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Soviet Two Stage Weapon Test


In the spring of 1954, three years after U.S. scientists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam came up with a solution for building a superbomb, their Soviet counterparts hit upon the same idea: radiation implosion. According to physicist Andrei Sakharov, several scientists came up with the answer at the same time. And they all recognized that this was the way to build a weapon of virtually unlimited explosive force. Almost immediately the team abandoned Sakharov's "Layer Cake" design which they had been working on for several years.

A test of the new design was scheduled for November 20, 1955. By early October the device had been loaded onto a military train and sent the 2,000 miles from the weapons lab in Russia to the test site in Kazakhstan. In an effort to minimize the fallout from the blast, the bomb was to be dropped from a plane and detonated at an altitude sufficiently high to ensure that dust would not be drawn up into the radioactive cloud. To reduce the risk that the bomber would be ignited by the heat of the blast, it was painted with white reflective paint.

The first attempt to carry out the mission was aborted at the very last moment. The plane had already taken off carrying its deadly cargo. As it approached ground zero, a low cloud unexpectedly obscured the crew's view of the test site. Igor Kurchatov, the scientific director of the Soviet nuclear program, called off the test. The airfield had iced over while the bomber was in the air and Kurchatov worried that a crash might cause the bomb to explode. Sakharov was ordered to the command post, where he stated in writing that an accidental detonation of the device was extremely unlikely. The runway was cleared and the plane landed safely.

The test went ahead two days later. Sakharov watched the blast from a post about 45 miles away. He described it in his memoirs. "I saw a blinding yellow-white sphere swiftly expand, turn orange in a fraction of a second, then turn bright red and touch the horizon, flattening out at its base... Shock waves crisscrossed the sky, emitting sporadic milky-white cones and adding to the mushroom image. I felt heat like that from an open furnace on my face--and this was in freezing weather, tens of miles from ground zero."

Following the success of the test, news of two accidents immediately dampened the scientists' exuberant mood. A trench had collapsed under the force of the explosion killing a young soldier. And in a nearby town a two-year-old girl was killed when the shock wave demolished a rudimentary bomb shelter. Seeing the unbelievable destruction caused by the blast and hearing about the two deaths made Sakharov reflect more deeply on his responsibility in creating weapons of mass destruction than he ever had before. "I experienced a range of contradictory sentiments, perhaps chief among them a fear that this newly released force could slip out of control and lead to unimaginable disasters."

An incident at a banquet to celebrate the event heightened his foreboding. Sakharov made the first toast. In his memoirs he remembers saying: "May all our devices explode as successfully as today's, but always over test sites and never over cities." The military director of the test, Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin, responded with a joke that challenged the role of scientists in the Soviet Union.

The point of Nedelin's story was clear to Sakharov. The scientists' job was to create the weapons, not to decide how to use them; that was up to the Party leaders and military hierarchy. More than 20 years later he wrote: "Of course, I knew this already--I wasn't that naive. But understanding something in an abstract way is different from feeling it with your whole being, like the reality of life and death. The ideas and emotions kindled at that moment have not diminished to this day, and they completely altered my thinking."
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