The Hydrogen Bomb Turns 60 Today: Will We Ever Put the Nuclear Genie Back in the Bottle, or Has It Escaped to Haunt Us Forevermore?

Of all the challenges facing the human race in the 21st Century, climate change and nuclear annihilation stand alone.
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Did you make it through Hurricane Sandy, perhaps battered but not broken? If so, then brace yourself for another assault on your existence. Because 60 years ago today, the hydrogen bomb was born.

Chances are good you'll get through the anniversary just fine. But the odds are not so good that over the course of the rest of your life, whether you be 9 or 99, you will manage forever to dodge a pair of bullets aimed now perpetually at the head of every citizen of the human community -- climate catastrophe and nuclear annihilation.

Of all the challenges facing the human race in the 21st Century, these two stand alone, sui generis, as the singular perils that could threaten the survival of human civilization itself. As Hurricane Sandy causes many to contemplate deeply the magnitude of the one, let us pause today, on the birthday of the bomb, to recall the nature of the other.

The first person to fully envision the vast potential of nuclear energy -- for both good and ill -- was the historian, futurist, socialist, feminist, science fiction pioneer and world order visionary H.G. Wells. Shortly after 1900, British physicists Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy had speculated that the atoms of certain elements might be split, emitting particles that would then cause other atoms to be split, emitting yet more particles... and producing almost limitless quantities of energy. Drawing upon their work, Wells published a novel in 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War, called The World Set Free. It described a future where first, the human race enjoys the benefits of an atomic energy that is infinite and free, then, is devastated worldwide by a vast conflagration waged with atomic weapons, and then finally, manages to abolish war through the establishment of a world republic.

But even Wells probably did not anticipate that such an atomic war would come to pass scarcely three decades down the road. (The world republic appears to be taking a bit more time.) The world's first atomic bomb was detonated near Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. It yielded an explosion equivalent to the detonation of approximately 18,600 tons of dynamite (or "18.6 kilotons," a term which had to be coined to begin to describe, if not to comprehend, the new destructive powers of the nuclear age). The world's second atomic bomb, known as "Little Boy," was dropped from the American B-29 Superfortress "Enola Gay" over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, yielding an explosion of approximately 12.5 kilotons. The world's third atomic bomb, known as "Fat Man," was dropped from the American B-29 Superfortress "Bockscar" over the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, yielding an explosion of approximately 22 kilotons.

The best estimates (and they are certainly only gross estimates) of the consequences of our bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki indicate that about 140,000 people died immediately at Hiroshima and about 70,000 at Nagasaki. (The casualties were reduced at Nagasaki, despite "Fat Man's" greater explosive force, because the haze over the city on the day the bomb was dropped forced Bockscar's bombardier to deliver the payload by radar instead of by visual reckoning, and too because the hills around the city served to contain the blast.) About 200,000 more individuals lingered for weeks or months or years thereafter, often in extreme agony, before succumbing to various forms of radiation sickness.

One might suppose that would be as much destructive power, in one bomb, as any military force might ever crave. But apparently not. Because seven years later, America stood on the verge of detonating an immensely more powerful bomb still. This was not an atomic bomb but a "hydrogen bomb." It used the reaction called nuclear fission at the core of an atomic bomb (splitting atoms from one into many) merely as a triggering device. That fission would generate sufficient temperatures to elicit a much larger reaction, called nuclear fusion (combining atoms from many into one) -- and an inconceivably larger explosion. (The term "nuclear weapon" generally refers today to both atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs.)

The test, called "IVY MIKE," was ordered by President Harry S. Truman to take place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on November 1, 1952. Just like America stands today just days from our 2012 presidential election, the hydrogen bomb test detonation, though unknown to the American people, took place just three days before the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The chosen land was the Eniwetok Atoll, a collection of about 40 coral reefs in the Marshall Island chain, roughly 3000 miles west of Hawaii. More than 10,000 U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and civilian personnel gathered in the South Pacific for the test. They bulldozed the entire island of Elugelab, built a huge structure to house the bomb -- six stories high and as wide as an aircraft hangar -- and prepared more than 500 scientific monitoring stations on 30 different surrounding islands. At 7:15 A.M., a team on a nearby ship sent off a precise sequence of radio signals -- and IVY MIKE ignited. In an instant, it created a blinding white fireball more than 3 miles across. It hurled some 80 million tons of dirt and debris high into the air -- radioactive material that, in the ensuing weeks, rained down upon virtually every point on our planet, like a very fine atomic fairy dust, sprinkled upon us all. And it generated a hot mushroom cloud that rose vertically to an altitude of 27 miles, and spread horizontally for a distance of 100 miles.

The gauges and sensors and monitoring devices came in at 10.4 megatons -- another new term still, this one representing the detonation of a million tons of dynamite. It was almost 1,000 times as large as the blast of Little Boy over Hiroshima.

It's really amazing that humanity can create such a thing, isn't it? Imagine a mushroom cloud rising 27 miles over the Eiffel Tower, or Buckingham Palace, or Tiananmen Square, or the Empire State Building, or your own town square. If a 12.5 kiloton device detonated over Hiroshima managed to kill 250,000 human beings, what would be the consequences of a 10.4 megaton detonation over a major world city? (America's great Cold War antagonist, the USSR, actually tested a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb, known as "Tsar Bomba," in 1961 ... so feel free employ the appropriate math.) Imagine pure devastation, millions upon millions of incinerated corpses, not just humans but indeed all living things, a perfectly sterilized landscape, as far as the eye can see, indeed, beyond the farthest horizon. From one bomb. You know those horrifying scenes we've all seen from that unfathomably tragic fire at Breezy Point in Queens on the night of the hurricane, which, once the winds of Sandy got ahold of it, incinerated nearly 100 homes in the blink of an eye?

Imagine that, for 50 miles in every direction.

I watched the NBC News special on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on Tuesday night, October 30th. Host Brian Williams said the Breezy Point neighborhood looked "like Dresden." A firefighter interviewed on the scene said it reminded him of photographs he had seen in school, as a child, "of Berlin after World War II."

But as I looked at the news footage of the scene in Breezy Point, and listened to the voices on television, I kept waiting for at least one voice to draw the obvious distinction.

Breezy Point was an act of nature. Berlin and Dresden were acts of humanity. We incinerated Berlin intentionally. We burned Dresden -- and perhaps as many as 25,000 human beings -- on purpose. When we dropped atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was no act of god.

And now our country, and several others, maintain something that they call "nuclear weapon employment doctrines." These declare that these states cannot protect their national security unless, in order to "deter" their adversaries, they perpetually threaten to do that very same thing again. Burn an entire city, and all of its inhabitants, right on down to the ground. Not with conventional bombs as with Berlin and Dresden. Not with atomic bombs as with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But with hydrogen bombs. Sending clouds of death and desolation 27 miles into the sky.

So happy birthday IVY MIKE. Sixty years later, your mere existence causes one to marvel at humanity's scientific and technological prowess. And your persistent presence in multiple national security establishments, the enduring conviction that the only way to "defend" one's own national community is to threaten to set alight thousands and thousands of neighborhoods like Breezy Point in other national communities, causes one to marvel as well.

At humanity's prolonged political, social, and ethical adolescence.

Tad Daley is author of APOCALYPSE NEVER: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, released in paperback earlier this year from Rutgers University Press. He directs the "Project on Abolishing War" at the Center for War/Peace Studies in New York.

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