lot of new verbiage to the manuscript to deal with radioactive fallout in the surrounding area. So I have to construct a scenario where there isn't any.

    Now, as I currently have it, there's only one armed and operable portable nuke, the prototype, which Mr. Big Bad plans for his minions to drive into some unsuspecting city in a fertilizer truck, and . . . bye-bye, a large chunk of Chicago. Or wherever, just to show the Feds he means business. This is the bomb he takes with him, and the one Ms. Female Protag is afraid the cops aren't taking seriously. The other bombs are still being manufactured. He doesn't reveal what stage they're in, and I hadn't thought too much about it myself.

    What effect would it have if the stored canisters of nuclear material went up in the blast? If there'd still be considerable radioactive fallout for miles around, I may just have it turn out that his minions hadn't yet stolen the uranium or plutonium, and what goes up in the explosion is just mechanisms and casings.

    I think I should still add a place where the protags remember about the nukes-in-progress and get another big scare. But the last thing I need with writing this novel is to have to deal with the fact that general area, a mountainous region somewhere in the Appalachians or the Ozarks, has become a major nuclear disaster area.
     
  12. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was wondering about this.

    Now, in my novel the thing that's blown up is not a nuclear reactor, but the bad guy's munitions stash hidden deep in a system of underground caves in a mountainous region (he does it himself, to cover his escape). So from what you tell me, may I conclude that even if the fissile material is still stored in canisters (and hasn't been incorporated into any bomb), it would still send radioactivity everywhere if it was vaporized in a major explosion?
     
  13. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    @Catrin Lewis Your Welcome. :)

    Though it is difficult to curb fallout, it would be best to have it inside a mountain or underground bunker. If you are planning to set something off in Chicago then you really can't prevent the fallout, and wind is not going to be your friend in the Windy City. :p
     
  14. MichaelP
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    MichaelP Active Member

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    Film explosions aren't exactly realistic. The "big slow ball of fire" doesn't happen in real life. The first time I saw grenades and dynamite explode, I was expecting dramatic flair, but the most you get is brief smoke and damage.
     
  15. Imaginarily
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    Imaginarily Disparu en Mer Contributor

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    What the hell garbage movies are you watching?
     
  16. MichaelP
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    MichaelP Active Member

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    This!

     
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  17. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Michael Bay+movies=Explosions for Days! :D
     
  18. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    From the OP:
    Is this your only question?

    It takes a very sophisticated device to trigger a nuclear device. Blowing one up will not result in a nuclear explosion, only a dirty bomb effect.

    Also, what is the nuclear material you are using? Some is more devastating than others.

    Then there is the issue, where did your villain get the material?


    Ask your questions again without the backstory. Pretty sure I can answer them with what I know about nukes.
     
  19. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Also, Wiki has more than you'd think:
    Nuclear weapon design

    From the looks of the entry, it's very detailed. Probably has all the answers and then some.
     
  20. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    OK. If you had nuclear material
    (I was thinking plutonium, but I'm flexible on that)
    of the type a clever villain could steal from a breeder reactor
    (inside job, probably),
    and it's not yet been inserted into the bombs,
    (Again, no actual working bombs involved, just the radioactive element),
    what would happen to that plutonium or uranium in a massive conventional explosion,
    if the source of the explosion was deep underground
    in a thinly-inhabited mountainous (Appalachian-type mountains) region?

    How dirty would dirty get?
     
  21. MichaelP
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    MichaelP Active Member

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    That's the sort of Wikipedia page that leads to a "random house visit" by the FBI lol.
     
  22. GingerCoffee
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    So the explosion was below ground?

    Plutonium

    The area contaminated would be highly radioactive for more than 100,000 years. (in 25,ooo years half would be left. In 50,000 years 1/2 times 1/2 would leave 1/4 left and so on.)

    Not all forms of plutonium are the same but you should ignore this stuff for your story:
    ... except to keep in mind in order to have weapons grade plutonium you have to make it by the same kind of process as a power plant works (enrich it). This is one reason there are not nuclear bombs all over the place. It takes a lot to enrich plutonium.

    I could tell you some interesting stories though, such as the way Israel probably got the bombs it has when some plutonium disappeared from a shipment and was never found. But I digress.

    If any contaminated air (dust) escaped the underground the area around could be contaminated.

    Not all forms of radioactivity can penetrate skin. So some forms are harmful to just be around, others have to be swallowed or inhaled to cause damage.

    [​IMG]
    You would do well to read this short summary of radiation's effects:
    http://www.ratical.org/radiation/NRBE/NRBE3.html
    Critical mass is the thing that happens in a power plant when they push the rods down (simplified version). When the rods were damaged at Chernobyl they could not pull them out. The chain reaction could not be contained and it is still burning away today though it didn't burn down into the ground and keep going as was feared.
    Your exploded non-detonated nuclear material would not likely end up in any kind of critical mass. But it could become a story element if you wanted to write the bad guy putting the separated suitcases together in some form. If you go that route you need a lot more research.
     
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  23. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Pretty sure it's safe to look up nuclear topics on Google. How to make a bomb is not a secret.

    Asking suspicious questions at a nuclear power plant on the other hand ...:eek:
     
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  24. psychotick
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    Hi Catrin,

    Just to add. Just did some checking. In the original A bombs the fissile material was contained in a sphere and the explosive charges that compressed the sphere dotted around them in a large sphere. It was critical to the explosion that all the detonators fired at exactly the same time. So if fire etc set off the explosive charges around a nuclear casing, it would be very unlikely to set them off all at once and so create a nuclear explosion. You might get a partial limited explosion - don't know - but it would certainly be nothing like an actual nuclear blast.

    For a dirty bomb effect the radioactive material stored in cannisters in a plant would actually be the better target. Bear in mind I don't know how they are contained in their containers or what sort of containers are used, but in my mind it's more likely to scatter radioactive particles than the stuff inside a bomb core.

    Cheers, Greg.
     

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