Visitors to ground zero of the first atomic explosion face the small obelisk marking the exact spot of the July 16, 1945, detonation in the southern New Mexico desert.
JOE MCKIBBEN is an
82-year-old retired Los
Alamos physicist who
made the final connections to the bomb after it was suspended in
its tower. He was
the last to leave the Trinity site before the explosion.
McKibben, who still lives in the town of Los Alamos, spent the final night at ground zero to ensure the gadget wasn't tampered with. Mattresses had been laid at the tower base as a precautionary move in case the bomb fell, and at 2 a.m. McKibben lay down to get some sleep. He was awakened by a pre-dawn lightning storm that spattered him with rain.
He closed the switches at the base of the tower, drove 800 yards to a relay station and threw switches there, then came back to the tower. Because of the storm the test was pushed back an hour, to 5:30 a.m. Communication was difficult because scientists were using the same radio frequency as a nearby Voice of America station. Finally, he made his final connections and drove to his bunker about two miles away. Photo floodlights were turned on inside to allow cameras to record the final countdown.
Then the bomb went off.
"I had a photo flood on, but suddenly realized there was a lot more light coming in the back door," he recalled. "It was very brilliant outside." He threw one more switch to trigger instruments measuring the blast, then rushed outside 13 seconds after the bomb ignited. "I ran out and took a look at it. It was a big ball of fire, brilliantly colored and highly turbulent. The color was somewhere between red and purple."
What was he thinking? "I felt we had been successful in our project. I knew the war would soon be over."
Four hours after the explosion, the cruiser Indianapolis steamed out of San Francisco Bay bearing a bomb nicknamed Little Boy. It was headed for the bomber base on Tinian Island in the South Pacific, where it would be loaded on a Boeing B-29 and dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6. Little Boy was not quite as powerful as Fat Man; it exploded with a force of about 16,000 tons of TNT.
After its delivery, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and its crew was spilled into the water. More than 500 of them drowned or were devoured by sharks.
Pieces of a copy of Trinity's Fat Man, again fueled with Hanford plutonium, were delivered by air to Tinian, assembled and dropped on Nagasaki, three days after Hiroshima. It exploded with the power of 22,000 tons of TNT.
Because of the chaos and obliteration following the bombings and uncertainty about attributing cancer deaths to radiation, estimates of deaths from the two bombs range from 115,000 to 340,000. If the latter is correct -- and it is closer to the historical consensus -- the two "gadgets" killed more Japanese than all the Americans killed in all the battles of World War II.
They also ended a war that had, with conventional weapons, already claimed at least 40 million people. In just one horrific example, the Japanese army is estimated to have massacred as many as 200,000 Chinese civilians in Shanghai in 1937.
photographer Alan Berner and I came to what the
Spanish explorers called the Jornado del Muerto -- literally, the
Journey of the
Dead, a reference to the harsh route from El Paso, Texas, to Santa
Fe, N.M., -- on
April Fool's Day this year. We joined the line of vehicles waiting
gate to the historic
In a van ahead was Bob Swickley of Salt Lake City, who had been a nuclear engineer on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and based in Bremerton. Behind was Louise Kern, 67, of Penn Valley, Calif., who as a child had once met Albert Einstein, the scientist who put his name to a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging research into building a bomb.
Both visitors said they just wanted to see where it all began.
More than 3,000 people came out that cool morning, their mood neither festive nor dour, just curious. Visitors were directed to a dirt parking lot by military police. A grill was set up to sell hamburgers. The National Park Service erected an awning and sold books representing a range of opinion about the nuclear age. As the day warmed, cotton-ball clouds popped from a taut blue sky.
The site was as empty and unremarkable as it must have seemed in 1945. It was so lonely then that the troops stationed there won an award for the lowest venereal-disease rate in the U.S. Army.
Desert vegetation has long since reclaimed the blast zone. Brochures advised of the lingering radiation, but added that it remains below health-hazard levels. There was no lingering sense of menace.
Families posed for snapshots at the obelisk. Visitors looked for tiny scraps of Trinitite the bulldozers had missed, obeying the admonition not to remove them.
A white-painted casing of Fat Man, the bomb itself, sat on a trailer near the obelisk. A cyclone fence circled both, with photographs of the explosion's sequence hung on the fence. Forming a shuffling line, people examined the photographs one by one, studying an explosion divided into microseconds.
The Rev. Steve Caldwell and 20 people from St. Charles' Episcopal Church in Albuquerque gathered by the fence away from the main crowd and consecrated the ground. "It seemed a fitting thing to do, to celebrate an important place in peace and war," said Alex Zimmerman, a lay member. And the bomb? "I think it was necessary. I'm thankful we were the ones who did it, and not the other side."
That view was typical of most of the Americans present. We interviewed an Albuquerque physicist, a B-26 bomber instructor and a Guadalcanal veteran who fitted pipes with asbestos at the nuclear labs in Los Alamos.
The pipe fitter, 72-year-old James Garrison, sometimes chatted with Oppenheimer, the lead physicist on the code-named Manhattan Project. "He was a nice guy with a good sense of humor, though he talked over my head all the time," Garrison recalled, struggling to breathe as he talked because of the asbestos damage to his lungs. "I worked at Los Alamos, but when they told us they had used an atom bomb on Japan, I didn't know what it was."
The few Japanese among us were disturbed. Takashi Otsuka, a correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, said he was unhappy the Smithsonian Institution had canceled in January a controversial exhibit on the devastation the bombs wreaked on his country. "And why did you need a second bomb against Nagasaki?" he asked. "This is a very important question for the Japanese people."
Two bombs dropped in August. Three more ready in September. Seven due by December. Two hundred in the stockpile by 1949. That flash of light gave birth to a new world.
In less than three years, the United States had built an industrial atomic-bomb complex as big as its entire automobile industry. Said physicist Niels Bohr to colleague Edward Teller: "I told you it couldn't be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that."
Before the Cold War ended, an estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads had been stockpiled by the nations of the world. Atmospheric tests had released fallout equal to 40,000 Hiroshimas. The accumulated waste will take hundreds of billions of dollars and at least another half century to clean up.
FOR THOSE who grew up
after World War II, the prospect of
nuclear annihilation was an indelible part of the era. I and my
practiced kneeling by school lockers with our coats over our heads
to protect us
from flying glass, laughing at the absurdity. We watched first-aid
films in health
class showing bodies strewn in radioactive rubble. There was a
fallout shelter in
my junior-high basement, and another in the basement of The
Armageddon was our cultural backdrop. The baby-boomer generation grew up reading apocalyptic novels such as "On the Beach," "Failsafe," "Alas Babylon," "A Canticle for Leibowitz," and "Lord of the Flies." My family fled from Tacoma to the Washington coast during the Cuban missile crisis, hoping prevailing winds would protect us from fallout.
Psychologically, the nuclear standoff was arguably a major contributor to the conforming discipline of the 1950s, the rebellion of the '60s and the malaise of the '70s. It kept an era on edge.
Atomic fission brought benefits as well. A sixth of the world's electricity today is generated by more than 425 commercial reactors in 31 countries. There are 575 nuclear-powered ships and submarines. Five million cancer patients get radiation therapy each year.
Now the arms race is going the other direction, with the United States dismantling 1,000 to 2,000 warheads a year, slowly working toward a goal of 3,500 each for the United States and Russia.
Tensions have cooled, but the weapons can be re-targeted if politics change. And what author Fred Kaplan called "the wizards of Armageddon" are not convinced the world is a safer place. In the labs at Los Alamos, the worry has switched from tracking Soviet missile silos to tracking smuggled plutonium sought by terrorists.
"There are too many reports of people buying plutonium on the Russian market," said Bob Kelley, a physicist who works on emergency response to nuclear threats. "The U.S. is the most likely target. I think it will happen. I really do."
"Nonproliferation has become a much more difficult problem," said Terry Hawkins, co-director of the federal government's nonproliferation international security team. At one Russian warehouse enough plutonium to make 20 rogue bombs has been missing since the 1950s. In others, Russians told him, "We secure these places with babushkas armed with cucumbers, and we're running out of cucumbers."
"It's not if anymore. It's when," Hawkins said of the possibility of terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb. "And if it ever happens in this country, we may not like the United States after it happens. There will be a strong move to abrogate freedoms."
That prediction was made before the bombing in Oklahoma City.
THE FIRST PLUTONIUM to
leave the Hanford nuclear reservation was
a nitrate syrup sealed in a heavy stainless-steel container and
carried in the
back seat of a sedan along the Columbia River to a train in
Portland. As shipments
increased, the Manhattan Project switched to more formal military
The bomb's development was incredibly rapid, and no state was more intimately involved than Washington.
Shortly before World War II began, German physicists discovered that atoms could be split, or fissioned, resulting in the release of huge amounts of energy. The news electrified physicists around the world. By 1940, researchers in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan were working on the problem of sustaining a chain reaction for a possible weapon.
Japan did not have the uranium to make a bomb, but its investigation of the possibility of building one did not end until physicist Yoshio Nishina's laboratory was firebombed by U.S. planes on April 12, 1945.
Not only did physicists almost immediately recognize the military potential of nuclear fission, but they also began in 1942 the theoretical work on a hydrogen bomb based on the fusion of hydrogen into helium, which powers the sun and stars. The H-bomb would have the power of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. Because of its technical difficulty, it was 10 more years before that new escalation in destructive power was tested.
Since the United States had the world's biggest economy and was remote from the actual battlefields, only America had the ability to sustain an atom-bomb project during World War II. Germany never vigorously pursued the project, and top Nazis remained relatively ignorant of the bomb's potential. When physicist Werner Heisenberg held a briefing for Hitler's leadership in 1942, a secretary sent the wrong agenda and as a result key leaders didn't bother to show up.
American scientists, in contrast, convinced political leaders of the incredible latent nuclear power in matter. But even with Einstein lending his prestige by signing a letter to Roosevelt warning of the military implications of nuclear energy, the project languished until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
That it subsequently succeeded is one of the most amazing science and technology stories in history. Making the necessary bomb fuel was enormously difficult.
The most common radioactive element in nature is uranium-238, making up about 99 percent of the earth's supply of uranium. Because U-238 has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years - about as old as Earth - only half of what was present when Earth was formed has decayed away. That is why the planet still has so many uranium deposits and the United States could open 400 mines during the Cold War and extract 60 million tons of ore for weapons alone.
Uranium-238 does not sustain a fission chain reaction, however, and must be modified into an isotope that can. U-238 fuel can be bombarded in a nuclear reactor to make U-235, the fuel for the Hiroshima bomb. That isotope was made and separated at labs in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during World War II.
There was an alternative. In 1941, a University of California chemist named Glenn Seaborg created an element with an even bigger potential for explosive power. Since the previously discovered uranium had taken its name from Uranus and neptunium from Neptune, Seaborg named his discovery plutonium: after the planet Pluto and, coincidentally, the Greek god of the dead.
Not knowing which fuel could be successfully manufactured or fabricated into a bomb, the United States decided to pursue both. While Oak Ridge would make U-235, a secret complex near the remote Eastern Washington hamlet of Hanford would make plutonium.
Fuel rods of uranium were irradiated in Hanford reactors to make about a dime-sized button of plutonium for every two tons of fuel. The elusive substance then had to be recovered by dissolving the fuel rods in acid and isolating the plutonium in a complex, messy series of steps.
U.S. ARMY GEN.
Leslie Groves, who had directed construction of
the Pentagon and then became head of what had been obliquely named
Project, had spent part of his early years growing up at Fort
Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington.
He looked for a site in the West remote from population centers
and with a
generous supply of electricity to run the bomb factories and water
to cool the
reactors. Hanford, downriver from the just-completed Grand Coulee
Dam and adjacent
to the Columbia River, fit the bill.
So started Washington's close connection to atomic energy.
About 1,200 residents from the towns of Hanford, White Bluffs and Richland were evacuated. Construction began in late March 1943. At the peak, 51,000 workers toiled at the site, erecting 500 major buildings, constructing the world's biggest reactors, dumping chemical and radioactive waste into the air, river and soil, and for the most part remaining thoroughly mystified. Rumors about what they were manufacturing jokingly included fifth-term buttons for Roosevelt. In Santa Fe, residents joshed that the nearby Los Alamos complex was making windshield wipers for submarines.
President Truman revealed the truth about the project when Hiroshima was bombed. When Japan surrendered, a Richland newspaper headline proclaimed: "Peace! Our bomb clinched it!"
Both bombs were dropped by the Boeing B-29 that had been developed in Seattle, at that time the most complex airplane in the world. In February 1943, a test version of the initially troublesome plane had crashed into a Seattle packinghouse, killing the crew and 19 workers.
About 2,000 of the Boeing bombers were eventually built by a variety of manufacturers for a cost of $3 billion, about $1 billion more than the Manhattan Project cost. Before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit, conventional firebombing by these planes had destroyed large parts of 66 Japanese cities, burning 178 square miles of buildings and killing more than 1 million Japanese civilians.
Boeing built the plane in Renton and Wichita, Kan., while other manufacturers erected additional bomb factories. The Enola Gay, which bombed Hiroshima, and Bock's Car, which bombed Nagasaki, were made by Martin in Omaha, Neb.
The plutonium bomb had another Washington connection. It depended on an "implosion" idea first put forward by Cal Tech's Seth Neddermeyer, who after the war taught physics at the University of Washington.
In either a uranium or plutonium bomb, the fissionable material had to be suddenly squeezed together to make a big enough mass to become "critical" enough to sustain a chain reaction of atomic fission and initiate an explosion. In the uranium bomb, a modified gun inside the bomb casing was used to fire the uranium together.
The plutonium bomb, in contrast, depended on a more efficient but more complex implosion of its sphere of plutonium, driven inward by surrounding conventional explosives. Neddermeyer won adoption of his idea over the initial skepticism of other physicists, but lacked the managerial skills to run the team that perfected it. That was done by Harvard's George Kistiakowsky.
Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II, but not atomic weapons. Proposals to put their control under an international authority such as the United Nations quickly died, and the Soviet Union soon stole plans for the atomic bomb with the help of spy Klaus Fuchs. In 1949, the Soviet Union built and exploded a copy of the original Fat Man, down to its wiring mistakes. The nuclear-arms race was on.
Instead of slipping into postwar oblivion, Hanford expanded. It eventually boasted nine of the nation's 14 nuclear-weapons reactors and pumped out more than half of all the plutonium the United States produced, in the process releasing 467 million curies of radiation into the environment and becoming a dumping ground for nuclear waste from around the nation.
Boeing churned out new weapons systems, from the incredibly successful and durable B-52 bomber to the nuclear cruise missile.
Spokane's Fairchild Air Force Base became home to nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on constant alert. McChord Field near Tacoma became an integral part of North America's air-defense network. A communications antenna was built in the Cascade Mountains. A National Security Agency listening-post satellite dish was erected at the Yakima Firing Range. Nuclear submarines were serviced in Bremerton and Navy surface ships unloaded and loaded nuclear warheads at Port Townsend's Indian Island ammunition depot on their trips in and out of Puget Sound.
The Navy selected Bangor, on Hood Canal, as one of two bases for its fleet of Trident submarines, the most powerful and invulnerable leg of the American strategic "triad" of nuclear delivery systems.
The Trident is a culmination of a half century of squeezing a bigger nuclear punch into smaller and smaller packages. Each warhead on a modern D-5 missile packs 14 to 24 times the power of Nagasaki's Fat Man. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads. And each submarine carries 24 missiles.
The B-29 flying over cloudy Nagasaki missed its intended target point by several miles. The newest Trident missile, so far in place just on submarines based in Georgia, can fly 6,500 miles, navigate by the stars and come within 1,500 feet of its aiming point.
The resulting potential for destruction is difficult to grasp. To get some sense of it, recognize that a single submarine has the ability to drop on 24 of the 25 American cities big enough to host a major-league baseball team the destructive equivalent, each, of at least 175 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
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