Adam Higginbotham

At 8:16 a.m. on August 6, 1945, a fission weapon containing sixty-four kilograms of uranium detonated 580 meters above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and Einstein’s equation proved mercilessly accurate. The bomb itself was extremely inefficient: just one kilogram of the uranium underwent fission, and only seven hundred milligrams of mass—the weight of a butterfly—was converted into energy. But it was enough to obliterate an entire city in a fraction of a second. Some seventyeight thousand people died instantly, or immediately afterward—vaporized, crushed, or incinerated in the firestorm that followed the blast wave. But by the end of the year, another twenty-five thousand men, women, and children would also sicken and die from their exposure to the radiation liberated by the world’s first atom bomb attack.

3 thoughts on “Adam Higginbotham

  1. shinichi Post author


    Alpha, Beta, and Gamma

    Almost everything in the universe is made of atoms, fragments of stardust that compose all matter. A million times smaller than the width of a human hair, atoms are composed almost entirely of empty space. But at the center of every atom is a nucleus—unimaginably dense, as if six billion cars were crushed together into a small suitcase—and full of latent energy. The nucleus, formed of protons and neutrons, is orbited by a cloud of electrons and bound together by what physicists call “the strong force.”

    The strong force, like gravity, is one of the four principal forces that bind the universe, and scientists once believed it was so powerful that it made atoms indestructible and indivisible. They also believed that “neither mass nor energy could be created or destroyed.” In 1905 Albert Einstein overturned these ideas. He suggested that if atoms could be somehow torn apart, the process would convert their tiny mass into a relatively enormous release of energy. He defined the theory with an equation: the energy released would be equal to the amount of mass lost, multiplied by the speed of light squared. E=mc2.

    In 1938 a trio of scientists in Germany discovered that when atoms of the heavy metal uranium are bombarded with neutrons, their nuclei can, in fact, be broken apart, releasing nuclear energy. When the nuclei split, their neutrons could fly away at great speed, smashing into other nearby atoms, causing their nuclei to split in turn, releasing even more energy. If enough uranium atoms were gathered in the correct configuration—forming a critical mass—this process could begin sustaining itself, with one atom’s neutrons splitting the nucleus of another, sending more neutrons into a collision course with further nuclei. As it went critical, the resulting chain reaction of splitting atoms—nuclear fission—would liberate unimaginable quantities of energy.

    At 8:16 a.m. on August 6, 1945, a fission weapon containing sixty-four kilograms of uranium detonated 580 meters above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and Einstein’s equation proved mercilessly accurate. The bomb itself was extremely inefficient: just one kilogram of the uranium underwent fission, and only seven hundred milligrams of mass—the weight of a butterfly—was converted into energy. But it was enough to obliterate an entire city in a fraction of a second. Some seventyeight thousand people died instantly, or immediately afterward—vaporized, crushed, or incinerated in the firestorm that followed the blast wave. But by the end of the year, another twenty-five thousand men, women, and children would also sicken and die from their exposure to the radiation liberated by the world’s first atom bomb attack.


    Radiation is produced by the disintegration of unstable atoms. The atoms of different elements vary by weight, determined by the number of protons and neutrons in each nucleus. Each element has a unique number of protons, which never changes, determining its “atomic number” and its position in the periodic table: hydrogen never has more than one proton; oxygen always has eight; gold has seventy-nine. But atoms of the same element may have varying numbers of neutrons, resulting in different isotopes, ranging anywhere from deuterium (hydrogen with one neutron instead of two) to uranium 235 (uranium metal, with five extra neutrons).

    Adding to or removing neutrons from the nucleus of a stable atom results in an unstable isotope. But any unstable isotope will try to regain its equilibrium, throwing off parts of its nucleus in a quest for stability—producing either another isotope or sometimes a different element altogether. For example, plutonium 239 sheds two protons and two neutrons from its nucleus to become uranium 235. This dynamic process of nuclear decay is radioactivity; the energy it releases, as atoms shed neutrons in the form of waves or particles, is radiation.

    Radiation is all around us. It emanates from the sun and cosmic rays, bathing cities at high altitude in greater levels of background radiation than those at sea level. Underground deposits of thorium and uranium emit radiation, but so does masonry: stone, brick, and adobe all contain radioisotopes. The granite used to build the US Capitol is so radioactive that the building would fail federal safety codes regulating nuclear power plants. All living tissue is radioactive to some degree: human beings, like bananas, emit radiation because both contain small amounts of the radioisotope potassium 40; muscle contains more potassium 40 than other tissue, so men are generally more radioactive than women. Brazil nuts, with a thousand times the average concentration of radium of any organic product, are the world’s most radioactive food.

    Radiation is invisible and has neither taste nor smell. Although it’s yet to be proved that exposure to any level of radiation is entirely safe, it becomes manifestly dangerous when the particles and waves it gives off are powerful enough to transform or break apart the atoms that make up the tissues of living organisms. This highenergy radiance is ionizing radiation.

    Ionizing radiation takes three principal forms: alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. Alpha particles are relatively large, heavy, and slow moving and cannot penetrate the skin; even a sheet of paper could block their path. But if they do manage to find their way inside the body by other means—if swallowed or inhaled—alpha particles can cause massive chromosomal damage and death. Radon 222, which gathers as a gas in unventilated basements, releases alpha particles into the lungs, where it causes cancer. Polonium 210, a powerful alpha emitter, is one of the carcinogens in cigarette smoke. It was also the poison slipped into the cup of tea that killed former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

    Beta particles are smaller and faster moving than alpha particles and can penetrate more deeply into living tissue, causing visible burns on the skin and lasting genetic damage. A piece of paper won’t provide protection from beta particles, but aluminum foil—or separation by sufficient distance—will. Beyond a range of ten feet, beta particles can cause little damage, but they prove dangerous if ingested in any way. Mistaken by the body for essential elements, beta-emitting radioisotopes can become fatally concentrated in specific organs: strontium 90, a member of the same chemical family as calcium, is retained in the bones; ruthenium is absorbed by the intestine; iodine 131 lodges particularly in the thyroid of children, where it can cause cancer.

    Gamma rays—high-frequency electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light—are the most energetic of all. They can traverse large distances, penetrate anything short of thick pieces of concrete or lead, and destroy electronics. Gamma rays pass straight through a human being without slowing down, smashing through cells like a fusillade of microscopic bullets.

    Severe exposure to all ionizing radiation results in acute radiation syndrome (ARS), in which the fabric of the human body is unpicked, rearranged, and destroyed at the most minute levels. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, hemorrhaging, and hair loss, followed by a collapse of the immune system, exhaustion of bone marrow, disintegration of internal organs, and, finally, death.


    To the atomic pioneers who first explored “radiant matter” at the end of the nineteenth century, the effects of radiation were a bewitching curiosity. Wilhelm Roentgen, who discovered X-rays in 1895, saw the bones of his hand projected on the wall of his laboratory during the course of an experiment and was intrigued. But when he took the world’s first X-ray photograph shortly afterward, of his wife’s left hand—complete with wedding ring—the result horrified her. “I have seen my own death!” she said. Roentgen later took precautions to shield himself from his discovery, but others were not so careful. In 1896 Thomas Edison devised the fluoroscope, which projected X-rays onto a screen, allowing him to gaze inside solid objects. Edison’s experiments required an assistant to place his hands repeatedly on top of a box, where they were exposed to X-rays. When he sustained burns on one hand, the assistant simply switched to using the other. But the burns wouldn’t heal. Eventually surgeons amputated the assistant’s left arm and four fingers from his right hand. When cancer spread up his right arm, the doctors took that, too. The disease traveled to his chest, and in October 1904 he died, the first known victim of man-made radiation.

    Even as the damage caused by external exposure to radiation became apparent, the harmful effects of internal exposure remained little understood. Throughout the early years of the twentieth century, pharmacies sold patent medicines containing radium as a health tonic, drunk by people who believed radioactivity gave them energy. In 1903 Marie and Pierre Curie had won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of polonium and radium—an alpha-particle emitter, roughly a million times more radioactive than uranium—which they extracted from metric tonnes of viscous, tarry ore in their Paris laboratory. Pierre was killed in a road accident, but Marie continued exploring the properties of radioactive compounds until she died in 1934, probably due to radiation-induced bone marrow failure. More than eighty years later, Curie’s laboratory notes remain so radioactive that they are kept in a lead-lined box.

    Because radium can be mixed with other elements to make them glow in the dark, clock makers used it to create fluorescent numbers on watch faces and hired young women to perform the delicate task of painting them. In the watch factories of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois, the Radium Girls were trained to lick the tips of their brushes into a fine point before dipping them into pots of radium paint. When the jaws and skeletons of the first girls began to rot and disintegrate, their employers suggested they were suffering from syphilis. A successful lawsuit revealed that their managers had understood the risks of working with radium and get done everything they could to conceal the truth from their employees. It was the first time the public learned the hazards of ingesting radioactive material.

    The biological effect of radiation on the human body would eventually be measured in rem (roentgen equivalent man) and determined by a complicated combination of factors: the type of radiation; the duration of total exposure; how much of it penetrates the body, and where; and how susceptible those parts of the body are to radiation damage. The parts where cells divide rapidly—bone marrow, skin, and the gastrointestinal tract—are more at risk than other organs such as the heart, liver, and brain. Some radionuclides—such as radium and strontium—are more energetic emitters of radiation, and therefore more dangerous, than others, like cesium and potassium.

    The survivors of the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki provided the first opportunity to study the effects of acute radiation syndrome on a large number of people. They would eventually become the subject of a project spanning more than seventy years, creating a universal database on the longterm effects of ionizing radiation on human beings. Of those who lived through the initial explosion in Nagasaki, thirty-five thousand died within twenty-four hours; those suffering from ARS lost their hair within one or two weeks, and then experienced bloody diarrhea before succumbing to infection and high fever. Another thirty-seven thousand died within three months. A similar number survived for longer but, after another three years, developed leukemia; by the end of the 1940s, the disease would be the first cancer linked to radiation.

    The effect of ionizing radiation on both inanimate objects and living beings was explored extensively in the late 1950s by the US Air Force. As part of a government program to develop atomic-powered planes, Lockheed Aircraft built a water-cooled 10-megawatt nuclear reactor in a shielded underground shaft in the woods of North Georgia. At the touch of a button, the reactor could be raised from its shielding to ground level, exposing everything within a three-hundred-meter radius to a lethal dose of radiation. In June 1959 the Radiation Effects Reactor was brought up to full power and unsheathed for the first time, killing almost everything in the vicinity stone dead: bugs fell from the air, and small animals and the bacteria living in and upon them were exterminated, in a phenomenon the technicians called “instant taxidermy.” The effect on plants varied: oak trees turned brown, yet crabgrass remained strangely unaffected; pine trees appeared to be the hardest hit of all. The changes in objects caught in the reactor’s field seemed equally mysterious: clear Coca-Cola bottles turned brown, hydraulic fluid coagulated into chewing gum, transistorized equipment stopped working, and rubber tires became rock hard.

    As profound and terrible as exposure to ionizing radiation might prove for human beings, it’s rarely accompanied by any detectable sensation. A person might be bathed in enough gamma rays to be killed a hundred times over without feeling a thing.

    On August 21, 1945, two weeks after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Harry K. Daghlian Jr., a twenty-four-year-old physicist on the Manhattan Project, was conducting an after-hours experiment in Los Alamos, New Mexico, when his hand slipped. The test assembly he had built—a ball of plutonium surrounded by tungsten carbide bricks—went critical. Daghlian saw a momentary blue flash and was struck by a wave of gamma and neutron radiation amounting to more than 500 rem. He quickly disassembled the experiment, walked away, and admitted himself to medical care without visible symptoms. But radiation had killed him as surely as if he’d stepped in front of an oncoming train. Twenty-five days later, Daghlian slipped into a coma from which he never awoke—the first person in history to die accidentally from close exposure to nuclear fission. The New York Times attributed his death to burns sustained in “an industrial accident.”


    From the very beginning, the nuclear power industry has struggled to escape the shadow of its military origins. The first nuclear reactor ever built, assembled by hand beneath the bleachers of the University of Chicago’s disused football field in 1942, was the anvil of the Manhattan Project, the essential first step in creating the fissile material needed to forge the world’s first atomic weapon. The reactors that followed —built on a remote tract of land along the Columbia River in Hanford, Washington —were constructed solely to manufacture plutonium for use in the United States’ growing arsenal of atom bombs. The US Navy was responsible for choosing the reactor design subsequently used in almost every civilian power station in the country. The first nuclear plant constructed for civilian use in the United States was based on blueprints recycled from a planned atomic-powered aircraft carrier.

    In the USSR, the pattern was the same. The first Soviet atomic bomb—RDS-1, or “the Article,” as it was called by the men who built it—was detonated soon after dawn on August 29, 1949, on a test range 140 kilometers northwest of Semipalatinsk, on the steppes of Kazakhstan. The project, code-named Problem Number One, was led by Igor Kurchatov, a forty-six-year-old physicist with the whiskery, forked beard of a Victorian spiritualist, noted by his secret police minders for his discretion and political cunning. The bomb was a faithful copy of the Fat Man device, which had destroyed Nagasaki almost exactly four years earlier, and contained a core of plutonium produced in a reactor—known as reactor “A,” or “Annushka”—initially modeled on the ones in Hanford.

    Kurchatov had succeeded with the help of a handful of well-placed spies and information contained in the bestselling book Atomic Energy for Military Purposes —generously published by the US government in 1945 and speedily translated into Russian in Moscow. Nuclear work was the responsibility of the newly formed First Main Directorate and an “atomic politburo” overseen by Stalin’s sadistic henchman, Lavrenty Beria—head of the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB. From the start, the Soviet nuclear project was governed by principles of ruthless expedience and paranoid secrecy. By 1950, the First Main Directorate would employ seven hundred thousand people, more than half of whom were forced laborers—including, at one point, fifty thousand prisoners of war—working in uranium mines. Yet even when their prison sentences were complete, the Directorate packed these men and women into freight cars and shipped them into exile in the Soviet Far North, to prevent them from telling anyone what they had witnessed. Many were never seen again. And when Kurchatov’s team succeeded, Beria rewarded them in direct proportion to the punishment he had planned for them in the event of failure. Those that the secret police chief would have ordered immediately shot—Kurchatov himself and Nikolai Dollezhal, who designed the Annushka reactor—were instead awarded the state’s highest honor, the title Hero of Socialist Labor, along with dachas, cars, and cash prizes. Those who would merely have received maximum prison terms were instead granted the country’s next-highest honor, the Order of Lenin.

    By the time the Article exploded, Igor Kurchatov had already decided to begin work on a reactor dedicated to generating electricity. Development started in 1950 in a newly constructed closed city, Obninsk, two hours southwest of Moscow. There the same group of physicists who had built the Annushka reactor were set to work on a new one, this time intended to use the heat of fission to turn water into steam and power a turbine. Resources were scarce, and some in the nuclear program believed that a power reactor could never be practical. Only as a concession to Kurchatov’s prestige as the father of the bomb did Beria permit the project to proceed. It was not until the end of 1952 that the government signaled its commitment to nuclear power by naming a new design institute dedicated to creating new reactors: the Scientific Research and Design Institute of Energy Technology, known by its Russian acronym NIKIET.

    The following year, the USSR tested its first thermonuclear device—a hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more destructive than the atom bomb—and both emerging superpowers became theoretically capable of wiping out humanity entirely. Even Kurchatov was shaken by the power of the new weapon he had created, which had turned the surface of the earth to glass for five kilometers around ground zero. Less than four months later, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” address to the UN General Assembly, part of an attempt to mollify an American public facing a future now menaced by the specter of apocalypse. Eisenhower called for global cooperation to control the incipient arms race and tame the power of the atom for the benefit of mankind. He proposed an international conference to consider the issue. No one was especially surprised when the USSR publicly dismissed the idea as empty propaganda.

    But when the UN International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy finally convened in Geneva, Switzerland, in August 1955, the Soviet delegation arrived in force. It marked the first time in twenty years that scientists from the USSR had been permitted to mix with their foreign counterparts, and they delivered a propaganda coup of their own. They announced that, on June 27 the previous year, they had successfully connected their Obninsk reactor, designated AM-1, to the Moscow grid.

    It was the first reactor in the world to use nuclear power for civilian electricity generation, and the scientists christened it Atom Mirny-1—“Peaceful Atom-1.” At that moment, the first US nuclear power station, in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, was still more than two years from completion. Housed in a quaint stucco building with a tall chimney that could easily be mistaken for a chocolate factory, AM-1 generated only 5 megawatts—just enough to drive a locomotive—yet symbolized Socialism’s superior ability to harness nuclear power for the benefit of mankind. Its launch marked the birth of the Soviet nuclear energy industry and the start of a Cold War technological contest between the superpowers.

    Soon after the death of Stalin in 1953, Lavrenty Beria was arrested, imprisoned, and shot. The First Main Directorate was reconstituted and renamed. The new Ministry of Medium Machine Building—Ministerstvo srednego mashinostroyeniya, abbreviated in Russian to MinSredMash, or simply Sredmash—would now supervise everything connected with atomic energy, from uranium mining to bomb testing. Newly appointed Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev brought an end to the years of Stalinist repression, liberalized the arts, embraced high technology, and promised that True Communism—the workers’ Shangri-la of equality and plenty for all—would be achieved by 1980. To help modernize the Soviet economy and also reinforce his hold on power, Khrushchev personally promoted both space travel and nuclear technology.

    With the success of Atom Mirny-1, the physicists and their Party bosses glimpsed a panacea that would finally release the Soviet Union from the deprivation of the past and help it on the path to a brighter future. To the Soviet people, still rebuilding amid the devastation of World War II, the Obninsk reactor showed how the USSR could technologically lead the world in a way that benefited ordinary citizens, bringing heat and light into their homes. The physicists who worked on AM-1 received the Lenin Prize, and the power of the atom was hymned in magazine articles, films, and radio programs; the Ministry of Culture introduced elementary school courses teaching children the fundamentals of atomic energy and contrasting the peaceful aims of the Soviet nuclear program with the militaristic intentions of the United States. Alongside the cosmonauts and martyrs of the Great Patriotic War, according to historian Paul Josephson, the nuclear scientists became “near-mythic figures in the pantheon of Soviet heroes.”

    But the little reactor in Obninsk was not all that it seemed. The principles of its design had not originated with the imperatives of electricity generation but with the need to manufacture plutonium bomb fuel quickly and cheaply. The same team from the Ministry of Medium Machine Building who had built the Annushka reactor oversaw its construction. Its path to completion had been fraught with corrosion, leaks, and instrument failure. And it had first been developed to provide propulsion for nuclear submarines. Only when that proved impractical had the original code name behind its acronym AM—Atom Morskoy, or “Naval Atom”— been revised to suggest more innocent goals.

    It was also inherently unstable.



  2. shinichi Post author


    Friday, April 25, 5:00 p.m., Pripyat

    The afternoon of Friday, April 25, 1986, was beautiful and warm in Pripyat, more like summer than late spring. Almost everyone was looking forward to the long weekend leading into May Day. Technicians were preparing the grand opening of the city’s new amusement park, and families were filling their fridges with food for the holiday; some were engaged in the home improvement fad sweeping the city, hanging wallpaper and laying tiles in their apartments. Outside, the scent of apple and cherry blossom lingered in the air. Fresh laundry hung on the balconies on Lenina Prospekt. Beneath their windows, Viktor Brukhanov’s roses were in bloom: a palette of pink, red, and fuchsia.

    In the distance, the V. I. Lenin Atomic Energy Station, attended by the huge latticed power masts carrying high-tension cables to the switching stations, shone a brilliant white against the skyline. On the roof of the ten-story apartment building on Sergeant Lazarev Street, overlooking the central square, giant, angular white letters spelled out in Ukrainian the mellifluous propaganda jingle of the Ministry of Energy and Electrification: Hai bude atom robitnikom, a ne soldatom! “Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier!”

    Brukhanov, harried by work as usual, had left for the office at 8:00 a.m. and driven the short distance from the family apartment overlooking Kurchatov Street to the plant in the white Volga he used for official business. Valentina had arranged to take the afternoon off from her job in the plant construction offices to spend time with her daughter and her son-in-law, who had both driven over from Kiev to visit for the weekend. Lilia was already five months pregnant, and the weather was so good that the three of them decided to take a day trip to Narovlia, a riverside town a few kilometers over the border in Belarus.




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