The Seattle Times Web Edition: 50 Years from Trinity

Part 1: Trinity Site, New Mexico

IMAGE: People 
gaze at an obelisk under a cloudy sky
Visitors to ground zero of the first atomic explosion face the small obelisk marking the exact spot of the July 16, 1945, detonation in the southern New Mexico desert.

GROUND ZERO of the atomic age is marked by a modest lava stone obelisk. "Where the World's First Nuclear Device Was Exploded on July 16, 1945," its plaque reads.
   The absence of the word "bomb" is appropriate. The scientists who built Fat Man, as the bulbous object was known, referred to it as "the gadget." Or, "the thing."
   Ground zero usually is open to the public just two days a year, once in spring and once in fall. This year on July 16, a caravan of the curious queued up for an extra look inside White Sands Missile Range on the 50th anniversary of that explosive moment that forever changed war, politics, science and our culture's psychology.
   The artificial sun that rose before dawn that morning gave birth to apocalyptic nightmares of "duck and cover" and the Cuban missile crisis. It also promised "peace through strength" and energy "too cheap to meter."
   The atomic bomb imposed a stern restraint on military escalation and yet spawned artistic outrage that gave us Dr. Strangelove, "The China Syndrome" and cartoon character Homer Simpson as a hopelessly inept nuclear-power-plant operator.
   Scientists overnight became both Prometheus and Dr. Frankenstein, lavishly funded and warily mistrusted, unlocking secrets we still aren't sure we want to know.
   "A person on an airplane told me I had sold my soul to the devil," remarked Mike Sohn, the current project manager for computational physics at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico. "I don't believe that. We have maintained the peace."
   The United States ultimately spent $350 billion building nuclear weapons, or almost twice as much as it has spent on space exploration in the same period. The additional money spent on machines to deliver the warheads and on other arms of the Cold War -- basically, the U.S. military budget -- was enough to pay the cost of reconstructing every building and road in the country: $13.5 trillion.
   The nuclear standoff arguably bought time that led to the Soviet Union's collapse without a World War III. But our grandchildren will still be paying for cleaning up the resulting nuclear-waste mess.
   Thus Trinity, as that first test explosion was code-named, was, arguably, the single most important event of the 20th century.
   The plutonium fuel of the bomb, probably a sphere about the size of an orange, was made at Eastern Washington's secret city of Hanford, the product of 51,000 workers laboring for 27 months. The flash at 5:29:45 a.m. released four times the heat of the interior of the sun, created a pressure of 100 billion atmospheres and was seen 250 miles away.
   Officials told New Mexicans that an ammunition dump had exploded, a story accepted in that era's patriotic secrecy.
IMAGE: Oppenheimer and Groves    The matter-of-fact willingness of our brightest minds to build such a bomb remains haunting. In the pre-dawn darkness, the assembled physicists slathered on sunscreen in anticipation of what they were about to unleash, then took shelter in bunkers and trenches nearly six miles away.
   The flash lit the surrounding mountains brighter than the noon sun. The roar broke windows at a distance of 120 miles. In a single instant, scientists had released energy equal to all the bombs dropped on London by Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe during the Blitz.
   "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds," murmured physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting a Hindu text.
   Scientist Isidor Rabi, who won a betting pool on how big the bang would be by guessing the equivalent of 18,000 tons of TNT (it was measured at 18,600), opened a bottle of whiskey and passed it among the assembled scientists. Each took a swig.
   "Now we are all sons of bitches," said Trinity director Kenneth Bainbridge as he watched the column of fire and dust climb seven miles in the sky.
   The heat was so intense that it vaporized the tower holding the bomb and melted the sand underneath into a green glass dubbed Trinitite. A mile away, exposed surfaces were heated to 750 degrees. At 10 miles, the heat still felt like the open mouth of a fireplace, witnesses reported.
   Despite bulldozing away the fused sand, the radiation levels today, half a century later, are still 10 times that of the background radiation levels found in nature from radioactive rocks and cosmic rays.

JOE MCKIBBEN is an 82-year-old retired Los Alamos physicist who made the final connections to the bomb after it was suspended in its tower. He was the last to leave the Trinity site before the explosion.
   McKibben, who still lives in the town of Los Alamos, spent the final night at ground zero to ensure the gadget wasn't tampered with. Mattresses had been laid at the tower base as a precautionary move in case the bomb fell, and at 2 a.m. McKibben lay down to get some sleep. He was awakened by a pre-dawn lightning storm that spattered him with rain.
   He closed the switches at the base of the tower, drove 800 yards to a relay station and threw switches there, then came back to the tower. Because of the storm the test was pushed back an hour, to 5:30 a.m. Communication was difficult because scientists were using the same radio frequency as a nearby Voice of America station. Finally, he made his final connections and drove to his bunker about two miles away. Photo floodlights were turned on inside to allow cameras to record the final countdown.
   Then the bomb went off.
   "I had a photo flood on, but suddenly realized there was a lot more light coming in the back door," he recalled. "It was very brilliant outside." He threw one more switch to trigger instruments measuring the blast, then rushed outside 13 seconds after the bomb ignited. "I ran out and took a look at it. It was a big ball of fire, brilliantly colored and highly turbulent. The color was somewhere between red and purple."
   What was he thinking? "I felt we had been successful in our project. I knew the war would soon be over."
   Four hours after the explosion, the cruiser Indianapolis steamed out of San Francisco Bay bearing a bomb nicknamed Little Boy. It was headed for the bomber base on Tinian Island in the South Pacific, where it would be loaded on a Boeing B-29 and dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6. Little Boy was not quite as powerful as Fat Man; it exploded with a force of about 16,000 tons of TNT.
   After its delivery, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and its crew was spilled into the water. More than 500 of them drowned or were devoured by sharks.
IMAGE: Hiroshima, one day after the bomb    Pieces of a copy of Trinity's Fat Man, again fueled with Hanford plutonium, were delivered by air to Tinian, assembled and dropped on Nagasaki, three days after Hiroshima. It exploded with the power of 22,000 tons of TNT.
   Because of the chaos and obliteration following the bombings and uncertainty about attributing cancer deaths to radiation, estimates of deaths from the two bombs range from 115,000 to 340,000. If the latter is correct -- and it is closer to the historical consensus -- the two "gadgets" killed more Japanese than all the Americans killed in all the battles of World War II.
   They also ended a war that had, with conventional weapons, already claimed at least 40 million people. In just one horrific example, the Japanese army is estimated to have massacred as many as 200,000 Chinese civilians in Shanghai in 1937.

SEATTLE TIMES photographer Alan Berner and I came to what the Spanish explorers called the Jornado del Muerto -- literally, the Journey of the Dead, a reference to the harsh route from El Paso, Texas, to Santa Fe, N.M., -- on April Fool's Day this year. We joined the line of vehicles waiting outside the gate to the historic site.
   In a van ahead was Bob Swickley of Salt Lake City, who had been a nuclear engineer on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and based in Bremerton. Behind was Louise Kern, 67, of Penn Valley, Calif., who as a child had once met Albert Einstein, the scientist who put his name to a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging research into building a bomb.
   Both visitors said they just wanted to see where it all began.
   More than 3,000 people came out that cool morning, their mood neither festive nor dour, just curious. Visitors were directed to a dirt parking lot by military police. A grill was set up to sell hamburgers. The National Park Service erected an awning and sold books representing a range of opinion about the nuclear age. As the day warmed, cotton-ball clouds popped from a taut blue sky.
   The site was as empty and unremarkable as it must have seemed in 1945. It was so lonely then that the troops stationed there won an award for the lowest venereal-disease rate in the U.S. Army.
   Desert vegetation has long since reclaimed the blast zone. Brochures advised of the lingering radiation, but added that it remains below health-hazard levels. There was no lingering sense of menace.
   Families posed for snapshots at the obelisk. Visitors looked for tiny scraps of Trinitite the bulldozers had missed, obeying the admonition not to remove them.
IMAGE: Reading Einstein's letter to Roosevelt     A white-painted casing of Fat Man, the bomb itself, sat on a trailer near the obelisk. A cyclone fence circled both, with photographs of the explosion's sequence hung on the fence. Forming a shuffling line, people examined the photographs one by one, studying an explosion divided into microseconds.
   The Rev. Steve Caldwell and 20 people from St. Charles' Episcopal Church in Albuquerque gathered by the fence away from the main crowd and consecrated the ground. "It seemed a fitting thing to do, to celebrate an important place in peace and war," said Alex Zimmerman, a lay member. And the bomb? "I think it was necessary. I'm thankful we were the ones who did it, and not the other side."
   That view was typical of most of the Americans present. We interviewed an Albuquerque physicist, a B-26 bomber instructor and a Guadalcanal veteran who fitted pipes with asbestos at the nuclear labs in Los Alamos.
   The pipe fitter, 72-year-old James Garrison, sometimes chatted with Oppenheimer, the lead physicist on the code-named Manhattan Project. "He was a nice guy with a good sense of humor, though he talked over my head all the time," Garrison recalled, struggling to breathe as he talked because of the asbestos damage to his lungs. "I worked at Los Alamos, but when they told us they had used an atom bomb on Japan, I didn't know what it was."
   The few Japanese among us were disturbed. Takashi Otsuka, a correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, said he was unhappy the Smithsonian Institution had canceled in January a controversial exhibit on the devastation the bombs wreaked on his country. "And why did you need a second bomb against Nagasaki?" he asked. "This is a very important question for the Japanese people."
   Two bombs dropped in August. Three more ready in September. Seven due by December. Two hundred in the stockpile by 1949. That flash of light gave birth to a new world.
   In less than three years, the United States had built an industrial atomic-bomb complex as big as its entire automobile industry. Said physicist Niels Bohr to colleague Edward Teller: "I told you it couldn't be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that."
   Before the Cold War ended, an estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads had been stockpiled by the nations of the world. Atmospheric tests had released fallout equal to 40,000 Hiroshimas. The accumulated waste will take hundreds of billions of dollars and at least another half century to clean up.

FOR THOSE who grew up after World War II, the prospect of nuclear annihilation was an indelible part of the era. I and my classmates practiced kneeling by school lockers with our coats over our heads to protect us from flying glass, laughing at the absurdity. We watched first-aid films in health class showing bodies strewn in radioactive rubble. There was a fallout shelter in my junior-high basement, and another in the basement of The Seattle Times.
   Armageddon was our cultural backdrop. The baby-boomer generation grew up reading apocalyptic novels such as "On the Beach," "Failsafe," "Alas Babylon," "A Canticle for Leibowitz," and "Lord of the Flies." My family fled from Tacoma to the Washington coast during the Cuban missile crisis, hoping prevailing winds would protect us from fallout.
   Psychologically, the nuclear standoff was arguably a major contributor to the conforming discipline of the 1950s, the rebellion of the '60s and the malaise of the '70s. It kept an era on edge.
   Atomic fission brought benefits as well. A sixth of the world's electricity today is generated by more than 425 commercial reactors in 31 countries. There are 575 nuclear-powered ships and submarines. Five million cancer patients get radiation therapy each year.
IMAGE: Nuclear delivery systems   Now the arms race is going the other direction, with the United States dismantling 1,000 to 2,000 warheads a year, slowly working toward a goal of 3,500 each for the United States and Russia.
   Tensions have cooled, but the weapons can be re-targeted if politics change. And what author Fred Kaplan called "the wizards of Armageddon" are not convinced the world is a safer place. In the labs at Los Alamos, the worry has switched from tracking Soviet missile silos to tracking smuggled plutonium sought by terrorists.
   "There are too many reports of people buying plutonium on the Russian market," said Bob Kelley, a physicist who works on emergency response to nuclear threats. "The U.S. is the most likely target. I think it will happen. I really do."
   "Nonproliferation has become a much more difficult problem," said Terry Hawkins, co-director of the federal government's nonproliferation international security team. At one Russian warehouse enough plutonium to make 20 rogue bombs has been missing since the 1950s. In others, Russians told him, "We secure these places with babushkas armed with cucumbers, and we're running out of cucumbers."
   "It's not if anymore. It's when," Hawkins said of the possibility of terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb. "And if it ever happens in this country, we may not like the United States after it happens. There will be a strong move to abrogate freedoms."
   That prediction was made before the bombing in Oklahoma City.

THE FIRST PLUTONIUM to leave the Hanford nuclear reservation was a nitrate syrup sealed in a heavy stainless-steel container and carried in the back seat of a sedan along the Columbia River to a train in Portland. As shipments increased, the Manhattan Project switched to more formal military escort.
IMAGE: The historic Hanford B reactor    The bomb's development was incredibly rapid, and no state was more intimately involved than Washington.
   Shortly before World War II began, German physicists discovered that atoms could be split, or fissioned, resulting in the release of huge amounts of energy. The news electrified physicists around the world. By 1940, researchers in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan were working on the problem of sustaining a chain reaction for a possible weapon.
   Japan did not have the uranium to make a bomb, but its investigation of the possibility of building one did not end until physicist Yoshio Nishina's laboratory was firebombed by U.S. planes on April 12, 1945.
   Not only did physicists almost immediately recognize the military potential of nuclear fission, but they also began in 1942 the theoretical work on a hydrogen bomb based on the fusion of hydrogen into helium, which powers the sun and stars. The H-bomb would have the power of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. Because of its technical difficulty, it was 10 more years before that new escalation in destructive power was tested.
   Since the United States had the world's biggest economy and was remote from the actual battlefields, only America had the ability to sustain an atom-bomb project during World War II. Germany never vigorously pursued the project, and top Nazis remained relatively ignorant of the bomb's potential. When physicist Werner Heisenberg held a briefing for Hitler's leadership in 1942, a secretary sent the wrong agenda and as a result key leaders didn't bother to show up.
   American scientists, in contrast, convinced political leaders of the incredible latent nuclear power in matter. But even with Einstein lending his prestige by signing a letter to Roosevelt warning of the military implications of nuclear energy, the project languished until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
   That it subsequently succeeded is one of the most amazing science and technology stories in history. Making the necessary bomb fuel was enormously difficult.
   The most common radioactive element in nature is uranium-238, making up about 99 percent of the earth's supply of uranium. Because U-238 has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years - about as old as Earth - only half of what was present when Earth was formed has decayed away. That is why the planet still has so many uranium deposits and the United States could open 400 mines during the Cold War and extract 60 million tons of ore for weapons alone.
   Uranium-238 does not sustain a fission chain reaction, however, and must be modified into an isotope that can. U-238 fuel can be bombarded in a nuclear reactor to make U-235, the fuel for the Hiroshima bomb. That isotope was made and separated at labs in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during World War II.
   There was an alternative. In 1941, a University of California chemist named Glenn Seaborg created an element with an even bigger potential for explosive power. Since the previously discovered uranium had taken its name from Uranus and neptunium from Neptune, Seaborg named his discovery plutonium: after the planet Pluto and, coincidentally, the Greek god of the dead.
   Not knowing which fuel could be successfully manufactured or fabricated into a bomb, the United States decided to pursue both. While Oak Ridge would make U-235, a secret complex near the remote Eastern Washington hamlet of Hanford would make plutonium.
   Fuel rods of uranium were irradiated in Hanford reactors to make about a dime-sized button of plutonium for every two tons of fuel. The elusive substance then had to be recovered by dissolving the fuel rods in acid and isolating the plutonium in a complex, messy series of steps.

IMAGE: Early protective gearU.S. ARMY GEN. Leslie Groves, who had directed construction of the Pentagon and then became head of what had been obliquely named the Manhattan Project, had spent part of his early years growing up at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington. He looked for a site in the West remote from population centers and with a generous supply of electricity to run the bomb factories and water to cool the reactors. Hanford, downriver from the just-completed Grand Coulee Dam and adjacent to the Columbia River, fit the bill.
   So started Washington's close connection to atomic energy.
   About 1,200 residents from the towns of Hanford, White Bluffs and Richland were evacuated. Construction began in late March 1943. At the peak, 51,000 workers toiled at the site, erecting 500 major buildings, constructing the world's biggest reactors, dumping chemical and radioactive waste into the air, river and soil, and for the most part remaining thoroughly mystified. Rumors about what they were manufacturing jokingly included fifth-term buttons for Roosevelt. In Santa Fe, residents joshed that the nearby Los Alamos complex was making windshield wipers for submarines.
   President Truman revealed the truth about the project when Hiroshima was bombed. When Japan surrendered, a Richland newspaper headline proclaimed: "Peace! Our bomb clinched it!"
   Both bombs were dropped by the Boeing B-29 that had been developed in Seattle, at that time the most complex airplane in the world. In February 1943, a test version of the initially troublesome plane had crashed into a Seattle packinghouse, killing the crew and 19 workers.
   About 2,000 of the Boeing bombers were eventually built by a variety of manufacturers for a cost of $3 billion, about $1 billion more than the Manhattan Project cost. Before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit, conventional firebombing by these planes had destroyed large parts of 66 Japanese cities, burning 178 square miles of buildings and killing more than 1 million Japanese civilians.
   Boeing built the plane in Renton and Wichita, Kan., while other manufacturers erected additional bomb factories. The Enola Gay, which bombed Hiroshima, and Bock's Car, which bombed Nagasaki, were made by Martin in Omaha, Neb.
   The plutonium bomb had another Washington connection. It depended on an "implosion" idea first put forward by Cal Tech's Seth Neddermeyer, who after the war taught physics at the University of Washington.
   In either a uranium or plutonium bomb, the fissionable material had to be suddenly squeezed together to make a big enough mass to become "critical" enough to sustain a chain reaction of atomic fission and initiate an explosion. In the uranium bomb, a modified gun inside the bomb casing was used to fire the uranium together.
   The plutonium bomb, in contrast, depended on a more efficient but more complex implosion of its sphere of plutonium, driven inward by surrounding conventional explosives. Neddermeyer won adoption of his idea over the initial skepticism of other physicists, but lacked the managerial skills to run the team that perfected it. That was done by Harvard's George Kistiakowsky.
IMAGE: Hanford B Reactor control room    Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II, but not atomic weapons. Proposals to put their control under an international authority such as the United Nations quickly died, and the Soviet Union soon stole plans for the atomic bomb with the help of spy Klaus Fuchs. In 1949, the Soviet Union built and exploded a copy of the original Fat Man, down to its wiring mistakes. The nuclear-arms race was on.
   Instead of slipping into postwar oblivion, Hanford expanded. It eventually boasted nine of the nation's 14 nuclear-weapons reactors and pumped out more than half of all the plutonium the United States produced, in the process releasing 467 million curies of radiation into the environment and becoming a dumping ground for nuclear waste from around the nation.
   Boeing churned out new weapons systems, from the incredibly successful and durable B-52 bomber to the nuclear cruise missile.
   Spokane's Fairchild Air Force Base became home to nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on constant alert. McChord Field near Tacoma became an integral part of North America's air-defense network. A communications antenna was built in the Cascade Mountains. A National Security Agency listening-post satellite dish was erected at the Yakima Firing Range. Nuclear submarines were serviced in Bremerton and Navy surface ships unloaded and loaded nuclear warheads at Port Townsend's Indian Island ammunition depot on their trips in and out of Puget Sound.
IMAGE: The helm of a Trident submarine    The Navy selected Bangor, on Hood Canal, as one of two bases for its fleet of Trident submarines, the most powerful and invulnerable leg of the American strategic "triad" of nuclear delivery systems.
   The Trident is a culmination of a half century of squeezing a bigger nuclear punch into smaller and smaller packages. Each warhead on a modern D-5 missile packs 14 to 24 times the power of Nagasaki's Fat Man. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads. And each submarine carries 24 missiles.
   The B-29 flying over cloudy Nagasaki missed its intended target point by several miles. The newest Trident missile, so far in place just on submarines based in Georgia, can fly 6,500 miles, navigate by the stars and come within 1,500 feet of its aiming point.
   The resulting potential for destruction is difficult to grasp. To get some sense of it, recognize that a single submarine has the ability to drop on 24 of the 25 American cities big enough to host a major-league baseball team the destructive equivalent, each, of at least 175 Hiroshima-sized bombs.

Continue to Part II

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