Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Race for the Superbomb Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
People & Events
First Soviet Test

First Soviet Test
The Soviets called their first atomic test "First Lightning." A train belching black smoke, shipped the bomb components 2,000 miles from Arzamas, the weapons laboratory in Russia to the test site at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. Like the Americans, the Soviets constructed a tower from which to test their weapon. They assembled the device in an adjacent concrete hall which had railway trucks running down its entire length. The bomb components came in one end and the completed device was wheeled out the other end to be hoisted to the top of the tower.

The Soviets wanted to learn about the effects of nuclear weapons. So in addition to instruments that would measure the size of the shock wave and the intensity of the radiation, they constructed wooden and brick houses, bridges, tunnels and water towers in the vicinity of the tower. They also put caged animals nearby so that they could study the effects of nuclear radiation.

Igor Kurchatov, the scientific director of the soviet nuclear bomb program who was in charge of the test, arrived at the site in May of 1949. In the weeks leading up to the blast he organized two rehearsals so everyone would know exactly what to do on shot day. The chair of the Special Committee on the atomic bomb, Lavrentii Beria, arrived in the middle of August. He observed the assembly work and reported back to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

At 2 am on August 29, 1949 the assembled bomb was wheeled to the tower. The blast was scheduled for 6 am. Kurchatov and a handful of other scientists gathered in the command post with Beria and his entourage. They left the door open so they could watch the blast go off . They knew that they would have time to close the door because it would take 30 seconds for the shock wave to reach them. Kurchatov gave the order for the detonation.

An observer from a northern post about nine miles from the blast had one of the best views: "On top of the tower an unbearably bright light blazed up. For a moment or so it dimmed and then with new force began to grow quickly. The white fireball engulfed the tower and the workshop and expanding rapidly, changing color it rushed upwards. The blast wave at the base, sweeping in its path structures, stone houses, machines, rolled like a billow from the center, mixing up stones, logs of wood, pieces of metal and dust into one chaotic mass. The fireball, rising and revolving, turned orange, red. Then dark streaks appeared. Streams of dust, fragments of brick and board were drawn in after it, as into a funnel."

The relief and euphoria in the room was overwhelming. Kurchatov cried out, "It works! It works!" And Iulii Khariton, the scientific director of Arzamas, remembers Beria hugging him. All of the scientists knew that their own personal fates depended on the success of the bomb. One of them later said that if it had failed they would have all been shot. But besides being thankful for their own lives, many of the scientists felt they had contributed to the Soviet Union's security. Khariton later said, "when we succeeded in solving this problem, we felt relief, even happiness -- for in possessing such a weapon we had removed the possibility of its being used against the USSR with impunity."

Beria's own joy temporarily dissipated when his suspicions got the better of him. He put a call through to an observer at the north post who had also witnessed an American test in 1946. "Is it the same as the American one?" Beria wanted to know. "It is," the observer assured him. The bomb had in fact yielded 20 kilotons, making it about the same size as Trinity, the first U.S. atomic test.

Two months later the scientists principally responsible for designing the bomb won honors for their roles on the project. As the story goes, Beria adopted a simple rule in deciding who should get what prize. Those who would have been shot if the bomb had failed, became Heroes of Socialist Labor; those who would have been imprisoned were awarded the less prestigious honor, the Order of Lenin.
previous | return to people & events list | next