Koon: Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse

Ernest Orlando Lawrence

Well, when we left off last blog (see list of blogs in menu), the young upstarts of Livermore had just conducted their first two nuclear tests, the Ruth and Rae events, and they were a bust—fizzles. The physicists had to endure some expected ridicule, mostly because arguments had been made while getting the Laboratory started that the nuclear weapons program of the nation needed new blood, new ideas. After two successive fizzles, LASL director Bradbury quipped, “Where are the new ideas?”

As I mentioned last time, I think I have a valid reason why those shots failed, and if you want to know why, go read my book when it comes out to find out what went wrong with the devices—what, feel cheated? Whatta you think, this is Coney Island? You torkin’ to me? Sorry, got to keep these blogs small, and besides, how else do I seduce you to want to read the book?

In those days, the 1950s, the AEC alternated test sites to conduct nuclear tests, and they did it on an annual basis. On odd numbered years, tests occurred in Nevada at NTS, and in even numbered years, full yield thermonuclear tests took place in the Pacific. The Ruth and Rae events, part of Operation Upstart, occurred in 1953, in Nevada. Next year’s tests, Operation Castle, would occur at Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls in the Marshall Islands.

Operation Castle was a series of nuclear tests that occurred during a period of heightened tensions in the Cold War; French troops were fighting for their survival at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. Castle, the fifth series of tests held at the proving grounds, lasted from February to May 1954. With the success of the Mike event in November 1952, the Defense Department’s objective for Castle was to task the AEC to demonstrate a one-megaton hydrogen bomb could be dropped from a strategic bomber. By the time Castle was about to start, LASL planned to test five devices, and UCRL planned to test two.

A Livermore team led by physicist Stirling Colgate lent diagnostic support to the LASL, as well as Livermore, shots. Colgate, an heir to the toothpaste fortune, was an exquisite experimentalist, good looking, who relished designing diagnostic equipment that could detect thermonuclear signals while filtering out background noise—an atomic blast. With a Laboratory mathematician named Dick White, he later wrote a computer code that was the first successful model of how a supernova works. Now the poor man can no longer defend himself, so I must be careful, but Colgate did have a reputation for being “popular with the ladies.” More on this later.

Stirling Colgate

LASL’s five tests were essentially follow-on tests of devices like the Mike device—they too were based on that paper written by Teller and Ulam in March 1951. These were still developmental devices, so none of them would be dropped from a bomber; instead, they were placed on a five-foot-high platform or floated on a barge in an atoll. The first test was LASL’s Bravo event. To keep down the yield, a goodly portion of the thermonuclear fuel in the device was replaced with an inert material.

When the device was detonated, the ‘inert’ material turned out not to be inert after all, but added to the yield, which was about 15MT. The unexpected large yield created a fallout cloud roughly 220 miles long and 50 miles wide, and it drifted over populated islands of the Marshalls. Some two hundred Marshallese, as well as military personnel stationed on the islands, needed to be treated for beta burns. A Japanese fishing boat, called the Lucky Dragon of all things, got caught in the cloud and one of the 23 fishermen on board later died from radiation poisoning.

A quick word about radiation. Most of the radioactivity in a fallout cloud is caused by radioisotopes that undergo “beta decay,” in which beta particles, high speed electrons, are emitted. Unless ingested or breathed into the lungs, beta particles are usually stopped by the skin, so over exposure to beta radiation usually results in skin burns, as happened to the Marshallese. This incident started up a news frenzy of sorts, and the public began to clamor about the safety of atmospheric nuclear testing. The Eisenhower Administration later issued a requirement for the AEC to develop a “clean” nuclear weapon, one that reduced fallout.

Regardless of the radiation debacle, following the Bravo event, LASL conducted its other four nuclear tests, and they all exceeded expectations. It was a marvelous achievement for an institution that had been criticized earlier by Teller for being laggard in developing a thermonuclear weapon. Los Alamos had given the Air Force everything it asked for. Unfortunately, the new Chairman of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, had issued a news blackout concerning AEC testing. Journalists would have to figure out what happened on their own. Since Teller had been the most vocal advocate for promoting the hydrogen bomb, the news media credited Teller and the new laboratory in Livermore for the phenomenally successful H-bomb tests! This did not help to make relationships between the managements of the Los Alamos and Livermore friendlier.

Next, it was UCRL’s turn, and Livermore prepared to test its two devices. To the everlasting bewilderment of me and anyone else studying these two Livermore devices, even though the Teller-Ulam concept of March 1951 was shown to be a winner, Teller decided to go back to his original classic Super design that he and Gamow had proposed back in January 1950! What was he thinking? Well, I studied this for several months and I talked it over with physicists who had worked with Teller back in the day—and frankly, we’re not sure we can answer that, and Edward is no longer around to explain himself. I think I have an answer to this puzzle, and if you’re interested, then yes, go read my book! Gotcha.

In the course of the year building up to Operation Castle, Harold Brown’s Megaton Group did calculations to develop a device based on Teller’s classic Super design. As the calculations got better, modifications were inserted into the device, until Teller worried the purity of his design had been compromised. So, it was decided to test two devices: one, called the Ramrod, looked like Teller’s original concept, and the other (I can’t give you the name) would reflect a device dictated by the calculations. Most of the calculations were done by Mike May’s Radiative Transport Group of code developers. The Ramrod would be tested in the Echo event, and the modified device would be tested later in the Koon event of Operation Castle.

When the Castle Bravo event went off, the site of the Echo device became contaminated and would need a few weeks to be cleaned up. So, plans changed and the Koon event would go off first. The Koon device was huge, the size of a railway car. Brown’s design team had chosen a Los Alamos atomic device to set off their thermonuclear device, since Livermore had no proven atomic devices at the time. On the morning of the test, the detonation switch triggered the high explosives in the LASL primary, and the Koon device fizzled! This would not look good for the physicists’ resumes. Once the shock wore off, Herb York cancelled the Echo event, angering Teller. (Sorry, details for this debacle are in the book.)

Two weeks later, a meeting was held of all members of the Koon device team. Bill Grasberger, a veteran of John Wheeler’s Matterhorn-B project, sat in a back bench. A man came in and sat down next to Bill. They looked at each other, and the man said, “Hi, I’m Ernest Lawrence.” Bill, who knew damn well who he was talking to, told Lawrence what role he had played, and then Lawrence got up, went to the front of the hall, and told all assembled they couldn’t dwell on this failure. He was still with them. What mattered was not that the test had failed, but what had they learned. It was classic Lawrence being a classic leader.

Two weeks later, a hearing began in Washington, DC, to determine whether J. Robert Oppenheimer should lose his security clearance. Oppenheimer had lied to Army investigators during the war about attempts of the Communist Party to get him to reveal secrets about the atomic bomb. When asked why he had lied, all he could say was, “Because I was damned stupid.” Strauss, the AEC Chairman, wanted to prove Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy, and to prove it, he wanted to bring out how Oppenheimer had tried to stymy thermonuclear research. To do that, he wanted testimonies from the main advocates for thermonuclear research: Ernest Lawrence, Edward Teller, Luis Alvarez, and David Griggs. None of these physicists thought Oppenheimer was a spy, but it didn’t matter, Strauss just wanted them to relate how Oppenheimer had thwarted thermonuclear research.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Lawrence flew out to Washington to testify, but first he attended a meeting of AEC dignitaries. As he entered the meeting, he was assailed by Isidor Rabi, who was appointed to be the temporary chairman of the GAC during Oppenheimer’s hearing, and Henry Smyth, an AEC Commissioner. Lawrence realized his being a witness at the hearing could jeopardize his laboratory in Livermore, especially following the Koon event debacle. The thought of having to testify and then see the Laboratory close down before it had a chance to prove itself brought out his stress, and at a dinner reception that evening he suffered an attack of colitis, and returned to Berkeley.

Lawrence gave a deposition instead, which left Teller to become the all-star witness. His testimony against Oppenheimer was widely shown on television, and for that performance, he was ostracized by much of the American physics community. The good physicists of Berkeley and Livermore—Lawrence, Alvarez, Teller, and Griggs, were called “McCarthyists.”

Criticism of the Laboratory and its failed nuclear test did not take long to come. In a letter to the AEC, Bradbury once again suggested UCRL be made subordinate to LASL on matters of nuclear weapon design. He observed Livermore scientists obviously needed to be better guided, since “brilliant new ideas have not appeared.” Likewise, as Lawrence had feared, the failure of the Koon event gave GAC Chairman Rabi a chance to get back at Lawrence for the Oppenheimer affair. Rabi judged the Livermore effort in Operation Castle to be “amateurish,” and he too thought the Laboratory ought to play only a supporting role to Los Alamos. He wondered aloud at meetings of the GAC whether Livermore would ever “really be an important laboratory.” He later instigated an investigation by the AEC General Counsel on how UCRL had become involved in the nuclear weapons program in the first place.

Lawrence, Teller, and York, during happier times.

The combined stress of a failed nuclear test and testifying against a former colleague had taxed Lawrence to his limit, and he was hospitalized. The same stress worked its way into Teller, who suffered his own attack of colitis, and he too ended up in a hospital. A short while later, Herb York began to experience sudden, inexplicable fevers, which caused him to be absent from the Laboratory for long periods at a time. Whatever the cause of York’s illness, the stress coming from the failure of the Koon event could not have helped his health.

The Oppenheimer hearing, occurring as it did in the same time period as the Koon debacle, had an indirect and under-appreciated effect on events at the Laboratory that would profoundly affect later events in the Cold War. With the three Laboratory leaders in hospitals or laid out in bed, the leadership of the weapons program now rested on the shoulders of 27-year-old Harold Brown and 32-year-old Johnny Foster. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: never had so much responsibility fallen on two young individuals.

Johnny Foster and Harold Brown – taking over the nuclear weapons program

Having failed in its first three nuclear tests, the stakes for the Laboratory were such that, literally, failure was no longer an option. There were far too many influential people in Washington and elsewhere who would gladly shut down the Laboratory if they could, and one more failure could be all the reason they needed to act. The two young upstarts took over the helm of the Laboratory’s weapons program as they figuratively tightened their belts to prepare for their new challenge. Within a few months of taking charge of weapons development, Brown and Foster co-authored a document to the Laboratory’s scientists and engineers announcing they were going to pursue a new direction in nuclear weapon research: they were departing from the path set by Teller.

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