Semipalatinsk Then and Now

by Alex Wellerstein, published June 15th, 2012

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.

“Map predicting where the Soviet explosion might have happened if it took place on 29 August, the numbers indicating percentage probability. This was the actual date of the explosion, although US officials believed it was more likely to have happened on 27 August.” Originally from the files of the National Security Files, copy and quote from Michael Gordin’s Red Cloud at Dawn.

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.

Stalin and Truman at Potsdam, July 18, 1945: one day after Truman learned about the success of “Trinity,” but still six days before Truman would tell Stalin. But Stalin already knew about the bomb, and had known about it longer than Truman had.

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 test tower for First Lightning.” They even had an elevator to move the bomb to the top! And here you thought of the USSR as lacking in luxury. Source: V. Zhuchikhin, Pervaia atomnaia: Zapiski inzhenera-issledovatelia (Moscow: IzdAT, 1993), 85, via Red Cloud at Dawn.

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.)

“Schematic of the layout of the Semipalatinsk test site.” Source: V.
Zhuchikhin, Pervaia atomnaia: Zapiski inzhenera-issledovatelia (Moscow: IzdAT, 1993), 71, via Michael Gordin. This image was in the initial draft of Red Cloud at Dawn but was cut for space. I don’t have the full legend for it, but the large amount of text says something like, “structures for optical and mechanical measurements.” “Ris. 2” means “figure 2.”

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 mushroom cloud from “First Lightning.” Darker and more ominous than your standard “Trinity” photographs.

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.

23 Responses to “Friday Images: Semipalatinsk Then and Now”

  1. Pavel Podvig says:

    Where does this “First Lightning” stuff came from? I have never seen this name in the Soviet literature describing the nuclear program. For example, I’m looking at p. 85 of my copy of Zhuchikhin and the caption says “Instrumentation Complex”, not “First Lightning Test Tower” or anything like that. There is no mention of FL in Zhuchikhin’s book – if the name was real you would expect it to be mentioned at least once in what is one of the most detailed accounts of the event.

    The name popped up out of nowhere a few years ago – I’m curious if it was Gordin who introduced it (it’s in Wikipedia for sure). He is using it throughout his book, but I cannot find the source that he took it from.

    • Interesting question! It’s definitely used prior to Gordin (Rhodes uses it in Dark Sun; I don’t think Holloway uses it in Stalin and the Bomb though). I’ll ask Michael what he knows about it.

      • Vitaly Fedchenko says:

        Pavel, Alex,

        Could it be that the ‘First Lightning’ came about as some kind of an artistic or journalistic metaphor that stuck? I looked at the use of that name in the Soviet books and the 1968 biography of Kurchatov in the famous “ЖЗЛ” series has a chapter named that way, ‘describing’ the production and testing of the RDS-1. The same book has another chapter, called the ‘Second Lightning’, which talks about Soviet thermonuclear weapons. These ‘lightnings’ are only mentioned in the chapter titles, the author does not imply that these are code words.

        The link to Google Books:
        The text in Russian:

        So one hypothesis could be that the ‘First Lightning’ is a Soviet propaganda metaphor that got picked up in the West after the publication in the “ЖЗЛ” series, which had a very wide circulation. This hypothesis can be shown to be wrong if there is the use of the ‘First Lightning’ in the Western literature before 1968.

  2. Michael Gordin says:

    I can assure you that I certainly did not introduce the term. If you are interested in usages of it, here are three uses in secondary literature that I can dig off my laptop right now:

    Steven Zaloga, Target America, page 60. That book was published in 1993.
    Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun, throughout Chapter 19. This was in 1995.
    Jeffrey Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, page 67. That was 2006.

    Both Zaloga and Richelson are specific about первая молния as the term of the first test.

    • Pavel Podvig says:

      Rhodes does not provide a source. Richelson refers to Zaloga (and to Khariton and Smirnov, who never use the term). I don’t have a copy of Zaloga’s book handy, but

      Apparently it’s a name that was used in the U.S. for some time before 1990. The earliest I could find in Google Books is this:

      The atomic device called tykva (pumpkin) was tested 29 August 1949 (code name pervaia molniia or first lightning) near Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

      This comes from “USSR facts & figures annual, Volume 9” Academic International Press., 1985. Earlier versions probably used the term as well, so it could go back to the 1970s. Needless to say, nobody in the Soviet Union ever used “tykva” to refer to the nuclear bomb. “First lightning” seems to be in the same category. I have never seen a Russian-language source (or Russian-origin source, like Khariton and Smirnov) that would use this name. Also note that Holloway never used it.

      For someone who knows a little bit about the Soviet program it really hurts to see people use the name, especially insisting that this was the name that the Soviet scientists used. I guess they are lucky “tykva” didn’t stick.

      • Michael Gordin says:

        Well, the goal was certainly never to offend. I definitely took the term from Zaloga, but you are right: I should have looked back and tracked where he is getting it from. It might be from defector testimony, but it doesn’t sound to me like something the Americans would have made up out of whole cloth. (They very seemed very much to like their Joe-1, Joe-2, etc., naming system.) You raise a very good point about being careful to figure out where it came from. I’m traveling for the next few weeks. When I get back and can actually revisit the Russian documents I’ll look into this more closely.

        The “tyvka” thing is sort of amusing, in part because the conventional bombs used to test the ballistics for the Fat Man bomb used on Nagasaki were large and painted orange, and were universally known as “pumpkins”. That was back in late 1944/early 1945, but it might be a way the folk etymology could have stuck. But of course no one ever referred to RDS-1 as a tyvka. I’ve never seen it either.

        Again, I’m finding this discussion very helpful. Have you asked David Holloway about the term?

        • Pavel Podvig says:

          I think I asked David once if he knew where FL came from – he didn’t. Zaloga, as far as I can tell, doesn’t provide a source in his book.

        • Puncheex says:

          “Pumpkin” was the name attached to the test bombs dropped in the training of Tibbets’ 509th Composite Group at Wendover, UT during WWII, training for the drop of the A-bomb.

  3. Pavel Podvig says:

    One more note – on the tower image. This does not seem to be the test tower. As I mentioned, the caption in the original says it is an “Instrumentation facility” and judging by the configuration of the structure on top (most likely designed to point in the direction of the explosion) this is what it is. From the description elsewhere in the book, the actual test tower had a wooden structure (to assemble the weapon) beside it and an elevator that went all the way to the top. Also, it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The tower on the photo does not seem to have any of that.

  4. J B says:

    The building labeled “The test tower for First Lightning.” appears in the video at 1:42. It refers to it as an apartment mockup.

    Clearly, it was not ground-zero for the test, as it still remains.

  5. Mike Lehman says:

    The map is quite interesting. Having my head down and plowing forward, I’ve not had a chance to read Michael’s book, but obviously need to, so have not previously encountered it. My understanding was that the result was a remarkably precise one in tracking Joe-1’s fallout back to its source, but this is the first time I’ve seen it presented in this compelling manner. I’m working on the history of the process that created the map and what followed after, but have relatively few examples of the output to tie back to my area of interest, the Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS).

    Such a map seems ordinary in the networked digital age we live in, but for 1949, it was the product of a labor-intensive, global network that was very much analog. AFOAT-1 got it pretty much right as far as location, which was effectively a grand slam as far as the Air Force was concerned.

    The emphasis on quantification and numeric estimates at this early date is also remarkable, given that it does suggest that the requirements were still ahead of the technology curve for most such enterprises. Somebody is obviously starting to approach thinking digitally, even though still anchored in an analog world. Some of the very first large scale computers went to SAC and computations of global weather patterns and wind flows were of obvious utility anytime someone encountered a hot sample for the next 15 years. Obviously, this was a capability that proved itself with Joe-1, with the map being a exemplary visual example.

    • I agree, it’s an amazing, beautiful map. They ended up being wrong about the date of the test, but they did a great job in every other respect. Michael’s book goes into all of the gritty details of how they got and made sense of the data; it was an incredible effort. Remarkably, Truman appears to have never really believed the Russians had gotten a real, working bomb. Hence his ambiguous (lack of agency, lack of specificity) announcement: “We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.”

      • Mike Lehman says:

        The issue of Joe-1’s timing is interesting. Not having read Gordin’s book, I don’t know what he covered of the various aspects of the aftermath of that event. IIRC, more exact timing was pinned down by parsing the acoustic signals later on, but it’s been awhile since I’ve been over that material and its extensive. Joe-1 was the best documented shot in terms of how much is known about its detection, as the AF tended to trumpet its success, while obviously having reasons to be tight-lipped about what followed.

        I suspect that part of the issue with the difference in reported timing and the actual timing had to do with the evolving knowledge base of nuclear isotopes in 1949. Based on what they knew at the time about the various decay chains, they made as good an estimate as possible. Later, as the “Tri-Linear Chart of Nuclear Species” was filled in over the next few years, a better estimate came about.

        There’s also the issue that R&D for sampling and lab analysis was done at American tests, where the conditions were more under control and known in advance. I don’t know if they did any analyses via double-blind studies, which might have eliminated the possibility of knowing the timing of the shot affecting the way it was analyzed. The samples of Soviet shots had to be captured “in the wild” so to speak. There was no instantaneous forwarding of the limited acoustic signals, for instance. The tapes had to be forwarded by courier, then analyzed for correlation to other data.

        This is in part speculation based on what I do have evidence of, as advanced radio-chemistry is beyond my skill-set. I think a research project that ties the general development of knowledge about various isotopes to the specific ways in which nuclear testing advanced such research would be an interesting history of science research project for someone. i

        Whatever the reason was for the timing discrepancy, it’s clear once AFOAT-1’s ad-hoc seismic network became operational in 1950, along with improvements in the Army Signal Corps’-operated acoustic detection network, it quickly made immediate detection of Soviet shot times a routine and accurate matter in most, but not all cases.

  6. […] 1949: USSR tests its first bomb in a test the US dubs “Joe-1.” The US detects it in September. Secret debate begins within US government over whether an […]

  7. J B says:

    Today, we have the luxury of ‘throwing alot of computer at a problem’ to solve complex problems.

    It has always astounded me how we were able to accomplish so much, with so little ‘technology’.

    • Geeky project idea: port Ulam’s Super codes to Java, run on a modern day (not-very-smart) cellphone, see how long it takes to show that Teller’s Classical Super was infeasible.

  8. […] commentator, Princeton’s Michael Gordin (whose work I have previously praised), poked at our papers in variously interesting ways. One thing he did ask was where the Soviets […]

  9. […] is model of the first Soviet bomb at “the Polygon,” which was the code name for the Semipalatinsk test site.5 Somehow it manages to look very futuristic (the big circles, the large poles) and yet quite […]

  10. […] [3] Restricted Data The Nuclear Secrecy Blog; Alex Wellerstein; June 15th, 2012;  Semipalatinsk Then and Now; […]

  11. BF Johnson says:

    Thank you for this post. I quoted it in my most recent entry.

  12. […] code-named RDS-37, was to be the 24th Soviet nuclear test, and was the largest ever tested at the Semipalatinsk test site. This created several logistical difficulties. In order to avoid local nuclear fallout, it was […]