nuclear bomb

June 9, 1957 – Mike Wallace Interviews Dr. Ralph Lapp

Ralph Lapp

Nuclear physicist Dr. Ralph Lapp

On June 9, 1957, nuclear physicist, Manhattan Project participant, and advisor to the US War Department Dr. Ralph Lapp appeared on The Mike Wallace Interview on ABC.  In his introduction, Wallace explained that Dr Lapp had given up his research to crusade against nuclear bomb testing, the fallout from which he believed led to unacceptable levels of risk for cancer and birth defects.  There was disagreement within the Atomic Energy Commission and the scientific community over whether fallout was dangerous for the general population and Mike and Ralph discussed this issue in depth.  Other topics covered in the interview included the role of bomb testing as a counter to the military threat of the Soviet Union, how Dr Lapp felt personally about participating in the creation of the atomic bomb, his semi-serious proposal for creating sperm banks, and whether scientists were, or should be, religious men.

Dr. Lapp had the following to say:

On fallout testing: “If I say that the risk of inducing leukemia in a population is 100th of 1 percent, that may seem a relatively small risk.  . .  Although the relative number is small, the absolute number is large . . . a man who holds human life in great regard . . . views the absolute number as most significant.”

On the threat of the Soviet Union: “I have made this statement many times, that if we, the United States, were to cease our tests, unilaterally, I believe it would be interpreted as a weakness by the Soviet Union and I think eventually we would be ground under their heel.”

On his role in the Manhattan Project: “It is difficult to explain to a person who has never done creative research . . . the thrill that you get when you do something for the first time.  I think it is one of the greatest rewards that a scientist can have.  But we did hold meetings . . . when we talked about what the consequences of this would be.  On the basis of the intelligence given to us . . . we felt that we were in a race to beat the Germans to this weapon . . . Our worry was where would the United States be if Hitler turned up with this weapon and we did not have it?”

On the possible conflict between science and religion: “I would like to say that I think both strive for the same thing, which is the search for truth.  I believe that [scientists] are no more or less religious than ordinary groups, but my own feeling is that a scientist ought to be . . . when one penetrates into the mystery of science, you see so much.  The scientist has the key to open the door to a vaster understanding.”

Image Credit: International Magazine Services archive

August 31, 1957 – Plumbbob’s “Smoky” Leaves a Troubled Legacy

On August 31, 1957, Operation Plumbob’s “Smoky” test flamed into the sky over busy Yucca Flat, 65 miles north of Las Vegas.  Area 8 of the Nevada Test Site played host that day to the third test of the UCRL TX-41 –  a three-stage, thermonuclear weapon design.  After two previous tests of 3.5 and 5.0 megatons (Redwing Zuni and Tewa), “Smoky” was probably a partial, two-stage test with a decreased yield of 45-50 kilotons.  The MK-41 nuclear device eventually developed from the TX-41 test series became the largest-yield nuclear weapon ever developed or deployed by the United States.  Its yield of 25 megatons was also the highest yield-to-weight ratio for a US nuclear weapon, at about 6 kilotons per kilogram.

Smoky became famous – notorious, even – for its tragic consequences.   Over three thousand servicemen had been in the vicinity of ground zero shortly after the blast, practicing maneuvers as part of the Desert Rock exercise.  Their exposure to radiation from the test eventually became the subject of a Congressional investigation and epidemiological evaluation.  A 1980 study found statistically significant increases in leukemia cases among the 3224 participants.  Instead of the expected four cases, ten were found.

August 27, 1957 – Underground Nuclear Test Launches Giant “Manhole Cover”

On August 27, 1957, a four-inch-thick steel plate weighing several hundred pounds shot into the stratosphere over the Nevada Test Site, never to be seen again.  Operation Plumbbob’s Pascal-B was an underground test of a nuclear safety device designed to limit the amount of destructive energy released by a bomb in the event of an accidental detonation.  Buried at the bottom of a 500-foot shaft and sealed with an over-2-ton plug of cement, Pascal-B generated sufficient energy – the equivalent of a few hundred tons of dynamite – to vaporize the concrete plug.  The concrete vapor expanded and raced up the shaft, propelling a massive steel plate sealing the shaft opening into the sky.

According to the February 1992 issue of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine, astrophysicist Bob Brownlee was in charge of designing the Pascal-B test.  “He knew the lid [steel plate] would be blown off; he didn’t know exactly how fast.  High-speed cameras caught the giant manhole cover as it began its unscheduled flight into history.  Based on his calculations and the evidence from the cameras, Brownlee estimated that the steel plate was traveling at a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth’s gravity when it soared into the flawless blue Nevada sky.  ‘We never found it.  It was gone,’ Brownlee says, a touch of awe in his voice almost 35 years later”.

Even though the eventual whereabouts of the steel plate forever remained a mystery, it’s unlikely, according to the laws of physics and the character of the Earth’s atmosphere, that the plate headed into outer space.  Unable to maintain escape velocity on its own (not being equipped with mini-rocket engines), it would not retain sufficient speed to pass completely through the layers of nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases surrounding our planet.  Most likely it either vaporized in the explosion, disintegrated in the atmosphere, or landed somewhere far from the Nevada Test Site.  It’s also possible it became some innocent person’s “close encounter”, or enormous fish story.