The 50th anniversary of Starfish Prime: the nuke that shook the world

By Phil Plait | July 9, 2012 6:05 am

On July 9, 1962 — 50 years ago today — the United States detonated a nuclear weapon high above the Pacific Ocean. Designated Starfish Prime, it was part of a dangerous series of high-altitude nuclear bomb tests at the height of the Cold War. Its immediate effects were felt for thousands of kilometers, but it would also have a far-reaching aftermath that still touches us today.

In 1958, the Soviet Union called for a ban on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, and went so far as to unilaterally stop such testing. Under external political pressure, the US acquiesced. However, in late 1961 political pressures internal to the USSR forced Khrushchev to break the moratorium, and the Soviets began testing once again. So, again under pressure, the US responded with tests of their own.

It was a scary time to live in.

The US, worried that a Soviet nuclear bomb detonated in space could damage or destroy US intercontinental missiles, set up a series of high-altitude weapons tests called Project Fishbowl (itself part of the larger Operation Dominic) to find out for themselves what happens when nuclear weapons are detonated in space. High-altitude tests had been done before, but they were hastily set up and the results inconclusive. Fishbowl was created to take a more rigorous scientific approach.


Boom! Goes the dynamite

On July 9, 1962, the US launched a Thor missile from Johnston island, an atoll about 1500 kilometers (900 miles) southwest of Hawaii. The missile arced up to a height of over 1100 km (660 miles), then came back down. At the preprogrammed height of 400 km (240 miles), just seconds after 09:00 UTC, the 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead detonated.

And all hell broke loose.

1.4 megatons is the equivalent of 1.4 million tons of TNT exploding. However, nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from simple chemical explosives. TNT releases its energy in the form of heat and light. Nukes also generate heat and light, plus vast amounts of X-rays and gamma rays – high-energy forms of light – as well as subatomic particles like electrons and heavy ions.

When Starfish prime exploded, the effects were devastating. Here’s a video showing actual footage from the test, 50 years ago today:

As you can see, the explosion was roughly spherical; the shock wave expanding in all directions roughly equally since there is essentially no atmosphere at that height. Another video has many more views of the test; I’ve linked it directly to those sequences, but if you start at the beginning it’s actually an hour-long documentary on the test.


Nuke ‘em ’til they glow


One immediate effect of the blast was a huge aurora seen for thousands of kilometers around. Electrons are lightweight and travel rapidly away from the explosion. A moving electron is affected by a magnetic field, so these electrons actually flowed quickly along the Earth’s magnetic field lines and were dropped into the upper atmosphere. At a height of roughly 50 – 100 kilometers they were stopped by the atoms and molecules of Earth’s atmosphere. Those atoms and molecules absorbed the energy of the electrons and responded by glowing, creating an artificial aurora.

Heavy ions (atoms stripped of electrons) are also created in the blast, and get absorbed somewhat higher up in the atmosphere. The image here shows this glow as seen by an airplane moments after the nuclear explosion. The feathery filament is from the bomb debris, while the red glow may be due to glowing oxygen atoms; this tends to be from atoms higher than 100 km, so the glow is probably due to the heavy ions impacting our air.


Taking the pulse of a nuclear weapon

But the effects were far more than a simple light show. When the bomb detonated, those electrons underwent incredible acceleration. When that happens they create a brief but extremely powerful magnetic field. This is called an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. The strength of the pulse was so huge that it affected the flow of electricity on the Earth hundreds of kilometers away! In Hawaii it blew out hundreds of streetlights, and caused widespread telephone outages. Other effects included electrical surges on airplanes and radio blackouts.

The EMP had been predicted by scientists, but the Starfish Prime pulse was far larger than expected. And there was another effect that hadn’t been predicted accurately. Many of the electrons from the blast didn’t fall down into the Earth’s atmosphere, but instead lingered in space for months, trapped by Earth’s magnetic field, creating an artificial radiation belt high above our planet’s surface.

When a high-speed electron hits a satellite, it can generate a sort-of miniature EMP. The details are complex, but the net effect is that these electrons can zap satellites and damage their electronics. The pulse of electrons from the Starfish Prime detonation damaged at least six satellites (including one Soviet bird), all of which eventually failed due to the blast. Other satellite failures at the time may be linked to the explosion as well.

The overall effect shocked scientists and engineers. They had expected something much smaller, not nearly the level that actually occurred. Because of this, later high-altitude nuclear tests made by the US as part of Operation Fishbowl were designed to have a much lower yield. Although the explosion energies are still classified, it’s estimated they ranged from a few dozen to a few hundred kilotons, a fraction of the 1.4 megaton Starfish Prime explosion.


Ripples downstream

The long-term physical effects from the explosion died down after a few months, but the ramifications live on today. In 2010, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency issued a report called "Collateral Damage to Satellites from an EMP Attack", and I highly recommend reading it if you’ve gotten too much sleep lately. It details the effects of a high-altitude nuclear blast, and how one could be used to disable an entire country in one blow.

I am of the opinion that knowing is better than not knowing, even when the knowledge is terrifying. In this case, forewarned is forearmed. This EMP knowledge has been out there for decades, so the more we understand it, the better we may be able to use it to prevent damage from the bad guys from trying something like this.

And if I may distance myself from the horrifying political and dark human aspects of all this, there was much science learned. EMPs are fascinating, and don’t need nukes to occur. The Sun blasts out high energy particles and light during solar storms. In much the same way, these can damage our satellites and harm our astronauts in space.

Learning about them from Starfish Prime increased our understanding of the physics of EMPs, and also gave us insight into mitigating the effects. Interestingly, a nearby supernova or gamma-ray burst (a kind of super-supernova) would also have very similar effects, and could even directly affect our atmosphere. The good news is there are no potential supernovae or GRB progenitors close enough to hurt us. However, as our Sun orbits the galaxy, there may have been a time when one did go off nearby, millions or billions of years ago. There’s some thinking that the Ordovician extinction 440 million years ago – when the trilobites died out – may have been due to a nearby GRB. The evidence is sketchy for sure, but intriguing.


Lesson on the half-century anniversary

So what do we make of all this? What conclusions may be drawn?

The scientific conclusions are rather straight-forward — the existence of EMPs, the damage to satellites, the artificial aurorae and radiation belts — and have added to our knowledge.

But at what cost? I was alive and entering young adulthood at the end of the Cold War. I wasn’t born when Starfish Prime went off, but I do remember other tests, and I remember some of the nightmares I had as a kid about nuclear war. This wasn’t ancient history; it was just a few years ago. The concern over nuclear weapons is still real, as well it should be, even if the situation has evolved somewhat since then.

It may seem like madness now that there were two such huge powers (not including China, which was also a credible nuclear threat at the time) testing nuclear weapons on our own planet. Perhaps it was madness. Still, the idea of two enemies with such overwhelming capability to destroy each other and themselves is behind the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction — making it insane to attack, since it guarantees your own destruction.

That assumes one of the groups in questions doesn’t want to die. With some religious fanatics, that deterrent not only goes away, but actually becomes an instigation. That’s one reason I support reasoned, well-investigated intelligence efforts by governments. These efforts can be abused, of course, so we must be vigilant in watching the watchers. But there’s little doubt they’re needed. Bad guys are out there.

So I urge you, on this unhappy anniversary, to read more about the explosion that taught us so much about unexpected consequences, and to think about how fragile our existence can be — and why we must fight so hard for it.

I’ll leave you with one more thing. From an article I wrote in 2010, here is a video by Isao Hashimoto showing the location and information for every nuclear detonation on Earth. I titled it "What the hell were we thinking?"


Related Posts:

- Starfish Prime
- What the hell were we thinking?
- The Sun aims a storm right at Earth: expect aurorae tonight!
- WR 104: A nearby gamma-ray burst?

Comments (92)

  1. deirdrebeth

    Well if there is one tiny good thing to take from that video it’s that with all the bombs that have been dropped on the south western US/northern Mexico the fact that those areas are still livable means that “total annihilation” might be an overstatement.

    I actually like the summation on the video that starts at 12:01 – the month by month is fascinating (and horrifying) but once there are so many going off it’s hard to track who they belong too.

    I’m also curious about the UK dropping bombs in the US – were these joint experiments, or something else?

  2. fernando

    this is what they will comment in the future: ‘what a bunch of crazy bastards’

  3. That’s one reason I support reasoned, well-investigated intelligence efforts by governments.

    Well, there’s your problem. While individual humans may have those attributes, the evidence I am seeing from government entities sadly shows a distinct lack of those qualities. :(

  4. nathanbp

    FYI, you have a typo: It’s Isao Hashimoto, not Isao Hashimtot.

  5. Old Rockin' Dave

    @deirdrebeth:
    Very few of the bombs tested by the US were dropped by planes or launched on rockets. The majority were detonated originally in towers and later in underground shafts. Some of the earliest US tests took place in New Mexico, including the first one; later tests took place on Pacific islands, and in Nevada. Nuclear tests were never made in Mexico.
    With so many of the tests taking place within a fairly limited area, and many of those underground, it says little about survivability. Not only does a bomb destroy by blast and initial radiation, but the fallout would also spread by air and water and kill for weeks, months, even decades after – think Chernobyl but written many times larger. The anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldecott claimed that after every French nuclear test in the Pacific, infant mortality went up by 1% for a year. These were single small bombs detonated on a remote island. I was a kid in the early Sixties and I well remember protests about fallout. Strontium-90, a very nasty byproduct of nuclear explosions, is concentrated in cow’s milk and taken up by bones in preference to calcium. An all-out or very large nuclear war would probably make the survivors envy the dead.

  6. Martin

    @deirdrebeth: Yes, the British tests in the US were joint weapons development tests. After the UK was kicked out of the Manhattan project in 1946 (little known, but the Manhattan project was a joint US-UK-Canadian program), they started their own program, succeeding with the first bomb test in 1951. In 1958 they were able to build multi-MT thermonuclear weapons. That year, they made a new contract with the US to join their efforts. From that point on to today all British weapons were developed together with the US, todays British weapons are practically identical with the US W76 warhead.

    Regarding effects of those tests: These tests had limited yield and most of them were conducted underground. No surface test had a yield above 100kt in Nevada. They were conducted in a desert where nothing could burn, therefore very little ash was produced. The same is true for the high yield tests in the Pacific, where mostly water vapor was sent into the air. Firing such a weapon over a city or vegetated area is something completely else.

  7. Peter Davey

    As various recent surveys have shown, Chernobyl is not a barrent wasteland – indeed, some types of life seem to have flourished in the absence of man.

    There are also, I understand, still a considerable number of surviv0rs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki around, providing additional scientific data as to the survivability of nuclear weapons.

  8. Blorgh

    @ Old Rockin’ Dave
    Helen “Fukushima is orders of magnitude worse than Chernobyl” Caldicott? Helen “Chernobyl killed 1 million people” Caldicott?

    Atmospheric nuclear detonations are bad. Fission products like strontium-90 are nasty. A nuclear war would have global effects and be absolutely devastating for the entire human race. But don’t take any science advice from activists like Caldicott or Busby. The low dose effects they claim aren’t just contrary to established science, but ticks off pretty much every item on the “pathological science” checklist (see Wikipedia for the list).

  9. renke

    @deirdrebeth

    > I’m also curious about the UK dropping bombs in the US
    > – were these joint experiments, or something else?

    Uh, what else? It seems unlikely that those tests were some kind of nuclear attack…

  10. @ Peter Davey:

    I suspect most people consider a post-nuke apocalypse to mean the downfall of humans. That other varmints could survive, even thrive, post-homo, isn’t given much consideration.

    Quite frequently, I wonder if such an event wouldn’t be in the best long-term interests of the planet’s biosphere. (Not that I care to do anything more than wonder about such things.)

  11. Harald

    @Peter Davey – what’s happening around Chernobyl is complicated (and of course hard to study since the Ukraine keeps cutting funding and denying research expeditions), but there is evidence to suggest that population pressure is forcing wildlife from surrounding ‘safe’ areas into the high-radiation zone – where they then die, or at the very least, no longer have offspring.

  12. MikeR

    deirdrebeth asked ‘I’m also curious about the UK dropping bombs in the US – were these joint experiments, or something else?’

    Britain developed its own hydrogen bomb in Operation Grapple (1956-1958), but couldn’t really afford to join the arms race. Instead it used its nuclear know-how to enter into negotiations with the US. The UK would cease its own weapons programme, share its knowledge (and huge plutonium stockpile) in exchange for American technology and the American Skybolt and Polaris missiles.

    Britain went on to build nuclear warheads based on American designs and was allowed to test them underground in Nevada. It also contributed various technologies, mostly about countermeasures, to the US weapons programme. The cooperation continues today with Britain using American designed Trident missiles as its own nuclear deterrent. Britain has now ceased nuclear testing.

    The offshoot of the cancellation of the UK’s Blue Streak ICBM programme was that it went on to be Britain’s main satellite launch vehicle, eventually becoming part of the European Europa rocket. Sadly Britain pulled out of that consortium, so the French went ahead with the Ariane rocket and the rest is (profitable) history. Britain eventually launched one satellite, Prospero, on the tiny Black Arrow rocket in 1971 and then gave up on the space programme.

  13. Wzrd1

    One can actually date when a human lived by radioisotopes from nuclear weapons tests in their bones.
    As mentioned above, strontium 90 is one rather nasty isotope, with a natural affinity for bones.
    It’s also present in traces in every human since the first above ground tests of nuclear weapons.

    Also, the cancer rates in towns downwind of the above ground testing (and one below ground test that accidentally vented to the atmosphere) have been far higher than normal. That was only relatively recently acknowledged by the US government.

    The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ignored by both the US and the Japanese government for a generation. It’s only fairly recent that they have stopped being treated as objects of shame and instead treated as civilian victims of war.

    As far as nuclear weapons go, I started my military career working on them. I remember two occasions where we literally were well under a minute to launch.
    As far as I’m concerned, nuclear and thermonuclear weapons for defense is the national equivalent of using a hand grenade to defend one’s home from an armed intruder. It would be effective, but the home wouldn’t be a great place to live in any longer.

    One minor inaccuracy in the article is about China. China lacks the capability to project a global or even intercontinental threat with nuclear arms. Their missiles can only reach part of Russia. Their aircraft DO have longer range, but again, the threat in this modern world is minimal.
    Considering China’s technological abilities, one can only consider a lack of interest in participating in an arms race, as if one can put astronauts into orbit and safely return them to Earth, delivering a warhead is trivial (there are quite a few articles that link manned space exploration as a side branch of ballistic missile research).

    Of note, I was reading an article two days ago about Obama wishing to decommission more warheads, to a number of 1000 operational warheads and some discussion of a desire to move to a total of 500 operational warheads. That was sidelined, due to the upcoming elections.
    After all, MORE nuclear warheads wins elections or some other insanity.

  14. It isn’t just humans or animals that are affected. Pine trees are about as sensitive to radiation as humans are. If the forests of Canada and Russia are killed, they will burn coast to coast after baking in the summer sun. Soot from those fires will cause what is called “nuclear winter”.

    The initial radiation levels from the fission products are very high. In Chernobyl most of what was released had a long time to decay. It is rate of radiation exposure that kills people, more so than total dose.

  15. Renee Marie Jones

    I was a young child during the height of the Cold War. In first grade, we drilled on what to do during a nuclear attack. We had tests on how to survive in the rubble after we crawled from our bomb shelters. During the Cuban missile crisis we wondered if we were going to have to put that training to the test.

  16. Justin

    I wonder how bad it would have been if something like Tsar Bomba went off at that altitude. I imagine it would have been apocalyptic…

  17. Atmospheric bursts to take out ICBM’s…they could have just used a simulator… http://www.atari.com/missilecommand/

  18. Marina Stern

    Quick comment: I knew a man who served on a ship near a nuclear test site. At the end of his tour, his ship was so badly contaminated with radioactive fallout that it was cased in concrete and sunk. He proceeded to marry and attempt to have a family. His wife miscarried at least 10 times; one daughter lived less than a day. His one surviving child, a son, had a parasitic twin in his chest, and died of cancer in his early 30s.

    Nothing was ever proven, but the family strongly suspects the long-ago radiation exposure as the reason he couldn’t have the family he wanted.

  19. I’ve read a Russian source saying that a state commission was convened to investigate whether they needed to delay the Vostok 3/4 flights because of the lifetime of the added population of energetic particles even in LEO.

  20. Thing

    I title that animation ‘Stay Away From Vegas’

  21. Scott B

    “That’s one reason I support reasoned, well-investigated intelligence efforts by governments. These efforts can be abused, of course, so we must be vigilant in watching the watchers. But there’s little doubt they’re needed. Bad guys are out there.”

    Problem is, it’s impossible to watch the watchers. See Bradley Manning. So I think there’s great doubt on if they are needed. It’s very possible the watchers are far more harmful than the bad guys could ever be. Just in the last decade hundreds of thousands of people (well over a million) have been killed due to our wars.

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Risks are one thing, conjuring up scares another:

    “There’s some thinking that the Ordovician extinction 440 million years ago – when the trilobites died out – may have been due to a nearby GRB.”

    When they say “small minority” it means “forget it, there is no evidence” – which is exactly what the article says. Nuclear weapons are sufficiently risky all by themselves.

    @ Wzrd1:
    “I remember two occasions where we literally were well under a minute to launch.”

    This is anecdote, not statistics. Data or it hasn’t happened.

  23. It was a scary time to live in.

    It was.

    It still is.

    The Bombs are still out there.

    I have imagined what it would be like if They were Dropped so many times. As a child. As an adult. Even sometimes now.

    It scares me.

    I hope & expect I’d die quickly. And the same for those who I love.

    Yet I really don’t want to die. Or for those who I love to die.

    What it’d do to the planet and those who’d be left after.

    Yeah, its that that bad.

    We’re so complacant now. We’ve almost forgotten. Maybe that makes it more likely -paradoxically enough.

    The Bombs will always be with us, us humans, now.
    No putting the genie back in the bottle.

    We have the power of our Sun’s core to unleash at our pleasure or displeasure.

    Collective ‘we’, us humans, right hands, wrong hands, fallible hands. The looming button.

    Yes. We could drop a Bomb. Perhaps there are times when we even should drop a Bomb. To prevent others dropping it perhaps.

    Once or twice. A few cities. A country.

    Millions not billions of lives a better option.

    I think, realistically, that will probably happen. One day. Maybe. Inevitable?

    I have been to Hiroshima. Seen the Genbakendomu. The peace park, peace bell and museum. Seen the clothes schoolgirls wore when the First Bomb hit. Seen a eucalyptus, gum tree that survived the A-bomb. A comparitive firecracker to what we’ve got now. I read Sadako’s story about her thousand origami cranes and death as a boy so many decades ago. Hiroshima is flourishing now, reminding me very much of my own Australian home city. It was almost totally levelled worse. No worse than Tokyo or Dresden in WWII.

    Us humans. So powerful. So largely ignorant.

    Still mostly monkeys playing wth atoms and Higgs bosons and fire.

    What’s next?

    What we have the ability to do.

    Impresses and scares the hades out of me.

    May we and our children and their children and so forth for the indefinite future for so long be wise.

  24. Scott B

    I really do wish we had high def footage of these things. The grainy footage from the 50s and 60s adds a bit of unrealness (not sure the right word) to it.

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    I read Sadako’s story about her thousand origami cranes and death as a boy so many decades ago.

    See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadako_Sasaki

    &

    Hiroshima was almost totally levelled, worst destruction? No worse than Tokyo or Dresden in WWII. Firebombings. Or was it? Subtleties of horrors.

    See – and I highly recommend you read :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slaughterhouse-Five

    Genbakendomu.

    See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiroshima_Peace_Memorial

    Humanity. One scary paradoxical species.

    Such potential for so much in so many directions and aspects. Hope we keeping choosing wisely.

  26. DrEnter

    Worth mentioning that the excess radiation hanging around in LEO from this test also complicated manned space exploration and influenced the type of mission the moon landing would be. While the radiation actually dispersed before the Apollo program, they didn’t know if it would, or what the effects of continued testing would be, so they had to plan around it. Wired had a good story about it a while ago: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/starfishandapollo-1962/ (part of their excellent “Beyond Apollo” series).

  27. Blargh

    @ daedalus2u
    Got a source for that concern? While a nuclear war would undoubtedly start wildfires, which together with together with the burning cities would cause nuclear winter, those would be caused directly by the nuclear detonations themselves. I very much doubt that enough radioactivity would be spread globally to effect mass death of trees. And if it was, we’d have bigger problems than nuclear winter. :)

    For the radiosensitivity of pine and other trees, see e.g. UNSCEAR 2008 Volume II Annex E: “Effects of Ionizing Radiation on Non-Human Biota” (like all the UNSCEAR reports, freely available online – something that’s sadly all too rare in the field):

    “The pine tree was the most sensitive, experiencing mortality following short-term absorbed doses [note: approximate mean doses averaged over the whole plant] of about 10 Gy [W5]; growth was severely inhibited at 50-60% of the lethal dose. Floral inhibition was observed at 40-50% of the lethal dose, and failure to set seed at 25-35%. Thus, the capacity of the plant population to maintain itself could be damaged at acute doses lower than those required to cause mortality. Below 10% of the lethal dose, effects were not so apparent and the plants maintained a normal appearance.
    [...]
    Chronic dose rates at or below 400 µGy/h (10 mGy/d) should have only slight effects on sensitive plants but would be unlikely to produce any significant deleterious effects on the wider range of plants present in natural plant communities.”

    TL;DR: fallout capable of killing off trees will be killing us off before that.

  28. RAF

    I clicked the “start from the beginning”, and all I get is a STUPID SURVEY which I can’t make go away…

    Thanks for the spam…

  29. Bob

    I like how “Mutually Assured Destruction” can be shortened to MAD.

  30. BCFD36

    “It may seem like madness now that there were two such huge powers (not including China, which was also a credible nuclear threat at the time) testing nuclear weapons on our own planet. ”

    In 1957, Issac Azimov wrote a very short story called “Silly Asses” concerning nuclear testing on the planet. It is worth the two minutes to read it.

    D. Scruggs

  31. SLC

    Even more spectacular was the 57 megaton bomb, the “Tsar Bomb” exploded by the former Soviet Union in 1961.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlVPYsix9Z4

  32. Bags

    RAF, you clicked something else, that’s not the fault of Phil. The Starfish Prime video is just a youtube video, and all you do is, well, start at the beginning of a youtube video. Your survey problem is not related to this site.

  33. south australian

    Although not an atmospheric test, the British were also conducting tests at Maralinga, in South Australia, at about this time. Of particular note is the “kittens” tests in 1963 where a weather miscalculation lead to a fallout cloud moving over Adelaide.

    This test was in early 1963. I was born later in 1963, and suffered a significant cancer event when I was 15. Was there a relationship? I will probably never know.

  34. Ben

    What the hell did they think they could learn with the 1,001st nuclear test that they hadn’t learned in the previous thousand?

  35. Tehanu

    My family lives in California. My younger brother, who was 6 in 1962, developed leukemia when he was 14, and I’ve always wondered about the fallout from those Pacific tests. Fortunately he was cured — an early chemotherapy success — but I wouldn’t wish what he went through on anybody.

  36. Douglas G Danforth

    I was there!
    I was 18 and our family waited on ‘Round Top’ a mountain overlooking Wikiki and Honolulu. There had been many bomb parties that week but the launch had been delayed due to bad weather. We waited patiently listing to a portable radio and were told the rocket had been launched. It took a long time (10 minutes) before the blast occurred. We were told that ‘maybe’ we would see an aurora 45 degrees away from the blast but … when it went off you could not have missed it with your back turned! The skies were partly cloudy in the late afternoon but the whole sky lit up, white! Then blue, then green, then yellow, shrinking from the full sky back down to a hand size region. It turned red and then blood red and started to slowly expand back outward. As it expanded it faded. It was gone after about 5 minutes. The initial blast out and back was quick. About 5 seconds. The radio station we had been listening to went silent. As we drove back down the mountain with the rest of the bomb viewers it was very quiet. No gaiety. Everyone was very subdued. We learned later that some people who had been playing cards in their house with the shades drawn said ‘what was that!?” when the bomb went off.
    Very scary stuff.

  37. Dr. Strangelobe

    Has anyone seen “Mant”?

    “Half Man- Half Ant – All Terror!”

    A movie set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, about a boy having nightmares about Commie nukes (useage of A-test footage, houses being blown away, and Hawk missile batteries being set up on the town beach), and a Roger Corman-oid movie producer (played by John Goodman) touring an atomic-mutant-horror flick.

    It’s funny and scary at the same time.

  38. Dr. Strangelobe

    In re: @36:

    Whoops! Error! Error! Eerrrorrrr!

    The movie is actually called ‘Matinee’, the monster-movie-within-a-movie is called ‘Mant.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matinee_(film)

  39. Gaz

    Does anyone remember the doomsday clock from the 70s and 80s? The TV movie “The Day After”? I do and those things scared the hell out of me. When I was a kid I was convinced (as I suspect many others were) that nuclear war was an inevitability. I was convinced that at some point we’d all be looking for some underground shelter somewhere to live for several years until it was safe.

    I was ecstatic when that wall came down.

    I can’t imagine what today’s kids thought was happening on 9/11. If that had happened back in my day it would have been the beginning of the end I’m sure.

  40. Thomas Booker

    Geez, hate the fact that the possibility was discredited by New Gingrich’s raising the issue, but how thoroughly would an EMP attack on continental North America, or Europe paralyze the national infrastructure? Some honkin’ big nukes launched as innocent research satellites, detonated when reaching a geodetically perfect configuration over the edges of a country…

    Wow!

    Paranoia strikes deep! Internet servers go down, not to come up for a long time, cell phones get killed, power and other utilities go down for a long long time, cars get zapped and won’t run, it will be impossible to buy Big Macs…

    Let’s just keep being nice to the Chinese and the Russkies…

  41. Old Rockin' Dave

    @Blorgh #8:
    While Helen Caldicott seems to be an alarmist, the work of others is harder to wave away. I discount Ernest Sternglass because he made unwarranted assumptions, although some, including Freeman Dyson, felt that he was at least pointing in the right direction. Alice Stewart is a little harder to dismiss, and her work showing a correlation between fallout levels and infant mortality is widely accepted as sound. I am not aware of who Busby is, or was.
    By the way, I forgot to say that the estimate was a 1% increase in infant mortality around the Pacific rim for the year following each of the French tests. This is quite in line with Alice Stewart’s figures.
    @ Peter Davey, #7:
    Yes, there are survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki alive even today, but those were very low yield bombs, tactical nukes by current standards. This is not the same thing as an all-out exchange with hundreds or even thousands of warheads, most of which are far more powerful. If the majority of major cities in North America, Europe, and China were destroyed the death toll would extend far beyond those killed by the effects of the bombs. Nuclear winter and radiation would cause massive crop failures, among other things. The loss of transportation, financial institutions, government and corporate offices, universities, major hospitals, industrial plants, and so on, would quickly lead to widespread economic and societal collapse, which would kill many millions more, albeit indirectly.

  42. Nick L

    31. SLC Said: “Even more spectacular was the 57 megaton bomb, the “Tsar Bomb” exploded by the former Soviet Union in 1961.”

    Actually, it’s now universally agreed that it was only a 50 megaton blast. But then, what’s a seven megaton error in your favour when it’s your enemys who are saying it.

    That said, what really makes it spectacular is that the bomb design was actually capable of producing a 100 megaton blast (the practical maximum yield for a nuclear weapon with massive amounts of fallout to go with it) and it was a deliverable weapon

  43. j.england

    The slight mention of China seems to suggest that they have little potential or threat. Yet most people now believe they can reach most of the world, including the US, are accelerating their performance rapidly, and have unusual activities in the 2nd Artillery that suggest far more advancement. Especially after the recent space launches it would be most unwise to underestimate them, and really stupid to think that they are passive. Their unannounced ICBM launch several years ago to demonstrate an anti-sat capability was upsetting to even their own civilian leadership, plus a secret ICBM launch anywhere in the world puts everybody on full alert – hardly responsible.

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @40. Gaz :

    Does anyone remember the doomsday clock from the 70s and 80s?

    Yes indeed I do.

    Actually as wikipedia notes here :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Doomsday_Clock

    & as you can see here :

    http://www.thebulletin.org/content/doomsday-clock/timeline

    The Doomsday clock is still around and currently reads five minutes to midnight (11:55pm) — latests change made on the 10th of January 2012. Time has been standing still on that clock* – closest we’ve been is two minutes to midnight (Doomsday!) and furthest 17 minutes.

    The TV movie “The Day After”? I do and those things scared the hell out of me.

    Not sure if I recall that one exactly but reading books about it such as the SF post apocalypse novel Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence among others. Seeinga play by a group of my high school classmates imagining the nuclear armageddon. Yeah, those had me scared silly too.

    See : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_the_Dust_(novel)

    When I was a kid I was convinced (as I suspect many others were) that nuclear war was an inevitability. I was convinced that at some point we’d all be looking for some underground shelter somewhere to live for several years until it was safe.

    Yes. I didn’t think I’d survive a nuclear war and as ittryusn out I almost certainly wouldn’t have. Adelaide having a reserach facility or two that would’ve been targeted.

    I was ecstatic when that wall came down.

    Memories. The whole world chagned ina the space of a year or less. 1989. So much seemed possible and optimistic then. Where did the “peace dividend” and international co-operation go? Guess it wa snever really realistic but for a short space of time .. Sigh.

    +++++

    * Okay, nobody put new batteries in it and make it run at the usual pace! Okay, please! This is one clock we don’t want to see moving at the chronologically accurate speed! ;-)

  45. The Blue Rider

    I recall an interview with somebody who worked at the periphery of the Starfish Prime test – I believe he was at a monitoring station somewhere a long ways away, maybe Midway? Hawaii? – who actually decided to quit the military after seeing the test. Paraphrasing, he had a “Just WTF *are* we doing???” moment when he saw the sky light up from thousands of miles away. I want to say the interview was in the NY Times or LA times a couple of years ago.

    I actually feel the same way about all of this nuclear stuff… What the hell were people thinking? (answer: they weren’t.) I understand there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, and technology always progresses, but when you get to the point where you’ve got tens of thousands of Holocaust in a Can just lying around, waiting to be used, it’s time for a head check.

    The physics of these things is fascinating, and deep down, every man’s inner Little Boy likes seeing something go “boom”, but that’s about where my admiration for the whole phenomenon ends.

  46. gishzida

    For the only non-classified paper that was published at the time “Distant Electromagnetic Observations of the High-Altitude Nuclear Detonation of July 9, 1962″ see The American Geophysical Unions archive at: http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/1963/JZ068i006p01781.shtml

    My father was one of the authors. He was an engineer working with a group of space scientists who were studying the Earth’;s magnetic fields. He thought this event was an interesting opportunity and setup a “laboratory” at home with a specially designed antenna to allow him to “record” the event. The resulting paper was the only non-classified paper that was published since no US Government funds were used to perform the work.

  47. Joe Rocket

    Funny how many people inferred from the article that bombs were dropped on the United States. Funny that the scary pictures didn’t point that out. Well that would make them less scary.

    There was a time in this country when science was less politicized.

    We could make the problem go away tomorrow by changing the name to Marshmellow bomb. No one would be scared and we could actually use science and math to deal with a technology instead of hysteria.

  48. Krylon

    Operation Fishbowl sure provided some spectacular pictures, but no picture is pretty enough to outweigh the threat nuclear weapons have been for almost 70 years now.
    Looking at how close the cold war came to getting really hot on more than one occasion is really scary.
    I’m not a religious person at all, but even I find it hard to accept that mankind was just *that* lucky.

  49. don gisselbeck

    The Atomic Bomb movie has a lot of cleaned up footage of nuclear blasts.
    http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dr35asjvUSGE&v=r35asjvUSGE&gl=GB
    The DVD is, of course, much better. They are terrifyingly beautiful.

  50. The EMP effects in Hawaii were not significant. The streetlights that went off were likely ones that were controlled by photosensors. According to reports at the time (I was there) the lights went back on as the glow from the detonation subsided.

    I conducted my own EMP test of HF communications. Prior to detonation I found a California based VOA station near the same frequency as the countdown coming from Johnston Island the launch site of the Thor missile, 700 nm away. At the moment of detonation there was less than a second of static. I switched to the VOA station and back to “April Weather” the callsign for the countdown. Both remained loud and clear with no dropouts.

    Traffic continued to roll by on Kam Highway, it didn’t affect ignition systems.

    The sky was overcast so the point of detonation was not visible. But the sky instantly lit up in a brilliant chartreuse (yellow-green) color. It was much brighter than the brightest full moon. In about 4 or 5 minutes the edges of fading chartreuse turned into a deep crimson (blood red) and eventually all the chartreuse turned red and after about 10 minutes faded out.

    I think the worries of EMP damage are overblown, but not the desructive power of a 1.4 megaton blast.

  51. Nigel Depledge

    Renke (9) said:

    @deirdrebeth

    > I’m also curious about the UK dropping bombs in the US
    > – were these joint experiments, or something else?

    Uh, what else? It seems unlikely that those tests were some kind of nuclear attack…

    Oh, man, the jig is up.

    Yes, the UK tried to instigate a nuclear war with the USA. Fortunately, the USA did not notice. Also fortunately, once the British government learned about Walt Disney, we gave up. You guys can keep him.

    [j/k]

  52. Jesrad

    I think Gaz is refering to the TV movie “Threads” produced by the BBC in 1984 : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threads

  53. Dr.Sid

    Well .. nuclear holocaust can show that science was bad idea after all. So far we’re holding .. and the benefits are tremendous. But it all can be erased in one afternoon.
    And don’t say cold war is over .. it’s not, as long as the nukes exist.

  54. JB of Brisbane

    @Tehanu #35 – I seem to remember reading something about a link between childhood leukaemia and the pelvic X-ray examinations that pregnant women were given in the past as a standard procedure. You’ll notice this isn’t done any more. Since the late seventies, pelvic X-ray examinations have been supplanted by ultrasound scans.

  55. Pete UK

    @40 Gaz

    In the UK we had “Threads” – a BBC docudrama about the effects of a world-wide nuclear exchange on everyday folk in the city of Sheffield. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQo0BQM3OlQ

    It has been said that it makes “The Day After” look like the teddybears’ picnic. That’s probably because it paints a picture of absolutely no hope whatsoever.

  56. lokster

    This, once again proves that the country which is the biggest danger to the world’s well being is USA (since the Russia is now a shadow of it’s former self…).
    Sorry, but from my part of the world, this is the way I see it.

  57. Nigel Depledge

    Nick L (43) said:

    That said, what really makes it spectacular is that the bomb design was actually capable of producing a 100 megaton blast (the practical maximum yield for a nuclear weapon with massive amounts of fallout to go with it) and it was a deliverable weapon

    Not really. If you look up Tsar Bomba on wikipedia, you get (inter alia) interesting details like the fact that the design was scaled back to 50 Mt because initial calculations for the 100 Mt design had the blast destroying the drop ‘plane (also the lower yield gave less fallout to fall on Soviet territory). The 100 Mt design was not really a deliverable weapon as even the 50 Mt design weighed 27 tonnnes (although the 100 Mt design would not have been twice the weight, as the way they reduced the yield was to replace the uranium tamper with lead, so the 100 Mt design would probably only have been a few tonnes more).

  58. Armando

    “Problem is, it’s impossible to watch the watchers. See Bradley Manning. So I think there’s great doubt on if they are needed. It’s very possible the watchers are far more harmful than the bad guys could ever be. Just in the last decade hundreds of thousands of people (well over a million) have been killed due to our wars.”

    If nuclear weapons can kill billions (as opposed to a comparatively paltry million killed on account of faulty intelligence), then we may not have a choice…

  59. There’s some thinking that the Ordovician extinction 440 million years ago – when the trilobites died out – may have been due to a nearby GRB.

    Only two of the nine orders of trilobites, the agnostids and ptychopariids, died out during the end Ordovician extinction. The Devonian extinction wiped all the remaining orders except the proetids which finally perished during the Great Dying at the end of the Permian.

  60. mike burkhart

    I have said I am opposed to any use of nucler wepons,and your right we can’t put the genie back in the bottle unless you ban teaching of Physics,burn all books mentioning the subject and muder all who study it then in 10or20 years no one will know what a nucler wepon is or how to build one this I think everyone will agree is to extream , and I can’t condone muder or cenership. The only way I see to stop buildup of nucler wepons is to controll the radioactive meterial needed for them.I think we should ban reactors that enrich urainum and can produce pltonium, if no one can get there hands on this they can’t build nucler wepons.

  61. Tony

    The particles from nuclear testing probably impacted baby boomers, causing their children to have autism, etc.

  62. MaDeR

    @deirdrebeth : You cannot distinguish between bomb test and actual use of nuclear weapon in war. Good grief. Maybe ask some Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors how it was fun, eh?

    @Dr.Sid: “nuclear holocaust can show that science was bad idea after all”
    Such far reaching statement deserves just as general response: go away to cave, hipocrite.

    @lokster: I understand in your reality China vanished from map.

  63. Phil

    “because initial calculations for the 100 Mt design had the blast destroying the drop ‘plane” ..

    That doesn’t technically make it non-deliverable. Just ask Hamas.

  64. If Starfish Prime had not taken place, we might not know how dangerous EMPs are … and the next Carrington event might destroy civilization.

    Maybe that’s what they were thinking, not about the specific danger but that we should have our eyes open.

    What experiments should we be doing today that we aren’t because of the people who keep asking “What were they thinking?”?

  65. Howard Bowman, MD

    The Chinese have had a credible ICBM with 13000km (8077 sm) range since the 1980′s, the DF-5, and a solid fuel MIRV’d (10 warhead) ICBM with 14,000 km (8700 sm) range, the DF-41.

    Anyone who thinks they aren’t a potential threat is wrong.

    And Helen Caldicott is an embarrassment to physicians.

  66. myth buster

    Might as well add Masashi Kishimoto’s [I]Naruto[/I] to the list of fictional stories intended to teach a lesson about nuclear war, in this case the specific matter of the generation that has seen nuclear weapons used in anger dying off, causing humanity to forget just how powerful they really are, and use them again.

    To Scott B.’s point, remember that Fascism and Communism killed over 100 million people last century, mostly among their own people. War is indeed terrible, but sometimes it’s the least bad option.

  67. Nick L

    68. Joseph Hertzlinger Said: “What experiments should we be doing today that we aren’t because of the people who keep asking “What were they thinking?”?”

    Project Orion should jump to everyone’s mind right about now.

    And continuing the theme of “What were they thinking?”, it’s worthwhile to watch PBS’ Secrets of the Dead episode The World’s Biggest Bomb:
    http://video.pbs.org/video/1923035514/

    60. Nigel Depledge Said: “The 100 Mt design was not really a deliverable weapon as even the 50 Mt design weighed 27 tonnnes (although the 100 Mt design would not have been twice the weight, as the way they reduced the yield was to replace the uranium tamper with lead, so the 100 Mt design would probably only have been a few tonnes more).”

    That would depend on whether it was possible to improve the yield to mass ratio if they had weaponized the design. The US B41 bomb suggest that it was possible though there were very few cities large enough in the 1960′s to justify the expense of deploying such a weapon; possibly only New York if any.

    But ultimately, even though the drop plane had to be modified to carry the Tsar bomb, it was still air dropped in contrast to many of the US’ high yield tests.

  68. Wzrd1

    What is ironic is, today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Telstar 1. Launched the day after Starfish Prime and eventually destroyed by the new artificial radiation belt from the tests.

    @62, Armando, Bradley Manning was not one who watches the watchers, that job belongs to congress and the president. NOT some lowly private who releases classified information to foreign persons for publication out of revenge for pending separation from the military.

    @69, Howard Bowman, that still doesn’t place the warheads with a global reach. Indeed, much of the US is out of those missiles range. That said, the PRC *IS* known to be working to field an ICBM with a reach that can cover the globe.

    @68, Joseph Hertzlinger, Starfish Prime was designed to create an EMP, as the phenomena was already known from atmospheric bursts. What was unexpected was the severity of the EMP when detonation occurred in space.

  69. Gordon

    @Ben and anybody else wondering why so many tests,
    It is necessary to make sure your operational weapons still actually function, so a certain number for a given time period are swapped out from thier delivery vehicle and detonated.
    It also serves to remind any would be attackers that you still have working units.

    And yup if all the pine forests were dying then so would we be, but that is a rather anthropocentric view of things. Does nothing living have any value other than to serve humans?

  70. Infinite123Lifer

    I just do not know enough about this stuff to watch the “what the hell were we thinking video” without thinking anything but “what the hell were we thinking”. And with The Federation of American Scientists estimating 19,000 nuclear warheads in the world with 4,400 of those estimated being kept in “operational status” . . . I again, don’t know enough about the benefits of thermonuclear testing to think anything but “what the hell ARE we thinking.”

    @49Joe Rocket said:

    “Funny how many people inferred from the article that bombs were dropped on the United States. Funny that the scary pictures didn’t point that out. Well that would make them less scary.
    There was a time in this country when science was less politicized.
    We could make the problem go away tomorrow by changing the name to Marshmellow bomb. No one would be scared and we could actually use science and math to deal with a technology instead of hysteria.”

    I can’t tell if your joking but in all reality just because nuclear bombs were not dropped on the United States in wartime does not make them “less scary”. Same goes for your ridiculous suggestion to rename it the Marshmellow Bomb. Call it whatever you want it does not take away the fact that WMD’s produce hysteria and rightfully so. Not that any of your post made sense but your last sentence there is critically flawed. You make no sense.

    @7PeterDavey said:

    “As various recent surveys have shown, Chernobyl is not a barrent wasteland – indeed, some types of life seem to have flourished in the absence of man.”

    The more I read about what is going on there today with Mother Nature the more confused I get. Here is an interesting little note on the wikitravel Chernobyl page:

    “NOTE: Stay on roads, the radiation levels on areas covered by vegetation are significantly higher. Even more important, the risk for contamination when walking amongst vegetation is higher because it is more difficult to avoid touching or inhaling anything. Radiation ends when you leave the place, but you don’t want radioactive elements inside your body.
    Follow common sense if you are on your own; if you see an area marked with a radiation sign, the meaning is clear: DON’T GO THERE.”

    Last time I checked no plants or animals can read or for that matter carry geiger counters and there is a significant issue with drinking water there as well. Also, who knows how the deep future of these species might be affected. Until humans move back and say its safe permanently I will still carry doubts about how well species are “thriving” or “flourishing”. In the long run population is not as important as the health of that population me thinks. Good luck to many of those species on fulfilling an untainted rate of extinction, with or without humans in the area.

    _____

    Also, whoever puts the music to these nuclear bomb videos should . . . eh . . . strontium 90 . . . eh . . . well never mind, theres already enough tragedy in the world, just stop matching such ridiculous music with such epic video please.

  71. Kaleberg

    In the late 70s and 80s, nuclear underground tests were being used to calibrate the simulations. I knew people at Los Alamos, and there was a big emphasis on “bomb code” work, as it was understood that all testing would end at some point. There was also work on controlling the precise output of the bomb, hence the work on the neutron bomb, but the idea was that you could focus the energy release into a particular frequency range. In fact, a closely related goal was to build a high energy x-ray laser that could be used for research, fabrication, or as a weapon. The device would be excited by a nuclear detonation and produce a powerful, coherent x-ray pulse. These were pretty crazy times. I knew some of this based on accounts from friends working at Lawrence Livermore Labs, home of Edward Teller, the “dark lord”. Some of the craziness inspired the film Real Genius, which is rather sexist, but otherwise a real hoot. They dropped the nuclear stuff, but captured the atmosphere of the place. (Oh my god, that was a Martha Coolidge film. She was a always a big testosterone movie maker.)

  72. Nigel Depledge

    Phil (67) said:

    “because initial calculations for the 100 Mt design had the blast destroying the drop ‘plane” ..

    That doesn’t technically make it non-deliverable. Just ask Hamas.

    True, but the 50 Mt design weighed 27 tonnes and the drop plane had to be stripped down to carry it, so the 100 Mt design (which would have been a few tonnes heavier) would have been too large for the plane to carry.

  73. Scott B

    @70 myth buster: Of course war is sometimes needed. How do we as citizens that are supposed to be responsible for our government and elect the right representatives supposed to determine when it’s needed though? We just got drug into a long bloody (at least for Iraqis) war based on claims from the government that appear to be wrong. We were also drug into a long bloody war in Vietnam over an alleged attack that may not have happened. Fact is, we can’t determine when wars are justified. Most information is classified until well after it matters.

  74. Scott B wrote:

    We were also drug into a long bloody war in Vietnam over an alleged attack that may not have happened.

    Sir, you are confusing an incident that provided the impetus for the USA to up hold its treaty obligations under SEATO. The USA was a signatory to that treaty; the Viet Cong were waging an aggressive campaign: supplied by North Vietnam; supplied by the USSR.

    That war was a validation of Kennan’s hypothesis(google “the long telegram”). The Soviets might have won the battle, but we- the West- won the war.

  75. To Dr. Plaitt: Sir, I would suggest Churchill’s “The Second World War”…
    Before I read it, I was a pacifist, now, I am a realist!

  76. I loved the video at the end, even if they did leave out the Israeli’s tests (yeah, the Iranians aren’t the only radical religious country in that area with nukes which might be in violation of the IAEA).

  77. HardThing

    “There is a tide in the affairs of men.
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
    On such a full sea are we now afloat,
    And we must take the current when it serves,
    Or lose our ventures.”

  78. Themos Tsikas
  79. Dave

    If there was such a strong EMP, I’m surprised there’s video of the event. I would have expected the camera taking the video to have suffered damage. Was this an older-school hand-crank camera? My guess is no, but that might answer the question.

    Thoughts?

  80. tjane30

    So no one believes that this may have been the start of global warming?

  81. Len F

    I thought everyone knew about EMP after Goldeneye.

  82. Chris

    Could extraterrestrials have seen this blast and learn of our civilization that way? Would the effects of the blast be different enough from naturally occurring cosmic phenomena for them to conclude that it was created by an intelligent life form? Or to put it another way could we learn of the existence of aliens from them doing similar tests?

  83. Paul A.

    I have been trying to find more detailed information about what Soviet Union nuclear attack targeting would have looked like when there were many more weapons to use, like in the eighties. When I look at the Civil Defense maps all I can see is broad descriptions of the targets like, Cleveland, Toledo, ect. I know now a target area like Cleveland had dozens of weapons aimed at it and I wanted see that. I live in the county next to Cleveland and wonder what our targets where, though I can well guess.

    I consider myself as a survivor of the Cold War. I was too young to be scared by the Cuban Missile Crisis, but was pretty nervous when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Years ago I never thought I would see Berlin Wall come down without World War III first.

  84. Katie

    You can argue this and argue that. It still all boils down to the FACT that hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers were exposed repeatedly to toxic levels of fallout from whatever sources, in the womb and during their early childhood years. Radiation affects young children (including babies in the womb) and the elderly much worse than it does the other general population. I found documentation that fallout came over my town several times when my mom was pregnant with me in 1955. It makes me sad and mad that I now have thyroid problems and probably a much higher risk for any kind of cancer because of dumb decisions made years ago.

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