30 seconds to zero time … put on goggles or turn away.

black and white image of the 1954 Castle Bravo thermonculear test burst

Castle Bravo 1 MAR 1954. The “Oh Sh*t” test.

… do not face burst until ten seconds after the first light.

There is a book sitting in my book case entitled “How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb” by Peter Kuran.  I picked it up in the gift shop during a visit a few years ago to the Titan II missile museum in Sahuarita, Arizona.

You may ask, “Do you expect to be photographing any atomic explosions soon?”  I dunno, got one coming up?

Sure, a big part of my ownership of this particular volume is, as you might imagine, simply for the conversation-starter aspect of having it sitting there on the bookshelf.  It is a fascinating book, actually.  But it goes right along with my fairly extensive collection of nuclear test films, government training and information (some would say propaganda) films from the 1940’s through the 1960’s on nuclear safety, dealing with fallout, building your backyard shelter, keeping your pantry items clean and contamination free after a blast and so on.

I get geeky about the oddest things I guess.  My fascination with this topic in general stems from a few areas as far as I can tell.

The basic tech.  Set aside for a moment the reality of the thing they were actually fiddling around with, the politics surrounding the issue and so on.  I’m continually in awe when I look at early days of the nuclear age, just that they were able to make the danged things work in the first place.  When you do a little reading and research and realize actually, really, how difficult and challenging it is to pull all the bits and pieces together in just the right combination, with the correct masses and chemistry and timing and so on, I have to admire the sheer engineering involved.  The basic science geek in me is interested in what was needed to separate U-235 from U-238 and just how bloody difficult it is to do.  The idea of making plutonium, a completely man made element (well, usually), and the industrial processes needed to do that is fascinating from an engineering standpoint.  I’m intrigued by the fact that an atomic implosion device uses a standard high explosive to get it started (plus a neutron initiator in the core) but that you need an atomic bomb to get a thermonuclear device lit.  Yeesh.

The ignorance of the time.  We look back with sharp 20-20 hindsight now and stare, jaws agape, at the scientists, military men, politicians, engineers, technicians and the rest involved and ask “how the HELL could you have played around with this stuff the way you did?”  In testing, sometimes they got it wrong.  The first test of a dry thermonuclear device, the Bravo test of the Castle series in 1954 turned out to be a major problem for the team.  From what they thought they knew, this one was to yield about 6 Megatons.  When they lit the thing, it actually delivered closer to 15 Mt and created no end of issues, injuries, unexpected radiation exposures and the like all over the south pacific.  You learn a little bit from every test, but this one required a bunch of guys to go back to their slide rules and rethink.  They got skunked by the basic ignorance of not understanding that all of the Lithium isotopes they were using were reactive, not just the portion that was Lithium-6.  Oops, indeed.  We learn by doing in pretty much every endeavor.  It flat out amazes me that our learning in this area was just so … out there.  Sure, a great deal of this came from the “we’re Americans, we can do anything” thinking that also put us on the moon, but jeez.

The daily fear of the times.  I’m too young to have done duck and cover drills in school.  By the time I was a tyke in elementary school south of Boston in the 60’s, it was very clear to the world that the good old days of small, manageable atomic weapons measured in mere kilotons was long, long gone.  One of the test films I have in my collection even has a disclaimer at the start reminding the audience that the information presented is applicable to moderate yield “standard” nuclear devices only and that the effects cannot be scaled to those of a modern thermonuclear device.  By the time I was a kid, the idea of hiding under your desk or running to the interior hallway of your school or whatever seemed, I guess even to the experts, to be ridiculous in the face of a MIRV warhead that could drop silently out of outer space and let loose a solid 20 Megatons of instant death on your head.  So all we did at school was basic fire drills once a month.  At home, at the insistence of my grandmother, we continued to collect flattened tin cans well in to the 70’s and store them in boxes.  What were they for?  Well, I guess you were supposed to use them to cover up the windows in the basement when you took shelter.

People older than me lived with the daily fear of the unknown future in a much bigger way.  I speak to friends and family who were teenagers in the period from roughly 1948-ish to about 1965 and the stories are a more than a little depressing.  The little kids didn’t know any better, but the teens looking forward to their Senior Prom or the next football game or a date or graduation … or school the next morning … were in some cases sad and fearful to the point of near paralysis.  A couple of people I know actually had the thought running around in their heads, “I know we’ll all be dead soon, so what’s the point?” The fact that these people actually moved on and built lives and families and careers for themselves is, if not astounding, at least a confirmation of the ever optimistic outlook of the human spirit.

Good ol’ American propaganda!  The Civil Defense films that were produced during this time were, after all, as much about us pounding our collective national breast and saying to the great Soviet bear, “hey, screw with us and we know how to protect ourselves – you will not wipe us out” as it was a means of trying to provide information or solace to the American public.  I get it.  When staring in to the great gaping maw of eternity not knowing if you’d really ever see tomorrow’s sunrise or not, some basic comfort of knowing that you could turn to 640 or 1240 on your AM dial and get instructions on how to survive may have been helpful to some in getting through the day.

I think finally, though, the main reason I find this atomic ephemera fascinating is that we basically got past it.  Yes, I understand that nations worldwide still stockpile an insane number of nuclear weapons.  I understand that we now face the chaos of a possibly expanding number of nations and non-national entities that possess the capability to light one of these things off.  I get all that and it’s serious and nothing to be trifled with.  And maybe we really haven’t actually gotten past the hair trigger end-the-world-this-afternoon kind of mentality in some places.  But with all that the planet did NOT know in the early days; for all the ignorance and arrogance of the people and powers involved; over the course of time as we learned as a species about this stuff, cooler heads ultimately have continued to prevail and we probably aren’t as up against it today as we were 30-50 years ago.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I think it’ll be something other than nuclear annihilation that takes out mankind at this point.

When I’m wandering blind among the burning wastes wondering how much longer it’ll be before the gamma and neutron dose finally takes me out, you may feel completely free to tell me you told me so.  At this point in my life, though, I’m pretty confident that I’ll go to my grave radiation free.