Nuclear Bombs, Soviet Style (1958)

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 17th, 2012

This set of Friday Images comes from an obscure Soviet publication I tracked down on a trip to the Library of Congress a few weeks ago. I had been searching for this for awhile, since I knew that the Army had paid to translate it quite some time ago, but the Army translation was itself a bit hard to track down. I really just wanted it for the images — it's one of the few Soviet books that I've seen which purports to explain how nuclear weapons are designed, and I'm always curious how they went about that sort of thing.

The book is titled Termoyadernoye Oruzhiye (Thermonuclear Weapons) and is by M.B. Neiman and K.M. Sadilenko. Neiman (or Neyman, depending on your transliteration preferences) is listed on the frontispiece as a doctor/professor of chemical science, and Sadilenko is listed as some kind of "research associate" (научный сотрудник) of the Soviet Academy of Science. The volume was published by the Ministry of Defense for the USSR, in Moscow, 1958.

The two bomb drawings I'm most interested in are their depictions of implosion and the hydrogen bomb. The basics of the implosion design had been declassified in the United States as early as 1951, and by 1958 there were lots of depictions of its more-or-less correct operation (using chemical explosives to compress a solid or hollow core). In the Soviet Union, though, they usually drew implosion differently. Here's the Neiman and Sadilenko version, which is more or less the only way I've seen it depicted in the Soviet literature:

"Fig. 9. Schematic diagram of the atomic bomb (the charge is split into several parts): 1 — explosives; 2 — plutonium; 3 — neutron source; 4 — neutron reflector; 5 — shell (tamper)"

It's a curious design — almost implosion, but not quite. It depicts shooting a plutonium core together into a spherical configuration, not compression through explosive lenses. It's actually quite similar to the "pre-implosion" design depicted in the Los Alamos Primer (second from the top here).

The hydrogen bomb diagram is even more amusing:

I'm not going to type this caption out, but basically the idea is that this is a fission-fusion-fission weapon, where you have multiple fission primaries surrounding a large amount of fusion fuel. See the image below for a more-or-less similar English translation.

Now this isn't the world's worst H-bomb drawing for the time. The Teller-Ulam design wasn't known publicly until 1979, so for 1958, this is pretty good. The key feature that sticks out as wrong is the fact that there are at least seven fission primaries here, which is a bit excessive (the real Teller-Ulam design uses one). But other than that, not too bad — it has the final "dirty" U-238 fission stage, and seems to get that external compression (rather than internal compression, as most H-bomb designs from the period show) is a key thing.1

But this drawing isn't Soviet at all in origin — it's a complete rip-off of a drawing that appeared in a 1955 issue of Life magazine:

"3-F" here means "fission-fusion-fission."

This drawing derives, I believe, from Ralph E. Lapp, who was really the first to popularize the idea that the fallout from the Castle Bravo accident (1954) implied that about 50% of the yield of hydrogen bombs was from a final, "dirty" uranium-238 fission stage.

This underscores an interesting dynamic throughout the Neiman and Sadilenko book: most of the drawings they have are ripped off of American sources... because the United States has long been the major producer of extensive speculation about how atomic bombs work!

There are also lots of charming Civil Defense drawings in this volume, which I'll post more of at a later time. But for the moment, I'll leave you with this wonderful little drawing of a Soviet street-washer decontaminating a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic city:

The little sign in the picture with "УБЕЖИЩЕ" written on it can be translated as refuge or shelter, but it can also be translated as asylum. Fitting, that.

  1. I'm using the terms "external" and "internal" a little idiosyncratically here, but what I mean is that the fission primary here is distinct and "outside" of the fission fuel. Contrast this with versions where the fission primary is surrounded by fusion fuel, or has "shells" of fusion fuel around it. The latter is like the Teller "Alarm Clock" model and the Soviet "Sloika" design, and was much more commonly depicted when people were speculating as to how H-bombs might work in this period. Before someone gets too picky, I'm aware that this lacks physical separation of the primary and secondary, that there is neutron shield for the secondary, that there isn't an interstage, and that, of course, there's no mention of radiation implosion in any of this. There's still more wrong than right here. []

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8 Responses to “Nuclear Bombs, Soviet Style (1958)”

  1. John F. Opie says:

    The cover is also interesting: it shows what looks to be a B-36 and a B-58 on the top, but two very generic images below them (looks to be a Frog and a generic target drone, to be honest). Odd to include the first two…

    • Jacob Hamblin says:

      And the mushroom cloud… looks like it is from published American lit on fission, not fusion, weapons.

      • It’s a mix of things. They have a lot of “classic” Civil Defense images in it — the houses being destroyed at NTS, the Ivy Mike fireball — but all American derived. There is nothing photographic in it that seems to derive from Soviet data, which is interesting.

        American declassification: giving the Soviet scientists “safe” things to publish since 1945!

  2. […] the hydrogen bomb. It seems kind of quaint from a layman’s point of view, but remember that most assumptions about how hydrogen bombs were designed usually focused on putting the fission bombs as close as possible to the fusion fuel, […]

  3. Андрей says:

    У меня дома раньше такая книга валялась. Потом куда-то выкинули.

  4. […] drawing of interest: we have an early drawing of the bomb itself. (This is one of my obsessions, as you may have figured out. I’ve been working on how people draw the bomb for a long time […]

  5. […] a third “dirty” fission stage, and had popularized the idea enough that it tricked into  Life magazine in December 1955. But Bethe thought Morrison’s analysis was more or less sound, given his lack of detailed […]