Visions

Little boxes of doom

by Alex Wellerstein, published October 23rd, 2013

I was at a (very interesting) conference last week and didn’t get a chance to do a regular blog post. I’ll have a real post on Friday, as usual, but I thought in the meantime people might enjoy this little passage I came across in William L. Laurence’s Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb (1946):

The secrecy frequently led to tragicomic situations. A trusted courier was dispatched by automobile to deliver a small box of material, the nature of which he was not told, to a certain locality several hundred miles away. He was cautioned that at the first sign of any unusual behavior inside the box he was to abandon the automobile in a hurry and run as far away from it as his legs would carry him.

The magnesium box used for transporting the plutonium core to the Trinity site. Via Los Alamos.

The magnesium box used for transporting the plutonium core to the Trinity site. Via Los Alamos.

Our courier asked no questions and went his way, taking frequent glances at the strange box behind him. Things went well until he came to the middle of a long bridge. Suddenly, from directly behind him, came a terrific boom. Out of the car he dashed like one possessed, running faster than he had ever run in his life. Out of breath and exhausted, he stopped to examine himself to make sure that he was still in one piece. Meantime a long line of traffic had gathered behind his driverless car and the air was filled with the loud tooting of impatient motorists.

Slowly he made his way back to his automobile and found to his amazement that it was still all there. Peering cautiously inside, he was even more amazed to find his precious box on the same spot as before. He was used to strange things, this courier, so he took his place at the wheel and was about the continue on his mission when once again he heard a loud boom directly behind him.

Once again he made a dash for his life, heedless of the angry horns that by this time were sounding from a line more than a mile long. Still exhausted from his previous mad dash, he nevertheless managed to put a considerable distance between himself and his mysterious box.

Eventually he made his way back, to find his car and his box in the same spot where he had left them. This time, however, he found an irate traffic officer waiting for him. Beyond showing the officer by his credentials that he was a Government employee, there was nothing he could tell him. It turned out that there had been blasting going on underneath the bridge.

Who knows how much of the story is true and how much of it is embellished by either Laurence or the original teller, but I thought it was highly amusing. One suspects, by the description of the box, the particular safety concerns, and the distance, that they are talking about the movement of the Trinity core from Los Alamos to the Trinity site.

John Coster-Mullen, in his fantastically interesting Atom Bombs (a newly-updated copy of which he recently sent me), has a somewhat related anecdote from the plane that transported the Fat Man core to Tinian in late July 1945: “During the flight to Tinian, they ran into a storm. [Raemer] Schreiber was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and one of the guards came forward and tapped him nervously on the shoulder. ‘Sir, your box is bouncing around back there and we’re scared to touch it.’ Schreiber went back, corralled it, got a piece of rope and tied it to one of the legs of the cots.”

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18 Responses to “Little boxes of doom”

  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Magnesium box? Why magnesium?

    • According to Coster-Mullen, magnesium was chosen because it was strong, lightweight, dissipates heat well, and does not reflect neutrons. The box was designed by Philip Morrison, of all people.

  2. […] Wellerstein writes about nuclear history at the Restricted Data blog, and his most recent post tells just such a story. In a terrifying tale that’s excerpted […]

  3. Peter says:

    Dunno. As best I can tell from Google Maps it’s around 250 miles from Los Alamos to the Trinity Site. It seems rather doubtful that Laurence would have described that as “several hundred miles.”

  4. ShockwaveLover says:

    When you’re given a box that look like that by the government, told that you can’t know what’s inside, but if anything odd starts happening to make for the hills like the devil himself was on your tail, it’s time to consider getting out of the courier business.

  5. elder says:

    Great article as always. When/where will Coster-Mullen’s updated Atom Bombs be available for us regular folks?

    • My understanding is that whenever you order one off of Amazon, he custom prints up the latest version himself — it is still a small-scale operation. There have been a tremendous number of interesting additions between the most recent version and the copy I got in 2006 or so.

  6. Naaman Belkind says:

    Comic?,-Yes!
    True?,- No!
    Cant believe the Manhattan people would transport a Plutonium core with a mere courier.

    • Well, they did ship their “product” to Los Alamos by means Official Couriers — this much is the case even into the immediate postwar. They used cars and trains. In 1946 they switched entirely to specially-made, armored train cars, but prior to that, they just tried to blend in — security through obscurity of a sorts. As for Trinity, well, as I said, I don’t really know. It could have been a different shipment of material, to be sure.

      • Peter says:

        While the idea of using a single unarmed courier to transport the Trinity core sounded ludicrous at first, I then remind myself of something surprising I read in Command and Control: just a handful of crewmen were staffing the Arkansas Titan silo where the 1980 incident occurred, and only two of them were armed.

      • Daniel Olive says:

        I would be surprised if there were instructions to leave it unattended. All modern instructions for handling classified/protectively marked assets emphasise not leaving the asset unattended, especially in a car. I know that, at least in the UK, most of these rules are post war, but i. not leaving it unattended is pretty basic, and ii. most of the UK’s post war rules are based on US requirements forced on the UK after it turned out we were riddled with spies.

        Not leaving it unattended isn’t about theft by capable opponents (the Russians could probably have got up a force capable of taking it by force) but about the simple opportunist, the kind of opponent termed in burglary Derrick by the USAF (they run from A to D, only A is a realistic model for those who target plutonium) and by criminologists as one-off or opportunistic offenders.

        Whether or not the Russians have the core, once Derrick has pinched it off the back seat, or pinched the car with it in, you don’t have it. That’s to say nothing of the potential for accidental contamination and exposure, like the Mexican incident with the radiotherapy source.

  7. pfc-joker says:

    A nice little anecdote, but I’m afraid I don’t buy it.

    First of all, they transported the hemispheres in two separate boxes, right? 3 kg of Pu without a reflector are safely sub-critical. so what could possibly go wrong?

    And if they thought the core still could have been dangerous – instructing the courier to take the box to a safe place and call the authorities if he noticed anything suspicious would make sense, but certainly not that “drop the core in the middle of a crowded highway and run for your life” stuff.

    P.S. The lack of security measures is astonishing. It’s hard to imagine how Beriya or Vannikov would have reacted if anyone suggested transporting the first Soviet core that way :)

    • They only used one box for the whole sphere to my knowledge — the aforementioned magnesium one.

      • pfc-joker says:

        Indeed! For some reason I used to think each hemisphere was carried in a separate box, thanks for correcting.

        But if they did fear a criticality accident, wouldn’t it have been easier and safer to transport the hemispheres separately instead of sending the core in one box with a risk of losing the immensely expensive plutonium? And what good could this instruction have done if a criticality really happened? (I don’t think Daghlian and Slotin had a chance to run away safely, even if they tried to do so). So the story still sounds rather unrealistic to me.

        • I’m not sure how much they worried about a criticality accident from the box alone. I would guess they put it in the realm of “very unlikely though not impossible,” since you’d have to have a LOT of neutron reflection (which was the case with Daghlian’s and Slotin’s accidents) and that wasn’t going to be very likely with that case design. It’s always possible they told it to the courier as some kind of joke — like Edward Teller telling those at Trinity to wear sunscreen or Fermi’s joking about blowing up the atmosphere.

          (It’s also worth noting that during the war, they didn’t know what a criticality accident really looked like — Daghlian and Slotin were postwar.)

  8. Shawn Hughes says:

    Actually,

    I can completely believe it.

    First, remember, no one knew what a nuke was at that point in time. The potential for theft was present, but only a handful of people on the planet would have known what they had pilfed.

    Second, a lot of stuff was (and is) still hand carried.

    Lastly, they weren’t worried about criticality. The sphere was safe. Think about it, it was an unreflected sphere. If it was near critical, you couldn’t load it into the weapon. And, they wouldn’t let it travel for fear that a courier might put it near a reflector, or drop it in water, etc. etc. And, according to Coster-Mullen’s book, they actually shipped three of the neutron generators IN THE CASE with the sphere.

    I don’t think they were ignorant of the potential dangers; in fact most of the time they took the conservative approach. Of course, at that point in time, they really didn’t know what they didn’t know, and they weren’t constrained by 500 page safety briefs, USQ Program… :)

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