Gamma ray bomb, the new apocolypse?

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Gamma ray bomb, the new apocolypse?

Arms race fear over new bomb

US SCIENTISTS are working on a space-age weapon that experts fear could trigger a new arms race, it was claimed last night.

The gamma ray bomb blurs the line between conventional and nuclear explosives. It produces an enormous burst of energy from atoms without involving nuclear fission or fusion.

Just one gram of the explosive could store more energy than 50 kilograms of TNT.

A gamma bomb would produce little fall-out compared with a normal nuclear weapon, although undetonated particles could cause long-term health problems for anyone breathing them in.

Despite the fact that research is at an early stage and a practical weapon may not be built for many years, some experts are already worried.

Dr Andre Gsponer, the director of the Independent Scientific Research Institute in Geneva, believes countries without such weapons would not be able to fight ones that possessed them.

The result could be a arms race - or, worse, a decision to resort to nuclear weapons, he claims.

"Many countries which will not have access to these weapons will produce nuclear weapons as a deterrent," said Dr Gsponer.

The technology has already been included in the Pentagonís "militarily critical technologies list", which says: "Such extraordinary energy density has the potential to revolutionise all aspects of warfare."

The principle behind the bomb is that the nuclei of some elements can exist in a high-energy state - known as a nuclear isomer - that slowly decays by emitting gamma rays.

Four years ago, scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas showed that it was possible to artificially trigger this effect by bombarding an isomer of the element hafnium with X-rays.

At present, the main obstacle is obtaining enough of the hafnium isomer, which is currently only produced in tiny amounts.

But experts believe gram quantities of the element will exist within five years.

The price is likely to be high - similar to that of enriched uranium which costs thousands of pounds per kilogram. However, it could be used in any quantity, unlike uranium, since it does not require the "critical mass" needed for a nuclear explosion.

Deploying such weapons would be highly controversial. Since the 1950s, the United States has backed away from "mini" nuclear weapons, fearing military commanders might be too tempted to use them.

By keeping nuclear weapons far more powerful than conventional weapons, it was hoped they would only be used in exceptional circumstances.

In 1994, the US confirmed this policy by passing a law which prevents the military from developing mini-nuclear weapons with an explosive yield of less than five kilotonnes.
By netchicken: posted on 15-8-2003

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