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No noble gas from North Korea blast

Susan Watts | 20:35 UK time, Wednesday, 10 June 2009

As the huge hall at Vienna's Hofburg Palace began to fill with 800 scientists, diplomats and journalists this morning, a line of children wove its way to the stage. Looking slightly nervous and each in some form of national dress, they opened this scientific conference on nuclear testing with touching songs about world peace.

Officially the conference aims to sum up how well science is doing in detecting, understanding and warning the world's politicians about an explosion anywhere in the world - and the likelihood that such an explosion might be a nuclear test.

Its tool is a scientific network that underpins the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which proponents argue has a key role in creating a world free of nuclear tests, and possibly, one day, a world free of nuclear weapons.

But there was one thing everybody in the room wanted to know. Had the network of sensors picked up radionuclides from the North Korean explosion two weeks ago? Seismologists here today say they are comfortable that explosion was a nuclear test, but detecting radionuclide evidence in the form of radioactive gas is the "smoking gun". And the big news here is that they have not found that signal.

What's more, scientists don't really seem to know why. One delegate, an expert on radionuclide detection from Sweden, told the conference how well the network performed after North Korea's nuclear test in 2006. Twelve days after that event the network picked up just a few hundreds of atoms of the noble gas Xenon 133 in Canada. He confessed to being "surprised" that this time round, so far, there has been nothing. He said he is sure the sensors are working properly. So why might there be no signal, and does it matter?

The eminent seismologist Professor Paul Richards from Columbia University implied it didn't matter so much. The network includes a range of technologies - using seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide technologies precisely to give the world what he described as a "a quiver of arrows". Thus if one arrow doesn't hit the target, then others will; if one detection set-up sees no nuclear signature, others will. And his personal view is that this was most likely a nuclear test.

So was there a deliberate attempt by the North Koreans to contain the explosion? Or was the explosion contained by accident? Some larger yield nuclear explosions can apparently "melt" the rock around them, so less noble gas seeps out. Attempts to explain the lack of a noble gas signal remain educated guesses at the moment. The official line here is that all this highlights the need for more countries to ratify the Treaty, so that it can come into force, thus allowing on-site inspection teams to move in to check out such tests.

In the meantime, scientists here might be keeping their fingers crossed that something shows up soon, but they seem already to be resigned to the possibility that it may not.

Those in Washington and elsewhere who see no value in treaties such as the CTBT may view this differently, perhaps as a vulnerability. The window of opportunity to detect noble gases from the May blast is closing. One more week and it will be too late. The material will be too widely dispersed or no longer radioactive enough to pick up.

The children who sang this morning invited the audience to join their "circle of friends", and they imagined a Magic Song that might bring peace to the world. It would be easy to be cynical. But it is a message pretty much echoed by the Austrian foreign minister who, perhaps optimistically, described the monitoring network as "a promise of peace to our children".

In the end, the scientists here say their goal is to give the world the best data they have, and let politicians decide what to do about it. At least the data from this second north Korean blast reached key people soon enough that they were able to convene the Security Council on the same day. But the world waits to see what, if anything, will happen next.


  • Comment number 1.


    Only a power so great that it feels safe from retaliation - or - a culture that cares more for its ideals than its safety - or - a nutty dictatorship, would use the bomb. Of the three, only the first can be reasonably be expected to apply self-restraint, and even they were recently run by a nutty dictator. It doesn't look good from here.

  • Comment number 2.

    May I add that only the first used to bomb twice. So I am not to sure about the self-restraint.

  • Comment number 3.

    May I add that you have to see the use of the first bombs in the context of the war:
    - Japan had not yet surrendered
    - the US were planning the conventional invasion of the Japanese Home Islands and were very worried that the Japanese would put up a resistance of the same type as in Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
    In effect the bombs were the more humane solution: the conventional invasion would have killed and wounded hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of soldiers (japanese and American) and civilians.

  • Comment number 4.

    reply to BernardVC
    this is an essay that shows the nuke use was not a good idea i quote
    "the American government was well aware of Japan's attempts at peace overtures through Russian channels in mid-July of 1945. One decoded Japanese diplomatic cable read: "Japan is defeated. We must face that fact and act accordingly."

  • Comment number 5.

    I can understand the argument you make from a tactical war perspective but hindsight is a great thing. It was only more humane to US soldiers not to the people who were caught up in the war. You have to look beyond war tactics to see the effect of that drop. Stand at the memorial in Hiroshima and you will just know it was a bad decision. Not only Japanese died in that blast, 20,000 innocent koreans were also killed and many families that could of escaped any battle were killed.
    Saying all this, I do wonder what would of happened if General McArthur had got his way and used the bomb on the Yalu River during the Korean War.

  • Comment number 6.

    barriesingleton - The logic of Nuclear Weapons us a little more complicated than the benefits derived from an offensive capabilities point of view.

  • Comment number 7.

    While history now shows us that the US administration was aware that Japan was preparing to surrender, and that preparation of the A-bomb was subsequently speeded-up (no document exists, however, to categorically tie the two things together), I think it is somewhat misguided to even enter into the debate of whether or not the use of nuclear weapons may be justifiable. There are thermo-barrack munitions, now, that actually produce larger inital blasts than small atomic weapons. Ideally we would live in a world where no weapon - nuclear or 'conventional' - would ever be considered appropriate.

  • Comment number 8.

    To those that are interested, even after the second bomb, the military in the Japanese government argued that the US didn't have any more A-bombs and wanted to continue fighting. Hirohito used his casting vote to opt for surrender. The incendiary bombing of Dresden killed more people than either A-Bomb blasts. The war in Japan ended by conventional means would have lasted another 3-4 years (the Gulf Stream makes high altitude bombing impossible) and condemned the whole population to starvation and poverty as well. My suspicion is that the Japanese with their particular sense of honour & duty would have opted for death in battle instead. Without the "shock factor" of the A-Bomb I don't believe surrender would be on the cards.

  • Comment number 9.

    Should of, would of and could of...quite frankly. It's all resigned to history and I agree with the person who said hindsight is a wonderful thing. Bad choices were made.

    I personally am with KangWen in that weapons should not be considered appropriate but they exist and we have to ask more ethical questions.

    Is surpressing North Korea's nuclear dreams the right thing to do?

    Perhaps a controversial thing for me to say, but I personally think North Korea are entitled to Nuclear capability, as well as Iran and any other nation.

    "Let those without sin, cast the first stone".

    Quite frankly, we in no position to question their motives when we still persue Nuclear armament ourselves.

  • Comment number 10.

    I have been reading the tom beardon website and have recently ordered a number of his extremely interesting books. i have also studied other sources on the internet, and one of my thoughts, in answer to susan watts blog is, could we have sena demonstration of one of the scalar weapons which am informed a number of counties possess?
    according to tom beardon, thee weapons use electromagnetic potential, and scalar fields, and unlock their energy at the target thus creating earthquakes as one example. i wonder if this is what has been happening in north korea? any thoughts would be very interesting.

  • Comment number 11.

    Blueatjustchill wrote: "...that COULD OF escaped..."
    Blueatjustchill wrote: "...I do wonder what WOULD OF happened..."
    Krudley wrote: "Should of, would of and could of"

    Guys, you missed a class...

    should've - contraction of 'should have'
    would've - contraction of 'would have'
    could've - contraction of 'could have'

    you're using phonetic corruptions; learn to love the apostrophe!
    (it doesn't even cost you extra keypresses to type :)

  • Comment number 12.

    just correcting my badly typed post above.
    as I was saying, Tom Beardon informs us, there are at least six countries Russia being a prime example, and including Brazil, China, and Japan, who possess scalar weapons based on research by Tesla at the turn of the twentieth century.
    these weapons use a variation of the electromagnetic fields as used in radar, and the wavelength i believe is at right angles to the plane of normal electromagnetic radiation. the subject also includes precursor fields and engines as modifications of the scalar field. we also come across concepts of quantum potential weapons , the whole subject very taxing to study whilst very fascinating. I wonder if the united kingdom is studying this area of exotic weaponry and research?
    I am wondering if in the North Korea explosion we have seen a demonstration of one of these weapons which explains why there are no radionuclides detectable.
    I recommend the website '' of tom beardon, where there is a wealth of extraordinary material worth studying.
    any ones thoughts on this would be most interesting to hear. and I hope my typing is better this time!

  • Comment number 13.

    8. At 11:02am on 12 Jun 2009, pandatank wrote:

    Purely in the spirit of information shared is knowledge enhanced, as one who never sees his own typos I think the correct description here is 'Jet Stream'.

    (towards the end - actually an interesting article)

    Speaking as one whose Dad was about to be redirected to fight island by island, I have tended to heed the interpretations of events as outlined and sympathised with the justifications, political, ethical and philosophical.

    By this time the genie was out of the bottle and one has to question what difference there is between being a shadow on a wall or a puddle of fat running down a street.

    There is more of a case with when it comes to such as fallout, but again there are probably some going through life bearing the scars of 'conventional', 'acceptable' ordnance mechanisms of inflicting death and/or destruction who might fail to fully accept the distinction.

  • Comment number 14.

    Let's leave speculation about what could have been, and just eamine the FACTS. USA, Russia, UK, France, India, Pakistan, and China, already have nuclear weapons and have had them for some years, during which they have actually been involved in wars with other coutnties or with each other. It is rumoured that a couple of other countries may also have them ( Israel, RSA, and now N Korea)

    Apart from the Japanese War and the Americans using them, back before people really knew how awful they were, having them has NOT led to anyone actually using them.

    There can be a complex of reasons for this - shame, fear, the fact that the fallout can blow back in you own face as well as all round the world, singular unreliability of the eapons themselves and or the delivery mechanisms - the reasons dont matter as they are internal, all that DOES is the fact of their not having been used once we knew how bad they were.

    I submit that at worst, developing them so shocks the people who then have them that they avoid using them at all costs, or perhaps people see that they have no advantage and no real use and soon everyone will agree that they are wasted effort and will give them up.

    There are far more effective biological weapons now - you could disable an entire army for long enough to disarm them whilst they were prostqte with dysentry for example, and you would have taken over all their productive capacity intact instead of just been able to stand in the radioactive ruins afterwards!

    Even more effective is that people are slowly learning to actually talk aboyt their disagreements with each other BEFORE, instead of only AFTER, they go throught he ritual mass murdering ceremony of warfare.

  • Comment number 15.


    Thanks! Somebody had to point it out.

  • Comment number 16.

    Their are about 10 odd countries in ME , N Africa and elsewhere with civilian nuclear programs on fast track for security reasons (Read Nukes) . NK will likely provide the Nuke Weapons tech when they have build up enough on civilian side to use it. While China smiles with complete deniability, while it gets preferred ME resource access in exchange at best or use it as super leverage against the west at least. There is presidence for this, just look at at Chinas -Pakistan - NKorea , nukes and DF rockets saga. & NK -Syria activity .

    Note**: Any country can LEGALLY pull out of CTBT/NPT at anytime for national security reasons , fact that msm downplays. Nk did just this to stay legal when it was ready to test.

  • Comment number 17.

    Flee Throwing Football:

    Yeah, it's an error that's spread too far, a corrupting meme virus that needs some antibodies before the entire English writing world is infested.

    I just wish I'd had something more than pedantry to contribute :(

    Errrr, OK.

    This whole thing is the result of the west betraying their promises.

    We offered food, energy, less sanctions, etc for decommissioning their nuke plant.
    They did.
    We then loaded on demands for intricate proof without holding up our end of the bargain in any respect what-so-ever.
    They justifiably felt betrayed.

    And now we have a good moan about a problem WE pushed them towards!
    (well, Bush actually)

  • Comment number 18.

    The question of whether the western nations would use nukes today is a tricky one. The fact that the geinie is already out of the bottle doesn't really hold any sway. The likes of USA, UK, France etc haven't been in the dire situation where they have had to resort to the big guns. I wasn't aware of Japan being ready to surrender, but still I agree that a conventional invasion of the Janapnees holmlands would have meant a lot more casualties, maybe not as many civilians though.

    To argue that the Americans didn't know how bad a nuclear explosion on a major metropolian area would be is a poor one. Even after Trinity it was plainly obvious what would happen, tens of thousands of people would die.

    The problem as I see it is that the 2 nations that are on the naughty list for tryiong to obtain nuclear weapons have both said that they want to destroy their mortal enemies. NK are renound as preaching hate towards USA and Iranian leaders have been quoted as saying they want to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. It doesn't bode well for either if you ask me and for that reason, no Iran or North Korea shouldn't be allowed to have nukes. I for one just don't trust them not to kill millions of people.

    P.S. A bomb dropped nowerdays would kill many more than those in 1945.

  • Comment number 19.

    It takes less than 3 years for the car to kill more people in the US than died at Hiroshima. Now that's something the US can do something about itself but I doubt it will bother - perhaps they can blame it one Korean car manufacturers.

  • Comment number 20.

    North Korea has been actively working on nuclear weapons since at least the mid 90's. It's quite obvious that they have both U-235 and plutonium. So it begs the question what else have they been after? U-233 artillery shells for use in tactical nuclear warfare? Neutron weapons...could this be the cause of the missing xenon? And could they also have used a decoupled blast test by re-using the previous blast dome like the US did in Mississippi in the 60's and then published in the open literature about. Given the calibration exercise provided by Saddam Hussein's vast nuclear program that leveraged nuclear weapons programs of the west that involved billions of dollars, and given the failure of at least one major western power to detect and predict the Indian nuclear test it begs the question what else have the western powers failed at detecting when it comes to nation states that have hostile intent or a greater agenda. It has been alleged that China obtained enough information about the advanced US nuclear weapons designs that have allowed it to back engineer the neutron bomb. It begs the question could the missing xenon be related to the North Koreans (as proxies) being given access to a neutron bomb warhead capable of being SRB rocket launched, or delivered by large artillery shell. The North Koreans may just surprise the west with a break out strategy involving a Blitzkreig run at Seoul. Such a hypothetical strategy is not out of the question given the belicose rhetoric and the withdrawl from the armistice argeement. Remember the fact that North Korea spent years preparing large tunnels under the DMZ for use by just such a blitzkreig strategy. Let us hope that such ideas remain the story line for ghost written Tom Clancy novels.

  • Comment number 21.

    Hypocrisy, thy names is....
    The UK, US the many others have voiced their opinion regarding North Korea's nuclear programme. But so far I have not heard anyone say the blindingly obvious; If we are so against these weapons of mass destruction why not lead the way by ridding ourselves of them first.

    It seems to me a similar story is being played out in Iran, we say no to their building nuclear power stations, but we advocate constructing dozens of them in the UK. I appreciate the biggest part of this is trust - but come on - we all know that nuclear is NOT the way forward and we all know that harbouring greater numbers of destructive weapons only increases the desire of others to do so.
    Yet we continue, I wonder why that is?

  • Comment number 22.

    One possible reason for this increasing hostility in this area could be to do with Western Governments wish to start another 'Cold-War' of sorts. Most war mongers fear losing their jobs, just like anyone, but the worrying thing is that to keep their job all they have to do is to stir up some hatred for a foreign power and job secure for at least 5 more years.

    Go to war with a foreign power and you could make a career out of it!!!

    War costs money,lots of money! Those who supply the military make countless billions each year, what reason would they have to cut off their primary source of income - peace doesn't pay, war does. And it's they [the military] who decide if we are at war or not!

  • Comment number 23.

    There must be a large uncertainty factor and a relatively low likelihood of detecting a "few atoms" of noble gases around the world from this nuclear test. How many testing stations are there and has anyone worked out the probabilities of detection? I would go with the seismologists' data personally, and accept that it happened.

  • Comment number 24.

    Clearly, any form of western unilateral dissarmament is now a fairyland concept with potential apocalyptic consequensequences for western democracy.
    We are, and always have been in a nuclear stand off with various tin pot dictators. There are more arriving at the door as we speak (Iran et all...)
    Prevention WAS better han cure, but now we need a CURE. This can only be in the form of overwhelming western technology, and the will to use it,

  • Comment number 25.

    Its interesting to hear all comments on the issue but it seems (like in most debates) the cause of the debate is being well over looked, and that is that North Korea is a break-away state it has isolated itself from the rest of the world, closing its borders and shutting the outside community well and truly out! Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this in many peoples minds and North Korea are entitled to do so long as there people do not objectbut there lies another problem it wouldnt matter if they did. This is a communist state ran by a dictatorship that demands absolute obedience and control from its people who now seek the power of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which begs the questionwhat does a break-away state that has no interest in the rest of the world (apparently) need with WMDs?, what do they intend to do with them if they do finally develop them?
    It is our right and obligation to ask these questions of North Korea it would be highly negligent and naive to allow them to continue down the road that they have chosen which is a dark and uncertain path which unchecked could threaten the safety of all of North Koreas neighbours and perhaps even those in the West including the UK, this is a global debate and therefore in my opinion demands exact and if needs swift and decisive action from those who have the power to intervene, when the time is right. This would be much easier to handle if we were dealing with a country looking to expand its defensive capabilities that wasnt shrouded in controversy and extreme speculation.
    Finally lets not forget that like most of mans greatest achievements the A-bomb had been derived and invented out of necessity, we developed it because we needed it at time greater than ever before, but now its here it is much more difficult to know what to do with it. We created a master bomb without hesitation or after thought, we could be seen as a child holding a gun, not sure what to do with it and ultimately someone will get hurt, its purpose was served in the War right or wrong the historians will decide, who will decide today? We will, we should, we are by not allowing a state like North Korea the right to such awesome power we protect not just ourselves but the right to control the management and one day the removal of such weapons. If I ran a state as desperate to control and dominate my land and people with a desire for richness and power I may find a WMD quite the selling item to the highest buyer lets not rule that out when those of you who call on the rest of us who demand of North Koreas explicit cooperation to turn a blind eye and leave them be.
    Lots to think about

    I think I have waffled on for long enough.

  • Comment number 26.

    just one finak thought. were any EMP waves detected at the point of blast? was there any light emitted when the blast went off as observe from space? going back to Tom Beardons work, on scaler fields and weapory, and I am just beginning studying this, can it not be posited that one of the powers possessing these weapons as Beardon tells us they are , may they be saying something to the North koreans, maybe a gentle tap on the shoulder? in which case it may n be the Koreans NOT activating a bomb, but someone detonating a scaler weapon, as a warning to korea? maybe even North Korea is researching these fearful Scaler EMP weapons in which case we should all be fearful. !!!!!!!
    just some thoughts, I am sure we only here the shallow surface of what js actually taking place or known about,amongst the governments of the world.

  • Comment number 27.

    good day to all, i am new for this. my point is that- all people forgot that this small earth not belong any one. We are the protector of the world for the future generation, not beuseed by dirty political. Why we want to show our power and strong the world we love. Please think for future of ur next generation.

  • Comment number 28.

    Regarding Beardon and his crackpot ideas - this is a good link.

    One has to ask: why are people so prepared to believe conspiracy/hidden science/secret society etc. etc. mumbo jumbo? Could this be a new religion?

  • Comment number 29.

    I agree with those who speak of the danger of the A-bomb, but I firmly believe that North Korea is especially dangerous with the grade of weapons technology that they are seeking. Everywhere outside the immediate area around Nk is relatively safe from a nuke or ICBM due to the amount of time it'd take to travel and the variety of ways to intercept it. However the actions of this nation is raising tensions in not only it's own area, but also in the middle east due to its dealings with Iran. The actions of one "rogue" is creating a raised sense of world tension and adding to the culture of fear and past events have shown that fear=people getting more weapons.

    The second problem is that if NK is going after nukes now and we fail to stop them, what's to say they won't pursue bio weapons? Bear in mind, those are something no one can properly control.

  • Comment number 30.

    sadly, it takes a room full of highly intelligent scientists and philosophers to first decry a lone but highly inventive mind. then slowly the evidence gets so overwhelming, and maybe after fifty years have passed, the ideas of the lone maverick will seep into the common knowledge base and then one day he will be raised up no longer isolated, but as a true hero of free and original thought. a genius even.
    your denunciation of beardons work, merely says something about your own level of comprehension of what he s actually saying. maybe you make a statement about yourself .!!!

  • Comment number 31.

    Firstly, at 'nick-ynysmon'.

    I don't know what you have been reading but I have never heard such rubbish. That's in the realms of science fiction I am afraid and should be confined to the scripts of Star Trek and so on, I am a PhD particle physicist.

    The fact is, at the time America used the bomb on Japan the world was at war. America and Germany were racing to develop a bomb first and if America hadn't beaten them to it, do you think Nazi Germany and Japan would have hesitated to use it on Britain and the US? I doubt it! Germany was beaten by conventional means but the Japanese were still fighting on and given how cruel and evil they were to American and British POWs I doubt they would have surrendered easily either.

    Seventy years on and the world is a lot more stable, the world's major powers have nukes but are stable enough to not need to use them. They were an unfortunate invention at a time when the free world needed them to defend itself when Nazi Germany was trying to invent one first during the war. There followed the arms race of the cold war. Now that the major powers have them, each one has to measure the need to rid the world of nukes against their own protection, even after the end of the cold war. The major powers of the west and east still don't entirely trust each other, even twenty years after the end of the cold war.

    Unstable states like NK and Iran don't need them and have no right to have them, they just want to provoke the rest of the world. The big powers invented them and got on to a treadmill that they couldn't step down from, hence why they still have them today, but the situation doesn't need exacerbating by rogue states being allowed to acquire nukes too. Nobody is going to use nuclear weapons against them or attack them for no reason. What need do any of the world's major powers have to use nuclear weapons on states like Iran or North Korea except to make sure the sods behave themselves and don't threaten the rest of the world?


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