Archive for March, 2012


Trinity’s cloud (1945)

Friday, March 30th, 2012

The mushroom cloud has long been the symbol of what it meant to set off a nuclear weapon. But, as Spencer Weart noted in his Nuclear Fear (I haven't checked to see if it is in the new edition, The Rise of Nuclear Fear, yet), it wasn't always so, nor necessarily so. There are other words in English you could describe such a cloud, though "mushroom" has nice symbolic connotations. But more to the point I want to make here, you don't necessarily have to focus on the cloud in its most mushroom-y stage. There are lots of ways to photograph a nuclear explosion, and the ideal mushroom cloud shape represents just one particular point in time in the evolution of the nuclear effects.

Case in point, the "standard" image of the "Trinity" shot (July 16, 1945), is not of a mushroom cloud, but as a blobby fireball, milliseconds after detonation:1

It's kind of curious, isn't it, that these sorts of images are the most common? I haven't traced out the whole story here, but the obvious reason for this is that these are the images that were first distributed about the test in the wake of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (There's one of the "fireball" photos inside the Princeton University Press edition of the Smyth Report, for example.)

Why the fireball and not the cloud? One might be tempted to say it has something to do with wanting to underplay the fallout, but of course they did distribute photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki mushroom clouds. I suspect that the reason isn't terribly deep — that, perhaps, whomever chose the photos was more impressed by the massive fireball with its uncanny spherical shape than they were by a mere mushroom cloud, which, without a sense of scale, is indistinguishable from many other large explosions. But this is just speculation. I've never found much documentation on the release of the "Trinity" photos — just a memo from a year later (the summer of 1946) which said, interestingly, that the decision to declassify all of the tiny-time scale "Trinity" photos (like the ones linked above) was made after consultation with none other than Klaus Fuchs.

The other common photo of "Trinity" is the Jack Aeby photo, perhaps most famous these days as being the cover of Richard Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is later than the millisecond photos, obviously, but is still very early in the cloud formation.

Below are some alternative views of "Trinity," from Los Alamos National Laboratory's archives. They show considerably different stages of the cloud development, and are pretty interesting images for that reason:

I find all of these ones to be much more ominous than either the fireball or the Aeby photos — they are dark, they are smokey, they are not friendly. The last one in particular looks like something ancient and terrible. Which arguably is as correct an interpretation of the "Trinity" test as the more common narrative about inspiring achievement.

  1. All of these images come from Los Alamos National Laboratory; their file names reflect their index numbers within the LANL system. []

Insuring the Bomb (1944)

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Nuclear technology has had an odd relationship to insurance in the United States. Why? Because it is high-risk, low-probability technology — no underwriter wants to contemplate insuring against a full meltdown disaster, as rare as they are. The result of this is that in the United States, under the 1957 Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, the American public essentially acts as the underwriters for all nuclear power plants. It's an arrangement that is understandably controversial amongst a diverse group of critics.

But the history of odd nuclear insurance arrangements dates back much earlier.

In December 1942, the University of California agreed, at the insistence of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest O. Lawrence, to become the manager of the secret Los Alamos laboratory. Well, in truth, they agreed to manage some kind of laboratory — they didn't know it was at Los Alamos. They didn't even know what state it was in, much less what it was supposed to be doing. As manager, their job was to procure supplies and manage personnel employment.1

And, as a consequence, purchase insurance for the lab. Which is one of many things that made the UC's secretary and finance officer, Robert Mackenzie Underhill, unhappy. Because what prudent finance officer would let such a project be uninsured against hazards? But it's awful hard to find insurance when you don't know where the project is much less what is to be insured against.

Robert M. Underhill: the UC's financial watchdog, and the only Regent who knew about the bomb.

The amazing fact is, nobody in the UC management hierarchy had a clue what they were doing at this secret lab. It was really that secret. In February 1943, Underhill had finally managed to weasel out of the Army that the secret physics project was in New Mexico — so that they could purchase insurance for it.

It was not until November 1943 — nearly a year after the UC had taken on management responsibilities — that Ernest Lawrence decided it was necessary to let Underhill just a teensy bit in on the secret. Not because Lawrence cared too much what Underhill thought, but because he felt it might expedite Underhill's activity (and general financial conservatism) if the latter considered the program an important undertaking.

In Underhill's recollection, Lawrence went to Underhill's office, locked the door, and pulled down the curtains. Lawrence asked him, "You know what they're doing down in Los Alamos?" Underhill said no — he knew only that Oppenheimer was running a "scientific study in physics." Lawrence then filled him in that the UC was now thoroughly enmeshed in the production of atomic bombs. Amazingly, Underhill remained the only top UC official to know the purpose of the project; even the UC President, Robert Sproul, was not filled in. (And in fact, he got in trouble later in the war for speculating publicly that they were working on a death ray — a little too close to the truth, as it turned out.)

This week's document is a teletype from General Groves to Oppenheimer from February 1944, instructing the latter as to what to tell Underhill about the hazards to be insured against at an unspecified site.2

Click image to view full PDF.

The "hazards present at the site," Groves told Oppenheimer to relate to Underhill, involve:

  1. Exposure to radiant energy or emitted particles from radioactive materials or from high voltage sources or machines "classify secret reference eidme" (I am not sure what this last bit means, other than perhaps to say that item #1 here is classified secret)
  2. Exposure to explosion due to high explosives
  3. Exposure to toxic materials comprising uranium [and?] any compound thereof fluorine or hydrofluoric acid

From the context, I would think the site was Los Alamos — high explosives, radiation, uranium. February 1944 seems a little late to be specifying this sort of thing, but it may either be a sub-site of Los Alamos, or they might just be back-dating things.

Norris Bradbury (L) and Robert Underhill (R), signing the UC lab management contract renewal in 1952.

Underhill is a curious figure in the history of the bomb. He saw the whole enterprise as a dubious matter for the UC to be tied up in, and shows up at various junctures trying to protect the UC's financial and legal interests. That the UC would have and be able to act on its own financial and legal interests in this situation — and not just roll over at the request of the Army — is what I find so interesting about these little episodes.

It's common to see the bomb as this immovable, in-opposable force in American life and politics, but there are all sorts of little compromises that had to be made, especially in the early days, to get it off the ground.

  1. The best one-stop shop for information about the early involvement of the University of California in management of Los Alamos and later Livermore is Gregg Herken, “The University of California, the Federal Weapons Labs, and the Founding of the Atomic West," in Bruce William Hevly and John M. Findlay, eds., The Atomic West (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1998), 119-135. The change-over from UC management to privatized management in the early 2000s was quite controversial; Hugh Gusterson's recent article in BAS, The assault on Los Alamos National Laboratory: A drama in three acts, is a must-read on the current management situation. []
  2. Citation: Teletype from Leslie R. Groves to J. Robert Oppenheimer (January 1944), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0317507. []

Uncle Sam says Shush

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

There's a time-honored tradition of using scary posters to remind your employees that dire and deadly consequences will follow from their indiscretions. Creating an aura of "security consciousness" has been the goal, and during World War II in particular, posters of the "Loose Lips Sink Ships" variety were produced by the metric ton.

My favorite World War II secrecy poster is one that I haven't seen much online, but is sold as a postcard at the National Archives at College Park:

This one was created by Robert S. Sloan, who did a number of American propaganda posters during World War II. I love its starkness and simplicity, and its darkly ominous quality. It's also a beautiful inversion of the standard James Montgomery Flagg poster from 1917 — it is still focused on Uncle Sam and his index finger, but instead of saying that he wants you, he's saying, shhhhh. It's a symbolic, perhaps, of the way in which technical secrecy becomes predominant in World War II, as the reliance on new weapons becomes more standardized, and the number of civilian contractors involved in war production went up considerably.


Conant on the Role of the British in the Manhattan Project

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

The Manhattan Project was a joint effort to build the atomic bomb between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In practice, most of the labor, expense, and manpower came from the United States, and the degree to which the UK and Canada should be equal partners with the US in the bomb project was a controversial subject.

The British were instrumental in prodding the US into serious action with the MAUD report, and the Canadians had uranium. But should that be it? This was the question in late 1942, when the US program was undergoing a massive transformation. Prior to 1942, the American effort was primarily a research program, trying to answer the question of whether atomic bombs could be built in a reasonable amount of time. From late 1942 onward, the effort shifted to a production program, an all-out effort to try and produce an actual bomb for use in the war. Would the British be let in on this later phase? Did the United States need the British?

Not really, thought James B. Conant, President of Harvard, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee1, and close friend of Vannevar Bush (director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was the civilian side of the Manhattan Project). This week's document is a letter from Conant to Bush from December 1942, outlining the many reasons he thought that the US should essentially abandon the British at that point in the work:2

Click image to view full PDF.

Conant implored Bush to clarify the matter of UK participation before the full-scale bomb project, run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, got under way, "for it will be clearly difficult to continue to have complete scientific interchange on the one hand and restricted development interchange on the other unless the arrangement is carefully spelled out, for the line between research and development is nebulous, and the same people are often involved in both."

For Conant, the decision had to be completely pragmatically. The was "presumably one one reason" to share secret military information between Allied nations, "namely, to further the prosecution of the war in which both are engaged." The question was, would sharing all information with the British do this? He thought not. The British were not producing fissile material, for example, so "our passing our knowledge to them [in that subject] will not assist the British in any way in the present war effort." So under this scheme, the British would only get to participate in the parts that they themselves were working on which would actually get them closer to making an atomic bomb during World War II. Which is to say, bomb design, reactors, and plutonium would be left out of the story for the British. ("If there be any national rights in this whole area '49' [code for plutonium] may be said to be a strictly U.S. invention.")

Would there be complications? Conant acknowledged that if they cut the UK out at this point, Canada might deny them heavy water. That would be annoying, but not a deal-breaker. They might also deny them uranium ore, which would be a somewhat more dicey procedure until the US was sure of its access to domestic supplies. (They had a considerable amount of high-value ore from the Belgian Congo, but this was insufficient for the entire project.) The British, of course, would "certainly be displeased," but Conant concludes that "there would be no unfairness to the British in this procedure."

What would be the advantage to the US in doing this? Conant says simply that it would help with secrecy:

The advantages of restricting all further information to the United States is obvious. Secrecy could be more easily controlled. We are not just reaching the point where the advances are military secrets of the first order of importance.

Conant and Bush were also worried that the British interest in participating in the bomb project had nothing to do with the current war, but with an eye towards scientific and commercial prestige in the postwar period. Conant does not mention this here, though.

There would be many more salvos on this front as Conant and Bush frantically tried to persuade Roosevelt not to let the British into the full, new Manhattan Project. At one point, Bush thought he had convinced FDR of the soundness of this measure.

But however persuasive Vannevar Bush could be, he couldn't match up to Winston Churchill. By mid-1943, Churchill had convinced Roosevelt that full cooperation was the only true path, and the Quebec Agreement was (secretly) entered into. Not only would the British get access to American research, and send a delegation of scientists to Los Alamos, but they would get to have equal say on whether the bombs themselves were used, and whether the US could share the information with any other countries. In practice, though, the British were nearly completely kept out of Hanford (James Chadwick visited it once), though they learned much about plutonium through their work at Los Alamos. The Canadians founded labs at Montreal and Chalk River, but were more or less excluded from American information by General Groves.

Conant would eventually embrace the Quebec Agreement as well. But his initial reason for wanting to keep the British out -- because of the difficulty of controlling secrecy -- proved exactly correct. It was, after all, Klaus Fuchs, a member of the British delegation to Los Alamos, who proved to be the most significant of the wartime atomic spies. Of course, he was wrong the British had nothing to contribute: the British delegation (including Fuchs) made major contributions towards the practical realization of the bomb while at Los Alamos. So maybe it all evens out.

  1. Note that at this point, Office of Scientific Research and Development had taken over most of the responsibilities of the original NDRC. The NDRC became the "NDRC of the OSRD" at this point, which meant that it was merely an advisory body of the OSRD. []
  2. Citation: James B. Conant to Vannevar Bush, "US-British Relations on S-1 Project" (14 December 1942), in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 2, Target 4, Folder 9, "S-1 British Relations Prior to Interim Committee, [Fldr.] No. 1 [1942]." []

Classification In-Jokes

Friday, March 16th, 2012

One of the really noticeable difference between the Boston and DC areas are the advertisements on their public transportation systems. In Boston, the majority of the ads were either for getting another educational degree, or asking if you wanted to be a paid participant in various medical/clinical studies. When you're already in that town to get a lofty educational degree, you're sometimes tempted by the idea of getting paid to not sleep for a week. Or maybe it would just be more of the same? Har har! Grad school jokes!

In DC, a huge number of the ads are for lobbying purposes — most of which invoke horrible consequences that will befall children, jobs, Israel, and/or the entire United States should Congress or the President not do something that somebody wants them to do. It's unclear to me whether this sort of advertising works, or, at least, what it means to "work" in these circumstances. Surely the wheels of government are so well-greased by money that mere subway ads can't have too much of an effect on how the representatives vote? And we all know nobody in DC is going to write in to their elected representatives, on account of the fact that we don't have any. (None who can vote, anyway.)

My favorite series of ads, though, are basically only comprehensible for people with connections to the world of security clearances. I think people in most parts of the country might assume that a web site with a name like "Clearance Jobs" might mean "jobs that are available wholesale" (not so bad) or "jobs at a significant markdown" (hmm) or maybe even "jobs that are two seasons old and thus nobody wants" (not so good).

Out here, of course, it means "jobs for people with security clearances."

This site has advertised a lot over the past few months with variously cryptic slogans. Here's my favorite one, snapped at the Navy Yard Metro station a few weeks ago:

Real Analysts Do It In a SCIF

A SCIF is a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. You know in the spy movies when they go into the special room that is completely cut off from the outside world, guaranteed un-bugged, where the really sensitive stuff is discussed? Well, it's sort of like that, but like most things associated with secrecy, they're probably a lot less exciting than they sound.

If you don't know what a SCIF is, you probably aren't attracted to the job. If you do know what a SCIF is, you're either feeling smug about your knowledge of the in-joke, or a little disturbed by the idea of analysts "doing it" on top of a classified laptop. Or maybe it's just me.

The truth is, of course, that Smart Analysts Do It in a Cone of Silence. Har, har! I'll be here all week, folks!

Update: I happened to be on a train with another one of these on my way home today:

How Was Your Day? Oh, I (redacted)

Har har! Get it? His or her job is classified so they speak in big redacted passages. Well, there you go. (Sorry for the blurriness — moving train+bad lighting+poor cell-phone camera.)