Redactions

Accidents and the bomb

Posted April 18th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

When I first heard that Eric Schlosser, the investigative journalist was writing a book on nuclear weapons accidents, I have to admit that I was pretty suspicious. I really enjoyed Fast Food Nation when it came out a decade ago. It was one of those books that never quite leaves you. The fact that the smell of McDonald’s French fries was deliberately engineered by food chemists to be maximally appealing, something I learned from Schlosser’s book, comes to mind whenever I smell any French fries. But nuclear weapons are not French fries. When writing about them, it is extremely easy to fall into either an exaggerated alarmism or a naïve acceptance of reassuring official accounts. In my own work, I’m always trying to sort out the truth of the matter, which is usually somewhere in between these two extremes.

Schlosser - Command and Control book

This is especially the case when talking about nuclear weapons accidents — the many times during the Cold War when nuclear weapons were subjected to potentially dangerous circumstances, such as being set on fire, being accidentally dropped from a bomber, crashing with a bomber, having the missile they were attached to explode, and so on. The alarmist accounts generally inflate the danger of the accidents achieving a nuclear yield; the official accounts usually dismiss such danger entirely. There are also often contradictory official accounts — sometimes even the people with clearances can’t agree on whether the weapons in question were “armed” (that is, had intact fissile pits in them), whether the chance of detonation was low or high, and so on. I’ve always been pretty wary about the topic myself for this reason. Sorting out the truth seemed like it would require a lot of work that I wasn’t interested in doing.

Well, I’m happy to report that in his new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of SafetySchlosser has done that work. I reviewed the book recently for Physics Today. You can read my PT review here, but the long and short of it is that I was really, really impressed with the book. And I’m not easily impressed by most works of nuclear weapons history, popular or academic. I’m not surprised it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, either.

Titan II silo complex. There's a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson's wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

Titan II silo complex. There’s a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson’s wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

What I ask out of a new book is that it teach me something new — either novel facts or novel spins on things I already knew about. Schlosser’s book does both. He clearly did his homework when it came to doing the work, and it’s not really surprising it took him about a dissertation’s worth of time to write it. It’s not just a document dump of FOIA’d material, though. He really shines when contextualizing his new information, writing a very rich, synthetic history of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. So the new and the old are woven together in a really spectacular, unusually compelling fashion.

The book has two main threads. One is a very specific, moment-by-moment account of one accident. This is the so-called Damascus Accident, which is when a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas, exploded in its silo in 1980, resulting in one fatality. It’s not one of the “standard” accidents one hears about, like the 1961 Goldsboro bomb, the 1958 Tybee bomb, the 1968 Thule crash, or the 1966 Palomares accident. But Schlosser’s journalist chops here really came through, as he tracked down a huge number of the people involved in the accident and used their memories, along with documentary records, to reconstruct exactly how one dropped spanner — itself just an apparently innocuous, everyday sort of mistake — could lead to such explosive outcomes.

The other thread is a more historical one, looking at the history of nuclear weapons and particular how the problem of command and control runs through it from the beginning. “Command and control” is one of those areas whose vastness I didn’t really appreciate until reading this book. Nominally it is just about making sure that you can use the weapons when you want to, but that also includes making sure that nobody is going to use the weapons when you don’t want them to, and that the weapons themselves aren’t going to do anything terrible accidentally. And this makes it mind-bogglingly complex. It gets into details about communication systems, weapons designs, delivery system designs, nuclear strategy, screening procedures, security procedures, accident avoidance, and so much more.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

Schlosser weaves this all together wonderfully. I found very few statements, technical or otherwise, that struck me as genuine outright errors. Of course, there are places where there can be differences of interpretation, but there always are. This is pretty good for any book of this length and scope — there are many academic books that I’ve read that had more technical errors than this one.

What I found really wonderful, though, is that Schlosser also managed to give a compelling explanation for the contradictory official accident accounts that I mentioned before. It’s so simple that I don’t know why it never occurred to me before: the people concerned with nuclear weapon safety were not the same people who were in charge of the weapons. That is, the engineers at Sandia who were charged with nuclear safety and surety were institutionally quite remote from the Air Force people who handled the weapons. The Air Force brass believed the weapons were safe and that to suggest otherwise was just civilian hogwash. The engineers who got into the guts of the weapons knew that it was a more complicated story. And they didn’t communicate well — sometimes by design. After awhile the Air Force stopped telling the Sandia engineers about all of the accidents, and so misinformation became rampant even within the classified system.

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: "Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today's standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work."

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: “Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today’s standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work.”

We usually talk about nuclear weapons safety as a question of whether they are “one-point safe.” That is, will the weapon have a chance of a nuclear yield if one point on the chemical explosives surrounding the fission pit detonated inadvertently? Most of the time the answer is no, of course not. Implosion requires a very high degree of detonation symmetry — that’s why it’s hard to make work. So a one-point detonation of the explosive lenses will produce a fizzle, spreading plutonium or uranium like a “dirty bomb” but not producing a supercritical chain reaction.

But some of the time, answer is, “well, maybe.” We usually think of implosions as complex affairs but some weapons only require two-point implosion to begin with. So now you’re no longer talking about the possibility that one out of 36 explosive lenses will go off; you’re talking about one out of two. This isn’t to say that such weapons aren’t one-point safe, just to point out that weapons design isn’t limited to the sorts of things present in the first implosion weapons.

But even this doesn’t really get at the real problem here. “One-point safe” is indeed an important part of the safety question, but not the only one. Consider, for example, what would happen if the firing signal was only a simple amount of DC electrical current. Now imagine that during a fire, the firing circuit board soldering melts and a short-circuit is formed between the batteries and the firing switch. Now the bomb is actually trying to truly set itself off as if it had been deliberately dropped — and full implosion, with nuclear yield, is totally possible.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

How likely is this kind of electrically-activated nuke scenario? What the Sandia engineers discovered was that in some weapons it was really not implausible at all. Under the “abnormal environment” of a weapons accident (such as a crashing or burning B-52), all sorts of crazy things could happen with electronic circuits. And unless they were really carefully designed for the possibility of this kind of accident, they could arm themselves and fire themselves. Which is the kind of thing you’d expect an engineer who is deeply connected with the electrical technology of the bomb to conclude.

And of course, as Schlosser (and his engineer sources) point out — this kind of thing is only one small detail in the broad, broad question of nuclear safety. These systems are big, complex, and non-linear. And so much hinges on them working correctly.

The sociologist of science Donald MacKenzie has proposed (in a slightly different context — nuclear weapons accuracy, not safety) that a “certainty trough” exists with regards to complex questions of technological uncertainty. He draws it somewhat like this:

MacKenzie's Certainty Trough

So this divides people into three groups. On the left are the people who actually build the technology and the knowledge. These people have reasonably high levels of uncertainty about the technology in question — they know the nuts and bolts of how it works and how it could go wrong. (I’ve added “confidence” as a label because I find it more straightforward than “uncertainty” at times.) They also know what kinds of failure situations are not likely as well. In the middle, you have people who are completely committed to the technology in question. These people aren’t completely divorced from solid knowledge about it, but they are just consumers of knowledge. They look at the final data, but they don’t really know how the data was made (and all of the uncertainty that gets screened out to make the final version of the data). They have very low uncertainty, and so very high confidence in the technology. At far right you have the people who are either total outsiders, or people who are totally committed to another approach. These have the highest levels of uncertainty and the lowest levels of confidence.

So if we were mapping Schlosser’s actors onto these categories, we’d have the Sandia engineers and other weapons scientists on the far left. They know what can go wrong, they know the limits of their knowledge. They also know which accident situations are outlandish. In the middle we have the military brass and even the military handlers of the weapons. They are committed to the weapons. They have data saying the weapons are safe — but they don’t know how the data was made, or how it was filtered. They think the weapons are totally safe and that anyone who suggests otherwise is just ignorant or foolish. And lastly, at far right, we have total outsiders (the activists, perhaps, or sometimes even politicians), or people who really are looking to amplify the uncertainty for their own purposes.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

The disconnect between the far left group and the middle group is the one that disturbs me the most in Schlosser’s account. It also reflects what I’ve seen in online discussions of weapons accidents. People with a little bit of knowledge — e.g. they know about one-point safety, or they once handled nukes in the military — have very high confidence in the safety issues. But they don’t know enough to realize that under the hood, things are more complicated and have been, in the past at least, much more dangerous. Not, perhaps, as dangerous as some of the more alarmist, outsider, activist accounts have stressed. But dangerous enough to seriously concern people whose jobs it is to design the weapons — people who know about the nuts and bolts of them.

Anyway. Schlosser’s book is a great read, as well. Which it needs to be, because it is long. But it’s also segregable. Don’t care much of the details of the Damascus accident? You can skip those sections and still get a lot out of the book (even though the Damascus accident is really a perfect account of all of the little things that can go wrong with complex, non-linear systems). But part of that length is a copious amount of endnotes, which I applaud him and his publisher for including. For a book like this, you can’t skimp on the documentation, and Schlosser doesn’t. The only thing he did skimp on was illustration, which I — as a pretty visual guy — thought was too bad. So much of the Damascus story takes place inside of a Titan II silo, and while the inner flap of the cover did have a simplified illustration of one, I still felt like I didn’t really know what was happening where at times. (I wonder if this was a trade-off with the publisher in having so many notes and pages.)

Chuck Penson's Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) for scale.

Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) included for scale.

Fortunately, there is a solution for this. If it were up to me, every copy of Schlosser’s book would be accompanied by a copy of Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook: A civilian’s guide to the most powerful ICBM America ever built. Penson’s book is a richly illustrated history of this particular missile, and contains lots of detailed photographs and accounts of daily life on a Titan II base (such as those seen above) It’s utterly fascinating and it gives so much visual life to what Schlosser describes. It also includes giant fold-out diagrams of the missiles themselves — the printing quality is really impressive all around. It includes fascinating technical details as well. For example, in the early days of the Titan II silos they had large motor-generators that constantly ran in case they needed to convert DC power into AC in the event of a failure of commercial power. Penson then notes that:

The motor-generator ran with a loud, monotonous high-pitched whine… noise in the [Launch Control Center] turned into a serious issue. Crew members complained of temporary hearing loss due not only the incessant buzz of the motor-generator, but also to the constant drone of the air conditions, fans and blowers in equipment. Eventually the Air Force covered the tile floor with carpeting, and acoustic batting was hung in the in the area of the stairway leading up to level 1 and down to level 3. … These changes made a tremendous improvement, but one that came too late for many of the crew, a significant number of whom now need hearing aids.

This kind of detail fits in perfectly with Schlosser’s approach to the facility, which itself seems strongly influenced by the sociologist Charles Perrow’s notion of “Normal Accidents.” That the devices in the facility would affect the hearing of the crew was certainly not something that anybody thought of ahead of time; it’s one of those little details that gets lost in the overall planning, but (at least for those who suffered the hearing loss) had real consequences. Ultimately this is the thesis of Schlosser’s book: that the infrastructure of nuclear command and control is much larger, much more complex, much more problematic than most people realize, and is one of those high-complexity, high-risk systems that human beings are notoriously pretty bad at managing.

If you’re the kind of person who geeks out on nuke history, both Schlosser’s and Penson’s books are must-reads, must-buys.

Visions

The plutonium box

Posted March 28th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

I’ve found myself in a work crunch (somehow I’ve obligated myself to give three lectures in the next week and a half, on top of my current teaching schedule!), but I’m working on some interesting things in the near term. I have a review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control coming out in Physics Today pretty soon, and I’ll post some more thoughts on his book once that is available. And I have something exciting coming up for the 60th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s security hearing.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the results of one little investigation. I’ve posted a few times now (Posing with the plutoniumLittle boxes of doom, The Third Core’s Revenge) on the magnesium boxes that were used to transport the plutonium cores used for the Trinity test and the Fat Man bomb:

The magnesium cases for the world's first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core's case at Los Alamos, 1946.

The magnesium cases for the world’s first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core’s case at Los Alamos, 1946.

Just to recap, they were a design invented by Philip Morrison (the Powers of Ten guy, among other things), made out of magnesium with rubber bumpers made of test tube stoppers. They could hold the plutonium core pieces (two in the case of the Trinity Gadget, three in the case of Fat Man), as well as neutron initiators. Magnesium was used because it was light, dissipated heat, and did not reflect neutrons (and so wouldn’t create criticality issues). All of this information is taken from John Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs, an essential book if you care about these kinds of details.

But all of the photographs of the box I had seen, like those above, were in black and white. Not a big deal, right? But I find the relative lack of color photography from the 1940s one of those things that makes it hard to relate to the past. When all of Oppenheimer’s contemporaries talked about his icy blue eyes, it makes you want to see them as they saw them, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just me.

The only place where I almost saw a color photo of the box is in a photo that the late Harold Agnew had taken of himself on Tinian. It’s one of a large series of posing-with-plutonium photos that were taken on the island of Tinian sometime before the Nagasaki raid. Only this one is in color! Except… well, I’ll let the photo speak for itself:

Harold Agnew with plutonium core redacted

Yeah. Not super helpful. This was scanned from Rachel Fermi and Esther Samra’s wonderful Picturing the Bomb book. They asked Agnew what had happened, and he told them that:

I was in Chicago after the war in 1946. The FBI came and said they believed I had some secret pictures. They went through my pictures and found nothing. Then like a fool I said, “Maybe this one is secret.” They wanted to know what that thing was. I told them and they said that it must be secret and wanted the picture. I wanted the picture so they agreed if I scratched out the “thing” I could keep the slide.

Thwarted by nuclear secrecy, once again! You can try to look extra close at the scratches and maybe just make out the color of the “thing” but it’s a tough thing to manage.

Ah, but there is a resolution to this question. Scott Carson, a retired engineer who posts interesting nuclear things onto his Twitter account, recently posted another  photo of the box — in color and unredacted! His source was a Los Alamos newsletter from a few years back. It is of Luis Alvarez, another member of the Tinian team, in the same exact pose and location as the redacted Agnew photograph… but this time, un-redacted! And the color of the box was…

Luis Alvarez with the Fat Man core, Tinian, 1945.

…yellowNot what I was expecting.

Why yellow? My guess: it might be the same yellow paint used on the Fat Man bomb. Fat Man was painted “a mustard yellow rust-preventing zinc-chromate primer” (to quote from Coster-Mullen’s book) that made them easier to spot while doing drop tests of the casings.

The box for the Trinity core doesn’t look painted yellow to me — it looks more like raw magnesium. Maybe they decided that the tropical atmosphere of Tinian, with its high humidity, required painting the box to keep it from oxidizing. Maybe they just thought a little color would spruce up the place a little bit. I don’t know.

Does it matter? In some sense this is pure trivia. If the box was blue, green, or dull metallic, history wouldn’t be changed much at all. But I find these little excursions a nice place to meditate on the fact that the past is a hard thing to know intimately. We can’t see events exactly as they were seen by those who lived them. Literally and figuratively. The difficulty of finding out even what color something was is one trivial indication of this. And the secrecy doesn’t help with that very much.

Visions

Firebombs, U.S.A.

Posted March 12th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

After the atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities, it didn’t take long for the US public, to start drawing what it would look like if atomic bombs went off over their own cities. PM, a New York City newspaper, may have inaugurated the genre with its August 7, 1945, issue, when it took what scant facts were known about Hiroshima and superimposed the data onto the Manhattan skyline:

PM - NYC atomic bomb - August 1945

This impulse — to see what the bomb did to others, and then to apply it to one’s own cities — worked on at least two levels. In once sense it was about making sense of the damage in intuitive terms, because maps of Hiroshima don’t make a lot of intuitive sense unless you know Hiroshima, the city. Which very few Americans would.

But it’s also a recognition that atomic bombs could possibly be dropped on the USA in the future. The atomic bomb was immediately seen as a weapon of the next war as well as the present one. It was a weapon that would, eventually, make the United States very vulnerable.

Considering how many non-atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan during the war, it’s a little interesting that nobody has spent very much time worrying about what would happen if someone firebombed the United States. Why not? Because the U.S. has never imagined that any other nation would have the kind of air superiority to pull off sustained operations like that. No, if someone was going to bomb us, it would be a one-time, brief affair.

When the US did invoke American comparisons for firebombing, it was to give a sense of scale. So the Arnold report in 1945 included this evocative diagram of Japanese cities bombed, with American cities added to give a sense of relative size:

Arnold map - Japan firebombing

So I was kind of interested to find that in the final, late-1945 issue of IMPACT, a US Army Air Forces magazine, contained a really quite remarkable map. They took the same data of the above map — the Japanese cities and their equivalent US cities — and projected them not on Japan, but on the continental United States.

It’s the only attempt I’ve seen to make a visualization that showed the damage of the ruinous American air campaign against Japan in such a vivid way:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The correspondences between US and Japanese cities were chosen based on the US Census of 1940 and presumably a Japanese census from around the same period. The above map isn’t, the text emphasizes, a realistic attack scenario. Rather, it is meant to show this:

If the 69 U.S. cities on the map at right had been mattered by Jap bombers free to strike any time and anywhere in this country, you can vividly imagine the frightful impact it would have had upon our morale and war potential. Yet this is precisely what the B-29s did to Japan.

What’s remarkable is that this isn’t some kind of anti-bombing screed; it’s pro-bombing propaganda. Both of these images are bragging. The text goes on to emphasize that if someone were really targeting the US, they’d hit industrial centers like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh — to say nothing of Washington, DC, which is conspicuously absent and unmentioned.

IMPACT was classified “confidential” during the war, meaning it had a circulation of about 10,000 airmen. It’s a pretty wonderful read in general — it’s a vociferously pro-Air Forces rag, and is all about the importance of strategic bombing. As one might expect, it de-emphasizes the atomic bombings, in part to push back against the very public perception that we have today, where the last two major bombings are emphasized and the other 67 are forgotten. On the above maps, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unremarkable, easily in the crowd.

I thought it would be interesting to copy out all of the data (city names, damage percentages, and look up the US Census data) and put it into an interactive visualization using a Javascript toolkit called D3. If you have a reasonably modern browser (one that supports SVG images), then check it out here:

Firebombs, USA, interactive

One thing you notice quickly when putting it this way is how large some of the metropolises were versus the relatively modest of most of the other cities. The idea of someone bombing out 55% of Sacramento, or 64% of Stockton, or 96% of Chattanooga, is kind of mind-melting. Much less to consider that a New York City minus 40% of its land area would look like.

You can also see how cramped Japan is compared to the USA (they are at the same scale in the above image, though the projections are a bit tweaked for the layout). Even that could be more emphasized, as the text does: because Japan is so mountainous, its inhabited area is only roughly the size of Montana. So it’s even smaller than it looks.

Still, for me it’s just remarkable that this mode of visualization would be used in an official publication. These guys wanted people to understand what they had done. They wanted people to know how bad it had been for Japan. They wanted credit. And I get why — I’m not naive here. They saw it as necessary for the fighting of the war. But it also shouldn’t have been surprising, or unexpected, to those at the time that people in the future might be taken aback by the scale of the burning. Even Robert McNamara, who helped plan the firebombing operations, later came to see them as disproportionate to the US aims in the war:

This sequence, from Errol Morris’s Fog of War, has been one of my favorites for a long time. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized its source was one of these maps used for postwar boasting. It’s an incredible re-appropriation, when looked at in that light. A document meant to impress an audience, now being used to horrify a different one.

Visions

Death dust, 1941

Posted March 7th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the Manhattan Project is that prior to Hiroshima, all knowledge of atomic energy and nuclear fission was secret — that the very idea of nuclear weapons was unthought except inside classified circles. This is a side-effect of the narratives we tell about Manhattan Project secrecy, which emphasize how extreme and successful these restrictions on information were. The reality is, as always, more complicated, and more interesting. Fission had been discovered in 1939, chain reactions were talked about publicly a few months later, and by the early 1940s the subject of atomic power and atomic bombs had become a staple of science journalists and science fiction authors.

Campbell's magazine, Cartmill's story. Image source.

Leaks or speculation? Campbell’s magazine, Cartmill’s story. Image source.

John W. Campbell, Jr., was a prolific editor and publisher of science fiction throughout the mid-20th century. In the annals of nuclear weapons history, he is best known for publishing Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline” in March 1944, which talks about forming an atomic bomb from U-235. This got Cartmill and Campbell visitors from the FBI, trying to figure out whether they had access to classified information. They found nothing compromising (and, indeed, if you read Cartmill’s story, you can see that while it gets — as did many — that you can make atomic bombs from separated U-235, it doesn’t really have much truth in the specifics), but told Campbell to stop talking about atomic bombs.

But Campbell’s flirtation with the subject goes a bit deeper than that. Gene Dannen, who runs the wonderful Leo Szilard Online website, recently sent me a rare article from his personal collection. In July 1941, Campbell authored an article in PIC magazine with the provocative title, Is Death Dust America’s Secret Weapon?” It’s a story about radiological warfare in what appears to be rather middle-brow publication about entertainment. Click here to download the PDF. I don’t know anything about PIC, and haven’t been able to find much on it, but from the cover one wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be a source for people looking for hard-hitting science reporting — though the juxtaposition of DEATH DUST, “world’s strangest child,” and the “DAY DREAM” woman is a wonderfully American tableau.


PIC magazine 1941 - Campbell - Death Dust - cover

The story itself starts off with what has even by then become a clichéd way of talking about atomic energy (“A lump of U-235 the size of an ordinary pack of cigarettes would supply power enough to run the greatest bomb in the world three continuous years of unceasing flight“), other than the fact that it is one of the many publications that points out that after an exciting few years of talk about fission, by 1941 the scientists of the United States had clamped themselves up on the topic. The article itself admits none of this is really a secret, though — that all nations were interested in atomic energy to some degree. It vacillates between talking about using U-235 as a power source and using it to convert innocuous chemicals into radioactive ones.

Which is itself interesting — it doesn’t seem to be talking about fission products here, but “synthetic radium powders.” It’s a dirty bomb, but probably not that potent of one. Still, pretty exciting copy for 1941. (Campbell would much later write a book about the history of atomic energy, The Atomic Story, where he also spent a lot of time talking about “death dust.”)

The article contains a really wonderful, lurid illustration of what a city that had been sprayed with “horrible ‘death dust’” would look like:

"Even rats wouldn't survive the blue, luminescent radioactive dust. Vultures would be poisoned by their own appetites."

“Even rats wouldn’t survive the blue, luminescent radioactive dust. Vultures would be poisoned by their own appetites.”

The most interesting parts of the article are when it veers into speculation about what the United States might be doing:

With all the world seeking frantically for the secret of that irresistible weapon, what are America’s chances in the race?

It is a question of men and brains and equipment. Thanks to Hitler’s belief that those who don’t agree with him must be wrong, America now has nearly all the first-rank theoretical physicists of the world. Mussolini’s helped us somewhat, too, by exiling his best scientists. Niels Bohr, father of modern atomic theory, is at Princeton, along with Albert Einstein and others of Europe’s greatest.

The National Defense Research Committee is actively and vigorously supporting the research in atomic physics that seeks the final secrets of atomic power. Actively, because the world situation means that they must, yet reluctantly because they know better than anyone else can the full and frightful consequences of success. Dr. Vannevar Bush, Chairman of the Committee, has said: “I hope they never succeed in tapping atomic power. It will be a hell of a thing for civilization.”

Bohr was in fact still in occupied Denmark in July 1941 — he had his famous meeting with Heisenberg in September 1941 and wouldn’t be spirited out of the country until 1943. The photographs identify Harold Urey and Ernest Lawrence as American scientists who were trying to harness the power of atomic energy. Since Urey and Lawrence were, in fact, trying to do that, and since Vannevar Bush was, in fact, ostensibly in charge of the Uranium Committee work at this point, this superficially looks rather suggestive.

PIC magazine 1941 - death dust - scientists

But I think it’s just a good guess. Urey had worked on isotope separation years before fission was discovered (he got his Nobel Prize in 1934 for learning how to separate deuterium from regular hydrogen), so if you know that isotope separation is an issue, he’s your man. Lawrence was by that point known worldwide for his “atom smashing” particle accelerators, and had snagged the 1939 Nobel Prize for the work done at his Radiation Laboratory. If you were going to pick two scientists to be involved with nuclear weapons, those are the two you’d pick. As for Bush — he coordinated all of the nation’s scientific defense programs. So of course, if the US was working on atomic energy as part of their defense research, Bush would have to be in charge of it.

The other illustrations seem to be just generically chosen. They are particle accelerators of various sorts; one cyclotron and many electrostatic (e.g. Van De Graff) accelerators. Cyclotrons did have relevance to isotope separation — they were used to develop the Calutrons used at Y-12 — but the captions don’t indicate that this is why these machines are featured.

I’ve never seen any evidence that Campbell’s story in PIC came to any kind of official attention. Why not? In the summer of 1941, there was a lot of talk about U-235 and atomic energy — and Campbell’s article really isn’t the most provocative of the bunch. There wasn’t any official press secrecy of any form on the topic yet. “Voluntary censorship” of atomic energy issues, which is what would get Cartmill and Campbell in trouble later, didn’t start up until early 1943. Mid-1941 was still a time when a journalist could speculate wildly on these topics and not get visits from the FBI.

The irony is, there were official fears of a German dirty bomb, but they didn’t really crop up until 1942. But the American bomb effort was starting to get rolling in the late summer of 1941. By the end of 1941, Bush would be a convert to the idea of making the bomb and would start trying to accelerate the program greatly. It wasn’t the Manhattan Project, yet, but it was on its way. Campbell’s article was, in this sense, a bit ahead of its time.

A Campbell publication from 1947 — where he apparently has a better understanding of atomic power. Here he seems to have just scaled down a Hanford-style "pile" and added a turbine to it. It took a little more effort than that in reality...

A Campbell publication from 1947 — where he apparently has a better understanding of atomic power. Here he seems to have just scaled down a Hanford-style “pile” and added a turbine to it. It took a little more effort than that in reality…

What I find most interesting about Campbell’s article is that it reveals what the informed, amateur view of atomic energy was like in this early period. Some aspects of it are completely dead-on — that U-235 is the important isotope, that isotope separation is going to matter, that places with particle accelerators are going to play a role, that the acquisition of uranium ore was about to get important, that fears of German use of atomic energy existed. But parts of it are completely wrong — not only would dirty bombs not play a role, he doesn’t seem to understand that fission products, not irradiated substances, would play the strongest role. He doesn’t really seem to understand how nuclear power would be harnessed in a reactor. He doesn’t really seem to get fission bombs at all.

This mixture of accuracy and confusion, of guess and folly, tells us a lot about the state of public knowledge at the time. Atomic energy was a topic, it was an idea — but it wasn’t yet something tangible, a reality. So when people found out, in 1945, that the United States had made and detonated atomic fission bombs, they were primed to understand this as the beginning of a “new era,” as the realization of something they had been talking about for a long time — even if the details had been secret.

Meditations

Castle Bravo at 60

Posted February 28th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

Tomorrow, March 1, 2014, is the 60th anniversary of the Castle Bravo nuclear test. I’ve written about it several times before, but I figured a discussion of why Bravo matters was always welcome. Bravo was the first test of a deliverable hydrogen bomb by the United States, proving that you could not only make nuclear weapons that had explosive yields a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, but that you could make them in small-enough packages that they could fit onto airplanes. It is was what truly inaugurated the megaton age (more so than the first H-bomb test, Ivy Mike, which was explosively large but still in a bulky, experimental form). As a technical demonstration it would be historically important even if nothing else had happened.

One of the early Bravo fallout contours. Source.

One of the early Castle Bravo fallout contours showing accumulated doses. Source.

But nobody says something like that unless other things — terrible things — did happen. Two things went wrong. The first is that the bomb was even more explosive than the scientists thought it was going to be. Instead of 6 megatons of yield, it produced 15 megatons of yield, an error of 250%, which matters when you are talking about millions of tons of TNT. The technical error, in retrospect, reveals how grasping their knowledge still was: the bomb contained two isotopes of lithium in the fusion component of the design, and the designers assumed only one of them would be reactive, but they were wrong. The second problem is that the wind changed. Instead of carrying the copious radioactive fallout that such a weapon would produce over the open ocean, where it would be relatively harmless, it instead carried it over inhabited atolls in the Marshall Islands. This necessitated evacuation, long-term health monitoring, and produced terrible long-term health outcomes for many of the people on those islands.

If it had just been natives who were exposed, the Atomic Energy Commission might have been able to keep things hushed up for awhile — but it wasn’t. A Japanese fishing boat, ironically named the Fortunate Dragon, drifted into the fallout plume as well and returned home sick and with a cargo of radioactive tuna. One of the fishermen later died (whether that was because of the fallout exposure or because of the treatment regime is apparently still a controversial point). It became a major site of diplomatic incident between Japan, who resented once again having the distinction of having been irradiated by the United States, and this meant that Bravo became extremely public. Suddenly the United States was, for the first time, admitting it had the capability to make multi-megaton weapons. Suddenly it was having to release information about long-distance, long-term contamination. Suddenly fallout was in the public mind — and its popular culture manifestations (Godzilla, On the Beach) soon followed.

Map showing points (X) where contaminated fish were caught or where the sea was found to be unusually radioactive, following the Castle Bravo nuclear test.

Map showing points (X) where contaminated fish were caught or where the sea was found to be unusually radioactive, following the Castle Bravo nuclear test. This sort of thing gets public attention.

But it’s not just the public who started thinking about fallout differently. The Atomic Energy Commission wasn’t new to the idea of fallout — they had measured the plume from the Trinity test in 1945, and knew that ground bursts produced radioactive debris.

So you’d think that they’d have made lots of fallout studies prior to Castle. I had thought about producing some kind of map with all of the various fallout plumes through the 1950s superimposed on it, but it became harder than I thought — there are just a lot fewer fallout plumes prior to Bravo than you might expect. Why? Because prior to Bravo, they generally did not map downwind fallout plumes for shots in Marshall Islands — they only mapped upwind plumes. So you get results like this for Ivy Mike, a very “dirty” 10.4 megaton explosion that did produce copious fallout, but you’d never know it from this map:

Fallout from the 1952 "Ivy Mike" shot of the first hydrogen bomb. Note that this is actually the "back" of the fallout plume (the wind was blowing it north over open sea), and they didn't have any kind of radiological monitoring set up to see how far it went. As a result, this makes it look far more local than it was in reality. This is from a report I had originally found in the Marshall Islands database.

To make it even more clear what you’re looking at here: the wind in this shot was blowing north — so most of the fallout went north. But they only mapped the fallout that went south, a tiny amount of the total fallout. So it looks much, much more contained than it was in reality. You want to shake these guys, retrospectively.

It’s not that they didn’t know that fallout went further downwind. They had mapped the Trinity test’s long-range fallout in some detail, and starting with Operation Buster (1951) they had started mapping downwind plumes for lots of tests that took place at the Nevada Test Site. But for ocean shots, they didn’t their logistics together, because, you know, the ocean is big. Such is one of the terrible ironies of Bravo: we know its downwind fallout plume well because it went over (inhabited) land, and otherwise they probably wouldn’t have bothered measuring it.

The publicity given to Bravo meant that its fallout plume got wide, wide dissemination — unlike the Trinity test’s plume, unlike the other ones they were creating. In fact, as I mentioned before, there were a few “competing” drawings of the fallout cloud circulating internally, because fallout extrapolation is non-trivially difficult:

BRAVO fallout contours produced by the AFSWP, NRDL, and RAND Corp. Source.

But once these sorts of things were part of the public discourse, it was easy to start imposing them onto other contexts beyond islands in the Pacific Ocean. They were superimposed on the Eastern Seaboard, of course. They became a stock trope for talking about what nuclear war was going to do to the country if it happened. The term “fallout,” which was not used even by the government scientists as a noun until around 1948, suddenly took off in popular usage:

Google Ngram chart of the usage of the word "fallout" in English language books and periodicals. Source.

Google Ngram chart of the usage of the word “fallout” in English language books and periodicals. Source.

The significance of fallout is that it threatens and contaminates vast areas — far more vast than the areas immediately affected by the bombs themselves. It means that even a large-scale nuclear attack that tries to only threaten military sites is also going to do both short-term and long-term damage to civilian populations. (As if anyone really considered just attacking military sites, though; everything I have read suggests that this kind of counter-force strategy was never implemented by the US government even if it was talked about.)

It meant that there was little escaping the consequences of a large nuclear exchange. Sure, there are a few blank areas on maps like this one, but think of all the people, all the cities, all the industries that are within the blackened areas of the map:

Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimate of "accumulated 14-day fallout dose patterns from a hypothetical attack on the United States," 1986. I would note that these are very high exposures and I'm a little skeptical of them, but in any case, it represents the kind of messages that were being given on this issue. Source.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimate of “accumulated 14-day fallout dose patterns from a hypothetical attack on the United States,” 1986. I would note that these are very high exposures and I’m a little skeptical of them, but in any case, it represents the kind of messages that were being given on this issue. Source.

Bravo inaugurated a new awareness of nuclear danger, and arguably, a new era of actual danger itself, when the weapons got big, radiologically “dirty,” and contaminating. Today they are much smaller, though still dirty and contaminating.

I can’t help but feel, though, that while transporting the Bravo-like fallout patterns to other countries is a good way to get a sense of their size and importance, that it still misses something. I recently saw this video that Scott Carson posted to his Twitter account of a young Marshallese woman eloquently expressing her rage about the contamination of her homeland, at the fact that people were more concerned about the exposure of goats and pigs to nuclear effects than they were the islanders:

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the reports of the long-term health effects on the Marshallese people. It is always presented as a cold, hard science — sometimes even as a “benefit” to the people exposed (hey, they got free health care for life). Here’s how the accident was initially discussed in a closed session of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, for example:

Chairman Cole: “I understand even after they [the natives of Rongelap] are taken back you plan to have medical people in attendance.”

Dr. Bugher: “I think we will have to have a continuing study program for an indefinite time.”

Rep. James Van Zandt: “The natives ought to benefit — they got a couple of good baths.”

Which is a pretty sick way to talk about an accident like this, even if all of the facts aren’t in yet. Even for a classified hearing.

What’s the legacy of Bravo, then? For most of us, it was a portent of dangers to come, a peak into the dark dealings that the arms race was developing. But for the people on those islands, it meant that “the Marshall Islands” would always be followed by “where the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons” and a terrible story about technical hubris, radioactive contamination, and long-term health problems. I imagine that people from these islands and people who grew up near Chernobyl probably have similar, terrible conversations.

A medical inspection of a Marshallese woman by an American doctor. "Project 4," the biomedical effects program of Operation Castle was initially to be concerned with "mainly neutron dosimetry with mice" but after the accident an additional group, Project 4.1, was added to study the long-term exposure effects in human beings — the Marshallese. Image source.

A medical inspection of a Marshallese woman by an American doctor. “Project 4,” the biomedical effects program of Operation Castle was initially planned to be concerned with “mainly neutron dosimetry with mice” but after the accident an additional group, Project 4.1, was added to study the long-term exposure effects in human beings — the Marshallese. Image source.

I get why the people who made and tested the bombs did what they did, what their priorities were, what they thought hung in the balance. But I also get why people would find their actions a terrible thing. I have seen people say, in a flip way, that there were “necessary sacrifices” for the security that the bomb is supposed to have brought the world. That may be so — though I think one should consult the “sacrifices” in question before passing that judgment. But however one thinks of it, one must acknowledge that the costs were high.