First Lightning – The Soviet Nuclear Surprise

Startsi are the elder statesmen, the teachers, in the Russian Orthodox Church.  Of all the

St. Seraphim

St. Seraphim

Startsi, the most famous Staret in all of Russia is St. Seraphim of Sarov born in Kursk in 1759.  “It was said he could supply answers before visitors had time to ask their questions. He counseled tough cases of conscience and reportedly worked miracles, healing the sick” according to Dan Graves in his article St. Seraphim of Sarov, Renowned Staret.  It is ironic that Sarov would be transformed from a center of traditional learning and healing to a center of the new physics and philosophy of ‘uncertainty’; the birthplace of the Soviet’s first nuclear device.

Where

Sarov’s story is as old as government.  At the very beginning of the Cold War, Sarov, the St. Seraphim monastery grounds, and the surrounding area were closed and rebranded as

Location Map for Arzamas-16

Location Map for Arzamas-16

Arzamas-16, the seat of nuclear physics for the old Soviet Union.  The town of Sarov occupies only eleven square miles of the 90 square mile hexagonally shaped Arzamas-16 area, which also houses research and production facilities.  “…Arzamas-16 is surrounded by an outer defensive ring 25 miles out that is carefully monitored. The city inside that ring is surrounded by a double, barbed-wire fence that is patrolled by the Russian army. Uniformed troops from the Russian Ministry of the Interior patrol the inner city. Areas that house nuclear materials are surrounded by multiple fences and walls, and the spaces between the fences are plowed and patrolled. Sensors are in place to detect unauthorized intruders….”[1]

The Soviet move on Sarov was similar to the action taken by the U.S. government to build its nuclear infrastructure in Tennessee, Nevada, Alabama, Washington state, and elsewhere; the people who lived there were moved out and the military, scientific community and their workers moved in.  Maps were sanitized and the veil of secrecy dropped.   Arzamas-16 was the intellectual and industrial birthplace of the first Soviet nuclear test device and the brainchild of Igor Kurchatov, the Soviet’s first nuclear program director.  In the final analysis, Arzamas-16  represented a network of “secret cities” and research labs

Who

In the deep winter of early 1903 a surveyor and a school teacher welcomed a son, Igor

Igor Vasilievich Kurchatov 1949

Igor Vasilievich Kurchatov 1949

Vasilievich Kurchatov, whose achievements would fundamentally change the face of geopolitics.   A good looking kid, Kurchatov published his first paper on the radioactivity of snow the year he graduated from Tauridian University.  His publication landed him a staff job at the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute at the direct invitation of the great physicist Abram Ioffe.   His initial investigations into the commercially viable physics of dielectrics yielded quickly to a fascination with the exhilarating new science of nuclear physics in the early 1930s.  One can only dream of how alive that world must have been.  Three dream teams were unraveling the wonders of the nuclear world as fast as their minds could compute; Kurchatov’s team in Leningrad,  Enrico Fermi’s team at the University of Rome , and the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England.  Each team published in their respective journals and the others devoured the information.  There was no thought that nuclear physics would have any practical application any time soon.  The exploration and study of nuclear physics at the time reflected the pure joy of discovery and a childlike innocence. And then along came World War II and its harsh reality.

Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.  Scientists were moved out of Moscow and Kurchatov, like many of his colleagues, bent his creative mind to the war effort working with a group exploring options to protect ships from magnetic mines.  Pretty soon someone in the Kremlin noticed the U.S. had gone silent on the nuclear physics front.  No news was not good news and the Soviets decided that the U.S. was busy making a nuclear bomb.  Imagine that.  Well, one good secret program certainly deserves an answering secret program and, in 1943, Kurchatov, who by then had proven himself an excellent scientist and a capable administrator, was tapped to lead the science side of Soviet Union’s nuclear effort.

Kurchatov was the Kremlin’s answer to Los Alamos’s J. Robert Oppenheimer but science is only one third of the story.  The other two thirds are politics and security.  The politicians on both sides of the nuclear race wanted the science contained and to that end remote sites for development were secured and minders were assigned.  In the U.S., General Leslie Groves

Beria with Stalin in the background and Stalin's daughter Svetlana

Beria with Stalin in the background and Stalin’s daughter Svetlana

minded Oppenheimer and his band of nuclear cowboys while the Soviets chose Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria as the administrative lead.  Under Beria, the Soviet nuclear scientists lived in constant fear; a rational response given his history.  Beria was one mean SOB.

“… a Georgian, like Stalin, who called him ‘my Himmler’. Involved in revolutionary activities from his teens and head of the secret police in Georgia in his twenties, he supervised the ruthless 1930s purges in the region and arrived in Moscow in 1938 as deputy to Nikolai Yezhov, ‘the blood-thirsty dwarf’, head of the Soviet secret police. He soon succeeded Yezhov, who was shot on Stalin’s orders, apparently at Beria’s prompting. Beria, who went on to run the Soviet network of slave-labour camps, was notorious for his sadistic enjoyment of torture and his taste for beating and raping women and violating young girls. Bald and bespectacled, by the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 he was one of the most hated men in the country….”[2]

What, When and How

Beginning in 1946, Igor Kurchatov and Lavrentiy Beria called Arzamas-16 home during the development of the first Soviet nuclear test device, RDS-1, First Lightning or Joe 1.  RDS-1 is the identifier used by the Soviet developers.  Joe 1 is the affectionate label given the device by the US in 1949.  First Lightning is a chapter heading in Kurchatov’s biography in 1968 as a part of the “ЖЗЛ” series describing the effort.[3]

If we step back in time just a year from 1946, we find Josef Stalin very interested in accelerating the development of a nuclear weapon.  He knew the U.S. was developing the atomic bomb, but he didn’t know how well the program was running.  Just two weeks after the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the U.S. dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.  The short time between Truman’s notification at Potsdam and his execution of the plan caught Stalin by surprise.

Kurchatov had been selected to head the Soviet science program to develop the bomb precisely because he believed it possible. According to Zhores A. Medvedev,  “…Molotov himself, in a note dated 9th July 1971, reminisced thus about his decision:

‘We were engaged on this work from 1943, and it was my job to find the man who could make a reality of the atomic bomb. The chekhists gave me a list of trustworthy physicists upon whom it was possible to rely, and I chose. I called Kapitsa to me, the academician. He said that we were not ready for this, and the atomic bomb was a weapon not for this war, but something for the future. We asked Joffe. He also replied somehow unclearly. Shortly, we came round to Kurchatov, who was the youngest and least known. I summoned him, we talked, and he made a favourable impression on me. But he said that he was still very vague about the task. Then I decided to give him the materials of our secret service – the secret agents had done a very important job. For several days, Kurchatov sat in my room in the Kremlin going through these materials’….”

When Stalin returned from Potsdam, he stepped on the nuclear accelerator and the program

Present in the garden of the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam are (from left): the new British prime minister Clement Attlee, U.S. president Harry Truman, and the Soviet state and party leader Joseph Stalin. Photographer unknown.

Present in the garden of the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam are (from left): the new British prime minister Clement Attlee, U.S. president Harry Truman, and the Soviet state and party leader Joseph Stalin. Photographer unknown.

went into overdrive. Now the whip was firmly in Beria’s hand.  I concur with Alex Wellerstein who wrote “…Michael also passes on this quote from David Holloway’s Stalin and the Bomb (also an excellent book if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of the Soviet project) which is too amusing not to reproduce:

In deciding on who was to receive which award [after the completion of the first atomic test], Beria is said to have adopted a simple principle: those who were to be shot in case of failure were now to become Heroes of Socialist Labor; those who would have received maximum prison sentences were to be given the Order of Lenin, and so on down the list. This story may well be apocryphal, but it nevertheless conveys the feeling of those in the project that their fate hinged on the success of the test….” (See Footnote 3)

With the detailed plans provided to the Soviets through the espionage supply chain who ran Klaus Fuchs and others from the U.S. and British nuclear development groups, Kurchatov

Russia's first nuclear test, named Joe-1 by the west from the Atomic Archive

Russia’s first nuclear test, named Joe-1 by the west from the Atomic Archive

and his team pulled it off.   Supporting the espionage boosts to the Soviet nuclear team was the acquisition of the German Scientists at the end of WWII.  Kurchatov and company provided Beria a shopping list of names and skill sets.  The Soviets by ‘hook or by crook’ got their German scientists and the Americans and British divvied up what was left.  On 29 August 1949 at 7:00 a.m. RDS-1 was detonated at its test bed at the Semipalatinsk Test Site on the steppes of Kazakhstan and yielded 22 kilotons.  The detonation was discovered through the rudimentary radiological monitoring system implemented by the U.S. after WWII and took the U.S. by surprise.  Tit for Tat, as they say.

The RDS-1 test was well-planned and well-executed.  The planning and execution had taken three years. It was not the crazy rush experienced by the Americans when they tested Trinity in New Mexico.   The American nuclear physicists were pushed hard by political and military leaders desperate to meet a war deadline.  Of course, Truman was not Stalin and Groves was not Beria so, if the U.S. team had failed, there would have been no summary executions at Project Y.  Certainly egos would have been bruised and careers short-circuited but everyone would have been allowed to go home and pack their bags before leaving.

Why

Why seems pretty simple on the face of it; because they can.  The political leadership of any country is always fighting for either survival or the pecking order in the geopolitical chicken coop.  In the case of the U.S. and Soviet governments, each was afraid of the other reigning supreme thereby stopping the proselytizing of the loser’s ideology around the world.  The propagation of ideologies results in an ever increasing power base and that seems to be a political ‘turn-on’.  In the case of politicians, just follow the power and that, of course, means money and resources.

Scientists just want to have fun.  Discovery is fun.  New knowledge is fun.  Publishing first and being the best are fun.  Some scientists are good politicians as well; they get the money and the political support for everyone else and become the titans of the game.  The atomic bomb’s reality jarred many scientists who devoted their lives to making certain it was never used again.

Kurchatov appears to have been one such scientist. Well respected by his colleagues, he remained in charge of the Soviet nuclear program until his death in 1960 and worked diligently to improve nuclear safety in his sphere of influence.  In his last public appearance Kurchatov stated: “I am glad that I was born in Russia and have dedicated my life to Soviet atomic science. I deeply believe, and am firmly convinced, that our people and our government will use the achievements of that science solely for the good of mankind.”

 

[Author’s Note:  Harold Agnew, the third director of Los Alamos Laboratory from 1970–1979,

Harold M. Agnew celebrating 30-years of service

Harold M. Agnew celebrating 30-years of service

died on September 29, 2013.  He was one of the great nuclear cowboys and I remember well the stories I heard about his exploits during my time at the Nevada Test Site. “Harold was an innovator,” said Los Alamos National Laboratory historian Alan Carr. “The vast majority of weapons in the nuclear stockpile were designed at Los Alamos and Harold had a hand in designing most of them — I’d say about 75%.”

Agnew provides an excellent insight into ‘how physicists think’ during his interview with George Washington University’s Cold War Archives. “…In his interview, the interviewer asks Agnew if, while he was watching the Hiroshima bomb detonate, he was worried anything might go wrong. Agnew’s response was:

No, I guess I always had great faith in the theorists. One particular thing that did happen that might have messed up the works and might have had a failure had to do with the trigger bomb and it’s an interesting story. One of my class mates at Chicago, Marshal Rosenbluth ate too much the evening before, several evenings before… they fed you very well, that’s one of the keys if you have only male individuals working on a project, away from home, feed them very well, steaks, strawberries, shrimps, everything and you don’t have any problems, you don’t have any problems with the workers if they’re well fed. Well Marshal evidently ate too many shrimp and he couldn’t sleep and he started to worry and he decided that the particular core we were going to use in the primary or the trigger for the Mike shot might have an unacceptable high probability of pre-detonation, pre-initiation in giving a fissile yield. So he conveyed this information to Carson Marks and more calculations were done and the core was changed. Now whether this needed to have been done or not, but it was another one of these (unintelligible) incidents that did take place….”[4]]

During this same interview Harold Agnew is asked whether or not he knew Klaus Fuchs, the spy. He responded:

“We knew Klaus Fuchs quite well, knew him in the sense of who he was and talked with him. We weren’t socially very much involved, although we lived in a quadruplex in Los Alamos during the War and our upstairs neighbor – there were four families in the quadruplex, we were upstairs – and our neighbor upstairs was Franz Bader and of course he was very close to Fuchs, also of German background. interesting enough when I was at (unintelligible) we flew the Hiroshima Mission and measured the yield, the person who helped me in analyzing the theory of what the yield was based on our blast measurements, was Klaus Fuchs, so essentially the last paper in which I was involved in Los Alamos before I went back to the University of Chicago was with Klaus Fuchs. But all during the War, had no information that he was essentially supplying information to the Soviets. People used him as a babysitter, he was a very polite, very quiet type of individual. No idea at all that he had this dual personality or this dual endeavor.”

Sources:

St. Seraphim of Sarov, Renowned Staret

The American Experience

Stalin and the Atomic Bomb

The National Security Archive


[1] Global Security; Arzamas-16 / Sarov “The Installation”; http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/arzamas_nuc.htm

[2] History Today; Richard Cavendish; History Today Volume: 53 Issue: 12 2003;  Lavrenti Beria Executed; http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/lavrenti-beria-executed

[3] Restricted Data The Nuclear Secrecy Blog; Alex Wellerstein; June 15th, 2012;  Semipalatinsk Then and Now; http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/06/15/friday-images-semipalantisk-then-now/

[4] The National Security Archive; Lauren Harper; October 4, 2013; Harold Agnew’s ‘Cold War’ Series Interview; http://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/harold-agnews-cold-war-series-interview/

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