A 1.6 Megaton Terrible, Monstrous Sight

RDS-37, Semipalatinsk Test Site, Kazakhstan.

The Soviet Union tested a two-stage, lithium-deuteride-fueled thermonuclear device on November 22, 1955, dropping it from a Tu-16 bomber to minimize fallout. It yielded 1.6 megatons, a yield deliberately reduced for the Semipalatinsk test from its design yield of 3 MT. According to Yuri Romanov, Adrei Sakharov and Yakov Zeldovich worked out the Teller-Ulam configuration in conversations together in early spring 1954, independently of the US development. “I recall how Andrei Dmitrievich gathered the young associates in his tiny office,” Romanov writes, “… and began talking about the amazing ability of materials with a high atomic number to be an excellent reflector of high-intensity, short-pulse radiation.” The Sarov designers had to fight Vyacheslav Malyshev for resources to develop the new design; the Minister of Medium Machine Building, conservative as his predecessor, wanted them to stick to weaponized layer-cake thermonuclears, and such a device was tested on November 6, 1955, three weeks before the two-stage design, as a backup in case the new system should fail.

Victor Adamsky remembers the shock wave from the new thermonuclear racing across the steppe toward the observers. “It was a front of moving air that you could see that differed in quality from the air before and after. It came, it was really terrible; the grass was covered with frost and the moving front thawed it, you felt it melting as it approached you.” Igor Kurchatov walked in to ground zero with Yuli Khariton after the test and was horrified to see the earth cratered even though the bomb had detonated above ten thousand feet. “That was such a terrible, monstrous sight,” he told Anatoli Alexandrov when he returned to Moscow. “That weapon must not be allowed ever to be used.”

Part 3, Chapter 27

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