Reflecting on the 65th Anniversary of the First A-Bomb

07/16/2010 02:46 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Samuel S. Epstein Cancer prevention expert, Prof. emeritus at U. of IL School of Public Health, Chicago

July 16 marks 65 years since the first atomic bomb explosion, known as Trinity. It is a date that changed world history forever, and created new health and security threats that still plague the planet.

Details of Trinity have been documented before, but merit a recap, since memories may fade with the passage of so many years. The collision of two forces -- the discovery of atomic fission and the rise of Nazi Germany -- in the creation of the Manhattan Project in late 1942. Fearful that the Germans would develop and use a nuclear weapon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the U.S. army to develop such a weapon first. Working furiously, scientists had developed enough nuclear material for a bomb in less than three years. By then, Germany had been defeated, but American forces were still engaged against Japan.

Before a nuclear weapon could be used in war, a test was needed. Manhattan Project directors considered 11 locations, and selected the White Sands Bombing Range in southern New Mexico. The site was a remote location, relatively close to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the project's scientists were based. Soldiers prepared a 100-foot tower for the bomb and two trenches for observers. The trenches were 10 and 17 miles away, as nobody really knew how powerful the blast would prove. The bomb, nicknamed "Gadget" was assembled and readied.

At 5:29 a.m. local time, the Trinity explosion occurred and the atomic age officially began. The test succeeded, putting to rest any doubts harbored by Manhattan Project team members. A deafening roar went up, and a blinding flash illuminated the desert, visible 200 miles away. A gaping crater 10 feet deep and 1100 feet in diameter was formed. The shock wave from the explosion could be felt for more than 100 miles. The yield of the plutonium-based bomb was estimated at 23,000 tons of TNT. To maintain secrecy, the Army issued a press release, stating that an "ammunition magazine" had exploded, without anyone being injured.

The 260 observers present were awed. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the team that created the bomb, later remembered that the blast brought to mind a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita:

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once in the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One. . .
I am become Death
The shatterer of Worlds

The cloud from Trinity quickly rose 35,000 feet into the air, and moved northeast with prevailing winds. Scientists didn't track the fallout with much precision, but the cloud traveled an extensive distance. That fall, Eastman Kodak labs discovered imperfections in X-ray films. Time magazine reporter Lansing Lamont, in his 1965 book Day of Trinity related that Kodak officials traced the imperfections to radioactive cerium in strawboard -- from Trinity -- produced with river water from Indiana, over 1,000 miles from the Trinity site.

Today, Trinity is a National Historic Landmark, a quiet spot in the desert, only open for public visits twice a year. A 12 foot lava obelisk stands on the site of the blast. Residual radiation at the site is still about 10 times higher than normal.

Current public policy issues that began with Trinity (and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs several weeks later) are multiple. The test stands as the first "weapon of mass destruction" in history, proving that large-scale casualties could occur in just seconds. It also was a prototype for subsequent atom bomb tests; the U.S. and former Soviet Union conducted 422 atmospheric tests -- with the equivalent yield of 40,000 Hiroshima bombs. Not until the 1963 treaty signed by President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev were all tests consigned to below ground locations. Although virtually all tests worldwide ceased two decades ago, concern of a resurgence of nuclear tests and subsequent use in war by nations that do or don't have atomic weapons is still prevalent.

Another legacy of Trinity is nuclear waste. To produce material for the bomb, massive efforts to convert uranium to bomb-ready material took place at facilities in Oak Ridge Tennessee and Hanford Washington. These operations generated enormous amounts of over 100 radioactive chemicals, not found in nature, which served no purpose other than waste. The critical need to produce the bomb as fast as possible for national security purposes relegated safety and health to a secondary role, and large airborne releases of radioactivity were vented. Workers at Oak Ridge and Hanford also were exposed. While production of new nuclear weapons halted after the Cold War, the problem of safely storing waste from reactors is still a major concern.

The Trinity bomb also helped usher in an era of increased electricity generation from nuclear reactors, which use a controlled version of an atomic bomb explosion. With fears of nuclear war growing, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1953 "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations spawned the drive to build nuclear power reactors. Promises like that of energy "too cheap to meter," as stated by Atomic Energy Commission head Lewis Strauss, could be created by reactors initially caused a rush of construction. President Richard Nixon predicted the U.S. would eventually have 1,000 reactors. But extremely high costs of construction and operation, plus safety concerns epitomized by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl meltdowns, took the momentum from the nuclear expansion. Today, 104 reactors in the U.S. produce just 19 percent of the nation's electricity. No new reactors have been ordered since 1978.

The decades-long effort to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles has received considerable support from both democrats and republicans. Both are also committed to ensuring the control of nuclear materials to keep them out of the hands of "rogue" states that might otherwise develop, test, and employ atomic weapons.

But nuclear reactors are another story. Capitalizing on environmental concerns caused by carbon emissions, nuclear industry leaders have spent the better part of a decade pushing to keep aging reactors operating and to build new ones for the first time in over three decades. Finding little interest from Wall Street financiers for these projects long before the current economic downturn, these leaders turned to Washington instead.

And leaders of both parties have responded. The administration of George W. Bush proved very sympathetic, and did much to promote nuclear power. At Bush's urging, Congress passed a law in 2005 allotting $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees to underwrite the cost of construction new reactors. But since last year, President Barack Obama -- who repeatedly cautioned about nuclear environmental and health issues in his 2008 campaign -- has jumped on the bandwagon. Perhaps the most blatant of the Obama administration's efforts is his Energy Department's proposal to add another $36 billion in loan guarantees.

The same cocktail of 100-plus radioactive chemicals in the Trinity blast -- Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Plutonium-239 -- is produced by nuclear reactors. Each causes cancer, and is most harmful to the fetus, infant and child. The average nuclear plant stores the equivalent of hundreds of Trinity bombs as nuclear waste, and this waste must be kept out of the environment for thousands of years. President Obama should be applauded for his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation, but he shouldn't make a distinction between weapons and reactors. Both are children of that tremendous blast in New Mexico 65 years ago, and both must be controlled in the name of health and safety.

Samuel Epstein, M.D.
Professor emeritus of Environment and Occupational Medicine
University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
Author of the 2009 "Toxic Beauty," and the 2005 "Cancer-Gate: How to Win the Losing Cancer War" books.
Chicago, Illinois
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Joseph Mangano, MPH, MBA
Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project
Author of the 2007 Radioactive Baby Teeth: The Cancer Link
New York