Archive for May, 2012


The Centrifuge Conundrum (1964/1968)

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

On Monday I wrote a bit about the history of the Zippe-type gas centrifuge. What's fascinating about the Zippe centrifuges, for me, is that they were pushed internationally for the purpose of commercialization, and because of their origin outside of the United States (and their post-Atoms for Peace publicity), they were not put under as heavy restrictions as other uranium enrichment technologies — despite the fact that they are really the ideal enrichment method for a potential new proliferator. This created a major problem for the United States. Centrifuge technology was both hard for the US to meaningfully control (since it didn't originate in secret American labs), and US companies were eager to "stay competitive" with Europe in the vast new frontier of enrichment possibilities they opened up (which seemed like big money in the 1960s, when the future of nuclear power was still rosy). For this week's document(s), I want to share two different (short) positions on what we might call the "centrifuge problem" of the 1960s.

Glenn Seaborg (left) and Robert McNamara (right) flank President Kennedy as he visits the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1962

The first is a 1964 memo from Robert S. McNamara, then the Secretary of Defense, to Glenn T. Seaborg, then the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. It comes at a time — about six months prior to the first Chinese nuclear test — where the United States started to get really serious about proliferation, or as it was often called then, the "Nth country problem."1

Click image for the PDF

McNamara's memo aimed to confront the problem of centrifuge proliferation head-on. Proliferation was a problem in McNamara's eyes because, "...the acquisition of fissionable material for even one or two weapons by a non-nuclear country could have a destabilizing impact on international relations which would be harmful to US security." (This is, of course, exactly why helping other countries proliferate might seem like a good idea to some countries, as Matthew Kroenig has argued in his fairly recent book, Exporting the Bomb.)

But McNamara knew he couldn't end proliferation through simple technical means: "I recognize that the controls which can be placed on technology can only retard, not prevent, its growth and diffusion. Even so the goal of retardation is a worthwhile one." This is actually a very old argument related to the benefits of secrecy: it doesn't stop diffusion of information, but it does slow it down. And slowing it down can be strategically valuable.

Supporting this "retardation" goal (a somewhat unfortunate choice of words), McNamara wanted to slow down the diffusion of centrifuge information. His methods:

  1. "...dampen the incentive of countries capable of developing their own gas centrifuge technology." That is, guarantee nuclear fuel to countries so they are dependent on the US for enrichment and don't feel they need to develop their own enrichment capabilities. He also thinks that the US should support safeguards on natural uranium — which is interesting since as far as I know, unenriched, natural uranium is not safeguarded today.
  2. "...inhibit assistance to less developed countries." Specifically he means keeping classification and export controls up in the US program, since that will make nuclear newbies have a harder time.
  3. " US gas centrifuge technology at a high level so that the US can stay abreast, or ahead, of developments in other countries." This is a very good task to send to the Chairman of the AEC: full steam ahead with centrifuge development! But keep it secret. McNamara is no doubt aware that half of the problem here is that the US hadn't kept abreast, or ahead, of centrifuge developments in other countries (see my previous post on this).

Lastly, Seaborg had asked McNamara if there were any US security objectives that non-proliferation policy might interfere with. (An interesting question.) McNamara says no — the only issue hinted at is the basing of nuclear weapons in NATO countries ("nuclear sharing"), but McNamara seems pretty confident that he doesn't consider that to be proliferation since it is not a creation of an "independent" nuclear state. (This was a major sticking point for the NPT negotiations in the late 1960s; the USSR was desperately afraid of giving the West German "revanchists" control of nuclear weapons and tried to use the NPT as a way of opposing nuclear sharing policies.)

Now let's go to the other document, an extract from Seaborg's office diary from 1968. Seaborg's office diary entries are generally speaking quite short and not usually very revealing, but this one is interesting. It concerns his day on Monday, November 11, 1968. Here's the first relevant section:2

At 10 a.m. I presided over [Atomic Energy] Commission Meeting 2352 (action summary attached) [not attached]. At the Commission Meeting we discussed the possibility of modifying our policy of secrecy on our gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuge methods for enriching U-235. The Europeans and Japanese are developing these methods and our policy seems to be outmoded if we want to influence them and stay abreast of them. Despite objections from [Commissioner James T.] Ramey, who prefers the status quo, we asked the staff to make a study, with the aim of coming up with various plans to make it possible to cooperate with the Europeans and Japanese in this area.

So this is an interesting counter to the McNamara concern. The Europeans and Japanese were pushing ahead in both centrifuge and diffusion technology, and there was a question as to whether the AEC should loosen their restrictions in order to "influence them and stay abreast of them." At least one AEC Commissioner wanted to take a conservative approach, but Seaborg and the others were interested enough in the possibility to order up a staff study, which was often the first step towards a policy change.

There is one more relevant part of that day's diary entry; that evening, Seaborg went to see the German delegation to a nuclear industry conference. Here's what he wrote:

Dr. Michael Higatsberger (of Austria) told me the AEC briefings at Oak Ridge last Thursday and Friday on our nuclear fuel policy were very successful and may have convinced many Europeans that they shouldn't build an enriching facility soon. Charles Robbins (AIF) told me about industry feeling that AEC suppression of industrial work on gas centrifuge is counter to American method of doing business.

Another interesting paring — an Austrian saying that the US had probably convinced the Europeans not to create in their own collective enrichment facility, and an American nuclear industry representative (the AIF was the Atomic Industrial Forum, a nuclear lobby group) saying that AEC control over centrifuge work is "counter to [the] American method of doing business." (The UK, Netherlands, and Germany did create URENCO in 1971, so not all of them were apparently convinced. URENCO uses gas centrifuges for its enrichment, and is where A.Q. Khan got access to the centrifuge technology that he later took back to Pakistan and exported to quite a few other places.)

What I like about these two documents is they paint a picture of the various political, technical, and economic forces pulling in different directions on the centrifuge problem. Gas centrifuges, like all enrichment technology, have been duel-use since birth, but the fact that they developed outside of US auspices made them especially difficult to control. This difficulty then presented the problem of whether one ought to try and control them, and if so, how. Heavy controls might slow things down, but it also could easily encourage others to press ahead with independent development. Loosening restrictions might increase diffusion, but could also increase dependence on US assistance.

  1. Citation: Robert S. McNamara to Glenn T. Seaborg (23 May 1964), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0903211. []
  2. Glenn T. Seaborg, Office Diary entry (11 November 1968), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0910540. []

Zippe’s Centrifuges

Monday, May 28th, 2012

R. Scott Kemp, a friend of mine at Princeton's Science and Global Security program, has just informed me that the latest issue of Technology and Culture has come out with his new article: "The End of Manhattan: How the Gas Centrifuge Changed the Quest for Nuclear Weapons."1

It's a good read and I highly recommend tracking down a copy if you are interested in nuclear history, but especially if you're interested in the history of proliferation. Scott's article is the best account I've read about how the gas centrifuge went from being a more-or-less abandoned approach to uranium enrichment during World War II to being the proliferation concern of the late-20th and early-21st centuries.

Major components of a Zippe centrifuge, 1959

Gas centrifuges had been one of the many types of enrichment technology pursued during the Manhattan Project. Early on, they were heavily favored over the more technically daunting electromagnetic and the totally-untried gaseous diffusion method. Jesse W. Beams at the University of Virginia was the country's centrifuge expert and he had been looking into using them for isotopic separation as early as 1940. As a result, all of the Manhattan Project centrifuge work was concentrated with him at his laboratory, and in 1941, nearly four times more was allocated to the centrifuge project as was the more speculative gaseous diffusion method.

This is an interesting point to note — we give the Manhattan Project management a lot of credit for trying everything. They spent far more money than a more "optimized" project might have, because they investigated a lot of things that didn't work out. But despite this approach, they still centralized the work being done on any specific method, usually within a single laboratory, often under the direction of a single scientific luminiary. So Ernest Lawrence was the don of the electromagnetic method; Arthur Compton oversaw reactor research; Harold Urey ran diffusion; and so on. Which seems like a great idea on the face of it. But what if the person you chose just didn't take the research in the right directions? What if, within that short timescale, they just didn't hit upon the right answer?

Such was the case with Beams, in Kemp's assessment: Beams just didn't figure out how to get centrifuges to work sufficiently well enough. As a result, the Manhattan Project folks proclaimed centrifuges a dead end and dropped the approach in 1944. After the war, there was little US interest in centrifuges — it didn't seem like they were very workable, certainly not compared to gaseous diffusion. And since gaseous diffusion worked fine for them, they didn't look too far afield. The lesson of the war, as the US saw it, was that centrifuges weren't worth the effort.

Schematic of Zippe's short bowl "ultracentrifuge," 1958

But in Europe and the USSR, though, work on centrifuges continued. Scott's account goes into this in some wonderfully wonky technical detail. The end result is that Gernot Zippe, an Austrian physicist, who in the early 1950s figured out (with others) how to fix the problems that Beams had with his centrifuges. Amazingly, he did this while being a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union.

The Zippe centrifuges weren't anything magical. There was no "secret," per se, and they didn't involved any special materials. They just involved working out a few engineering details that made the devices reliable and stable. The major new features introduced by another Austrian POW, Max Steenbeck, and implemented by Zippe were:

  1. "a 'point' bearing that allowed the centrifuge rotor to spin on the tip of a needle (like a toy top) with almost no friction."
  2. "the application of loose bearings and weak damping, which allowed the centrifuge to adjust itself so that it spun quietly on its center-of-mass axis without vibration instead of trying to force the axis of rotation"
  3. "to drive the rotation using electromagnetic fields, just as the armature of an electric motor drives its internal rotating shaft"

That's it. In engineering terms, these are clever, but hardly revolutionary. These three relatively simply engineering changes "solved essentially all the mechanical problems that had plagued Manhattan Project centrifuges," Scott writes. In fact, he argues:

It wasn't that the centrifuge wasn't possible in the World War II period — it's just that Beams never figured it out. Scott notes:

The flawed centrifuge was made viable by the application of engineering solutions that were mostly invented around the turn of the twentieth century and all of which predated the Manhattan Project—evidence that the latter’s centrifuge program was frustrated not by the limitations of manufacturing or the technology of the day, but rather by a preliminary design that was never developed to its fullest possible extent.

So the gas centrifuge was really completely viable as early as World War II, but the Manhattan Project scientists just couldn't get it to work. I thought that was a pretty bold conclusion, one that goes in the face of the standard "superiority myth" that pervades the Manhattan Project work.

Things get really interesting, though, after Zippe et al. figure out how to make it work. Zippe and his colleagues actually convinced the Soviets to let him out early (and to pay him!) if he helped them commercialize centrifuges in Europe. (I think we can file this under "cool things that can happen once Stalin buys the farm.") Zippe and his colleagues were released from the USSR in 1956, and he went to East Germany. From there, though, he made his way west, and became a centrifuge evangelical — he wanted to commercialize them.

He went around Europe and the United States showing folks how to make efficient gas centrifuges. In 1958 and 1959 he spent time at the University of Virginia (Beams' home turf) showing them how it was done. Amazingly, this work seems to have been unclassified — you can find the progress reports, featuring the diagrams and photographs I've used in his article, on the Department of Energy's Information Bridge.2

In 1960, the US realized that the centrifuge was actually going to be a proliferation issue, and started trying to classify the technology again. The problem was, of course, that all of the key developments were produced by non-Americans not in the United States. So in effect the US was saying that nobody in the United States was going to be allowed to work on this without a security clearance, while scientists in Europe could pursue it with a freer hand.

The result of all of this Atoms-for-Peace (Atoms-for-Cash?) enthusiasm with regards to gas centrifuges is that the technology is pretty well dispersed.  Scott concludes that:

Today, at least twenty countries have built or acquired centrifuge technology, and the history lesson drawn here suggests that it is within the capability of nearly any state to do so.

As Scott (and Alex Glaser and Houston Wood) have argued elsewhere in another great article,3 all of this should put to rest any idea that technical solutions alone can limit future nuclear proliferation — we live in a definitely post-Manhattan Project world, and this stuff just isn't rocket science anymore.

  1. R. Scott Kemp, "The End of Manhattan: How the Gas Centrifuge Changed the Quest for Nuclear Weapons," Technology and Culture 53, no. 2 (June 2012), 272-305. []
  2. The photograph of the centrifuge is from Gernot Zippe, "A Progress Report: The Development of Short Bowl Ultracentrifuges," UVA/ORL-2400-59 (1 July 1959); the diagram is from Gernot Zippe, J.W. Beams, and A.R. Kuhlthau, "The Development of Short Bowl Ultracentrifuges," UVA/ORL-2400-58. Scott's article brought both of these reports to my awareness. []
  3. Houston G. Wood, Alexander Glaser, and R. Scott Kemp, "The gas centrifuge and nuclear weapons proliferation," Physics Today 61, no. 9 (September 2008), 40-45. []

James Conant’s Atomic Bomb Sketch? (1943)

Friday, May 25th, 2012

I had fun with the little visual mystery I posted last Friday, so here's another one I've been chewing over for awhile.

Drawings of "official" atomic bomb designs are rare. (Where "official" means "created by people who actually build bombs.") It's the sort of thing which is generally kept close — what are released are generally extremely sanitized abstractions, which are then elaborated upon by people without security clearances (like John Coster-Mullen).

So I was somewhat surprised to find, buried in some files of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, this drawing which appears to have been made by none other than James B. Conant, then the President of Harvard University:

That looks an awful lot like the drawing of a gun-type nuclear weapon. But is it?

Conant, of course, was a major scientific administrator during the war. He was a chemist by training, and was no stranger to secret projects: during World War I, he had worked to develop lewisite for use in Europe while working at the "Mousetrap" facility in Cleveland, so called because once you went in, you were never supposed to come out.1 The chemical munitions that Conant worked on were never used in the war; the armistice came just before they were to be shipped out. During World War II, Conant was pals and colleagues with Vannevar Bush, head of the OSRD, and the two of them did quite a lot of work on early atomic development policy.

The context of the sketch is apparently a note from Conant to Bush, dated January 21, 1943 (with notes that it was amended March 10, 1943).  I say "apparently" because, while this follows the other sequentially in the file, it isn't clear that they are attached or from the same period. (The handwriting is Conant's though, which is something. Don't read too much into the fact that the pages look different; one is just scanned in black and white, the other as grayscale.)2

The note itself is pretty hard to decode; it is in Conant's nearly-impossible handwriting. The basic gist of it is that he is estimating how much enriched uranium they can product at Oak Ridge and what that implies about when a bomb would be ready (he seems to think one would ready by September 1944, and then later updates the note to push it back a bit).3

On the "drawing" page itself, there is a list (anything in italics is written by me, trying to make sense of his handwriting):

(1) Metallurgy
(2) cows [!?! see below]
(3) Development of technique for handling material in bulk
.                                          70-80, 90% of critical
(4) What cases are effective? [could this mean casings?]
(5) Further [???] [???] for cross section
(6) No. of neutrons for 49
(7) Capture + emission[?]  of neutr.                          (Bohr)
(8) Cross section of scattering[?]
(9) Firing problem
.                              length of time first mass stays in
(10) Source of neutrons Neutron source
(11) Effect of dilution
(12) Protection against thermal neutrons                (25)

To my eye, even with the ambiguity caused by his bad handwriting, it looks like a list of problems to tackle when thinking about designing a bomb the first time. What will the metallurgy of U-235 or plutonium be like? How will you shape these materials safely on a lathe? Was sorts of casings or reflectors will be best? How do you handle this stuff without getting totally irradiated? How many neutrons will plutonium emit per fission? How will you make a neutron initiator? What's the engineering of the actual bomb assembly going to look like? And so on.

Except, of course, for "cows," which I find inexplicable. It's not a codename I'm familiar with. I am almost surely transcribing it wrong, but it looks a lot like "cows":

Cows. Hmm. There were some cows involved in the Manhattan Project in a peripheral way, but I doubt he was thinking about that at this point. More likely is I'm making a garble of his handwriting again, but now that I've seen "cows," I can't stop seeing it. (Got a better guess? Let me know.)

Anyway, what it looks like to me is the result of either brainstorming or notes from a meeting that Conant was having, all of which seems to pertain to weapon design issues. So the idea that he might have sketched a crude gun-type design at the bottom of it isn't fanciful in and of itself.

The drawing seems to show one "40 lb" piece of fissile material at the bottom of a gun barrel, with the cross section of a ring of the same stuff at the other end of it inside some sort of heavy neutron reflector or tamper. There are some other numbers nearby; it seems to say "10 meters, 30 ft." Is that meant to be the length of the gun barrel? It would be pretty long, much longer than any of the actual bombs estimated for combat, but it might just be a back-of-the-envelope guess.

The bomb — if it is a bomb — that Conant has sketched out here doesn't look much like Little Boy actually looked, but it doesn't look wildly different than Thin Man, the plutonium gun-type bomb that was pursued before Little Boy.

Experimental bomb casings from the aborted "Thin Man" plutonium gun design. There are early "Fat Man" casings designs in the background.

The actual Little Boy weapon used (according to John Coster-Mullen) a cylindrical projectile that weighed around 85 lbs, and the "spike" that it was shot into (not the other way around) weighed 56 lbs, bringing it to a total of 141 lbs of fissile material, considerably more than is shown in this sketch. But still, the entire point of the list seems to be that they don't know the details at that point.

The other possibility is that this isn't a bomb at all, and that it is some kind of "tickling the dragon's tail" criticality experiment. But that's a much more boring conclusion.

Instead of pointing out how crude and inaccurate the drawing is, though, I'm still just amazed that it was hiding on that microfilm, waiting to be stumbled upon. It's oh so rare to see bomb designs in "the wild," and this one is considerably more "real" (in the sense of it being less conceptual and more of an engineering-style layout) that the only other declassified drawings from the same period I have seen (those in the Los Alamos Primer).

Did Harvard's President sketch an atomic bomb on his notepad? I don't know, but it's a very real possibility, is it not? I wonder if any Harvard president since then — much less Harvard's current President — has ever done such a thing.

  1. See James Hershberg’s James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (New York: Knopf, 1993), chapter 3. []
  2. Citation: James B. Conant to Vannevar Bush (21 January 1943, amended 10 March 1943), 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 4, Target 3, Folder 21, "Miscellaneous Bush-Conant Material, May 1941-October 1944." []
  3. Here's an attempt by me to decode Conant's handwriting. Anything I've put in italic means "I can't read this."

    Memo to V. Bush               Amended by JBC before [???] on March 10, 1945
    From J.B. Conant              Date Jan. 21, 1943

    The latest news from the electromagnetic front via Gen. Groves is (1) Tennessee Eastman are quite confident that process can be made to work. It now seems quite certain that each tank will yield from 50-300 mg per day.
    At  500 tanks that means 50-150 g per day.
    If priorities can be settled there is a chance this output can begin November 1, 1943 (First set Y tanks Aug 1). [Inserted note:  I ??? this now, March 10, 1943; a bomb will require 24 ???; 100 g a day begins ???, 1944. Will take till ??? 1, 1944 for amount! There is still a chance for a military effort in 44.]  This would yield first first [sic??] bomb Feb 1, 1944, at rate of 100 gm per day. This might mean first mean first military result July 1, 1944 allowing four months for developing bomb and manufacturing material for a second. I still believe barring miracles, best day is Sept 1, 1944 . The Chicago method might come along at the same point. So we have two chances of making that schedule. J.B.C.

    That's not the world's best transcription attempt (I loathe Conant's handwriting, I should probably say), but you can get the gist of it, I think. "The Chicago method" refers to plutonium production. "Y" tanks refer to the electromagnetic method used at Y-12 in Oak Ridge. I'm open to any guesses as to better transcription attempts. Conant's estimate for when they'd have a bomb ready was off by about six months, something I'm sure my German friends are undoubtedly thankful... []


Declassifying ARGUS (1959)

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

One of the strangest — and perhaps most dangerous — nuclear tests ever conducted was Operation ARGUS, in late 1958.

The basic idea behind them was proposed by the Greek physicist Nicholas Christofilos, then at Livermore. If you shot a nuclear warhead off in the upper atmosphere, Christofilos argued, it would create an artificial radiation field similar to the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the planet. In essence, it would create a "shell" of electrons around the planet.

Frame from an government film showing the electron shell going around the planet

The tactical advantage to such a test is that hypothetically you could use this knowledge to knock out enemy missiles and satellites that were coming in. So they gave it a test, and indeed, it worked! (With some difficulty; it involved shooting nuclear weapons very high into the atmosphere on high-altitude rockets off of a boat in the middle of the rough South Atlantic Ocean. One wonders what happened to the warheads on them. They also had some difficulty positioning the rockets. The video linked to discusses this around the 33 minute point. Also, around the 19 minute mark is footage of various Navy equator-crossing hazing rituals, with pirate garb!)

It created artificial belts of electrons that surrounded the planet for weeks. Sound nutty yet? No? Well, just hold on — we'll get there.

(Aside: Christofilos is an interesting guy; he had worked as an elevator repairman during World War II, studying particle physics in his spare time. He independently came up with the idea for the synchrotron and eventually was noticed by physicists in the United States. He later came up with a very clever way to allow communication with submerged submarines deep under water which was implement in the late 20th century.)

James Van Allen kissing Explorer IV (a satellite used in Argus) good-bye

In early 1959 — not long after the test itself — none other than James Van Allen (of the aforementioned Van Allen radiation belts) argued that the United States should rapidly declassify and release information on the Argus experiment.1

Click for the PDF.

Van Allen wanted it declassified because he was a big fan of the test, and thought the US would benefit from the world knowing about it:

As you will note, my views are (a) that continued security classification of the Argus-Hardtack tests is of little practical avail, (b) that a prompt and full public report of the tests and observations will contribute greatly to the international prestige of the United States as a leader in the application of atomic devices to scientific purposes, and (c) that if we fail to do (b) the U.S. will be quite likely be again 'Sputniked' in the eyes of the world by the Soviets.

Basically, Van Allen argued, the idea of doing an Argust-type experiment was widely known, even amongst uncleared scientists, and that the Soviets could pull off the same test themselves and get all the glory.

But here's the line that makes me cringe: "The U.S. tests, already carried out successfully, undoubtedly constitute the greatest geophysical experiment ever conducted by man." 

This was an experiment that affected the entire planet — "the greatest geophysical experiment ever conducted by man" — that were approved, vetted, and conducted under a heavy, heavy veil of secrecy. What if the predictions had been wrong? It's not an impossibility that such a thing could have been the case: the physics of nuclear weapons are in a different energy regime than most other terrestrial science, and as a result there have been some colossal miscalculations that were only revealed after the bombs had gone off and, oh, contaminated huge swathes of the planet, or, say, accidentally knocked out satellite and radio communications. (The latter incident linked to, Starfish-Prime, was a very similar test that did cause a lot of accidental damage.)

There's some irony in that the greatest praise, in this case, is a sign of how spooky the test was. At least to me, anyway.

This is the same sort of creepy feeling I get when I read about geoengineering, those attempts to purposefully use technology to affect things at the global scale, now in vogue again as a last-ditch attempt to ameliorate the effects of climate change. It's not just the hubris — though, as an historian, that's something that's easy to see as an issue, given that unintended consequences are ripe even with technologies that don't purposefully try to remake the entire planet. It's also the matter of scale. Something happens when you go from small-scale knowledge (produced in the necessarily artificial conditions that laboratory science requires) to large-scale applications. Unpredicted effects and consequences show up with a vengeance, and you get a rapid education in how many collective and chaotic effects you do not really understand. It gives me the willies to ramp things up into new scales and new energy regimes without the possibility of doing intermediate stages. 

(Interestingly, my connection between Argus and geoengineering has been the subject of at least one talk by James R. Fleming, a space historian at Colby College, who apparently argued that Van Allen later regretted disrupting the Earth's natural magnetosphere. Fleming has a paper on this in the Annals of Iowa, but I haven't yet tracked down a copy.)

As for Argus's declassification: while the Department of Defense was in the process of declassifying Argus, per Van Allen's recommendations, they got a call from the New York Times saying that they were about to publish on it. (The Times claimed to have known about Argus well before the tests took place.) It's not clear who leaked it, but leaked it did. The DOD decided that they should declassify as much as they could and send it out to coincide with this, and the news of Argus hit the front pages in March 1959.

  1. Citation: James Van Allen to James R. Killian (21 February 1959), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0309054. []

The DIXIE Showgirl (1953)

Friday, May 18th, 2012

There are a lot of photographs of nuclear weapons tests, and there's a pretty standard visual vocabulary for how those look. (Something I've touched on before.) Personally I find it a little easy to get desensitized to mushroom clouds after awhile. They all look more or less the same, though some are a little more sinister looking than others. It's easy to lose a sense of scale, it's easy to start seeing them all as a blur. Perhaps it's one of the consequences of being in a country that conducted over 300 atmospheric nuclear tests, and has circulated photographs of many of them for quite a long time?

But every once in awhile I find one that stumps me.

Shot DIXIE of Operation Upshot-Knothole was set off on April 6, 1953. It was a "weapons-related" test; it was done for reasons relating to weapons design (as opposed to testing the effects of the weapon). Carey Sublette says it was also an experiment using LiD as a boosting agent, for those who are curious.

It wasn't a terribly large explosion by the standards of the day — "only" 11 kilotons, so smaller even than the Hiroshima bomb (though still large enough to, say, take out downtown Boston). It was dropped from a plane and detonated some 6,000 feet above the ground, which is some three to four times higher in the air than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had been set off. As a result, its cloud was a mushroom "cap" without a stem — it was too high off the ground to suck up the debris and dirt necessary to form a vertical column.

Already that makes for somewhat unusual nuclear test photographs, as you can see above. A lonely little cloud. It almost could be just any old cloud hanging out there — I'm just a little black raincloud, pay no attention to little me. But it's almost totally composed of highly-radioactive fission products, so don't start feeling too sorry for it.

I occasionally go through the photo library of the DOE's Nevada Site Office, which has a rather large collection of scanned photos of atmospheric tests online. The Upshot-Knothole series is quite a large one, and there is a numbing effect looking at so many of them. So when I saw this one of the DIXIE event, I was initially just totally bamboozled:

What. Is. Going. On. Here? A few things to take note of:

1. This is an official government photo in an official government archive. This isn't the same as those "Miss Atomic Bomb" photos in the later 1950s, which were created by casinos and otherwise private individuals.

2. That little cloud under the dancer's right foot is, of course, the DIXIE cloud, seen from a lower angle than in the first photo posted here. There's some definite posing going on. It's also definitely taken on the premises of the Nevada Test Site with foreknowledge of the test itself. I don't know if reporters were allowed to visit the site for the DIXIE test; they were allowed to view a few other tests in the Upshot-Knothole series, but I don't see any mention of them being at DIXIE.

3. This isn't purposefully frivolous and campy like the "Miss Atomic Bomb" photos. Zoom in on her face. She's trying to do something, well, artsy here. She's trying to express something. The power of science? The futility of progress? The existential angst of deterrence? I don't really know. But it's something.

4. Awhile back, I showed this photo to a friend of mine, Dawn Davis Loring, who is also a dancer, dance instructor, and someone much better versed than I in the language of dancing. She suggested to me that the appearance and posture of the person in the photo suggested the dancer was competent but not an expert. Her balance is slightly wrong and so she's overcompensating a bit with her arm, or something along those lines. Which possibly suggests that she is a showgirl from nearby Las Vegas. But again, the dancer isn't done up in a campy, frivolous, or unusually sexualized style. (Obviously it is still sexualized to a large degree, but compare it to the "Miss Atomic Bomb" photos to see what I mean. It's far more "serious.")

But I don't know the backstory on this photo, and I've not been able to find anything on it. The DOE folks who host the archive don't have anything about it in their records either, apparently. But it's definitely not your run-of-the-mill nuclear testing photo. 

Update: A helpful Russian reader forwarded me another photograph from the same series!

It appears to be originally from this site, which tentatively identifies it as something called "Atomic Ballet," and identifies the dancer as one Sally McCloskey. The date they give is wrong, though, if it's DIXIE, which it looks like it is (the stemless cloud).1 I've been able to find very little on Ms. McCloskey, except that she was also a dancer in the 1956 film Anything Goes.2

Double-Update: The aforementioned Dawn Davis Loring tracked down an oral history with Donald English, a photographer for the a Las Vegas news bureau. Here's the relevant part:

Sometimes we would cover it from Angel’s Peak, take pictures of the mushroom cloud. Sometimes we’'d take dancers up to the top of the peak. I’'d have one girl, Sally McCloskey, we did a little series that was called Angel’'s Dance. And she was a ballet dancer, not a showgirl, and she did an interpretive dance to the mushroom cloud as it came up and we shot a series of pictures and sent it out on the wire and they called it Angel'’s Dance. We just did anything we could to make the picture a little bit different because the newspapers would run the mushroom cloud pictures, but they were always hungry for anything that had any kind of a different approach.

So that clears up quite a bit about where this was shot, and what it was meant to be! And apparently she was a ballet dancer after all. (Actually, see below...)

Update, the Third: Searching around a bit more, I found a citation for the Angel's Dance. The Oakland Tribune ran it on page 86 of their June 28, 1953, edition. It appears to have been a feature in the PARADE magazine that newspapers sometimes insert into their Sunday editions. There is a preview page available online:

Pretty cool! I managed to coax a higher resolution out of that archive site, too. Here's the caption:

High (6,000 feet) over the yawning canyons of the West, a young girl cavorted recently in what could be the Dance of the Century. Her name: Sally McCloskey, chorus girl from Las Vegas' plush Sands Hotel.
The place: the gravely summit of Angel's Peak.
Her task: to interpret the greatest drama of our time in dance rhythms. For high over her sinuous, leaping form rose a symbol no eye could miss: the pale, rising cloud of an atomic bomb just exploded 40 miles away.

The poses are, counter-clockwise from the top left: 1. 'Apprehension' starts dance, 2. which illustrates 'impact', 3.  goes on to symbol of 'awe', 4. Climax of dance (which took place at dawn in temperature little above freezing) in brisk pose Sally calls "Survival."

It's always a little apprehensive to announce, "I have looked into this and found not too much, and here are my guesses." This time, though, it paid off from some really helpful readers, and I think I've just about rounded out the whole story of this crazy photo. I was right about some things (showgirl, seriousness, ultimate goal), but wrong about it being an official government production (which raises the question of why it's in the archive, I guess). Anyway, thoroughly fascinating all around.

  1. The date they give on that site, June 4, would be for CLIMAX, which — all name-related jokes aside — was a very different looking test. The jet contrails in the second photo also help confirm it as being DIXIE. It just may be a numerical switcharoo, though— 6/4/1953 vs. 4/6/1953, the former being CLIMAX and the latter being DIXIE. []
  2. Doing searches on "Atomic Ballet" in ProQuest, however, did turn up one interesting little nugget: In December 1947, there was a Japanese ballet troupe from Hiroshima that performed "The Story of the Atomic Bomb and its Aftermath" for British occupation forces in Kure, Japan. []