Oops, Livermore fizzles

Tower holding the Ruth device following the Ruth event

The creation of the Laboratory had been hard-fought in Washington; now it was time to deliver. It was time to show the Washington bureaucracy what Lawrence’s cyclotroneers from Berkeley could do. When Herb York set up the Laboratory’s organization, he put Edward Teller in charge of nuclear weapons design and development. Since Teller was a veteran atomic bomb designer from the Manhattan Project days, this seemed like a logical thing for York to do. (Under this organization, Teller could veto any nuclear design he didn’t like, but it is a blessing of Teller’s personality that he never once exercised his authority to use his veto power.)

Teller’s mind was set on testing a hydride device. What, you may ask, is that? It is an atomic device that switches metallic uranium with a uranium salt, a mixture of uranium with a hydro-carbon compound. (In this case, the hydrogen atoms in the hydrocarbon are deuterium, hydrogen-2, which are isotopes of common hydrogen, hydrogen-1.) Why, you may ask, would Teller want to do that? Well that’s another question isn’t it? I lay out a nice, in my humble opinion, explanation in my book, From Berkeley to Berlin, but I’m not going to go into details here. Sorry. Instead, I’ll give you an abbreviated explanation and ask for your forbearance. 

The explanation for testing a uranium hydride device is that Teller was still totally focused on the Super. This would not be the classic Super design he and George Gamow proposed back in 1950; instead, Teller wanted to mix the thermonuclear fuel directly in with the nuclear fission fuel. Perhaps, we can’t ask Edward directly anymore, he thought placing the thermonuclear fuel near nuclear fissions would cause that fuel to ignite. There are some other things, in physics, going on, but we’ll just settle on this one explanation until you can read a fuller explanation in my book.

The Laboratory with the Altamount Hills in the background (great place to cycle) and East Avenue in the foreground

York’s opinion was that the Laboratory needed to get some nuclear tests under its belt, and if Teller advocated testing a hydride device, well that idea seemed to be as good as any other idea. So, York set up a Laboratory program to test a hydride.

* * *

While this was going on, Eisenhower and his Administration were taking their initial steps to tackle the challenge of dissuading an aggressive Josef Stalin from conquering all of Europe. Remember, Stalin’s the same guy who partnered with Adolph Hitler in starting World War II, and who murdered more people than Hitler had. Once told the Pope had condemned his brutal behavior, Stalin quipped, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Stalin was intent never, ever, to allow a free and powerful German state to arise again—it needed to be a Communist German state under his “protection.”

One might expect Eisenhower to favor big defense budgets, since he had been a career military officer. Instead, he was a penny-pincher who wanted to control a federal budget he felt was running out of control. (Things don’t change, do they?) That attitude caused him to favor using nuclear weapons to be the bulwark of defense. I’ve heard pundits complain about how expensive a nuclear weapon is, but consider, keeping just one already equipped armored division going can cost over a million dollars a day. So, Eisenhower was inclined to adopt a strategic defensive strategy for the nation that he called “Massive Retaliation.”

If the Soviet Union committed and aggressive act, like invading a free democratic European nation, then massive retaliation said the United States would retaliate with the entire force of its nuclear arsenal. The US would load up all its Strategic Air Command bombers flown by pilots like Slim Pickens, and launch a massive nuclear strike at Soviet cities. Reliance on nuclear weapons as the backbone of defense meant the budget of the conventional military services declined. The Army’s budget, in particular, declined so much, the Army Chief of Staff, General Matthew Ridgeway, the man who saved 8th US Army from total annihilation in the Korean War, resigned. Ridgeway said the Army’s strength had been sapped so much, it could no longer defend the country and its allies against Soviet incursions, and that simply would encourage the Soviets to commit those regional incursions. It didn’t matter, Eisenhower kept to massive retaliation.

* * *

Back at the Livermore “ranch,” work progressed to conduct two nuclear tests of hydride devices. The next series of nuclear tests was called Operation Upshot-Knothole, and it was scheduled to take place in the new Nevada Test Site, in the spring of 1953, nine months after the Laboratory was created. The high costs of testing in the Pacific, in the Marshall Island atolls of Bikini and Eniwetok, encouraged government officials to seek a cheaper venue within the continental United States. They settled on a corner patch of the Air Force Tonapah gunnery range, at a place called Frenchman Flat, located about sixty-five miles north of Las Vegas. President Truman dedicated it at the height of the Korean War as the Nevada Proving Ground. In July 1951, the AEC rechristened it the Nevada Test Site (NTS).

Nuclear devices having a total yield (the amount of nuclear energy released; it’s usually expressed in terms of equivalent energy of TNT) of fifty thousand tons, 50kt, or less, could be tested in Nevada. To control radioactive fallout, the device was detonated high above the ground—either dropped from a bomber or balloon, or mounted atop a tower. That kept much of the activated ground soil, which is the primary source of fallout, from being entrapped by the blast and lofted into the atmosphere. The public was growing wary of fallout, and AEC chairman Gordon Dean found he had to quell a rumor that nuclear testing at the test site would cause the water of Los Angeles to become radioactive.

Livermore designers settled on two hydride designs that differed only in their hydrocarbon makeup. Preparations began for two nuclear tests: the Ruth and Rae events. The tests were named after two Laboratory administrators: Ruth Brockett was Teller’s executive secretary, and Rae Duffus was the administrator of the Engineering Department. The two devices were assembled at a plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and shipped to NTS. 

The Ruth and Rae devices were designed primarily to give a measurement of the way a hydride fuel could support thermonuclear reactions; to help with diagnosing the performance of the fuels, the devices were designed to give yields that were low, around 1to 2kt. Nevertheless, when a safety official from NTS asked a Laboratory engineer what was the maximum yield one could get from the Ruth device, the engineer answered 30kt! That meant they had to use a 300-foot tower.

Wallace Decker, circa 1980s

A young engineer hired out of the Rad Lab, Wallace (Wally) Decker, led the assembly team that would attach the devices onto towers. A team hoisted the Ruth device to the top of the tower, then Decker led his crew into an elevator attached to the tower, and they rode upwards to one story below the top of the tower. Now Decker suffered from a serious case of acrophobia, and as he rode up the elevator, as he rattled along inside the cage, he could feel his symptoms erupt. When the team exited the elevator cage, Decker led them to a set of metal stairs, and he dared not look down, lest he’d impersonate Cary Grant in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Vertigo. As he clambered up the steps, unbeknownst to him, the technician who had put the steps together had failed to secure the last step with four bolts, but only used two. So as Wally put his boot on the step, it rotated. He fell forward, caught himself on a handrail, and stared straight down 300 feet at the ground below. His heart was where his tonsils had been.

He steadied himself, riveted his glance straight ahead into the horizon, and waited for the dizziness to go away. Then he straightened up, turned towards the top of the tower, stepped onto the platform, pulled out a wrench, and started to secure an atomic bomb to the top of a swaying metal tower. A short while after the assembly team was done, the arming team went up and armed the atomic device with an electrical connection.

Early the next morning, after a countdown reached zero, the detonation switch was activated and the high explosives in the Ruth device detonated—the device “fizzled.” It failed. Instead of one thousand tons, the yield was about eighty tons. The yield of the device was so low, the bottom of the 300-foot tower, instead of vaporizing, remained standing. There is an unconfirmed rumor that Norris Bradbury, the director of Los Alamos, sent a telegram to Herb York after the Ruth event, saying, “Congratulations on your first test. Now that you’re done, would you mind if we used the tower next?”

Two weeks later, the Rae event went off, and it too fizzled. Bradbury, who had been an avid opponent to creating the second nuclear weapons laboratory, made it no secret he thought the failure of the Ruth and Rae events proved his point. He reasserted a prediction that the new laboratory would lack the strong expertise needed to design and test nuclear devices. He urged the AEC to restrict the Livermore laboratory to only supporting Los Alamos nuclear tests by fielding diagnostic experiments, as they had done in the George event two years earlier.

I’m afraid I will keep an explanation of why the Hydride shots, as they were called, had failed, to those who read my book. Hey, you don’t expect me to tell you everything in these blogs, do you? This was not an auspicious beginning for the Laboratory. As had happened with the fiasco of early operations at the Y-12 Plant in the Manhattan Project, this too would test Lawrence’s resolve.

2 thoughts on “Oops, Livermore fizzles

  1. TomHill

    Nice entry, Tom. Wally Decker is another new name to me.
    I’d heard the story about Bradbury asking if LASL could reuse the Livermore tower.
    I’m surprised that the LLNL pre-shot calculation was so far off.
    Tom

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  2. Tom Ramos Post author

    Hi Tom, well of course I could steer you to the book for a fuller explanation. Having read through, God it must have been three dozen documents on the Hydrides, written around the time of the Ruth event, I am not surprised. One big deal was a lack of equations of state for hydrides, and RAND physicists did extensive calculations on that. That perplexed Richard Feynman during the Manhattan Project, when he tried to evaluate a hydride. Tom

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