Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 3

So now we’ve nuked the surface, we’ve nuked the ocean depths, and we’ve even nuked outer space. And Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to nuke. What’s a superpower to do?

Well, just make bigger nukes, obviously.

Enter, the H-bomb. The hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb is a much fancier lad than the a-bomb that preceded it. The A-bomb is purely a fission device, in which heavy elements are split, releasing colossal amounts of energy. But you can also fuse lighter elements to release energy. The problem is, it’s hard to compress and heat lighter elements enough to ignite fusion. Re-enter the A-bomb, which can provide more than enough heat and compression to ignite a fusion reaction. And then re-enter the A-bomb again, because we’re going to surround the fusion stage of the weapon with a massive amount of unenriched uranium, called the tamper. Unenriched uranium is stable under normal conditions, which is why we can cram so much of it into our thermonuclear device in the first place. But when exposed to the fusion reaction, unenriched uranium completely loses its shit. It kicks off a second round of fission, which in most thermonuclear devices provides the majority of the megaton-range yield.

It’s also much dirtier. While only increasing the yield by three- or four-fold, it multiplies the radioactive byproducts of the bomb by a thousand times. Behind closed doors, the military fucking loved that part, because a single bomb could effectively bring strategic targets to ruin even if strategic assets within those targets survived the initial blast and fireball. Oh and, by strategic targets, I mean cities, factories, and ports. And by strategic assets, I mean the people who live and work in them.

In public, the tone was very different. The official line in the U.S. was that radiation release did not scale with the increasing yield of nuclear weapons. Which, I guess, is technically true. It didn’t scale, because in the H-bomb, radiation growth exceeded yield by several orders of magnitude.

Which brings us back to Bikini Atoll, where we started this wild and wonderful journey. It was early 1954, about a year and a half after the first ever detonation of a thermonuclear device in the Ivy Mike test. The problem with the Ivy Mike H-bomb, however, was that it was literally the size of a building and thus completely impractical for military use. The Castle Bravo test sought to rectify that by detonating a thermonuclear bomb weighing about ten tons. That’s still pretty heavy, but it’s getting into the deliverable range.

The Castle Bravo bomb was expected to yield a blast in the 4 to 8 megaton range, but the designers made a critical error. They assumed that most of the mixture of fusion fuel in the second stage would prove functionally inert, unable to contribute to the nuclear reaction within the millisecond timeframe of the detonation sequence. This was due to the fact that they had never actually tested the fuel's response to high-energy particles, like those released by the first stage. If someone had stopped and said, “You know, maybe instead of assuming the mix will work a particular way, we should put it in a nuclear accelerator and actually test that shit,” then things might have gone differently.

But who has time for that? We’ve got stuff to nuke. Snap to it!

That very same “fuck it, let’s just light it off and see what happens” attitude was also operative on the day of the test, when it was decided they would go ahead with the detonation despite prevailing winds that were veering from north to east, where they could carry fallout over populated islands. The deciding factor, apparently, was that they’d done a lot of work setting up observation instruments around the blast site, and would have to do it all over again if the test was delayed.

Who needs that kind of hassle? Just blow the damn nuke already.

Which they did. And it was a fucking disaster.

Or a stunning success, depending on your perspective. Like, if you were an insane person, as seemed to be the case for many of our military and civilian leaders at the time, you’d call it a big win, because the yield was a full fifteen megatons. At the time, that made it the largest nuclear detonation in history, leaving a crater over a mile wide and 250 feet deep. The fireball was four miles wide and the resultant mushroom cloud seven miles wide. America, fuck yeah.

Even better, it spread a cloud of radiation over five thousand square miles of ocean. I mean, you can neutralize a lot hell of a lot of strategic assets that way.

The test was so successful that indigenous strategic assets had to be evacuated from islands which were rendered uninhabitable by fallout. Five strategic assets on the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru were exposed, resulting in the death of one of those strategic assets. Radioactive contamination from the test was carried by wind and ocean currents all around the Pacific Rim, from the west coast of America to Japan and Australia.

So, it was a rousing success, unless you happen to be afflicted by sanity.

Speaking of sanity and the lack thereof, you know what nuclear weapons would be great for? The construction business.

From that nugget of an idea came 1961’s Operation Plowshare, a proof-of-concept plan to demonstrate the myriad peaceful applications of multi-kiloton nuclear devices. The goal of Plowshare was to develop a toolbox of nuclear earth moving techniques—whose concepts ranged from merely frightening to utter, batshit insanity—and then hand them over to the private sector. Because, really, what damage can the private sector possibly do with nukes that the government hasn’t already?

Techniques developed by Plowshare were to be used to excavate rock and to fracture fossil fuel deposits for collection of their now-radioactive natural gas. If that sounds familiar, it’s basically just frakking, except instead of fracturing the rock with water, you use a nuclear warhead. What could be less controversial?

Similar methods were proposed for leached copper recovery and steam generation. And hey, wouldn’t nuclear devices make strip mining that much more wonderful?

If you’re already floored by this nuclear hubris, you may want to take a moment, because it gets worse from there. A Plowshare subproject codenamed Carryall planned to use twenty-two nuclear bombs to cut through the Bristol Mountains in California. Then a highway and rail line could be constructed across them. Complete, I imagine, with signs instructing motorists to please keep their windows rolled up.

And if you did happen to ride the crazy train through Carryall mountain pass, the next stop would be a nuclear-blasted sea-level link connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, to be called the “Pan-Atomic Canal.”

Once those ships transit Central America, though, they’ll need a harbor to dock at. And won’t it be easier to find that harbor if it glows in the dark? Enter project Chariot, which would chain several nuclear bombs to blow open an artificial harbor.

Now that you’ve docked your cargo ship, though, you have to get your goods out to the people. You’d like to use a river barge, but the only river nearby doesn’t connect to the river you need to send your product up. Well shit, man, with nuclear bombs we can make rivers into whatever shape we want. Project Tombigee/Tennessee River would have done just that, combining the aforementioned little rivers into one big river.

But, you ask, what if blowing up all those rivers creates a water shortage? Well, my friend, nuclear bombs have you covered there, too. Plowshare proposed to use nuclear bombs to connect two aquifers for easier water access. In another proposal, Plowshare would create a rubble chimney above porous rock, which would allow rainwater to seep through the rubble and collect in an artificial aquifer. Think of it as a value-add proposition, because your drinking water would be suffused with expensive radioisotopes.

Thankfully, someone finally came to their sense and cancelled the program in 1977, before it could do any major harm. But for the decade and a half in between, someone thought all of this was a good idea.

If I may come back to the present day for a moment before I wrap this up, I’m reminded of a bit of common wisdom that’s become popular over the last decade: "we have to keep nuclear weapons out of the wrong hands." On its face, the statement is indisputable, more a truism than a proposition, but something about it has always bothered me. It wasn’t until I was doing research for this series of articles that I finally realized what it was.

The problem is that it rests upon an unfounded, unspoken premise: that there’s such a thing as the right hands.

I leave you now with a song.

Monday, November 24, 2014


The final (for now) installment of Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing will be going up on Wednesday as normal, but after that it'll be light blogging for the foreseeable future.

So make sure you hold that article close and read the shit out of it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 2

Last time in this series, we talked about Operation Clusterfuck Crossroads. You may remember that the testing was halted after only two nuclear detonations, due to no one having a goddamn clue what they were doing. So, with the testing cut short, one vital question remained unanswered: wouldn’t it be cool to detonate a nuke half a mile underwater?

The answer to that question would have to wait nearly a decade, until memory of Operation Crossroads had faded. And then, finally, the dream of a deep-water nuclear test would be revived in Operation Wigwam. Why Wigwam? Because the atomic bomb was invented too late to contribute to the genocide of Native Americans, but we can still nuke them in spirit.

So in May of 1955, a Mark 90 nuclear device was taken five hundred miles off the coast of San Diego and suspended by cable from a barge. Video from the test can be found here.

5/6th scale model submarines—codenamed “Squaws,” because let’s really rub it in, guys—were deployed to gauge the effect of an underwater detonation on enemy subs. The detonation went largely unnoticed, though it was picked up on seismological instruments across the Pacific and a cargo ship leaving San Francisco radioed in to ask if there’d been an earthquake.

The test was better planned than Crossroads and the personnel better prepared, but they still didn’t exactly have their shit together. One of the observation ships lost power due to damage from the blast, remaining within the danger zone for longer than the test plan called for, and the crew apparently had to shelter in the center of the ship during the four hours it took to make repairs.

The Navy cheerfully reported no dead marine animals observed after the test. This claim was made in the same report in which they claimed 100% of radioactive materials were contained to the ocean, which makes me think they just weren’t looking very hard. In the months following the test, a radioactive fish was detected during spot checks at a cannery on the West Coast, but the Navy blamed it on contamination from a test the previous year—as if that made it better. There was no word, naturally, on how many radioactive fish entered the food supply because they hadn't been spot-checked.

Flush with the afterglow of blowing up the ocean with a nuclear device, the Department of Defense started to wonder what it would be like to blow up the upper atmosphere. And in the spring and summer of 1958, they did exactly that as part of Operation Hardtack.

The high altitude portion of Hardtack, codenamed Newsreel for obvious reasons, was a disaster even on its own terms. In its first high altitude test, codenamed Yucca, a bomb was suspended from a balloon fifteen miles above the surface. The bomb detonated as planned, but the desired data was not acquired because the scientific instruments suspended below it were not turned on at the time of detonation. Well shit man, what do you expect, perfection?

The next test, codenamed Teak, was sent up by rocket and intended to detonate over the Pacific, off the coast of Johnston Island at an altitude of 250,000 feet. Unfortunately, someone must have misplaced a decimal point or confused imperial for metric, because this is what actually happened:

Yeah, you guys might want to put some aloe on that. But hey, third time’s the charm, right? So testing continued according to schedule and the Orange test was conducted at an altitude intermediate to the first two tests. It went better than the first two, but it could only have gone worse if someone accidentally left the warhead under their desk.

In the end, however, I’m sure that plenty of valuable data was gathered from these experiments, as shown by whatever the fuck is going on in this documentary picture of an actual Operation Newsreel researcher:

No, seriously. What the fuck is going on here?

But you know what the upside of fucking up your high altitude nuclear tests is? You get to do them over and blow up even more nukes in the upper atmosphere! For that matter, why stop at the upper atmosphere when it’s finally within our ability to nuke outer space?

This was the genesis of 1962’s Operation Fishbowl.
It is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.
-U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958
Nah, screw that noise, let’s slip the surly bonds of Earth and fuck some shit up. This time there would be none of the screw-ups from Newsreel. This time, we’d dot our i's and cross our t’s, making sure every single facet of the testing was well understood and every contingency planned for.

Shit, nevermind. We just dropped a nuke into the ocean. My bad. Turns out we really weren’t rocket scientists, after all.

The first planned test, codenamed Bluegill, aborted when they just kinda lost track of the test rocket after launch. With no ability to tell which way the thing was going, the rocket was destroyed remotely, preventing a nuclear detonation but raining bits of its nuclear core over a wide area of the Pacific Ocean.

The second planned test, codenamed Starfish, was not quite as successful as Bluegill, which is saying a lot. Starfish’s rocket motor stopped working at about 30,000 feet and also had to be destroyed remotely. Again, raw uranium and plutonium debris from a thermonuclear device rained down into the Pacific Ocean. Some of this contamination fell on Johnston Island. And yes, that's the same Johnston Island above which a nuke was accidentally detonated during Operation Newsreel.

After that, Operation Fishbowl was given some time to dry out and get its shit together. Three weeks later, it was back with a third test called Starfish Prime. Defying all the odds, Starfish Prime actually worked, detonating a 1.4 megaton warhead at an altitude of 250 miles.

 Starfish explosion as seen from Honolulu

Starfish Prime exceeded all expectation, in the sense that it caused more property damage than any of the operational planners had dared to hope for. The ionizing radiation generated by the blast stripped electrons from atoms in the upper atmosphere and sent them screaming down through the Earth’s magnetic field at a significant fraction of the speed of light. This interaction in turn created an electromagnetic pulse over the central Pacific. The pulse damaged the electrical grid in Hawaii and cut the telephone link to and from Kauai.

Worse still, many of those electrons were deflected along Earth's magnetic field lines and created an artificial radiation belt that wrapped around the globe for five years before finally dissipating. The belt destroyed seven satellites, at a time when there weren’t a whole lot satellites in orbit. Among its victims was the just-launched Telstar 1, the world’s first commercial telecommunications satellite.

And if all this talk of electrons reminds you of an aurora, then you’re probably smart enough to conduct a high altitude nuclear trial, at least by the standards of the 1960’s. Possibly too smart, as some sources claim the artificial aurora resulting from Starfish Prime took the researchers by surprise.

 Starfish aurora seen from Maui.

The aurora stretched two thousand miles, spanning the equator and illuminating a third of the Pacific. The most intense aurora effects lasted only a few minutes, but some of them persisted for days, and were bright enough for the New Zealand Air Force to conduct anti-submarine exercises by.

With seven satellite kills in the pipeline and a man-made light show unlike any seen before, Operation Fishbowl was finally back on track. So naturally, they blew up their next rocket on the launch pad after an engine malfunction and sprayed yet more radioactive plutonium across Johnston Island.

That test was going to be Bluegill Prime, and the next one in line was Bluegill Double Prime. Why Bluegill Double Prime? Because you try coming up with enough new names to stay ahead of all our catastrophic launch failures.

Bluegill Double Prime blew up too. It started tumbling shortly after launch and had to be destroyed, showering debris from its nuclear core onto—everybody say it together now—Johnston Island.

Pro tip: do not ever vacation on Johnston Island.

Fourth time’s the charm, though, right? And finally, on Bluegill Triple Prime, the rocket launched and the bomb detonated without a hitch.

I’m sure they got lots of fantastic pictures of angry men staring at rabbits, so it was all worth it.