I am continuing with my novel. Well, the Prologue itself is about the successful test of a new nuclear weapon. So, the questions are pretty straightforward-

How can I portray its management?

How will it be built? What about the fuel? etc.

Of course the answers to these questions depends on how I think and write the story. But I need ideas about how to show such modern science in a fantasy middle-age world with metal weapons and person-to-person combat.

All ideas are welcome. :)

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    $\begingroup$ Are you ready to either include magic or an inordinate amount of handwaving? By nuclear weapon, I assume you mean fission bomb. If so, making them is actually very difficult and requires quite a lot of precision resources not available in midieval times. Even a modern rifle would be a substantial achievement back then. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 24 '16 at 6:17
  • $\begingroup$ The biggest issue show do they even recognize the idea of nuclear energy? Gunpowder was discovered through mixing and burning various chemicals, and charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre were known since ancient times. Cortez actually mined the materials and made gunpowder at a volcano very close to the Aztec capital; they had no idea what he was doing and all the materials had been there since the beginning of the Aztec era. The second issue is how to enrich the Uranium. This is the real secret of nuclear weapons, since it is a very difficult and subtle process. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Jan 24 '16 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ Take the planet of the apes approach. Then your book will end not with a whimper, but with a bang. $\endgroup$ Jan 24 '16 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ It might help if we know a bit more about your world and how/why nuclear weapons are being used in a high fantasy culture. $\endgroup$
    – evilscary
    Jan 25 '16 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'm tempted to say, use magic. Old magic that destroyed the people who once mastered it, leaving just legends and a few incredibly powerful one-shot weapons behind. Armed, so magic is not needed to unleash them. I'd find this more credible than nuclear engineering in a mediaeval setting. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Jan 25 '16 at 10:56

You will need to stretch a lot to make this a cohesive book. The ability to make a nuclear bomb is sufficiently far from the technology of swords and shields that they really don't fit. It's going to be a monster of a stretch.

The creation of a nuclear bomb requires an astonishing dynamic range of skills. King-Ink pointed out the subtle task: enrichment. He mentions gas centrifuges are out of the question due to aluminum not being available, but it goes even deeper than that. The spinning parts of a gas centrifuge are spinning so fast that they are approaching the tensile strength capabilities of single crystal titanium. Zippie type centrifuges spin so fast that the only way to keep the friction from turning the entire device into slag is magnetic bearings! Why all of this? The art of enriching is subtle: you have to separate two groups of atoms whose only distinguishing factor is that one is 1.2% heavier than the other. And, of course, you have to do this at the atomic scale, so lots of easy mass based techniques fall through.

However, there is another side, which is the opposite of subtle: the creation of the bomb. Obviously much of this is classified for good reason, but some details about the bombs are known. If I may cite information from this page on the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki. While enrichment is a very subtle art, the bomb is a precision work worthy of the finest watchmakers ever.

First off, a bit of information on how a nuclear bomb works. To make a bomb like the Fat Man, you need a perfectly spherical shock wave, from conventional explosives, crushing two or three pieces of uranium into one critical mass. The perfectly spherical requirement is not an overstatement: if the shock wave is not spherical, the implosion event is not symmetrical enough, and will "blow out" like a baby's diaper before the real power of the bomb ever comes to bear. To manage this, Fat Man had several layers of different high explosives wrapped around it (did I mention you need high explosives, not just gunpowder?). They were shaped carefully to have a lensing effect, focusing the shockwave down to a spherical shape. Fat man had 3 layers: Composition B, Baritol, and Composition B. The Baritol is slower burning, so careful shaping of the layers could create a lensing effect.

There were 32 of these lenses on Fat Man. Why? Because they put 32 initiators around the body. The more initiators you have, the more spherical the explosion, and the less creative lensing is required. It is known that more advanced nuclear bombs have upwards to at least 96 initiators, trying to get as much yield as possible. These initators are typically connected with thick, high current wires. I don't know the particulars for the Fat Man, but I know there is a type of initiator called "exploding bridgewire initiator," which is only used in nuclear weapons... nowhere else. While normal initiators can give you millisecond precision in your timing, a nuclear bomb calls for microsecond precision!

I could go on and on, but the point is, building these bombs requires a vast dynamic range of capability, from the subtle enrichment to the immaculately precise application of high explosives. All of this, of course, is based on reams of paperwork defining the theory behind everything they did.

If you want a great book on the management side of the bomb, I highly recommend Retired General Grover's book, Now It Can Be Told. Grover was in charge of the logical side of the Manhattan Project, so his point of view is refreshingly absent of technical details and shows just how much of a logistical marvel the effort was.

So that's how hard it is to make an atomic bomb. How could you do it with swords and shields? It won't be easy. My advice would be to design the entire book and the entire world around accomplishing the goal. Without a writer crafting the entire universe to create this bomb, it wont happen.

You'll need to have a large number of factions, each with its own particular strengths. You'll need several factions which, when combined, have the intellectual ability to crunch through those numbers. Most medieval tech worlds don't have the math, so they'll have to invent a lot of it as well. You'll need several factions in tune enough with nature to work with nature to manage the subtle art of coaxing U-235 out of the ore. I doubt you'll be able to build gas centrifuges, but a slightly magical group may be able to pull it off. Nature has accomplished more subtle things.

You'll need to make them hate each other so much that they refuse to learn from eachother. Each group needs to have enough shortcomings that they can't really apply their amazing talents without crushing their own civilization. Remember, someone is going to know enough about high explosives to do shockwave shaping -- this group can't take over the world until the right moment, or the bmob will never come to fruition. Some extraordinarily hard edged stubbornness is going to be needed to make sure none of the groups with these marvelous capabilities can ever rise out of the sword and shield world. Religion might be enough, but you may need more. Religion, politics, culture, geography, and a little luck might suffice.

Finally, you need something epic to force them all together. Something needs to make them all decide to overcome their differences and unite. Why? Well, first off, because its the only way you can have that limited of technology and yet have the united body of the world be anywhere close to a nuclear weapon. Second, because such a story line would truly mimic the process of setting an atomic bomb off, and the parallels there would be very helpful for assisting the readers in understanding what has happened.

As an alternative, consider magic approaches. Magic is beautiful for these sort of circumstances because it can be just as violent and magnificent as an atomic bomb if you portray it so. You could still use the exact same parallels, because the messages are still the same, you just remove all of those pesky technical hurdles. You can even craft the magic such that it doesn't affect the world. Perhaps there was magic several hundred years ago, but the acts of man wounded magic itself, and it retreated from the forefront. Hundreds of years later, with man unaware of the existence of magic, its hateful energies finally come to the surface with the fury of an atomic bomb.

Beyond that, I leave you with lyrics from The Manhattan Project, by Rush. It really does help to imagine the time when all of this came to be.

Imagine a time when it all began
In the dying days of a war,
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first
would be sure to do their worst
They always had before...

Imagine a man where it all began
A scientist pacing the floor
In each nation, always eager to explore
To build the best big stick
To turn the winning trick
But this was something more...

The big bang took and shook the world
Shot down the rising sun
The end was begun and it hit everyone
When the chain reaction was done
The big shots tried to hold it back
Fools tried to wish it away
The hopeful depend on a world without end
Whatever the hopeless may say

Imagine a place where it all began
Gathered from across the land
To> work in the secrecy of the desert sand
All of the brightest boys
To play with the biggest toys
More than they bargained for...


Imagine a man when it all began
The pilot of 'Enola Gay'
Flying out of the shockwave on that August day
All the powers that be,
and the course of history
Would be changed forevermore...

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, a "gun" type bomb is relatively simple, but there are other subtle details (which would not be obvious at all) that the builder needs to know to get a decent yield from either a gun or implosion type device. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Jan 24 '16 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ A gun type bomb is simple but isotopic enrichment of uranium is anything but, and you cannot make natural uranium undergo a chain reaction. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Jan 25 '16 at 10:48

Cort Ammon goes into the details of how complex and precise Earths first nuclear weapons were, and how unlikely it would be for a medieval world to develop the necessary technology without first transcending that same medieval stage. But is it required the weapons be constructed during the story?

Perhaps they were made a long time before the narrative takes place -- and only found recently? Where you ask? Perhaps they are deep underground, buried amongst the ruins of the planet's previous civilization? Perhaps they were in orbit until knocked to earth by a particle shower? The fact that nuclear bombs are already in the story provides an easy way to get rid of that previous civilization. Perhaps they were launched millions of years ago by a galaxy-spanning empire, and wandered far off course before gravity dragged it in?

Edit: Gary points out how modern nuclear weapons would be unusable after a million years buried in the ground. This problem with your weapons can always be explained away. After all, no one in the story need understand how they work at all. Just put a marker in the story to the reader saying these bombs are thousands of years more advanced than what we have today, so they preserve much better. Say they're fusion bombs maybe.

  • $\begingroup$ US nuclear weapons were originally designed for a lifespan of 20-25 years. There is an effort underway to extend the lifespan to 75 years. Some of the issues are discussed in shelf life guaranteed - extending the life of nuclear weapons include corrosion and radiation damage. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 '16 at 2:39
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking about a "long time ago" as well. Quiet a lot of fantasy-worlds hint at a past of high technology, alien invasions, (human) technology having gone wrong and people now loving within the results of that... $\endgroup$
    – Layna
    Jan 25 '16 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ Gary, do you know if the shelf-life of modern nuclear weapons are a design-consideration, or relate to the half life of the nuclear material? I presume the bomb decaying naturally would be equivalent to the explosion happening in super slow motions -- the same heat would be released, but over years/decades. Or maybe only a certain amount of heat would be released before the bomb became unusable. If the shelf life is due to design, how would that be changed if the weapons were stored in the vacuum of space? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 25 '16 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ It costs about 1 million USD per bomb; if you could spend a modest extra amount for a very long shelf life it would clearly be worth if. Shelf life is an important consideration, though not a dominant factor as is obvious in that they are trying to extend it to 75 years. Breakdown is not a slow-motion explosion nor related to rad. half-life, though rad. dmg is a definite factor; read the article I mentioned for details it is actually quite informative. Fusion bombs incorporate fission bombs thus no help. Parts are sealed, vacuum in space won't help much as you will have new problems. $\endgroup$ Jan 25 '16 at 17:51

1) To get the uranium (oxide) is probably the easiest part Glassmakers and Potters would have some on hand for making yellows and oranges.

2) Smelting it would not be very tough it melts at 1405.3 K (1132.2 °C, 2070 °F) between the blacksmiths and the alchemists it could be figured out.

3) Enrichment, this is the tough bit turning it into uranium hexafloride gas is hard enough but isotope separation would be a bit of a bugger. Gas centrifuges​ are out of the question (aluminum production requires electricity). I suppose one could use gaseous diffusion across membranes but it is pretty subtle for the medieval​ mind.

4) Bomb building [redacted]


The hardest nut to crack is uranium enrichment, this is simply impossible in a pre-industrial society - so you have to cheat.

To avoid use of magic, I would suggest that you invoke a biologic mechanism. Imagine a species of beetle that consumes uranium, and either excretes enriched uranium or collects it internally for post-mortem harvesting, or more plausibly does the same with the with the small fraction of plutonium that will be present.

Note that a gun-type type weapon of plutonium must be very nearly pure Pu-239. You might if you are willing to stretch the truth get a nice fizzle bomb out of the process.

  • $\begingroup$ I like the beetle idea -- sort of like how mercury accumulates in swordfish. It is present in minute amounts in the water, and the food chain acts like a massive filter. The chemical is not digested and accumulates in an animal's tissue, until it is eaten by a predator. Every step up you go the concentration increases by a factor of ten for ecological reasons. So your best source of uranium is the biggest baddest most dangerous apex predator of this world. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 25 '16 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ Dragons are full of uranium. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jan 25 '16 at 15:31

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