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Richard Rhodes on: The First Test of a Thermonuclear Device
Richard Rhodes Q: Can you describe the first test of a thermonuclear device. What sort of contraption was "Mike"? And when it works what does it prove?

RR: The first hydrogen device that we detonated was something only the United States would have built. It had 300 or 400 kilograms of liquid deuterium in a big tank in the middle, a cryogenic tank, so therefore layers and layers and layers of various insulating materials and reflective materials. That was the heart of it. And it had to be kept cooled down to minus-whatever, close to absolute zero. This required immense ingenuity, and no one had ever worked with such large quantities of liquid hydrogen before.

What they ended up with was this big tank, the size of a small railroad tank car, with a tank of liquid deuterium in the middle, and surrounding that, the largest natural uranium casting ever made, which would serve as a tamper to hold things together, and also would fission. Most of the yield from the hydrogen bomb comes from fissioning ordinary uranium, which normally doesn't fission...To keep the cold in, to keep the heat out, the inside of this giant uranium casting had to be covered with a surface of gold foil. And as one of the engineers told me: We got a little sign painter from Albuquerque to come up, and got him security clearance, and he sat there with these little leaves of gold foil, which come in little books (25 leaves to the book), gold foiling the entire interior of this huge device so that it glowed like a mirror when they were through.

It was such a big machine to build, they made the decision that the blueprints would be full size. And that meant that they had to make blueprints 40 feet long. So they took an old building off at one side of the laboratory, and built a balcony in the building so you could get high enough to look down on the blueprints and actually get a sense of what you were doing. And you could crawl around on the blueprints and say, "What's that?" "Oh, don't you remember? We said we'd put that device there." "Oh yeah, that's right." It was this immense and very exuberant engineering project.

When they finally then took it all to Eniwetok (to give just one little glimpse of all the complexities of it), they used ordinary liquid hydrogen to keep the deuterium cooled. And they had a lot left over, so they had to burn it off. How else would you get rid of it? So they vented it out into the air. Liquid hydrogen, when it burns, burns with no visible flame at all, just a sort of turbulence in the air. Birds would fly by, not knowing that this was here, and would be crisped instantly: a little miniature version of what would happen to all the bird population of that part of the Pacific when this huge explosion finally went off.

It was a big project. And they had managed to complete it in a very short period of time, little more than a year.

Q: When "Mike" went off it totally vaporized the island of Elugelab, didn't it?

RR: The fireball melted a crater, completely eliminated this little island from the Pacific. It melted a crater several hundred yards deep and a mile or more in diameter. So that to this day, if you fly over that part of the Pacific, there's suddenly this deep blue, perfectly circular hole there. It was such a huge explosion that it frightened people who were familiar with fission explosions. They were on ships 20-30 miles away. Several of them told me the same thing: It felt as if it would never stop expanding. And indeed, the cloud reached an altitude of more than 100,000 feet, and a diameter of 27 miles. It was a terrifying experience. But it worked.

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