Archive for December, 2011


Bullseye on Washington (1953)

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Today's image of the week comes from the files of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). In February 1953, the JCAE got their first briefing from the Atomic Energy Commission about the success of Operation Ivy, where the first hydrogen bomb prototype was detonated just a few months earlier. This was given in a Top Secret Executive session, which was only declassified in 2009, and thus is only available at the Legislative Archives in downtown Washington, D.C., so I was excited to get my hands on it on my most recent research trip.

In order to explain to the gathered Congressmen the effects of the hydrogen bomb, Brig. Gen. Kenneth E. Fields, the AEC's General Manager at the time, showed three charts to them, illustrating the yields of the Nagasaki bomb (20 kilotons), a current stockpile fission bomb (83 kilotons), and a hypothetical hydrogen bomb (5 megatons):

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Is Inaccuracy Classified? (1963)

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Decades other than the 1940s and 1950s don't get quite enough love on this blog, though they really ought to. Here's a fun little document from 1963 in which the principle question under consideration is whether production information that would give deliberately inaccurate guesses about the size of the nuclear stockpile could be considered unclassified because of its misleading nature.1

That is, the size of the stockpile was considered one of the great secrets of the Cold War. Because of this, production data that could be used to extrapolate the size of the stockpile was also considered a great secret. (If you knew how much U-235 was produced, and knew how much U-235 was used per weapon, then you could figure out the max stockpile size with just a little bit of arithmetic.)

But what if the production data gave you a totally wrong idea of what the stockpile size was? Was it then safe to release?

Click the image for the full PDF.

The director of AEC classification, Charles L. Marshall, said no. Inaccuracy did not make something unclassified:

I am sure you know that information concerning the numbers of nuclear weapons in stockpile is considered by both the Commission and the DOD to be among the most highly sensitive information generated within the AEC program. Any information which might tend to reveal stockpile size is also highly classified. The question has often been raised as to whether certain data which would permit estimates of stockpile size to be made could be considered unclassified because of their extreme inaccuracy. The net result of our consideration of the problem has been the realization that any general rule which would permit unclassified approximate values of any degree of accuracy must fairly quickly result in defining the actual numbers of weapons in the stockpile. This becomes apparent if one considers that declassification must be of (plus/minus) inaccuracies.

As Marshall reasoned, any such data would "bracket with impunity accurate values for the size of the stockpile," and so "even highly inaccurate estimates of the size of the stockpile" had to be avoided. These rules could be changed, Marshall explained, but only if the Department of Defense was willing to concur in the changes.

I like the document both for its "rabbit hole" logic — once you start down the road of "this information is secret," it quickly spreads so that all sorts of ostensibly only-somewhat-related information is also secret — and for its odd context. The question isn't being asked because someone wants to make a public statement, but rather because they want to share information with the United Kingdom, a US ally. But as Marshall points out, rules are rules...

  1. Source: Charles L. Marshall to Max F. Roy (18 April 1963), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document #NV0321017. []
Meditations | Redactions

Archives Week, Addendum: More Notes on Technique

Monday, December 26th, 2011

My post on Day 2 of Archives Week got a few people asking me if I could elaborate on my post-processing methods for all those photos I take — the conversion from JPEG to PDF that I hinted at.

I've played with a few different ways of doing this, from the very simple to the reasonably sophisticated, and have come up with a way that, in the end, is "good enough" in the sense that it is easy, saves me time, and does a fine enough job.

Warning: this is a long post! There's a document at the end of it, though, for those of you who don't care much about how I make the files.

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News and Notes | Visions

But Does Santa Have a Need to Know?

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Happy Holidays from!

Santa Claus gets searched and scrutinized by guards at the Oak Ridge Y-12 uranium enrichment facility, ca. 1950. Click image for full size.

Image from the U.S. Department of Energy Digital Photo Archive.


Archives Week, Day 5: The Lost JCAE Hearings

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

On my post for Day 1 of this week's archival trip, I noted that the Lexis Nexis database of Executive hearings of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) was empty after 1962. I wondered if that could possibly be accurate or not.

The answer, after fishing around for a week, is clearly no. There are a bunch of Executive sessions that are not in the Lexis Nexis database, especially from the 1960s and a few from the 1970s. Some of these have been only very recently declassified — in 2005, 2007, and 2010. There are probably others still classified. (You can't FOIA Congressional records, but you can request a Mandatory Declassification Review, which accomplishes similar ends.)

So I've been diving into these. The ones I have looked at so far cover:

  • Hyman Rickover testifying about the first nuclear submarine plans in 1951. This contained an interesting discussion about how many bombs you stockpiled per so many nautical miles traveled. I hadn't thought of that way of thinking about it; nuclear submarines usually run on highly-enriched uranium (HEU), because it gives better power output for the size constraints. Of course, in 1951, when they were planning the U.S.S. Nautilus, they were eagerly trying to expand the nuclear stockpile. Putting HEU into a submarine meant you couldn't put it into an actual bomb. So there was an interesting trade-off going on then. Of course, the actual numbers are blacked out. Or, more appropriately, whited out. Today's redactors use Adobe Acrobat to make their deletions:

    The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No core for you!

  • Discussions with General McCormack about the goals of Operation Ranger (1951), the first continental nuclear test series since "Trinity." This includes McCormack trying to explain what the purpose of nuclear artillery would be to the JCAE, and why it required (at the time) strictly gun-type weapon designs (which use up a lot of HEU relative to implosion weapons). It also discusses their early plans for making nuclear bunker-buster weapons. One nice exchange:

Brien McMahon "... according to the staff's report to me,... the Air Forces are going to do a test called Windstorm up in Kamchatka or Kiska or something."
Gen. McCormack: "Amchitka."
McMahon: "Kamchatka?"
McCormack: "Amchitka. Kamchatka is over the border in Russia."
McMahon: "That wouldn't be a bad idea."

  • There's also some interesting remarks in that one by McCormack about why he'd want any use of tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe to be completely American-controlled:

McCormack: " send American airplanes with American bombs to support foreign troops, I am afraid, would lead you into a most horrible sort of disaster because of the tie-in and coordination between air and ground forces is difficult enough at best if you all came out of the same school. It is very tough indeed when you come from different schools and if you pull a boner with an atomic bomb, as has been pulled with ordinary ammunition in Korea, if you pull one with an atomic bomb, I feel you will put back atomic support for ground troops by years." [Fair enough — if you accidentally nuke your allies, they probably won't want you playing with nukes again.]

  • Also now declassified is the first JCAE briefing on the Castle Bravo accident. As you might expect, there's some awful stuff here:

 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." [Seriously?]

  • A rather interesting session from 1965, where the JCAE was introduced to the idea of MIRVing for the first time by Livermore scientists. One lovely exchange:

Rep. Holifield: "Dr. Foster, did this general idea [MIRVing] originate in the laboratory or was it a matter of requirement by the DoD?"
Dr. Foster: "I am not exactly sure how it originated. It came up, I think, three years ago in connection with our concern over what capability might be achieved by the Soviet missiles."
Rep. Holifield: "You didn't go ahead with this without a formal requirement, I hope."
Dr. Foster: "Yes, I am afraid we did. (Laughter) Let me be specific —"
Rep. Holifield: "You will be condemned by the Budget Bureau for that."

All in all, it was a good week at the archives. (As I post this, they are literally kicking me out of the reading room. Something about going home to their families for the holidays?)

Next week I'll post a bit more about my post-processing techniques for my files, since there has been some interest in that, and I hadn't quite gotten them all written up in a sensible way.