Semipalatinsk Test Site, Kazakhstan
August 29, 1949; 7:00am
Sixty years ago today, on a remote steppe in the former Soviet republic of Kazakh SSR, a flash splits the sky. The first Soviet nuclear test, code named “First Lightning,” had succeeded in detonating the communist country’s first Atomic Bomb.
“Joe-1” was about the same size of the American “Fat Man” bomb that had flattened Nagasaki four years earlier, killing 80,000 people. The Soviet bomb was named for Joe Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party and head of the country.
An excellent analysis of this anniversary was just published on Huffington Post by our friend Dr. Bennett Ramberg who you may recall was featured in our “Children of the Atomic Bomb” post. Ramberg’s article is called “The Soviet Union’s First Nuclear Detonation, 60 Years” and comes to some disquieting conclusions at a time when the promise of President Obama’s pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons has heartened so many people.
“For the Soviet Union, the development of the Bomb marked a coming of age, its ascendance to superpower stardom,” writes Ramberg. “For Russia, the inheritor of the Soviet atomic legacy, nuclear weapons remain a critical foundation for its claim today to be a major player on the world stage. It is unlikely to relinquish this privilege in ongoing arms control talks.”
Joe-1 wasn’t the biggest bomb the Soviets (or anyone) ever exploded. That distinction goes to “Tsar Bomba” or King of Bombs that was detonated October 30, 1961 at the Mityushikha Bay test range above the Artic Circle. Known to its Russian designers as “Big Ivan,” the H-Bomb was 2,273 times bigger than Joe-1!
Exploded at 13,000 feet, the Tsar Bomba had the power to fully obliterate anything within 15 miles and severely destroy structures out to 22 miles. All buildings in Severny (both wooden and brick), at a distance of 34 miles, were completely destroyed.
In districts hundreds of miles from ground zero, wooden houses were destroyed, and stone ones lost their roofs, windows and doors. The atmospheric disturbance created by the explosion orbited the earth three times and gigantic mushroom cloud rose forty miles.
And to top that off, the Soviets only set the bomb off at half power to reduce fallout. By eliminating 97% of the fallout, the Tsar Bomba was the “cleanest” nuclear weapon ever tested with 97% of the energy coming from fusion reactions. Imagine that – a green H-Bomb.
When the American atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, Stalin lamented “Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance has been destroyed.” Soon enough, “Uncle Joe” had gulag prisoners building the primitive test site and laboratories and the Soviet leader put 10,000 scientists to work on building the Soviet arsenal.
Today, the Russians and Americans still have thousands of nuclear weapons. And they aren’t going away anytime soon, as Ramberg points out. In December 2007 then Deputy Prime Minister Sergi Ivanov waxed over the attraction the Bomb had for the Kremlin: “Military potential, to say nothing of nuclear potential, must be at the proper level if we want…to just stay independent…The weak are not loved and not heard, they are insulted and when we have parity they will talk to us in a different way.”
Ramberg also notes that, despite Obama’s historic Prague speech April 5, we are a long ways off from a world free from the terror of nuclear weapons:
And despite lip service to nuclear disarmament, President Obama, like the Cold Warriors of the past, responded with his own commitment to the Bomb: “As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal.” So the competition continues. From his grave Joseph Stalin must be smiling.