Blowing up the world would be easy – but where did it start and how did we get here? When the first atomic bombs exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world was never the same. Once the war was over, the Soviets began successfully testing their own nuclear weapons, and the race was officially on. Little more than a month after the “Joe 1″ test, the United States began expanding its production of uranium and plutonium. By the start of 1950, President Harry S. Truman announced the U.S. would continue research and development on “all forms of atomic weapons.” This list presents some of the milestone events in the detonation testing of nuclear weapons.
15. The First Bombs: US (1945) / Russia (1949)
Trinity test, Alamogordo, New Mexico: July, 1945
Atomic weapons were developed by the U.S. War Department Manhattan Project, a top secret effort started in 1942. Material for bombs was manufactured at Oak Ridge, TN (uranium) and Hanford, WA (plutonium). Use against Japan was planned, but first a test was required to ensure the bomb would actually work. From a list of eight sites in California, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, Trinity Site was chosen for the test, an area already controlled by the U.S. government as part of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range established in 1942. Although no information on the test was released until after the atomic bomb was used as a weapon against Japan, people in New Mexico knew something had happened. The shock broke windows 120 miles away and was felt by many at least 160 miles away. Army officials released a previously prepared press statement saying that a munitions storage area had accidentally exploded at the Alamogordo Bombing Range. The heat of the Trinity blast melted the desert sand and turned it into a green glassy substance immediately named ‘Trinitite’ that can still be seen in the area. At one time Trinitite completely covered the depression made by the explosion. In the 1950′s, the Army bulldozed most of the Trinitite from the site and partially filled the crater with dirt to control radiation levels. Most of the Trinitite was put in containers and taken away by the Atomic Energy Commission (later renamed the Nuclear Energy Commission).
Joe 1 – The Russian Bomb
The weaponized version of the 20 Kt Joe-1 (the first Soviet atomic weapon) can be seen at right and the weaponized version of the 400 Kt Joe-4 (the thermonuclear “Sloika” device) on left. In the middle is the 40 Kt improved implosion bomb Joe-2, tested 24 September 1951 at 38 Kt. The Soviets knew about the U.S. bomb project while it was happening. German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs was among the British scientists working at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Although officials didn’t find out until 1948, Fuchs had been passing information about nuclear bombs to the Soviet Union since 1945. The Soviets had their own the secret nuclear weapons complex at Sarov, renamed Arzamas-16 and nicknamed “Los Arzamas” in a cheeky reference to their knowledge of the American work. By August 1949, the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb, nicknamed “Joe 1″ by Americans after Russian leader Joseph Stalin.
14. First Air and Sea Launches: 1946
In 1946, the US military invited a large gathering of press members, congressmen and military officers to demonstrate a nuclear bomb’s effect on large fleets of Navy ships. These tests, under the name “Operation Crossroads,” were airborne and underwater attempts at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This was the first atomic testing after World War II, and was momentous for successfully testing the first launches from air and sea. The project was code named “Crossroads”, and included sub-testing under Crossroads Able, for air launched weapons, and Crossroads Baker, the first underwater test. Baker “surpassed expectations”, destroying 74 empty ships and shooting thousands of tons of water into the air. In the spirit of the deterrence policies of the day, the display succeeded in demonstrating the power of the bomb to a much wider audience, yet a a third test was canceled due to dangerous levels of radiation spread.
13. First Detonation of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: 1951/1953
Operation Ranger carried out the first tests in the United States proper since the Trinity test in 1945. The US began testing of tactical devices – bombs with smaller payloads – for battlefield use in Nevada in 1951 under the Ranger project code name. The Soviets began testing similar devices, with each military force going to production between 1951-1953. This is highly significant as the beginning of the military use of the Nevada desert for military nuclear testing – they began detonating atomic bombs on American soil as a regular approved site, as well as for the first development of nuclear weapons for tactical uses. The US exploded 5 bombs in this program, ranging from 0.5 to 22 kilotons, in the Nevada desert, in an effort to make smaller more powerful bombs than what was dropped on Hiroshima.
12. Greenhouse George, First Thermonuclear Test: May, 1951
The Greenhouse George test at Eniwetok Atoll was the the first ignition of a thermonuclear reaction by an atomic bomb. This was the first test of a pure fission bomb, and significant in that it led to rapid develop of fission theories for nuclear weapons development. The discovery of fusion reactions arose early in the Twentieth Century out of the growing understanding of atomic physics. By the early 20s it was realized that hydrogen fusion was the source of the sun’s power output, although the details were still obscure. This work culminated in the paper published by Hans Bethe in Physical Review in 1939 describing the role of fusion reactions in the sun, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967. Until critical breakthroughs were made by physicist Stanislaw Ulam in early 1951 real progress on hydrogen bomb development was impossible because no one knew how to proceed. In April 1951 experiments with fusion reactions and atomic bombs were already being prepared by the US as part of the Greenhouse test series, including a test of the idea of fusion boosting.
11. Ivy Mike – First Experimental Thermonuclear Device: Oct, 1952
On Nov. 1, 1952, the U.S. detonated the world’s first hydrogen bomb, code-named “Mike,” on the Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands. The resulting explosion was about the same as 10 million tons of TNT, or 700 times greater than the fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The cloud produced by the explosion was 25 miles high and 100 miles wide, and the island on which it exploded simply disappeared, leaving nothing but a gaping crater. By late 1955 the Soviets tested their own design. The Soviets achieved their first successful thermonuclear detonation in 1953 with Joe 4, which used the “Sloika” design invented by Andrei Sakharov and Vitalii Ginzburg.
10. First Test of An Atomic Cannon: May, 1953
This first in nuclear weapons development saw the first delivery of a “nuclear bullet”. Under the project code name Upshot-Knothole, the US army developed a nuclear device that was fired from a gun for tactical battlefield use. The Mark 9 Artillery shell was fired from the M65 Tank, and with detonation happening over 11,000 yards (over 10 km, 6.25 mi) away and 19 seconds after being fired.
9. First Airdrop By US of a Thermonuclear Weapon: 1956
Under the project name Redwing Cherokee, this was the second U.S. test series devoted primarily to proving thermonuclear designs of actual weapons, centered on testing a broad variety of new innovative second generation designs. This series proof tested the Mk-28 warhead, a light weight, small diameter thermonuclear design of only 20 inches in diameter. Redwing also included tests of designs intended for both “clean” (low fall-out) and “salted” or “dirty” (extremely high fall-out) weapons, and tests of low yield tactical fission weapons including some very small diameter, light weight systems (diameters of 5, 8, and 11.6 inches). The first U.S. air drop of a thermonuclear weapon was also conducted – partly as a weapons effects test, and partly as a political demonstration of the United States’ capability to conduct nuclear attacks.
8. Plumbbob John: 1957
The Plumbbob Operation was an intensive series of detonations on the Nevada test range, some of which included placing US troops close to ground zero blast sites. This series also marked the first underground detonation and the first air-to-air missile test of an atomic weapon, as well as laying the groundwork for the long range delivery of warheads through Inter Continental Missiles (ICBMs). The full series consisted of 29 explosions, of which two did not produce any nuclear yield. A full 21 laboratories and government agencies were involved, and while most Operation Plumbbob tests contributed to the development of warheads for intercontinental and intermediate range missiles, they also tested air defense and anti-submarine warheads with small yields. They included 43 military effects tests on civil and military structures, radiation and bio-medical studies, and aircraft structural tests. Operation Plumbbob had the tallest tower tests to date in the U.S. nuclear testing program, as well as high-altitude balloon tests. One nuclear test involved the largest troop maneuver ever associated with U.S. nuclear testing.
7. First ICBM: 1957
The first ICBM, designed by the Soviets and based on the V-2 rocket propulsion technology captured from the Germans after WWII, was called the SS-6 “Sapwood” (official Soviet designation “R-7″ or “8-K-3″). It carried a 10,000 lb. three-megaton warhead and on its 21 August 1957 test flight flew 4,000 miles from Kazakhstan into the western Pacific Ocean. The SS-6 was deployed in 1958 and had a range of 8,500 kilometers (5,270 statute miles). This was the largest Soviet test up to that time, and only the third Soviet test in the megaton range. The first successful ICBM launched by the US was the 1.44-megaton Atlas D, launched on July 29, 1959, almost two years after the Soviet R-7 flight.
6. First Detonation in Space: Sept. 1958
Under the project code name Hardtack Teak, the US successfully exploded the first nuclear weapon in space. The purpose of the shots was to determine both feasibility of nuclear weapons as an anti-ballistic missile defense, as well as a means to defeat satellites and manned orbiting vehicles in space. The US and the Soviet Union are the only nations to have detonated nuclear devices outside of the earth’s atmosphere. The Partial Test Ban Treaty was passed in 1963, ending atmospheric and exo-atmospheric nuclear tests, while the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banned the stationing and use of nuclear weapons in space. The US military retired Dominic Tightrope, a testing facility on Johnson Island in the Pacific Ocean. This facility was used for rocket-launched nuclear tests in the 1950′s, and in the 1960′s it was the site for the operational AFP-437 anti-satellite system. Several sounding rockets were also launched over the years, either in support of nuclear tests or in experiments related to anti-satellite technology. The site is officially known to have been used for 124 launches from 1958 to 1975, reaching up to 1158 kilometers altitude.
#1 – 5: The Expansion of the Nuclear Club
The successful testing of nuclear weapons by nations embroiled in passionate civil wars, regional conflicts and centuries old dogma presents a new danger for the use and spread of powerful weapons of mass destruction. The nature of the exclusive club and responsible behaviour becomes highly compromised with this list growing beyond reasonable management, and is the culmination of the efforts of the past that have brought the present.
5. Israel Detonates Its First Nuclear Device: 1979
4. China Detonates Its First Nuclear Device: 1964
3. India Detonates Its First Nuclear Device: 1974
2. Pakistan Detonates Its First Nuclear Device: 1974
1. North Korea Detonates Its First Nuclear Device: 2006
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