A brief history of the atomic bomb

atomic bomb test Crossroads

The Nuclear weapons test Crossroads in July 1946 was seen by the Soviet Union as a symbol of American superiority and sparked an atomic arms race that brought the earth to the brink of nuclear war several times. Photo: US Army or US Navy, public domain.

The prehistory

As James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932 (>> here), some physicists already suspected that this could be the key to releasing the tremendous forces bound up in the atomic nucleus. In 1933, the Hungarian physicist realized Leo Szilard, that a chain reaction would be possible if there were an element that released two neutrons when it picked up one. Szilard, who had studied in Berlin but had moved to Vienna when Hitler came to power, also thought about the political consequences of a possible release of the forces in the atomic nucleus – what if people like Hitler found out about it? He proposed to stop publishing research results for the time being. Without success – to most colleagues the practical use of "atomic power" seemed impossible anyway. In 1934, when Enrico Fermi split atomic nuclei for the first time, he did not realize this; rather, he believed he had produced artificial "transuranium" by neutron bombardment of uranium. Strange results, which did not agree with this theory, were obtained especially by the Parisian radium researcher Irène Joliot-Curie, who, when bombarding uranium with neutrons, found an element "very similar" to lanthanum. This was, as Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann 1938 in Berlin, during the review of the experiment, found barium. It took them a while to realize what this meant: the uranium atom must have "burst" (as Hahn called it) when bombarded with neutrons. Hahn was the first to share this result with his former co-worker Lise Meitner who, as an Austrian Jew, had emigrated to Sweden a few months earlier. Meitner and her nephew, the physicist Otto Frisch, who was just visiting, realized the real meaning of barium: it had to be the result of nuclear fission.

The large amount of energy released during the fission of atomic nuclei (>> more) could be used practically only if during the fission of a uranium nucleus several neutrons would be released, which by means of a kind of avalanche effect would split further atomic nuclei – Szilard’s "chain reaction". Even if most physicists did not believe in such a thing, others feared a German atomic bomb already in early 1939 in view of the theoretical possibility and the world political situation: How else could it be possible that Hitler challenged the great powers? With a "uranium bomb" he would indeed be almost invincible. Experiments by Leo Szilard, now living in the USA, and by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie in Paris, moreover, soon indicated that a chain reaction was indeed possible. Again Szilard tried to convince his colleagues to stop publication, again he failed. Szilard and some friends, including Ed Teller, a Hungarian living in the U.S. since 1935, therefore decided to at least alert the American government to the possibility of such a bomb, so that Hitler could not surprise them with an atomic bomb. But the Americans showed no interest in this information. Only when Szilard had the idea of asking Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Roosevelt did this change – in October, President Roosevelt accepted the letter. However, a project started as a result bumbled along for a long time without much commitment.

In Germany, on the other hand, the Reich War Ministry showed interest and set up a "Uranium Project," whose head in the fall of 1939 was Werner Heisenberg became. Heisenberg was one of the leading physicists of his time, and in the winter of 1939/40 he understood theoretically that and how a uranium bomb could work. His role during the war is disputed among historians. Many foreign colleagues did not understand how Heisenberg could take charge of the "uranium project". Heisenberg himself put it to Robert Jungk, who researched the lives of atomic scientists for his book "Brighter than a Thousand Suns" (1964), that he resisted by seeming to participate in the construction of the German atomic bomb, but portraying it as unrealistic and thus preventing more intensive efforts. His close collaborator Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker sees this in a similar way, but is himself controversial: in 1940 he wrote a paper from which it could be inferred that in a uranium pile a substance could be produced which could be used "as an explosive" (this substance was the still unknown plutonium discovered in 1941). In 1941, Heisenberg and von Weizsacker traveled to Copenhagen to talk to Niels Bohr about the German atomic bomb – according to their account: to assure him that it would not be built. But Heisenberg, believing himself supervised, only hinted at what he actually wanted to say, and Bohr understood the conversation quite differently – he was convinced afterwards that the Germans were working on the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the man working for the Reichspost (sic!) working physicist Fritz Houtermans found out that an atomic bomb could be built if enough "element 94" (plutonium) could be produced in a uranium pile, but concealed this discovery. However, he met Heisenberg and von Weizsacker in the winter of 1941 and revealed his results to them – all three decided to conceal them from government agencies.

Also in England, physicist George P. Thomson alerted the Air Ministry to the possible consequences of a chain reaction, and was given the task of researching this further. As early as 1940, Otto Frisch, who had in the meantime emigrated to England, and Rudolf Peierl, a Berlin native who, as a Jew, had already emigrated to England in 1933, had shown that a bomb built with the fissile uranium isotope uranium-235 would have an explosive force of several thousand tons of TNT. In July 1941, Thomson stated that it was "quite probable" that the bomb could still be produced during the war. This result also inspired the Americans, who decided in December 1941 to seriously attempt the construction of this weapon. In 1942, the British and Americans decided to pool their research and conduct it jointly in the U.S. The project was given the code name "Manhattan Engineer District" – it became known by its later abbreviation "Manhattan Project". When Niels Bohr had to flee from Copenhagen in 1943, his conversation with Heisenberg and von Weizsacker encouraged the Anglo-American efforts to forestall Hitler in building the atomic bomb.

The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project became a gigantic project for the development and construction of the atomic bomb. It cost over two billion dollars, three "secret" cities – Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos – were built, and at peak times employed up to 150.000 people. The military direction of the project was given to General Leslie R. Groves, who had gained experience in large-scale construction projects, including the construction of the Pentagon. The head of the research became the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who had studied and obtained his doctorate in Gottingen. The great challenge in building an atomic bomb was to obtain and assemble enough fissionable material to start a chain reaction (the "critical mass"). As fissile material came only Uranium-235, which occurs in small concentrations in natural uranium, or the plutonium obtained artificially in reactors Plutonium in question. So it could be obtained from natural uranium by "enrichment", or plutonium could be produced in reactors, which then had to be separated from the fuel rods by reprocessing. There were two ideas for starting the chain reaction: first, two smaller, "subcritical" masses of uranium-235 could be brought together; second, a sufficient amount of fissile plutonium could be compressed by a conventional explosion. Ed Teller developed yet another proposal: if one surrounded such a fission bomb with the heavy hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, the energy should be sufficient to trigger nuclear fusion, which would intensify the effect of the bomb even more.

The first two ideas pursued were. The research center with its laboratory facilities and workshops was built at Los Alamos in the New Mexico desert. Facilities for the enrichment of uranium-235 were built at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and three uranium reactors for the production of plutonium and a reprocessing plant were built at Hanford in Washington State. The Italian physicist had developed the first uranium reactor with a self-sustaining, controlled neutron chain reaction Enrico Fermi, who was married to a Jewish woman and had emigrated to the USA in 1938, had to complete the project in Chicago in December 1942. With such a reactor, larger quantities of plutonium could be produced; and for a time, American nuclear scientists feared that Germany might also possess the technology. Then, it was feared, it might drop plutonium from the air over American cities – plutonium is not only radioactive, but highly toxic even in minute quantities.

Therefore, when the first American troops landed in Europe in the fall of 1943, an intelligence unit was in their wake to find out the status of German nuclear armament. When Strasbourg surrendered in November 1944, she found documents on German atomic research in von Weizsacker’s office, which showed that Germany had neither fissile uranium-235 nor plutonium and therefore could not build an atomic bomb. Instead, the German researchers had worked on a small scale on a "uranium burner" for energy production. This plant was located in Haigerloch on the northwestern edge of the Swabian Alb and was deliberately "captured" by an American strike force in April 1945. If von Weizsacker’s papers could still have been a wartime ruse, the last doubts about German atomic research were now dispelled – there was no German atomic bomb; nor were there the conditions for its construction.

On the one hand, this eliminated the rationale for the Manhattan Project. On the other hand: was it possible to spend more than two billion dollars without presenting a result? Niels Bohr tried to persuade President Roosevelt to prepare a demonstration before representatives of the Allies and neutral countries, as well as representatives of the major religions; Leo Szilard moved Albert Einstein to write another letter – this time a warning against the use of the bomb. The military, led by General Groves, for which the "main opponent" had been the Soviet Union from the beginning, wanted a wartime use, on the other hand, and were already sparing four Japanese cities in order to be able to test the effect of the atomic bomb on an unharmed city after it had been dropped. Einstein’s letter lay unfinished on Roosevelt’s desk when, on 12. April 1945 died. Now, his successor Harry S. Truman decided, without much preparation, on the question of using the three soon-to-be-finished atomic bombs. A commission of experts, whose meetings included Groves, recommended its use against Japan. In Chicago, where the first nuclear reactor had once been built, seven researchers led by James Franck, in a report that became known as the "Franck Report," tried once again to make the government understand the consequences of such a deployment and seized on Bohr’s idea of a demonstration in a desert. Without success.

The use of the atomic bomb

At 16. July 1945 the first explosion of an atomic bomb took place: the "Trinity" test at Alamogordo, 430 kilometers south of Los Alamos. What happened there exceeded all expectations of the physicists involved in its construction. Although the bomb was rather primitive, its plutonium core, only the size of an orange and weighing six kilograms, had an explosive power of 21.000 tons of TNT. Most scientists were shocked – even those who, like Enrico Fermi, had not shared the earlier concerns of Szilard and Einstein. Leo Szilard tried once again to petition to prevent its use in war and to place the atomic bomb under international control. Again without success: On 6. August 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the center of Hiroshima. About 150.000 people were killed instantly, the entire city destroyed. In the center of Hiroshima, people were literally vaporized: all that remained of them was a shadow on the walls of houses. Others were burned so quickly that they stood in the streets as charred remains, their children still in their arms. On 9. August was followed by the second atomic bomb against Nagasaki. Because of poor visibility, this bomb missed its target, the Mitsubishi factories; "only" 22 people died.000 people immediately. Not wanting to be suspected of having used something akin to chemical weapons, the Americans also claimed that there was no longer any dangerous radioactivity. Japanese reports of radiation damage dismissed as "propaganda". This action further antagonized the researchers, who were already opposed to the use of the bomb – they had just witnessed how their colleague Henry Dagnian, who had been killed on 21. August had received an overdose of radioactivity during an experiment, died in agony. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, another 300 died.000 people died from the late effects of the bomb, often after years of infirmity. The U.S. government legitimized the drop on the grounds that it would have saved the lives of more people who would otherwise have died in an invasion of Japan.

The world at the atomic crossroads

The German atomic researchers, among them Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, learned about the bombing operations in British captivity. Otto Hahn in particular was deeply shocked by what the atomic fission he had discovered had done; his colleagues feared for days that he might take his own life. Also for many of the researchers working in America, such as Szilard and Einstein, the 6. and 9. August black days. To them and many of their colleagues, it seemed more urgent than ever to prevent a possible arms race with these weapons. They founded the "Federation of Atomic Scientists" (soon renamed Federation of American Scientists); in July 1946, it succeeded in preventing atomic development in the U.S. from remaining in the hands of the military – it was to be used from 1.1.In 1947, a civilian atomic energy commission (Atomic Energy Commission, AEC) could be controlled. The American Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wanted to inform fellow scientists and the public about the dangers of nuclear weapons. International control of nuclear weapons seemed most important, and the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain proposed the establishment of a UN Atomic Energy Commission to make proposals for the peaceful use of atomic power and for the control and eventual prohibition of nuclear weapons. Robert Oppenheimer played a decisive role in preparing the American position; he proposed an World Atomic Energy Agency which was to monitor every link in the nuclear chain, from uranium deposits to the construction and operation of nuclear reactors to nuclear weapons research. But this plan, which would have meant extensive encroachments on national sovereignty, was unacceptable to conservative Americans; and a modified version with which the Americans entered negotiations was rejected by the Soviet Union.

The Soviet rejection came one day after another American Atomic Bomb Test. Unimpressed by the concerns of the scientists, the military had also continued to work on the atomic bomb. The Air Force sought independence from the Army (and became an independent Air Force in 1947) because of its role in atomic bombing in Japan, and the Navy feared for its future importance and wanted to share in the atomic bombing. She therefore floated under the name Operation Crossroads new atomic bomb tests went ahead, which was approved by President Truman in January 1946. Plutonium production at Hanford and uranium enrichment at Oak Ridge had continued after the war, and under the direction of General Groves, atomic bombs were manufactured at Los Alamos for these tests. They were carried out in July 1946 before witnesses from numerous countries on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific; two atomic bombs ("Able" on 1. July and"Baker" on 25. July) was detonated. With Operation Crossroads was to test what effects the explosion of atomic bombs in the air and under water had on ships of the U.S. Navy. Numerous ships (some of them old) were therefore placed in concentric circles in the target area to study the effects of the atomic bombs on them. Its first victim was the World Atomic Energy Agency. The Soviet Union understood this test, which coincided with negotiations on international nuclear arms control, as an American demonstration of power and a symbol of American superiority that it could use in the sich>> developing rivalry could not accept. The Americans only realized that the second bomb, code-named "Baker", had been detonated underwater (>> Photo) the dimension of radioactive contamination from an atomic bomb: when the water column collapsed, the American target ships were reached by a spray that made them extremely radioactive (winds had quickly dispersed the radioactivity in the atmosphere during the initial airborne explosion). 49 ships with 15.000 men were sent to the radioactive zones the same day to investigate the damage, but had to turn back due to the high radiation levels. The Navy was not prepared for the radiation of the target ships and tried to scrub the ships – by sailors without protective clothing – with brooms, soaps and running water, but this did not lower the radiation exposure sufficiently, so that some ships had to be sunk immediately in the lagoon. The rest of the fleet was towed to the U.S. base Kwajalein for cleaning with uncontaminated water. The extent of the radiation exposure of the sailors who had to clean the ships remained unknown for a long time, since Geiger counters do not detect the exposure to plutonium. A 1996 report by the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. showed a markedly increased mortality among veterans of Operation Crossroads.

The fate of the inhabitants of Bikini

The Marshall Islands, which belong to Micronesia and include Bikini Atoll, were conquered by the U.S. only during the Second World War, before operation Crossroads there were 167 people living on Bikini Atoll. They were relocated to the neighboring, but much smaller Rongerik Atoll before the atomic bomb tests (whether the inhabitants agreed to their relocation is disputed – the Americans claim so. However, the 167 Bikinians would not have stood a chance against the world power USA anyway). For a long time they believed in a return. Their leader, Judah, who was invited to the second atomic bomb blast on the atoll, congratulated the Americans on their success – and asked if his people could now return. In fact, they suffered from hunger on Rongerik. But it was not until 1947 that former Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes pointed out, the U.S. responded and relocated them to the U.S. base at Kwajalein. There was enough food and drink here, but nothing else: they lived in tents on the edge of an airstrip. In the fall of 1948, they were therefore resettled on tiny Kili Island, not even one square kilometer in size, an atoll that is cut off from the world for several months every year due to rough seas and then has to be supplied by helicopters. Here many former inhabitants of Bikini Atoll live to this day, the others are now scattered all over the Pacific: both drinking water and coconuts in their homeland are still too contaminated to return (in 1968 the Americans declared Bikini safe and allowed over 100 people to return, but found they were absorbing too much radioactivity through the food chain – they were evacuated again in 1978).

The Soviet atomic bomb

Since the publication of Otto Hahn’s discovery, Soviet researchers had worked as intensively as their Western colleagues on questions of atomic physics. After the German invasion in 1941, the works were stopped, but resumed in 1943. Scientific director became Igor Kurchatov. Through its worldwide espionage network – with the German Klaus Fuchs as its "most famous" informant – the Soviet Union always knew exactly about the state of the Manhattan projects Since Stalin knew that the atomic bomb worked, the construction of a Soviet bomb was a foregone conclusion (Oppenheimer’s World Atomic Energy Agency would probably have failed even in its original form). After the end of the war Stalin ordered to advance the project "in Russian dimen-sions", i.e. on a large scale. The Soviet nuclear complex consisted of ten secret cities, the most important of which were the Chelyabinsk reactor and the warhead factory in Sarov, officially called Arsamas-16. At 29. August 1949 the time had come: 150 kilometers northwest of the city of Semipalatinsk in today’s Kazakhstan the first Soviet atomic bomb exploded.

The nuclear arms race

For the Americans, who had not been informed of the test beforehand and only discovered it days later when a reconnaissance plane detected high levels of radioactivity over the Pacific, the Soviet atomic bomb was a shock for which they were not prepared. It was to be the hour of Ed Teller who had continued to work on his idea of a hydrogen bomb (H-bomb), which was called "Super" for short and would be a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. This was now to restore the American lead. The scientific advisors of the Atomic Energy Commission, headed by Robert Oppenheimer, and the chief strategist of the U.S. State Department, George Kennan, for whom the use of nuclear weapons meant "tearing down conditions as they had formerly prevailed among the Asiatic hordes" and who called for a new beginning in American military strategy, could not prevent Truman from deciding in January 1950 to build this bomb. He also refused to make a statement that the U.S. would not be the first to use this bomb. After the beginning of the>> Korean War, even once skeptical atomic scientists such as Hans Bethe then nevertheless at the bomb with. The pressure was great, then in the meantime Klaus Fuchs had been arrested and had admitted that he had also informed the Soviet Union about the first steps toward the "super"; presumably, therefore, Soviet researchers had also long been working on the H-bomb. The breakthrough in the construction of the bomb came with the use of the first computers; on 1. November 1952 was the first Hydrogen bomb, called "Ivy Mike, detonated. Its explosive power was 10.4 million tons of TNT. The island of Elugelab in the Pacific Eniwetokatoll, where the explosion took place, subsequently no longer existed. Less than a year later, on 12. August 1953 the Soviet Union detonated a prototype of its hydrogen bomb: it had actually been working on this bomb since 1947, major contributions had been made by the young physicist Andrei Sakharov Achieved whose "pie model" allowed a three-stage sequence of nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and nuclear fission.

The fall of Robert Oppenheimer

In the fall of 1953, in the midst of what became known as the "McCarthy era" of anti-communism in the U.S., the FBI prepared a "digest" of its long-running investigation into Robert Oppenheimer, who had shown sympathy for communism in his youth. The Atomic Energy Commission then formulated a letter that would cause Oppenheimer to lose his "clearance" for access to secrets – one of the charges was his opposition to the hydrogen bomb. In a nearly four-week, non-public show trial (as Oppenheimer’s biographers Sherwin and Bird showed, conversations between Oppenheimer and his lawyer were wiretapped, files withheld from the defense) before the Atomic Energy Commission’s Personnel Safety Committee in the spring of 1954, he was deemed a security risk: although he had remained loyal to his country, his attitude toward the hydrogen bomb "troubled" the commission. This meant that he was no longer allowed to take part in any secret government projects – and these were all nuclear physics projects. It was not until 1963 that he was rehabilitated by President Kennedy.

Previously on 3. October 1952 also Great Britain detonated its own atomic bomb on an Australian island. It was almost a copy of the Nagasaki bomb; after all, the British researchers involved in the Manhattan Project had the know-how. By now, the U.S. had a Test site in Nevada, on which the first four tests with "ordinary" nuclear weapons had taken place in 1951, and fifteen more tests by the end of 1953. The American answer to the Soviet hydrogen bomb, however, was to be a program launched in September 1953, with which intercontinental missiles should be built, which could carry new, lighter hydrogen bombs to the enemy. The new bombs were to be built with a lithium isotope instead of tritium, which had to be cooled at great expense, and, like the Russian hydrogen bomb, they were to be given a third stage, in this case a bomb casing of uranium-238. This spread radioactive fissile material over an area of 300 square kilometers. Such a bomb was dropped on 1. March 1954 as the first of a new series of bomb tests on Bikini Atoll: the explosive power of this bomb ("Castle Bravo"), which was much smaller than the first American hydrogen bomb, amounted to 15 million tons of TNT – to this day it is the largest bomb the USA has ever detonated. Although the wind had shifted to the south just before the test, the project leader Alvin Graves (who anyway considered the dangers of radioactivity to be invented by feeble simulators -"concocted in the minds of weak malingerers") decided to start the experiment anyway: the wind carried the radioactive cloud to Rongelap Atoll, more than 150 kilometers away, and over a Japanese fishing boat, which was sailing far outside the restricted area. The crew of the "Lucky dragon no. 5" was so shaken by the explosion that the cutter immediately returned to its home port of Yaizu – by the time it reached it 14 days later, all 23 crew members had been diagnosed with acute radiation sickness. The radio operator died in September, and six crew members have since died of liver cancer. The contaminated tuna on board prompted further investigations: in total, the catch of 683 boats had to be destroyed because of radioactive contamination. Radiation sickness also claimed many victims among Rongelap’s 236 residents; they were evacuated only two days later to the Kwajalein military base, where doctors could do little for them – but they began a secret study of the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons on humans. The survivors were brought back to the island in 1957. (In 1982, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency admitted that the atoll was still too polluted; in 1985, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior the inhabitants at their request again to Kwajalein. In 1986, the Americans paid the Marshall Islands 150 million dollars to cover all claims for radiation damage.) Radioactivity from this experiment was soon detected in the rain over Japan, in the lubricating oil of Indian airplanes, and eventually over the entire world.

demands for a test ban

Until then, the military had been able to lie to the public about radioactive radiation almost unchallenged ("no serious danger"); now this changed – civilian scientists calculated how many human lives the atomic bomb tests would cost. In 1955, Andrei Sakharov in Russia also calculated that the atomic bombs tested up to that point would produce about 500.000 people’s lives would cost – the beginning of his rethinking about the atomic bomb. (Sakharov was later released from the nuclear program and began to work for disarmament and minorities, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 – which he could not receive personally because he was banned from leaving the country – and was exiled to Gorky in 1980. Only Michael Gorbachev lifted the ban in 1986.) What remained unnoticed in the discussion about radiation exposure was that, in addition to radioactivity, there is also the fact that the public is exposed to radiation Accidents at the production sites which, however, were kept secret or downplayed by the authorities: Thus it came in September 1957 in the Ural to a nuclear explosion when the cooling system of a liquid radioactive waste storage tank failed, and a month later one of the two reactors at the U.K. reprocessing plant caught fire Windscale, in which larger quantities of the radioactive iodine-131 were released. Nevertheless, in Japan, 32 million people signed a petition against nuclear weapons by August 1955. The British mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote a treatise known as the Russell-Einstein manifesto The text, according to which the use of nuclear weapons threatens the existence of all mankind, which was signed by other important scientists besides Einstein, and which has been the basis of the "Ural Conference" held every year since 1957Pugwash conferences", at which scientists discussed the dangers of atomic weapons. Secretary General until 1973 was the British-Polish physicist Jozef Rotblatt, who was the only physicist to end his involvement in the Manhattan Project when it became clear that Germany was not seeking nuclear weapons. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 on behalf of the conferences. In Germany, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate began to Albert Schweitzer, began to exchange views on nuclear physics and nuclear weapons with Albert Einstein and Otto Hahn – in the spring of 1957, he broadcast a well-received "Appeal to humanity", with which he spoke out against nuclear weapons. 18 prominent nuclear scientists, including Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, declared that they were not prepared "to participate in the production, testing or use of nuclear weapons in any way"; 14 nuclear scientists from the GDR adopted a similar resolution in response. In 1958, the Nobel Prize winner for chemistry Linus Pauling 11.000 signatures of scientists calling for a ban on nuclear weapons, and in Great Britain the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded and elected Bertrand Russell as its president; the first Easter march took place. In Germany, too, demonstrations took place against the nuclear armament sought by the German government.

In order to counteract this pressure of the public, the enormous forces of atomic energy should be made palatable to the people by civil use. In the USA, under President Eisenhower and after Stalin’s death, the willingness to reach an agreement with the Soviet Union increased; on the other hand, Eisenhower’s program announced already in 1953 before the UN General Assembly "Atoms for Peace" implemented. In 1957, under the umbrella of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established to "accelerate and increase the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health, and prosperity worldwide". Critics of the program pointed out that nuclear power generation produces bomb-grade material-peaceful nuclear reactors also require enriched uranium-238, and they too inevitably produce fissile plutonium. The "Atoms for Peace" (>> more) would thus in consequence promote the spread of the atomic bombs. Nevertheless, by the end of 1959, the U.S. had supplied test facilities and fuel rods to 42 countries. The Soviet Union, worried about its influence, followed suit, so that a total of highly enriched uranium for over 1.000 Hiroshima-type bombs were distributed around the world. At the same time, the Cold War was far from over. Thus Eisenhower prepared the Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba, and nuclear weapons testing also continued – though now often underground to reduce radioactive contamination. After the Sputnik shock of 1957 (>> more), the CIA identified a "missile gap"-a Soviet lead in intercontinental ballistic missiles-in response, the number of U.S. atomic bombs was increased. But Eisenhower also had doubts about this strategy, and the nuclear physicist Hans Bethe was asked to draw up a plan for worldwide disarmament. He organized an international conference in Geneva in the summer of 1958 at which scientists from East and West worked out how a Nuclear Test Ban could be monitored. Already in March, the Soviet Union had suspended its above-ground nuclear tests, now joined by the U.S. and Britain. In 1960, when a test ban was ready to be signed, the Soviet Union shot down a U.S. spy plane over their country; for the Soviets, an agreement with the Eisenhower administration was unthinkable thereafter. The world was also shaken by a French nuclear weapons test.

France, whose researchers had worked in the British team of the Manhattan Project, had also already Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA) was established. In 1956, a reactor was connected to the grid in Marcoule near Avignon to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. However, the public was told that it was for power generation; and in 1958, the science magazine Sciene& Vie It did not know that after its defeat in Vietnam, France had decided to build the atomic bomb in strict secrecy, so the "slag" was the real purpose of the reactor. In 1959, Charles de Gaulle was elected president, and just over a year later, on 13. February 1960 France tested its first atomic bomb – in occupied Algeria. For de Gaulle, a nuclear force of his own ("force de frappe") indispensable, so that the country remained significant beside the Anglo-Saxons.

The world before nuclear war

In the 1961 beginning term of John F. Kennedy the situation initially worsened. First Eisenhower’s prepared invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs failed, the embarrassment of the Americans was used by the Soviet Union under Khrushchev to seal off East Berlin. In July, Kennedy urged Americans in a televised address to be prepared for a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The latter resumed its nuclear tests in September, and in October detonated a hydrogen bomb with the explosive power of 50 million tons of TNT; and also the Americans resumed their tests both in Nevada and in the Pacific. Kennedy, who had campaigned with the "missile gap", found after his election that it did not exist at all; rather, the USA not only had more missiles, but these were also located in Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Turkey, which left the Soviet Union only a very short reaction time. Khrushchev knew this, too, and in 1962 he began to, Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deploy. When the Americans discovered this, Kennedy announced the discovery in a televised speech and announced a naval blockade of Cuba to stop further supplies. Two days later, the strategic air force – as it later turned out, bypassing President Kennedy – was put into maximum operational readiness for the first and so far last time after World War II (defense condition [DEFCON] 2; the even higher level DEFCON 1 effectively means war). Eventually Khrushchev relented and the Soviet freighters carrying supplies turned away, but during the Cuban Missile Crisis the world faced nuclear war several times-mostly because of high-handedness by military officials. In view of the fact that the Cold War had led the world to the brink of the abyss, Kennedy wanted to end it, to replace the "strategy of annihilation" by a "strategy of peace. A direct telephone link was established between Washington and Moscow to avoid future misperceptions; and in August 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom signed an agreement that banned above-ground nuclear testing. At the same time they had another problem in mind: more and more countries were trying to get nuclear weapons as well.

More and more nuclear powers

The most likely candidates for the atomic bomb were Israel, India and China, but South Africa, Taiwan, Brazil and Argentina were also working on nuclear weapons. In Israel Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion saw the atomic bomb as a guarantee of survival, and in 1953 had concluded an agreement with France for cooperation in atomic research. In 1957, after the Suez crisis, France pledged support to build a reactor at Dimona in the Negev Desert. India founded an atomic energy agency in 1954 and in 1955 had received a commitment from Canada and the USA to supply a natural uranium reactor with the obligation to use it only for peaceful purposes, but without inspection arrangements. In the same year Mao Tse-tung decided that also China – which had faced American nuclear threats in Korea – to take care of nuclear weapons: with the help of the then still allied Soviet Union, a nuclear research and development center was built in Mianyang (Sichuan Province). After the break with the Soviet Union in 1960, China went it alone, and in the October 1964 the country detonated its first nuclear bomb in the Uighur Autonomous Republic of Xinjiang. China (like France) had not signed the nuclear test treaty, and arms lobbyists and military officials in the U.S. and Soviet Union demanded and obtained additional underground nuclear weapons tests – since these were more expensive, spending on nuclear testing increased even in, in the U.S. to a billion dollars annually. But the USA was now counting on a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was intended to prohibit other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. In return they should get access to "peaceful nuclear technology.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was adopted in 1968 and signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and 59 other states (but not initially by France and China) and entered into force in 1970. Its compliance is monitored by the IAEA, whose effectiveness to this day suffers from its dual role: on the one hand, it is supposed to promote nuclear energy; on the other, it monitors. Since peaceful and military nuclear technology could hardly be distinguished and "peaceful use" was unclearly defined – in the USA, for example, there were plans to build canals and tunnels with atomic bombs, and so India also declared its atomic bomb, detonated in 1974, to be a "peaceful" one – access to nuclear technology contributed to the spread of bomb technology. This was not least contributed by Germany, which was against the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would have been a "disempowerment of German industry" – as Adenauer put it in 1967. To get Germany’s approval, a clause was included that states that "could" make nuclear weapons would also be allowed to resell nuclear technology. German industry did so in South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil, among others. All programs that helped new states acquire nuclear weapons were known to the IAEA years before – it could not prevent any of them. Israel, India and Pakistan, now all in possession of the bomb, did not sign the treaty in the first place. Article VI, which was about the disarmament of existing nuclear weapons, did not contain a time schedule – the arms race of the existing nuclear powers also went on.

That Israel was secretly working on the atomic bomb, the USA had known since 1960 at the latest. They pressed for inspections at Dimona, but found nothing there – the Israelis, it later turned out, had simply bricked up secret parts of the plant when the inspectors arrived. Anyway, the construction of the Israeli atomic bomb would provide material for a movie: apparently uranium was stolen both in the U.S. and later in Europe (>> here). The first atomic bombs were assembled shortly before the Six-Day War 1967. In 1969, the U.S. effectively accepted the Israeli nuclear bomb and ended its inspection at Dimona (the price for this was later paid in Iraq, Libya, and soon Iran). The public had no idea about the bomb until a presumably Israeli nuclear bomb was tested in South Africa in 1979. Although a U.S. report claimed that the images sent by a satellite may have been caused by a small meteorite hitting the satellite, on 5. In October 1986, the London Sunday Times, after careful examination, published secret documents that the Israeli nuclear physicist Mordechai Vanunu, who had worked at Dimona for nine years, had smuggled out of the country. The documents showed that Israel had 100 to 200 nuclear bombs. (Vanunu was kidnapped shortly before the release and resurfaced in an Israeli prison, where he spent 18 years, 11 of them in solitary confinement. Released in 2004, he is under house arrest and is not allowed to use a cell phone or the Internet. For violating the terms – contact with foreign nationals – he has since had to serve additional prison terms.)

Little is known about the nuclear weapons program South Africa’s known. In 1975, a German-supplied uranium enrichment plant had begun operation west of Pretoria, and South Africa was apparently cooperating with Israel in building nuclear weapons – hence the suspected joint test in 1979. In 1993, Frederik Willem de Klerk announced that South Africa had built six atomic bombs but had dismantled them (before the ANC took power).

In India work on the atomic bomb began in 1964 at the latest, after the Chinese nuclear test. To reassure pacifists in the country and world public opinion, the Indians talked of a peaceful nuclear bomb to "blow away mountains for industrial parks". Poor infrastructure delayed completion, and India could not enrich uranium itself. But on 18. May 1974 India detonated its first atomic bomb in Rajasthan, making it the first emerging country to have an atomic bomb. The uranium for it came partly from the Canadian-American reactor, which was allowed to be used only for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. still allowed further shipments of enriched uranium to India. So the country that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could build up uncontrolled bomb stockpiles. In 1976, environmental groups petitioned to ban fuel exports to India, and Jimmy Carter made the NPT a campaign issue in the U.S. In 1978, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act was passed, banning nuclear exports to countries that were not party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and did not have their power plants inspected. (In view of the new, pacifist Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai, however, Carter vetoed in 1980 an export stop to India. Deliveries were not halted until 1982 – and again in 2008 under George W. Bush – and without controls – resumed.)

The Indian atomic bomb had to reactions in Pakistan release. Pakistan’s president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had already announced as foreign minister that Pakistan would follow suit if India built a nuclear bomb, "and for that, if need be, eat only grass and leaves or even starve." After the detonation of the Indian bomb stole Abdul Qadeer Khan, employees at the Anglo-German-Dutch uranium enrichment plant in Almelo, blueprints and documents, and after he was discovered, he departed for Pakistan and, from 1975, headed the uranium enrichment research program. The United States, which had long viewed the Pakistani military as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, was alarmed by the rivalry between India and Pakistan and prevented the delivery of a French reprocessing plant in 1978, but gave the country a free hand after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It is unclear when Pakistan possessed the nuclear bomb: since Pakistan’s foreign minister participated in a Chinese nuclear test in 1983, a Pakistani bomb may have already been detonated here. In spring 1990, the world was at a standstill during the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan closer to nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to former CIA Deputy Director Richard Kerr. The country itself did not officially admit possession of nuclear warheads until 1997 known. (India reacted 1998 with further atomic bomb explosions.)

The end of the Cold War

Meanwhile, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 (>> more) reignited the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In the same year still NATO decided with a "Rearmament Decision" the statio-nation of new medium-range missiles in Europe; U.S. President Ronald Reagan, starting in 1981, had the neutron bomb (designed to allow neutrons to escape as unimpeded as possible-such a bomb kills people and other living things but leaves buildings largely intact) and announced his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, which was called "Star Wars" was announced. In 1986, the number of nuclear warheads in the world reached about 70.000 their climax so far. In 1985, however, the Soviet Union Michael Gorbachev took office, and as early as October 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to eliminate all intermediate-range weapons in Europe and to reduce strategic weapons by 50 percent. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division of the world into east and west. On 31. July 1991 Russia agreed under Boris Yeltsin and the U.S. was forced to withdraw from NATO with the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) I agreement a further reduction of strategic nuclear weapons, followed two years later by START II. The Russian Duma, however, did not approve the treaty for a long time, first because of the Iraq war and finally because of the dispute over NATO’s eastward expansion; it finally failed when the U.S. revoked the 1972 ABM Treaty (which restricted missile defense systems) in 2002. That as a replacement for George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin concluded SORT (Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty)-Agreement of 2002, however, contains neither controls nor a timetable; both countries still possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. In 2010, the two countries Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev a treaty known as New START, under which by 2020 the number of warheads would be reduced to 1 each.550 should be reduced. In both countries, in the years since the end of the Cold War, the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons production and testing on the environment and the people living in their vicinity, sometimes under heavy production pressure, have also become clear; in both countries, targeted human experiments were also carried out to research the consequences of radioactivity. Bill Clinton’s Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, who released some of the documents, said that to some of the attempts, "all she could think of was Nazi Germany". Soldiers in the former Soviet Union were also released from the confidentiality imposed on them after they were sent to nuclear test sites without protective clothing to see if they would still be able to fight there. In both countries, extensive test sites are still contaminated with radioactivity.

Nuclear weapons in the Middle East and North Africa

The then still allied with the West Iraq under Saddam Hussein, construction had begun in 1977 outside Baghdad on a nuclear reactor supplied by France. France also supplied fissile uranium for reactor. Before this could be fitted with fuel elements, however, it was dismantled on 7. June 1981 destroyed by a targeted attack by the Israeli air force. reactor had been inspected by the IAEA, but inspector Roger Richter later told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iraq determined when and where inspections took place. He told the Washington Post that inspectors were not authorized to look for undeclared material, "we are only allowed to verify that the accounting of declared material is correct."Israel, in any case, was convinced that the reactor was intended to be used to build nuclear weapons. After the first Gulf War, in which Western-backed Iraq used chemical weapons, a UN special commission investigated clandestine weapons programs in Iraq; and when this 1991 discovered Calutrone – an obsolete technology suitable for uranium enrichment – and was fired upon while trying to track the trucks that were about to take it away, it was clear that Iraq was continuing to work on the atomic bomb. Without Western support, however, he made no decisive progress, and after the 2003 Iraq war the Americans found no nuclear weapons.

The Iran had already been launched in 1975 under the Shah at Bushehr started building two nuclear reactors in the Persian Gulf supplied by the German power company Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens and AEG); Iran also took a 15 percent stake in a large uranium mine in Namibia. After the takeover of power by Ayatollah Khomeini, for whom nuclear power was not compatible with Islam, the construction was stopped and later damaged in the war with Iraq. Apparently, however, work on the nuclear program continued in secret; according to the IAEA, Iran received 531 tons of uranium from Namibia in 1982. After Khomeini’s death, the program took off in any case; in the late 1980s, sold by Abdul Q. Khan the country its plans for gas centrifuges. More technology came from China, and Iran built a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. IAEA inspectors found weapons-grade uranium there in 2003; Iran cited contamination in imported equipment as the cause. In 2009, Iran admitted to building a second uranium enrichment plant at Qom, which had been kept secret until then. According to Iran, the enrichment facilities are for civilian purposes only – in 1995 Russia took over completion of one of the reactors at Bushehr, which went online in September 2011 – but the facilities are also capable of producing weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. As a result, there have long been efforts to diplomatically dissuade Iran from enriching uranium, such as by supplying enriched uranium for its nuclear power plant and taking back burned fuel rods under the direction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). So far, these efforts have been in vain.

Libya had already planned to build a Russian nuclear reactor in the mid-1970s (plans were later halted); after the explosion of an Israeli nuclear bomb in 1979, declared Muammar al-Gaddafi, also wanted to build an atomic bomb. The country bought two Russian reactors and obtained plans and centrifuges from Abdul Q. Khan in Pakistan, in 2003, after an anonymous tip-off, components for nuclear facilities were found on a Chinese freighter bound for Libya. Muammar al-Gaddafi, then seeking a lifting of sanctions after the attack on a passenger plane over Lockerbie, then announced he would stop developing nuclear and chemical weapons, and in January 2004 handed over the blueprints to Britain and the U.S. (apparently as they were delivered: in a plastic bag by Abdul Q. Khan’s tailor in Islamabad. When the latter learned of this, he reportedly removed Khan’s client photo from his studio.) When the U.S. confronted Pakistan about the material found in Libya, Khan was forced to publicly apologize on television and was placed under house arrest.

Also Syria appears to have a clandestine nuclear program: After Israel was killed on 6. September 2007 bombed a suspected nuclear facility, traces of uranium were found there. The reactor was presumably built with North Korean support. As Saudi Arabia financially supported Pakistan’s nuclear program, it is also suspected that the country has access to Pakistani nuclear weapons.

Other nuclear bombs and aspirants

North Korea has been conducting nuclear research with Soviet assistance since 1965. In 1993, the country denied IAEA inspectors access to its research facility, but in 1994, due to international pressure, committed to abandoning its nuclear weapons program. In 2002, based on intelligence reports, the U.S. accused North Korea of continuing to work on nuclear weapons; in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2005, North Korea announced it possessed deployable nuclear weapons, and on 9. October 2006, to have carried out a bomb test. However, this was so weak that many experts considered it a failure. At 25. May 2009 another test, about 40 times more powerful, was carried out. Despite all international efforts, the bitterly poor country continues to expand its nuclear arsenal (>> here).

In Argentina and Brazil military governments had been working on nuclear programs since 1978, with democratic governments starting in 1983, respectively. but these were stopped in 1985. 1995 or. In 1998, both countries joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, Brazil denied IAEA inspectors access to the uranium enrichment plant at Resende in 2004, President Lula announced in 2007 that Brazil wants to build nuclear-powered submarines, and in September 2009, however, Brazil’s Vice President Alencar spoke out in favor of Brazilian nuclear bombs: Brazil needs them because of its 15.000 kilometer border and its offshore oil deposits to "deter," and it could increase Brazil’s international prominence. Some experts, such as Hans Ruhle, head of the planning staff at the German Ministry of Defense from 1982 – 1988, suspect that Brazil has long been secretly working on the atomic bomb (>> here). Other countries that may be secretly working on the nuclear bomb include (Foreign Policy October 2009) Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Burma, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.

Nightmare Nuclear Terror

In addition to the states, however, experts are perhaps even more concerned about the possibility that Terrorists to part of its large stockpile of fissile material-a total of about 3.000 tons, including 1.000 tons from civilian nuclear power plants – in many countries around the world come. Already with a tiny part of it they could build a primitive nuclear bomb. Experts, such as Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who works at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, are particularly fearful of the situation in Pakistan, where violent extremists, an unstable political situation, and growing amounts of fissile material converge; in addition, both military and intelligence agencies are said to have contacts with al-Qaida. North Korea has most likely already supplied nuclear technology to Syria, and this connection was discovered by intelligence agencies just before the reactor was completed. This casts doubt both on whether the intelligence services are really even aware of all the nuclear facilities in the world, and whether North Korea is not – similar to Abdul Q. Khan in Pakistan, whose network is still not completely known – also in contact with other countries. Mowatt-Larrsen’s colleague Prof. Graham Allison, who was involved in securing the fissile material in the Successor states of the Soviet Union collaborated and in 2004 published a book about "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe" in which he estimated the likelihood of an atomic terrorist attack in the next 10 years at over 50 percent, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry called this estimate "possibly too low" (>> more). Barack Obama also takes the danger seriously: in April 2010 he called nuclear terrorism America’s greatest foreign policy threat, he invited 47 states to a "Nuclear Security Summit" to Washington a. States agreed to protect hitherto inadequately protected fissile material stockpiles within four years and to discourage illicit trafficking of fissile material through better cooperation.

Literature on the subject:

Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Biography. "Brilliant biography" (review of SPIEGEL>> here). Propylaen 2009, List paperback 2010.

Stephanie Cooke: Atom. The history of the nuclear fallacy. Kiepenheuer& Witsch 2010.

Robert Jungk: Brighter than a Thousand Suns. Even though this book was originally written in 1956 (revised in 1958), it still reads well and describes the dichotomy of many atomic scientists who, fearing a German atomic bomb, collaborated in the construction of the atomic bomb despite moral doubts. Unfortunately only available antiquarian.

Norbert F. Potzl/Rainer Traub (eds.): The Cold War. DVA 2009 (Spiegel book).

Star Extra No. 1/2011: The History of Nuclear Power.

Simon Winchester: Pacific. HarperCollins 2015. The first chapter of this book about the Pacific deals with the atomic bomb tests in this (English language).

© Jurgen Paeger 2006 – 2020

  • Industrial Age:
  • Energy

There were hardly any independent reports about the consequences of the atomic bomb, because the Americans had declared southern Japan a prohibited area. Only two Western journalists reached Hiroshima and Nagasaki on their own – one, Wilfred Burchett, reported on the 5.9.45 in the London Daily Express about the "Atompest" in Hiroshima. The report by Georg Weller of the Chicago Daily News from Nagasaki was withheld by the American censors. It was published 60 years later, after Weller’s son found a copy in his estate, in the Japanese Mainichi Shimbun Published. (>> more). In Japan, too, the American occupation forces banned any reporting on Hiroshima and Nagasaki until 1952.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, title June 1947

The clock introduced in 1947 on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists became a symbol of the nuclear age: it indicated the assessment of the danger of war. © Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. See also>> Literature.

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