The Nuclear Test That Vaporized an Island

Apr 16, 2024 0 comments

On November 1, 1952, the U.S. detonated the world’s first hydrogen bomb, codenamed “Mike”, as part of Operation Ivy. It was the first full test of a breakthrough design created by Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller and Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam. Mike represented a remarkable feat of engineering, towering at 20 feet tall and weighing an impressive 74 metric tons. While not deployable as a conventional weapon, its significance lay in being the first nuclear device to derive a substantial portion of its explosive power from fusion, the process of atomic fusion, rather than solely relying on fission, the division of atoms. Its functionality relied on a fission reaction to ignite fusion within liquid deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen.

Mushroom cloud of the Ivy Mike test. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mike's appearance was more akin to an industrial complex than a traditional weapon. It was housed within a substantial corrugated-aluminum structure known as the "shot cab," accompanied by a towering 300-foot signal tower for communication with the control room situated aboard the USS Estes, where the firing party was stationed. Due to its use of liquid deuterium as fuel, a sizable cryogenics plant was required to maintain the deuterium at temperatures close to absolute zero. Powering this intricate setup was a formidable 3,000-kilowatt power plant dedicated to the cryogenics facility.

The bomb was set up on a small uninhabited rocky islet called Elugelab, that was part of the Enewetak atoll, in the South Pacific. Eniwetok consists of forty small islets and atolls, spread out into the shape of an oval ring spanning twenty miles in length and ten miles in width, with two entrances leading into its central lagoon. The Eniwetok Atoll, which is part of the Marshall Islands, was originally held by the Japanese from 1914 until its capture by the United States in February 1944, during World War II. It then became a Naval base for over forty years until the Marshall Islands became independent in 1986. During this time, the atoll became the site for nuclear testing. Between 1948 and 1958, a total of 43 nuclear tests were conducted on Enewetak atoll, forever altering its landscape and historical significance.

The bomb. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Shot Cab.

On the morning of November 1, 1952, Mike unleashed its cataclysmic force upon the world. The detonation produced a fireball, stretching an astonishing five kilometers in diameter. Within a mere 90 seconds, the mushroom cloud ascended to an altitude of 17 kilometers, swiftly soaring to 33 kilometers a minute later. Eventually, it stabilized at a towering height of 41 kilometers, its expansive crown spanning a diameter of 161 kilometers, with a formidable stem measuring 32 kilometers wide. The yield of this awe-inspiring explosion measured an unprecedented 10.4 megatons.

A military report on the history of Operation Ivy noted, “The Shot, as witnessed aboard the various vessels at sea, is not easily described. Accompanied by a brilliant light, the heat wave was felt immediately at distances of thirty to thirty-five miles. The tremendous fireball, appearing on the horizon like the sun when half-risen, quickly expanded after a momentary hover time.”

U.S. nuclear weapon test Ivy Mike. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The impact was as profound as it was devastating. Elugelab, once a solitary rocky islet, was instantly vaporized by the ferocity of the blast, leaving behind a vast crater stretching 1.9 kilometers in diameter and plunging 50 meters into the Earth's surface. The explosion generated a tsunami with waves up to 6 meters high that stripped the surrounding islands clean of vegetation. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Gordon Dean succinctly summarized the results for the newly inaugurated President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, with a chilling declaration: "the island of Elugelab is missing!"

The Ivy Mike test also led to the discovery of two new elements. Shortly after the bomb was detonated, a fleet of U.S. Air Force planes fly through the atomic cloud, equipped with modified fuel tanks designed to capture and filter airborne debris. The filters from the planes were sealed in lead and sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico for analysis. Among those intrigued by the potential scientific treasure trove contained within these filters was nuclear scientist Albert Ghiorso of the University of California, Berkeley. Ghiorso speculated that the filters might contain atoms that had transformed, through radioactive decay, into the predicted but undiscovered elements 99 and 100. Ghiorso, along with chemist Stanley Gerald Thompson and Glenn Seaborg, obtained half a filter paper from the Ivy Mike test. On it, they were able to detect the existence of elements 99 and 100, which had been produced by intensely concentrated neutron flux about the detonation site. In 1955 the two new elements were name einsteinium and fermium, in honor of Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi.

Enewetak Atoll, before "Mike" shot. Notice island of Elugelab on left.

Enewetak Atoll, after "Mike" shot. Notice crater on left.

Nuclear testing on Enewetak Atoll ended in 1958. In 1977, the United States military began the arduous task of decontaminating Enewetak and its surrounding islands. This endeavor involved the meticulous scraping of topsoil from the affected areas, which was subsequently mixed with cement before being interred within an atomic blast crater on the northern expanse of Runit Island. This crater, measuring 110 meters in width and plunging 30 meters into the earth, was then encased in additional layers of concrete to form a protective dome.

In 2000, another round of clean up followed. This time, rather than scrape the topsoil off, replace it with clean topsoil, and create another radioactive waste repository dome at some site on the atoll, areas still contaminated on Enewetak were treated with potassium. Soil that could not be effectively treated for human use was removed and used as fill for a causeway linking the atoll's principal islands, Enewetak and Parry. Scientists believe the atoll will be fit for human habitation by 2026–2027.

# The Island is Missing!, US Army
# What the First H-Bomb Test Looked Like, Time


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