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It began before dawn on July 16, 1945, in a remote desert area of New Mexico called the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death), when a super-secret government project culminated in Trinity. The world’s first nuclear device, a plutonium-fueled implosion bomb, known as the “Gadget” was detonated from a 100 ft. high steel tower at 5:30 AM. The resulting explosion was equivalent to 18,500 tons of TNT. It lit the predawn sky with the light of several suns at midday and could be seen and heard from 180 miles away in the cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, El Paso and Silver City. Windows were broken in buildings 125 miles from Ground Zero. A tremendous fireball and two more explosions followed the initial blast. The resulting mushroom cloud reached 36,000 feet. The steel tower had evaporated. A crater 1200 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep at Ground Zero was ringed with highly radioactive green glass made from the fused desert sand and could be seen from 5 miles away. Alarmed residents of the area were told that a munitions dump had exploded.

Trinity was probably named by the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, for the Hindu Trinity: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). His reaction to the Trinity explosion was to quote Shiva from the Bahagad-Vita, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

The Manhattan Project

The program to create the atom bomb was originally known as “S-1” and was later renamed the “Manhattan Project.” It was named for the US Army Corps of Engineers Manhattan District. As “S-1” the experiment began quietly at the University of Chicago Metallurgic Lab. There, a group of physicists, headed by Enrico Fermi, began to build the first nuclear pile (reactor). This pile went critical (was able to sustain a nuclear chain reaction) on December 2, 1942.

The project itself began to expand exponentially at about this same time under the newly appointed director, General Leslie Groves. Large reactors were built along the Columbia River in Hanford, Washington. Uranium enrichment plants were built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his scientists set up their operations at a large compound in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The University of California, Columbia University in NYC and the University of Rochester were all involved in this project.

The Western New York connection to the project also began about this time. Linde in Tonawanda processed uranium for the Oak Ridge Plant. Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport rolled the boron control rods for the Hanford reactors. Most disturbingly, the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works in Lewiston-Porter became the repository for Manhattan Project radioactive wastes. Other local private concerns soon joined the operation. Hooker, Electro-Met and Titanium Alloys in Niagara Falls were used to process the nuclear materials necessary for Hanford and Oak Ridge. These sites continued to be used as atomic weapons facilities after Trinity in support of the Cold War effort. They were joined in this effort by Simonds, Bethlehem Steel and the American Car Foundry. West Valley became a major reprocessing site. These sites are still highly contaminated as a result of this participation in the nuclear program.

The project began with a letter, instigated by German ex-patriot scientist Leo Szilard, from his friend, Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt. Concern that the Nazis were working on the atom bomb and would have one to use before the US, set up this race for the bomb. As it turned out, the Nazis had abandoned the search for the secrets of the atom bomb in favor of concentration on their V-1 and V-2 rocket projects. When the Germans were defeated and it became clear that there had been no German atom bomb, attentions turned to the use of the bomb against Japan. The atom bomb has been used in war twice, both by the United States, and both against Japan.

The Manhattan Project was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt alone, without the knowledge or consent of Congress. At a cost of $2 billion, it was the largest “black budget” item of World War II, perhaps, the largest ever. The project was so secret that even the vice president, Harry Truman, was not told about it until he took office as the president after the death of Roosevelt. Secrets from this project have still not been declassified 60 years later and some of the documents released under the Clinton administration have been reclassified under the secretive Bush administration. What is clear is that dozens of sites around the nation were involved, leaving these sites contaminated, and hundreds of thousands of workers and innocent residents affected by the radioactive byproducts of this project.

Atoms for Peace

After World War II, the US had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, but this did not last long. The Soviet Union began testing its own atom bombs before the end of the decade. Nuclear proliferation became a global concern. Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was never comfortable with the bomb. He was quoted in a Newsweek article ( “Ike on Ike,“ November 11, 1963) as having remarked to Secretary of War Henry Stimson regarding the use of the bomb against Japan that, “ …the Japanese were ready to surrender an it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” His abhorrence to the use of the bomb as a weapon led him to propose a UN program called “Atoms for Peace.” It involved two major concepts: the control of nuclear proliferation through the UN International Atomic Energy Agency and the use of the atom for peaceful applications such as nuclear energy and nuclear medicine.

Fifty years later, this program has had mixed results. Nuclear proliferation has been kept to a modest level. Eight countries now belong to the nuclear club: the US, Russia, the UK, China, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. Some new countries may have joined this club, such as N. Korea, while others, like Libya, have apparently abandoned, or at least put on hold, their nuclear aspirations. Other aspects of this program have been less successful. The spread of nuclear technology for power generation led to at least one new member of the nuclear club- India. It used the technology given to them for nuclear energy to develop their own bomb program. These dual use technologies threaten to become bomb programs in Iran and other countries. This was a major justification used by the Bush administration for the current war in Iraq. Also, at least 50, and perhaps as many as 131 other countries around the world possess weapons-grade uranium as a byproduct of their nuclear power programs. The US is trying to get this uranium back from these countries, with limited success.

Postwar Years

Nearly constant atmospheric testing from 1945 through 1963 when the first Test Ban Treaty was signed (235 tests by the US alone) spawned the Fallout Shelter program, “Duck and Cover” drills in schools, and the “Tooth fairy Project” to measure the amount of accumulated radioactivity in children’s teeth. For those of us drinking milk during the 1950s, radioactive fallout rained down over the US, was absorbed by the vegetation, eaten by cows and concentrated in the milk that the Baby Boomers drank. The American Cancer Society website has a method for calculating just how much exposure an individual received based on the year they were born. Some biologists such as Dr. Caldicott have suggested that the radioactive iodine ingested by the Boomers through the milk they drank as children may have slightly damaged their thyroids, leading to the higher rates of obesity that we see among them.

The Bush Administration

The current administration seems enamored with nukes. One major shift comes in the Nuclear Posture, which sets out the potential use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Previous Nuclear Postures have stated that the US would only counter a nuclear attack with a nuclear attack. The Bush version of the Nuclear Posture expands the use of nuclear weapons to counter biological or chemical attacks.

Bush’s energy policy encourages the building of many new nuclear reactors for power generation. No new nuclear plants have been built in recent years. The events at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the expense of nuclear reactors, and the lack of a method for safely disposing of nuclear waste, have all been factors in the decision not to build more nuclear plants. Under the Bush energy plan, the nuclear industry would continue to be subsidized and waste would continue to pile up at the reactors. The new “hydrogen technology”, the great eco-liberator, would rely on nuclear reactors to create the hydrogen.

New nuclear weapons, such as the “bunker buster” are proposed for production. A new plutonium pit factory (bomb cores) has also been sought. The US has pulled out of the ABM Treaty to resume implementation of “missile defense” (Star Wars revisited). The time necessary to resume nuclear testing has been shortened. The public has not raised one arm, let alone both arms against any of these initiatives. The attention of the public has been fixed on the events of 9/11/2001, terrorism, the war in Iraq, religion…

So happy birthday atom bomb. Whether history will record the Nuclear Age on computer chips or stone tablets, only time will tell. Even Jimmy the Greek is not giving odds on that one. by C. Abel

The Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the Industrial Age are all markers of man’s progress towards a more advanced civilization. They evolved gradually and melted seamlessly from one age into the next. The Nuclear Age did not. It burst onto the scene in one apocalyptic moment in 1945. It is the only one of the ages with the power to return mankind, not just to a previous age or all the way back to the Stone Age, but to return the planet to a primordial state before life, as we know it, existed.