Posts Tagged ‘Accidents’


Operation Crossroads at 70

Monday, July 25th, 2016

This summer is the 70th anniversary of Operation Crossroads, the first postwar nuclear test series. Crossroads is so strange and unusual. 1946 in general ought to get more credit as an interesting year, as I’ve written about before. It was a year in flux, where a great number of possible futures seemed possible, before the apparently iron-clad dynamics of the Cold War fell into place. Crossroads happens right in the middle of the year, and arguably made a pretty big contribution to the direction that we ended up going. Such is the subject of my latest article for the New Yorker‘s Elements blog, “America at the Atomic Crossroads.” Today is the anniversary of the Baker shot, which Glenn Seaborg dubbed “the world’s first nuclear disaster.”

America at the Atomic Crossroads

There are a lot of things that make Crossroads interesting to me. The bomb was still in the hands of the Manhattan Project. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 had not yet been signed into law (Truman would sign it in August, and it would go into effect in January 1947), so the Atomic Energy Commission did not yet exist.

There were these amazing interservice rivalry aspects: the whole backdrop is a Navy vs. Army tension. The Manhattan Project, and the Army Air Forces, had gotten all the glory for the bomb. The Navy didn’t want to be left out, or seen as irrelevant. Hence them hosting a big test, and glorying in the fact that a Nagasaki-sized atomic bomb doesn’t completely destroy a full naval squadron. (Which was no surprise to anybody on the scientific or military side of things.)

The US had only about 10 atomic bombs at the time. So they expended about 20% of their entire nuclear arsenal on these tests, for relatively little military knowledge gained. The Los Alamos scientists were pretty lukewarm on the whole operation — it just didn’t seem like it was getting them much. One wonders, if the bomb had not still be under military control, whether it would have happened.

Photograph of the early mushroom cloud by LIFE photographer Frank Scherschel, with a darkened filter to compensate for the brightness of the flash. Source.

Photograph of the early mushroom cloud of Crossroads Able by LIFE photographer Frank Scherschel, with a darkened filter to compensate for the brightness of the flash. Source.

The first shot, Able, was something of a flub. The fact that it missed its target meant that for public relations purposes it was seen as very ineffective, but it also means that their scientific observations were largely pretty useless. In fact, it missed its target and blew up over one of the main instrumentation ships.

If you read most sources about Crossroads they will say that the source of the Able miss was undetermined, but if you dig down a little deeper you find some pretty plausible solutions (and the reason why the official verdict was “undetermined”). Paul Tibbets, the captain of the Enola Gay and overall head of the atomic delivery group, was pretty clear that it was human error. He said that even before the shot they realized that the crew of the B-29 which dropped it, Dave’s Dream, had gotten bad information about the weather conditions, but that they ignored attempts at correction. Tibbets would re-run (with a dummy bomb) the drop with the correct information (and got very close to the target), and also re-ran it with the wrong information (which missed by nearly the same amount as the Able shot). But the USAAF really didn’t want to throw their bombardier and plane crew under the bus. So they hinted it might be a problem with the ballistics of the weapon (which were indeed a bit tricky), which infuriated the Manhattan Project officials. Anyway, everyone seems to have been satisfied by just saying they couldn’t figure out where the error was. But Tibbets’ account seems most plausible to me.1

Crossroads was not secret operation, though there was much classified about it. There were full-spread articles about its purpose in national news publications both before and after its tests. There was probably no test series so publicly conducted by any nuclear power — announced well in advance, covered by the press in real-time, and then heavily publicized afterwards. The fact that the Soviets were invited to a US nuclear test operation (something that would not happen again until the late-1980s) opens up whole other dimensions.

Mikhail Meshcheryakov ("Mike"?) in 1946. At right he is on the USS Panamint, at the Crossroads test. Source: Mikhail Grigorivich Meshcheryakov, on the 100th-anniversary of his birth (Dubna, 2010).

Mikhail Meshcheryakov  in 1946. At right he is on the USS Panamint, at the Crossroads test. Source: Mikhail Grigorivich Meshcheryakov, on the 100th-anniversary of his birth (Dubna, 2010).

The Soviets had three observers at the test: Professor Semyon P. Aleksandrov, a geologist who had worked on the prospecting of uranium; Mikhail G. Meshcheryakov, an experimental physicist; and Captain Abram M. Khokhlov, who attended as a member of the international press corps (he wrote for the Soviet periodical Red Fleet). I found a really amusing little anecdote about the Soviet observers from one of the men who worked the Manhattan Project security detail on Crossroads: Aleksandrov was someone they knew already (he was a “dear old geologist”), but Meshcheryakov was someone “whose name was known, but no one had met personally leading some of us to support he was really an NKVD agent watching Aleksandrov.”

I found nothing in the Russian source materials (mentioned below) that would indicate that Meshcheryakov was NKVD, though he was definitely the one who wrote up the big report on Crossroads that was given to Beria, who summarized it for Stalin. Meshcheryakov’s report is not among the declassified documents released by the Russians, so who knows if it has any political commentary on Aleksandrov in it. Meshcheryakov ended up having a rather long and distinguished physics career in the USSR, though there is almost no English-language discussion of him on the Internet. Aleksandrov, the “dear old geologist,” was actually a major Soviet big-wig in charge of mining operations, which at that time meant he was high in the Gulag system, which was run by the NKVD. For what it’s worth.2

Radiation from the Crossroads Baker shot — the radiation went up with the cloud, and then collapsed right back down again with it, resulting in a very limited extent of radiation (the entire chart represents only 4.5 miles on each axis), but very high intensities. Chart source: DNA 1251-2-EX. Collapsed cloud picture source: Library of Congress.

Radiation from the Crossroads Baker shot — the radiation went up with the cloud, and then collapsed right back down again with it, resulting in a very limited extent of radiation (the entire chart represents only 4.5 miles on each axis), but very high intensities. Chart source: DNA 1251-2-EX. Collapsed cloud picture source: Library of Congress.

It was also something of the real birth of “atomic kitsch.” There are some examples from before Crossroads, but there is just a real flourishing afterwards. It seems to have taken a year or so after Hiroshima and Nagasaki for enough time to have passed for Americans to start to regard nuclear weapons entirely frivolously. With Crossroads in particular, a deep connection between sex and death (Freud’s favorites) circled around the bomb. This is where we start to see the sorts of activities that would later result in the “Miss Atomic Bomb” contests, the release of the really kitchy songs, and, of course, the Bikini swimsuit, named after the “atomic bomb island,” as LIFE put it.

The key fulcrum of my article is a meditation on the “crossroads” metaphor, and I should probably note that it was, to some degree, intentional. Vice Admiral William Blandy was reported by the New York Times to have told Congress, that the name was chosen for its “possible significance,” which the Times writer interpreted to mean “that seapower, airpower, and perhaps humanity itself — were at the crossroads.”3

An unusual color (but not colorized!) photograph of the Crossroads Baker detonation, from LIFE magazine. Source.

An unusual color (but not colorized!) photograph of the Crossroads Baker detonation, from LIFE magazine. Source.

What’s interesting to me is that Blandy clearly saw some aspects of the “crossroads,” but there was much he couldn’t have seen — the atomic culture, the arms race, the contamination, the nuclear fears. He knew that “crossroads” was a good name for what they were doing, but it was an even better name than he could have known, for both better and worst.

As before, I wanted to take a moment to give some credit/citation information that wasn’t workable into the New Yorker blog post (where space, and thus academic nicety, is constrained).

The best overall source on Crossroads, which I found invaluable, is Jonathan Weisgall’s Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Naval Institute Press, 1994). Weisgall has been a legal counsel on behalf of the Marshallese, and his book is just a wealth of information. I was pleased to find a few things that he didn’t have in his book, because it’s a really tough challenge given how much work he put into it. If you find Crossroads interesting, you have to read Weisgall.

Rita Hayworth on the Crossroads Able bomb, "Gilda." Photo by Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Peter Kuran and Bill Geerhart.

Rita Hayworth on the Crossroads Able bomb, “Gilda.” Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory, via Peter Kuran and Bill Geerhart.

Bill Geerhart, who writes the excellent blog CONELRAD Adjacent (and is the one behind the Atomic Platters series of Cold War songs), has done some really wonderful work on the cultural aspects of Crossroads over the years. His posts on the mushroom cloud cake, and his sleuthing regarding the Rita Hayworth connection, are amazing and worth reading in their entirety. Peter Kuran, the visual effects wizard who made the documentary Trinity and Beyond, among other films and works, was very helpful in providing recently-declassified imagery of the Crossroads bombs, including photos (which I first saw on Geerhart’s blog) of the Rita Hayworth image on the side of the bomb themselves. (I will be writing more about Kuran and his work in the near future…)

Holly Barker’s Bravo for the Marshallese (Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004), is immensely useful as an anthropologist’s view of the Marshallese people and their experiences after the test. My invocation of the Marshallese language for birth defects comes directly from Barker’s book, pages 81 and 106-107. It is a powerful, disturbing section of the book.

Selection from Life magazine's coverage of Crossroads — two visions of the animal testing. Source.

Selection from Life magazine’s coverage of Crossroads — two visions of the animal testing. Source.

Most of the information I got about the Soviet view of Crossroads comes from the multi-volume Atomniy Proekt SSSR document series released by the Russian Federation. I had the full set of these before it was cool, but now Rosatom has put them all online. Scholars have been picking over these for awhile (I have written on them once before), I haven’t seen anybody use the particular documents relating to Crossroads before, but you in Tom (Volume) 2, Kniga (Book) 6, the documents I found most useful were 44 (pp. 130-132), 48 (135-136), 50 (137), 76 (184-188), and 106 (246-248). They show the picking of the delegation of observers, brief biographies of the observers, a summary of Meshcheryakov’s report (his full 110-page report on Crossroads is not included), and some later aspects of Meshcheryakov’s involvement with the planning of the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949 (in which his Bikini experience was offered up as his bonafides).

The other really unusual little source I used for my article is the letter from Percy Bridgman. The letter was sent from Bridgman to Hans Bethe, who relayed it to Norris Bradbury at Los Alamos, who sent it to General Groves. You can read it here. I have been sitting on it for a long time — I almost wrote a blog post about it in 2012, but decided not to for whatever reason. When I worked at the American Institute of Physics I had an opportunity to poke around Bridgman’s life and writings a bit, and he’s really an interesting character. He was the one at Harvard who served as J. Robert Oppenheimer’s physics advisor, and his own work on high-pressure physics not only won him the Nobel Prize of 1946 (which is a nice coincidence for the Crossroads article), but also was used (and is still classified, as far as I can tell) on the Manhattan Project (they seem to have sent him plutonium samples, so you can imagine the kind of work he was doing and why it might still be classified — almost everything on plutonium under high pressures is classified in the United States).

Percy W. Bridgman (L) talking with Harvard colleague (and future Trinity test director) Kenneth Bainbridge, 1934. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics

Percy W. Bridgman (L) talking with Harvard colleague (and future Trinity test director) Kenneth Bainbridge on a Massachusetts beach, 1934. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Bridgman gave a number of talks associated with his Nobel Prize that really tried to get at the heart of what the effects of World War II would be for physics as a discipline. He was very much afraid that Big Science (which hadn’t yet been given that name) would really destroy work like his own, which he saw as small-scale, individual, and not focused on particular applications. He was also very interested in topics related to the philosophy of science, something that a lot of modern-day practicing physicists openly disdain. His Wikipedia page gives a nice, brief overview of his life, and even touches on the poignant circumstances of his death.4.

  1. This is discussed at length in Jonathan Weisgall’s Operation Crossroads, pp. 201-204. []
  2. The account of the security officer is Charles I. Campbell, A Questing Life: The Search for Meaning (New York: iUniverse, 2006). This appears to be a self-published memoir, the sort of thing one would never run across without Google Books. On Aleksandrov’s Gulag connections (which seem plausible given his uranium connections), see this page on his Hero of Socialist Labor award. One of the few English-language articles on Meshcheryakov is available here. []
  3. Sidney Shallet, “Test Atomic Bombs to Blast 100 Ships at Marshall Atoll,” New York Times (25 January 1946), 1. Blandy’s full quote on the name from the testimony: “The schedule of target dates for this operation, which will be known by the code word ‘CROSSROADS’—and I would like to explain that we have chosen that merely for brevity in dispatches and other communications, and we chose it with an eye to its possible significance—now calls for the first test to be accomplished early in May, over target ships at an altitude of several hundred feed.” A lot of the sources about Crossroads include Shallet’s bit about “perhaps humanity itself” as a quote of Blandy’s, but it’s not in the transcript that I can see. Hearing before the Special Committee on Atomic Energy, United States Senate, Pursuant to S. Res. 179, Part 4, 79th Congress, 2nd Session (24 January 1946), on 457. []
  4. The citation for the Bridgman letter is: Percy W. Bridgman to Hans Bethe, forwarded by Norris Bradbury to Leslie Groves via TWX (13 March 1946), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0128609. []

The blue flash

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

This last weekend was the 70th anniversary of Louis Slotin’s criticality accident. One slip of a screwdriver; a blue flash and wave of heat; and Slotin had a little over a week to live. It’s a dramatic story, one that has been told before. I tried to give it a little bit of a fresh look in my latest piece for the New Yorker’s Elements Blog: “The Demon Core and the Strange Death of Louis Slotin.”1

Demon Core New Yorker Screenshot

In researching the piece, I looked over a lot of technical literature on the accident, as well as numerous accounts from others who were in the room at the time. A few things stuck out to me that didn’t make it into the piece. One was that it was remarkably non-secret for the time. Los Alamos put out a press release almost immediately after it happened (by May 25th, five days before Slotin’s death, it was in national newspapers), and followed it up with more after Slotin’s death. For mid-1946, when the Atomic Energy Act had not yet been signed and the future of the American nuclear infrastructure was still very much in question, it was remarkably transparent. The press release was where I saw the phrase “three-dimensional sunburn” for the first time.

I also went over the account of Slotin’s case that was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine in 1952.2 Slotin isn’t named, but he’s clearly “Case 3.” Harry Daghlian, who also died from an accident with the same core, is “Case 1,” and Alvin Graves, who was the nearest person to Slotin during his accident, and later became a director of US nuclear weapons testing, is “Case 2.” The article is long and technical, and ends with some of the most disturbing photographs I have ever seen of the Daghlian and Slotin accidents. There is a photo of Daghlian’s hand that has been reproduced many places (including in Rachel Fermi’s Picturing the Bomb), but I’d only previously seen it in black and white. It is much worse in color — the contrast between the white blistered skin and the pink-red stuff under the cut-away area is dramatic and disturbing. There are others in the same series that are just as bad if not worse: blackened, gangrenous fingers. Slotin’s photos in that article are comparatively tame but still pretty unsettling. Blisters. Cyanotic tissue. A photograph of his left hand — the one that was closest to the reacting core — on the ninth day of treatment (his last day alive) looks almost corpselike, or even claw-like. It is unsettling. I will not post it here.

An anonymous e-mail tipped me off that there were more photographs, and more documents, at a collection at the New York Public Library. These were part of a collection deposited by Paul Mullin, who authored the Louis Slotin Sonata, a very interesting, very curious play about Slotin from the late 1990s. I haven’t seen the play, though I had seen mentions of it for awhile. Mullin’s materials were fascinating and very useful. There were two boxes. The first was mostly notes relating to the creation of the play. It is always interesting to see how another researcher takes notes, much less one whose end-product (a play) is very different from the sort of thing I do. It does not take much glancing at his notes to see that Mullin got as deep into this topic as anyone has. The second box contained research materials: four folders of documents obtained from Los Alamos under the Freedom of Information Act, and a folder of photographs.

The hands of Louis Slotin, shortly after admission to the Los Alamos hospital. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, via the New York Public Library (Paul Mullin papers on the Louis Slotin Sonata).

The hands of Louis Slotin, shortly after admission to the Los Alamos hospital. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, via the New York Public Library (Paul Mullin papers on the Louis Slotin Sonata).

The photographs were, well, terrible. They included the ones from the Annals of Internal Medicine article, but also many more. Some showed Slotin naked, posing with his injuries. The look on his face was tolerant. There were a few more of his hand injuries, and then the time skips: internal organs, removed for autopsy. Heart, lungs, intestines, each arranged cleanly and clinically. But it’s jarring to see photographs of him on the bed, unwell but alive, and then in the next frame, his heart, neatly prepared. The photo above, of just his hands, is one of the tamest of the bunch, though in some sense, one of the saddest (there is a helplessness, almost like begging, in the position). I didn’t make copies of the really awful ones. History is often very voyeuristic — I joke with students that I read dead people’s mail for a living — but, as I commiserated with Mullin over Twitter, at some point you start to almost feel complicit, as silly as that notion is.

The documents were invaluable. They mostly covered the period immediately after the accident — people checking in on Slotin’s health, the complicated legal aspects of dealing with the death of a scientist (and with his distraught family), the questions of what to do next. An inordinate amount of paperwork was generated in dealing with the disposition of Slotin’s automobile (a 1942 Dodge Custom Convertible Coupe). The Army’s interactions with Slotin’s family appeared sympathetic and generous. There appears to have been no cloak-and-dagger regarding the entire affair. Slotin was, after all, a friend to many of those at Los Alamos, and a key member of their “pit crew.”

One of the accounts that I found most fascinating was that of the security guard, Patrick Cleary, who was in the room when the accident happened. Cleary was there because you don’t just keep a significant proportion of the nation’s fissile material stockpile unguarded. He seems to have understood little about what risks his job entailed, though:

When the accident occurred, I saw the blue glow and felt a heat wave. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know exactly what it was, when I saw the blue glow and somebody yelled. … Our instructions are also to keep in sight of all active material that is around, except in the case of a critical assembly, but [I] am not sure about that. I did not actually know what the material or sphere was at the time, or anything about it.3

When Cleary saw the flash and heard yelling, he literally took off for the hills, running. He was called back, as the scientists tried to reconstruct where people were standing for the purposes of dosage calculation. Cleary, in fact, was the last person to leave, because security guards can’t walk off the job — he had to wait until a replacement came.

Close-in shot on the Slotin accident re-creation. The beryllium tamper is on top; the plutonium core is the smaller sphere in the center. Notice in this particular shot, they have a "shim" on the right. Slotin removed the shim right before his fatal slip.

Close-in shot on the Slotin accident re-creation. The beryllium tamper/reflector (they called it a tamper) is on top; the plutonium core is the smaller sphere in the center. Notice in this particular shot, they have a “shim” on the right. Slotin removed the shim right before his fatal slip. The scientist re-creating the photograph is physicist Chris Wright. I wonder if they took extra precautions in making this particular set of photos?

For a long time I had been wondering what happened to the so-called “demon core,” which was also known as “Rufus,” something that strikes me as just too strange to be anything but true. It has been reported many times that it was used at Operation Crossroads, at the Able shot. I found some documentation that suggested this was very unlikely. For example, shortly after the accident (Slotin was still alive), lab directory Norris Bradbury wrote to a few other scientists at Los Alamos about how the accident had affected the forthcoming Crossroads tests. He notes that the sphere in question was getting “its final check” during the accident — so it was definitely slated for Crossroads. But he continues:

Obviously Slotin will not come to Bikini. [Raemer] Schreiber will come although the date of special shipment was postponed one week to allow us to pull ourselves together. Only two shipments will be made at this time as I see no courier for the third. The sphere in question is OK although still a little hot but not too hot to handle. We will save it for the last in any event if it is needed at all.4

Which seemed pretty suggestive to me that they weren’t going to use it: only two shipments were going to be made early on, and “the sphere in question” was not one of them. It would be saved for the “last event.” Which in this case was the “Charlie” shot — which was cancelled.

I wanted some more confirmation, though, because a plan isn’t always a reality. I e-mailed John Coster-Mullen, who I knew had done a lot of research into the Slotin and Daghlian accidents. (John is the one that provided me with these wonderful high-resolution photographs of the Slotin re-enactment, and some of the documents in his appendices to Atom Bombs were very useful for this research.) John suggested I get in touch with Glenn McDuff, a retired scientist at Los Alamos who was also one of the consultants on Manhattan (he drew the equations on the chalkboards, among other things). This turned out to be a great tip: Glenn has been working on an article about the fate of the first eight cores. There is much still to be declassified, but he was able to share with me the fate of the core in question: it had not been used at Crossroads, it had been melted down and the material re-used in another core. Glenn says there was no particular reason it was melted down. It was old, as far as cores went, and they were constantly fiddling with them in those days — the days in which they still gave bomb cores individual nicknames, because there were so few of them.

For nuke nerds, this is the big “reveal” of my New Yorker piece, the one thing that even someone very steeped in Los Alamos history probably doesn’t know. (For non-nuke nerds, I doubt it registers as much!) And even though it is a bit anticlimactic, I actually prefer it to the version that the core was detonated shortly after the accident. The part about them immediately re-using the core in a weapon just always seemed a little suspicious to me — it almost implied that they had done it due to superstition, and that didn’t really jibe with my sense of how these scientists viewed the accident or these weapons. And even the anticlimax has a bit of a literary touch to it: the “demon core” wasn’t expended in a flash, it was melted down and reintegrated with the stockpile. Who knows whether bits of its plutonium ended up in other weapons over the years, whether any of that core is still with us in the current arsenal? There’s perhaps something even a bit more “demonic” about this version of the story.

  1. A few small errata to the piece, based on a few questions I got: 1. Should the beryllium hemisphere be called a tamper or a reflector? In most contexts today we would call it a neutron reflector, because that’s the property that you use beryllium for in a bomb (a tamper’s job, generally, is to hold the core together as long as possible while it reacts, and so heavy, dense metals like uranium are used). But in this case, the scientists at the time referred to it universally as a “beryllium tamper” so the editor and I just decided to keep things simple and call it that, rather than call it a “reflector” and then clarify that it was the same thing as the “tamper” that was cited in the quotes. (This is the kind of linguistic hair-splitting that goes into these pieces — a balance between the historical language, the present-day language, the technical aspects, etc. We try to come to sensible decisions.) 2. At one point, it refers to the “pits” at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is just meant in a colloquial way here to refer to their fissile material cores. The Hiroshima bomb of course was a different design, made of two different pieces, called the Projectile and the Target in the documents at the time. It seemed unnecessary to introduce all that complexity to make a point that they didn’t give it any kind of colorful moniker. 3. There was one legitimate typo in the piece as published, which was my fault. It misstated the amount of time between the Daghlian and Slotin accidents (three months instead of nine). I’m not sure how that got in there — I actually re-looked up the date differences at the time I wrote it, and know the months cold. One of those strange disconnects between the head and the fingers, I suppose, and somehow I missed it in re-reading the drafts. Very frustrating! It’s the little things you aren’t worried about getting wrong that can get you, in the end. It has been fixed. []
  2. Louis H. Hempelmann, Hermann Lisco, and Joseph G. Hoffmann, “The Acute Radiation Syndrome: A Study of Nine Cases and a Review of the Problem,” Annals of Internal Medicine 36, no. 2 (February 1952), Part 1, 279-510. []
  3. Patrick Cleary, account of the Slotin accident (29 May 1946). Copy in the Paul Mullin, “Production materials for the Louis Slotin Sonata, 1946-2006,” New York Public Library. []
  4. Norris Bradbury to Marshall Holloway and Roger Warner (undated, ca. 24-29 May 1946). Copy in the Paul Mullin, “Production materials for the Louis Slotin Sonata, 1946-2006,” New York Public Library. []

Here be dragons

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The most famous experiment conducted by Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, after the Trinity test itself, is the one with the most evocative name. “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail,” also known internally as just “Dragon,” is straightforward about its meaning, compared to the enigma of “Trinity.” Dragons don’t like to have their tails tickled — so watch out for the fire.

On the latest episode of Manhattan (204), protagonist Frank Winter encounters the "dragon" — and pushes it a little further than he ought to have.

On the latest episode of Manhattan (206), protagonist Frank Winter encounters the “dragon” — and pushes it a little further than he ought to have.

The “dragon” moniker was coined by Richard Feynman (who else?) after he heard about it from fellow scientist Otto Frisch. It was one of a category of criticality experiments that Frisch (nephew of Lise Meitner, co-author of the famous Frisch-Peierls report) was working on at Los Alamos. Criticality experiments were dangerous by design: they were attempts to experimentally determine the critical condition of different quantities, types, and geometries of fissile material. Because of the unknowns involved, all of these experiments involved pushing very close to the boundary of an uncontrolled fission chain reaction, an embryonic atomic bomb (or reactor) that, while probably not very explosive (it would likely destroy itself before too much energy was released), would create enough radioactivity to cause serious hazard to those working around the site.1

The experiment Feynman dubbed “dragon” was what Frisch had called the “guillotine,” and was one of the more ambitious and dangerous of Frisch’s many criticality experiments. It involved dropping a slug of enriched uranium hydride through an almost-critical assembly of the same substance. Gravity alone would cause the two pieces to briefly form a critical mass — and then to briefly un-form, before too many fission reactions had occurred. If all worked as planned, the slug would release a burst of neutrons and then stop reacting. But if the slug got stuck in the critical figuration, it would release impressive amounts of radioactivity and potentially cause a (very small) explosion.2

Otto Frisch's original "dragon" reactor — the uranium "guillotine." Source: R.E. Malenfant, "Experiments with the Dragon Machine" (LA-14241-H, August 2005).

Otto Frisch’s original “dragon” reactor — the uranium “guillotine.” Source: R.E. Malenfant, “Experiments with the Dragon Machine” (LA-14241-H, August 2005).

The experiments could produce upwards of 20 million watts worth of energy, increasing the temperature of the fuel by 2 degrees C per millisecond. At their most daring, one burst of the experiment released 1015 neutrons. These experiments were, as the official, secret Manhattan District History notes, “of historical importance,” as they constituted “the first controlled nuclear reaction which was supercritical with prompt neutrons alone.” As far as I can tell, this particular “guillotine” was the original experiment that earned the nickname “dragon,” but the name has been applied to other, similarly close-to-critical experiments as well.3

Criticality experiments were inherently dangerous. They didn’t have to kill you immediately to be a threat: it had been known since the days of the “Radium Girls” that radiation exposure could be cumulatively crippling. The experimental physicists by the 1940s had lost a bit of the “devil may care” air that they had in the early years of radioactivity, when you could spot an X-ray operator by his mangled hands. The Health Group at Los Alamos attempted to keep external radiation exposures within the national radiation standards at the time (0.1 roentgens per day), and optimistically hoped they could aim for zero internal exposures per day. For the time, this was considered conservative, though by the late 1950s the standards for exposure had dropped by a factor of seven.4

Los Alamos scientists keep their distance from a 1,000 ci radiation source used in the RaLa experiments.

The first criticality accident at Los Alamos wasn’t a fatal one, but it did cause some trouble. The experiment was (ironically, or appropriately?) made in the name of safety: it was a question of what would happen if certain geometries and enrichments of uranium were submerged in water. For a weapon that was going to be deployed to the Pacific Ocean, this was not an idle danger — sink Little Boy in the ocean and it becomes a nuclear reactor, because, for enriched materials, regular “light” water acts as a neutron moderator, lowering the effective critical mass. The Manhattan District History outlines the experiment and its outcome:

A large amount of enriched uranium, surrounded by polythene, had been placed in a container in which water was being slowly admitted. The critical condition was reached sooner than expected, and before the water level could be sufficiently lowered the reaction became quite intense. No ill effects were felt by the men involved, although one lost a little of the hair on his head. The material was so radioactive for several days that experiments planned for those days had to be postponed. [emphasis added]5

“Although one lost a little of the hair on his head” — one of those sentences one rarely runs across, especially without any further elaboration, that really sounds disturbing to the modern ear. There were other “minor” exposures too, noted briefly (and anonymously) in the Manhattan District History. Not all were related to criticality; some were related to other experiments, such as the “water boiler” and “power boiler” reactors (more on those in a second), and the RaLa (Radiolanthanum) implosion experiments:

Operation of the power boiler resulted in several instances of mild overexposure to radiation caused by leaks in the exhaust gas line and one serious exposure of several chemists during decontamination of active material. The implosion studies of the RaLa Group which used large amounts of radioactive barium and lanthanum brought a serious situation which the health group monitored closely. A series of accidents and equipment failures caused considerable overexposure of chemists in this group. This condition persisted about six months until the system of remote control operation was finally perfected.6

Interestingly, the Health Group had “no responsibility” over the criticality experiments, “except that of being sure that the men were aware of the dangers involved.” The Manhattan District History notes that the criticality experiments were “especially dangerous” because “there is no absolute way of anticipating the dangers of any particular experiment, and the experiments seem so safe when properly carried out that they lead to a feeling of overconfidence on the part of the experimenter.” The author of this section of the History attributes this overconfidence to the death of Harry Daghlian, who died after accidentally creating a critical mass with a plutonium core. It also notes another accident where “four individuals” received an “acute exposure… to a large amount of radiation” during a similar experiment. The same core would lead to the death of another scientist, Louis Slotin (known for his nonchalance regarding the hazards), less than a year later.7

Harry K. Daghlian's blistered and burnt hand after he received his fatal radiation dose from his own dragon-tickling experiment gone wrong.

Harry K. Daghlian’s blistered and burnt hand after he received his fatal radiation dose from his own dragon-tickling experiment gone wrong.

Reading through the various exposures and radiation hazards in the Manhattan District History can be a bit spine-tingling, even if one tries to have a measured view of the threats of radiation. Radiation risks, of course, are more exciting to most of us than the dozens of other ways to die at Los Alamos during the war. Radiation is relatively exotic and mysterious — simultaneously invisible to our basic senses while very easy to track and follow with the right instruments. You can’t see it until you start looking for it, and then you can find it everywhere.

But even with that caveat, some of these reports are still pretty eyebrow raising. One example: The “water boiler” reactor was a small assembly of enriched uranium used as a neutron source at the laboratory. The scientists knew it presented radiation risks: the fuel inside the reactor would get fiendishly radioactive during and after operation, and if there was a small, inadvertent explosion, it could be a real contamination problem. So they (sensibly) isolated it from the rest of the laboratory, along with the criticality experiments.8

But later study showed that they hadn’t quite solved the problem. Gaseous materials, including fission products, were being discharged “near the ground level at the tip of the mesa just to the south of Los Alamos Canyon.” This, the Manhattan District History notes, was “most unsatisfactory and represented a potential and serious health hazard.” They had warning signs, but they were “inadequate and the area was accessible to any casual visitor.” Radiation intensities “in excess of 50 r/hr were repeatedly measured near the discharge point when the boiler was in operation.” Just to put that into perspective, even by the relatively lax standards of the Manhattan Project, you would hit your yearly limit of acceptable radiation exposure if you spent about 45 minutes near the discharge point when the reactor was running. By the standards from the late 1950s onward, you would hit your yearly limit after only six minutes. (The committee recommended to put a fence around the area, and looking into building a large smoke stack. Later work determined that the larger smoke stack improved things a bit, but did not ultimately solve the problem.)9

The "Water Boiler" reactor at Los Alamos — a neat scientific experiment, but watch where you put the exhaust port. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

The “Water Boiler” reactor at Los Alamos — a neat scientific experiment, but watch where you put the exhaust port. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

Did these cavalier radiation exposures have long-term consequences for the scientists? (Other, of course, than the two who actually died, or the few people whose acute radiation exposures were so high that they produced obvious physical damage.) Remarkably, very little follow-up seems to have been made. It takes work to know whether there are hazards, and it takes even more work (longitudinal studies, epidemiological work, etc.) to see whether there have been health effects. Radiation-based cancers are probabilistic; exposures to radiation just increases the chance of a cancer, it doesn’t guarantee it. Epidemiological studies, like the ones done on the Japanese who survived the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, look for the statistical excesses, the cancers beyond what you would expect to naturally occur in a given population. This apparently was never done for Manhattan Project employees. There are many anecdotes about exposed employees developing debilitating health effects, but little hard science — not because the exposures or consequences didn’t happen, but because apparently nobody did the studies necessary to establish their existence.10

Why wouldn’t the Manhattan Project or Atomic Energy Commission officials follow up on this question? Two interrelated and non-exclusive hypotheses immediately spring to mind. One is that they were genuinely rather sanguine about the effects of radiation in low exposures. Their standards for “low exposures” were considerably higher than ours are today, and the requirements of war didn’t encourage them to adopt the precautionary principle, to say the least. The second is that there were legal stakes involved. They were eager, especially in the postwar, to avoid claims of radiation damage from former employees. Partially one can see in this the attitude of the bureaucrat who believes they are protecting the government’s interests (at the expense of labor’s), partially this is another reflection of the aforementioned sanguinity regarding radiation exposure (they legitimately believed the claims were probably false, or at least not provable). Following the community of scientists, technicians, and laborers after they had left the laboratory would have been difficult. And what if they had found higher-than-normal rates of injury and death? Better not to look at all, from that standpoint.11

  1. One of the key factors in designing an actual atomic bomb is holding together the reacting mass as long as possible. Without that, once enough energy has been released to separate the reacting material, the reaction will stop. So a chain-reacting critical assembly ought not release more than a few pounds of TNT worth of explosive power — but it would release an awful lot of radiation in the immediate area. []
  2. On Feynman and Frisch, and Frisch’s earlier experiments, see Richard Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986): 610-611. The description of “dragon” and its dangers in this paragraph comes from Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.7. For an example of the size of the explosion, consider the effect of the accidental criticality excursion on another such device, “Godiva.” []
  3. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.8. The “dragon” experiment had one criticality “excursion” of note, when towards the end of a series of experiments of increasing power, a burst of 6 x 1015 fission reactions occurred, blistering and swelling the cubes that composed the assembly. No one was exposed and there was no contamination, but it got put into a criticality accident report. United States Atomic Energy Commission, Operational accidents and radiation exposure experience within the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington, DC: Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Operational Safety, 1975), 38. []
  4. The 0.1 roentgens per day (so around 37 r per year) standard for whole-body exposure was adopted by the United States in 1934. By 1946, the US had dropped the standard by half that amount. By the late 1950s, the standard for permissible amount of radiation exposure had dropped to around 5 r per year, where it remains for people who work in nuclear settings (the standard for the general public is lower). Note that in the 1940s the roentgen unit changed to the rem, and is now measured in sieverts, but they are pretty easy to convert (~1 r = 1 rem = 0.01 Sv). See George T. Mazuzan and J. Samuel Walker, Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946-1962 (Washington, DC: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1997), 35, 39, and 54. On Manhattan Project standards, see Vincent C. Jones, Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1985), 419, and Barton C. Hacker, The Dragon’s Tail: Radiation Safety in the Manhattan Project, 1942-1946 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Separately, it is of interest that the “Radium Girls” was not just an oblique connection: scientists from Los Alamos, Chicago, and Oak Ridge visited a luminous (radium) paint company in Boston to learn how they dealt with radiation hazards in industry, and adapted their techniques to the problems of dealing with plutonium. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 3.95. []
  5. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.10-15.11. The accident in question took place in June 1945, involved 35.4 kg of 83% enriched uranium cubes. United States Atomic Energy Commission, Operational accidents and radiation exposure experience within the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington, DC: Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Operational Safety, 1975), 37-38. []
  6. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 9.34. []
  7. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 9.34. []
  8. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 6.60. []
  9. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), Supplement, 2.85. []
  10. There have been some very small-sample studies of very specific cohorts from this period, but nothing of the sort one might imagine might exist. []
  11. Gabrielle Hecht’s Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012) emphasizes, in the case of exposures from uranium mining in Africa, that the easiest way to avoid worrying about radiation exposures is not to measure them, not to do the work that makes them “exist” as observable scientific facts. []

How to die at Los Alamos

Friday, February 13th, 2015

The people who ran the Manhattan Project worried about a lot of different things. Usually when we talk about this, it’s a story about the Germans, or the Japanese, or the physics, or other very specific things of that nature. But they also worried about banal things, like occupational safety: reducing the number of people injured, or killed, as part of doing their job.

Around half of the 500,000 or so people employed by the Manhattan Project were employed in construction. As a result, most of the injuries and fatalities associated with making the bomb were of a banal, construction-related variety. Heavy machinery, ditches, collapsing buildings — these were the most dangerous parts of the project for those who made it. Occasionally there were more exotic threats. Criticality accidents took the lives of two scientists in the immediate postwar, as is well known. Concerns about criticality excursions at the plants used to enrich uranium were a non-trivial concern. And there were other, more unusal ways to die, as you would expect from any body of people that large, working over so great an area, especially when they are concentrated in places that were for much of this period constant construction sites, as were Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford.

Exhibit 14 - Fatalities at Los Alamos

“Exhibit 14: FATAL ACCIDENTS: Since the inception of the Project in the Spring of 1943, until September 1946, twenty-four (24) fatal accidents have occurred. The following history of these incidents was taken from hospital records, reports of investigation boards, and the safety division files.”

Some time ago I happened upon a list of all of the fatal accidents that occurred at Los Alamos between its inception in 1943 through September 1946. There were exactly twenty-four, an even two-dozen ways to die while working at an isolated nuclear weapons laboratory. I reprint them here, not only because there is a morbid fascination with this sort of thing, but because I’ve found that this list gives a really remarkable summary of the people of Los Alamos, the hazards of Los Alamos, and the work that goes into making a bomb, which requires much more than star physicists to pull off successfully. Each death was followed by an inquiry.

My summaries are below; the original document (linked to at the end of this post) contains more details on some of them. The copy of the document I have is very hard to read, so I may have gotten a few of the names wrong.

  1. Estevan Roches, bulldozer operator. Crushed by a rock in his tractor while trying to build an access road to Los Alamos, at night. Died February 11, 1943.
  2. George H. Holtary, diesel motor mechanic. Was working on the power plant at Los Alamos, got crushed between a crankshaft and the housing. Died March 1, 1943.
  3. George J. Edwards, a soldier. Fell into a drainage ditch at night after drinking, injuring his back and puncturing his kidneys. Died July 19, 1943.
  4. Jose Montoya, construction laborer. Was digging an acid sewer ditch between “C” and “D” buildings. The 8-foot ditch was not reinforced and it collapsed on him. Died November 2, 1943. Investigation board recommended reinforcing ditches in the future.
  5. Pfc. Frederick Galbraith, military police. Was accidentally shot by another serviceman while sleeping. Another private was cleaning the gun and did not realize there was a live round in the chamber. It caused a severe wound in Galbraith’s thigh. He died of severe shock, November 4, 1943.
  6. Efren Lovato, construction laborer. Lovato was in the back of a dump truck being used to transport laborers to lunch. The truck’s accelerator got stuck and it crashed into a car at the pass gate and overturned, killing Lovato and another laborer, on November 20, 1943. Investigation board recommended increasing the size of the motor pool so the vehicles could be inspected more regularly.
  7. Fridon Virgil, construction laborer. Killed in the same accident as previous.
  1. Fred Wolcott, contractor engaged to clear woods near the site. Attached a bulldozer to a tree and tried to pull it out. The tree snapped and fell on him. Witnesses say he appeared to be “frozen” to the seat of his tractor. Died May 9, 1944.
  2. Elmer R. Bowen, Jr., age 10 and a half. With a friend, was using a canoe from the former Los Alamos Ranch School in the main pond. His canoe capsized; neither him nor his friend could swim, and he drowned on July 1, 1944. He was the son of a maintenance mechanic, one who remained at Los Alamos for several decades after the war, until his retirement. Canoeing prohibited after death.
  3. Ernesto Freques, truck driver. He was standing next to a pile of reinforcing steel, unaware that workers on top were trying to move pieces and having difficulty because the steel was bent. The pile of steel collapsed on him; he was pinned against the truck, his heart lacerated. Died on July 6, 1944.
  4. Horace Russell, Jr., a research chemist, age 26. Fell from a horse while riding it in a canyon near the project. Suffered a serious head injury. Died August 5, 1944. The first of only four scientists on this list.
  5. Pfc. Hugo B. Kivsto, a member of the Provisional Engineer Detachment. Was fatally injured while driving an Army vehicle on a poorly graded surface of dirt road near Santa Cruz, New Mexico. Lost control of the vehicle while rounding a hazardous curve. Tried to jump clear of the truck as it went over the embankment and was pinned under it. Died on December 3, 1944.
  1. Pvt. Grover C. Atwell, member of Special Engineer Detachment. Assigned to hospital ward duty, died of an overdose of barbiturates taken from the hospital pharmacy. He died on July 21, 1945, but his body was not found until August 22, 1945. The report does not elaborate on why there was such a delay in finding his body. The investigation concluded he was “depressed over his assignment,” no indication of financial or family difficulties. Declared mentally irresponsible for his death, and thus his “death was in the line of duty and not a result of his own misconduct.”
  2. James W. Popplewell, civilian carpenter. Was working inside a building on August 7, 1945, at the same time a caterpillar tractor was pushing dirt over the roof. The roof collapsed and both tractor and dirt crushed Popplewell. Investigation blamed the foreman for not seeing if the building could support the load of the dirt and the tractor; the foreman was recommended for termination. This is a rare case of any liability being found.
  3. Harry Daghlian, physicist, age 24. Criticality accident with the so-called “demon core.” Report notes he “was exposed to too great radiation” on August 21, died on September 15, 1945. The report carries no further information on him and says that Health Physics is still investigating the matter. Second of the four scientists.
  4. Asa Houghton, civilian carpenter. Was going down the hill from project towards Santa Fe in his truck, front wheels locked and caused vehicle to run off the left side of the road, turned 5 or 6 times. Died of internal injuries on September 27, 1945.
  1. Manuel Salazar, janitor. With three friends (also janitors), got extremely drunk on muscatel wine mixed with ethylene glycol (antifreeze). Died from ethylene glycol poisoning on January 29, 1945. Because deaths were not result of duty, descendants received no benefits of compensation.
  2. Alberto Roybal, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  3. Pedro Baca, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  4. Levi W. Cain, civilian blacksmith. Struck by car driven by a military sergeant on site. The sergeant was absolved of blame; the visibility was low, but car was not being driven at an excessive speed. Cain died on February 6, 1946.
  5. Louis Slotin, physicist, age 35. Criticality accident with the same core that killed Daghlian. While making measurements, “was exposed to radiation from radioactive materials” to a fatal degree. Third of the four scientists. Died on May 21, 1946. After Slotin’s death, criticality experiments were effectively put on hold until new safety guidelines could be devised.
  6. Livie R. Aguilar, truck driver for Zia Company. For reasons that were unknown (there were no witnesses or obvious evidence), his truck left the road and turned over into a trench, pinning Aguilard beneath it. He died on July 1, 1946.
  7. Joshua I. Schwartz, a scientist, age 21. With two other scientists (Robert A. Huffhines and William E. Bibbs), he was engaged in an experiment to trace air currents in Omega Canyon. They were instructed to use balloons or other non-flammable equipment for this. Instead, they tried to use smudge pots (smoke bombs). One of the smudge pots exploded, fatally injuring Schwartz, and critically injuring his companions (permanent blindness). Schwartz died on 2 August 1946. The investigation faulted their bosses with inadequate supervision. This resulted in at least one lawsuit over compensation. The fourth of four scientists.
  8. Herbert Schwaner, construction laborer. He was driving a bulldozer up a ramp when one of the treads locked, causing it to topple. He was pinned underneath. He was found five minutes later, by his brother, dead. He died on August 7, 1946.

It’s quite a list. Here is a copy of the original report, if you want more details on any of the above.1

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Construction dominates, but automobiles, recreational mishaps, and scientific experiments make their appearance. As does suicide — one wonders what the report means by “depressed over his assignment” for the soldier at the hospital. The presence of a child reminds us that families lived at this secret laboratory — by the end of the war there were some 1,500 “dependents,” many of them children, living at the project site.

The Hispanic and/or Indian names point towards Los Alamos’ location. On the list of properties near the site that was seized by the Army (via condemnation), there are many Roybals, Montoyas, and Gomezes. In the list of Los Alamos badges, there are many Bacas, Virgils, Montoyas, and a Salazar.2  These are the people who lived there first, often written out of the more popular narratives of scientific triumph.

Even on the question of scientists, I was surprised to find two names I had not seen before: Russell and Schwartz. Both were young. Russell’s death adds a grim pall to all of that footage of scientists riding around in the woods on horses. Schwartz’s death is also a reminder of how much responsibility was thrust onto the young scientists — though frankly, it is maybe surprising that more people did not die this way, given the haste at which they worked and the toxicity, flammability, and radioactivity of the substances they were using.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Both Oak Ridge and Hanford had major industrial and public safety programs during the war. This was not just a matter of responsibility (though there was that), but also because industrial accidents caused lost-time problems. The more accidents, the slower it would be until they had an atomic bomb ready to use. At Oak Ridge and Hanford, they claimed an exceptional occupational safety record — their injury rates were (they claimed) 62% below those of private industry. That still translated into 62 fatalities between 1943 and 1945 at the two sites, and a 3,879 disabling injuries. Given that those sites employed some 500,000 people between them, that means your chance of dying there was about one in ten thousand, while your chance of getting disablingly injured was more around one in a hundred.

Sometimes it takes a raw document like this, something a little off the beaten path to get you out of the well-worn narratives of this history. One knows of the criticality accidents, because they are unusual, and they are famous. But who knew of the child drowning? The janitor’s night out gone wrong? The carpenter crushed by a bulldozer? The accidental shooting of a bunkmate? Out of these little details, grim as they are, a whole social ecosystem falls out. It doesn’t have to supplant the traditional scientific story, which is still an important one. But it augments it, and makes it more human.

  1. Exhibit 14, “Fatal Accidents,” (ca. late 1946) in Los Alamos Project Y, Book II: Army Organization, Administration, and Operation, copy in Manhattan Project: Official history and documents [microform] (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 1977), reel 12. []
  2. Interestingly, I have found no badges in the list that obviously correspond to the people who died, with the exception of Elmer Bowen, Sr., the father of the little boy, and a few people who may be wives or relatives. There is a “Joe Montoya” but this seems like a common name. I wonder if this is because part of the procedure upon death would be to destroy their security passes? Obviously not everyone would have a security pass, but it is a little unusual to have exactly zero hits, including Daghlian, Slotin, Schwartz, and Russell, the scientists. []

Accidents and the bomb

Friday, April 18th, 2014

When I first heard that Eric Schlosser, the investigative journalist was writing a book on nuclear weapons accidents, I have to admit that I was pretty suspicious. I really enjoyed Fast Food Nation when it came out a decade ago. It was one of those books that never quite leaves you. The fact that the smell of McDonald’s French fries was deliberately engineered by food chemists to be maximally appealing, something I learned from Schlosser’s book, comes to mind whenever I smell any French fries. But nuclear weapons are not French fries. When writing about them, it is extremely easy to fall into either an exaggerated alarmism or a naïve acceptance of reassuring official accounts. In my own work, I’m always trying to sort out the truth of the matter, which is usually somewhere in between these two extremes.

Schlosser - Command and Control book

This is especially the case when talking about nuclear weapons accidents — the many times during the Cold War when nuclear weapons were subjected to potentially dangerous circumstances, such as being set on fire, being accidentally dropped from a bomber, crashing with a bomber, having the missile they were attached to explode, and so on. The alarmist accounts generally inflate the danger of the accidents achieving a nuclear yield; the official accounts usually dismiss such danger entirely. There are also often contradictory official accounts — sometimes even the people with clearances can’t agree on whether the weapons in question were “armed” (that is, had intact fissile pits in them), whether the chance of detonation was low or high, and so on. I’ve always been pretty wary about the topic myself for this reason. Sorting out the truth seemed like it would require a lot of work that I wasn’t interested in doing.

Well, I’m happy to report that in his new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of SafetySchlosser has done that work. I reviewed the book recently for Physics Today. You can read my PT review here, but the long and short of it is that I was really, really impressed with the book. And I’m not easily impressed by most works of nuclear weapons history, popular or academic. I’m not surprised it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, either.

Titan II silo complex. There's a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson's wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

Titan II silo complex. There’s a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson’s wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

What I ask out of a new book is that it teach me something new — either novel facts or novel spins on things I already knew about. Schlosser’s book does both. He clearly did his homework when it came to doing the work, and it’s not really surprising it took him about a dissertation’s worth of time to write it. It’s not just a document dump of FOIA’d material, though. He really shines when contextualizing his new information, writing a very rich, synthetic history of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. So the new and the old are woven together in a really spectacular, unusually compelling fashion.

The book has two main threads. One is a very specific, moment-by-moment account of one accident. This is the so-called Damascus Accident, which is when a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas, exploded in its silo in 1980, resulting in one fatality. It’s not one of the “standard” accidents one hears about, like the 1961 Goldsboro bomb, the 1958 Tybee bomb, the 1968 Thule crash, or the 1966 Palomares accident. But Schlosser’s journalist chops here really came through, as he tracked down a huge number of the people involved in the accident and used their memories, along with documentary records, to reconstruct exactly how one dropped spanner — itself just an apparently innocuous, everyday sort of mistake — could lead to such explosive outcomes.

The other thread is a more historical one, looking at the history of nuclear weapons and particular how the problem of command and control runs through it from the beginning. “Command and control” is one of those areas whose vastness I didn’t really appreciate until reading this book. Nominally it is just about making sure that you can use the weapons when you want to, but that also includes making sure that nobody is going to use the weapons when you don’t want them to, and that the weapons themselves aren’t going to do anything terrible accidentally. And this makes it mind-bogglingly complex. It gets into details about communication systems, weapons designs, delivery system designs, nuclear strategy, screening procedures, security procedures, accident avoidance, and so much more.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

Schlosser weaves this all together wonderfully. I found very few statements, technical or otherwise, that struck me as genuine outright errors.1 Of course, there are places where there can be differences of interpretation, but there always are. This is pretty good for any book of this length and scope — there are many academic books that I’ve read that had more technical errors than this one.

What I found really wonderful, though, is that Schlosser also managed to give a compelling explanation for the contradictory official accident accounts that I mentioned before. It’s so simple that I don’t know why it never occurred to me before: the people concerned with nuclear weapon safety were not the same people who were in charge of the weapons. That is, the engineers at Sandia who were charged with nuclear safety and surety were institutionally quite remote from the Air Force people who handled the weapons. The Air Force brass believed the weapons were safe and that to suggest otherwise was just civilian hogwash. The engineers who got into the guts of the weapons knew that it was a more complicated story. And they didn’t communicate well — sometimes by design. After awhile the Air Force stopped telling the Sandia engineers about all of the accidents, and so misinformation became rampant even within the classified system.

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: "Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today's standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work."

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: “Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today’s standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work.”

We usually talk about nuclear weapons safety as a question of whether they are “one-point safe.” That is, will the weapon have a chance of a nuclear yield if one point on the chemical explosives surrounding the fission pit detonated inadvertently? Most of the time the answer is no, of course not. Implosion requires a very high degree of detonation symmetry — that’s why it’s hard to make work. So a one-point detonation of the explosive lenses will produce a fizzle, spreading plutonium or uranium like a “dirty bomb” but not producing a supercritical chain reaction.

But some of the time, answer is, “well, maybe.” We usually think of implosions as complex affairs but some weapons only require two-point implosion to begin with. So now you’re no longer talking about the possibility that one out of 36 explosive lenses will go off; you’re talking about one out of two. This isn’t to say that such weapons aren’t one-point safe, just to point out that weapons design isn’t limited to the sorts of things present in the first implosion weapons.

But even this doesn’t really get at the real problem here. “One-point safe” is indeed an important part of the safety question, but not the only one. Consider, for example, what would happen if the firing signal was only a simple amount of DC electrical current. Now imagine that during a fire, the firing circuit board soldering melts and a short-circuit is formed between the batteries and the firing switch. Now the bomb is actually trying to truly set itself off as if it had been deliberately dropped — and full implosion, with nuclear yield, is totally possible.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

How likely is this kind of electrically-activated nuke scenario? What the Sandia engineers discovered was that in some weapons it was really not implausible at all. Under the “abnormal environment” of a weapons accident (such as a crashing or burning B-52), all sorts of crazy things could happen with electronic circuits. And unless they were really carefully designed for the possibility of this kind of accident, they could arm themselves and fire themselves. Which is the kind of thing you’d expect an engineer who is deeply connected with the electrical technology of the bomb to conclude.

And of course, as Schlosser (and his engineer sources) point out — this kind of thing is only one small detail in the broad, broad question of nuclear safety. These systems are big, complex, and non-linear. And so much hinges on them working correctly.

The sociologist of science Donald MacKenzie has proposed (in a slightly different context — nuclear weapons accuracy, not safety) that a “certainty trough” exists with regards to complex questions of technological uncertainty. He draws it somewhat like this:2

MacKenzie's Certainty Trough

So this divides people into three groups. On the left are the people who actually build the technology and the knowledge. These people have reasonably high levels of uncertainty about the technology in question — they know the nuts and bolts of how it works and how it could go wrong. (I’ve added “confidence” as a label because I find it more straightforward than “uncertainty” at times.) They also know what kinds of failure situations are not likely as well. In the middle, you have people who are completely committed to the technology in question. These people aren’t completely divorced from solid knowledge about it, but they are just consumers of knowledge. They look at the final data, but they don’t really know how the data was made (and all of the uncertainty that gets screened out to make the final version of the data). They have very low uncertainty, and so very high confidence in the technology. At far right you have the people who are either total outsiders, or people who are totally committed to another approach. These have the highest levels of uncertainty and the lowest levels of confidence.

So if we were mapping Schlosser’s actors onto these categories, we’d have the Sandia engineers and other weapons scientists on the far left. They know what can go wrong, they know the limits of their knowledge. They also know which accident situations are outlandish. In the middle we have the military brass and even the military handlers of the weapons. They are committed to the weapons. They have data saying the weapons are safe — but they don’t know how the data was made, or how it was filtered. They think the weapons are totally safe and that anyone who suggests otherwise is just ignorant or foolish. And lastly, at far right, we have total outsiders (the activists, perhaps, or sometimes even politicians), or people who really are looking to amplify the uncertainty for their own purposes.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

The disconnect between the far left group and the middle group is the one that disturbs me the most in Schlosser’s account. It also reflects what I’ve seen in online discussions of weapons accidents. People with a little bit of knowledge — e.g. they know about one-point safety, or they once handled nukes in the military — have very high confidence in the safety issues. But they don’t know enough to realize that under the hood, things are more complicated and have been, in the past at least, much more dangerous. Not, perhaps, as dangerous as some of the more alarmist, outsider, activist accounts have stressed. But dangerous enough to seriously concern people whose jobs it is to design the weapons — people who know about the nuts and bolts of them.

Anyway. Schlosser’s book is a great read, as well. Which it needs to be, because it is long. But it’s also segregable. Don’t care much of the details of the Damascus accident? You can skip those sections and still get a lot out of the book (even though the Damascus accident is really a perfect account of all of the little things that can go wrong with complex, non-linear systems). But part of that length is a copious amount of endnotes, which I applaud him and his publisher for including. For a book like this, you can’t skimp on the documentation, and Schlosser doesn’t. The only thing he did skimp on was illustration, which I — as a pretty visual guy — thought was too bad. So much of the Damascus story takes place inside of a Titan II silo, and while the inner flap of the cover did have a simplified illustration of one, I still felt like I didn’t really know what was happening where at times. (I wonder if this was a trade-off with the publisher in having so many notes and pages.)

Chuck Penson's Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) for scale.

Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) included for scale.

Fortunately, there is a solution for this. If it were up to me, every copy of Schlosser’s book would be accompanied by a copy of Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook: A civilian’s guide to the most powerful ICBM America ever built. Penson’s book is a richly illustrated history of this particular missile, and contains lots of detailed photographs and accounts of daily life on a Titan II base (such as those seen above) It’s utterly fascinating and it gives so much visual life to what Schlosser describes. It also includes giant fold-out diagrams of the missiles themselves — the printing quality is really impressive all around. It includes fascinating technical details as well. For example, in the early days of the Titan II silos they had large motor-generators that constantly ran in case they needed to convert DC power into AC in the event of a failure of commercial power. Penson then notes that:

The motor-generator ran with a loud, monotonous high-pitched whine… noise in the [Launch Control Center] turned into a serious issue. Crew members complained of temporary hearing loss due not only the incessant buzz of the motor-generator, but also to the constant drone of the air conditions, fans and blowers in equipment. Eventually the Air Force covered the tile floor with carpeting, and acoustic batting was hung in the in the area of the stairway leading up to level 1 and down to level 3. … These changes made a tremendous improvement, but one that came too late for many of the crew, a significant number of whom now need hearing aids.

This kind of detail fits in perfectly with Schlosser’s approach to the facility, which itself seems strongly influenced by the sociologist Charles Perrow’s notion of “Normal Accidents.” That the devices in the facility would affect the hearing of the crew was certainly not something that anybody thought of ahead of time; it’s one of those little details that gets lost in the overall planning, but (at least for those who suffered the hearing loss) had real consequences. Ultimately this is the thesis of Schlosser’s book: that the infrastructure of nuclear command and control is much larger, much more complex, much more problematic than most people realize, and is one of those high-complexity, high-risk systems that human beings are notoriously pretty bad at managing.

If you’re the kind of person who geeks out on nuke history, both Schlosser’s and Penson’s books are must-reads, must-buys.

  1. The two biggest mistakes I noted, which I’ve told Schlosser about and may be fixed in the paperback, are that he misstates the size of the neutron initiator in the Fat Man bomb — he confuses the diameter for the radius — and he got the story of Szilard’s 1933 chain reaction work wrong, which lots of people do. Szilard’s patent is such a common source of misunderstanding even amongst scholars that I will be writing a blog post about it soon. Neither of these are terribly important to his argument or narrative. []
  2. Adapted from Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), figure 7.2. []