Archive for February, 2012


“Mortuary Services in Civil Defense” (1956)

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Civil Defense is easy to mock, and I've done a little mocking of it on here myself. I don't have strong feelings on the topic. I don't really buy the argument that it was totally just cynical (or duped) propaganda, but I am also dubious that it would have had a truly significant effect in the event of a full nuclear exchange. I remain fairly on-the-fence on the question about whether it placated people into believing that nuclear war was survivable, or whether it instead scared the bejesus out of people. Did Civil Defense make the bomb seem more acceptable, or more horrific? Or, perhaps more likely, some kind of amalgam of those contradictory emotions?

But it's hard to argue that Civil Defense wasn't behind some of the most surreal products of the Cold War. It makes sense that it would: anything that involves trying to make "rational" and "calm" sense of nuclear attacks ends up looking like a bad Dr. Strangelove impersonation when put up against the horror of nuclear war.

Case in point: this week's document is a pamphlet, "Mortuary Services in Civil Defense," produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1956. It's not your standard "after the bomb falls" guide: it's not about re-starting a new civilization, it's about disposing of the mortal remains of the previous one.1

Click to see the full PDF.

The pamphlet sets up a dichotomy between "natural disasters" and "nuclear bomb disasters," which is an interesting linguistic decision. From the pamphlet:

In natural disasters, facilities available in every city can usually take care of the dead. Following an enemy attack with modern nuclear weapons, however, particularly in densely populated areas, existing facilities could not handle the large number of casualties. ...

To plan and organize for the disposal of the bodies of millions of civilians killed in an enemy nuclear attack is a grim business, even for those trained and accustomed to the work of mortuaries. The individual care we traditionally bestow on our deceased will not be physically possible when the dead must be counted in the thousands. However, FCDA, with the assistance of its Religious Advisory Committee, is planning for suitable memorial services for the dead in areas devastated by enemy attack.

The pamphlet is essentially a manual for disposing of extremely large volumes of (radioactive) corpses.

For the first few hours after a nuclear bomb disaster, there will be little time for attention to the dead. Later on, after the injured have been cared for and are beginning to be moved out of the devastated area, work with the dead may start. In case of a high degree of radioactive contamination, precautions are advisable to protect mortuary service personnel.

The part I personally found the darkest was a discussion of how to dig appropriate amounts of mass graves:

Mortuary and burial areas selected should have space to accommodate about 25 percent more than the maximum expected number of bodies. ... A method of rapid, mechanical grave digging and filling will be needed for the large number of graves required. ... If conditions permit, mechanically dug continuous trenches offer the best solution to the burial problem. If the machines available are capable only of digging narrow trenches, bodies can be placed head to foot instead of side by side.

And hey, if you thought you'd seen disturbing government flowcharts before, few compare to this one:

That's a lot of corpse "holding areas." And a lot of DEAD arrows. Well. It is a grim topic — and anytime a government publication admits it is a grim topic, you know you're in trouble.

Maybe I was wrong about it being surreal -- there's a way in which it's hyperreal, more real in its clinical matter-of-factness than farce could ever be. There's a very wrong trope out there that depicts the victims of atomic attacks as being "vaporized" or instantaneously disposed of. They're not. They are crushed, burned, and irradiated. They leave corpses that must be disposed of. I think people find that more disturbing than the "vaporized" idea, because it emphasizes the corporeal suffering that the bomb brings with it.

The unusually artistic "Join the Health Services!" image from the back of the pamphlet.

It's hard to claim that this particular pamphlet would make anyone feel sanguine about the effects of nuclear weapons. Of course, this particular pamphlet wasn't really designed for the "general public" — it was a relatively narrow technical manual.

In any case, I think Bert the Turtle would have been a lot more disturbing if Bert, having done his duck-and-cover thing, had immediately started digging trench-graves for his less fortunate animal compatriots...

  1. Citation: Federal Civil Defense Administration, Mortuary Services in Civil Defense (TM-11-12), (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1956). This scan was taken from here and cleaned up a bit. []

Putin and the Spies

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Recently, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised the work of US spies in helping the Soviet Union get the atomic bomb. Reuters quotes him:

You know, when the States already had nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union was only building them, we got a significant amount of information through Soviet foreign intelligence channels. ... The were carrying the information away not on microfilm but literally in suitcases. Suitcases! ... It was the cream the scientific world that was gathered in America, and I personally have gotten the impression that they consciously gave us information on the atom bomb. ... They did this consciously because the atom bomb had been used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and scientists from mankind's intellectual elite at the time understood what unilateral possession of such a weapon might lead to.1

The sum total of context given is that he told this to "military commanders." Not a whole lot to go on. Why's Putin praising spies? I mean, it's not a huge stretch for the former FSB chief, but a little more background would be nice.

The original story on ITAR-TASS (the state news agency) doesn't tell too much more context, either, though it describes the immediate context as being about the need to maintain a strategic balance with the United States (not just praising spies for their own sake). Interestingly, there are two Putin quotes left out of the English-language versions, and they go some of the distance in contextualizing these remarks a bit more.

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  1. Steve Gutterman, "Putin Praises Cold War moles for stealing U.S. nuclear secrets," Reuters (22 February 2012). []
News and Notes | Visions

NUKEMAP at One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Million “Detonations”

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

I woke up this morning to find that NUKEMAP had hit well over one million "detonations."

Remember when I was very impressed that I had 1,500 detonations? Yeesh.

These have been spread over about 190,000 unique visitors. The average of ~5 "detonations" per visitor has held pretty solidly over the last week.

Here are some visualizations I threw together showing where those million-and-change detonations fell. Each of the dots has an opacity of only 25%, so when they look bright red, that means they're being stacked on top of each other. I've also thrown out any perfectly redundant data, so nuking the exact same spot repeatedly doesn't change how it is rendered.

Click the image to zoom in. For details of various regions, click here: the USA, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, South America and Africa, and Oceania.

I will be soon writing up a somewhat formal analysis of this data, and other feedback I've gotten as to how NUKEMAP was used, talked about, spread around, and so on. I'll let you know when it's up.

Until then, Tom Lehrer will serve as analysis-by-proxy:

After the jump is a brief NUKEMAP FAQ of sorts, based on various blog comments, forum posts, news stories, and so on that I've seen on this.

Update: It's only 2/26 (three days after I wrote the above) and we're already at the second million. If I had a nickel for every Tsar Bomba dropped... well, I'd have about $25,000. Update: NUKEMAP hit three million around 3/6. Update: NUKEMAP hit four million sometime around 4/12. Update: NUKEMAP hit five million sometime around 7/12. Update: NUKEMAP hit six million detonations on 8/27 (another round on Reddit). Update: NUKEMAP hit seven million detonations on 10/22 (Reddit, again). Update: NUKEMAP hit eight million around 10/29 (tail end of that Reddit traffic). Update: Nine million around 12/22/12 (Reddit again).

I've written up an analysis of 4.3 million "detonations" and their locations for the online journal WMD Junction. Check it out.

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The Infamous Teller-Ulam Report (1951)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Enrico Fermi came up with the basic idea using the power of a fission bomb to ignite fusion reactions -- a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb -- as early as 1941. He told it to Edward Teller, who, as is well known, ran with it. For the next decade, Teller would commit a significant amount of his time to the effort of trying to figure out how you could make such a thing actually work.

That it took Teller -- and everyone else at Los Alamos -- a full ten years to figure out how to solve the problem is a good indication that it was a very hard problem. At the very least, it required a familiarity with nuclear reactions at energy regimes which had never been achieved previously on Earth. It also required breaking out of several wrong ideas along the way whose wrongness was not obvious.

There has been a lot written about the developments that led to the Teller-Ulam, or Ulam-Teller (as many fashion it), design in the spring of 1951. I find it more than a little fascinating that this old Cold War priority dispute is still alive and well in some circles, and have myself written a talk (which I probably ought to push to publication) with musings on the subject.1

Contemporary portraits of Edward Teller (by George Gamow) and Stanislaw Ulam (by Shatzi Davis).

The most basic form of it is that Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish mathematician, had considered that you could put a fission bomb into a heavy "box," set it off, and use the explosive pressure and heat of the blast to compress a larger piece of fissile material to very high densities. This would result in a very, very powerful (and very "dirty" from a fallout perspective) fission weapon, probably in the megaton range if you did it cleverly enough. Ulam told this to Teller, who jumped on it. As Ulam famously wrote to John Von Neumann: "Edward is full of enthusiasm about these possibilities; this is perhaps an indication they will not work."

Teller realized that the X-rays of the exploding fission "primary" were much faster than explosive forces Ulam was relying on, and could be used to compress fusion fuel to very high densities well before the bulk of the fission bomb's heat reached it. Somewhere along the line he also put a fission "sparkplug" inside the fusion "secondary," adding additional compression of the fusion fuel. Ergo, the multi-megaton hydrogen bomb. (Wikipedia, as you can imagine, has a long article on this thing, should you find my technical description lacking in detail.)

There's much, much more to it than this thumbnail sketch.

The result of all this, though, was a report signed by Teller and Ulam titled "On Heterocatalytic Detonations I. Hydrodynamic Lenses and Radiation Mirrors," report # LAMS-1225, dated March 9, 1951. Quite a mouthful. We'll get to the "heterocatalytic" in a moment, but the "hydrodynamic lenses" are the initial Ulam compression scheme; the "radiation mirrors" is related to Teller's insights with regards to radiation implosion. Presumably.

I've seen this report cited about a million times as "the" report, so I was surprised to find that there was a copy floating around online. Before you get too excited (or before my government readers flip out) the report is heavily redacted. Only a few paragraphs remain unadulterated, but it's still pretty interesting.2

Click to view the full PDF.

Some close-reading thoughts follow, as well as a probably explanation for why the "Ivy Mike" shot cab was called "the Sausage." (It's probably not the reason you'd think it was.)

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  1. The portraits were scanned from George Gamow, My World Line: An Informal Autobiography (New York: Viking Press, 1970), on 153. []
  2. Citation: Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam, "On Heterocatalytic Detonations I. Hydrodynamic Lenses and Radiation Mirrors (LAMS-1225)," (9 March 1951), Los Alamos National Laboratory, retrieved from []

Domesticating Los Alamos

Monday, February 20th, 2012

One of the things I've always found interesting is the emphasis on the social activity that took place at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Parties, lab alcohol, skiing... why is this such a key component in the story of the bomb?

This came up again recently because some new footage has been found of various Los Alamos folk romping around during World War II. It's kind of amusing, I suppose. We have Hans Bethe on skis, Robert Serber riding a horse, and "OPEN-heimer" aka "OPE-ie" drinking a "martini" (quite clearly champagne).

Longtime Manhattan Project buffs are of course not really surprised by this. Jon Else already covered this ground pretty well in The Day After Trinity, and any Oppenheimer biography goes into great detail about what a great host he was supposed to be and how cold his martinis were (he gets a lot of credit, I might point out, for just using adequate amounts of ice).

But why? The news director and the LANL reps they quote seem to imply that this "humanizes" the bomb scientists. I wonder how much that gets us, intellectually and rhetorically.

Who are we "humanizing" them to, and what are we "humanizing" them against? Is the fear that people will think they are mad scientists of some sort, or people totally disconnected from regular human life, or disconnected from the consequences of their work?

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