Fireball engulfs desert


Photograph by the Associated Press
"A furiously boiling ball of fire,
measuring 900 feet from edge to edge, churns with awesome grandeur at the Nevada
atom bomb test site. The blast, which was set off on a 500-foot tower, was
photographed from a distance of 11 miles."

May 29, 1957
Atomic Test Site, Nev.

The Associated Press captured the explosion in well-wrought, anonymous prose. One of 40 reporters and photographers, accompanied by
14 NATO observers and some civil defense workers, the AP writer
described the detonation of the 10-kiloton bomb 500 feet above the
Nevada desert on a steel tower:

"The fireball devoured the the
tower and shot skyward wrapped in an ugly garment of smoke. A
shuddering sound wave rolled off the desert.

"The column of smoke spilled over into the awesome mushroom. And there
it hung, churning and thrashing, until dissipated by gentle wind.

"The wind stretched the mushroom and its trunk into long, narrow clouds
and bore them to the northwest. When a low, gray haze lifted from the
explosion area, test personnel found only stubs of the tower’s legs,
about four feet high, remaining in the ground. Some lower portions of
the tower had fallen onto the sand when the upper section was turned
into atomic dust."

But rather than a poetic description, the thrust of the story was about how safe it
was to explode atomic devices in the atmosphere. The AP writer made a
point of noting that "safety-conscious scientists" had waited for days
until the weather was exactly right for testing an atomic bomb. In
fact, the writer said, this series of tests was the safest since atomic
blasts began at the Nevada test site in 1951.

"As the blast’s 35,000-foot
mushroom cloud broke up, turned pink under the sun’s first rays and
floated lazily away, Test Manager James E. Reeves said:

"The heavy fallout is in the test area. Only light, long-delayed fallout will result in off-site areas."

The writer noted that 31 aircraft immediately entered the test area to
track the cloud. It was all so safe, the writer said. After all, this
10-kiloton explosion, with only half the force of the bombs dropped on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was from "a low-powered member of the United States
nuclear weapon family."

A little detective work shows that Times aviation writer Marvin Miles
had been sent to Nevada to cover the tests, known as Operation
Plumbbob, but excessive winds forced
prolonged delays. Miles filed story after story about how the tests
were postponed and apparently The Times brought him home and decided to
use AP.

Here’s the original press release on the blast, which was code-named "Boltzmann."

Here’s a link to the National Security Archive’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.

Here’s a map of the radioactive cloud’s track across the U.S.



Photograph courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory

Perfectly safe, folks, this was just a little one.


Times political cartooning B.C. (Before Conrad) on Memorial Day. 

Email me

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply. Note: Your IP is logged with your comment so a fake name and email address are useless.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s