Nuke Opera 2020: Ok, But What About A Herd:

Nuke Opera 2020: Ok, But What About A Herd:

I don’t remember where I heard first heard the saying/proverb/joke “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time”, but I like it. It’s a good reminder that trying to do everything all at once leads to frustration and potentially to nothing getting done at all.

Which is advise I’m currently making myself take.

I’m currently working on an article about the next period in my sub-series on the History of the Cold War, which covers from the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 through to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. At seventeen years, this is one of the longer periods of time I’m trying to cover, so it’s probably to be expected that there’s a lot happening. Still, I figured I’d hit the highlights: the Vietnam War, the rise of the Counterculture in the US, the conservative backlash to the Counterculture, the economic depression of the 1970s – all of which play a part in the rise of the men’s adventure paperback novel and, subsequently, the Nuke Opera subgenre (which I swear I will actually get around to defining sooner or later).

Then I started doing research and preliminary writing and realized a few things:

  1. That each of these subjects is pretty dang convoluted and not easily summarized. Heck, entire books have been written about specialized aspects of each of these subjects.
  2. That I don’t know that much about this period of history as I thought I did[1] – which makes sense since my history classes never really touched on this part of history in great depth. Herodotus, my pseudonymous high school history teacher, made it a point not to cover recent history (i.e. anything less than about 20 years old) because the details about what happened weren’t clear enough yet.
  3. That I really miss being able to go to the library to write. There’s just something about sitting in a different space that makes writing easier for me at times. I think it’s that using library computers, where there’s a timer counting down how long I have access to the machine, forces me to focus on what I’m doing. That and I’m better able to make myself keep my butt in my seat and my fingers on my keyboard than I am when I’m at home and can go grab a snack or decide to take a nap or just otherwise goof off.
  4. And, lastly, that my desire to keep to the Sunday/Wednesday posting schedule means I really have to step up my game about writing when I find time on the other days of the week. Fortunately, my work schedule is currently such that I can easily find moments before, after and even during work to do so.

At the moment, I have three articles related to aspects of the Cold War from 1962-1979 started but not close to completion. One is a general history article about the period; the second is a comparison of World War II and Vietnam from an infantryman’s perspective and is intended to help explain the generation gap between Baby Boomers and their Greatest Generation elders and the third is a discussion about how the Vietnam War and the Sixties impacted science fiction. None of these are close to being done, all three still need quite a bit of work, making each an elephant in its own right. Which leads me to the question of the title: how do you eat a herd of elephants?

My answer: start with the smallest one and move up from there. As it stands right now, I’ve got a pretty good idea which article should serve as a starter in this banquet and I’m going to work on it in earnest after I post this. From there I’ll be making plans to move on to the main course and dessert.

Somewhere in there, I’ll be working on my review of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog – which actually dovetails quite nicely with the article about the Sixties and science fiction.

In summary: I’m not where I want to be, but I have an idea of where I want to go – and I have plenty to snack on along the way.

Special thanks to Amy for reminding me today about taking smaller bites.


[1] I was born in 1970, so I actually lived through part of this history, but since I spent the early 1970s trying to figure out how to walk and talk and feed myself and the later years not taking notes about historical events unfolding around me, my memories of most of the big moments of the 1970s are sketchy at best and generally non-existent.  I have very, very vague memories of maybe once seeing a gas line in what was probably 1975 or 1976 when I was visiting some cousins in Minneapolis and I know I voted for President Carter in my 1st grade class’s mock election (he liked peanuts, I liked peanuts) and I have slightly less vague memories about seeing an episode of Saturday Night Live that spoofed the Three Mile Island crisis. Heck, I barely remember the Blizzard of ’78 except yeah, there was that one year where there was a lot of snow.  And most of what I know about the Bicentennial I learned watching reruns of Barney Miller. If I ever get a time machine, I’m going back and teaching my younger self how to keep a diary…

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Nuke Opera 2020: But What About…: Shameless Speculation About What Might Have Happened After Lot & Lot’s Daughter (SPOILERS Ahead!)

Nuke Opera 2020: But What About…: Shameless Speculation About What Might Have Happened After Lot & Lot’s Daughter (SPOILERS Ahead!)

Note: I do not own nor claim to own these characters; this is a self-indulgent and somewhat cathartic idea of what could potentially have happened to the characters of Lot and Lot’s Daughter.  Spoilers for both stories throughout.

Molly is understandably shocked when she learns that she and the boys have been abandoned at the gas station.  Part of her shock comes from the fact she’s not really that surprised by what Jimmon has done. She’s known for a while that things haven’t been good between them but chalked a lot of it up to him being so focused on preparing for It. She hoped that once the immediate emergency was over and they were able to go back home, they could work on repairing their relationship.  She’s also not that surprised he left the boys, since it’s no secret to her or Jir that Erika is her father’s favorite. She doesn’t blame Erika for this nor does she suspect that Jimmon is a rapist. She’s not afraid for her daughter, she just wants to have her back and safe.

At the gas station, Molly gets the boys in hand and reassures them that this is a misunderstanding – Wendell’s easier to convince than Jir, naturally.  She buys a few supplies, including some candy bars, from the gas station attendant. She also asks him for help in finding someone to report the situation to. The attendant waffles, between not wanting to get involved and being shocked by what happened. Ultimately, he gives into his better nature – it helps that Jimmon was kind of a prick, after all – and offers to help get Molly to the local Civil Defense shelter, where there’ll be folks who can assist her more than he can.

Thanks to narrative convenience, the attendant’s sister-in-law, Olive, stops by to fill up her truck before she heads back to the local Civil Defense shelter. She’s been making a run, picking up spare blankets and supplies from a few houses, including the attendant’s place – which is conveniently near the station.

Olive is more than happy to take Molly and the boys to the shelter, where they’re given a hot meal and a place to sleep. While eating, Molly asks about speaking to someone with local law enforcement, but they’re understandably busy at the moment. She’s told that perhaps in the morning there might be a chance to file a report. Molly’s not exactly happy about this but she’s not exactly in a position to make demands. After dinner, they’re given some basic toiletries and head to the school restrooms to get cleaned up before bed.  Molly waffles a bit about whether to take Wendell with her but he insists on going with Jir who, uncharacteristically, tells Molly that he’ll keep an eye on the kid.

In the bathroom, Molly takes a stall and makes sure that the money Jimmon gave her is secure. She’s not overtly afraid of being robbed, but she also doesn’t want to take any unnecessary chances since the money might come in handy.

The next day, after breakfast, Molly asks if there’s anything she can do to help – she needs something to do to keep herself occupied and she wants to give back to the people who’ve been kind to her. She’s given some tasks by the ‘kitchen ladies[i]‘ who seem to be running the place, such as keeping the coffee made and the sugar and cream stocked and setting out fresh donuts and other pastries.

Molly sets Jir the task of keeping an eye on Wendell but after Wendell finds a group of kids his own age to play with, Jir comes looking for Molly. He ends up meeting a few teens – boys and girls – his own age who have volunteered to help haul in fresh supplies. One of the adults leading the group asks Jir if he’d like to come along. Jir hesitates for a moment, looking to Molly and asking her if she’ll still be there when he gets back. He says it in that way teenagers have of being sarcastic and sincere and Molly tells him that of course she will – she doesn’t have a car, remember? Jir grunts and gives her a quick, hard hug before he goes.

To her great relief, Molly doesn’t break down crying until after Jir is gone – though one of the kitchen ladies who is also on coffee and donuts duty, takes Molly aside for some sympathy. The woman, Jane, is an older, grandmotherly type who looks like a dried apple and sounds one of the little girl-mice from Cinderella[ii]. Molly pours out the whole story of how David (Mr. Jimmon) became so obsessed with his plans for what would happen if the bombs dropped and how he wouldn’t listen to her, even though she’d been doing her own reading and how at first she didn’t mind because it didn’t seem like it could happen – but then it did and he was just so strange the entire day. And then, well, and then he left her and the boys and drove off with their daughter.

And then, the little grandmotherly lady, who looks like a dried apple and sounds like a girl-mouse from Cinderella, calls David Alonzo Jimmon, Senior a “no-good, jumped-up son-of-a-bitch” and Molly is so shocked she breaks out in her first genuine laugh in she’s not sure how long. The woman watches her for a moment, then nods and tells Molly that she’s going to be alright, that they’re going to do what they can do help her out. She’s got a great-nephew who is with the sheriff’s department and she’ll see to it that he comes and talks to her as soon as he can.

And thus begins the rebirth of Molly Jimmon. She continues helping with the shelter/aide station, at first on coffee and donut duty, but over time she takes on other duties, usually things that she can do that don’t interfere with the teamwork the women have already established. One thing they put her on is in taking a tally of the people who come in – names, addresses, ages, possible destinations, etc. This puts Molly in a position where she’s also able to speak to first responders – police, fire fighters, military men, etc. who come through.  This lets her help spread her story even wider.

Unfortunately, any search efforts are limited by the greater/wider concerns about the bombings in Los Angeles. Molly isn’t happy about this, but it’s rather hard for her to be angry when she at least knows that Erika is with her father and therefore in a better shape than some. Again, she has no reason to suspect just what kind of a monster Jimmon is going to turn out to be.

The old dried apple woman, Perla Mae Barnaby, takes Molly and the boys in, giving them a more permanent place to stay. Molly keeps helping at the shelter, partly to earn her keep and partly in hopes that she’ll learn something about Erika and David. Wendell goes with her, playing with the kids at the shelter who are a mix of local kids too young to help out with chores and displaced kids pausing at the shelter for a few hours or a night or two while their parents figure things out.

Jir alternates between helping out at the shelter and tagging along with the group of local teens he met that first day, doing odd jobs at various places. To Molly’s relief, he seems to be more relaxed and less tense as the days go on.

After a couple of weeks, Molly is able to make contact with Pearl and Dan, who are very relieved to hear from her. They offer to come get her and the boys immediately – Dan has some pull thanks to his work with the government – but Molly turns them down, she feels needed where she is and the boys are happy. She does ask if they can send someone to check on the house in Malibu, to see if the pace is still standing. Pearl agrees to see what she can do and tells Molly that the offer to take them is always open if she should change her mind.

As it turns out, the house is still standing and the neighborhood seems to have been missed by looters. Molly is relieved to hear this and asks Olive if there’s someone, preferably with a truck, who can drive her to Malibu so she can pick up some things for herself and the boys. Olive volunteers for the job and suggests they bring Jir and a couple of the other teens along to help tote and carry.

The drive down to Malibu takes a lot less time than the drive up did since the roads aren’t packed. Arriving at the house gives Molly a pang and Jir becomes more than a bit sullen, though his friends jolly him out of it. Shaking off her own melancholy, Molly sets about scavenging what she can from her former home.

They bring back quite the haul – canned goods from the basement that Jimmon thought were useless, some staples from the kitchen that haven’t gone off, and plenty of clothes for herself, Jir and Wendell as well as blankets, pillows and some other little touches of home.

While trying to decide if there’s anything else she needs to take and looking for signs that Jimmon and Erika might have come back, Molly hears Jir yelling with excitement outside. He’d been helping Olive try to get the Buick’s tires pumped up and install a new battery, since if they can get the car running Molly will have her own source of transportation.

Molly’s heart swells with hope against hope that David and Erika are back. Running outside, she sees Jir on his knees in the driveway, hugging Waggie and sobbing into the spaniel’s fur. It’s not the reunion she’d hoped for but it’s still a good sign. The dog is in decent shape, skinnier and with a few more snarls in his fur but all in all, he’s in good health.

With their treasures loaded into the truck and the Buick running like a top, the group caravans back up to their new home and Molly settles back into her routine.

Over the next few weeks and months, Molly finds herself becoming the go-to person for tracking down missing and lost members of families. She maintains meticulous records and, thanks to her connections with Pearl and Dan is able to requisition an electric typewriter and the necessary supplies (typewriter ribbons, carbon paper, paper, etc.) to start a newsletter that she circulates between the region’s Civil Defense shelters. She sends letters up and down the Pacific Coast and even further afield, trying to find her daughter and wayward husband but also trying to reunite others along the way.

Thus does Molly Jimmon reinvent herself in the post-apocalypse.  She doesn’t find Erika or Jimmon right away, but she does organize a system that stays in place even as the war continues. Her protocols are used in refugee camps throughout the Western United States and help keep the refugee situation under control.

There are problems – panic at one camp leads to a tragedy but the Jimmon System ensures that none of those killed in the riots are nameless. It’s a small comfort, but better that people have closure and know what happened to a loved one than live with the pain of not knowing.

Jir becomes one of Molly’s couriers, delivering newsletters and bulletins to camps in the region, usually accompanied by one or more of his friends. Wendell sticks close to home, helping Perla Mae with her chickens and cows and playing with Waggie – Molly and Jir are heroes beyond measure in his eyes for bringing his dog home.

The months turn into years and the burning desire to find Erika and David Jimmon fades but never fully dies out. And then, there comes the day that a 21-year-old girl claiming to be Erika Jimmon is found by a patrol up near Monterrey.

The reunion isn’t as storybook as some might think. Erika is shy about meeting her mother again and paradoxically angry that Molly didn’t find her sooner. It takes time before the two are able to talk about what happened and Jir ends up having to explain that Molly never stopped looking for her.

The family, minus Mr. Jimmon, goes through a slow process of healing. Mr. Jimmon learns that post-apocalyptic justice doesn’t have to be savage, but it does mean he’s going to be spending a long, long time on a work-farm, hoeing potatoes.


[i] Folks who have attended a small town/community church will know what I mean – and I’m willing to bet there is some version of the ‘older women who take care of things like organizing pot lucks, charity drives, spaghetti dinners, etc.’ in every faith since the first Neanderthals had their first Long-Sun-Day Mammoth Roast.

[ii] This character is based on a former coworker of mine who, I swear, sounded exactly like one of the girl-mice from Cinderella, which made it very disconcerting when she announced in the clocking-out line one night that she was going to go home and ‘smoke me a bowl!’

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Nuke Opera 2020: Some Words about Warnings — On Spoilers and Triggers and Content Warnings

Nuke Opera 2020: 1500 Word Warning — — On Spoilers and Triggers and Content:

Back when I began this project, in the far-off, pre-pandemic times of January 8, 2020[1], it was with the following stated goals about what this blog series would be about:

  • First and Foremost:is to review several books and stories that are linked by a common theme, including some that I feel haven’t gotten the kind of critical attention they really should have.
  • Secondly:To talk about the history of nuclear weapons, civil defense and popular culture’s responses to the possibility of World War III.

Looking back on the articles I’ve finished over the last three months, it’s abundantly clear I’ve managed to knock the second goal out of the park. In fact, the science and history articles ended up being the main focus, mostly because I thought it was necessary to get some of this background information out so that I could refer to it during the reviews.  Also, researching history and science is addictively fun, not going to lie.

But, I’m finally to the point where I think I’ve filled in enough background that I can safely start talking about the fictional works that are themselves part of the groundwork for the larger discussion of the “Nuke Opera” subgenre. So, that’s going to be the focus for the next several articles, with a few detours back to touch on history and science as necessary.

However, there are some things I want to talk about before we get started with the media criticism. Specifically, about spoilers, historical context and content/trigger warnings:


It could probably go without saying that my reviews are going to be full of spoilers. Part of the purpose of this project is to dive deeply into these works and that means discussing these stories in great detail. Still, I’m going to give a spoiler warning before each review.

Granted, the works I’ll be looking at are between 28 and 67 years old, so it’s not as if people haven’t had a chance to get around to reading them.

But, with a few exceptions, most of these works are not exactly well-known outside of some relatively niche circles.

So, with that in mind: if you would like the pleasure, however dubious it might be in some cases, of reading these works without spoilers, please, feel free to seek out the source materials, read them and come back for the commentary and discussion.

The Past is a Foreign Country:

Part of the reason for the long essays on the history of the Cold War years is because all of these works are products of their times and the real-world responses to the fear/threat of nuclear war impacted the fictional depictions of post-nuclear survival that we’ll be looking at.

The other reason for the essays on history is that, for a lot of us in the present-day, the Cold War years are kind of a muddled blur. We tend to mock certain aspects of Cold War history, in part because we lack an understanding about why those things were done. I’ve mentioned the misconception about “Duck and Cover” being a useless strategy[2] – which is true, if you’re considering it against ICBMs carrying multi-megaton warheads with a maximum flight time of 30-minutes from silo to target site.  But it was still potentially effective in the days when it was created, a time when nuclear weapons were still in the kiloton range and delivered by bombers that allowed for several hours’ worth of warning.

Additionally, there’s the chance for confusion because some things that we take for granted today weren’t so commonplace back then. In at least two of the works we’ll be looking at, a whole slew of problems for the main character[3] could have been solved if he had simply gotten a divorce before the story started – except, at the time the stories were written, divorcing was difficult, not to mention being divorced was highly stigmatized.

More importantly, we’re going to be running into a lot of material related to the bog-standard, mainstream prejudices that were previously accepted by the majority because they could easily and safely ignore the protests of the minority. Racist attitudes toward blacks in specific and people of color in general, sexist ideas about women, homophobic prejudices about people who are LGBTQ+ will all show up to greater or lesser extent throughout the works we’ll be looking at. Some of the worst offenders will, it may surprise you, will come from some of the more recent examples of what I’m calling “Nuke Operas”, published in the late 80s-early 90s, near the very end of the Cold War.

This is because the books that make up the “Nuke Opera” genre were an offshoot of the “Men’s Action-Adventure” super-genre of paperback originals that began roughly in 1969 with the publication of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner #1: War Against The Mafia[4]. Like other genre categories such as “Romance” or “Western,” “Men’s Action-Adventure” encompassed a wide variety of sub-genres, of which post-apocalyptic adventures[5] were but a single thread.

Something most of these various series had in common was an emphasis on a kind of masculinity that can be best described as “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche[6]” meets “Soldier of Fortune.”  Guns and other forms of weaponry often get more description than some characters do, while the heroes are macho badasses straight out of Central Casting, ranging from the exaggerated-but-still-kinda-realistic Rated M for Manly to full-bore you-hope-its-a-parody-but-it’s-probably Testosterone Poisoning in the most extreme/obnoxious cases.

A lot of these books rely heavily on the idea that a post-apocalyptic society would be a lawless hellscape where might (in the persona of a man[7] with superior firepower) would make right, so there’s a lot of violence. And because these books were being aimed at adult men[8] there is often more than a bit of sex in some of these titles.  On the other side of the sexual content coin, rape is often depicted for all the wrong reasons – either to motivate the hero or to demonstrate just how truly eeeevil the villain/s of the piece are.

Trigger/Content Warnings:

Out of respect for my readers, I will be issuing content and/or trigger warnings on my reviews. While I’m aware there are those who think such things are unnecessary, I’m of the opinion that they allow people to prepare themselves and decide when/how they want to engage with something. I feel this is especially important when it comes to things that, when you get down to it, are meant to be entertaining rather than traumatizing.

For those who might be unaware of the differences between a content warning and a trigger warning, the following definitions are taken from the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ “An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings”:

  • Content Warnings: are “notices that precede potentially sensitive content” and “flag the contents of the material that follows” so the audience can “prepare themselves to adequately engage or, if necessary, disengage for their own wellbeing.”

An example of a general content warning might be a title card prior to a TV show that reads:  The following program contains adult situations and strong language and may not be suitable for all viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

  • Trigger Warnings: are a subset of content warnings, that “attempt to forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.”

An example of a trigger warning might be something like: The following article will discuss rape and domestic abuse or TW: contains references to homophobia, racism and eating disorders. This allows a potential reader who may have PTSD or other anxiety issues related to either rape or domestic abuse to decide how and when they will engage with the article.

Or, to think of it another way, content warnings are like the nutritional information on the side of a candy bar – they’re there to help you make an informed decision about what you’re about to consume. Trigger warnings are like allergen information on the side of a candy bar – they’re there to let you know that there’s one or more ingredients that could cause you serious harm[9].

For my purposes, I’m going to use content warnings for situations where the problematic materials are more sub-textual or implied and trigger warnings for blatant/graphic depictions.

  • For more information I highly recommend Here’s What Trigger Warnings Are – And What They’re Not by M. Slade – an essay in the form of a comic strip about how and why trigger warnings can be helpful. (Note for those who may use screen readers: the article does have a transcript of the content available near the bottom of the articles).


[1] The next day, January 9, 2020, would be when China would finally publicly identified a new “pneumonia-like” virus as a novel coronavirus and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidance for other countries to detect and respond to it.

[2] It’s particularly annoying when people say that ‘ducking and covering’ would be useless at ground zero. Not because they’re wrong – it would, but then so would just about anything else – but because it wasn’t intended for people at or near ground zero. It was for people further away, to protect against being flash blinded or hit by flying debris from the aftereffects of the shock-wave.

[3] Not to mention the main character’s wife…possibly especially the main character’s wife…ok, definitely the main character’s wife…

[4] Because, as with history, there is no clear-cut beginning with literary genres, this is another one of those arbitrary starting points chosen because it’s near enough to the beginning to suit our purposes.

[5] Not every post-apocalyptic series used nuclear war as the reason why the world went to hell, though it does seem to be the majority cause between 1980-1992 for some reason…

[6] “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was intended as a tongue-in-cheek satire and was written in part to counter the rise of the quiche-eating “Sensitive Man” as embodied by men like Alan Alda.

[7] Generally speaking, a cishet, able-bodied, white (usually WASP) man of the “all women want him; all men want to be him” variety.

[8] Not that there was much of anything stopping kids, including your humble blogger, from buying them but the intended audience was indeed adult men.

[9] The allergen comparison isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think it works well enough for our purposes. Some people are so sensitive to, say, peanuts that being in an enclosed space with an open packet of trail mix can cause a reaction; others can safely consume a food they’re sensitive to in small quantities. The decision to consume or not to consume is one that should be made by the person who is allergic, not by someone else who thinks they know better (and yes, there are people who think food allergies aren’t a ‘big deal’ — there’s a word for people like that, but it’s a bit rude).

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Nuke Opera 2020: Atomic Era Begins (1949-1962) — Part One: 1949-1954

Atomic Era Begins — 1949-1962, Part One (1949-1954):

On September 24, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic weapon. The test itself, nicknamed “First Lightning” by the Soviets and “Joe 1” by the Americans, had occurred on August 29, 1949.

Surprisingly, the news didn’t incite a panic among Americans – partly due to the government instructing reporters not to overplay the significance of the news. Additionally, panic didn’t appear because this news wasn’t unexpected. After all, Americans had had four years to imagine the possibility of their cities being atom bombed. Not to mention, the idea that the Soviets would develop their own bomb was widely regarded as simply a matter of time.

Instead, the primary reaction was the desire to see America increase its lead by stockpiling more nuclear weapons. The Hearst newspapers called for the US to stockpile four bombs to every Soviet bomb [(1)] while Life magazine said America should maintain a “clear, unchallenged, demonstrable” nuclear supremacy (Bomb’s Early Light).

In addition to increasing the US stockpile in terms of numbers, there were also calls to make weapons that were significantly more powerful.  The idea of a ‘superbomb’ had been being discussed for years, with Edward Condon warning in early 1946 about the possibility of bombs a thousand times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On January 31, 1950, President Truman authorized the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to begin work on the hydrogen bomb, also known as “the Super.” [(2)] The program for building the Super dwarfed the Manhattan Project and led to the AEC tripling in size from 55,000 to 142,000 employees and from a handful of sites to over a score. The project used 7% of the United States’ electrical output and exceeded the combined market capitalization of Bethlehem Steel, US Steel, Alcoa, DuPont, Goodyear and General Motors.

The American public’s reaction was largely favorable. According to a Gallup poll conducted in February 1950, 69% of Americans favored building the hydrogen bomb with another 9% expressing reluctant approval. Only 14% of those polled expressed disapproval of the hydrogen bomb.

While the world celebrated the end of World War II, there was still the fear that there would eventually be another war. In October 1945, for example, a poll found that 59% of Americans believed there would be another war within the next twenty years; this figure grew to 77% by late 1947. By 1948, a Gallup poll found 57% of Americans expected another war within a decade and 43% thought it would happen within three or four years.

It happened in two, when on June 25, 1950, Communist North Korea invaded Capitalist South Korea, capturing the South Korean capital of Seoul three days later. The United Nations responded by assembling an international force of 16 nations to combat the invasion. These forces were led by US General Douglas MacArthur. US-led UN forces landed in South Korea in July 1950, beginning the Korean War.

For more information on the Korean War, I recommend the following videos

Welcome to Korea:

For our purposes, the Korean War is important because it was the first shooting war of the Atomic Age and it came at a time when there were two nuclear powers instead of one. There were calls to use nuclear weapons against the North Koreans and the Chinese, not only from within the military but also among the American people.

According to an August 1950 Gallup poll, 28% of Americans were in favor of using the atomic bomb in Korea. A year later, when the war was becoming more costly and frustrating, 51% supported the atomic bombing of military targets.[(3)]

General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations forces fighting in the Korean war, requested authority to employ nuclear weapons in December 1950, going so far as to submit a list of “retardation targets” in Korea and China, which would require 34 atomic bombs.[(4)]

In April 1951, Truman did make arrangements with the AEC to transfer nine nuclear bombs into military control, though there was some concern about both MacArthur’s lack of technical knowledge about the weapons and their effects as well as fear that he might use the weapons prematurely. Rather than place the bombs under MacArthur’s direct control, authority to deploy the weapons was given to Strategic Air Command, which planned to bomb industrial cities in North Korea and China rather than air bases and depots.

While the option was still being discussed as late as 1953, ultimately, nuclear weapons were not used during the Korean War. Work on the hydrogen bomb, however, did begin at this time and continued on throughout the war and beyond.

Despite favorable polls, not everyone in either America or the rest of the world was in favor of the H-bomb. In March, 1950, members of the Permanent Committee of the Partisans of Peace (an extension of the World Peace Congress) met in Stockholm, Sweden. In a meeting led by Frederick Joliot-Curie, son-in-law of Marie Curie, the members adopted a resolution aimed at banning nuclear weapons. The resolution, officially the Stockholm Peace Appeal, was dubbed the “Ban the Bomb” pledge. In addition to demanding a ban on all nuclear weapons, the pledge also called for holding those who refused to comply accountable for that refusal.

The Appeal was widely circulated, collecting 1.5 million signatures in the United States, 10 million in France, 60 million in China and 115 million in the Soviet Union. In Brazil, 3.75 million people signed, including 2,000 illiterate peasants who used their thumbprints to sign.

There were those who looked on the early nuclear disarmament movement as subversive, even treasonous. This led to some activists retreating from the cause, while others continued to fight against what they saw as a rising threat of nuclear war.

Some who denounced the Stockholm Peace Appeal did so out of a rejection of the Appeal’s connection to communism. Representative Peter Rodino, Jr, (D-NJ) called for members of the clergy of all faiths to reject the petition due to “the insidious danger of atheistic communism” that he felt the petition exemplified. He also decried the Appeal as “a war petition calculated to give Soviet Russia time to stockpile atomic weapons while we are lulled into a false sense of security.” (Intondi, p. 36).

Across the aisle, Representative Bernard Kearney (R-NY) denounced the petition as an attempt to “confuse and divide the American people and paralyze their resistance to Communist aggression.” (Intondi, p. 36)

Red Scare II: The New Batch:

“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time. And, ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down – they are truly down.”Senator Joseph McCarthy.

On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin gave a speech to the Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. In that speech, he announced that he had a list of 205 (or 57, or 81 or…) men in the State Department who were not only members of the Communist Party but also members of a spy ring.

There was one problem: the list didn’t actually exist– hence the ever-changing number of supposed Communists in the State Department. However, because of growing fears of the Communist Soviet Union, the press jumped on McCarthy’s statement and ran with it. This catapulted the junior senator from Wisconsin into the national spotlight and helped begin the second Red Scare.

While Senator McCarthy is often linked with things like the blacklisting of writers and actors in Hollywood and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), he wasn’t actually involved with either of those things. They were happening concurrently with McCarthy’s investigations into the alleged communist infiltration of the US government. In actuality, McCarthyism became the point where both elite and public opinion turned against the Red Scare – likely because McCarthy went so far as to alienate other anti-communists by overreacting and overreaching himself. [(5)]

By the time McCarthy began attacking the Army, in trials broadcast on national television between April and June 1954, his fifteen minutes of fame were beginning to wind down. His bullying of witnesses helped turn public opinion against him, leading to the US Senate voting on December 2, 1954 to censure McCarthy. A move McCarthy ignored, but that no one else did – then-President Eisenhower quipped that McCarthyism was now “McCarthywasm” (TV Tropes Useful Notes, Joseph McCarthy)

For more information on McCarthyism:

Spies Like Us:

It’s easy to characterize the anti-communist rhetoric of the 1950s as simple, baseless hysteria. But there were Communists working within the US to funnel information about the US nuclear program to the Soviet Union. Granted, not as many as some feared, but those who were doing the spying were well-placed.  In fact, there had been spies within the US nuclear program from the beginning of the Manhattan Project.

Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British theoretical physicist who was part of the British delegation at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.  He’d begun spying for the Soviet Union while working on the British Tube Alloys program (predecessor to the Manhattan Project).  Fuchs voluntarily confessed to being a spy in January 1950, with some of his statements being used to implicate other spies.

Among those Fuchs implicated was Harry Gold, an American who himself confessed to acting as a courier for Fuchs and David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Rosenberg. Gold was a key witness against Greenglass, who in turn also gave evidence against his sister and his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg.

The Rosenbergs were tried and convicted for their role in coordinating and recruiting members of an espionage network that included Greenglass.  Since the US and Soviet Union were allies at the time, they couldn’t be charged with treason but were convicted of espionage in 1951. They were executed on June 19, 1953, despite an international movement that demanded clemency and which included appeals from leading European intellectuals and even the Pope. Eisenhower justified the execution of Ethel Rosenberg — who many felt had not been involved in atomic spying — by explaining to his son that if he spared her, then the Soviet Union would use that as an excuse to recruit female spies.

While the Rosenbergs were involved in espionage, their trial and conviction occurred under less than ethical conditions. Greenglass originally testified that his sister had nothing to do with his atomic espionage, placing the blame solely on Julius’s shoulders – however, ten days before the start of the Rosenbegs’ trial, Greenglass changed his testimony, including Ethel in his accusations. This new testimony was in exchange for a deal that would protect Greenglass’s wife, Ruth, who some scholars believe may have been more involved in the atomic espionage than Ethel was.

The H-Bomb:

Note: the terms ‘hydrogen bomb/weapon’ is synonymous with ‘thermonuclear bomb/weapon’ and ‘fusion bomb/weapon.’

When all was said and done, despite protests and petitions and debates, work on the hydrogen bomb began with the Operation Greenhouse tests at Eniwetok Atoll  [(6)] in the Marshall Islands. This series of tests assessed design principles that would be pivotal for the first hydrogen bomb design.

On November 1, 1952, the US conducted its first hydrogen bomb test at Eniwetok Atoll.  The test was designated Shot Mike, of Operation Ivy (aka Ivy Mike). The weapon was nicknamed “the Sausage” because its cylindrical shape was, well, sausage-like. You can watch video footage of the test.  You can watch a longer video, with additional footage and context at OPERATION IVY 1952 HYDROGEN BOMB TESTS at ENEWETAK ATOLL 80294

Due to its size, Ivy Mike wasn’t dropped on Elugelab, but was instead built on the island and detonated from the ground. The blast destroyed the island of Elugelab, leaving behind a crater over a mile in diameter and roughly 16-17 stories deep. You can still see the crater on Google Earth images of the atoll.

Additional Info:

Stop Copying Me!:

Whatever advantage was gained by being the first to build and test the H-bomb was short-lived. The Soviet Union tested what it claimed was its first thermonuclear device, RDS-6 (nicknamed Joe-4  by the Americans) on August 12, 1953. While the test’s yield wasn’t in the megaton range (it was “only” 400 kilotons), the Soviets still took the win, in part for propaganda purposes. In particular, they drew attention to the fact that their fusion weapon was deliverable by air, something the Americans wouldn’t accomplish for another six months.

Castle Bravo:

On March 1, 1954, during the Operation Castle series of tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, test shot Bravo was dropped. This test represented the most powerful nuclear device detonated by the United States and was our first lithium deuteride fueled thermonuclear device. Until the Soviet Tsar Bomba test in 1961, Castle Bravo was the most powerful artificial explosion in human history.

It was also one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. Due to unexpected additional reactions within the explosion, the yield was nearly three times stronger than what had been expected. Instead of being “only” six megatons, the blast’s yield was 15 megatons, meaning the blast’s effects reached higher and further than expected.

Fallout, primarily in the form of pulverized coral fell on the islands of the Rongelap and Utirik Atolls. At the time, it was dubbed “Bikini snow” and led to the inhabitants of the islands suffering from radiation sickness – something exacerbated by the fact none of those inhabitants were evacuated until three days after the explosion. Twenty-three crew members of the Japanese fishing vessel, Daigo Fukuryuu Maru (Lucky Dragon #5) were also contaminated by heavy fallout and experienced acute radiation sickness. One member of the crew, Aikichi Kuboyama, died on September 23, 1954 and is considered the first victim of the hydrogen bomb [(7)]

Additionally, fallout in the form of gases and finer particulate matter spread around the world, and was detected in Australia, India, Japan as well as in the United States and even in parts of Europe.  The Southwestern United States received the greatest amount of fallout of those areas outside the South Pacific.

The Castle Bravo tests ended up sparking international incidents, especially in Japan, who reached a settlement with the United States, wherein each of the surviving victims of the Lucky Dragon received $5,500 ($52,800 in 2020 money).

The effects of the Castle Bravo tests are still impacting the people of the Marshall Islands to this day. In addition to being forced from their homes and exposed to radiation (albeit inadvertently), radiation related cancers and birth defects are still major problems faced by the Marshallese. While the Marshall Island Claims Tribunal exists to award compensation for these health effects, there are things that money cannot buy.

Lani Kramer, a Marshallese councilwoman has said, “As a result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage, our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation.”

Nuclear Strategy:

Additionally, now that there was a second nuclear power in the world, the US military had to develop strategies and plans for fighting a nuclear war.

The 1950 war plan, OFF TACKLE, stated that in case of nuclear war, SAC was to expend all of its bombers, crews and weapons within the first three months of war being declared. The thinking was that a nuclear war would either be over in 90 days or there would simply be nothing left to fight over. Unlike earlier war plans, in OFF TACKLE plan, SAC was to ‘destroy’ targets rather than ‘direct’ bombs against them.

It’s also at this point in time when we begin to see the first efforts at what would come to be known as “Continuity of Government” – basically, the ability for the (in this case) US government to continue working after a nuclear war.

The first bomb shelter intended to protect against atomic bombs was built during Truman’s presidency. Construction was authorized on August 1, 1950 though word of the shelter didn’t reach the public until April 18, 1951. The shelter cost roughly $881,000 in 1950 money, though despite authorizing the cost, Truman had no intention of using the shelter when the day came. As he told his naval aid, Robert Dennison:

Of course, you’ve got to go ahead with all this planning and all of these arrangements, but  I want to tell you one thing. If a situation ever develops where execution [of the evacuation order] seems to be indicated, I don’t intend to leave the White House. I am going to be right here. (Raven Rock, p. 29)

Truman further told Dennison: I would like to be as sure as I can that there’s some way that I can get on the air to talk to the people of the United States, to assure them that I am here, that I’m not up in the hills some place, and to tell them what I can of the situation. (Raven Rock, p. 29)

As well as providing for his own safety (despite his unwillingness to use it), Truman also created the Federal Civil Defense Administration on December 1, 1950. He later explained his reasoning: So long as there is any chance at all that atomic bombs may fall on our cities, we cannot gamble on being caught unprepared. (Raven Rock, p. 31)

The FCDA would later produce dozens of films, pamphlets and other materials, including a traveling show, “Alert America” that traveled via tractor-trailer to 70 cities in 1952. Among the films FCDA created were Survival Under Atomic Attack, What you Should Know About Biological Warfare, and the infamous Duck and Cover.

Truman left office on January 15, 1953, delivering a farewell address that included the following:

Now, once in a while, I get a letter from some impatient person asking, why don’t we get it over with? Why don’t we issue an ultimatum, make all-out war, drop the atomic bomb? For most Americans, the answer is quite simple: We are not made that way. We are a moral people. Peace is our goal, with justice and freedom. We cannot, of our own free will, violate the very principles that we are striving to defend. The whole purpose of what we are doing is to prevent world war III. Starting a war is no way to make peace. But if anyone still thinks that just this once, bad means can bring good ends, then let me remind you of this: We are living in the 8th year of the atomic age. We are not the only nation that is learning to unleash the power of the atom. A third world war might dig the grave not only of our Communist opponents but also of our own society, our world as well as theirs. Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Truman as President, inheriting not only the Korean War but also the Cold War. A war hero and a former general who had served as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe– a position that included being the commander of NATO’s Allied Command Operations in Europe, Eisenhower had never actually faced combat as a soldier. He was however intimately familiar with the damage and destruction that World War II had caused in Europe.

During the first months of Eisenhower’s first term of office, Joseph Stalin died of a stroke on March 5, 1953. He was temporarily succeeded by Gregory Malenkov, who was ultimately succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who would be the primary adversary of the United States until his “voluntary” retirement in 1964.

Eisenhower was, in the words of Garrett M. Graff, a man who “loved soldiering, but hated war.” (Raven Rock, p. 44)  Having become president at a time when nuclear weapons were becoming more powerful as well as easier and cheaper to make, Eisenhower valued taking his time and making decisions carefully. He had campaigned on a “New Look” for US foreign policy, one that emphasized greater focus, strength and clarity than Truman’s ‘erratic” and “militaristic” policies.

Of the US presidents who served during the Cold War, Eisenhower’s term in office was one of the longest[(8)] — lasting from January 20, 1953-January 20, 1961 and helped shape America’s response to the Soviets. We’ll be discussing more of his impact in our next article.


[1] By 1950, the US had a stockpile of 299 nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union’s five, so to get this ratio, we would have had to stop producing until the Soviets built another seventy bombs.
[2] At this point in time, the AEC had full authority over nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
[3] Which sounds good, but remember that Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention Tokyo and Dresden – were considered military targets during World War II, despite being civilian cities that happened to contain military bases or industrial centers.
[4] This doesn’t necessarily mean there were 34 targets, as some nuclear strategies call for using multiple bombs on a single location.
[5] Something similar happened during the Salem Witch Hunts, wherein public opinion began to turn against the witch hunts as they continued on and more and more people began to be accused, including members of the elite classes.
[6] Eniwetok Atoll is an alternate spelling of Enewetak Atoll. From April 14, 1948 to August 18, 1958, 43 nuclear tests occurred there, for a yield of roughly 31.8 megatons or about 6% of the total test yield of ALL nuclear tests conducted worldwide.
[7] During treatment for acute radiation syndrome, the crew of the Lucky Dragon were given transfusions with blood infected with hepatitis. Kuboyama died from cirrhosis of the liver that was compounded by this hepatitis infection.
[8] Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan both served a total of 2,922 days in office. Reagan served from January 20, 1981-January 20, 1989.



Nuke Opera 2020: Pandemic Interlude

I started something short to post today but it’s not done and I’m too tired to try and finish it, so instead I’m going to ramble a bit about recent events. I’m counting this as part of the Nuke Opera series because, well, because I can since I’m the one who gets to define what is and isn’t on topic.  And a global pandemic is within the scope of what I’m wanting to look at when we start getting into the fiction pieces I want to cover.

Some personal stuff, for posterity’s sake: I first heard about the coronavirus around the same time everyone else in the US did, back in December (I want to say? Not looking it up right now because I want to preserve my memories, faulty as they might be).  Back then, I didn’t think much about it since it wasn’t happening here. I remember being sympathetic to the folks who were sick but, again, wasn’t happening here, wasn’t directly affecting me, so wasn’t really on my radar. No, I’m not particularly proud of that.

Gradually (or so it seemed to me), the virus became more and more of a big deal, more people in China were getting sick, there were concerns about it spreading, and so on and so forth. I started paying a bit more attention to the situation, but it was more out of curiosity than anything else. Again, the virus was still “over there” and I had other things to worry about — again, I was sympathetic to the folks in Wuhan but in the abstract.

Then the virus spread, first to cruise ships and then reports of it in countries outside of China. Still more of an abstract concern, but realer now since some of the worry was hitting closer to home. Fast-forward to this week, with cases being reported in every state (except, last I heard, West Virginia, though that could have changed by now). In Ohio, the number of cases has gone from five to 13 to 26 to 37 in just under six days. Now, instead of being a world away, the virus has appeared a little over fifty miles from where I live.

Okay, that sounds really dramatic for all that its accurate. Yes, there are cases in the Greater Cincinnati area which is less than an hour from where I live. But, honestly? There are probably cases a lot closer to me than that. The Ohio Director of Health is guesstimating that there are at least 100,000 people infected in the state, so the 37 cases we know about are just the very tip of the Sword of Damocles that’s hanging over us right now.

I went out and got groceries today since the governor of Ohio has ordered all dine-in restaurants and bars to close, starting at 9 pm tonight. It wasn’t bad. There was no panicking, no hysteria, no fights or arguments. Yes, the shelves were bare in spots (forget about getting toilet paper, eggs or bottled water), but I managed to get enough food for my girlfriend and I to be able to eat for the next week or so. And since drive-thrus and carryout places are still open, maybe even a bit longer than that.

I am worried about what’s going to happen when the first case hits *really* close to home.  My personal worst-case scenario is someone getting sick at my job, but we’re on top of things in terms of making hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes available (it’s something we’ve been doing since long before COVID-19 was even a concern). But, for right now, there’s nothing to do but wait and see what happens. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, just as people have done in every disaster situation since the dawn of mankind.

This has been a bit of a ramble and I’ll likely circle back around to talk about this in relation to nuclear war and Nuke Operas but for now, I need to sleep ’cause work comes early tomorrow. I hope you are all safe and sound and well.

And remember: wash your hands! And if you can’t wash, use hand sanitizer. If you need something to sing for 20 seconds, how about “Duck and Cover”? Here’s a couple handy posters, made using “Wash Your Lyrics.”

Nuke Opera 2020: Pictures of History, Part Two

Since I’m a bit behind in my writing, I figured I’d share a few more pictures that are relevant to the theme:

It probably goes without saying that the National Museum of the United States Air Force has an exhibit on the Berlin Airlift.  This diagram shows how the planes managed their deliveries.

Berlin Airlift flight patterns

From the National Museum of the United States Air Force’s exhibit on the Berlin Airlift: an illustration of how they kept the planes flying.

Berlin Airlift Cartoonist

Technical Sergeant John H. “Jake” Schuffert was an aircraft radio operator during the Berlin Airlift as well as a cartoonist for the Airlift Times, a newspaper published for Airlift Personnel.

Above: examples of “Jake’s” comics for the Airlift Times; in the last comic, Celle and Fassberg were air bases used during the Airlift.

If you’d like to learn more,  you can visit the National Museum of the United States Air Force Exhibit: Berlin: City Held Hostage (online exhibit)

# # # # #

I took a trip today to the Mounds Cold War Discovery Center, in Miamisburg, Ohio.


And here’s its namesake: the Miamisburg Mound, the largest conical burial mound in Ohio. It was built by members of the Adena Culture, roughly between 1000 and 200 BCE

Miamisburg Mound 2

Picture of the back of the Miamisburg Mound, showing the steps you can use to climb to the top; the Mounds Cold War Discovery Center is behind the Mound and across the street from it. 

Inside the discovery center, you can learn about the work that went on at Mound Laboratory from 1948-2003. Mound Laboratory was the first post-Manhattan Project site built by the Atomic Energy Commission. The site was intended to continue the Manhattan Project era work done in the Dayton area, including the polonium research done at the Runnymede Playhouse (which, unfortunately, was torn down decades ago and has since been converted into lots for private houses).  The work done at Mound Laboratory aided the US nuclear weapons program and the space race as well as research efforts into nuclear energy.

Radithor Radioactive Water

Radithor water bottle from the 1920s.  It was snake-oil medical quackery. 

Another exhibit discussed the uses of radioactive materials in other products, such as the patent medicine above.


Nuke Opera 2020: Opening the Pot: Cold War History 1945-1949:

Nuke Opera 2020: Opening the Pot: Cold War History 1945-1949:

Welcome to the Atomic Age. From this point forward, we live in a world where nuclear weapons exist. There will be no going back.

The World After Trinity:

Once the atomic bomb had been successfully tested, it was time to move on to the next step: deploying the weapon.

By this point in the war, Germany had already surrendered, bringing an end to the war in Europe. The war in the Pacific, on the other hand, was still in full swing and didn’t seem likely to end. While the atomic bomb had originally been designed with the intention of using it against Nazi Germany – either as a deterrent or to retaliate if Germany dropped atomic bombs on Allied targets.

We’ll never know if the Allies would have used the atomic bomb against the Nazis because of two things: firstly, the Allies learned by mid-1944 that the German atomic bomb program was a bust, removing the fear of a Nazi atomic first strike. Secondly, by this same time it was becoming clear that Germany was fighting a losing battle and that victory in Europe was imminent.

Even before Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, the Manhattan Project’s targeting committee was focusing entirely on Japanese targets.  During this time, Truman was told that atomic weapons might also be a good way to intimidate the Soviets into curtailing their more expansionist tendencies.

The list of potential Japanese targets was finalized on May 28, 1945 and included the cities of Kokura, Hiroshima, Niigata and Kyoto – though Kyoto was dropped from the list and replaced with Nagasaki because Truman was reluctant to attack Japan’s former capital city. Tokyo wasn’t on the list because, by this point, it had already been hit hard by conventional bombing raids, particularly during Operation Meetinghouse on March 9/10, 1945.

There was some debate among the Manhattan Project scientists as to whether the first atomic bomb should be dropped on one of the targeted cities or whether it should be dropped on an uninhabited island as a demonstration. Even the Undersecretary of the Navy, Ralph A. Bard said that dropping the bomb on a populated area without warning was contrary to “the position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation” particularly since Japan seemed close to surrender.

Some Manhattan Project researchers, many refugee scientists from Germany, were reluctant to see the bomb used against Japan. Leo Szilard, the man responsible for the concept of both the chain reaction and the atomic bomb as well as the author of the Einstein-Szilard letter that persuaded FDR to begin the Manhattan Project, was an early critic of the military use of atomic weapons. In July 1945, he drafted a petition to be sent to President Truman, calling for him to not use atomic weapons against the Japanese. He circulated his petition among his fellow Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgic Laboratory. On July 17, 1945, the petition, with 70 signatures, was submitted to the President but was never seen by either Truman or the Secretary of War prior to the bombing of Hiroshima.

Szilard’s petition wasn’t the only one. Two petitions, inspired by Szilard’s, circulated at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and garnered a total of 85 signatures between them. Szilard was also a signatory of the Franck Report, which had been issued in June 1945 and requested that the bomb be demonstrated prior to being deployed against Japan. The report suggested, in part:

From this point of view a demonstration of the new weapon may best be made before the eyes of representatives of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island. The best possible atmosphere for the achievement of an international agreement could be achieved if America would be able to say to the world, “You see what weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future and to join other nations in working out adequate supervision of the use of this nuclear weapon.”

This may sound fantastic, but then in nuclear weapons we have something entirely new in the order of magnitude of destructive power, and if we want to capitalize fully on the advantage which its possession gives us, we must use new and imaginative methods. After such a demonstration the weapon could be used against Japan if a sanction of the United Nations (and of the public opinion at home) could be obtained, perhaps after a preliminary ultimatum to Japan to surrender or at least to evacuate a certain region as an alternative to the total destruction of this target. (The Franck Report, June 11, 1945)

Not all Manhattan Project scientists were opposed to military first use of atomic weapons. In response to the Franck Report, the Interim Committee which had been formed to serve until a more permanent committee could be established to deal with the issues nuclear weapons were creating, met to discuss the issue. The Committee, made up of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton and Ernest Lawrence, found in favor of military first-use without demonstrations. Their report stated:

The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use. (Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons, June 16, 1945)

Ultimately, the decision was made to use atomic weapons against Japanese cities. Hiroshima was chosen as the first target because, in part, it hadn’t already been targeted for the US conventional bombing raids which had already destroyed over sixty Japanese cities, including the capital of Tokyo. Hiroshima was also home to an “important army depot and port of embarkation” and the surrounding hills meant that the blast damage would likely be focused and increased.  There was also the psychological impact of the new weapon to be considered.

Conventional Bombing vs. Atomic Bombings:

The most destructive single bombing raid of World War II wasn’t either of the atomic bombings of Japan. Instead, that dubious honor falls to Operation Meetinghouse, a US conventional bombing raid that occurred on the night of March 10, 1945. During this raid, 279 Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers dropped 1,665 short tons[(1)] of bombs over Tokyo while another 19 that weren’t able to reach Tokyo bombed targets of opportunity or of last resort.

During the raid, over 100,000 Japanese civilians, mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed in the resulting fires. One million people were left homeless and over 16 square miles of Tokyo burned.  The raid lasted over two and a half hours; within the first half hour Tokyo fire departments were overwhelmed by the flames.

By comparison, Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima from a single plane at 8:14:17 local Hiroshima time. It fell for 44.4 seconds before detonating at 8:16:02 local time.

At one-tenth of a second, Little Boy’s fireball had expanded to 100 feet in diameter and had reached a temperature of 500,000 degrees Fahrenheit[(2)]Neutrons and gamma rays were released and reached the ground, causing most of the radiological damage to all exposed people, animals and other organisms.

After two- and three-tenths of a second, there was a release of infrared (heat) energy that caused burns to exposed skin for miles in every direction. Additionally, the intense heat caused roofing tiles to fuse together, melted a bronze Buddha statue and evaporated the internal organs and viscera of humans and animals. By this point, the blast wave was moving at 7,200 miles per hour (2 miles/second).

At one second, the fireball was 900 feet in diameter and the blast wave had slowed to roughly the speed of sound (about 768 miles per hour). The temperature at ground level at the hypocenter of the blast is 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  It’s at this point that the mushroom cloud begins to form.

Within this first second, 60,000 of the city’s 90,000 buildings were demolished by the combined effects of wind and the firestorm.

It’s estimated that the initial blast killed between 70,000 and 80,000 people in Hiroshima. Another 90,000-166,000 people are believed to have died in the four-month period following the bombing.

The bombing of Nagasaki resulted in the destruction of roughly half the city and the immediate deaths of between 40,000 and 75,000 people. Total deaths by the end of 1945 might have been as high as 80,000.

On August 9, 1945, President Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima to the nation as part of a larger speech delivered via a radio address. By the time of the address, 10 pm Washington D.C. time, Nagasaki had already been bombed and destroyed as well. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s intention of surrender on August 15, 1945 referring to the atomic bomb in his remarks:

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. (source: Surrender of Japan (Wikipedia))

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have contributed to the end the war in the Pacific, but they were not the sole reason Japan surrendered. In fact, in 1946 the United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded the Japanese would have surrendered without the use of the atomic bomb or without the Soviet Union entering the war or its invasion of Manchuria.  A full exploration of this debate is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ve included some links of interest for those interested in researching more on their own:

Reactions to the Bombings:

According to a Gallup poll conducted the week of August 24-29, 1945, 69% of Americans felt the development of the atomic bomb had been a good thing; only 17% felt it was a bad thing and 14% were of no opinion. Regarding the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, 85% of Americans polled approved versus 10% who disapproved.

The callousness of this attitude needs to be seen in the light of two points. Firstly, a devastating, meat-grinder of a war was finally over. Secondly, no civilians knew anything about the aftermath of the bombings until August 1946, when The New Yorker dedicated an entire magazine to John Hersey’s report on Hiroshima, which personalized the events by focusing on the personal accounts of six survivors[(3)].

On the other hand, many Americans wanted revenge for Pearl Harbor – as borne out by the results of a Roper poll conducted two months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which 22.7% of respondents said that the US should have quickly used as many more of the bombs before Japan had a chance to surrender, essentially killing as many Japanese as possible. (source: Intondi, p 11)

This thirst for revenge was driven at least partly by racial prejudice – throughout the war, the Japanese were referred to as gorillas, subhumans, beasts and otherwise conflated into a monolithic group mindlessly following the orders of their leaders. This is in sharp contrast to how we referred to the Axis powers in Europe, where distinctions were made between the Nazis and Italian Fascist leadership and the German and Italian people.

The case could be made that some of this rage against Japan stemmed from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to seeming underhanded, it also demonstrated very clearly that America’s geographical distance from the rest of the world was no protection from what was going on in the rest of the world.  Additionally, Americans were quick to demonize Germans (and German-Americans) after the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.

That said, “We were bigoted and abusive to those guys too!” is a terrible justification.  The fact that there’s an entire Wikipedia article about American mutilation of Japanese war dead and a fairly famous picture of a young lady posing with the trophy skull of a Japanese soldier that her sweetheart sent to her says a lot more to me about why nearly 25% of Americans in that Roper poll thought we should have nuked Japan until we ran out of bombs. Especially since there are no reports of German or Italian skulls having been taken as trophies in Europe[(4)].

The Japanese military and government did do some absolutely horrible things during (and before) World War II both to their enemies and to their own people. There’s an entire Wikipedia article about war crimes the Japanese committed before and during World War II (please, read at your own risk – and keep in mind that there’s a list of American war crimes during World War II as well).  And to this day, there are deplorable attempts by some in Japan, mostly right-wing nationalists, to revise this history, to sanitize it and sweep atrocities and abuses under the rug of history. These attempts don’t negate the fact that revenge played some part in the United States’ decision to drop atomic bombs on civilians.

Not every American was pleased by the bombings. We’ve seen already that many Manhattan Project scientists were opposed to the use of atomic weapons and after the war ended, a group of them formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists in November 1945 (renamed Federation of American Scientists in December of that year). The group distributed educational materials, including the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which became the definitive source for anti-nuclear information.  As the world learned first about the existence of the atomic bomb, but also about the effects it had had and the dangers it posed, other voices joined the scientists in protest. Not many, not at first, but the anti-nuclear movement would grow over time.

Some other early condemnations came from members of traditional peace groups, like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and religious organizations like the American chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group formed in 1915 in opposition to the US entry into World War I. In December 1945, the FAS created the National Committee on Atomic Information (NCAI) as an umbrella group, intended to bring together labor, religious, educational and professional organizations to help educate the general public about atomic weapons and, later, science in general[(5)].

Surprisingly, some of the opposition to nuclear weapons came from within the United States military. In 1946, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who had commanded the US Third Fleet during the American offensive against the Japanese home islands in the last months of the war, stated publicly that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment” because the Japanese had “put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before [the bomb was used].” Dwight D. Eisenhower, an American 5-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe before he became the second US President of the Cold War era, told Secretary of War Henry Stimson in July 1945 that he was opposed to using the atomic bomb against Japan. As he recalled in 1963, “I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”

Admiral William Leahy, who’d been the White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II, wrote in his diary in 1950 that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Additionally, he wrote, “in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

But, whatever regrets or remorse might have been felt after the bombings, the fact of the matter was that atomic weapons existed and had to be dealt with – not just by the United States but by the world as a whole.

Old Man Atom: when Einstein’s scared, I’m scared: 

It didn’t take long for people to start being worried about what the atom bomb meant for the world in general and the United States in particular. The world was still reeling from the impact of World War II which had devastated huge swaths of Europe and Asia. While American had escaped relatively unscathed – a position that gave us an economic advantage in the post-War years and led to the boom times of the 1950s and 60s – our allies and our enemies weren’t so lucky.

In Europe alone, there were at least 11 million people who’d been displaced from their homes by the war, with about seven million of them in what was now Allied-occupied Germany. The European economy lost 70% of its industrial infrastructure, leading to its collapse at the end of the war. Millions died during the war on both sides, both civilians and military personnel.

The Fallen of World War II, an animated video by Neil Halloran, illustrates the toll World War II had in human lives and compares the death tolls to past and previous wars. The video is animated and not graphic but might still be disturbing to some. You can find it on vimeo by following the link above.

In the aftermath of World War II, there was tension and chaos as countries struggled to deal with the decline of European colonial empires in Latin America, Africa and Asia with India becoming one of the first nations to throw off colonial rule in the post-World War II era. It wouldn’t be the last – something that would contribute to later Cold War tensions as the US and USSR became involved in proxy wars.

One of the outcomes of World War II was the formation of the United Nations. The hope was that the UN could serve as a more effective version of the League of Nations and help prevent future wars. Some called for the United Nations to be given complete control over all the world’s nuclear weapons – which, at this point, meant the United States’ nuclear weapons, of which there were about 9 in 1946, the year the UN General Assembly met for the first time[(6)].

During the early post-War years, there was a call for the formation of a world government, based on the belief that there was no place for nationalism in the atomic age. This idea was supported by Manhattan Project scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Jasper Jeffries, as well as Albert Einstein, who argued: “A World Government is preferable to the far greater evil of wars, particularly with their intensified destructiveness.”  (source: Raven Rock, p. 12). Carl Spaatz, head of the forerunner to the Air Force, the US Army Air Forces, also favored a world government, as did President Truman, who said during remarks at the University of Kansas City on June 28, 1945:

We live… in an age of law and an age of reason, and age in which we can get along with our neighbors. …It will be just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for you to get along in the republic of the United States. Now, if Kansas and Colorado have a quarrel over a watershed they don’t call out the National Guard in each state and go to war over it. They bring suit in the Supreme Court and abide by its decision. There isn’t a reason in the world why we can’t do that internationally. There were two documents signed at San Francisco. One of them was the charter of the United Nations. The other was the World Court. It will require the ratification of both of those Charters, and the putting of them into effect, if we expect to have world peace for future generations. This is one of the tasks which have been assigned to me. I am accepting the responsibility. I am going to try to carry it out. (source: “World Government” at Wikiquote)

While the idea of a single world government had supporters, it was ultimately seen as impractical to implement. The first resolution passed by the United Nations on January 24, 1946 established “[A] Commission to Deal With the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy” which had as its goals extending basic atomic science information among nations, controlling atomic energy’s use for peaceful purposes and eliminating atomic weapons from national stockpiles (which, again, at this point meant only the United States) and establishing safeguards such as inspections and other means to enforce the prohibition against nuclear weapons or the militarization of atomic power. (source:

The resolution didn’t succeed, in part because while the United States claimed to be willing to give up nuclear weapons, we wanted everyone else to give them up first while we’d stop producing weapons and disassemble the ones we had…later.

On June 14, 1946, Bernard Baruch, an American financier and political consultant, who’d been appointed to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC) by President Truman, presented his plan for the control and regulation of atomic energy and weapons.  The Baruch Plan was a modified version of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, which had called for placing the world’s uranium and thorium mines under international control in order to prevent anyone wanting to develop a nuclear bomb from getting the necessary fissile material to fuel it. The Acheson-Lilienthal plan also called for the US to abandon its monopoly on atomic weapons and reveal what it knew to the Soviet Union on the condition that both sides would agree not to create additional atomic bombs.

Baruch’s plan proposed extending the exchange of basic scientific information between all countries and implementing control of nuclear power to the extent necessary to ensure it could only be used for peaceful purposes. It also called for the elimination of atomic weapons and all other major weapons of mass destruction from national arsenals and for the establishment of effective safeguards such as inspections or other means necessary to ensure compliance.

The Soviet Union objected to the Baruch plan on the grounds that the United Nations was dominated by the United States (again, the only country at this time that possessed actual working nuclear weapons) and its fellow capitalist allies in Western Europe. The Soviets felt that this meant the UN couldn’t be trusted to fairly exercise any authority over atomic weapons, particularly against Communist nations like itself and the members of the Eastern Bloc.

A Little Piece of Poland, A Little Piece of France…:

In 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which ensured neutrality between the two countries (something that ended when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1942). This agreement also included a secret secondary agreement that divided Eastern Europe between the two countries, establishing Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence” in the region.

During the war, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania until Operation Barbarossa when the Nazis invaded and took these territories for themselves. Once the Nazis were defeated, however, the Soviets were able to re-occupy these territories and others in Eastern and Central Europe, taking advantage of post-war chaos to overthrow non-communist governments in Albania (1944), Poland (1944), Bulgaria (1946), Romania (1947), Czechoslovakia (1948), East Germany (1949) and Hungary (1949).  These nations would go on to form the Warsaw Pact in 1955 but that’s for another article.

While the capitalist West and communist Soviets fought together toward a common end during World War II, once the war was over, the old divisions sprang back up. Stalin’s first major post-War public speech to the Soviet Union on February 9, 1946 effectively ended this truce. In his remarks, Stalin announced that another war was inevitable, since communism and capitalism were mutually incompatible. Because of this, Stalin said, the USSR would have to concentrate on national defense in preparation for this future war with the West.

Twenty-four days later, on March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill delivered a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The speech is titled “Sinews of Peace” but is more commonly known as the “Iron Curtain Speech”:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “iron curtain” has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.” (Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech)

Ultimately, the hopes of a single, world-wide authority with control over nuclear weapons were crushed like ants under the feet of the warring elephants of Capitalism and Communism.

Berlin Blockade and Airlift:

At the end of World War II, the territories Germany had seized during the war were returned to the countries they’d been taken from.  Germany itself was divided into four occupation zones, with the US, UK, France and USSR each taking control of a section for administrative purposes.  The German capital, Berlin, was entirely inside the zone controlled by the Soviet Union. While it was divided into four sections, the occupying nations controlled the city jointly.

Under the Allied occupation, Germany would split into what would come to be known as West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (the German Democratic Republic). This split came about due to increased tensions between the occupying forces, due to philosophical differences and the burgeoning Cold War between the US and the USSR[(7)].

The tensions came to a head on June 24, 1948 when Stalin closed all land access (roads, barges and rail traffic) to the areas of Berlin that were under Western control. The Berlin Blockade was the first international crisis of the post-World War II era. The Soviets offered to drop the blockade, but only if the newly introduced Deutsche Mark was removed from circulation in West Berlin.

Instead, the Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies to the people of West Berlin. The airlift ran from June 28, 1948 to May 12, 1949, when Stalin ended the blockade.

During the Blockade, which lasted a total of 323 days, 2.5 million tons of supplies were dropped over Berlin. Aircrews from the United States, the UK, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa flew over 200,000 missions. At their peak, they were able to deliver 12,941 tons daily, exceeding the original expectation of 3,475 tons a day.

Despite having superior numbers, not only in Berlin but also in Germany, the Soviet Union allowed these supply drops for fear of starting another shooting war at a point when they were struggling to rebuild their own war-ravaged nation.  While the blockade of land travel into Berlin was lifted on May 12, 1949, the Berlin Airlift didn’t officially end until September 30, 1949.

Atomic Testing in the Pacific:

On February 10, 1946, Commodore Ben Wyatt, the Military Governor of the Marshall Islands, told the 167 residents of Bikini Atoll that they were being relocated so that the United States could conduct atomic bomb tests.  They were told their sacrifice was “for the good of mankind and to end all wars.”

The people of Bikini Atoll agreed withnine out of eleven families relocating to nearby Rongerik Atoll which was a sixth the size of Bikini and had inadequate water and food supplies. It was also believed to be haunted by demon girls. While the US Navy left supplies, those soon proved to be inadequate as well. You can see a 1946 film, Bikini – The Atom Island, though be warned that the narrator’s tone is patronizing in the extreme.

The first US nuclear test in the Marshall Islands occurred on July 1, 1946 and was part of Operation Crossroads. The first test, code named Able, was the first nuclear test since Trinity and the first nuclear detonation since Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The bomb, nicknamed Gilda after Rita Hayworth’s character from the movie Gilda (1946). The second test, Baker, was an underwater test with the bomb, Helen of Bikini, being detonated 90 feet underwater on July 25, 1946. Radioactive sea spray contaminated the ships being used as targets, which led to the cancellation of a third test, Charlie, because the ships couldn’t be decontaminated.

All told, the United States conducted over 100 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1963, when the Partial Test Ban Treaty barred signatories from conducting atmospheric and underwater detonations. Taken as a percentage of the total number of nuclear tests conducted by the United States from July 7, 1945 through to September 23, 1992, the Marshal Islands tests represent barley a tenth of the weapons detonated. In terms of the yield represented by these weapons, however, the Marshall Islands tests represent seventy-seven percent of US nuclear tests (150,732 kilotons out of a total of 196,514 total kilotons).

The effects of the tests in the Marshall Islands are still being felt by the people of the area to this day, over 70 years after they were told they were the “children of America” and that we would take care of them.

And Then There Were Two…:

The Manhattan Project began due to fears of the Nazis getting the atomic bomb first. During World War II, members of both the Allies and the Axis worked on developing nuclear weapons but only the Manhattan Project was successful.

However, post-war fears of a second nuclear state were quick to spring up, with most predicting that the next member of the Nuclear Arms Club would be the Soviet Union. When exactly they’d join was a matter for some debate. General Leslie Groves, who’d headed the Manhattan Project, testified before Congress that it would take the Soviets 20 years to develop atomic weapons and some scientists predicted it would be at least 1970. Others were less optimistic, with predictions ranging from within “five to ten years” (of 1948), while others were downright pessimistic, speculating the Soviets would have the bomb by 1952 or 1954. (Source: Estimating when the Soviets could produce a nuclear weapon)

The problem with keeping the making of an atomic bomb a secret was, first and foremost, that the science behind how the bomb worked simply wasn’t a secret. Nuclear fission was established science and relatively common knowledge in physics circles. Add to that the fact that the Soviet Union had spies well-placed within the Manhattan Project, who’d fed them information on how the US bombs were designed.  And, while obtaining fissile material was considered to be the biggest obstacle to any non-American nation wanting to create its own atomic weapons, the Soviet Union not only possessed roughly 40% of the world’s uranium stores, it was also able to make use of captured German uranium supplies. And German scientists[(8)].

The Soviets exceeded expectations and managed to test their first atomic bomb – based largely on the Fat Man design – on August 29, 1949 in Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan (then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic). The test, known in the Soviet Union as RDS-1, Device 501 or First Lightning, was nicknamed Joe-1 (after Stalin) by the Americans. Work on designing First Lightning began at the Kurchatov Institute, then known only as “Laboratory No. 2” in April 1946. The plutonium for the bomb was produced at an industrial complex then designated Chelyabinsk-40 but now known as Mayak[(9)].

The detonation had a yield of 22 kilotons, comparable to the Trinity and Fat Man bombs. It was an implosion-style weapon with a solid plutonium core. Radioactive debris from the test was collected by a WB-29 US weather reconnaissance aircraft that flew from Misawa Air Base in Japan to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and when this data was crosschecked with data from other flights, it confirmed that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic weapon.

President Truman announced the Soviet Union’s entrance into the Nuclear Arms Club on September 23, 1949 – which surprised everyone, including the Soviets who didn’t know the US had created a test-detection system.

First Lightning was a turning point in the Cold War, not only because it destroyed the American monopoly on nuclear weapons but also because it led to increased pressure within the US military to develop the first hydrogen bomb, code named “the super.”

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  1. Approximately 1.5 kilotons; also, the planes that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car, were also B-29 Superfortresses)
  2. By comparison, the hottest star yet discovered, WR 102, in the constellation Sagittarius, has a temperature of 378,000 degrees Fahrenheit
  3. Hersey’s essay was published as a book later that same year. It was a best seller at the time and has never gone out of print. My high school history teacher, the pseudonymous Mr. Herodotus, allowed people to do a book report on Hiroshima as extra credit in his world history class.
  4. While the practice was officially condemned, it wasn’t uncommon for for American soldiers to mutilate Japanese war dead and take body parts for trophies.. To this day, trophy skulls are still occasionally turned in by the relatives of soldiers who fought during World War II.

Note: Links above contain racial slurs against the Japanese; the slurs are referenced in quotes from sources at the time; links also contain images of dead bodies and parts of dead bodies – mostly skeletonized.)

  1. As part of their educational efforts, FAS published a collection of essays by atomic scientists, One World or None, and also released a movie of the same title.
  2. By the time construction began on the UN’s New York City headquarters in September 1948, the US nuclear stockpile had grown to roughly 50 bombs. When construction was completed in October 1952, that number had increased nearly 17-fold to approximately 841 bombs, while the Soviet stockpile was approaching 50. (source Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2010)
  3. From here on out, despite it being overly simplistic to refer to the two sides of the Cold War as if it was only between the US and USSR, I’m going to do just that because it might be inaccurate but it’s also a heck of a lot easier.
  4. And that was in addition to making use of captured German scientists, since the Soviet Union, like the United States, engaged not so much in a game of chess but more one of Pokémon Go after World War II, wherein each side tried to capture as many Nazi scientists as they could in order to help give them the a post-war edge against the other side. In the United States, this recruitment scheme was called Operation Paperclip and mostly involved sanitizing the backgrounds of Nazi scientists to make them seem like “good Germans” who’d been caught up in a bad situation. The Soviet Union’s scheme, Operation Osoaviakhim, occurred on October 22, 1946 and involved rounding up German specialists and their families at gunpoint from Soviet-occupied Germany and taking them to the Soviet Union.
  5. It was also known as Chelyabinsk-65; both designations were based on the site’s postal code. No word on whether or not there were any birth certificates with “Chelyabinsk-40” listed as the place of birth.

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Additional Resources:

Books Consulted: 

Nuke Opera 2020: Pictures of History

A few snapshots from my last trip to the National Museum of the United States Air Force back in October 2019. The museum is located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, though you don’t have to pass through security to get there. If you have any interest in airplanes or in the military history of flight, it’s very much worth a visit. Admission is free, but be warned that the place is absolutely HUGE, since it holds over 360 full-size aircraft and missiles as well as other exhibits.

One of the historic planes at the Museum is Bockscar, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It’s located in the World War II gallery at the Air Force Museum, one of the first galleries you come to after entering the museum.


Bockscar, the plane that dropped the “Fat Man” bomb on Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.

The picture doesn’t really do the size of the plane justice — like the Enola Gay, Bockscar is a B-29 Superfortress. It’s about 99 feet long with a wing span of 141 feet and is 27 feet, nine inches high. It’s imposing to look at but if you didn’t know its history, you wouldn’t think there was anything special about it.

On the other hand, there’s definitely something off-putting about the model of Fat Man that sits next to Bockscar.

Fat Man

Full-size model of “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. 

Again, you can’t tell from the picture, but Fat Man lives up to its name: the bomb was 10 feet, eight inches long and five feet in diameter. It weighed 10,300 pounds (about 5.15 US tons). And, yes, it was painted that bright yellow color to make it easier for the bomb to be tracked as it fell.

The creepiest thing about the model is just how innocuous it looks. It looks like a cartoon conception of a bomb, like it shouldn’t be as dangerous as it was.

Bockscar crew (Nagasaki raid)

The crew of Bockscar on the day of the Nagasaki bombing raid.

There’s also a model of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, near the display for Bockscar. 

Little Boy

Model of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. 

Little Boy was comparatively smaller than Fat Man — it was about as long (around 10 feet), but narrower, being only 28 inches (2 feet, 4 inches) and weighed 9,700 pounds (4.85 US tons).

The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped Little Boy, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the World War II gallery, the Air Force Museum also has galleries dedicated to the Cold War and the Space Race. I’ll be sharing more pictures from those galleries as we move further along in our timeline.

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Boilerplate Links:

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“One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day”: Health Risks, Radiation and You – Part Two:

“One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day”: Health Risks, Radiation and You – Part Two:

The Least You Need to Know About Radiation:

If you’ve already read my earlier article, INTRODUCING OUR ACQUAINTANCE, THE ATOM, you can either skim this section for a refresher or simply jump down to the next bit (though you might want to stop off at the bit about Neutrons). If you haven’t read my earlier article, this section should serve as enough of an introduction to keep you up to speed.

Radiation, at its most basic, refers to energy being emitted or transmitted through either space or a material – light moving through air or microwaves moving through a chicken sandwich are both forms of radiation. Some forms of radiation are dangerous – ultraviolet radiation can cause sunburns and even acoustic (sound) waves can kill, if they’re strong enough.

But we’re not here to talk about sunburns and really, really loud noises. We’re here to talk about nuclear war and nuclear weapons, so we’re going to be talking about a very specific, very narrow type of radiation namely, ionizing radiation.

Ionizing radiation is produced when unstable elements undergo radioactive decay in an effort to become stable elements[(1)]. To do this, unstable elements shed parts of themselves in an effort to change forms.  These parts can come in the form of waves or particles which can strip electrons from other atoms and can disrupt chemical bonds. In humans, this can destroy or damage cells and can even damage our DNA, causing mutations that will affect future generations.

We’ll be discussing four forms of ionizing radiation: alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays and neutrons. From this point forward, unless otherwise mentioned, the terms radiation and radioactivity will specifically and solely refer to ionizing radiation.

Particle Man, Particle Man, What’s He Like? It’s Kind of Important…:

Alpha Particle: is made up of two protons and two neutrons; essentially, they’re the same thing as the nucleus of a helium atom, except an alpha particle is out running around doing its own thing, rather than staying at home with its electrons. It is the largest radioactive particle, averaging about 1 femtometer in diameter (one femtometer is one-quadrillionth of a meter; it would take 25.4 trillion femtometers to make up one inch). An alpha particle moves relatively slowly compared to other particles, leaving the nucleus of an atom at about 16,000 kilometers/second or roughly 36 million miles per hour. Think of it as the slow-moving, lazy bumblebee of ionizing radiation.

The Good News Is: alpha particles cannot penetrate unbroken human skin and can be stopped by a sheet of paper. Doesn’t even have to be a special kind of paper; a sheet of regular copy paper will protect you. But you’re going to want to wear a face-mask and not eat or drink anything that might have been contaminated since inhaling or ingesting count as ‘penetrating human skin’.  So long as the alpha particles stay outside your body, you’re going to be fine – just make sure you’re wearing a facemask (breathing counts as ingesting), don’t eat anything until after you’ve had a shower because…

The Bad News Is: alpha particles cannot penetrate unbroken human skin. They can penetrate broken human skin just fine – and when you’re the size of a helium nucleus, a paper cut is to you what the Solar System is to a very large beach ball. If alpha particles do get inside a person, they can cause severe damage that can significantly increase a person’s long-term cancer risk.

Beta Particle: is either an electron or a positron (a positively-charged electron[(2)]). Like the alpha particle, the beta particle is not attached to an atom and is out going its own way. It’s smaller than an alpha particle, about a thousand times smaller. At its largest, a beta particle is about 1 attometer in diameter (one attometer is one quintillionth of a meter; you’d need 25.4 quintillion attometers to make up one inch). Beta particles are faster than alpha particles, leaving the nucleus of an atom at about 270,000 kilometers/second or approximately 604 million miles per hour[(3)].

Content Advisory: the links in this section lead to a description of the kind of damage beta radiation can do to human skin, with a picture of an actual beta radiation burn and to a diagram of the structure of human skin. While the picture isn’t overly graphic, some may find it disturbing.

The Good News Is: less good, since beta particles can penetrate unbroken human skin – but they can’t go very deep into it. A high energy beta particle might get as far in as the subcutaneous layers (where our fat and connective tissues are) – but beta particles with lower energy levels might not even get past the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis). Beta radiation can be stopped by 3-4 millimeters of aluminum foil[(4)].

The Bad News Is: like alpha particles, beta particles are more dangerous if they get inside of you. They’re significantly less dangerous than alpha particles, but can still increase a person’s long-term risk of cancer. They can also cause external burns.

Gamma Rays: are photons, which are particles of light that share properties with waves – which is how we’ll be talking about them.  The size of a photon is determined by its wavelength, which is a measurement of the distance from the peak of one wave to the peak of another.  The shorter the wavelength, the higher its frequency or how many times it happens in a given time period (usually a second). The higher the frequency, the more energy in the wavelength.

The average gamma ray has a wavelength of less than 10 picometers. A picometer is one trillionth of a meter; one inch would be equal to roughly 25.4 billion picometers – which makes the wavelength of a gamma ray positively huge by comparison to alpha or beta particles. However, the average gamma ray’s frequency is on the order of 10 exahertz (10 EHz) – or 10 quintillion times per second.

Because a gamma ray is for all intents and purposes, light, it leaves the nucleus at the speed of light – which is 299,792 kilometers/second or about 671 million miles per hour. In our insect metaphor, a gamma ray is the (not at all literally) dragonfly of the atomic particle world.

The Bad News: gamma rays are extremely dangerous, in part because they can penetrate pretty much anything and anyone that isn’t properly shielded. Gamma radiation is what causes radiation sickness. A high enough dose of gamma rays will be 100% fatal, regardless of how healthy the victim is.

The (Sort of?) Good News: if you’re close enough to a nuclear explosion to be in area of 100% fatalities from radiation exposure, the blast and/or heat probably killed you first.

The Actually Kind of Good News: gamma rays can be shielded against. You’re going to need either a very dense material like lead or a lot of a less-dense material, like water or concrete. The amount of the material you need varies. For example, you can get the same shielding effects from 13.8 feet of water as you can from 6.6 feet of concrete or 1.3 feet of lead.

The Disappointing News: Exposure to gamma radiation will not give you superpowers. You won’t turn big and green when you get mad nor will you reform into a blue nekkid version of yourself that exists in all times at once. Comics have misled us. Dangit.

A Brief Note on X-Rays: X-rays are also produced in nuclear explosions; they’re found in the thermal radiation released in the initial explosion. For our purposes, consider them similar to gamma rays, though they have longer wavelengths and shorter frequencies and are less likely to have short-term effects (for the reason that if you’re close enough to get a big dose of X-rays, you’ve probably been incinerated or crushed and are likely already dead).

Neutrons: Along with protons, neutrons make up the nucleus of an atom. Unlike protons and electrons, neutrons have no charge and are neutral particles. They are able to bind with protons and while the number of protons in an atom will always remain the same, the number of neutrons will vary. For example, a uranium atom will always have 92 protons, but can have anywhere between 123 to 150 neutrons.  These variations are called isotopes and are what can make an atom stable or unstable.  Uranium-235, the isotope commonly used as fuel in nuclear weapons, has 92 protons and 143 neutrons.

When we’re talking about neutrons in terms of radiation, what we’re talking about are free neutrons, which like our alpha and beta particles, are no longer in residence in their home nucleus and are out making trouble for the establishment. They’re roughly the same size of a proton, having a radius of about 800 attometers (0.8 of a femtometer) but are heavier than protons. Like alpha and beta particles, neutrons move relatively slowly between 14,000 and 52,000 kilometers per second. Despite this, neutron radiation is extremely dangerous because, like gamma radiation, neutrons can penetrate almost anything – especially human beings. In our insect comparison, a neutron is like a mosquito – small, easily shielded against but potentially deadlier than its looks would suggest.

The Bad News: neutrons can penetrate materials (like humans) more deeply than alpha or beta particles. Neutrons are also more dangerous than gamma rays. Neutrons can also make other materials radioactive. Inside the human body, they are 10 times more dangerous than beta or gamma radiation and can be particularly damaging to soft tissues, like the corneas of the eye.

The No, Really, This is Good News: but neutrons can be slowed down by the nuclei of light (as in not-heavy) elements such as hydrogen. As they pass through a substance, like concrete or gravel, they will collide with hydrogen nuclei and get captured by them.

Radiation: How Scared Should I Be?:

It depends. We live in a radioactive world – every day, we’re all exposed to varying amounts of radiation from natural and man-made sources, albeit in doses that are miniscule and unlikely to cause immediate sickness. While the consensus seems to be that there isn’t actually a safe dose of radiation, there are doses that are riskier than others. You can actually calculate your yearly radiation dose using this calculator from the US EPA.

What we’re primarily looking at in this article is the danger from exposure to radiation in doses that can cause significant and immediate sickness. The sorts of doses that you’d expect to get after, say, a nuclear war.

When it comes down to it, if your cells take enough damage from radiation they will die. If too many of your cells die, you will die. But, short of an irrevocably fatal dose, survival is not only possible but, in some cases, likely.

What type of radiation you’ve been exposed to.  Additionally, how much of that radiation you’ve been exposed to and whether that exposure was internal or external. Gamma radiation exposure is most dangerous because it can cause extensive short-term damage and can even be instantly fatal in high enough doses. Beta radiation can cause external burns and, if it gets inside the body, can destroy or damage cells, potentially increasing a person’s long-term cancer risk. Alpha radiation can’t do external damage, but if it’s inhaled, ingested or otherwise gets inside the body, it can severely damage or destroy cells. And, like beta radiation, can increase long-term cancer risks. Neutron radiation can do soft tissue damage, increasing a person’s risk of developing cataracts.

What type of cells were exposed – As a rule of thumb, cells that reproduce quickly are more vulnerable to radiation than cells that reproduce slowly or not at all. Cells reproduce by making copies of themselves. Ideally, each copy is a perfect and exact replica of the parent cell. Since this isn’t an ideal world, imperfections can happen even during the normal copying process.

A dose of radiation that damages a cell’s DNA but doesn’t kill the cell outright can increase the odds of a mutation occurring. These mutations can lead to the formation of cancers or, if they occur in sperm and egg cells, they can be passed on to one’s offspring. We’ll talk more about that later.

Note: just like there are weighting factors for different types of radiation, each type of tissue has its own weighting factor due to how sensitive it is (or isn’t) to radiation. Cells from least to most vulnerable to radiation include (link includes potentially (mildly) disturbing photos):

  • Lymphoid cells – these are a kind of white blood cell that are part of the immune system and include our T cells, B cells and natural killer cells – collectively known as lymphocytes. They’re found in lymph, a fluid similar to blood plasma that helps the body fight infection.
  • Germ cells – specifically, the sperm and egg cells that make sexual reproduction possible. Sperm cells are more vulnerable than egg cells, due to reproducing quickly and being located externally. Egg cells, both the mature and immature varieties, are less vulnerable since they’re shielded by the body.
  • Bone marrow cells – bone marrow produces blood cells (red, white and platelets) at a rate of 200 billion, ten billion and 400 billion per day.
  • Intestinal epithelial cells – these form the lining of the small and large intestine and allows for the absorption of nutrients and other useful substances while preventing the absorption of harmful substances.
  • Epidermal stem cells – the cells that make it possible for the skin to heal from damage; they’re found at the basal layer of the epidermis and can regenerate any layer of the epidermis.
  • Hepatic cells cells that help the liver regenerate and recover from damage
  • Epithelium of lung alveoli and biliary passages – the cells that line the respiratory tract, helping to moisten and protect the airways and serve as a barrier to infectious pathogens and foreign particles.
  • Kidney epithelial cells – a layer of cells that line the nephron, or the tiny tubules inside the kidneys that filter waste. An adult human has between 800,000 and 1.5 million nephrons per kidney.
  • Endothelial cells (pleura and peritoneum) – Endothelial cells line the interior surfaces of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. The pleura and peritoneum are membranes that protect the lungs and the internal organs respectively.
  • Connective tissue cells – the cells that make up the tissues such as bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage and body fat.
  • Bone cells – ‘Nuff said. Well, no, this is referring to the surface of the bones.
  • Muscle, brain, and spinal cord cells – this includes the cells of the heart (since it’s a muscle) and the brain and spinal cord, which reproduce slowly or not at all.

If you want to see how quickly a particular type of cell reproduces, here’s a handy chart.

 How much of the body was exposed? – Rule of thumb, the more of you that’s exposed, the greater the chances you’re going to die or get sick. Or get sick and then die. This aspect is closely linked to our next criteria, namely How the dose was received? Was it received all at once, over a short time (within minutes or hours) or was it parceled out over time (years or decades)?

For example, a single dose of 100 rem over the course of a few minutes is enough to cause nausea and vomiting in the average person. But stretch that dose out over twenty years at 5 rem per year[(5)], and there’s going to be no outward sign of radiation sickness – though in either case, the chances of developing cancer is the same.

How well (if at all) the individual’s body can repair the radiation-induced damage – a healthy person will have a better chance of survival than someone who is not healthy. For our purposes, I’m using the World Health Organization’s official definition of health, meaning “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Though, it should be noted, that at a high enough dose of radiation, all the good genetics, positive thinking and supportive family members won’t do bugger all to save you.

When it comes to long-term radiation effects – such as an increased risk of cancer – the older you are, the better your chances of survival (or, more exactly, of not living long enough to have to worry about any increased cancer risk) because a) your cells divide more slowly than a younger person’s (reducing the chances of them making ‘bad copies’ and b) you might not live long enough to develop cancer at all.  This is why the Skilled Veterans Corps, a group of Japanese senior citizens, volunteered to help clean up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant back in 2011.

Playing the Odds: Radiation Exposure and Cancer:

Most of what we know about cancer risks from radiation comes from studies done on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. These studies found that radiation increases the risk of some forms of cancer, but not all of them. These studies also found that those most at risk were people who’d been exposed to radiation as children – though those exposed while they were still in the womb had lower risks than individuals exposed as children.

The studies also found that there is no safe dose of radiation – even being exposed to a low dose of radiation can potentially increase an individual’s chances of eventually developing cancer. Of course, that situation would be like being hit and killed by a foul ball the first time you go to a major league baseball game. Yes, it could happen, but it’s not necessarily likely to happen.

Your chances of getting cancer is about 40-50%— this is the chances of getting any kind of cancer from any source, so that’s why the percentages are so high. Exposure to 100 rem of radiation increases your long-term cancer risk by about 2.5%, so instead of your risk being 40-50% it’s now 42.5-52.5%.

Your odds of dying from cancer, and again we’re talking about all forms of cancer, is about 25%. Exposure to 100 rem increases your risk of a fatal cancer by 1.25% or from 25% to 26.25%.

When the cancer will show up depends on a variety of things, but in the case of the atomic bombing victims, an increase in deaths from leukemia appeared 2-3 years after exposure and peaked after about a decade, then fell off.  An increase in deaths from lung cancer among the survivors, on the other hand, began to appear about 20 years after exposure.

Am I Going to Glow In the Dark?:

Short answer? No. Radioactive things, despite what Hollywood has told us, don’t glow in the dark. High-energy particles being emitted from a radioactive substance can sometimes cause other things to glow or to fluoresce (like, watch dials) but only in certain circumstances. None of which will cause any living thing to glow.

Measuring Exposure:

When it comes to health effects, you can be exposed to radiation in one of three ways:

  • Irradiation: occurs when you’re exposed to penetrating radiation from a radiation source, such as the detonation of an atomic bomb or standing next to a chunk of uranium. This form of exposure is external and does not make a person radioactive.
  • Radioactive Contamination: can be either external (if radioactive atoms land on skin, clothes, etc.) or internal (if radioactive atoms are inhaled, ingested or absorbed). An environment can also be contaminated with radiation and will remain so until the source of radiation is removed (which is oftentimes easier said than done). Fallout is a likely source of radioactive contamination.
  • Incorporation of radioactive material into the body: can only occur if contamination happens first. In this situation, parts of the body have collected radioactive atoms and made them a part of themselves. The bones, liver, thyroid and kidneys are particularly prone to incorporating radioactive materials. The thyroid specifically readily absorbs radioactive iodine, which can lead to thyroid cancer up to 25 years after exposure. The horizontal scar left after thyroid cancer surgery has been nicknamed the “Chernobyl necklace” because of this.

When it comes to measuring a dose of radiation, we’re concerned with three things:

  • Absorbed Dose: the amount of energy deposited by radiation in a substance, which could be water, rock, people, a cheese sandwich, etc. This is a measurable, physical quantity as opposed to the equivalent and effective doses, which are calculated specifically for radiation protection purposes.  The absorbed dose is measured in grays.
  • Equivalent Dose: is calculated for individual organs and is based on the absorbed dose multiplied by the weighting factor for the type of radiation the organ was exposed to. As we’ve seen, some organs and tissues are more sensitive to radiation effects than others.
  • Effective dose: is calculated for the whole body. It’s the sum of the equivalent dose for all affected organs multiplied by the appropriate tissue weighting factor.

Radiation Sickness:

Content Advisory: in this section we’re going to be discussing the symptoms of radiation sickness from their mildest through to those that are associated with a 100% fatality rate. We’re also going to be discussing the effects of radiation on embryos and fetuses. Because of this, there will be mention of miscarriage and the death of children. These references are kept as minimal as possible, but readers should follow their own best instincts as to whether or not they wish to engage with this material. Links in this section were chosen for a lack of photographs or diagrams, but readers are advised to follow links at their own discretion.

What we call radiation sickness is also known as “creeping dose,” “radiation poisoning” or “acute radiation syndrome” (ARS). The symptoms for radiation sickness were first established in 1897 and the Radium Girls contracted radiation poisoning from radium exposure in the 1910s and several early radiation researchers died of illnesses related to their exposure to radiation. Despite that, the first extensively studied case of radiation sickness was that of the Japanese stage actress Midori Naka, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima only to die 18 days later on August 24, 1945. Hers was the first death to ever be officially certified to be caused by acute radiation syndrome (then known as “Atomic bomb disease”).

Acute radiation sickness happens in stages, from mild through severe. In the interests of simplifying things, we’re going to look at the various stages using rem and assuming that we’re talking about an effective dose of gamma radiation to the whole body (thereby ignoring the various weighting factors). We’ll also be assuming that the doses received will occur within a few minutes or a few hours. So, in summary, we’re looking at short-term, whole-body doses of gamma radiation.

Between 20-50 rem – will cause white blood cell, platelet and sperm counts to drop for a short time, usually within about 24 hours of exposure. While it will increase your long-term risk of cancer, it won’t cause ARS.

Between 50-150 rem – this will cause damage to cells in the bone marrow, skin and in the lining of the stomach and the intestines, which will produce a prodromal syndrome or a set of symptoms that are common to radiation sickness. These symptoms develop within hours of exposure and include: redness of the skin, fever, nausea, vomiting, weakness, cramps and diarrhea. These symptoms usually clear up within two days and the odds of survival are virtually 100%, provided there aren’t other injuries or illnesses complicating the issue.

Between 150-400 rem – You’ll experience the same initial symptoms as above, but they will be more severe and in addition to more severe and potentially fatal symptoms such as: severe damage to the bone marrow, impairing the production of platelets and red and white blood cells. This will impact the ability of the body to heal wounds, fight off infection and keep the body oxygenated.

After a latency period, during which you’ll have apparently recovered from the prodromal symptoms and appear to be on the mend, you’ll get sick again. Much sicker. Three to four weeks after exposure, you’ll develop the hematopoietic syndrome which will manifest itself in a marked drop in your blood cell counts, putting you at risk of anemia, a lessened ability to heal wounds and an increased risk of secondary infections.

At this stage, even with the best treatment including the potential for bone marrow transplants (Footnote: Which will likely be thin on the ground in a post-nuclear war situation), your chances of dying range between 5%-50%, depending on the size of the dose you received.

This is also the level where hair begins to fall out, particularly at the higher doses, due to damage to your hair follicles. Hair loss begins to appear between 2-3 weeks after exposure and, should you survive, will grow back in most circumstances.

Between 400-800 rems – You’ll experience the prodromal symptoms, with more severity (incapacitating vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration). If you survive this, you’ll undergo a worse case of the hematopoietic syndrome within a few weeks. Your chances of dying, even with optimal medical care, is up to 90% in the first six weeks. This is the hematopoietic-gastrointestinal syndrome.

Between 800-2000 rems – You have a very small chance of survival at the lower end of this dose range, but that’s with intensive treatment. Otherwise, doses in this range are all eventually fatal.  You’ll experience all the previous symptoms, like some kind of hellish version of Kickstarter, only faster and with more severity. Within 4-6 days after exposure, you’ll develop gastrointestinal syndrome, with bloody diarrhea, loss of appetite, infections caused by bacteria released from your own damaged intestines, and eventually, septic shock. Death occurs within two weeks of exposure.

2000 rem and above: These doses are 100% fatal with no chance of survival. You’ll experience the prodromal symptoms occurring within minutes or hours after exposure but will skip the hematopoietic and gastrointestinal syndromes and go straight to central nervous system syndrome. Basically, at this level, you’ve received a dose so high you don’t have time to get sick. Instead, you’ll experience a variety of symptoms as your central nervous system dies. These include headaches and tremors as well as apathy, difficulty thinking, convulsions, coma and death, which can take several days to a week.

At 5000 rem and above, you’ll be dead within 24-48 hours.

Source: Time Phases of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) and “Chapter 6:” Danger! Radiation!” in Using Medicine in Science Fiction: the SF Writer’s Guide to Human Biology, G. Stratmann, Springer: Cham, Switzerland, (2015), p. 187-210.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stranger – Mutations and Radiation:

Germ cells are, as we mentioned earlier, those cells that are essential for sexual reproduction. They include sperm cells and egg cells[(6)] which, when combined become — eventually — people.

Both sperm and egg cells are vulnerable to radiation damage, though in different ways. Because the testicles are external to the body, sperm are more vulnerable to lower doses of radiation than egg cells are. A dose between 25-50 rem is enough to induce temporary sterility in most cases. The ovaries, on the other hand, are internal to the body and are further shielded by other bodily tissues so are less vulnerable to acute radiation damage.

On the other hand, sperm are constantly being produced at a rate of several hundred million per day. While this leaves them vulnerable to radiation-induced copy errors, it also means that a temporary dip in production doesn’t mean the factory’s shutting down for good. In fact, a less-than-lethal dose of radiation might not cause permanent sterility.

Egg cells, on the other hand, are with a person from the day they’re born, waiting for puberty to start the menstrual cycle. While they’re less sensitive to radiation than sperm cells, if egg cells are damaged or destroyed, they cannot be replaced.  Once the available stock is exhausted, the shop is closed.

Ok, But How Many Heads Will My Kids Have?:

Radiation can and does cause cells to mutate and, if those mutations occur in sperm or egg cells, they can be passed on to one’s offspring. Usually this happens because the cell in question received a dose of radiation that damaged it but didn’t interfere with its ability to reproduce itself. Or with its ability to successfully fertilize/be fertilized. If this happens, the mutation will be passed on to the resulting offspring.

In most cases, this mutation will not be beneficial and will result either result in an unsuccessful implantation or miscarriage later in the pregnancy. If the child is born, they may have developmental defects to the brain or other organs and/or an increased risk of cancer in their lifetime. Studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, specifically of survivors who could and did conceive children after the atomic bombings, found the rates of birth defects/abnormalities were no higher than the Japanese average.

Beneficial mutations do occur – though, when they do they’re generally something along the lines of “your body is now X% more efficient at creating/utilizing this protein” than “you can shoot lasers from your eyes!”

On the other hand, if an embryo or fetus is exposed to radiation in the womb, the chances for damage are increased, though it depends on how long after conception the exposure occurs. In general, if the dose received is below 10 rem, the chances of non-cancer related health effects are not detectable regardless of when the exposure occurs.

Within the first two weeks after conception, radiation doses between 10-50 rem may prevent the embryo from implanting in the uterus. Surviving embryos will likely have no significant non-cancer related health effects. During this time, even doses over 50 rem will simply increase the chances the embryo will fail to implant without increasing the chances of non-cancer related health effects.

From the third week after conception through the 13th, doses between 10-50 rem will likely result in stunted growth, though only about 4% shorter than the average. Doses over 50 rem will increase the chance of miscarriage during this time and potentially lead to stunted growth for surviving embryos. During this time there is an increased probability of major birth defects, including developmental disabilities that can result in lowered IQs or severe intellectual disabilities. The fetus is most vulnerable between the 8th and 15th weeks after conception. During this time, severe intellectual disabilities are possible with a dose of 50 rem.  An exposure of 100 rem raises the prevalence of intellectual disabilities 40%.

From the 14th week through to birth, a dose of 10-50 rem is unlikely to cause non-cancer related effects. Doses over 50 rem may increase the probability of miscarriage or the death of newborn child. Stunted growth is still possible but much less likely during this time.  During this time period, an exposure of 100 rem raises the prevalence of intellectual disabilities 15%.

What About The Children?:

Children are at greater risk from radiation exposure than adults are because for one, they’re still growing so their cells are dividing faster than adult cells are. Also, they’ve got a longer life-span during which long-term effects of radiation can appear. Beyond these considerations, the general principles of protecting oneself from radiation are the same for kids and grownups.

How Do I Protect Myself?:

The short answer for this is to minimize the amount of time you are exposed to radioactive materials, maximize the distance between yourself and the source of radiation and get as much shielding between yourself and the radiation source as you possibly can.

The longer answer will be the subject of another article on another day.


Additional Links:


[1] You can think of an unstable element as the protagonist in a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie who is trying to go from “unhappy big city lawyer” to “happy small-town chocolatier”. Only with less ‘life lessons learned’ and more ‘potentially deadly radioactivity.”

[2] Positrons are also the anti-matter form of an electron.

[3] To continue the insect speed theme, a beta particle is (entirely metaphorically and in no way literally) comparable to a Hawk Moth, which have been clocked flying at 33.7 miles per hour.

[4] Or, you could use 3 centimeters of lead, but speaking for my inner ten-year-old, if I’ve got the chance to make myself a heavy-duty aluminum foil suit, I’m going for it!

[5] This is the annual whole-body dose recommended for US radiation workers.

[6] This includes the oocytes, which are the immature form that everyone with a uterus is born with and the ova, the cells that mature during the menstrual cycle in hopes of becoming a baby.

Nuke Opera 2020: Coming Attractions & Best Laid Plans

I was hoping to have a full article done today but due to a variety of circumstances — specifically the Manhattan Project article turning out to be longer than I’d expected and Part Two of “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day” needing a bit more research as well as some revision. I tried coming up with something short — like, actually short, not “seems short but isn’t” — but couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t throw off my timeline.

But, I want to keep my Sunday/Wednesday posting schedule, so I figured I’d give an update as to what I’m planning on posting over the next few weeks. These are, of course, subject to change depending on circumstances within and beyond my control.

  • Wednesday, February 26, 2020 — One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day:  Health Risks, Radiation, and You — Part Two — wherein we’ll talk about the effects of radiation on human health in short-term, long-term and generational circumstances.
  • Sunday, March 1, 2020 — Opening The Pot — 1945-1949  — Covering Cold War history from the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki through to the Soviet Union’s first successful nuclear test, plus a bit more history along the way.
  • Wednesday, March 4, 2020 — Atomic Era Begins — 1949-1962, Part One — Since this covers such a long period of time, I’m breaking it in half; Part One will cover 1949-1954
  • Sunday, March 8, 2020 — Elite Panic  — An article about the sociology and psychology of disasters and why the ‘thin veneer of civilization’ is thicker than we’ve been led to believe.
  • Wednesday, March 11, 2020 — Atomic Era Begins — 1949-1962, Part Two — Covering the second half of the period, 1954-1962
  • Sunday, March 15, 2020 — [Untitled] –If all goes well, by this point, I’m going to be in a place where I’m going to start reviewing stories; before that, I want to lay some ground rules and get some definitions straight. I’ve got a couple articles in mind that (*fingers crossed*) will be posted on the same day.
  • Wednesday, March 18, 2020 — Defining the Nuke Opera — On this blessed and much to be anticipated day, I will explain what it is I mean by a “nuke opera” and why all of the science and history work I’ve done up until this point is probably a moot point (but it’s been fun!)

This is as far out as I’m willing to speculate/schedule — I do have plans out through the end of this round and into the interim period.  Again, plans are subject to change, but God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be sticking as close to this as I can.

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Completely Unrelated Aside (sort of): I’ve recently started watching the Murdoch Mysteries on Ovation and via Acorn TV.  I wasn’t sure about the show at first, but it’s quirky mix of anachronisms and genuine historical elements has grown on me in a major way. And, considering that Detective Murdoch makes use of the fascinating new technology of Roentgen rays, the show’s a bit on topic for me.

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Boilerplate Links:

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Nuke Opera 2020: The Manhattan Project – 1942-1945:

Nuke Opera 2020: The Manhattan Project – 1942-1945:

First Things First: Why Was It Called the “Manhattan Project?”: Before I started researching this article, I thought “Manhattan Project” was a code name, like Operation Neptune for the D-Day invasion at Normandy in 1944 or Operation Mincemeat, a British intelligence mission that used a dead body to spread misinformation to the Germans. I assumed that since I’d never heard of anything connected with the Manhattan Project actually happening in Manhattan that the name was meant to misdirect the attention of enemy agents.

Well, you know what happens when you assume, right?


Turns out, it was called the Manhattan Project in part because it was originally headquartered in Manhattan at 270 Broadway – about four-tenths of a mile from New York’s City Hall. But then, it wasn’t called the Manhattan Project.

The Project’s original name was “Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials,” but General Leslie Groves, the Project’s head, fearing this name would draw unwanted attention, changed it to “Manhattan Engineering District.” In turn, this name was shortened to the Manhattan Project and the nickname stuck even after the Project’s headquarters were moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1943.

While it seems strange that such a top-secret project would have been located in the middle of a big city, it does make a certain kind of sense when you think about it.  Manhattan was a central location, allowing for access to military personnel and workers as well as refugee scientists who’d fled Europe. Not to mention much of the United States’ uranium stockpile was being warehoused in Manhattan, having been shipped there from the Shinkolobwe mines in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Second Things Second: How Much Did It Cost?: All told, the Manhattan Project cost 2 billion dollars in 1945 money or (as of this writing) about 28.7 billion dollars. Which sounds like a lot, but isn’t when compared to how much America spent on World War II as a whole. In 1945 money, the US spent a little under 300 billion dollars on the war, which translates to over 4 trillion dollars in 2020 money. Taken as a percentage of the total spending, the Manhattan Project’s budget equaled about 1% of what was spent on the war. Or, to put it another way, if the US spent $100 on World War II, the Manhattan Project cost about 67 cents.

Over 90% of the total cost of the project went into building factories and producing the fissile material needed to fuel the bombs. The rest went into researching and developing the bombs themselves.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work:

We generally refer to the Manhattan Project as the United States’ nuclear weapons program, but in actuality it was a group effort between the US, the United Kingdom and Canada. Prior to the establishment of the Manhattan Project, the United Kingdom was doing its own research into feasibility of nuclear weapons and it was at the University of Birmingham where the first technical extrapolation of a practical nuclear weapon was written.

In March 1940, two German refugee scientists, Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch (who had confirmed the existence of nuclear fission in 1938), were tasked with determining if an atomic bomb was feasible[(1)].

Peierls and Frisch not only determined that atomic weapons were indeed possible, they also calculated that instead of requiring tons of fissile material, as little as 1 to 10 kilograms (2.2-22 pounds) would be enough to create an explosive yield in the kiloton range. This meant that atomic weapons could be produced much more quickly than originally believed. As in within a couple of years, making them a potentially viable option for use during World War II.  [(2)]

Because of Peierls and Frisch’s work, in April 1940, the United Kingdom formed the MAUD Committee to further investigate the feasibility of atomic bombs. The committee issued its final report on July 10, 1941 and passed an advanced copy on to the Americans. However, the report wasn’t brought to Roosevelt’s attention until October 9th of that year. Roosevelt approved of a project to confirm MAUD’s finding and asked that a letter be drafted to arrange for him to speak officially with the British government.

Ordinarily, I’d do a timeline here but unfortunately, a lot of the history of the Manhattan Project seems to boil down to either:  “and on this day, a committee was formed to look into the feasibility studies created by this previous committee, after which a new committee was formed to verify the findings of the second committee…” or “a site was chosen in a remote area, a great chunk of land was purchased and construction began on the basic infrastructure needed to support the workers who would be building the necessary factories to produce fissile material.”

Considering how new the science behind atomic reactions was, this makes sense. Almost everything necessary for the project had to be created, often from whole cloth. Calculations had to be checked and rechecked to be sure the science could actually work.  And, once the feasibility of a nuclear weapon was confirmed, factories for the refining of uranium ore and reactors for creating plutonium had to be built, as did a location for the designing and testing of the bomb. In addition, because the work being done was so secret, places had to be built to house the workers who were refining the ore, running the reactors and designing the weapons.

From 1942 through 1944, the Manhattan Project’s main efforts were on gathering necessary materials, particularly uranium ore, selecting locations for uranium refining and enrichment, plutonium production and weapons design. During this time, two cities were built – Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington – to house the workers and the plants necessary for creating fissile material. A third facility, Los Alamos, New Mexico, was built to serve as a weapons laboratory.

It’s not until the latter half of 1944 and into 1945 that researchers become confident that the bomb will probably succeed. On April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman assumed the role of President of the United States after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death due to cerebral hemorrhage. It’s also the first Truman learns of the existence of the Manhattan Project, having been kept in the dark while he was serving as FDR’s vice president. He authorizes the continuation of the project and becomes the only US president – for that matter, the only leader of any nation – to authorize the use of atomic weapons during wartime.

On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The test, code-named Trinity, was of an implosion-style plutonium-based nuclear weapon nicknamed the Gadget. Its design was the same one used for the “Fat Man” bomb that would be dropped over Nagasaki. Its yield was 22 kilotons.

Twenty-one days later, “Little Boy” would be dropped over Hiroshima, Japan.

Who Worked On It?: The Manhattan Project itself employed hundreds of thousands of people – at its peak, it was employing about 130,000 people. But as this article by Alex Wellerstein at points out peak employment is not cumulative employment.  In other words, like any other employer, the Manhattan Project had to deal with employees quitting or being fired and having to hire replacements. By his figures, it’s possible the Manhattan Project employed as many as 600,000 people due to fluctuations in employment.

While the scientists at Los Alamos get much of the attention, much of the necessary work was done by other researchers working at dozens of sites, such as Oak Ridge and Hanford, the University of Chicago. Additionally,  people worked in more mundane jobs at many Manhattan Project sites, all of which needed people to build the facilities and equipment needed for the bomb project, to serve as secretaries and administrative staff and even as janitors.

A large number of the people employed by the Manhattan Project were women. They worked, not only as secretaries, nurses and librarians, but also as equipment technicians, scientists and “human computers” who performed calculations that helped with the complex mathematical formulas related to nuclear fission. [(3)]

Cool Link: I found a coloring book of Women of The Manhattan Project.

People of color, particularly African Americans, also assisted with the Manhattan Project – likewise at all levels. On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited ethnic or racial discrimination in the defense industry and set up the Fair Employment Practice Committee. While it wasn’t a law, it was the first federal action intended to promote equal opportunity and prohibit employment discrimination in the US. Oak Ridge and Hanford employed substantial numbers of black workers in a variety of jobs.

African American scientists and technicians worked at several Manhattan Project sites, including the University of Chicago’s Metallurgic Laboratory (the “Met Lab”), Columbia University and the Ames Laboratory at the University of Iowa. They were physicists like Jasper Jefferies and Carolyn B. Parker; chemists like Harold Delaney and Moddie Taylor; and research assistants like James Forde and Blanche J. Lawrence, who was also the widow of a Tuskegee Airman who’d been killed on a strafing run in Greece.

African Americans also worked as construction workers, laborers, janitors and domestic staff at Oak Ridge and Hanford. While they faced discrimination at both sites, the prospect of doing their part for the war effort and working in jobs that were well-paying and offered chances for advancement were opportunities not to be scorned.

Where Was It Located?: Three of the main sites associated with the Manhattan Project were located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (Site X), Hanford Washington (Site W) and Los Alamos, New Mexico (Site Y).  Oak Ridge and Hanford were sites where fissile materials (uranium at Oak Ridge and the newly discovered plutonium at Hanford) were created and refined. Los Alamos was where the nuclear weapons were developed and, ultimately, tested.

Originally known as the Clinton Engineering Works, Oak Ridge, Tennessee was built in 1942 as a production site for the Manhattan Project. The site, known as the Clinton Engineering Works until 1949, had previously been primarily farmland.  It was chosen because the area’s low population meant land would be cheaper to buy but also the area was accessible by highway and rail. Additionally, the recently completed Norris Dam meant water and electricity were readily available – a big selling point, since Oak Ridge would be using a lot of electrical power once it was fully operational.

The remote location meant that it was easier to keep Oak Ridge a secret, even though the population ballooned up from 3,000-4,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 by 1945.  The name “Oak Ridge” was chosen because it sounded rural and boring and would hopefully keep curiosity seekers away.

The land for Oak Ridge was acquired by condemning necessary properties rather than simply purchasing them – the rationale being that land could be obtained more quickly than by directly purchasing it from the owners.

So quickly, in fact, that many locals only found out they were being evicted when a representative of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Ohio River Division (ORD) showed up to tell them the government was acquiring their land.  Some people came home from work to find eviction notices tacked up on their door or on a tree in their yard. For some local residents, this would be the third time the government would have seized their land, having been forced to relocate for both the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the 1920s and again for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Norris Dam project in the 1930s. Some were forced out before they were properly compensated for their land; others had to leave possessions behind, being unable to transport them due to wartime shortages in vehicles, gas and tires.

At least two hamlets, Elza and Robertsville, were rendered extinct. A third, Scarboro, was given over to African American residents in the 1950s and is still highly contaminated by radioactive waste.

The Hanford Site in Washington state was selected because it possessed the right combination of isolation, a long construction season, access to ready labor, suitable transportation and ready power thanks to the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams.

As in Oak Ridge, locals were given eviction notices, giving them between 30 and 90 days to vacate. Most of Hanford’s buildings, with the exception of the local high school, were destroyed. Some landowners took the government to court in order to get better appraisals of their property – which included not only their homes but also their land, crops and equipment. Colonel Franklin T. Matthias, the officer in charge of construction of the Hanford Site decided on settling out of court in these cases, due to time constraints. The plutonium reactors needed to be built and they needed to be built fast.

Additionally, local Native American tribes like the Wanapum were removed from their homelands along the Columbia River and resettled in Priest Rapids. They also lost access to their traditional fishing areas. At the time, they were told that this removal was only temporary but, well, the US government’s track record with keeping promises to Native Americans is nonexistent. A 2012 interview with Rex Buck gives more detail on how this removal affected the tribe over the years.

Acquiring the land for Site Y, the weapons design laboratory/research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico was slightly cheaper than it was for the other sites since the majority of the land needed was already owned by the federal government. Like the other sites, Los Alamos was chosen because it was isolated and easy to secure – particularly important for bomb design. It would also allow the scientists and technicians to talk more freely amongst themselves.

Hanford and Oak Ridge were secret cities, but they were at least on the map. Los Alamos wasn’t, not during the time of the Manhattan Project, at least. It was not only kept off the maps and workers were forbidden from telling family or friends where they were going, but the entire facility shared the same address (top secret sites still need to get mail, after all).

Everyone at Los Alamos received mail at P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Babies born at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project [(4)] had the post office box listed as their birthplace– and the fact that everyone shared the address led to some confusion and concern when Sears and Roebuck delivery drivers received a dozen orders for baby bassinets from one address [(5)].

Like the Hanford Site (and Oak Ridge), some of the land for Los Alamos was acquired from locals who didn’t necessarily want to have their land taken from them. In Los Alamos, the two populations affected in this way were local Hispanic homesteaders, some of whom had been in the area since the late 1800s, and Pueblo Indians, whose ancestors had settled the area in the year 1000 BCE.

As in other sites, properties the government deemed necessary to their efforts were acquired by condemning the land and paying the owners set prices for their land, equipment and, in this case, livestock. Though, in this situation, language barriers may have played a role in some people not receiving compensation for their property.

One of the things that was very hard for them to understand is that everything – maybe they wrote letters to them in English, but there was nobody to translate these letters for them. There were all men, you know, and they did not understand most of the stuff. They just agreed, “Sí, sí, sí.” What could they do? The language problem there.Rosario Martinez Fiorillo.

Los Alamos, like other Manhattan Project sites, provided employment opportunities for the people it displaced, particularly the people of the San Ildefonso Pueblo.  Native Americans and homesteaders were hired on as truck drivers, construction and maintenance workers, carpenters, gardeners, maids and child-care providers.  Additionally, researchers at Los Alamos became enamored with local artwork, particularly the pottery of artists like Maria Montoya Martinez.

Reliance on local workers was so profound that every year on January 23, the feast day for Saint Ildefonso, the lab would shut down due to a lack of maintenance workers.

And The Rest:

Other sites might not be as well-known but were just as crucial to the Manhattan Project. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The University of Chicago where the first ever nuclear reactor went critical and achieved a self-sustaining reaction on December 2, 1942.
  • Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana did nuclear research using a cyclotron during the early part of the war. Many of the researchers who worked there eventually were moved to Los Alamos.
  • Morgantown, West Virginia; Newport, Indiana and Sylacauga, Alabama — heavy water production sites for cooling nuclear reactors (then called atomic piles).
  • Dayton, Ohio – The Runnymede Playhouse was used to house research facilities working on polonium initiators meant to serve as triggers for the atomic bomb.
  • San Antonio de Los Baños, CubaMembers of the 509th Composite Group, activated in December 1944, went Batista Field to train for the flight between Tinian Island (being prepared as the staging area for the atomic bomb runs) and Japan. They worked on long-range, over-water flights and flying solo. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets would use this same field as a staging ground for their own planes.

Want to See More?: The Alsos Digital Library has created a Google Map that contains the locations of offices, mines, mills, plants, labs and test sites used by the US nuclear weapons program from World War II through to 2016.

Getting Down to Business:

The lion’s share of the work done for the Manhattan Project was the lengthy, highly involved, process of obtaining enough fissile material to be useful.

This process began with mining uranium – literally digging it out of the ground.  when the Manhattan Project began, there were only four known sources of uranium ore: Colorado, northern Canada, Czechoslovakia and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1940, three out of the four sites were in Allied hands. The richest source of ore was in the Shinkolobwe mine in the DRC. Unfortunately, at this point the mine was not in operation — though the US was able to buy stockpiles of Shinkolobwe ore that were in storage in Staten Island (another reason why Manhattan made a good location for the early nuclear project). Ore was also obtained from mines in Uravan, Colorado and the Eldorado Gold Mines in Port Hope, Ontario.

Once the ore was obtained, it had to be processed to remove impurities and create pure uranium dioxide — which would then be refined into the metallic form of uranium.

The purified uranium would then be enriched to separate out the naturally fissile uranium-235. This could be done in a variety of ways, though the method believed to be the most promising, the centrifuge, was abandoned due to technical difficulties caused by vibrations created by high rotational speeds. Other methods used included electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion (developed, in part, by the Chinese-American chemist, Chien-Shiung Wu (also known as the Queen of Nuclear Research) and thermal diffusion.

In addition to being enriched to create uranium-235, uranium ore was also used to create plutonium. This process involved bombarding natural uranium (usually the isotope U-238) with neutrons. This will cause the U-238 to be transmuted into uranium-239, which decays rapidly into first neptunium-239 and then into plutonium-239. The plutonium-239 needs to be chemically separated from the U-238 ore.

All of this is potentially dangerous, not only short-term while people are doing the work but also over the long-term, since uranium and plutonium are long-lasting elements that can contaminate areas for very, very long times.  Several Manhattan Project sites are still contaminated and in need of remediation.

Aren’t We Forgetting Something?: Weapons Design:

The work of building the atomic bombs took place at the Los Alamos Laboratory, code named Site Y. It was established by the Manhattan Project and operated by the University of California, with Robert J. Oppenheimer serving as its first director from 1943-1945. A site was chosen in rural New Mexico as a way to preserve security and to allow scientists to be able to discuss their work freely.

Initial work on a design for an atomic bomb focused on the gun-type fission weapon. But instead of using uranium, this one was intended to use plutonium.  The design was nicknamed “Thin Man” and was scrapped when it was determined that the bomb would pre-detonate, undergoing a chain reaction before it could be fully assembled.

The next design was an implosion-type bomb that still used plutonium. This would be the design used for “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  The gun-type design would be recycled and altered to use uranium-235; this is the design used for the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The “Fat Man” design was also used for the bomb tested on July 16, 1945 in the Trinity nuclear test. The bomb itself was nicknamed “the Gadget.”

Careless Talk Costs Lives: Atomic Espionage and the Manhattan Project:

What You See Here,
What You Do Here,
What You Hear Here,
When You Leave Here,
Let It Stay Here

(Sign from Oak Ridge, Tennessee warning against loose talk)

The United States and the United Kingdom agreed to work together on the atomic bomb, collaborating with each other and sharing research, with Canada also assisting with research and providing uranium from the Port Radium mines in their Northwest Territories. The US was ideally suited to doing certain research since even after Pearl Harbor, we were still largely unscathed by the war.  Britain, in addition to waging war in Europe, had also suffered through the Blitz, an eight-month bombing campaign by the Germans meant to destroy British morale and infrastructure.

The British were, however, worried about the security of American atomic sites, fearing that they could be easily infiltrated by spies.  Ironically, the British intelligence service had already been compromised by a group of Soviet double-agents known as the  Cambridge Five, including one, John Cairncross, who would later pass the MAUD reports and other documents to the Soviet Union.

Additionally, Klaus Fuchs, one of the British delegation of scientists who worked at Los Alamos and was sympathetic to the Communist cause, was a Soviet spy. He provided the Soviets with information on the UK’s atomic program before coming to the US in 1943. It’s believed by some that the information he passed on from the Manhattan Project may have given the Soviet Union the bomb one to two years sooner.

Though, as it turned out, the British were right to be concerned about American security. Several American ‘atomic spies’also operated within the US Manhattan Project, feeding information about the design and building of atomic weapons to the Soviet Union.  These included David Greenglass, the brother and brother-in-law of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. While working as a machinist at Los Alamos, he passed secrets about the bomb on to his brother-in-law Julius, who in turn passed them to the Soviets. Later, he would testify against his sister and brother-in-law in an effort to protect his wife, Ruth, who was also a Soviet agent.

During the Potsdam Conference, on July 24, 1945, Truman informed Stalin that the Manhattan Project has successfully tested an atomic bomb – something Stalin was already aware of thanks to Soviet double-agents working within the program. By this point, the Soviet Union had been fighting with the Allies for nearly three years, having switched allegiances after the events of Operation: Barbarossa.

Trinity Test:

The world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated at 05:30 am local time on July 16, 1945 at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, 230 miles south of Los Alamos (about 78 miles from Alamogordo, New Mexico and 50 miles from Socorro, New Mexico). The site is located in the Jornada Del Muerto Desert and was chosen, like most other Manhattan Project sites, because it was isolated but also because it was flat and there was little wind [(6)].

By July 1945, 250 people lived and worked at the Trinity site; during the test, that population ballooned to 425.

The test was originally scheduled for 04:00 but was postponed due to rain. Prior to the July 16th test, a “dry run” of sorts occurred on May 7, 1945. This test, called the 100-ton test, detonated 100 tons of TNT and was meant to insure that the actual atomic test would go smoothly.

The 100-ton test’s fireball was visible 60 miles away, but there was little or no shock wave felt at the base camp, which was only ten miles away. This dress rehearsal revealed some scientific and technological issues, such as the need for more test vehicles as well as better roads, and more radios and telephone lines to insure good communication. They also added a teletype machine to insure better communication with Los Alamos and upgraded the mess hall.

In the two weeks prior to the test, preparations were made to evacuate the civilian population if things went wrong. If it had been necessary, they could have evacuated 450 people, with the Alamogordo Army Air Field having been selected as the evacuation site. General Groves went so far as to warn John J. Dempsey, then governor of New Mexico that marital law might need to be declared in the area.

On the day of the atomic test, the Trinity Gadget was hoisted to the top of a 100-foot tower rather than being dropped by plane. The bomb was hauled up the tower with an electric winch – and a truckload of mattresses was placed underneath, just in case the cable broke.

The test was observed at the site from shelters established 10,000 yards from the tower at each of the cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west. Other observers were stationed 20 miles away, with still more scattered at different distances from the site.

A group of VIPs, including General Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, watched the test from Compania Hill, around 20 miles northwest of the tower. They set up a betting pool about the results with Edward Teller predicting a yield of 42 kilotons and Oppenheimer choosing 0.3 kilotons. Enrico Fermi offered to take bets on whether or not the blast would ignite the atmosphere and if that happened whether it would only destroy New Mexico or if it would incinerate the world.  This outcome had been determined to be almost impossible (but, y’know, that almost…) which the scientists knew the guards didn’t, not having the scientific background to understand that this was (hopefully) a joke.

Fermi wasn’t the only funny one among the observers – Edward Teller showed up wearing sunglasses and brought suntan lotion, which he shared.

At 5:10 am, the final 20-minute countdown to detonation began. The rain ended at 5:30 and the bomb was dropped.

It exploded with a yield of about 22 kilotons, melting the desert sand and turning it into a mildly radioactive glass later named trinitite. It left a crater 5 feet deep and 30 feet wide.  For one to two seconds, the area was lit up brighter than daylight and the heat was reported as being “hot as an oven” at the base camp – which, remember, was ten miles away.

The roar of the shock wave took 40 seconds to reach the observers and was felt over 100 miles away. The mushroom cloud reached 7.5 miles in height.

The reaction among the scientists and other observers was one of elation – the project they’d been working on for over three years, the project that nobody was really sure would actually work until it did, had succeeded[(7)].

In 1965, J. Robert Oppenheimer shared this reminiscence of the Trinity test:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all felt that one way or another.” (source: Trinity Test Eyewitnesses at Atomic

There were some unintended observers as well – civilians up to 250 miles away from ground zero heard, saw or felt the explosion. Houses shook and windows were blown out as far away as Gallup, New Mexico (235 miles away). The FBI was brought in to suppress any local news stories that might raise unwanted questions about the blast. A cover story about an ammunition storage site blowing up and was largely accepted in the Southwestern US, though it never made it into Eastern papers or radio broadcasts. (source: The Scientific Conquest of New Mexico: Local Legacies of the Manhattan Project 1942-2015, p. 199)

Of the eyewitness reports we have of the time, I think the best and easily the most poetic, belongs to Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell, second-in-command of the Manhattan Project.  He wrote this description of the Trinity test in a report to the Secretary of War:

“The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.”

Now that the bomb has been built, tested and determined to be a success, the question of using it came to the forefront. The world has now entered the nuclear age.

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[1] Ironically enough, they were given the job because, since they were considered enemy aliens, they couldn’t be given security clearances to work on the project then attempting to develop radar.

[2] The low estimate was around 12 metric tons (about 13 US tons or 26,500 pounds); the high was 40 metric tons (44 US tons, or 88,200 pounds).

[3] Some of these women were the wives of researchers at Los Alamos, others were women who had degrees in mathematics and still others had no mathematical training beyond what they received on the job. They used early mechanical calculators to assist them.  The job of “human computer” predated the Manhattan Project and was, traditionally, a job performed by women. They were particularly useful to astronomers, assisting with the stellar classification system that is still in use today and the 1969 moon landing (as depicted in the book and movie “Hidden Figures“) among other accomplishments.

[4] By some estimates, as many as 800 babies were born during the Manhattan Project; all of whom would be members of the Silent Generation.

[5] this is yet another example of how difficult it can be to keep government secrets; granted, the Sears and Roebuck delivery drivers had no way to make the leap from “ok, we got a dozen baby bassinets going to one PO Box, what the heck is going on there?!” to “I bet they’re working on an atomic bomb!” but the anomaly had to have led to talk.  One of the reasons the Soviets figured out that other countries were working on atomic bombs was because suddenly, researchers who’d been publishing on nuclear research, had suddenly stopped publishing. Later, when the US was working on continuity of government sites, the locals around one site, Raven Rock, easily guessed that some kind of nuclear war shenanigans were going on.

[6]– The site is currently known as the Trinity Site, which is probably the easiest way to look it up, if you’re curious. These days, it is possible to visit the site – though it’s only open to tourists one day a year.

[7]: Fearing that the bomb would fizzle, plans were made to transport the plutonium leftover from the fizzle. The containment system, nicknamed “Jumbo”, survived the Trinity test, but the tower it was on didn’t. You can still see it at the site today.

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Recommended Reading:


Nuke Opera 2020: Exchange Rates: Measuring Radiation:

Exchange Rates: Measuring Radiation:

Radiation can be measured, just like chalk or cheese or how many miles to the nearest gas station. There are even specialized units specifically used for measuring various aspects of radiation and radioactivity.

Specifically, we’re measuring how radioactive something is, how much radiation is absorbed by an object or a person, and how much radiation someone is being exposed to at a given moment.

Note: as always, when we’re talking about ‘radiation’ or ‘radioactivity’ we’re referring specifically to ionizing radiation.

When we measure radioactivity, we want to find out how much ionizing radiation is emitted, regardless of what type of radiation it is. This is done by counting how many atoms are decaying in a given amount of time. Radioactivity is measured by the Becquerel (Bq) or the curie (Ci)

  • A becquerel is the equivalent to one nuclear decay every second, which makes it a very, very, very small unit of measurement. Because of this, becquerels are often ‘prefixed’ to create larger units, such as the kilobecquerel (kBq), which is thousands of becquerels or the megabecquerel (MBq) which is millions of becquerel (much like kilotons and megatons are thousands and millions of tons, respectively).
    • Note: the megabecquerel is equivalent to 1 rutherford, which equals 1 million decays per second.
  • The curie, on the other hand, is the equivalent of 37 billion becquerels (though, originally, it was based on the decay rate of radium-226)

Absorbed Dose – measures how much radiation an object/person absorbs as radioactive particles/waves pass through it/them. This measurement doesn’t take into consideration the type of radiation being absorbed or the material doing the absorbing.  Absorbed doses are measured by the gray (Gy) or the rad (radiation absorbed dose)

  • One gray is equal to one kilogram of matter that has absorbed one joule of radiation energy. One joule is equal to the amount of energy needed to heat one gram of dry, cool air by 1 degree Celsius. Grays are used to measure large amounts of radiation exposure, generally of the fatal or potentially fatal variety.
  • One rad is equal to the dose of radiation that causes 100 ergs of energy to be absorbed by one gram of matter. An erg is equal to 100 nanojoules; it would take about 10 million ergs to equal one joule. As radiation doses go, one rad is very, very small.

Dose Equivalent – also known as the effective dose, this is a combination of the amount of radiation a person absorbs and the medical effects of the type of radiation absorbed. This is measured using the Sievert (Sv) or the rem (radiation equivalent man). These units specifically measure human exposure.

  • A sievert is equal to the absorbed dose of ionizing radiation multiplied by a weighting factor (formerly called the quality factor) that’s determined by the type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron) a human being (or other living creature) is exposed to.
    • Speaking in general, the weighting factor for both beta particles and gamma rays is equal to 1; for neutrons it can vary between 5-20, depending on the neutron’s energy; for alpha particles, it’s 20.
      • Note: different body parts have different weighting factors as well, since different tissues are more or less sensitive to the effects of radiation. That, however, is something we’ll be talking about in another article.
    • The rem, like the sievert, requires a bit of math. It is, effectively, the amount of rads an individual receives in a given time multiplied by the weighting factor. The weighting factors are the same as for sieverts, so the number of rems received from beta or gamma radiation is equal to the same amount of rads, but the rem dose from neutrons or alpha particles can vary in severity.

Exposure – the amount of how much radiation is traveling through the air at any given time. This is measured by either the coulomb/kilogram (C/kg) or the Roentgen (abbreviated as R).

  • The coulomb/kilogram is equal to the amount of radiation required to create one coulomb of charge in one kilogram of matter. One coulomb is the amount of electricity transported in one second by a current of one amp. It’s roughly equal to 6.24 quintillion electrons. One kilogram is approximately 2.2 pounds.
  • The roentgen is currently defined as the dose of ionizing radiation (generally X-rays or gamma rays) that will produce one electrostatic unit of electricity in one cubic centimeter of dry air.
    • Historically, exposure to 1 roentgen of X-rays equaled both 1 rad and 1 rem.

In addition, rads, rems, grays and sieverts can be divided into smaller units, each 1/1,000th of the base unit:

  • The millirad has mostly been replaced by the gray.
  • The millirem, on the other hand, is used for measuring smaller doses of radiation, of the sort we usually encounter in day-to-day life, both from the natural background radiation that surrounds us and from things like x-rays, life at high altitudes (1 millirem is equal to living in Denver, Colorado for 2 days), or
  • The millisievert (mSv), which is defined as: “the average accumulated background radiation dose to an individual for one year, exclusive of radon, in the United States.”
    • 10 millisieverts equal 1 rad or 1 rem
    • The sievert can also be reduced even further to the microsievert, which is a millionth of a sievert.
  • The milligray (mG) is amount of radiation exposure that will produce a dose of 1 millisievert.
    • 10 milligrays equal 1 roentgen or 1 rad.

Why two different forms of measurement? – the curie, rad, rem and roentgen are older terms that are, for the most part, considered to be non-standard units of measurement and somewhat outdated – though they still show up in reference materials. The becquerel, gray, sievert and coulomb/kilogram are more modern units of measurement that are considered part of the International System of Units, the modern version of the metric system.

The Very Least You Need to Know:

For our purposes, we’re going to be primarily concerned with radiation’s effects on human beings, which means we’re going to be mainly concerned with the gray, the sievert, and the rad and rem. Some of my sources will also refer to roentgens/hour. Since radiation measurements can be confusing, even to experts, here are some dosages based on health effects:

Dosage in rem Effects Sieverts millisieverts Gray rads
25 rem Lowest level where short-term health effects appear. 0.25 250 0.25 25
50-100 rem No significant illness 0.5-1 500-1,000 0.5-1 50-100
100-200 rem Nausea, vomiting; 10% fatal within 30 days. 1-2 1,000-2,000 1-2 100-200
200-300 rem Vomiting; 35% fatal in 30 days 2-3 2,000-3,000 3-2 200-300
300-400 rem Vomiting, diarrhea; 50% fatal in 30 days 3-4 3,000-4,000 3-4 300-400
400-500 rem Hair loss, fever, hemorrhaging in 3 weeks 4-5 4,000-5,000 4-5 400-500
500-600 rem Internal bleeding; 60% die in 30 days 5-6 5,000-6,000 5-6 500-600
600-1,000 rem Intestinal damage; 100% fatal in 14 days 6-10 6,000-10,000 6-10 600-1,000
5,000 rem Delirium, coma; 100% fatal in 7 days 50 50,000 50 5,000
8,000 rem Coma in seconds; death in an hour 80 80,000 80 8,000
10,000 rem Instant Death 100 100,000 100 10,000

Note: grays and rads doses are based on gamma ray exposure, with the weighting factor of one. As an example of what a difference the weighting factor can make, at the Instant Death level, a lethal dose would be:

Neutron radiation Alpha radiation:
10 gray 5 gray
1,000 rad 500 rad

Sources for table:

A Who’s Who of Radiation Measurement:

Several units for measuring radiation are named after key figures in the study of radioactivity. These include:

  • Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), the first person to discover evidence of natural radioactivity in 1896.
  • While the curie, was originally named for Pierre Curie (1859-1906), it’s also considered to honor his wife and fellow researcher Marie Curie (1867-1934). Working together, the Curies discovered radium and polonium. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 along with Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie also coined the term ‘radioactivity’ in 1898.
  • Harold Gray (1905-1965), an early contributor to the field of radiobiology, who studied the effects of radiation on biological systems.
  • Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895. This discovery is generally considered the beginning of the history of nuclear weapons.
  • Rolf Maximillian Sievert (1896-1966), was a major contributor to the study of the biological effects of radiation
  • Charles-Augustin Coulomb (1736-1806), was the discoverer of Coulomb’s law, which describes the electrostatic force of attraction and repulsion. The coulomb itself measures electric charge.
  • Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, was a New Zealand-born British physicist who discovered the concept of the radioactive half-life, the element radon and differentiated between alpha and beta particles.

Article Sources: 

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“One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day”: Health Risks, Radiation and You – Part One

“One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day”: Health Risks, Radiation and You – Part One

Terminology Note: I’m going to say “bomb” periodically throughout this piece, because that’s what my mind defaults to and “nuclear bomb” has a long tradition of being a catch-all term for nuclear weapons. It’s inaccurate, but that’s a subject for another essay. Just be aware that a “nuclear bomb” in this essay can mean an actual bomb or a missile or a variety of other weapons.

“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! —I mean, Radiation, Radiation, Radiation!”

While the majority of this article is going to be delving into what radiation can and can’t do to the human body, the fact is that radiation makes up a small part of the total energy released in a nuclear explosion and most of the damage it does is long-term rather than short-term. What’s really going to get you, particularly the closer you are to the site of the initial detonation, is the heat and the blast wave.

In a nuclear explosion, the energy released can be broken down thusly:

    • Air Blast Effects (up to 50% of the explosion’s total energy) specifically refers to the damage caused when the air in the vicinity of the explosion is heated and creates the now-iconic mushroom cloud/nuclear fireball. [(1)] .It also creates a devastating shock wave that can cause injuries by rupturing eardrums or lungs or by throwing humans against objects at high speed (or vice versa).

An overpressure of 200 psi can create maximum wind speeds of 502 miles per hour; the fastest winds recorded on Earth were only slightly over half that fast. [(2)]. 200 psi is also the level where fatalities will be 100%.

The air blast effects are best seen in the formation and rise of the mushroom cloud, which can be seen in this archival footage from the Trinity test on July 16, 1945 — the first nuclear explosion.

Note: The footage is, unfortunately, silent and therefore inaccessible to visually impaired readers. I do apologize for this. For those readers, I would recommend the following articles:

  • Thermal Radiation (between 30-50% of the explosion’s total energy; average about 35%) all explosions create heat; nuclear weapons can create temperatures as hot as the corona of the sun or around 1 million degrees Celsius (or about 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit). [(3)] 
  • Ionizing Radiation (roughly 5-10% of the explosion’s energy) – for our purposes, this will be considered to include both the radiation released at the time of the explosion as well as the residual radiation (otherwise known as fallout) that remains after the initial blast. (More on this in Part Two)

Note: I’m aware that the percentages don’t add up to an even 100%; this is because the exact percentages will vary according the type of weapon being used. We’ll get into types of weapons in a later article.

In a nuclear explosion, the air blast and the thermal radiation cause most of the immediate/short-term damage and fatalities/injuries done by a nuclear blast; ionizing radiation does more long-term damage, especially to humans and other living things.

Exactly how much damage a nuclear explosion does depends on three things:

  • Where the bomb is detonated – specifically, how high above ground level the bomb is detonated. Higher in the air, the further the shock wave will travel; the closer to the ground, the shock wave’s effects will do more damage in a smaller area.
  • How big the bomb is – this refers to the weapon’s yield, or how much energy it puts out, which is a measure of how powerful it is. Yield is measured using tons of TNT as a reference. The two main units used for this measurement are kilotons (thousands of tons of TNT) and megatons (millions of tons of TNT). For more information about what these yields mean in terms of energy, see my earlier article, How Many Blue Whales in a Kiloton?
  • How close you are to the site of the explosion – The closer you are to ground zero (also called the explosion’s hypocenter), the more likely a person or object will be injured, killed or destroyed.

Overpressure, That Knocks a Building Down:

The damage from a nuclear weapon’s blast effects is caused by a shock wave of air being pushed out by the explosion. This causes sudden changes in air pressure that can crush objects as well as create high winds that can knock heavy objects over and throw lighter objects around.

Two factors are associated with this shockwave:

  • Static overpressure is the sharp increase in pressure exerted by the shock wave. It is directly proportionate to the density of the air at any given point within the wave.
  • Dynamic pressures is the drag exerted by the blast winds required to form the blast wave. These are the winds that knock objects and buildings over, cause them to go tumbling and tear them apart.

The impact of a nuclear explosion will also be affected by the local terrain (hilly vs. flat)  will be affected by both the terrain where the bomb hits and by the local weather – nukes don’t like fog or rainy days – and by the time of day when the bomb is dropped.

It’s the Heat, It’s Definitely the Heat:

As was mentioned earlier, nuclear explosions are hotter than the surface of the sun. The flash of the explosion will start fires and can cause burns of varying severity. Within a certain distance of ground zero, the chances of receiving third-degree burns reaches 100% — you can jump down to the section titled So, Just How Close Is Too Close? for a breakdown of just how widely those distances can vary depending on a weapon’s yield.

Nuclear explosions can also cause secondary fires by destroying local infrastructure (breaking gas lines, causing electrical shorts, etc.).  They can also start firestorms, if conditions are right – Hiroshima experienced a firestorm, Nagasaki did not.

A firestorm happens when a fire grows so large that it creates and is able to sustain its own weather system, which allows the fire to rage further out of control. Firestorms can occur any time a fire becomes large enough to create its own weather system, as was seen during the Australian brushfires of 2019-2020 — which at the time of this writing (January 22, 2020) is still on-going.

Flash, ARGH!

The biggest risk of injury and death from the explosion’s flash comes from burns [(4)].. There are estimates that 50% of the deaths at Hiroshima were caused by burns. The flash of a nuclear explosion can also cause blindness that is either temporary (flash blindness) or permanent (caused by retinal injury). One way to avoid this damage is to duck away from the flash and cover one’s eyes.

And speaking of ducking and covering…

Burt the Turtle, He Was a Good Friend of Mine:

The civil defense film Duck and Cover gets a lot of flak for seemingly being a stupid bit of security theatre that was meant to soothe the American people’s nervousness while being utterly useless since nuclear bombs are instantly lethal. Boy, weren’t people in the 1950s so dumb?! Not like we people of the modern day!

There’s two reasons why the movie doesn’t entirely deserve the scorn it gets:

For one, Duck and Cover (link goes to video) came out in 1951. At that time, all nuclear weapons on the planet were what’s known as gravity bombs – i.e. the kind of bombs that have to be dropped from planes flying over a target. Delivery times for these sorts of bombs could be measured in hours or even days, since chances were good that a nuclear attack wouldn’t come without warning.  Contrast that with the nuclear weapons of my childhood, where the warning time for an intercontinental ballistic missile attack could be as little as 4 minutes.

In other words, Duck and Cover was based on the science of the time and was a sincere, good-faith effort to try and protect people.

For a second thing, the bombs of this era were fission-based and therefore were relatively low-yield, in the under-25 kiloton range. While a multi-kiloton explosion is still a large explosion, it’s not much bigger than conventional, non-nuclear explosions and that means it’s entirely possible to survive injuries provided you’re either far enough away from ground zero (which doesn’t have to be that far) or within a suitable shelter, even if that shelter is relatively close to ground zero.

For example: Akiko Takakura survived the effects of Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima despite being less than a mile from ground zero simply by being inside a reinforced concrete building. An unknown victim, who was outside the building, was killed within two seconds by the blast.

In another instance, the leaves of a shrub protected part of a telephone pole located 0.8 of a mile from ground zero, shielding parts of the pole from being charred by thermal radiation. (source includes a description of the picture).

While it’s true that ducking and covering isn’t going to do you much good if you’re close to the initial detonation site – but, in that case, nothing short of a hardened bunker a mile or two underground is going to do much to save you. As far as that goes, ducking and covering is what I was taught to do during tornado drills during my school days – and if a tornado hits you directly, having your hands over the back of your neck and doing your best turtle impression isn’t likely to save you either.

What ducking and covering is meant to protect against is flash burns and flying debris – just as it’s meant to do in a tornado. By staying small and staying down, you reduce your risk of being burned or clocked by a flying brick.

So, Just How Close is Too Close?:

The short answer, as usual when it comes to nukes, is that “It depends” for reasons we’ve already discussed.  Using a program called NUKEMAP, created by Alex Wellerstein, that allows you to simulate the effects of a nuclear detonation on a target of your choice (and which can be sooooo cathartic…), I went through and collected data on nuclear explosions ranging from 1 ton through 100 megatons, for both surface blasts and air burst detonations.

Looking at the 20 psi overpressure radius (the area where destruction and fatalities reach 100%), we can see that:

  • A one-ton surface blast’s 20 psi radius is 70 feet from ground zero and covers an area of 16,020 square feet (slightly larger than the surface area of an Olympic swimming pool. For a comparable air burst, this radius goes up to 90 feet and an area of 26,900 square feet.
  • A one kiloton surface blast’s 20 psi radius is 710 feet and covers 0.06 square miles – comparable to the Irish National Botanical Gardens. For an air burst, the radius is 930 feet and an area of 0.10 square miles.
  • A one megaton surface blast’s 20 psi radius is 1.35 miles and covers an area of 5.74 square miles – which would fit into Xinghai Square, city square of Dallan, Liaoning Province, China. In an air burst, this radius jumps to 1.75 miles and the area shoots up to 9.65 square miles, which is slightly larger than the area of Hot Springs National Park, in Garland County, Arkansas.

In terms of thermal radiation, we’ll be using the radius where there is a 100% chance of 3rd degree burns:

  • In a one-ton surface blast, this radius is 160 feet from ground zero and covers 85,500 square feet; the air burst would have a radius of 200 feet and cover 121,300 square feet.
  • A one-kiloton surface blast’s radius is 1,650 feet and covers an area of 0.31 square miles; the air burst’s radius is 1,960 feet and has an area of 0.44 square miles.
  • A one-megaton surface blast’s radius is 6.64 miles and covers 138 square miles; the air burst would have a radius of 7.82 miles and cover 192 square miles.

The Biggest (Man-made) Bang:

The largest nuclear explosion occurred on October 30, 1961 when the Soviet Union dropped their RDS-202 hydrogen bomb. The bomb, codenamed by the Soviets as Ivan or Vanya, was nicknamed Tsar Bomba by the US. The explosion had a yield of 50 megatons.

For comparison, the entire amount of all the conventional explosives used during World War II was about three megatons. Or, if we want to look at nuclear explosions, Tsar Bomba’s yield was about 1,570 times that of the combined energy of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It represents 10% of the combined yield of all nuclear tests. To get a bigger explosion than this, you need to look at things like volcanos (the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa; 200 megatons) or asteroid strikes (the Tunguska event; estimated yield of 30 megatons) [(5)].

Tsar Bomba, itself, weighed 27 metric tons (about 60,000 pounds) and was so large the Soviets had to remove the bomb bay doors and fuselage fuel tanks from the plane that carried it. They attached a parachute to it in order to give the plane that dropped the bomb enough time to get out of the way and give them a 50% chance of surviving the detonation.

The bomb was dropped over the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean from an altitude of 34,500 feet and was detonated when it reached about 13,123 feet. When the bomb detonated, it caused the following effects.

  • The detonation’s fireball was five miles wide at its maximum point and it reached 6.5 miles into the sky. It was visible almost 620 miles away.
  • The explosion’s shock wave prevented the fireball from reaching the ground.
  • The mushroom cloud reached 42 miles high over seven times the height of Mt. Everest. The cloud’s “cap” reached a peak width of 59 miles and the base of the cloud was 245 miles wide.
  • The blast destroyed all the buildings – wooden and stone – in the village of Severny, 35 miles from ground zero. In addition, wooden buildings were destroyed within hundreds of kilometers of ground zero while stone buildings in the same area lost wooden roofs, windows and doors.
  • Radio communications were interrupted for nearly an hour.
  • A participant, 170 miles away from ground zero, saw the flash (through dark goggles) and felt the thermal pulse.
  • The heat of the blast could have caused 3rd degree burns to a radius of 62 miles from ground zero.
  • A shockwave was observed at the Dikson settlement 430 miles away.
  • Windowpanes were partially broken up to 560 miles away.

Tsar Bomba was created partly for propaganda reasons – as a way for the Soviet Union to demonstrate their scientific and military superiority to the United States. The bomb itself was too big and impractical to ever be deployed. The largest nuclear weapons deployed by either the Soviet Union or the USA remained in the comparatively safer 25 megaton range.



  • Title Source: The title of this piece comes from an anti-nuclear/pro-disarmament slogan common in the 1970s and 1980s. It was featured on bumper stickers and pins, such as this example featured in the online collection of the Museums Victoria: Badge – One Nuclear Bomb can Ruin Your Whole Day, circa 1970s-1980s (LINK:
  • [1] – While mushroom clouds are most commonly associated with nuclear explosions, they can and do appear with other sorts of explosions. If an explosion creates a lot of heat in a short time, a mushroom cloud will form; an account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD (the explosion that destroyed Pompeii) described the blast as looking like a pine tree – which, in Italy, look a lot like mushrooms. (Source:
  • . [2]– The fastest winds on record come from a hurricane gust associated with Tropical Cyclone Olivia, which pas. sed by Barrow Island, Australia in April 1996. It was 254 miles per hour. Prior to that, the fastest wind on record was 231 miles per hour, recorded at the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire in April 1934. [source:]
  • . [3]The Sun’s corona is, per the Simple English Wikipedia [link:], “an aura of plasma which surrounds the sun and other stars.” It’s actually hotter than the surface of the Sun, which is “only” about 5,600 degrees Celsius/10,000 degrees Fahrenheit; the actual center of the Sun, on the other hand, is still hotter at 15 million degrees Celsius/27 million degrees Fahrenheit. (source:
  • [4]We’ll talk more about this in the next article, since it has bearing on the risks of radiation exposure, but burns are especially likely to be fatal after a nuclear explosion not only because they are horrific injuries that can destroy the body’s ability to recover, but also because after a nuclear explosion, there would be an overwhelming demand for burn treatments but also a severe lack of skilled personnel, necessary supplies including medication and infrastructure to help burn victims recover.
  • [5] By comparison, the Chicxulub impactor – the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs – hit the Yucatan Peninsula with the force of between 21-921 billion Hiroshima A-bombs or about one hundred million times the yield of Tsar Bomba. Its impact created a hole 62 miles wide and 19 miles deep. It also caused a megatsunami that was over 330 feet high and that would have reached from the impact site to Texas and Florida. It caused die-offs as far away as New Jersey and North Dakota and the triggered natural disasters on a global {source:}


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A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. If you want to join, you can at any time.Set the goals you want to accomplish and get and give encouragement to fellow ROWers. Feel free to join us on Facebook at ROW80 or follow us on Twitter at #ROW80.  Or you can do all of the above!

Nuke Opera 2020: Radioactive Decay and the Half-Life of the Atom — an Addendum to “Introducing Our Acquaintance, the Atom”

Radioactive Decay and the Half-Life of the Atom: Addendum to “Introducing Our Acquaintance, the Atom”

Because I didn’t go into this as much as I probably should have on the previous post, here’s a bit more about radioactive decay and how it relates to radioactivity.

Radioactive decay is the process by which an unstable isotope becomes a stable isotope by releasing particles or rays, changing the isotope either into a different isotope of the same element or into a new element entirely.

This process is called a decay chain. Uranium-235, the isotope used to create nuclear weapons, decays through a series of steps into Lead-207, which is a stable and therefore safer isotope. [(1)]. This process takes roughly 703.8 million years and involves the following steps:

Uranium-235 decays into Thorium-231, which then decays into Protactinium-231, which then decays into Actinium-227, and so on, as the chain continues through Thorium-227 to Radium-223 to Radon-219 to Polonium-215 to Lead-211 to Bismuth-211 to Thallium-207 and finally to Lead-207.

In this case, Uranium-235 is the parent isotope, while the elements it decays into are its daughter isotopes. Or decay products, if you want to have absolutely no sense of whimsy about radioactive decay.

Does A Radioactive Cat Have 18 Half-Lives?:

The speed at which radioactive decay occurs varies from element to element. It’s measured in terms of an isotope’s half-life, which is the time it takes (on average) for half of the atoms in a substance to change into a more stable isotope.

Ok, we’re going to do a bit of math but I promise, it’s relatively simple.
Assume we have a quantity of an isotope with a half-life of one hour. We’ll start timing its decay at noon and check how much of the radioactive isotope is left every hour:

  • By one o’clock, half of the atoms in our sample have decayed. We now have 50% of our sample left.
  • At two o’clock, half of the remaining atoms in that sample will have decayed, leaving us with 25% of our original sample.
  • By three o’clock, we have 12.5% of our sample remaining,
  • Then at 4 pm, we’re down to 6.25%,
  • Once we get to 10pm, we’ll be down to 0.098% of our original sample. This decay will continue until we’re left with none of the original radioactive isotope and instead have 100% (or close enough to it) of the new, stable element.

As a rule of thumb, after ten half-lives, an isotope can be considered to be safe. However, since the length of a half-life can be extremely short [(2)].or extremely long [(3)].Different elements in an isotope’s decay chain can have different half-lives. Uranium-235’s half-life is 703.8 million years, but the first daughter isotope in its decay chain, Thorium-231 has a half-life of 25.5 hours.

The longer an isotope’s half-life, the longer it takes for it to fully decay and become stable. These elements are more dangerous because they will contaminate an area longer, but while elements with shorter half-lives may dissipate faster, they can release more energy in a shorter period, leading to a greater short-term exposure risk.

We’ll be talking more about what those risks entail in our next article. Thanks for reading!


  • [1] Lead is safer than uranium in the sense that lead isn’t radioactive; that doesn’t mean it’s not still dangerous in its own right. Just as the people of Ancient Rome. (
  • [2] Francium-223 has the shortest half-life of any naturally-occurring element: 22 minutes; the isotope with the shortest half-life is hydrogen-7, which was first synthesized in a laboratory in 2003. Its half-life is 23 yoctoseconds. A yoctosecond is one-septillionth of a second, or 0.000000000000000000000001.
  • [3] Xenon-124, Bismuth-209 and Tellurium-128 all have half-lives longer than the age of the universe itself. Xenon-124’s half-life is about 18 sextillion years or roughly one trillion times the age of the universe (13.8 billion years). Tellurium-128’s half-life is 100 times longer than that of xenon-124 (or roughly 13 trillion times the age of the universe). Bismuth-209 has, by comparison, a short half-life of “only” 20,100,000,000,000,000,000 years (or 1.5 million times the age of the universe).


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Nuke Opera 2020: Reading List


Since tonight is going to be an earlier than usual night for me, I figured I’d toss up a list of the Nuke Opera books I’m planning on taking a look at. The idea, right now, is to start at the top of the list and work my way down, since I’m thinking that’ll be a good way to explore how the subgenre developed and changed over time. How well that plan will go depends on how easily I can find my copies of these books.

Nuke Opera Reading List:

  • The Survivalist: Jerry Ahern, Book #1: Total War (1981) — the book that started the genre
  • Ashes: William W. Johnstone, Book #1: Out of the Ashes (1983) — a long running series by a prolific author and easy one of my least favorite examples of the genre for reasons I’ll get into later on.
  • Wasteworld: James Barton, Book #1: Aftermath (1983)
  • Amtrak Wars: Patrick Tilley, Book #1: Cloud Warrior (1983)
  • The Outrider: Richard Harding, Book #1: The Outrider (1984)
  • Doomsday Warrior: Ryder Stacy, Book #1: Doomsday Warrior (1984)
  • Traveler: B. Drumm, Book #1: First, You Fight (1984)
  • The Zone: James Rouch, Book #1: Hard Target (1984)
  • The Guardians: Richard Austin, Book #1: The Guardians (1985)
  • A.D.S.: John Sievert, Book #1: C.A.D.S. (1985)
  • The Last Ranger: Craig Sargent, Book #1: The Last Ranger (1986)
  • Endworld: David Robbins, Book #1: The Fox Run (1986) — I’m also going to be looking at the prequel, Endworld: Doomsday, published in 2009, which is set 100 years before the series begins and helps set up/flesh out the series backstory.
    • Note: David Robbins wrote in a wide variety of genres, as did/do a lot of nuke opera writers. He’s written horror stories, war stories and Westerns, including a long-running series, Wilderness, about the adventures of mountain man, Nathaniel King (a former accountant who went West looking for adventures) and his family. Robbins crossed this series over with Endworld in Giant Wilderness #6: Frontier Strike, where the leads from Endworld travel back in time and join forces with Nathaniel King. Nuke operas can be weird.
  • Deathlands: James Axler, Book #1: Pilgrimage in Hell (1986) – The longest-running nuke opera series; it reached 125 print books and is still being produced in audiobook form by Graphic Audio, which has adapted the 125 print books and produced 10 audiobook exclusive stories (and counting)
  • Phoenix: David Alexander, Book #1: Dark Messiah (1987)
  • Roadblaster: Paul Hofrichter, Book #1: Hell Ride (1987)
  • Wingman: Mack Maloney, Book #1: Wingman (1987)
  • The Marauders: Edward M. McGann, Book #1: The Marauders (1989)
  • Blade: David Robbins, Book #1: First Strike (1989) – Spin-off series from Endworld
  • Eagleheart: T. Westcott, Book #1: Silver Wings and Leather Jackets (1989) a rare nuke opera series intentionally written to be funny.
  • Omega Sub: David Cameron, Book #1: Omega Sub (1991)
  • Swamp Master: Jake Spencer, Book #1: Swamp Master (1992) – a very late entry into the nuke opera genre, written just after the end of the Cold War and demonstrating the necessity of finding a new Big Bad.
  • Outlanders: James Axler, Book #1: Exile to Hell (1997) – a spin-off/sequel series to Deathlands. Also, the second longest-running nuke opera series (ended with 75 books).

Note:believe that these series represent pretty much the entirety of the genre but I’m more than happy to be proved wrong; if you know of a series I’ve missed, feel free to drop a mention in the comments.

Nuke Opera Adjacent Books:

  • Horseclans: Robert Adams, Book #1: The Coming of the Horse Clans (1975) — adjacent because it falls outside my established timeline for the genre (1980-1991); haven’t read it yet, but from what I hear, it sounds like it might be an early example of the genre.
  • I, Martha Adams (1984) by Pauline Glen Window — adjacent because it isn’t a series, but it’s definitely earned a place at the table.
  • Amerika (1987) by Brauna E. Pouns, Patrick Anderson — Novelization of the 1987 TV miniseries about the Soviet Union invading America. Adjacent because while nuclear weapons are part of the invasion, they’re used to create EMPs to knock out America’s communications networks, not to destroy cities.

Additional Reviews: These books and stories aren’t nuke operas themselves, but are included because I feel they have important things to say about the nuke opera subgenre. This list will likely be added to as time goes on.

  • Lot (1953) and Lot’s Daughter (1954) by Ward Moore – I’m looking at these two stories because they are in sharp contrast to the macho, action-adventure fantasy of most nuke opera stories.
  • A Boy and His Dog (1969) by Harlan Ellison
  • Farnham’s Freehold (1964) by Robert A. Heinlein – This book is included because I feel that it is a forerunner to/trope originator for the nuke opera subgenre.
  • The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett
  • That Only a Mother (1948) by Judith Merril
  • Gate into Women’s Country (1988) by Sheri S. Tepper
  • The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham – published in the US as Re-Birth
  • Z for Zachariah (1974) by Robert C. O’Brien – I might do a compare/contrast with this and the movie.

I plan to look at Lot, Lot’s Daughter, and A Boy and His Dog before I start on the nuke operas themselves. Again, plans are subject to change. Right now, I’m working on some explanatory articles about the science behind nuclear weapons and the history of the Cold War as well as an article fleshing out just what I mean when I say “Nuke Opera.” I should, fingers crossed, have at least one of those articles up by Wednesday.

But for now, as I said, tonight’s an early night for me so I’m going to get this posted and go to bed. Hope you’re having a good week and I’ll talk to you soon!

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A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. If you want to join, you can at any time.Set the goals you want to accomplish and get and give encouragement to fellow ROWers. Feel free to join us on Facebook at ROW80 or follow us on Twitter at #ROW80.  Or you can do all of the above!