Norman Dombey

Norman Dombey is a professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the University of Sussex.

From The Blog
22 February 2021

Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ has been described by ministers as the basis of our defence strategy for nearly seventy years. Tony Blair proclaimed that ‘our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the ultimate assurance of our national security.’ We have used US missiles to carry our nuclear warheads but ministers of both main political parties have insisted that the nuclear weapon itself was British and designed at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston. After all, we first exploded an A-bomb in 1952 and H-bombs in 1957-58 without help from the US or other state. Yet last year a defence minister hinted at the truth for the first time: Britain’s nuclear warheads are of American design.

Poison and the Bomb

Norman Dombey, 20 December 2018

In​ February 1945 the Soviet people’s commissar for state security, V.N. Merkulov, sent a memo on the status of the Manhattan Project to his boss, Lavrentii Beria, head of the NKVD. Merkulov was responsible for collecting information from Soviet spies inside the Manhattan Project – in particular from Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee who was part of the British mission to Los...

North Korea’s Bomb

Norman Dombey, 2 February 2017

The sequence – tests followed by sanctions followed by more tests then yet more sanctions – has been going on for decades. Yet there is no complacency about the importance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. Barack Obama is said to have told Donald Trump at their post-election meeting that North Korea is the biggest foreign threat the US faces.

Still Dithering: After Trident

Norman Dombey, 16 December 2010

On the eve of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in September the armed forces minister, Nick Harvey, a Lib Dem, told MPs that ‘the government had decided in principle to renew Trident.’ A few days later, Nick Clegg told the conference that he opposed ‘a like-for-like Trident replacement’ and suggested that ‘the money would be better spent on frontline...

At Al Kibar: the Syrian Sting

Norman Dombey, 19 June 2008

A building at Al Kibar in eastern Syria was attacked by Israeli aircraft early on the morning of 6 September last year. After the raid the Syrian authorities bulldozed the site, presumably to hide what remained from inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At an intelligence briefing on 24 April, seven months later, US officials showed a video and satellite images of the...

The US defence and intelligence community launched a pre-emptive strike at George Bush and Richard Cheney on 3 December. The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released that day concluded: ‘We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme.’ So Iran will not be the next target of this administration after all. The politicians’...

Po-210 as a Poison: Death by Polonium

Norman Dombey, 2 August 2007

The word ‘radioactive’ was first used in public on 18 July 1898, when Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, reported to the French Academy of Sciences on the progress of their work on becquerel rays – what we would now call ionising radiation. The Curies had subjected pitchblende, a black mineral composed largely of uranium dioxide, to repeated heating, then dissolved the...

The prime minister made it clear that except where Her Majesty’s Government may decide that supreme national interests are at stake, these British forces will be used for the purposes of international defence of the Western Alliance in all circumstances.

Harold Macmillan, 21 December 1962

Harold Macmillan’s statement was made during a visit to the Bahamas to meet President...

Iran and the Bomb: Don’t Do It

Norman Dombey, 25 January 2007

On 7 June 1981, Israeli aircraft bombed and completely destroyed the Iraqi nuclear research reactor Osirak. The French government, which had sold the reactor to Iraq, protested. Bertrand Barre, its nuclear attaché in Washington, explained that the reactor posed no proliferation risk and that ‘it was intended to be used . . . for testing or converting materials into isotopes, which have specialised uses in medicine.’ The UN Security Council strongly condemned the attack as being ‘in clear violation of the charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct’. The United States, however, objected to the imposing of any sanctions on Israel.

Iran and the UN: Iran and the UN

Norman Dombey, 23 February 2006

On 4 February, the Board of Governors of the IAEA finally decided to report Iran to the UN Security Council. Their resolution noted that ‘after nearly three years of intensive verification activity, the agency is not yet in a position … to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.’ It went on to point out ‘Iran’s many...

Did Scooter Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff, lie to a grand jury about Valerie Plame and the leaking of her name to the press? If he did, was it retaliation aimed at her husband, Joseph Wilson, who wrote in the New York Times that the allegation that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger was false – based, it turned out, on forged documents passed on to...

In March 2002 I attended one of the regular Foreign and Commonwealth Office meetings on nuclear non-proliferation. We were told by a senior official that Iraq had reassembled its nuclear scientists and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons programme, which had been completely disbanded by UN inspectors after the 1991 Gulf War. In September 2002, Downing Street published its dossier claiming...

Short Cuts: False Intelligence

Norman Dombey, 19 February 2004

Fifteen months ago in these pages I reviewed a book by Khidhir Hamza, who called himself ‘Saddam’s bombmaker’. At the same time I assessed the now notorious government dossier of September 2002 on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, together with the more restrained document published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. I said that Hamza’s...

“In the absence of clear evidence that it has been able to rebuild those facilities [removed by the inspectors] despite stringent UN sanctions, one can only conclude that as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, Iraq is much less of a threat now than it was in 1991.”

From The Blog
22 February 2016

Last month North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test. As with the previous test, three years ago, the yield was equivalent to between six and nine kilotons of TNT. Yet while the first three tests were undoubtedly atomic bombs – the explosive energy came from the fission of the nucleus of plutonium-239 – this time North Korea announced that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. An H-bomb’s energy comes from the fusion of the nuclei of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. Whereas A-bombs attain yields measured in kilotons, H-bombs typically attain megaton yields. They are also known as thermonuclear bombs because the nuclei must be heated to a temperature as hot as the centre of the sun in order to initiate the fusion process.

From The Blog
29 July 2015

On 29 January 2002, George W. Bush designated Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, despite Iranian co-operation in Afghanistan the previous year. In summer 2002, the US told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that two nuclear sites were under construction in Iran, at Natanz and Arak, neither of which had been declared to the IAEA as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran was a signatory. To defuse the situation, President Khatami offered to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme with the EU3 (France, Germany and the UK). Jack Straw, Joschka Fischer and Dominique de Villepin visited Tehran in October 2003. Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani, agreed to suspend the enrichment facility at Natanz and the construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak, and to sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which provides for more intrusive inspections of nuclear sites than the NPT does.

From The Blog
3 December 2012

At five o’clock on Tuesday morning, Yasser Arafat’s body was disinterred in Ramallah and tissue samples extracted for analysis by French, Swiss and Russian scientists. One of the things they’ll be testing for is polonium poisoning. But can a meaningful result be hoped for eight years after Arafat’s death? The half-life of Po-210 in vacuo is 138 days (i.e. half the original Po-210 nuclei would decay on average in 138 days) but in the body it’s rather less, between two and three months (i.e. on average half the Po-210 atoms would have passed through the body after this time). Either way, a definitive result for Arafat would be difficult to obtain now, since after eight years the initial quantities of any Po-210 would be diluted by a factor of a million. As a spokesperson for the University of Lausanne's Institute of Radiation Physics has said, the traces of polonium they found on Arafat's clothes a few months ago could be a more recent contamination and don't prove anything.

From The Blog
15 November 2011

Among the evidence for ‘possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme’ in the new Report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is that a foreign expert... who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career... in the nuclear weapon programme of his country of origin... was in Iran from about 1996 to 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds, where he lectured also on explosion physics and its applications.

From The Blog
26 May 2010

On 22 September 1979 at about 1 a.m. GMT, a US Vela satellite passing over the South Atlantic detected a double flash of light in the vicinity of Prince Edward Island. The satellite had been launched in 1969 in order to detect atmospheric nuclear tests. When a nuclear weapon explodes in the atmosphere, the heat of the fireball strips the electrons off the atoms and molecules of the surrounding air. For a fraction of a second the ionised air is opaque, until the blast blows it away. The resulting double flash is the signature of a nuclear explosion. At the time the Vela had successfully detected 41 such explosions. Guy Barasch of Los Alamos, the laboratory which ran the Vela programme, concluded that ‘naturally occurring signals would not be mistaken for that of a nuclear explosion’ and that

Britain’s Thermonuclear Bluff

Norman Dombey and Eric Grove, 22 October 1992

‘Britain Carries Out Second H-Test, Explosion even bigger than the first one,’ the Manchester Guardian reported on Saturday, 1 June 1957. It was the lead news item. The story that followed was datelined ‘Aboard HMS Alert’, Alert being the frigate which housed the representatives of the British press corps invited to see for themselves that Britain, as befitted the third great power in the world, had attained thermonuclear status. According to Reuters, ‘a great multi-coloured fireball above the central Pacific heralded Britain’s second hydrogen bomb test’ off the Malden Islands.

Arms and Saddam

Norman Dombey, 24 October 1991

‘I have very high confidence that those nuclear reactors have been thoroughly damaged and will not be effective for quite some number of years,’ General Norman Schwarzkopf said on US television on 20 January, four days after the beginning of the air war in support of the liberation of Kuwait. Iraq’s ability to build nuclear weapons, he stressed, was at an end. The reactors in question were two small research reactors based at the Centre for Nuclear Research in Tuwaitha, about fifteen miles south-east of Baghdad. They had been supplied, equipped and supervised by the USSR and France, were used for research in physics, chemistry and medicine, with results that were published in the open scientific literature, and had been inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iraq is a party. The inspections took place at six-month intervals and the last inspection had been in November 1990. After that inspection the IAEA reported that there was no evidence of any diversion of nuclear materials from civil use.

Ferdinand Mount writes that ‘the PM is surrounded by toadies he appointed, and alternative sources of criticism are silenced or sidelined,’ giving as an example the ‘sceptical advice’ on weapons of mass destruction ‘proffered by Dr Brian Jones, head of the nuclear, biological, chemical, technical intelligence branch of the Defence Intelligence Staff’ before the ‘dodgy...

Pakistan’s Bomb

18 July 2019

In his review of Hassan Abbas’s book Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb, Owen Bennett-Jones refers to A.Q. Khan as the country’s ‘leading nuclear scientist’ (LRB, 18 July). Khan is a metallurgist, not a nuclear engineer or physicist. Two men in particular were responsible for building Pakistan’s bomb. One was Munir Khan, a nuclear engineer who worked at the International Atomic...
R.W. Johnson (LRB, 2 December) makes many telling points about Mrs Thatcher’s time as prime minister. One point that he gets completely wrong, however, is her claim to have influenced Reagan’s SDI policy. She in fact played a decisive role in ensuring that the United States did not ‘break out’ of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was the goal of Edward Teller and many...
We are glad that Denis MacShane (Letters, 19 November) has raised the question of US policy with respect to nuclear co-operation between Britain and France. It is true that the US has provided France with informal help on her nuclear programme, but as MacShane points out, this help did not breach US Atomic Energy legislation. After over thirty years of US-UK collaboration any exchange of nuclear weapon...

After Osirak

24 October 1991

‘Once the Iraqi nuclear threat had been removed by the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in June 1981,’ Joost Hiltermann writes, ‘Iran no longer felt the need to pursue a nuclear path’ (LRB, 4 February). The opposite is true. Following the destruction of Osirak, Iraq decided to launch an independent nuclear programme in order to reduce its reliance on foreign suppliers. In...

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