Las Vegas isn’t a town known for its architectural restraint — which accounts for a large part of its kitschy charm — so Jen-Luc Piquant and I were expecting something a bit more ostentatious on our recent visit to the Atomic Testing Museum, just a couple of miles off the Vegas Strip. A giant mushroom-cloud shaped bit of signage, perhaps, with flashing neon lights, housed in a makeshift bomb shelter/bunker. Instead, the museum is housed on the ground floor of a very tame, officious-looking building near the Vegas campus of the University of Nevada. It’s a very classy joint. In fact, the only remotely outre thing about it is the address: 755 East Flamingo Road (and yet there was nary a single pink flamingo in sight).
Once inside, we quickly recovered from our nagging sense of disappointment at the lack of flashing neon lights brazenly trumpeting unimagined glories (or horrors, depending on what you’re selling). The museum is an offshoot of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, and is sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, so it’s a pretty darned polished and compelling collection.
It starts, as any such exhibit should, with the dawn of the nuclear age, specifically, with physicists gaining a deeper understanding of the components of the atom, culminating with Leo Szilard’s suggestion that bombarding the nucleus of a uranium isotope atom with extra neutrons would set off a chain reaction powerful enough to provide the technological basis of an atomic bomb. The exhibit includes a nifty little vintage educational film detailing how this works, scaled down to the junior high/high school level. It also includes a copy of Albert Einstein’s August 2, 1939 letter to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, encouraging the development of a nuclear bomb in light of the very real possibility that Germany and Russia were pursuing the same end.
The road from concept to workable prototype proved to be a long one, but on the morning of July 16, 1945, a prototype bomb nicknamed "Gadget" was successfully detonated in a secluded spot in the central New Mexico desert, appropriately (in retrospect) called Jornada del Muerto ("Walk of the Dead"). The blast vaporized the steel tower upon which Gadget was hoisted — only a few twisted fragments remained — and the resulting mushroom cloud rose to more than 38,000 feet. Incredibly, the secret was kept under wraps until August 6, when a second bomb (dubbed "Little Boy") was dropped on Hiroshima, followed three days later by the detonation of "Fat Man" over Nagasaki. In all, over 120,000 people were killed.
Few of us have had the privilege (if one were a scientist at the controlled Trinity Test) or misfortune (if one were an inhabitant of Hiroshima or Nagasaki) of being present at a nuclear blast. The museum’s "Ground Zero" simulation chamber — which really does resemble a bomb shelter — is the closest possible approximation. There is a blinding flash, then the floor rumbles, and strong "winds" (from cleverly concealed fans) whip through one’s hair as the simulated "shock wave" spreads outward. It’s fun, if a bit sobering, particularly if one realizes that the simulation can’t begin to capture the full extent of the power of such a blast.
The Manhattan Project scientists were required to wear special sunglasses rather than look directly at the Trinity Test explosion. Several observers toward the back of the shelter were actually knocked flat by the force of the shock wave, which broke windows as far as 120 miles away. I’ve heard it said that if a nuclear bomb were dropped on 34th Street in Manhattan, the shock wave would radiate out over most of the island, destroying nearly everything in its path.
And don’t forget the intense heat of the explosion, which was sufficient to melt the sandy soil around the tower to form a mildly radioactive glassy crust known as "trinitite." (A piece of trinitite is also among the museum’s collection of artifacts.) One witness described it as being "like opening up an oven door, even at 10 miles," while another observed, "There was the heat of the sun on our faces. Then, only minutes later, the real sun rose, and you felt the same heat to the face."
(For those interested in more of the fascinating historical details
behind the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Test, there’s a rich
supply of online resources, including videos, photos and documents; eyewitness accounts; and even more documents.
If you’re looking for more specific scientific information about nuclear fission and fusion, and how the
various types of atomic bombs work — including the controversial (within the scientific community) hydrogen bomb
developed in the 1950s at the urging of Edward Teller — go here. James Shepley, author of the 1954 book The Hydrogen Bomb, described that device as "so unbelievably powerful that, in comparison, the atom bombs loosed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem like mere firecrackers.")
This much is fairly common knowledge. But it’s easy to forget that nuclear testing didn’t end with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the remainder of the Atomic Testing Museum’s memorabilia attests to that oft-forgotten history. Once the atomic genie was out of the bottle, it proved impossible to stuff it back in and recork the top. (As Hans Bethe famously observed, "The physicists have known sin. And this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.") By 1949, the Russians had detonated their own successful prototype bomb, and the arms race had officially begun. That’s when the Nevada Testing Site was established, initially covering 680 square miles of a military gunnery range (eventually expanded to encompass 1375 square miles — larger than the state of Rhode Island).
The first "atmospheric test" (a.k.a. "big bomb go boom!") was conducted on January 27th, 1951. From then until the ban on nuclear testing went into effect in October 1992, there were 928 nuclear weapons tests performed at the NTS. All that government-funded nuclear activity turned the tiny town of nearby Mercury into a bustling epicenter for the gathered scientists and support staff. Mercury just as quickly reverted to a veritable ghost town within a few years after the Nevada Test Site was shuttered.
One of the "hands-on" interactive elements in the museum was an old Geiger counter, enabling visitors to "sample" the radioactivity readings for various displayed materials. It’s always fun when the public gets a chance to play with scientific instruments, but the Geiger counter was also a reminder that those decades — indeed, nuclear science in general — were (and are) not without peril. Just because we managed to split the atom and build a bomb, didn’t mean we had 100% control over the consequences of our actions, particularly when it came to dealing with the radioactive aftermath of all those test detonations.
The testing site soon switched to underground detonations to reduce unsafe exposure to radiation. The result was hundreds of saucer-shaped craters littering the local landscape, creating a "moonscape" type of terrain. These surface depressions were caused whenever the roof of a blast cavity collapsed into the void left by the explosion du jour. And it still wasn’t sufficient to protect the local population entirely from the dangers of radiation exposure. Accidents happen, like the one on December 18, 1970. A 10-kiloton bomb exploded at the bottom of a 900-foot shaft, lined with water-saturated clay to contain the radiation. The problem was that the clay wasn’t strong enough to withstand the pressure from the explosion. It cracked, and deadly radiation leaked through a nearby fault line, leading to a six-month cessation of testing (and, one hopes, evacuation of the local inhabitants until the problem could be contained).
For our non-scientist readers, the gamma rays released from a nuclear explosion are so deadly because they’re a form of ionizing radiation that can damage and/or kill living cells. Any such explosion will have not just a powerful shock wave, but also gamma-level radioactive fallout in the form of clouds of fine dust particles and bomb debris. One survivor of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki returned home to find the carbonized bodies of his parents, and no trace of his siblings, presumably vaporized by the blast. His own gums bled black, and he developed a high fever from radiation exposure. Studies of other survivors revealed common symptoms like nausea and severe vomiting; cataracts in the eyes; severe hair loss; and loss of blood cells. There was also an increased risk of later developing cancer, and of infertility or birth defects. In fact, several workers at the Nevada Test Site experienced occasional symptoms of radiation exposure, and there was an elevated number of cancer-related deaths among them. (Considering that one worker recalled casually eating his lunch on top of a bomb-in-the-making, this isn’t all that surprising. It’s still sad.)
Because the destructive power of thermonuclear weapons is so effectively presented in the exhibit, it lends that much more irony to the inclusion of a short 1950s "safety" training film designed to assuage public fears about the potential for nuclear attack. A friendly, if nuke-wary, cartoon turtle serves as a role model, urging us to "duck and cover" at the first sign of a nuclear blast. We see a classroom filled with elementary students practicing drills in which they duck underneath their desks for protection. We see a fresh-faced young boy on a bike, named Tony, blissfully riding down the street, when — yikes! — there is a blinding flash. He quickly jumps off his bike and rolls to the side of the street in a little ball, covering his head with his hands. And we see a wholesome nuclear (pun intended) family picnicking in the park who respond to the same telltale flash by curling up under the picnic blanket.
Yeah, that’ll work. A thin checkered cotton blanket is all it takes to ward off the impact of a nuclear blast. In reality, all those nice people would be burnt to a carbonized crisp within seconds of encountering the shock wave. As Sarah Connor put it in Terminator 2: Judgment Day: "Anyone not wearing two million spf sunblock is gonna have a really bad day!" (Always the doomsayer, Jen-Luc Piquant points out that we live less
than three miles from the White House — possibly far enough that we
would not be vaporized immediately by the shock wave emanating from a
nuclear blast targeting that structure. We would, however, most likely
develop those unflattering bleeding black gums and die horribly within hours from radiation exposure.)
I recall seeing portions of this classic example of blatant government propaganda in a 1980s documentary film about the cultural impact of the atomic age, called The Atomic Cafe. There’s no denying that the advent of The Bomb changed our society in very fundamental ways. That’s one reason why I was pleased to see the museum featuring various pop culture icons and events along the chronological timeline from the 1930s to the present day: films, TV shows, books, music, political events — anything to help the museum visitors orientate themselves and place the nuclear science aspect into a broader context. The notion of nuclear radiation gave us Godzilla and Spiderman ("bitten by a radioactive spider!"), and the image of a mushroom cloud billowing upward has become indelibly etched in our collective consciousness. That image has been used to evoke horror (in Terminator 2), as satire (in Stanley Kubrick’s bitterly black comedy, Dr. Strangelove), and even as campy cheesecake, evidenced by Miss Atomic Bomb, 1957.
My visit to the museum proved quite illuminating with regard to this lesser-known — at least to me — part of US history. It also led me to ponder how much the world (and political landscape) has changed in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 environment. The museum reflects that as well. As you exit, there is a large fragment of the Berlin Wall on display on your left, and a bit further ahead, on your right, is a bit of twisted metal salvaged from the wreckage that was once the World Trade Center. And that brings me to a much more serious line of thought. I said in a previous post that there is a political component to science; perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in nuclear physics.
For decades, policy-makers and military strategists have defended the arms race by evoking "deterrence." A similar argument just appeared in the June issue of APS News, part of an extensive Q&A interview with Admiral Richard Mies, who served as commander in chief of Strategic Command, the operational commander of US nuclear forces, from 1998 to 2002, and helped shape post-9/11 US nuclear strategy. (FYI, the interview is currently available only to registered APS members; in July, it will be available to general readership. It’s definitely worth reading, and the August/September issue will feature a rebuttal of sorts by Sidney Drell and Richard Garwin.) "The primary value of nuclear weapons is not in their use; it’s in the threat or potential of their use," Mies says, describing them as "weapons of last resort when deterrence has failed." Among the many benefits he cites is a pronounced decrease in human deaths as casualties of war beginning around 1945, illustrated by a nifty "death chart."
I wear many hats as a freelance science writer, one of which is associate editor of APS News, so I was privileged to be present at the Mies interview. I found him to be a gentle, thoughtful, deliberate man, not easily rattled, not prone to rash decisions — exactly the kind of person one would want in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. I liked him; he’s clearly a good man. But I remain dubious about his continued adherence to the effectiveness of a traditional deterrence strategy, because the nature of warfare has irrevocably changed since the end of the Cold War. Even Mies admitted that "deterring terrorism is a greater challenge than deterring a specific nation-state."
Add to this the fact that the horrific memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are fading in the public mind, to such an extent that the Japanese government — which once swore it would never pursue nuclear weapons — now considers this a distinct possibility. Later generations seem to have lost any sense of awe and wonder (never mind fear) at the
destruction that can be wrought by the energy contained in a tiny atom. That makes deterrence an even less effective strategy.
Of course, nuclear physics isn’t limited to weaponry; the field has borne far more beneficial fruit, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nuclear energy. In recent months — with gasoline prices soaring and no end in sight to the ongoing Iraq War — there’s been more buzz than usual about tapping nuclear fusion as a clean energy source, a controversial topic for decades. That controversy has more to do with concerns about radioactive leaks (remember the Three Mile Island disaster?) and the problem of storing huge amounts of radioactive waste for the tens of thousands of years required before it becomes stable (i.e., nonradioactive). In recent years, public perceptions have taken a more positive shift, particularly in light of growing concerns over global warming and the nation’s over-reliance on foreign sources of oil. I have mixed feelings about nuclear energy myself: can something that produces so much hazardous waste truly be considered a "clean" energy source? But in post-9/11 America, even the debate over nuclear energy has taken on a more threatening tenor.
A key component of the Advanced Energy Initiative, announced during President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address, is the newly established Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), intended to "enable the expansion worldwide of nuclear energy." Part of its mission is to develop and deploy new technologies to recycle spent nuclear fuel, thereby reducing hazardous waste. Huzzah! But not so fast: those very technologies carry an increased risk of radioactive materials falling into terrorist hands. Such nonproliferation and national security issues are part of the reason why enthusiasm and support for GNEP has waned in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives.
Chief among the naysayers is David Hobson (R-OH), who chairs the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. That body’s FY2007 report contained language sharply critical of GNEP. Those criticisms were myriad, and largely politically motivated, but on the national security side of the fuel recycling question, the Hobson committee expressed concern about the need to keep "sensitive materials and facilities within a secure perimeter and minimizing offsite transportation of special nuclear materials" — particularly since GNEP, in its present incarnation, makes no mention of this requirement in its mission statement.
Physicists themselves don’t agree on these sensitive issues, although the APS Panel on Public Affairs did manage to cull together a "consensus report" in 2005 containing several recommendations that reflect key elements of GNEP. The study chair, Roger Hagengruber of the University of Mexico, testified before Congress last year, and acknowledged the validity of proliferation concerns. He chose to stress that "The ultimate assessment should not be based on whether it is theoretically possible to make a weapon from the waste," but on evaluating the numerous practical factors associated with doing so. Needless to say, these issues won’t be resolved any time soon. But it’s imperative that we grapple with them precisely because of the awesome power of nuclear physics.
The award-winning British novelist Jeanette Winterson penned one of my favorite lines about the field in her novel, Gut Symmetries:
"Inside the horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima lies the beauty of
Einstein’s E=mc<2>." Energy/mass conversion is indeed at the heart of both nuclear fission and fusion; Einstein’s equation explains why a system with very little mass, like an atom, can potentially release a huge amount of energy, if one can trigger that critical chain reaction. Energy/mass conversion is also what fuels the stars, and
is ultimately responsible for producing the various elements in our
universe via nucleosynthesis. So the same process can create as well as
destroy. Nuclear physics is, to my mind, the quintessential double-edged sword.
It is intrinsically neither good nor evil; its moral and ethical
characteristics are dependent on how it is used.
The museum’s take on the downside of nuclear science seems to be this:
Knowledge comes with a price, so pursuing it is not without risk of
consequences. Yet in the end, that knowledge has proven to be worth the
price not just in helping bring an end to World War II, but in
providing a potential vast energy source and things like MRI. It’s hard to argue objectively with that stance, but
subjectively, I guess it depends on whether you’re a survivor of
Hiroshima/Nagasaki, a World War II veteran, or someone whose life was saved when an MRI
revealed a timely diagnosis.
These are complicated issues, and I don’t pretend to have any particular expertise. I’m pretty
much just a concerned citizen with (semi)-informed opinions, one of
which is this: The global landscape may have changed dramatically at the onset of the 21st century. But "Duck and cover!" still ain’t gonna cut it as a viable national defense strategy.