The FBI Once Confiscated A Student's Paper For Designing A Nuclear Bomb

The device he designed would have produced no small explosion. Image credit: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com

Have you ever written an academic paper so shocking that it gets confiscated by the FBI? No? Well, kudos, you have one Princeton student beat.

John Aristotle Phillips was a 21-year-old undergraduate student in aerospace and mechanical sciences, described as "underachieving" when he took on a project that would end up earning him the nickname "The A-Bomb Kid".

Using unclassified material from the US Government Printing Office and knowledge gained from his school library, he drew up designs for a working nuclear bomb that could, according to reports at the time, level a quarter of Manhattan.

In 1976, he worked on the beach ball-sized device for several months, wanting to show how easy it would be for terrorists or other bad actors to create a nuclear bomb using publicly available knowledge. In that respect, he succeeded, given that nuclear scientist Dr Frank Chilton said that the design was "pretty much guaranteed to work".

Other undergraduates had attempted similar projects before, but struggled with the initial conventional explosive that triggers the implosion wave towards the center of the bomb. This knowledge he obtained by simply phoning DuPont, and asking them politely what they used, though he claimed that it could be triggered with other explosives such as TNT.

His bomb – which he made a non-working mockup of in his room – theoretically would have worked, and would have been about a third as powerful as the bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

Though anyone wishing to actually make a bomb would need to jump through a lot more hoops (getting hold of uranium/plutonium and then enriching it is not a matter of waiting for an Amazon Prime delivery), his paper earned him a visit from the FBI and CIA, as well as an A grade. 

A few weeks after handing in his paper, he returned to look for it in the physics department and found that it wasn't there. It was only then, and after he was quizzed by the department chairman, that he realized that the information he gained from DuPont was possibly classified.

The FBI paid the university a visit next and confiscated his paper, plus the mockup he had built in his room. Following his work on the device, Phillips became an anti-nuclear-proliferation activist, even running for congress several times on that platform.

 

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