Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

7-16 Trinity Anniversary


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- According to an inscription at the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, The United States dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki to see if it worked.

      Wrong. The United States had exploded a plutonium bomb over New Mexico three weeks earlier to see if it worked. It did. So on July 16 we celebrate the 62nd anniversary of the world's first atomic explosion -- right here in New Mexico.

      The development of that bomb had begun an amazingly short two years earlier on a hill northwest of Santa Fe. Actually, it is a mesa, but folks in these parts have always fondly referred to Los Alamos as The Hill.

      Nuclear fission had been discovered by two German scientists in December 1938. Four months later, Germany occupied Czechoslovakia and halted her uranium exports. In those days, uranium was used as a pottery glaze and to make watches glow in the dark.

      It was obvious to a small group of top European scientists what this meant. Fortunately a few Americans were in that network also. These included the renowned Albert Einstein, who had taught in Germany and Robert Oppenheimer, who had studied there.

      On July 16, 1939, a group of Jewish refuges, who had fled Hitler's persecution, visited Einstein at Princeton University, requesting he write a letter to President Roosevelt about the possibility of a German atomic bomb.

      Roosevelt established a President's Advisory Committee on Uranium, which promptly sat on the matter for two years. Eventually, a new director, Vannevar Bush, heeded intelligence reports that the Germans indeed were working on an atomic bomb.

   Bush kick-started the Manhattan Project, placing it under the Army Corps of Engineers. In the fall of 1942, Gen. Leslie Groves was appointed director of the project. Groves chose Oppenheimer as the scientific director  and Los Alamos was selected as the laboratory site.

   On December 2, 1942, the breakthrough needed to begin development of a bomb occurred at the University of Chicago when Enrico Fermi produced the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Fermi had fled fascist Italy, fearing persecution of his Jewish wife.

   In March 1943, Oppenheimer and a few scientists arrived in Los Alamos to begin the race to beat Hitler's development of an atomic bomb.

   Recruiting the world's top scientists from their comfortable university positions to come to a deserted mesa and work on a vaguely described project, under primitive conditions, for an undetermined period was not easy. But Oppenheimer was in the network of the world's top scientists. That, and his personal charisma, did the trick.

   Work on the bomb began in earnest. In 1941, Glenn Seaborg discovered that plutonium also could be used as a fissionable material. Lab scientists decided they would work on both a uranium and plutonium bomb just in case either project hit a dead end.

   The uranium bomb was a comparatively simple device that scientists were confident would work. The plutonium bomb was sufficiently complicated that scientists decided it had to be tested first. Trinity Site, on the Alamogordo Bombing Range, hear Carrizozo, was selected for its remoteness and land features.

   By July 1945, Germany had surrendered, but the land invasion of Japan was scheduled for October. Preparations already were in full swing and the prospect was not pretty. One million U.S. and Allied casualties were expected. If the bombs could be dropped by early August, Japan might be convinced to surrender and an invasion would be averted.

   That meant the test had to be in July. The race was on. A base camp and control bunker had to be constructed and thousands of miles of wire strung to measure the blast's effect. The original date of July 4 had to be moved back to July 16. President Truman delayed his arrival at the Potsdam conference until July 15.

   Next: The blast and what followed.

MON, 7-16-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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