On 15 Nov 1960, the FBM submarine USS George Washington (SSBN-598) embarked on the nation’s first Polaris nuclear deterrent patrol armed with 16 intermediate range Polaris A1 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This milestone occurred just 3 years 11 months after the Polaris FBM program was funded by Congress and authorized by the Secretary of Defense. The 1st deterrent patrol was completed 66 days later on 21 January 1961.
The original US FBM submarine force consisted of 41 Polaris submarines, in five sub-classes (George Washington, Ethan Allen, Lafayette, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin), that were authorized between 1957 and l963. Through several rounds of modifications, most of these submarines were adapted to handle later versions of the Polaris SLBM (A2, A3 and A4) and some were modified to handle the Poseidon (C3) SLBM. Twelve of the James Madison- and Ben Franklin-class boats were modified the late 1970s and early 1980s to handle the long range Trident I C4 SLBMs.
A total of 1,245 Polaris deterrent patrols were made in a period of about 21 years, from the first Polaris A-1 deterrent patrol by USS George Washington in 1960, and ending with the last Polaris A-3 deterrent patrol by USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601), which started on 1 October 1981. By then, the remainder of the original Polaris SSBN fleet had transitioned to Poseidon (C3) and Trident I (C4) SLBMs.
The next generation of US ballistic missile submarines was the Ohio-class SSBN, 18 of which were ordered between 1974 and 1990 (one per fiscal year). The lead ship of this class, USS Ohio (SSBN 726), was commissioned in 1981 and deployed 6 September 1982 on its first strategic deterrent patrol, armed with the Trident I (C4) SLBM. Beginning with the 9th boat in class, USS Tennessee (SSBN-734), the remaining Ohio- class SSBNs were equipped originally to handle the larger Trident II (D5). Four of the early boats were upgraded to handle the Trident II (D5) missile. The earliest four, including the USS Ohio, were converted to cruise missile submarines to comply with strategic weapons treaty limits.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reported that the US Navy conducted 4,086 submarine strategic deterrent patrols between 1969 and 2017. At that time, the Navy was conducting strategic deterrent patrols at a steady rate of around 30 patrols per year. By the end of 2020, that total must be approaching 4,175 patrols.
In 2020, the US maintains a fleet of 14 Trident missile submarines armed with D5LE (life extension) SLBMs. By about 2031, the first of the new Columbia-class SSBN is expected to be ready to start its first deterrent patrol. Ohio-class SSBNs will be retired on a one-for-one bases when the new Columbia-class SSBNs are delivered to the fleet and ready to assume deterrent patrol duties.
On 19 January 1942, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the production of an atomic bomb. At that time, most of the technology for producing an atomic bomb still needed to be developed and the US had very little infrastructure in place to support that work.
The Manhattan Engineer District (MED, aka the “Manhattan Project”) was responsible for the research, design, construction and operation of the early US nuclear weapons complex and for delivering atomic bombs to the US Army during World War II (WW II) and in the immediate post-war period. The Manhattan Project existed for just five years. In 1943, 75 years ago, the Manhattan Project transitioned from planning to construction and initial operation of the first US nuclear weapons complex facilities. Here’s a very brief timeline for the Manhattan Project.
13 August 1942: The Manhattan Engineer District was formally created under the leadership of U.S. Army Colonel Leslie R. Groves.
2 December 1942: A team led by Enrico Fermi achieved the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in a graphite-moderated, natural uranium fueled reactor known simply as Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1).
1943 – 1946: The Manhattan Project managed the construction and operation of the entire US nuclear weapons complex.
16 July 1945: The first nuclear device was successfully tested at the Trinity site near Alamogordo, NM, less than three years after the Manhattan Project was created.
6 & 9 August 1945: Atomic bombs were employed by the US against Japan, contributing to ending World War II.
1 January 1947: The newly formed, civilian-led Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) took over management and operation of all research and production facilities from the Manhattan Engineer District.
25 August 1947: The Manhattan Engineer District was abolished.
The WW II nuclear weapons complex was the foundation for the early US post-war nuclear weapons infrastructure that evolved significantly over time to support the US mutually-assured destruction strategy during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Today, the US nuclear weapons complex continues to evolve as needed to perform its critical role in maintaining the US nuclear deterrent capability.
2. A Closer Look at the Manhattan Project Timeline
You’ll find a comprehensive, interactive timeline of the Manhattan Project on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) OSTI website at the following link:
The Atomic Heritage Foundation is dedicated to “supporting the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and capturing the memories of the people who harnessed the energy of the atom.” Their homepage is here:
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park was authorized by Congress in December 2014 and subsequently was approved by the President to commemorate the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park is an extended “park” that currently is comprised of three distinct DOE sites that each had different missions during WW II:
Los Alamos, New Mexico: Nuclear device design, test and production
Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Enriched uranium production
Hanford, Washington: Plutonium production
On 10 November 2015, a memorandum of agreement between DOE and the National Park Service (NPS) established the park and the respective roles of DOE and NPS in managing the park and protecting and presenting certain historic structures to the public.
You’ll find the Manhattan Project National Historical Park website here:
Following is a brief overview of the three sites that currently comprise the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
3.1. Los Alamos, New Mexico
Los Alamos Laboratory was established 75 years ago, in early 1943, as MED Site Y, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This was the Manhattan Project’s nuclear weapons laboratory, which was created to consolidate in one secure, remote location most of the research, design, development and production work associated producing usable nuclear weapons to the US Army during WW II.
The first wave of scientists began arriving at Los Alamos Laboratory in April 1943. Just 27 months later, on 16 July 1945, the world’s first nuclear device was detonated 200 miles south of Los Alamos at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, NM. This was the plutonium-fueled, implosion-type device code named “Gadget.”
During WW II, the Los Alamos Laboratory produced three atomic bombs:
One uranium-fueled, gun-type atomic bomb code named “Little Boy” was produced. This was the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on 6 August 1945, making it the first nuclear weapon used in warfare. This atomic bomb design was not tested before it was used operationally.
Two plutonium-fueled, implosion-type atomic bombs code named “Fat Man” were produced. These bombs were very similar to Gadget. One of the Fat Man bombs was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on 9 August 1945. The second Fat Man bomb could have been used during WW II, but it was not needed after Japan announced its surrender on 15 August 1945.
The highly-enriched uranium for the Little Boy bomb was produced by the enrichment plants at Oak Ridge. The plutonium for Gadget and the two Fat Man bombs was produced by the production reactors at Hanford.
Three historic sites are on Los Alamos National Laboratory property and currently are not open to the public:
Gun Site Facilities: three bunkered buildings (TA-8-1, TA-8-2, and TA-8-3), and a portable guard shack (TA-8-172).
V-Site Facilities: TA-16-516 and TA-16-517 V-Site Assembly Building
Pajarito Site: TA-18-1 Slotin Building, TA-8-2 Battleship Control Building, and the TA-18-29 Pond Cabin.
You’ll find information on the Manhattan Project National Historical Park sites at Los Alamos here:
Land acquisition was approved in 1942 for planned uranium “atomic production plants” in the Tennessee Valley. The selected site officially became the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW) in January 1943 and was given the MED code name Site X. This is where MED and its contractors managed the deployment during WW II of the following three different uranium enrichment technologies in three separate, large-scale industrial process facilities:
Liquid thermal diffusion process, based on work by Philip Abelson at Naval Research Laboratory and the Philadelphia Naval Yard. This process was implemented at S-50, which produced uranium enriched to < 2 at. % U-235.
Gaseous diffusion process, based on work by Harold Urey at Columbia University. This process was implemented at K-25, which produced uranium enriched to about 23 at. % U-235 during WW II.
Electromagnetic separation process, based on Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron at the University of California Berkeley in the early 1930s. This process was implemented at Y-12 where the final output was weapons-grade uranium.
The Little Boy atomic bomb used 92.6 pounds (42 kg) of highly enriched uranium produced at Oak Ridge with contributions from all three of these processes.
The nearby township was named Oak Ridge in 1943, but the nuclear site itself was not officially renamed Oak Ridge until 1947.
The three Manhattan Project National Historical Park sites at Oak Ridge are:
X-10 Graphite Reactor National Historic Landmark
Y-12 complex: Buildings 9731 and 9204-3
The S-50 Thermal Diffusion Plant was dismantled in the late 1940s. This site is not part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Following is a brief overview of X-10, K-25 and Y-12 historical sites. There’s much more information on the Manhattan Project National Historical Park sites at Oak Ridge here:
X-10 was the world’s second nuclear reactor (after the Chicago Pile, CP-1) and the first reactor designed and built for continuous operation. It was intended to produce the first significant quantities of plutonium, which were used by scientists at Los Alamos to characterize plutonium and develop the design of a plutonium-fueled atomic bomb.
X-10 was a large graphite-moderated, natural uranium fueled reactor that originally had an continuous design power rating of 1.0 MWt, which later was raised to 3.5 MWt. Originally, it was intended to be a prototype for the much larger plutonium production reactors being planned for Hanford. The selection of air cooling for X-10 enabled this reactor to be deployed more rapidly, but limited its value as a prototype for the future water-cooled plutonium production reactors.
The X-10 reactor core was comprised of graphite blocks arranged into a cube measuring 24 feet (7.3 meters) on each side. The core was surrounded by several feet of high-density concrete and other material to provide radiation shielding. The core and shielding were penetrated by 1,248 horizontal channels arranged in 36 rows. Each channel served to position up to 54 fuel slugs in the core and provide passages for forced air cooling of the core. Each fuel slug was an aluminum clad, metallic natural uranium cylinder measuring 4 inches (10.16 cm) long x 1.1 inches (2.79 cm) in diameter. New fuel slugs were added manually at the front face (the loading face) of the reactor and irradiated slugs were pushed out through the back face of the reactor, dropping into a cooling water pool. The reactor was controlled by a set of vertical control rods.
The basic geometry of the X-10 reactor is shown below.
Site construction work started 75 years ago, on 27 April 1943. Initial criticality occurred less than seven months later, on 4 November 1943.
Plutonium was recovered from irradiated fuel slugs in a pilot-scale chemical separation line at Oak Ridge using the bismuth phosphate process. In April 1944, the first sample (grams) of reactor-bred plutonium from X-10 was delivered to Los Alamos. Analysis of this sample led Los Alamos scientists to eliminate one candidate plutonium bomb design (the “Thin Man” gun-type device) and focus their attention on the Fat Man implosion-type device. X-10 operated as a plutonium production reactor until January 1945, when it was turned over to research activities. X-10 was permanently shutdown on 4 November 1963, and was designated a National Historic Landmark on 15 October 1966.
K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant
Preliminary site work for the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant began 75 years ago, in May 1943, with work on the main building starting in October 1943. The six-stage pilot plant was ready for operation on 17 April 1944.
The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant feed material was uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) from natural uranium and slightly enriched uranium from both the S-50 liquid thermal diffusion plant and the first (Alpha) stage of the Y-12 electromagnetic separation plant. During WW II, the K-25 plant was capable of producing uranium enriched up to about 23 at. % U-235. This product became feed material for the second (Beta) stage of the Y-12 electromagnetic separation process, which continued the enrichment process and produced weapons-grade U-235.
As experience with the gaseous diffusion process improved and additional cascades were added, K-25 became capable of delivering highly-enriched uranium after WW II.
You can take a virtual tour of K-25, including its decommissioning and cleanup, here:
Construction on the second Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion plant, K-27, began on 3 April 1945. This plant became operational after WW II. By 1955, the K-25 complex had grown to include gaseous diffusion buildings K-25, K-27, K-29, K-31 and K-33 that comprised a multi-building, enriched uranium production chain collectively known as the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant (ORGDP). Operation of the ORGDP continued until 1985.
Additional post-war gaseous diffusion plants based on the technology developed at Oak Ridge were built and operated in Paducah, KY (1952 – 2013) and Portsmouth, OH (1954 – 2001).
Y-12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant
In 1941, Earnest Lawrence modified the 37-inch (94 cm) cyclotron in his laboratory at the University of California Berkeley to demonstrate the feasibility of electromagnetic separation of uranium isotopes using the same principle as a mass spectrograph.
The initial industrial-scale design agreed in 1942 was called an Alpha (α) calutron, which was designed to enrich natural uranium (@ 0.711 at.% U-235) to >10 at.% U-235. The later Beta (β) calutron was designed to further enrich the output of the Alpha calutrons, as well as the outputs from the K-25 and S-50 processes, and produce weapons-grade uranium at >88 at.% U-235.
The calutrons required large magnet coils to establish the strong electromagnetic field needed to separate the uranium isotopes U-235 and U-238. The shape of the magnet coils for both the Alfa and Beta calutrons resembled a racetrack, with many individual calutron modules (aka “tanks”) arranged side-by-side around the racetrack. At Y-12, there were nine Alpha calutron “tracks” (5 x Alpha-1 and 4 x Alpha-2 tracks), each with 96 calutron modules (tanks), for a total of 864 Alpha calutrons. In addition, there were eight Beta calutron tracks, each with 36 calutron modules, for a total of 288 beta calutrons, only 216 of which ever operated.
Due to wartime shortages of copper, the Manhattan Project arranged a loan from the Treasury Department of about 300 million Troy ounces (10,286 US tons) of silver for use in manufacturing the calutron magnet coils. A general arrangement of a Beta calutron module (tank) is shown in the following diagram, which also shows the isotope flight paths from the uranium tetrachloride (UCl4) ion source to the ion receivers. Separated uranium was recovered by burning the graphite ion receivers and extracting the metallic uranium from the ash.
Construction of Buildings 9731 and 9204-3 at the Y-12 complex began 75 years ago, in February 1943. By February 1944, initial operation of the Alpha calutrons had produced only 0.44 pounds (0.2 kg) of U-235 @ 12 at.%. By August 1945, the Y-12 Beta calutrons had produced the 92.6 pounds (42 kg) of weapons-grade uranium needed for the Little Boy atomic bomb.
After WW II, the silver was recovered from the calutron magnet coils and returned to the Treasury Department.
3.3. Hanford, Washington
On January 16, 1943, General Leslie Groves officially endorsed Hanford as the proposed plutonium production site, which was given the MED code name Site W. The plan was to construct three large graphite-moderated, water-cooled plutonium production reactors, designated B, D, and F, in along the Columbia River. The Hanford site also would include a facility for manufacturing the new uranium fuel slugs for the reactors as well as chemical separation plants and associated facilities to recover and process plutonium from the irradiated uranium slugs.
After WW II, six more plutonium production reactors were built at Hanford along with additional plutonium and nuclear waste processing and storage facilities.
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park sites at Hanford are:
B Reactor, which has been a National Historic Landmark since 19 August 2008
The previous Hanford High School in the former Town of Hanford and Hanford Construction Camp Historic District
Bruggemann’s Agricultural Warehouse Complex
White Bluffs Bank and Hanford Irrigation District Pump House
A brief overview of the B Reactor and the other Hanford production reactors is provided below. There’s more information on the Manhattan Project National Historical Park sites at Hanford here:
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park does not include the Hanford chemical separation plants and associated plutonium facilities in the 200 Area, the uranium fuel production plant in the 300 Area, or the other eight plutonium production reactors that were built in the 100 Area. Information on all Hanford facilities, including their current cleanup status, is available on the Hanford website here:
The B Reactor at the Hanford Site was the world’s first full-scale reactor and the first of three plutonium production reactor of the same design that became operational at Hanford during WW II. B Reactor and the similar D and F Reactors were significantly larger graphite-moderated reactor than the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge. The rectangular reactor core measured 36 feet (11 m) wide x 36 feet (11 m) tall x 28 feet (8.53 m) deep, surrounded by radiation shielding. These reactors were fueled by aluminum clad, metallic natural fuel slugs measuring 8 inches (20.3 cm) long x 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) in diameter. As with the X-10 Graphite Reactor, new fuel slugs were inserted into process tubes (fuel channels) at the front face of the reactor. The irradiated fuel slugs were pushed out of the fuel channels at the back face of the reactor, falling into a water pool to allow the slugs to cool before further processing for plutonium recovery.
Reactor cooling was provided by the once-through flow of filtered and processed fresh water drawn from the Columbia River. The heated water was discharged from the reactor into large retention basins that allowed some cooling time before the water was returned to the Columbia River.
Construction of B Reactor began 75 years ago, in October 1943, and fuel loading started 11 months later, on September 13, 1944. Initial criticality occurred on 26 September 1944, followed shortly by operation at the initial design power of 250 MWt.
B Reactor was the first reactor to experience the effects of xenon poisoning due to the accumulation of Xenon (Xe-135) in the uranium fuel. Xe-135 is a decay product of the relatively short-lived (6.7 hour half-life) fission product iodine I-135. With its very high neutron cross-section, Xe-135 absorbed sufficient neutrons to significantly, and unexpectedly, reduce B Reactor power. Fortunately, DuPont had added more process tubes (a total of 2004) than called for in the original design of B Reactor. After the xenon poisoning problem was understood, additional fuel was loaded, providing the core with enough excess reactivity to override the neutron poisoning effects of Xe-135.
On 3 February 1945, the first batch of B Reactor plutonium was delivered to Los Alamos, just 10 months after the first small plutonium sample from the X-10 Graphite Reactor had been delivered.
Regular plutonium deliveries from the Hanford production reactors provided the plutonium needed for the first ever nuclear device (the Gadget) tested at the Trinity site near Alamogordo, NM on 16 July 1945, as well as for the Fat Man atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on 9 August 1945 and an unused second Fat Man atomic bomb. These three devices each contained about 13.7 pounds (6.2 kilograms) of weapons-grade plutonium produced in the Hanford production reactors.
From March 1946 to June 1948, B Reactor was shut down for maintenance and modifications. In March 1949, B Reactor began the first tritium production campaign, irradiating targets containing lithium and producing tritium for hydrogen bombs.
By 1963, B Reactor was permitted to operate at a maximum power level of 2,090 MWt. B Reactor continued operation until 29 January 1968, when it was ordered shut down by the Atomic Energy Commission. Because of its historical significance, B Reactor was given special status that allows it to be open for public tours as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
The Other WW II Production Reactors at the Hanford Site: D & F
During WW II, three plutonium reactors of the same design were operational at Hanford: B, D and F. All had an initial design power rating of 250 MWt and by 1963 all were permitted to operate at a maximum power level of 2,090 MWt.
D Reactor: This was the world’s second full-scale nuclear reactor. It became operational in December 1944, but experienced operational problems early in life due to growth and distortion of its graphite core. After developing a process for controlling graphite distortion, D Reactor operated successfully through June 1967.
F Reactor: This was the third of the original three production reactors at Hanford. It became operational in February 1945 and ran for more than twenty years until it was shut down in June1965.
D and F Reactors currently are in “interim safe storage,” which commonly is referred to as “cocooned.” These reactor sites are not part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Post-war Production Reactors at Hanford: H, DR, C, K-West, K-East & N
After WW II, six additional plutonium production reactors were built and operated at Hanford. The first three, named H, DR and C, were very similar in design to the B, D and F Reactors. The next two, K-West and K-East, were of similar design, but significantly larger than their predecessors. The last reactor, named N, was a one-of-a kind design.
H Reactor: This was the first plutonium production reactor built at Hanford after WW II. It became operational in October 1949 with a design power rating of 400 MWt and by 1963 was permitted to operate at a maximum power level of 2,090 MWt. It operated for 15 years before being permanently shut down in April 1965.
DR Reactor: This reactor originally was planned as a replacement for the D Reactor and was built adjacent to the D Reactor site. DR became operational in October 1950 with an initial design power rating of 250 MWt. It operated in parallel with D Reactor for 14 years, and by 1963 was permitted to operate at the same maximum power level of 2,090 MWt. DR was permanently shut down in December 1964.
C Reactor: Reactor construction started June 1951 and it was completed in November 1952, operating initially at a design power of 650 MWt. By 1963, C Reactor was permitted to operate at a maximum power level of 2,310 MWt. It operated for sixteen years before being shut down in April 1969. C Reactor was the first reactor at Hanford to be placed in interim safe storage, in 1998.
K-West & K-East Reactors: These larger reactors differed from their predecessors mainly in the size of the moderator stack, the number, size and type of process tubes (3,220 process tubes), the type of shielding and other materials employed, and the addition of a process heat recovery system to heat the facilities. These reactors were built side-by-side and became operational within four months of each other in 1955: K-West in January and K-East in April. These reactors initially had a design power of 1,800 MWt and by 1963 were permitted to operate at a maximum power level of 4,400 MWt before an administrative limit of 4,000 MWt was imposed by the Atomic Energy Commission. The two reactors ran for more than 15 years. K-West was permanently shut down in February 1970 followed by K-East in January 1971.
N Reactor: This was last of Hanford’s nine plutonium production reactors and the only one designed as a dual-purpose reactor capable of serving as a production reactor while also generating electric power for distribution to the external power grid. The N Reactor had a reactor design power rating of 4,000 MWt and was capable of generating 800 MWe. The N Reactor also was the only Hanford production reactor with a closed-loop primary cooling system. Plutonium production began in 1964, two years before the power generating part of the plant was completed in 1966. N Reactor operated for 24 years until 1987, when it was shutdown for routine maintenance. However, it never restarted, instead being placed in standby status by DOE and then later retired.
Four of these reactors (H, DR, C and N) are in interim safe storage while the other two (K-West and K-East) are being prepared for interim safe storage. None of these reactor sites are part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reported that the nine Hanford production reactors produced 67.4 metric tons of plutonium, including 54.5 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, through 1987 when the last Hanford production reactor (N Reactor) was shutdown.
4. Other Manhattan Project Sites
There are many MED sites that are not yet part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. You’ll find details on all of the MED sites on the American Heritage Foundation website, which you can browse at the following link:
Another site worth browsing is the interactive world map created by the ALSOS Digital Library for Nuclear Issues on Google Maps to show the locations and provide information on offices, mines, mills, plants, laboratories, and test sites of the US nuclear weapons complex from World War II to 2016. The map includes over 300 sites, including the Manhattan Project sites. I think you’ll enjoy exploring this interactive map.
Hanford site, plutonium production reactors and processing facilities:
“Hanford Site Historical District: History of the Plutonium Production Facilities 1943-1990,” DOE/RL-97-1047, Department of Energy, Hanford Cultural and Historical Resources Program, June 2002 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/807939
The I. V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow was founded 75 years ago, in 1943, and is named for its founder, Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov. Until 1955, the Institute was a secret organization known only as “Laboratory No. 2 of the USSR Academy of Sciences.” The initial focus of the Institute was the development of nuclear weapons.
I. V. Kurchatov and the team of scientists and engineers at the Institute led or supported many important historical Soviet nuclear milestones, including:
25 December 1946: USSR’s F-1 (Physics-1) reactor achieved initial criticality at Kurchatov Institute. This was the 1st reactor built and operated outside the US.
10 June 1948: USSR’s 1st plutonium production reactor achieved initial criticality (Unit A at Chelyabinak-65). The reactor was designed under the leadership of N. A. Dollezhal.
29 August 1949: USSR’s 1st nuclear device, First Lightning [aka RDS-1, Izdeliye 501 (device 501) and Joe 1], was detonated at the Semipalatinsk test site in what is now Kazakhstan. This was the 1st nuclear test other than by the US.
27 June 1954: World’s 1st nuclear power plant, AM-1 (aka APS-1), was commissioned and connected to the electrical grid, delivering power in Obninsk. AM-1 was designed under the leadership of N. A. Dollezhal.
22 November 1955: USSR’s 1st thermonuclear device (RDS-37, a two-stage device) was detonated at the Semipalatinsk test site. This also was the world’s 1stair-dropped thermonuclear device.
5 December 1957: USSR’s 1st nuclear-powered icebreaker, Lenin, was launched. This also was the world’s 1st nuclear-powered surface ship.
4 July 1958: USSR’s 1st nuclear-powered submarine, Project 627 SSN K-3, Leninskiy Komsomol, made its 1st underway on nuclear power.
1958: World’s 1st Tokamak, T-1, initial operation at Kurchatov Institute.
I. V. Kurchatov served as the Institute’s director until his death in 1960 and was awarded Hero of Socialist Labor three times and Order of Lenin five times during his lifetime.
After I. V. Kurchatov’s death in 1960, the noted academician Anatoly P. Aleksandrov was appointed as the director of the Institute and continued in that role until 1989. Aleksandrov already had a key role at the Institute, having been appointed by Stalin in September 1952 as the scientific supervisor for developing the USSR’s first nuclear-powered submarine and its nuclear power unit.
Until 1991, the Soviet Ministry of Atomic Energy oversaw the administration of Kurchatov Institute. After the formation of the Russian Federation at the end of 1991, the Institute became a State Scientific Center reporting directly to the Russian Government. Today, the President of Kurchatov Institute is appointed by the Russian Prime Minister, based on recommendations from Rosatom (the Russian State Energy Corporation), which was formed in 2007.
You’ll find a comprehensive history of Kurchatov Institute in a 2013 (70thanniversary) special issue of the Russian version of Scientific American magazine, which you can download here:
The evolution of Kurchatov Institute capabilities from its initial roles on the Soviet nuclear weapons program is shown in the following diagram.
Modern roles for Kurchatov Institute are shown in the following graphic.
In the past 75 years, the Kurchatov Institute has performed many major roles in the Soviet / Russian nuclear industry and, with a national security focus, continues to be a driving force in that industry sector.
Now, lets take a look at a few of the pioneering nuclear projects led or supported by Kurchatov Institute:
F-1 (Physics-1) reactor
Plutonium production reactors
Obninsk nuclear power plant AM-1
F-1 (Physics-1) reactor
The F-1 reactor designed by the Kurchatov Institute was a graphite-moderated, air-cooled, natural uranium fueled reactor with a spherical core about 19 feet (5.8 meters) in diameter. F-1 was the first reactor to be built and operated outside of the US. It was a bit more compact than the first US reactor, the Chicago Pile, CP-1, which had an ellipsoidal core with a maximum diameter of about 24.2 feet (7.4 meters) and a height of 19 feet (5.8 meters).
The F-1 achieved initial criticality on 25 December 1946 and initially was operated at a power level of 10 watts. Later, F-1 was able to operate at a maximum power level of 24 kW to support a wide range of research activities. In a 2006 report on the reactor’s 60thanniversary by RT News (www.rt.com), Oleg Vorontsov, Deputy Chief of the Nuclear Security Department reported, “Layers of lead as they are heated by uranium literally make F1 a self-controlling nuclear reactor. And the process inside is called – the safe-developing chain reaction of uranium depletion. If the temperature rises to 70 degrees Celsius (158° Fahrenheit), it slows down by its own! So it simply won’t let itself get out of control.”
F-1 was never refueled prior to its permanent shutdown in November 2016, after 70 years of operation.
Plutonium production reactors
The first generation of Soviet plutonium production reactors were graphite-moderated, natural uranium fueled reactors designed under the leadership of N.A. Dollezhal while he was at the Institute of Chemical Machinery in Moscow. The Kurchatov Institute had a support role in the development of these reactors.The five early production reactors at Chelyabinsk-65 (later known as the Mayak Production Association) operated with a once-through primary cooling water system that discharged into open water ponds.
Four of the five later graphite-moderated production reactors at Tomsk had closed primary cooling systems that enabled them to also generate electric power and provide district heating (hot water) for the surrounding region. You’ll find a good synopsis of the Soviet plutonium production reactors in the 2011 paper by Anatoli Diakov, “The History of Plutonium Production in Russia,” here:
Additional details on the design of the production reactors is contained in the 1994 Pacific Northwest Laboratory report PNL-9982, “Summary of Near-term Options for Russian Plutonium Production Reactors,” by Newman, Gesh, Love and Harms. This report is available on the OSTI website here:
Obninsk nuclear power plant AM-1 (Atom Mirny or “Peaceful Atom”)
Obninsk was the site of the world’s first nuclear power plant (NPP). This NPP had a single graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor fueled with low-enriched uranium fuel. The reactor had a maximum power rating of 30 MWt. AM-1 was designed by N.A. Dollezhal and the Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering (RDIPE / NIKIET) in Moscow, as an evolution of an earlier Dollezhal design of a small graphite-moderated reactor for ship propulsion. The Kurchatov Institute had a support role in the development of AM-1.
The basic AM-1 reactor layout is shown in the following diagram.
The closed-loop primary cooling system delivered heat via steam generators to the secondary-side steam system, which drove a steam turbine generator that delivered 5 MWe (net) to the external power grid. Following is a basic process flow diagram for the reactor cooling loops.
Construction on AM-1 broke ground on 31 December 1950 at the Physics and Power Engineering Institute (PEI) in Obninsk, about 110 km southwest of Moscow. Other early milestone dates were:
Initial criticality: 5 May 1954
Commissioning and first grid connection: 26 June 1954
Commercial operation: 30 November 1954
In addition to its power generation role, AM-1 had 17 test loops installed in the reactor to support a variety of experimental studies. After 48 years of operation, AM-1 was permanently shutdown on 28 April 2002.
You can read more details on AM-1 in the following two articles: “Obninsk: Number One,” by Lev Kotchetkov on the Nuclear Engineering International website here:
The AM-1 nuclear power plant design was developed further by NIKIET into the much larger scale RBMK (Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy, “High Power Channel-type Reactor”) NPPs. The four reactors at the Chernobyl NPP were RBMK-1000 reactors.
The T-1 Tokamak
Research on plasma confinement is a toroidal magnetic field began in Russia in 1951, leading to the construction of the first experimental toroidal magnetic confinement system, known as a tokamak, at Kurchatov Institute. T-1 began operation in 1958.
Early operation of T-1 and successive models revealed many problems that limited the plasma confinement capabilities of tokamaks. Solving these problems led to a better understanding of plasma physics and significant improvements in the design of tokamak machines. You’ll find a historical overview of early Soviet / Russian work on Tokamaks in a 2010 IAEA paper by V. P. Smirnov, ”Tokamak Foundation in USSR/Russia 1950–1990,” which you can read here:
The basic tokamak design for magnetic plasma confinement has been widely implemented in many international fusion research machines, winning out over other magnetic confinement concepts, including the Stellarator machine championed in the US by Dr. Lyman Spitzer (see my 30 August 2017 post on Stellarators). Major international tokamak projects include the Joint European Torus (JET) at the Culham Center for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, UK, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in the US, the JT-60 at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s Naka Fusion Institute, and most recently the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built now at the Saclay Nuclear Center in southern France.
In previous posts on 24 May 2015 and 28 June 2016, I reported on the TOP500 rankings of the world’s supercomputers.
In June 2013, China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer at the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzho topped this this worldwide ranking with an Rmax Linpack score of 33 petaflops (1 petaflops = 1015 floating-point operations per second) and retained the first place position for two years. In June 2016, the new leader was another Chinese supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight at the National Supercomputer Center in Wuxi. TaihuLight delivered an Rmax Linpack score of 93 petaflops and remained at the top of the worldwide ranking for two years, until it was eclipsed in June 2018 by the US Summit supercomputer, then with an Rmax rating of 122.3 petaflops.
In the latest TOP500 ranking, the new leaders are two US supercomputers: Summit (#1) and Sierra (#2).
Summit supercomputer. Source: NVIDIA
The IBM Summit improved its past Linpack score to achieve an Rmax of 143.5 petaflops in the current ranking. Summit is located at the Department of Energy (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee.
873 megawatts peak power
Sierra supercomputer. Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory / Randy Wong
The IBM Sierra also improved its past Linpack score to achieve an Rmax of 94.64 petaflops / second and move into second place, marginally ahead of China’s TaihuLight. Sierra is located at the DOE Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California.
438 megawatts peak power
The Summit and Sierra supercomputer cores are IBM POWER9 central processing units (CPUs) and NVIDIA V100 graphic processing units (GPUs). NVIDIA claims that its GPUs are delivering 95% of Summit’s performance. Both supercomputers use a Linux operating system.
China’s Sunway TaihuLight was ranked 3rd, and Tianhe-2A was ranked 4th. A total of five DOE supercomputers were in the top 10 positions.
You’ll find the complete 52ndedition (November 2018) TOP500 ranking here:
20 February 2019 Update: Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) plans new supercomputer
The TOP500 ranking places LANL’s Trinity supercomputer (a Cray XC40) as the #6 fastest supercomputer in the world, but its performance (Rmax of 20.16 petaflops) is far below that of the #1 Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge national Laboratory and the #2 Sierra supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Not to be outdone, LANL issued a request for proposal (RFP) in February 2019 for a new supercomputer, to be named Crossroads, to support the lab’s missions for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). A LANL spokesperson reported that, “High performance computing across the NNSA complex is used to assure the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent; to analyze and predict the performance, safety, and reliability of nuclear weapons and certify their functionality.” Responses to the RFP are due by 18 March 2019. Crossroads is expected to go online in 2021.
In 2015, I compiled the first edition of a resource document to support a presentation I made in August 2015 to The Lyncean Group of San Diego (www.lynceans.org) commemorating the 60thanniversary of the world’s first “underway on nuclear power” by USS Nautilus on 17 January 1955. That presentation to the Lyncean Group, “60 years of Marine Nuclear Power: 1955 –2015,” was my attempt to tell a complex story, starting from the early origins of the US Navy’s interest in marine nuclear propulsion in 1939, resetting the clock on 17 January 1955 with USS Nautilus’ historic first voyage, and then tracing the development and exploitation of marine nuclear power over the next 60 years in a remarkable variety of military and civilian vessels created by eight nations.
Here’s a quick overview at worldwide marine nuclear in 2018.
Source: two charts by author
In July 2018, I finished a complete update of the resource document and changed the title to, “Marine Nuclear Power: 1939 –2018.” Due to its present size (over 2,100 pages), the resource document now consists of the following parts, all formatted as slide presentations:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2A: United States – Submarines
Part 2B: United States – Surface Ships
Part 3A: Russia – Submarines
Part 3B: Russia – Surface Ships & Non-propulsion Marine Nuclear Applications
Part 4: Europe & Canada
Part 5: China, India, Japan and Other Nations
Part 6: Arctic Operations
The original 2015 resource document and this updated set of documents were compiled from unclassified, open sources in the public domain.
I acknowledge the great amount of work done by others who have published material in print or posted information on the internet pertaining to international marine nuclear propulsion programs, naval and civilian nuclear powered vessels, naval weapons systems, and other marine nuclear applications. My resource document contains a great deal of graphics from many sources. Throughout the document, I have identified the sources for these graphics.
You can access all parts of Marine Nuclear Power: 1939 – 2018 here:
The Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, also known as GUGI and Military Unit 40056, is an organizational structure within the Russian Ministry of Defense that is separate from the Russian Navy. The Head of GUGI is Vice-Admiral Aleksei Burilichev, Hero of Russia.
Source. Adapted from Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, http://eng.mil.ru/en/index.htm
Vice-Admiral Aleksei Burilichev at the commissioning of GUGI oceanographic research vessel Yantar. Source: http://eng.mil.ru/
GUGI is responsible for fielding specialized submarines, oceanographic research ships, undersea drones and autonomous vehicles, sensor systems, and other undersea systems. Today, GUGI operates the world’s largest fleet of covert manned deep-sea vessels. In mid-2018, that fleet consisted of eight very specialized nuclear-powered submarines.
There are six nuclear-powered, deep-diving, small submarines (“nuclear deep-sea stations”), each of which is capable of working at great depth (thousands of meters) for long periods of time. These subs are believed to have diver lockout facilities to deploy divers at shallower depths.
One Project 1851 / 18510 Nelma (aka X-Ray) sub delivered in 1986; Length: 44 m (144.4 ft.); displacement about 529 tons submerged. This is the first and smallest of the Russian special operations nuclear-powered submarines.
Two Project 18511 Halibut (aka Paltus) subs delivered between 1994 – 95; Length: 55 m (180.4 ft.); displacement about 730 tons submerged.
Three Project 1910 Kashalot (aka Uniform) subs delivered between 1986 – 1991, but only two are operational in 2018; Length: 69 m (226.4 ft.); displacement about 1,580 tons submerged.
One Project 09851 Losharik (aka NORSUB-5) sub delivered in about 2003; Length: 74 m (242.8 ft.); displacement about 2,100 tons submerged.
The trend clearly is toward larger, and certainly more capable deep diving special operations submarines. The larger subs have a crew complement of 25 – 35.
Kashalot notional cross-section diagram. Source: adapted from militaryrussia.ru
Kashalot notional diagram showing deployed positioning thrusters, landing legs and tools for working on the bottom. Source: http://nvs.rpf.ru/nvs/forum
The Russian small special operations subs may have been created in response to the U.S. Navy’s NR-1 small, deep-diving nuclear-powered submarine, which entered service in 1969. NR-1 had a length of 45 meters (147.7 ft.) and a displacement of about 400 tons submerged, making it roughly comparable to the Project 1851 / 18510 Nelma . NR-1 was retired in 2008, leaving the U.S. with no counterpart to the Russian fleet of small, nuclear-powered special operations subs.
GUGI operates two nuclear-powered “motherships” (PLA carriers) that can transport one of the smaller nuclear deep-sea stations to a distant site and provide support throughout the mission. The current two motherships started life as Delta III and Delta IV strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The original SSBN missile tubes were removed and the hulls were lengthened to create large midship special mission compartments with a docking facility on the bottom of the hull for one of the small, deep-diving submarines. These motherships probably have a test depth of about 250 to 300 meters (820 to 984 feet). They are believed to have diver lockout facilities for deploying divers.
General arrangement of a Russian mothership carrying a small special operations submarine. Source: http://gentleseas.blogspot.com/2015/08/russias-own-jimmy-carter-special-ops.html
The motherships also are believed capable of deploying and retrieving a variety of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), including the relatively large Harpsichord: Length: 6.5 m (21.3 ft.); Diameter 1 m (3.2 ft.); Weight: 3,700 kg (8,157 pounds).
These nuclear submarines are operated by the 29th Special Submarine Squadron, which is based along with other GUGI vessels at Olenya Bay, in the Kola Peninsula on the coast of the Barents Sea.
Olenya Bay is near Murmansk. Source: Google Maps
Russian naval facilities near Murmansk. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Mothership BS-136 Orenburg at Oleyna Bay. Source: Source: http://www.air-defense.net/
The GUGI fleet provides deep ocean and Arctic operating capabilities that greatly exceed those of any other nation. Potential missions include:
Conducting subsea surveys, mapping and sampling (i.e., to help validate Russia’s extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic; to map potential future targets such as seafloor cables)
Placing and/or retrieving items on the sea floor (i.e., retrieving military hardware, placing subsea power sources, power distribution systems and sonar arrays)
Maintaining military subsea equipment and systems
Conducting covert surveillance
Developing an operational capability to deploy the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo.
In time of war, attacking the subsea infrastructure of other nations in the open ocean or in the Arctic (i.e., cutting subsea internet cables, power cables or oil / gas pipelines)
Analysts at the firm Policy Exchange reported that the world’s undersea cable network comprises about 213 independent cable systems and 545,018 miles (877,121 km) of fiber-optic cable. These undersea cable networks carry an estimated 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions are transmitted by cables under the ocean.
Since about 2015, NATO has observed Russian vessels stepping up activities around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic. None are known to have been tapped or cut. Selective attacks on this cable infrastructure could electronically isolate and severely damage the economy of individual countries or regions. You’ll find a more detailed assessment on this matter in the 15 December 2017 BBC article, “Russia a ‘risk’ to undersea cables, Defence chief warns.”
GUGI also is responsible for the development of the Poseidon (formerly known as Status-6 / Kanyon) strategic nuclear torpedo and the associated “carrier” submarines.
Poseidon, which was first revealed on Russian TV in November 2015, is a large, nuclear-powered, autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that functionally is a giant, long-range torpedo.
The Russian TV “reveal” of the Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6 November 2015. Source: https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/tag/9m730/
It is capable of delivering a very large nuclear warhead (perhaps up to 100 MT) underwater to the immediate proximity of an enemy’s key economic and military facilities in coastal areas. It is a weapon of unprecedented destructive power and it is not subject to any existing nuclear arms limitation treaties. However, its development would give Russia leverage in future nuclear arms limitation talks.
The immense physical size of the Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedo is evident in the size comparison chart below.
The Bulava is the Russian submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) carried on Russia’s modern Borei-class SSBNs. The UGST torpedo is representative of a typical torpedo launched from a 533 mm (21 inch) torpedo tube, which is found on the majority of submarines in the world. An experimental submarine, the B-90 Sarov, appears to be the current testbed for the Poseidon strategic torpedo. Russia is building other special submarines to carry several Poseidon strategic torpedoes. One is believed to be the giant, highly modified Oscar II submarine KC-139 Belogrod, which also will serve as a mothership for a small, special operations nuclear sub.The other is the smaller Project 09851 submarine Khabarovsk, which appears to be purpose-built for carrying the Poseidon.
For more information on GUGI, Russian special operations submarines and other covert underwater projects, refer to the Covert Shores website created by naval analyst H. I. Sutton, which you’ll find at the following link:
Everyone has heard about the atmospheric and underground nuclear tests that were conducted at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) from 1951 to 1992. NTS, which is about 394 miles (634 km) north of San Diego, CA, was the site of 928 nuclear tests.
Operation Dominic, was a series of 31 atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. from April to October 1962 after the Soviet Union resumed atmospheric testing. One of the Operation Dominic tests occurred near San Diego, in the waters of the Pacific Ocean 426 miles (685 km) west of San Diego, CA at latitude 31° 14.7 N and longitude 124° 12.7’ W. This was U.S. nuclear test #238, code named Swordfish.
Swordfish test site west of San Diego, CA. Source: Google maps
Swordfish was a live-fire test of a nuclear-armed RUR-5A ASROC (Anti-Submarine ROCket) that was armed with a W44 nuclear warhead with a yield estimated to be about 10 kilotons (kT).
Mark 12 eight-cell ASROC launcher. Source: U.S. Navy / Wikipedia
ASROC launch. Source: seaforces.org
This was an operational test of the ASROC weapons system and a weapons effects test. The test would validate the nuclear-armed ASROC, which was being widely deployed in the fleet. In addition, the test would help define the effects of the nuclear detonation on the target and on nearby elements of an anti-submarine surface attack unit. The weapons effects data were needed to help the Navy establish a tactical doctrine for ASROC warhead delivery. The test sought to clarify tactical matters such as:
Minimum delivery range (safe standoff distance), with varying degrees of damage to the launching ship
Restrictions due to radioactivity on subsequent ship maneuvers Degree to which data from the Navy’s traditional high-explosive shock tests of ships applied to nuclear explosions
Safe standoff distance for delivery of nuclear weapons from submarines
The test also sought to determine:
Impact of the detonation on the U.S. strategic hydro-acoustic detection system known as SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System)
Validation of models for detecting and classifying underwater nuclear explosions
Long-term drift and diffusion of radioactive contamination in the ocean environment.
The test was conducted on 11 May 1962 by Joint Task Group 8.9, which was led by aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10), was comprised of 19 ships, two submarine and 55 naval aircraft. JTG 8.9 included three Gearing-class destroyers, the submarine USS Razorback (SS-394) and landing ship dock USS Monticello (LSD-35).
Monticello set the instrumentation array for the test,
One destroyer (Bausell) was positioned about one mile the blast to monitor surface effects and the crew was evacuated
The Razorback monitored underwater effects from a distance of about 2.5 miles.
The nuclear-armed ASROC was fired from the destroyer USS Agerholm (DD-826) at a target 2.5 miles (4,348 yards / 4 km) away. After the booster rocket burned out, the W44 nuclear depth charge warhead separated and flew a ballistic trajectory to the target. After impacting the water, the warhead sank to a prescribed depth, believed to be about 650 feet (198 meters) for the Swordfish test, before detonating.
USS Agerholm in the foreground of the Swordfish test. Source: Navsource.org
View from a helicopter trailing the USS Yorktown, 9,850 yards (3 km) from the Swordfish test. Source: Federation of American Scientists, fas.org
You can watch a short video clip of the Swordfish test from the perspective of the helicopter trailing USS Yorktown here:
Some key points reported by the Test Director were:
The water above “surface zero” was left radioactively contaminated after the collapse of the plumes (and the base surge from the detonation).
For about an hour after an ASROC burst, the contaminated water left about surface zero will pose a radiological hazard of significance, even under the exigencies of a wartime situation.
Swordfish re-emphasized the role of the base surge as a carrier of radioactivity. A ship which maneuvers, following an ASROC burst, so as to remain at least 350 yards (320 meters) from the edge of the base surge will not subject its personnel to radiation doses in excess of peacetime test limits.
The contaminated water pool produced by an ASROC burst drifts with the current while it diffuses and decays radioactively.
After Swordfish, the pool was tracked for more than 20 days; in 20 days after the burst the center had drifted about 50 miles (80.5 km) south of surface zero and maximum surface radiation intensity measured 0.04 mr/hr.
A shorter summary on the Swordfish test is included Defense Nuclear Agency report DNA-6040F, “Operation Dominic – 1962,” (see p. 196 – 204), which you can read and download here.
All ASROC nuclear warheads were removed from service in 1989.
You’ll find a complete listing of all U.S. nuclear tests in the Department of Energy’s December 2000 report, “United States Nuclear Tests July 1945 Through September 1992,” (DOE/NV—209-REV 15), which you can read and download here.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has posted 64 declassified videos of nuclear weapons tests on YouTube. LLNL reports:
“The U.S. conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, with multiple cameras capturing each event at around 2,400 frames per second. But in the decades since, around 10,000 of these films sat idle, scattered across the country in high-security vaults. Not only were they gathering dust, the film material itself was slowly decomposing, bringing the data they contained to the brink of being lost forever.
For the past five years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and a crack team of film experts, archivists and software developers have been on a mission to hunt down, scan, reanalyze and declassify these decomposing films. The goals are to preserve the films’ content before it’s lost forever, and provide better data to the post-testing-era scientists who use computer codes to help certify that the aging U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective.”
LLNL has posted more than 250 declassified videos of nuclear weapons tests on YouTube. The newly digitized videos document several of the U.S. government’s 210 nuclear weapons tests carried out between 1945 and 1962. You’ll find these videos at the following link:
This year is the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists describes as follows:
“The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet.”
You’ll find an overview on the Doomsday Clock here:
The Clock was last changed in 2015 from five to three minutes to midnight. In January 2016, the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand did not change.
On 26 January 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 15 Nobel Laureates, decided to reset the Doomsday Clock to 2-1/2 minutes to midnight. This is the closest it has been to midnight in 64 years, since the early days of above ground nuclear device testing.
The Science and Security Board warned:
“In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater (than in 2015 and 2016), the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”
You can read the Science and Security Board’s complete statement at the following link:
Their rationale for resetting the clock is not based on a single issue, but rather, the aggregate effects of the following issues, as described in their statement:
A dangerous nuclear situation on multiple fronts
Stockpile modernization by current nuclear powers, particularly the U.S. and Russia, has the potential to grow rather than reduce worldwide nuclear arsenals
Stagnation in nuclear arms control
Continuing tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan
North Korea’s continuing nuclear development
The Iran nuclear deal has been successful in accomplishing its goals in its first year, but its future is in doubt under the new U.S. administration
Careless rhetoric about nuclear weapons is destabilizing; for example, the U.S. administration’s suggestion that South Korea and Japan acquire their own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea
The clear need for climate action
The Paris Agreement went into effect in 2016
Continued warming of the world was measured in 2016
S. administration needs to make a clear, unequivocal statement that it accepts climate change, caused by human activity, as a scientific reality
Nuclear power: An option worth careful consideration
Nuclear power a tempting part of the solution to the climate change problem
The scale of new nuclear power plant construction does not match the need for clean energy
In the short to medium term, governments should discourage the premature closure of existing reactors that are safe and economically viable
In the longer term, deploy new types of reactors that can be built quickly and are at least as safe as the commercial nuclear plants now operating
Deal responsibly with safety issues and with the commercial nuclear waste problem
Potential threats from emerging technologies
Technology continues to outpace humanity’s capacity to control it
Cyber attacks can undermining belief in representative government and thereby endangering humanity as a whole
Autonomous machine systems open up a new set of risks that require thoughtful management
Advances in synthetic biology, including the Crispr gene-editing tool, have great positive potential, but also can be misused to create bioweapons and other dangerous manipulations of genetic material
Potentially existential threats posed by a host of rapidly emerging technologies need to be monitored, and to the extent possible anticipated and managed.
Reducing risk: Expert advice
The Board is extremely concerned about the willingness of governments around the world— including the incoming U.S. administration—to ignore or discount sound science and considered expertise during their decision-making processes
Prior to the formal decision on the 2017 setting of the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin took a poll to determine public sentiment on what the setting should be. Here are the results of this public pole.
The Restricted Data blog, run by Alex Wellerstein, is a very interesting website that focuses on nuclear weapons history and nuclear secrecy issues. Alex Wellerstein explains the origin of the blog:
“For me, ‘Restricted Data’ represents all of the historical strangeness of nuclear secrecy, where the shock of the bomb led scientists, policymakers, and military men to construct a baroque and often contradictory system of knowledge control in the (somewhat vain) hope that they could control the spread and use of nuclear technology.”
You can access the home page of this blog at the following link:
From there, navigation to recent posts and blog categories is simple. Among the features of this blog is a visualization tool called NUKEMAP. With this visualization tool, you can examine the effects of a nuclear explosion on a target of your choice, with results presented on a Google map. The setup for an analysis is simple, requiring only the following basic parameters:
Target (move the marker on the Google map)
Yield (in kilotons)
Set for airburst or surface burst
You can select “other effects” if you wish to calculate casualties and/or display the fallout pattern. Advanced options let you set additional parameters, including details of an airburst.
To illustrate the use of this visualization tool, consider the following scenario: A 10 kiloton nuclear device is being smuggled into the U.S. on a container ship and is detonated before docking in San Diego Bay. The problem setup and results are shown in the following screenshots from the NUKEMAP visualization tool.
Among the “Advanced options” are selectable settings for the effects you want to display on the map. The effects radii increase considerably when you select lower effects limits.
So, there you have it. NUKEMAP is a sobering visualization tool for a world where the possibility of an isolated act of nuclear terrorism cannot be ruled out. If these results bother you, I suggest that you don’t re-do the analysis with military-scale (hundreds of kilotons to megatons) airburst warheads.