Jeffrey LewisNuclear Nightmares Revisited

I’ve been enjoying the comments here at the blog on my piece at Foreign Policy regarding some scary moments involving nuclear weapons.

I thought I’d devote a post to a few of my favorite suggestions.

1. CASTLE BRAVO. A US thermonuclear test in March 1954 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The designers were expecting a yield of 4-6 megatons.  They got 15.  Fifteen megatons.  That will, as Dan Ackroyd said in Spies Like Us, suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange afro.

The result was a near catastrophe.  As it was, test personnel, local islanders and the crew of a Japanese fishing boat received  an unwelcome dose of radiation.  Here is how two participants described it in a PBS documentary (transcript | video):

JOHN R HALDERMAN, Marine Corps Veteran: We had dark goggles on but when it went off you can see the bone in your arm.

It’s like looking at an X-ray.

And when we did turn around and take our goggles off, we all thought it would be off in the distance.

But it was right on top of us.

And you could see the shock wave coming.

Like a miniature tidal wave or tsunami.

You’re grabbing hold of lifelines and hanging on to gun mounts and guys are sliding across the deck and you’re grabbing them.

Then it tilted back the other way.

And I turned around to my buddy and I said ‘Hey, I think we’re goners’ and he said ‘Yeah, I think you’re right’.

And, at another part of the test site:

DR HAROLD AGNEW: What frightened me was the heat.

We were just in a pair of shorts – and this got hotter and hotter.

This cloud was 30 miles away – but it felt as if it was on top of us.

A close runner-up was Tsar Bomba, the 57 megaton Soviet test.  I’ve heard the lore about Tsar Bomba, too, but I don’t know a really reliable historical account of the event.

2.Then there was STARFISH PRIME, one of a series of five high-altitude nuclear explosions that made up Operation Fishbowl.  One reader at the site wrote:

“There was also the US Starfish Prime explosion in space that generated an EMP burst that knocked out telephone lines and street lights in Hawaii over 1400 miles away.”

I was a little reluctant because the nuclear weapons effects are more complicated that just EMP.  (And there is a whole crowd of EMP nutjobs that I try to avoid.) But this is an interesting case, one I’ve blogged about before:

I remember [famed space scientist James] Van Allen most, however, for how then-President John F. Kennedy invoked Van Allen’s repution to deflect brilliantly a tough question about the possible environmental consequences of an upcoming high altitude nuclear explosion:

“QUESTION: Mr. President, it has been the stated policy, as you said earlier, for this government to restrict Outer Space for peaceful objectives only. Will not the proposed H-bomb explosion 500 miles up jeopardize this policy and objective?

“THE PRESIDENT: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I know there has been disturbance about the Van Allen belt, but Van Allen says it is not going to affect the belt. (laughter)”


Kennedy’s wit was devastating—in fact, you really have to see Kennedy’s delivery to understand how completely he disarmed the press corps. The clip is the most memorable moment, to my mind, from Peter Kuran’s Nukes in Space.

In fact, one of of the nuclear tests, the 1.4 megaton STARFISH PRIME exploded at 400 km, did excite the Earth’s radiation belts, disabling 2 or 3 satellites. [There were also reports of brief outages of streetlights on Oahu.]

I omitted STARFISH PRIME and other high-altitude nuclear explosions because the nuclear weapons effects community highly prizes the data, noting that it was well worth the cost to acquire.  And I didn’t feel like having that argument.

3. Finally, there is the Soviet nuclear device, orphaned for a few years in Kazakhstan following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  I’ve previously blogged about that one too, in the context of tunnel resealing at Semipalatinsk:

Barry mentions the story of an orphaned nuclear device that was destroyed in 1995. “Activity ended so abruptly that a nuclear device lowered into one tunnel in preparation for a test sat unexploded until 1995,” she writes, “when technicians managed to destroy it without creating a nuclear reaction, according to the National Nuclear Center.”

That description is correct — right down to calling it a device — but let’s dwell on this since it is so interesting.  Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, one of our brighter stars at CNS, explains the device was “a 0.3-0.4 kiloton charge designed for testing the resistance of weapons and equipment to the destructive effects of an atomic explosion.” Unlike other nuclear weapons that Kazakhstan shipped back to Russia, “removing the device was considered too dangerous” and instead “the charge was destroyed in May 1995 inside the tunnel.”  A Kazakh scientist gave a presentation on the device at a conference in 1997.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the presentation, but a CNS staff member at the time summarized the remarks in a pretty useful trip report.”

Or, as one reader suggested, ““Khey boyskis. Soviet Union ees no more. Time to go home and split bottle three ways. Just leaf dat thing wkhere eet ees. Will be okay!”

Another incident involved the French nuclear weapon at the test site in Algeria, during the “revolt of the generals” in which renegade French generals in Algeria attempted to stage a coup against the Fifth Republic.  Bruno Tertrais has documented this instance in his amazing monograph,  A Nuclear Coup?


  1. Juuso (History)

    There is some claims that pollution from Chinese tests has killed up to 900.000, but i’m not sure if this is correct info since source is (Falun Gong site) biased. BBC Horizon show made similar claims in documentary “Death on the Silk Road”, though their figures are much lower.

    “The tests had a cumulative yield of over 200 megatons.”

    That figure seems to be greatly inflated to me.

    • Cthippo (History)

      You have to take the numbers on excess cancers from fallout with a grain of salt. Basically, it comes down to X number of Curies or I-131 dumped into the atmosphere will result in y number of excess cancers, but the relationship is really anything but linear and is complicated by factors such as dispersal patterns, precipitation causing the fallout to return to earth, number of people actually living downwind, etc etc. Most of the “hard” data we have on radiation effects on a population are from the bombings of Japan in 1945, which is both a relatively small data set and not really applicable to effects from testing.

      As for Starfish Prime, keep in mind they did some small (1kt) Shots in Operation Argus, just to make sure the theory was sound and they weren’t going to accidentally screw up something important in the the big test.

  2. Captain Ned (History)

    CASTLE BRAVO first thermonuclear test? Maybe of the “dry” config using Li6/Li7, but IVY MIKE in November 52 was the first test of the Teller/Ulam config.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Captain Ned is correct. Ivy Mike in all its glorious cryogenic liquid deuterium glory, 10 megatons worth…

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Although, to be precise, the Teller-Ulam model was *tested* in Greenhouse George earlier…

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I am so out of it lately. I am making all these little mistakes now that I don’t catch. I am starting to get a complex about writing.

  3. bradley laing (History)

    —Why didn’t anything reliable about the October 30, 1961 test come out in the years since then?

    —Stricter secrecy rules than in the USA?

  4. bradley laing (History)

    Washington: The US intelligence community predicted India’s atomic bomb in 1964 but mistakenly concluded Israel had “not yet decided” to go nuclear, according to newly declassified documents.

    The documents were released on Monday by the National Security Archive (NSA) and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.

    Such an analysis came from the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from October 1964, which had details about the nuclear state of play on a country-by-country level right at the time of the first Chinese atomic test on 16 October 1964

  5. JohnLopresti (History)

    Some of the outcomes of 1956’s Castle-Bravo, according to my sparse note taking in a few histories, was that India prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru demanded a halt to testing after this test. This was a fence-sitting Nehru in the days of the sino-soviet bloc, so called.

    Also, there was linkage that segued into a United Nations disarmament conference in 1957, when I entered high school. We kids were worried. By 1960 I was studying nuclear physics reading every book I could find in the local technical institute. I liked this stuff! But I doubt that as a commenter wrote upthread, the radiochemistry reasons for the 3x-4x blast outcome of castle bravo have remained unknown since its detonation on the surface at Bikini atoll 1956. The final item in my note-taking based on a few reports says another followup in international arms negotiations took place in Geneva in 1958. Maybe the IAEA has a dossier on castle bravo.