Science & Technology: NUCLEAR ARMS
SECRETS OF THE SOVIET H-BOMB
Newly released documents reveal the project's vast human and environmental toll
The date: Aug. 12, 1953. On a cold, clear day in Kazakhstan, 27-year-old Soviet physicist German Goncharov and his colleagues donned the special goggles they had made to watch the first test of a Soviet hydrogen bomb. "We were immensely pleased with ourselves, because we had calculated exactly how to create filters that would protect our eyes but still allow us to see," he recalls.
Then the horizon disappeared in a ball of fire. "There was an incredible scorching heat right in my face," Goncharov remembers. As a mushroom cloud formed, the observers could see the blast's shock wave racing 18 miles over the snow-covered steppe towards them. "We hit the dirt," he says. "There was this fantastic noise, with stones flying." The shock wave, eight times bigger than expected, crushed a truck that had brought Goncharov to the site and collapsed the armor-clad roof over a nearby trench, killing a soldier inside. "We got up and ran like hell," says Goncharov. But the shock wave rebounded off surrounding hills and violently knocked them off their feet.
Goncharov's vivid recollections are part of an unprecedented release of historical information concerning everything from Joseph Stalin's role in key bomb decisions to the horrendous conditions in Soviet plutonium factories. In May, some 300 scientists and technicians from the former Soviet Union's secret cities and weapons sites were allowed, for the first time, to gather at a conference in Dubna to tell their stories.
The first published reports on the revelations from the conference and newly opened archives will appear next month in Physics Today, published by the American Institute of Physics. But Russian and American scientists familiar with the new information agreed to discuss the highlights with BUSINESS WEEK in advance of that report. "It was an extraordinary conference--we were like kids in a candy store," says Manhattan Project physicist and historian Arnold Kramish, one of a handful of Americans invited to the historic meeting. Nerses Krikorian, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, praised the Russians for opening their archives. "After having had total secrecy over their program for decades, they now appear to be moving slowly and surely towards democracy."
The revelations show Stalin had a pervasive mistrust of Soviet technology, forcing his own scientists to abandon potentially superior research so they could devote their time to copying U.S. efforts. The disclosures also reveal the vast extent to which the Soviet nuclear program despoiled Russia's environment. Stories were told of workers who were ordered to sweep up toxic plutonium dust.
A central question surrounding the vast Soviet nuclear program is: Were the scientific secrets leading to the Soviet bomb stolen, or did Russian physicists play a brilliant game of catch-up? The answer is of vital interest to today's Russian scientists and spies. Both sides are hoping their past accomplishments will help win them clout in Russia's turbulent and cash-strapped economy. The issue is particularly important to scientists because of the sharp decline in the funding of research since the Soviet Union's collapse.
The disclosures confirm, on the one hand, that espionage did provide a steady stream of information to bomb designers. But the archives also reveal that Soviet physicists were doing first-class work and made important contributions to the nuclear effort.
The story behind the release of the new information began in the early 1990s, when Russian intelligence services began to claim the lion's share of credit for bringing the Soviet Union into the atomic age. Scientists, understandably disturbed, persuaded President Boris N. Yeltsin to open the archives.
EXACT COPY. The disclosures show how often Stalin and his henchman, Lavrenti P. Beria, distrusted homegrown scientists. Historical accounts, such as that in Richard Rhodes' recent book Dark Sun, have described how Klaus Fuchs, a British physicist and Communist sympathizer working on the U.S. Manhattan Project, handed over blueprints that allowed the Russians to make an exact copy of the first U.S. atomic bomb, which they exploded in 1949.
Some historians have speculated that Fuchs sped up the Soviet effort by as much as a decade. But information released at the Dubna conference shows that Soviet physicists were already far along with their own, more efficient design, which was successfully exploded only two years later. For the crucial first test, however, Beria forced the physicists to use the U.S. design. If the scientists had insisted on their own approach and failed, explains top Russian physicist Nikolai Chernoplyokov, they would have been killed or sent to detention camps.
Similarly, Beria wanted the scientists to build an exact copy of a U.S. reactor in Hanford, Wash., to make the plutonium needed for atomic weapons. But this time the physicists convinced Beria to allow modifications, such as using vertical fuel and control rods instead of horizontal ones. Vertical rods are safer because, in the event of total power failure, the control rods can be simply dropped into the reactor to quell the reaction, instead of having to be pushed in from the side. At the Dubna meeting, the Russian physicists "wanted us to know that they didn't just copy what we did," says Kramish.
Soviet prowess was perhaps most evident in the development of the hydrogen bomb. By the late 1940s, a team led by legendary physicist Andrei Sakharov had come up with an innovative idea for a hydrogen bomb. Dubbed the "layer cake," its nuclear guts were fashioned from alternating layers of heavy and light elements. U.S. researchers had a similar idea but abandoned it for a potentially more powerful approach. But the Soviets went ahead and built an actual weapon.
Indeed, Soviet physicists argue that their 1953 explosion was actually the first workable hydrogen bomb, since it was successfully dropped from a plane. In contrast, the earlier Nov. 1, 1952, U.S. thermonuclear test required a 50-ton device the size of a two-story house. "What struck us all at the Dubna meeting was that this was a seriously competent bunch of people," says Thomas Reed, consultant to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and former Air Force Secretary.
Ironically, the Russians seem to be perpetuating the myth that escalations in the arms race were always triggered by the Americans. "So far, I haven't come across a single document indicating that the Soviet government made a decision before the U.S.," insists Goncharov, who has been poring over the archives. But some of the newly released documents clearly show that the Soviet hydrogen bomb project was under way before Americans launched their crash program.
The Russians are also downplaying their stumbles. Ever since a Geneva conference in 1955, Soviet officials have insisted that a nuclear reactor built at Obninsk had been developed only for peaceful purposes. But at the Dubna conference, one Obninsk veteran admitted that the reactor was first planned as a testbed for submarine power plants. Only later did the researchers discover that it would be too big and heavy for subs. So the Soviets used it as a prototype for the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Still, top Russian scientists are now officially offering a different story, arguing that the reactor had never been intended for use in developing submarine power plants.
The most poignant new revelations, however, center on the human cost of the immense Soviet atomic program. Tens of thousands of prisoners were pressed into service for tasks such as mining uranium, where they received crippling or lethal doses of radiation. "What's coming to light now are the terrible conditions under which people worked," says David J. Holloway of Stanford University, author of Stalin & the Bomb.
MANY DEATHS. At the plutonium separation plant at Chelyabinsk-40, for instance, only 40% of the toxic metal was retrieved in the production process. The rest ended up in pools on the floor or as grime on the ceiling. Former worker Liya Sokhina described how she swept up plutonium with a broom and dustpan--and no protective clothing. Not surprisingly, many of her co-workers died from radiation exposure in the 1950s.
One immediate consequence of the disclosures is a new willingness in Russia to ask if the program was "a great achievement or a disaster," suggests Stanford's Holloway. Russian physicists achieved many scientific triumphs. But the program did tremendous harm to health and the environment, and its enormous cost helped bring about "the collapse of the whole country," Holloway says. It's a legacy that all countries would do well to ponder.By John Carey in Washington and Patricia Kranz, with John Crowfoot, in Moscow