By now it is painfully obvious that our strategy of intimidation and saber-rattling to keep North Korea from getting an atomic bomb of its own has not worked. I liked this New Yorker cover cartoon showing this poor unloved tyrant Kim Jong-un gazing fondly down on his first born, his own thermonuclear warhead. Will he show us a fake warhead created by a talented metal worker? Who knows. To fuel this international war of nerves a fake warhead will do.
For nations who have acted out and made enemies of their neighbors or influential major powers, the atomic bomb is pretty good insurance against having your population centers attacked. For better or for worse it is seen as a ticket to some kind of adulthood for a nation. Deterrence seems to be a strategy that has worked for us. An unpleasant one, a crazy one, perhaps. But for 65 years, ever since Hiroshima, the world’s borders have remained relatively unchanged. Russia hasn’t taken over Poland. The nuclear powers have held their fire and the briefcases haven’t been unlatched. Krushchev backed away from the brink, and so did Kennedy, when he pulled their NATO nuclear component out of Turkey.
So maybe it is time to try a new approach to this dangerous situation. The nuclear genie has been out of the bottle for a long time. They are dangerous machines and particularly dangerous to their owners. President Trump has been telling the world that he is going to put the United States first, adding some fuel to nationalist fires everyhere. If you look at the public record from the Atomic Energy Commission, you’ll see no hint that there have been problems with our programs. The U.S. never really paid much heed to weapon safety until March 1st, 1954. That was the date that the crisis happened that changed everything for us, when we began to heed nuclear safety questions. Castle Bravo, a 15 megaton blast sited at Bikini Atoll spread radiation around the world, rendered 15 islands and atolls in the South Pacific temporarily uninhabitable, and sent the crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon Number Five to the hospital. One of them died. The yield of the device was expected to be 5 megatons, the actual yield was 15 megatons. The radiation maps drawn up before the blast bear little resemblance to the actual extent of the fallout.
The culprit was someone at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The error was probably failing to foresee that the intense heat and neutron flux from the bomb’s secondary would ignite the heavy U-238 bomb casing. It wasn’t the first time that our developers estimate of yields were too conservative. Los Alamos began to wonder if their brand-new generation of small so-called boosted weapons coming out of the factory were really one-point safe. I worked as a naval technician in one of our national stockpile sites back then and there were trainloads of them pouring in from the railhead, small light designs capable of being carried by fighter-bombers and fired by rockets capable of hitting targets thousands of miles away. But no sooner had they arrived that many of them went back to Pantex.
I had started working on the old monsters, the bombs that were remakes of the “Fat Man”, the Nagasaki bomb. Its huge implosion sphere was 86 inches in diameter and it had 32 detonators. All the detonators fired at the same millisecond, and the shaped charges compressed the plutonium seed at the center of the sphere; it went supercritical and the world was changed.
Over the years between 1946 and the early 1950s, propelled by the military, and the American can-do attitude, we managed to shrink the size of atomic weapons by using more powerful conventional explosives and various kinds of gadgets. These new bombs were lighter and had fewer explosive lenses. Their warheads were often 30 inches in diameter or less. Warheads equipped with tritium gas injectors and so-called “zippers” gave weapons an easy route to supercriticality equipped as they were with sealed pits and a a rich supportive environment flooded with tritium and high-energy neutrons.
Big or small, all of our bombs were supposed to be one-point safe. It was the official mantra. If you dropped one by accident or it got caught in a fire, it wouldn’t go off. And for quite a while we had no problems. But the scientists at los Alamos wondered and worried. The yields that they were getting in the atomic tests were often badly out of whack with predictions. Up until 1956 we had never done any safety tests on atomic weapons. Not one. We were frantically churning out new designs for the Joint Chiefs that could be maneuvered on all kinds of aircraft, warheads for the Army that could be fired off a jeep, rocket warheads for the Air Force that could carry multiple warheads. Tiny little warheads that had just a couple detonators. Would these new “boosted” bombs be safe in a fire or a secondary explosion? We didn’t know. So the Los Alamos National Laboratory planned a series of eight tests in 1956 to see if the weapons they had designed were one-point safe. The tests were held in an isolated part of the Nevada Test Site, north of Los Vegas. It is a godforsaken spot that only a jackrabbit or a buzzard would love. Barren mountain ranges, mesas and empty desert valleys dotted with dry lakes. A team of 30 scientists set up a test site in a stretch of desert east of Yucca Lake. Today if you have an AEC map of the NTS you might see “Plutonium Valley” marked. The contamination was never cleaned up. In 1981. They tried, though.
The test weapons were subjected to TNT explosions that simulated the kind of damage that would occur if a bomber carrying an atomic weapon crashed. The AEC put out a press release saying that the likelihood of an atomic explosion in these tests was “very small.” The first three tests were fired without incident, the fourth explosion raised questions about “inherent design.”
There wasn’t supposed to be any kind of atomic explosion and the poor guys on the so-called “Rad-Safe” team that went out into the desert to assess the site after the blast weren’t trained to look for signs that a small scale atomic explosion had taken place. They expected to find fragments of plutonium strewn around the site. They were wearing masks designed to block particles of plutonium, and not gamma radiation, the deadly product of a full scale atomic explosion. There wasn’t supposed to be any atomic yield to the test, but on the third and especially on the fourth test in January 1957 there was.
Who goofed up is hidden in the fog of history. My feeling is that he was one of those unsung heroes who change history. Maybe he worried that these new designs weren’t safe. He figured that the only way the system was going to deal with the problem was to see some blood on the ground, To pinpoint the cause of the inaccurate yields the engineers at Los Alamos decided to push things a little.
“In order to determine the design problem, Los Alamos testers altered the fourth device so that it would produce a slight yield equivalent to over four pounds of TNT. The yield of the fourth shot, though slight, proved higher than expected. Not everyone had been informed about the altered device, unfortunately, and the four-member recovery team went in too soon after the shot, recording gamma exposures ranging from 4.3 to 28 roentgens.”
The AEC rated the explosion as slight (between 10 and 100 tons of TNT) but it was dramatically more than what they expected. The four guys, ex-miners and construction workers, got a dose, and found themselves standing is the middle of a radioactive valley.
It was the fifties and the pressures of the arms race led U.S. program administrators to turn people into human guinea pigs. For a couple bucks an hour, these guys walked into a radioactive no-mans land wearing useless masks and thin white coveralls. They tramped out into the desert, looking for the site where the bomb had been. I don’t think much of it was left.
There’s really no defense against gamma rays except to run like hell, which the spectators of the DEMON CORE did after Louis Slotkin’s screwdriver slipped and his experiment went bad. These one-point tests were the major impetus for the AEC to start doing regular safety tests as part of the regimen they carried out on new weapons. “In 1956, we had our first really good clues that all was not well with our stockpile,” Robert Brownlee, a Los Alamos physicist recalled. “We had managed to make everything just work perfectly, and then we discovered, to our horror, that they were not safe. They could be set off quite accidentally.” The results of the fourth shot sent shockwaves through the nuclear program. Warheads had to be retrofitted to make them safe and then retested. Brownlee noted that after the fourth safety shot more than half of the money and effort spent by the AEC on the atomic weapons program went toward making nuclear weapons safe. The AEC had a public relations problem in Las Vegas in the fifties, especially after fallout affected traffic on Route 93, and flocks of sheep owned by local ranchers came down with mysterious sores. Barton Hacker comments on the AEC outlook on how to communicate with the public:
“AEC officials in general, headquarters staff members in particular, mostly preferred to reassure rather than inform. Convinced that trying to explain risks so small would simply confuse people and might cause panic, they feared jeopardizing the testing vital to American security.
Their policy prevailed. A formal public relations plan became as much a part of every test series as the technical operations plan. Carefully crafted press releases never to my knowledge never lied, though they sometimes erred….At time of crisis, such choices might mislead the public, as the aftermath of Castle Bravo all too clearly illustrated.“
The four men on the rad-safe team got quite a bit of radiation. Oral Epley died of a stroke soon afterwards. The AEC denied that it was caused by radiation, but the men got some gamma exposure. Many years later another man on the rad-safe team died of cancer. After that shot there was a temporary suspension of activities at the Nevada Test Site. Over 895 acres of Area 11 was contaminated with plutonium and other weapon fragments. “The extent of contamination from plutonium scattered from the four tests proved to be a surprise…Two areas a mile wide and ten miles long stretching out from ground zero contained measurable amounts of plutonium. Much of the eastern portion of the test site became contaminated.”
The downside of doing many of these safety tests meant that there was more plutonium and radioactive iodine in the air. We did a one point test in Nevada that caused what senior test planner Bill Ogle called “a furor” in California when an underground atomic test vented to the surface and a radioactive cloud of plutonium drafted west and raised the background radiation in Los Angeles. “PROJECT 58” in December 1957 wasn’t supposed to have any yield, but the shot “COULOMB” resulted in a sizeable explosion (500 tons of TNT), “producing observable fallout in Los Angeles.
In the late 1960s the modifications to the final design of the warhead tested in these safety tests, the B-28, had its acid test when there were two B-52s carrying B28s involved in the Air Force exercise called Chrome Dome. Tensions were high, and nuclear armed B-52s were alway kept in the air, on alert. On 17 January 1966 a B52G flying over Spain crashed into a KC 135 tanker during refueling. The crew of the tanker was killed in the explosion, the B-52G lost a wing, and crashed. All four of their 1.1. megaton bombs spilled out of the falling plane. Three of them hit the ground and their primaries exploded, contaminating 90 acres of farmland. One fell in the ocean and was recovered intact. There was no nuclear explosion.
On 21 January 1968, a B52G caught on fire while flying over Thule, Greenland. The crew struggled to bring the fire under control, failed, and bailed out of the stricken aircraft, which crashed on the ice. It was presumed that three of the B28s on board detonated when the plane crashed, there were always questions about the fourth, which might still be on the bottom of Baffin Bay. Again, though, one-point safety saved the day.
Subsequently, on 30 September 1971, the two superpowers signed the “Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War”. Each party agreed to notify the other immediately in the event of an accidental, unauthorized or unexplained incident involving a nuclear weapon that could increase the risk of nuclear war. They agreed to use the Moscow=Washington hotline, which was upgraded at the same time, for any communications.
“I believe,” wrote Los Alamos physicist Robert Brownlee in 2009, “that the next incident will be an accident where terrorists get their hands on a weapon and it goes off in their cellar because they’re not smart enough to know that the bomb wants to go off. My guess is the next atmospheric nuclear thing will be an accident by people who don’t know better. It takes a wealthy nation to make sure they won’t go off.”
In the present international climate, the best way to avoid World War Three or anything like it is information sharing. When I think of how lucky we were in the days that I was in the program, I get all shaky. No effective screening of people working with atomic weapons, weapons that weren’t safe, no permissive links on weapons.