11/06/2014 04:02 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

The Hydrogen Bomb Reaches Retirement Age

The hydrogen bomb turned sixty-two just the other day. The first one was exploded on November 1, 1952 at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The event was called Ivy Mike. "Ivy" was the name of the test operation and "Mike" was the particular test. The Mike shot was the first test of a "true" two-stage Teller/Ulam design, the basic configuration of a hydrogen bomb. "Teller/Ulam" refers to the bomb's inventors, physicist Edward Teller and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam.

The basic idea for a hydrogen bomb had been around for several years: You set off a regular atomic bomb, one that works by the fission (splitting) of heavy nuclei like Uranium-235 or Plutonium, which generates the millions of degrees (the "thermo" part of "thermonuclear") needed to ignite a fusion reaction. Fusion occurs when light elements, like hydrogen, are fused into heavier elements, like helium--with a massive release of energy. The basic concept is simple, but a workable design was elusive until Teller and Ulam got the idea of using radiation (not heat) from the fission bomb to implode the fusion fuel, compressing and heating it until it goes off with a very big boom.

The device used in the Mike test was not a bomb. A bomb has to be capable of being dropped. The fusion fuel used for Mike was liquid deuterium (deuterium is just a hydrogen atom with an extra neutron), which had to be kept close to absolute zero. With all the massive refrigeration equipment needed to maintain cryogenic temperatures, the whole apparatus was the size of a three-story house and weighed over eighty tons. As one wit sarcastically observed, the only way to deliver such a "bomb" would be by oxcart. Ivy Mike was an experiment to test the Teller/Ulam design. Would it work?

A film was made to record the historic event. In the film, the narrator, a paradigmatic 1950s fatherly type explains that we are about to witness a scientific experiment, one that will usher in the thermonuclear age. He pauses to light his pipe, a disarming and reassuring gesture. He then calls upon all who love their country to wish for the success of the experiment.

It worked. The yield of Ivy Mike was 10.4 megatons, the equivalent of simultaneously detonating over ten million tons of conventional high explosive. The yield was 800 times that of the Hiroshima "Little Boy" bomb that had killed 70,000 people on August 6, 1945. The Mike fireball expanded to three and a half miles and blasted a crater over a mile in diameter and over 150 feet deep. The small island of Elugelab, on which the Mike device had rested, was completely vaporized. The power of the blast created two new elements, einsteinium and fermium that had never existed before on Earth. The mushroom cloud reached a height of over 100,000 feet. One witness from thirty miles away was appalled by the heat from the blast, which grew and grew until he felt like he was holding his head in an open oven.

Ivy Mike was just the beginning. Sixteen months later, on March 1, 1954, at Bikini Atoll, the Castle Bravo test went off with an even bigger bang. The bang had been predicted to be between four and eight megatons. Instead, the bomb "ran away" to fifteen megatons and remains the largest detonation ever by the United States. The unexpectedly enormous explosion was terrifying and dangerous. The crew that had fired Bravo from a steel-reinforced concrete bunker over twenty miles away felt suddenly vulnerable as their shelter rocked and strained under the force of the stupendous blast. Worse, intensely radioactive fallout rained down on inhabited atolls to the east of Bikini and on a Japanese fishing boat, the ironically-named Lucky Dragon #5. Soon, the indigenous people living on the neighboring atolls and the Japanese crew began to develop the telltale signs of radiation sickness. Needless to say, the Japanese people were furious and the international press picked up the hue and cry.

But America had its H-bomb. The Russians soon followed, testing theirs in November 1955. Both sides now had weapons of unlimited destructive capacity. You can make an H-bomb as big as you like. On October 30, 1961 the Soviet Union exploded its "Tsar Bomb" of fifty megatons on the remote arctic island Novaya Zemlaya. They had originally planned to make it one hundred megatons, but scaled it back due to fears of fallout. The fifty megaton blast was sufficiently apocalyptic to frighten its creator, Andrei Sakharov, who became a leading antinuclear activist.

So, now that the H-bomb is at retirement age, is there any hope that it might actually be pensioned off, and relegated to the realm of defunct weapons with the crossbow, ballista, musket, and dreadnought? It is a beautiful thought, but I am not optimistic. Though stockpiles have been reduced, it is hard to imagine that the nations that possess them will give them up entirely.

Sixty two years is also enough time to grow complacent, and this is bad. We need to be afraid of nuclear weapons. It would be great if we could realize the fantasy of the late Harold Agnew, a leading physicist who had worked on both Ivy Mike and Castle Bravo. He suggested that every thirty years or so all world leaders should be gathered at some remote site. They should be stripped down to their underwear and made to stand about thirty miles from ground zero. Set off a multi-megaton bomb. Outfit them with dark goggles and let them see that flash "brighter than a thousand suns." Let them feel that furnace-like heat that builds and builds and won't shut off. Let them see and feel the shock wave as it hits like an earthquake. Let them see the blinded and burned birds knocked from the air.