I’ve spent a lot of time talking about American nuclear tests on this blog, but of course that’s only part of the story of our nuclear world. If ever there was an argument for making nuclear history global, testing easily provides it: what was tested atmospherically in the USSR ended up over here, what was tested atmospherically in the US ended up over there. No doubt much was learned on both sides from a mutual exchange of fallout.
A colleague and friend of mine at Princeton University, Michael Gordin (@GordinMichael), has written an excellent book on the first Soviet atomic bomb test in August 1949. Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly (FSG, 2010). I co-wrote a review of it with Sam Schweber as part of a round table (with Bart Bernstein and Ethal Pollack, with responses by Michael) in Metascience last year.
Michael does at least two things extremely well in this book. The first is the obvious work of the book itself, it’s main story. Michael’s book is a wonderful dual-history of the bomb, showing the back-and-forth between the American and the Soviet bomb projects. If you’re looking for a single book to bring up to date on the most interesting tidbits about the Soviet use of its espionage into “ENORMOZ” (as they called the Manhattan Project), Michael’s book is a great one-stop shop.
But what makes this account really wonderful, and a really great work of history of science, is the way in which he reconstructs all of the work that went into making the knowledge of the Soviet bomb “real” — that is, how the US knew it had happened in the first place, which was no simple thing (they had to set up a sprawling and difficult fallout monitoring plan from scratch) — and then all of the considerations and debates that went into making it public. Truman’s first inclination was not to announce to the world that the Soviets had a bomb; he only did it, in the end, because he feared the Soviets would beat him to the punch and subsequent propaganda coup. It turns out that Stalin had no plans to announce they had the bomb — he saw no reason in giving anything away. (A book that the US would start taking pages from around the same time.)
The second thing that Michael does well that I hadn’t seen done before was to give you a real sense of what the Soviets were up to when they staged that first test. “First Lightning,” as they dubbed it, was a far more elaborate operation than “Trinity.” It was not a rushed proof-of-concept test in the way that the first American test was; it had considerably more infrastructure and instrumentation. The goal was not just to see whether the bomb had worked, but to really get down what the effects were at the same time.
The first Soviet bomb was tested at the Semipalatinsk Experimental Proving Ground — also known as “Polygon No. 2” — in the steppes of Kazakhstan. To quote from Michael:
The Soviet test dwarfed the TRINITY test in terms of preparations and scale. Unlike the Alamogordo explosion, which was conducted by the Army under the extreme time pressures of the late stages of the war, Beria and Kurchatov began preparing for the test a full three years before it happened. Construction of the experimental “polygon” … began by late 1946, and the Ministry of Defense, which directed the effort, had spent 185 million rubles (in 1945 rubles) by 1949. There was even a miniature copy of the polygon at Arzamas-16, so that small-scale replicas of the eventual test could be modeled with conventional explosions (analogous to the American 100-ton test). It was, at the time, one of the most highly instrumented and well prepared scientific experiments ever performed.
As Michael notes, all American civil defense estimates derived from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at that time (as well as Crossroads for effects on ships, of course); the Soviets were doing tests that the US wouldn’t do until the 1950s. Fifteen thousand Soviets constructed the sprawling test site, which covered over 18,000 square kilometers. (Beria, of course, was Lavrenty Beria, overall head of the project, secret-police head, architect of Stalin’s purges, serial rapist, and all-around complete jerk; Kurchatov was Igor Kurchatov, top scientist on the bomb project, had a big beard.)
Michael also passes on this quote from David Holloway’s Stalin and the Bomb (also an excellent book if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of the Soviet project) which is too amusing not to reproduce:
In deciding on who was to receive which award [after the completion of the first atomic test], Beria is said to have adopted a simple principle: those who were to be shot in case of failure were now to become Heroes of Socialist Labor; those who would have received maximum prison sentences were to be given the Order of Lenin, and so on down the list. This story may well be apocryphal, but it nevertheless conveys the feeling of those in the project that their fate hinged on the success of the test.
Ah, that Beria! To appropriate a line from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (which is now, very recently, available in Kindle format, which is really an ideal way to read this amazing but hefty book): “This ought to be shown in a film comedy, but they wouldn’t allow it: there is nothing funny in our life; everything funny takes place in the West!” Michael also notes that another physicist had been asked by Beria to be Kurchatov’s “understudy,” with the implicit understanding that he would take over if Kurchatov failed and was shot. Oy.
The Soviets would conduct over 450 nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk over the course of the Cold War. Today the site is predictably polluted and its soils contain all sorts of heavy actinides (e.g. plutonium) that nobody really is happy about being there. The US has spent a lot of money — money well spent, in my opinion, when it comes to buying security — helping seal the place up to keep out scavengers or worse.
Earlier this week Carole Gallagher passed on this amazing footage of Semipalatinsk today. It’s worth a watch, especially in light of the above:
One thing that I was struck by in the above footage is how they keep mentioning that scavengers had been stripping the place of metal. It’s not an isolated incident — even the shot tunnels that were supposedly safely sealed were almost immediately breached by people looking for copper wire (no matter how radioactive it is).
This is disturbing on two levels: the immediate level, whereby having people going through radioactive muck at Semipalatinsk looking for metal is not exactly a great testimony to the specific safeguards put in place there. The US quickly spent a bunch more money trying to seal them up again (which, again, is a good thing). But in the long term, it says quite a lot about our ability to keep dangerous nuclear things safely plugged away, unwatched. I’m not especially optimistic.