Posts Tagged ‘Nevada Test Site’


The “Secret” song

Monday, February 25th, 2013

I spent some of the last week in the National Security Archive, a private archive hosted by George Washington University, looking at the papers of Chuck Hansen (1947-2003). Hansen was one of the great nuclear researchers, meticulously compiling thousands upon thousands of nuclear documents by means of archival visits, Freedom of Information Act requests, and crawling of the public literature. His books, U.S. Nuclear Weapons (1988) and Swords of Armageddon (1995), were the final products of this trawling. They weren't scintillating reads, but they're chock full of interesting technical details derived from his voluminous archives.

Hansen papers, Box 18

How many boxes do you have lying around with "NUCLEAR WEAPONS SECRETS" written on the side of them? Answer truthfully.

I found a lot of useful files for a number of projects I'm working on (including the oft-mentioned book), but I also found a few highly amusing things as well. Chief among these is a song composed by someone at the Operation Upshot-Knothole nuclear test series, held at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. What's really remarkable about it is that it appears to use the classified names of the actual nuclear devices, earning it a nice "SECRET" rating. How many "SECRET" songs do you know?1

It follows a little poem about setting up the tests which is not quite as good, except for the final stanzas:

As someone says, without aplomb
"We just can't seem to find the bomb."
So D (for day)
Looks pretty gray
For something's surely gone agley
No bomb? Oh well
And what the hell?
We'll try again some other day.

Below is a transcription; the original can be viewed here. The names of the devices have been blacked out in the original, but through referencing Hansen's published work (he ferreted them out from here and there), his speculations in the margins (some of which must be right, some of which must be wrong), along with some of the internal indications (e.g. puns, character spaces), I think I've worked out what they are meant to be:

There were ten little gadgets, sitting in a line
[XR-3] was X-quisite and then there were nine.

There were nine little gadgets, the tower held the weight,
[ZOMBIE] had a kick to it, and then there were eight.

There were eight little gadgets (oh, NPG2 is heaven?)
They couldn't hide the [HYDRIDE-1,] and then there were seven.

There were seven little gadgets, brought out for kicks,
[DIXY]3 was deuti-full4, and then there were six.

There were six little gadgets, pretty much alive,
[BUZZARD]5 said "let's carrion", and then there were five.

There were five little gadgets, they couldn't find no more,
[HYDRIDE-2]6 kicked up its heels, and then there were four.

There were four little gadgets, observers came to see,
One was [SIMULTANEITY,] and then there were three.

There were three little gadgets, [HAMLET] got his due,
The time was not so out of joint, and then there were two.

There were two little Gadgets, [ENCORE]7 said this is fun,
The military got Effects, and then there was one.

There was one little gadget, that lonesome little Gun,8
They shot the hell right out of it

Someone else (not Hansen) has hand-written "Climax!" at the bottom of the page, here — indicating, perhaps, that the original poem was written before the final, late addition to the Upshot-Knothole schedule was added. The eleventh shot, approved at the very last minute as a special addition to the series was shot CLIMAX.9

Shot HARRY (HAMLET) of Operation Upshot-Knothole.

Shot HARRY (HAMLET) of Operation Upshot-Knothole.

The whole thing looks a little more ominous, though, when you know that Upshot-Knothole had some fairly negative public health effects. The ninth shot, HARRY (the "HAMLET" device, above) was extremely dirty — a lot of fallout resulted and contaminated nearby St. George, Utah. As Richard Hewlett and Jack Holl put it:

Postponed for three days because of unfavorable weather, Harry was fired under what seernecl to be perfect conditions. But a wind shift and a slight increase in wind velocity spread fallout in a pattern about fifty miles square over populated areas east of the proving ground. For the second time in a month roadblocks were set up on major highways to monitor motor vehicles. At 9:10 a.m., about four hours after the shot had been fired, readings as high us 0.32 roentgens per hour were being recorded at the roadblocks. At that time Edward S. Weiss, the Public Health Service officer stationed in St. George, called the sheriff's oflice and radio station to warn people in the area to take cover. Local schools kept children indoors during the morning recess, and the washing of contaminated cars in St. George was suspended. By 9:40 a.m. most of the population in St. George was under cover, and the community came to a standstill. ... From measurements at St. George the test group later estimated that the maximum amount of external exposure that could have been received at St. George was 6.0 roentgens and 5.0 roentgens at Cedar City.10

That's probably not enough to kill you by itself, to be sure, but it's still some thousands of times higher than the average background radiation, higher than the maximum "safe" dose that had previously been established for the entire test series, and just one of the many tests that rained fallout on the people in those towns. It may, even, have been responsible for killing John Wayne and much of the cast of The Conqueror, too. (I'm usually dubious about attributing individual deaths to such exposures — the probabilistic nature of such cancers makes it very hard to attribute them on an individual level, as opposed to an epidemiological level — though the rates for the cast, and the types of cancers involved, are particularly disturbing.)

The people running the test shot were hardly ignorant of such possibilities. Consider the first lines of the "poem" that preceded the "song":

We'll all be safe
As Rad can be
For milliroentgens frighten me

And if a meter
Starts its clickin'
We will run to beat the dickens

So it's all fun and games... unless the winds shift.

  1. Citation: Poem and song about Operation Upshot-Knothole (ca. May 1953), copy in the Chuck Hansen papers, National Security Archive, George Washington University, Box 18, "1953," folder 1. []
  2. NPG = Nevada Proving Ground = Nevada Test Site. []
  3. This might not be right. The spacing is four letters; nothing obviously fits. It can't be "RUTH" because that's one of the HYDRIDEs. "DIXIE" is the official name of the test, though one can imagine the scribe got the spelling wrong. The device name for DIXIE was apparently "DEUTERIUM," which goes with the sentence. []
  4. Amusingly, this is the only part of the song that made it into Hansen's published work. Footnote 534 of Volume II of Swords of Armageddon reads: "An untitled, undated classified poem issued sometime soon after the end of UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE states that the fourth shot 'was deuti-full.' The device may have used a solid or crystalline lithium deuteride boosting charge." []
  5. Hansen thought this might be HYDRIDE-2, because it is the next in order. But "let's carrion" must be a reference to BUZZARD, no? Plus it fits perfectly with the spacing. []
  6. Might also be "DEUTERIUM," the device name for the DIXIE shot. []
  7. Well, this is and isn't right. The space here is only four letters. But the ninth device was dubbed "EFFECTS" and was test "ENCORE" so it's got to be something about that. Maybe it was spelled eccentrically, like NCOR? Or something like XR-3. []
  8. This is, of course, the famous GRABLE atomic cannon shot. Apparently the censor did not know that GUN was its device name, and it was not redacted. []
  9. The eleventh was needed because an earlier shot failed to reach its full yield. The device in question, COBRA, was the primary for at least one of the devices in the CASTLE series and its exact yield needed to be known ahead of time. Eisenhower was very irritated by the last-minute addition and approved it only because it meant they could cancel another test series, DOMINO, that had been planned for later in the year. []
  10. Richard G. Hewlett and Jack M. Holl, Atoms for Peace and War, 1953-1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission (University of California Press, 1989), 154. []

Beer and the Apocalypse

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Planning for The End is hard. Nuclear apocalypse is big and scary and complicated. Average people don't want to plan at all — just assume the worst and you'll never be disappointed. Governments, on the other hand, like to plan. Some people see this as an effort to legitimately save lives; others see it as an attempt to convince the public (or themselves) that they are in control of the uncontrollable. There are merits to both points of view. 

All sorts of things have been studied in the name of Civil Defense — of what to do after the Worst Happens. Two questions along these lines I've already discussed in the past: What do you do with all of the dead people? and What will happen to all of our paper-based records? Both of which have "interesting" answers.

Operation Teapot was a series of fourteen nuclear weapons tests conducted in 1955 at the Nevada Test Site, and a number of them were specifically for getting information on nuclear effects for use in Civil Defense. One of these tests, dubbed Operation Cue, was "open" in the sense that the press was allowed to observe it, and it involved nuking a "Survival Town" full of mannequins, the pictures of which were featured prominently in The Atomic Café and were the inspiration for that improbable opening scene to the most recent Indiana Jones movie.

Click for PDF.

One of the many lines of investigation during these Civil Defense tests, Project 32.2a, sought to answer a simple question: What will the survivors drink in the post-apocalyptic world? If the water supply is contaminated or otherwise dodgy, what about all of those cans and bottles that capitalist society churns out by the billions of gallons? The introduction to the final report explains that while lots of attention had been given towards the effects of nukes on food, beverages had been largely ignored:1

Consideration of the problems of food supply show the needs of humans for water, especially under disaster conditions, could be immediate and urgent. At various times some consideration has been given to special packaging of potable water, but since packaged beverages, both beer and soft drinks, are so ubiquitous and already uniformly available in urban areas, it is obvious that they could serve as important sources of fluids.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. The Atomic Energy Commission did what they did best and dropped a nuke on bottles of beer and soda cans. (They were "exposed," in the euphemism of the report. I also love the phrasing above, "the needs of humans for water" — it's like the report was written by extraterrestrials.)

The brave test subjects.

They took a number of different types of bottles and cans, filled with different liquids, and put them in various positions relative to Ground Zero for two nuclear tests ("Shot I" and "Shot II" in the report, probably "Apple I" and "Apple II" of Teapot). The closest ones were less than a quarter mile away from the first test — a mere 1056 feet. The furthest ones out were about 2 miles away.

The results were somewhat interesting. Even the bottles pretty near the test had a fairly high survival rate — if they didn't fall off the shelves, or have something else smash into them (a "missile" problem), or get totally crushed by whatever they were being housed in, they had a good chance of not breaking. Not super surprising, in a way: bottles are small, and there's a lot of stuff in between them and the shockwave to dissipate it. (Bottles seem more fragile than human beings, but in certain respects they are probably easier to keep safe. Also, human beings are rarely in refrigerators, Indiana Jones notwithstanding.)

Fallen soldiers.

As for radiation, only the bottles closest to Ground Zero had much radioactivity, and even that was "well within the permissible limits for emergency use," which is to say, it won't hurt you in the short term. The liquid itself was somewhat shielded by the bottles of the containers which picked up some of the radioactivity.

But there were, of course, still pressing questions to be resolved... how did it taste?

Examination made immediately upon recovery showed no observable gross changes in the appearance of the beverages. Immediate taste tests indicated that the beverages, both beer and soft drinks, were still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1270 ft from GZ [Ground Zero]. Those farther away showed no change.

Immediate taste tests... So immediately after they nuked some beer and soda, someone — it doesn't say who — took a swig of them. In the name of Science. But of course, they didn't stop just there:

Representative samples of the various exposed packaged beers, as well as un-exposed control samples in both cans and bottles, were submitted to five qualified laboratories for carefully controlled taste-testing. The cumulative opinions on the various beers indicated a range from "commercial quality" on through "aged" and "definitely off." All agreed, however, that the beer could unquestionably be used as an emergency source of potable beverages. Obviously, if a large storage of such packaged beers was to be trapped in a zone of such intense radiation following a nuclear explosion, ultimate usage of the beverages beyond the emergency utility would likely be subject to review of the taste before return to commercial distribution.

Not satisfied with their spot taste testing, they sent the radioactive beer on to careful laboratory study. And lo, it tasted acceptable, but not very good! Your tax dollars at work.

But check out that last line again: radioactive beer might not be good to "return to commercial distribution" after the nukes had fallen, because of the taste. At this point I'm not sure what to think about the thoughts of the authors — did they really envision a world where a warehouse of beer was in a zone of "intense radiation" following a nuclear attack, and then, a few weeks later, it would be sent back around to the liquor stores? 

Who would buy once-radioactive beer? I mean, besides me.

For me, the takeaway here is that the next time you find yourself stocking up on beer, remember, it's not just for the long weekend — it might be for the end of days.

  1. E. Roland McConnell, George O. Sampson, and John R. Shari, "Report to the Test Director – Operation Teapot – Project 32.2a – The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, February-May 1955," WT-1213 (24 January 1957), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0011597. []

The DIXIE Showgirl (1953)

Friday, May 18th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bureaucracy will Survive the Apocalypse

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

This week's document concerns a vexing Cold War question: if the United States was nuked by the Soviet Union, would the bureaucracy survive, or would we have to start from scratch? Would nuclear apocalypse accomplish the ultimate deregulation, the ultimate experiment in small government? Would all debts be off, all credit clean, all records blanked? For God's sake, what would happen to private business, private industry? If capitalism was destroyed in a nuclear inferno, would the survivors envy the dead?

Faced with this crushing uncertainty, the U.S. government approached the problem methodically. In the spring of 1955, they nuked the heck out of some filing cabinets.

One unlucky filing cabinet. (GZ = "Ground Zero")

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