July 16, 1945: Trinity Test

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Batter my heart, three person’d God.

John Donne

At 5:29 AM Mountain War Time, seventy years ago, the first atomic bomb, nicknamed The Gadget, exploded with the force of 20 kilotons of TNT.  The test was called Trinity.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, gave the test its name.  He couldn’t recall why he chose the name, but suspected that his interest in some of the religious poetry of John Donne played a role, pointing to the verse at the beginning of this post as a possible source.

A brilliant physicist, Oppenheimer was inclined to be melancholy and had an eclectic interest in religious mysticism, rather at odds with his secular Jewish upbringing and the leftist academic milieu in which he led his life.

His visible reaction to the success of the test was rather prosaic:  “It worked.”

Twenty years later he said this was going through his mind:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Usually taken as a confession of regret, the quotation actually has a different meaning I think.  After the quoted section of the Bhagavad-Gita, Vishnu convinces Prince Arjuna  to join in the war.  That fits in with Oppenheimer’s subsequent action in supporting the use of the atomic bombs on Japan.  After the War he had bitter regret in the role that he played in developing the bomb that led to so many deaths.  However, in 1965 the old before his time and ill Oppenheimer was honestly relating his mental state of twenty years before, when he had led the development of a terrible weapon that brought a terrible war to an end.

As West and East

In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one,

So death doth touch the Resurrection.

John Donne

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  1. The Trinity bomb was an implosion fission device containing 6.19 kg of Pu-239 which due to radioactive decay generated some 15 watts of heat that raised bomb surface temperatre to between 100 and 110 F. A gun type fission device common with U-235 bombs was not used because the production process for Pu-239 also generated Pu-240 which has a high microscopic cross-section for spontaneous fission and in a gun type of device this propensity would result in pre-mature detonation after formation of critical mass, resulting in a fizzle – an explosion much smaller than engineered.
    Now let us set the record straight because here is where disinformation typically gets generated by hysteria-mongering eco-wacko fruit cakes. A nuclear fission bomb – U-235 gun type or Pu-239 implosion type – has ZERO relationship to a commercial nuclear reactor. A bomb must be fueled with uranium enriched to > 92% U-235 or Pu-239 to undergo a nuclear explosion. A commercial nuclear reactor like Westinghouse’s PWR or GE’s BWR use fuel enriched to < 5% U-235. A Canadian Candu heavy water reactor uses natural uranium (non-enriched) fuel. And the Pu-239 that gets generated in a commercial reactor by neutron absorption in the fertile but non-fissile U-238 is unuseable in a bomb. The reason why is that too much Pu-240 is mixed in (far more than what existed in the Trinity device), and as stated above that can make any bomb fueled with such material fizzle out. (PS, this is why Iran is pursuing U-235 enrichment – it's less of an engineering challenge for making a bomb). So basically, because of the low fuel enrichment in commercial nuclear reactors, a nuclear explosion is simply impossible by the laws of physics. A reactor is NOT a bomb any more than a gasoline tank for an automobile is napalm. But of the two – uranium-zircalloy fuel rod or gasoline tank – the fuel rod is safer.
    Now for those opposed to nuclear weapons (not me – I think we should have the most powerful weapons as a deterrent to our enemies), do you support downblending the U-235 or Pu-239 from weapons for use in commercial nuclear reactors to forever make that fuel unavailable for destructive purposes? What exactly do you prefer? Once created, the fuel WILL be used. Burying is stupid because:
    1 kg of coal = 3 kw-hours of energy
    1 kg of oil = 4 kw-hours of energy
    1 kg of uranium = 50000 kw-hours of energy without reprocessing and 35000000 kw-hours of energy with reprocessing.
    Think about these energy equivalencies for a 1000 MW power plant operating for 2 years:
    26000000 tons of coal in 2000 train cars containing 1300 tons each
    Is equivalent to
    2000000 tons of oil in 10 supertankers
    Which is equivalent to
    30 tons of uranium in a 10 cubic meter core.
    Now consider why the fear of the atomic bomb is used to scare you away from nuclear energy for electricity – because of loss of all that corporate profit and tax revenue from 2.6 million tons of coal and 2 million tons of oil which can be replaced by 30 tons of uranium in a nuclear recator core. Uranium is simply cheaper – it doesn't pay as well.
    There is however a different way that avoids use of either enriched U-235 or the production of Pu-239. It's called the Th-232 – U-233 way. You see, there are three isotopes that can undergo thermal fission: Pu-239 produced by neutron bombardment of U-238, U-235 enriched from natural uranium containing 99.3% U-238, and U-233 produced by neutron bombardment of Th-232 which is 30 times more abundant. We actually built a reactor using such fuel back in the late 1950s. It was a non-aqueous molten salt reactor used to heat air for the turbines of a jet aircraft – yup, a nuclear aircraft engine developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratories. We threw that idea away because of fear – Forget Everything And Run. And that fear has done more to advance greed on the part of corporate executive and politician than anything else. This nation even developed a nuclear engine for a rocket – U-235 fueled and cooled by liquid hydrogen. It's all gone now because all people can see is the Trinity mushroom cloud.
    I have worked within yards of an operating nuclear reactor while on a submarine. I have stood above the spent fuel pool at PWRs and BWRs. I have been in radiation areas. I was even the Radiation Monitoring System Engineer at a previous employer. I still live and breathe and eat and poop and pee without problem (well, maybe some problems as I age, but none due to radiation). And if God forbid I ever get cancer, it won't be from radiation but more than likely from a youth misspent in drugs and alcohol. I have worked around radiation for 30+ years. It like anything else – don't freaking overdose yourself and you'll be fine.

  2. Kyle,

    I will write more later. The space craft uses 10 kg of Pu-238 to generate 250 watts of electrical power. Pu-238 is an alpha emitter and has a 87 year half life. It can be produced in nuclear reactors or by linear accelerators. Suffice it to say that spent fuel in a reactor is a poor source of Pu-238.
    We do not have a spent fuel problem. 95% of what remains in spent fuel from US PWRs and BWRs and Canadian Candus is unburnt. However, buildup of fission product poisons and depletion of U-235 prevents using it in thermal reactors. The solution is to recycle spent fuel in fast neutron reactors. This will burn up all the long lived actinides. What’s left over decays away in a ew hundred years.
    Now consider the numbers I gave for oil and coal above. Where do you think all those millions of tons go when coal and oil is burned? Does it disappear? NO! It goes intot eh air and water. Recall the 39 million tons of coal ash sludge that Duke Energy recently released into the Dan River in North Carolina. Now compare that to a 30 ton reactor core at one of Duke Energy’s McGuire or Catawba nuclear power plants surrounding Charlotte. Millions of tons of of fossil fuel excrement vs a few score of tons of spent fuel that can be reprocessed and reused. We don’t have a spent fuel problem. We have a greed problem – more profit and more tax revenue off 39 million tons than 30 tons. It’s simple math.

  3. I wonder about his reaction had he lived long enough to countenance the Iran Deal and Iran as a nuclear power.

  4. Paul,
    Thanks for the info. I was wondering if using spent fuel to generate more energy was possible. Sounds it is, but in a limited application.
    I hear what you’re saying fossil fuels. What would you say to someone who says “Yes, but those are carbon based fuels with byproducts which take much less than a few hundred years to decay.”?

  5. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the pathetic move The China Syndrome made the American public into a bunch of weenies when it comes to nuclear power.

    Who was it that said a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth ties its shoes?

    I’m with you on nuclear power. The USA should be an energy exporter. Thanx to nitwits like Edward Markey of Massachusetts, we are not.

    Stupidity is the Dark Side.

  6. Thanks, Penguins Fan.
    To Kyle, the toxic metals released from coal combustion – cadmium, mercury, nickel, etc – never ever decay away. The millions of tons of fossil fuel refuse dumped into the air – NOx, COx and SOx – never decay away. Recently Duke Energy dumped 39 millions tons of coal ash in the Dan River in North Carolina. The toxic sludge will never ever decay away. That said:
    No electricity kills
    Coal kills but less than no electricity
    Oil kills but less than coal
    Gas kills but less than oil
    Hydro, wind and solar kill, but less than gas
    Nuclear kills but least of all.
    Only Enoch, Elijah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a handful of astronauts and cosmonauts made it off Earth alive. Ed Markey, Harry Reid, Mike Dukakis, Andy Cuomo, Pope Francis, you and I don’t rate. We die. Chances are it won’t be from spent nuclear fuel – nor from the refuse of coal burning, oil burning or gas burning.

  7. The Integral Fast Reactor
    The Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor
    PS, if we can’t do nuclear, then we have to do fossil. No electricity is NOT an option. Solar and wind don’t work. Capacity factor < 30%. No sun at night and on cloudy days. No wind powe on windless days. Renewable energy is a joke. Look at Germany. It has denuked itself and tried wind and solar. Now it's digging up the Black Forest for dirty brown coal.
    BTW, coal releases MORE radioactivity than a nuke. Why? Because of the naturally occurring uranium, thorium and radium in coal released willy nilly in the environment.

  8. Paul, as I understand the general character of these things, solar does not replace fossil fuel because it takes an inordinate amount of energy to make storage batteries to provide continuous energy when the sun goes down. And, that is to say nothing of the concomitant ill effects of ubiquitous acres of solar panels. Wind cannot provide enough energy because the amount of open land is insufficient to provide electricity for the needs of the occupants thereof. For example, there is not enough land area in Massachusetts to provide by windmills the energy it uses. Incidentally, both solar panels and windmills are killers of birds, either by frying or slicing and dicing them. Rachel Carson would be appalled, and for due cause. Silent Spring, indeed! Penguins Fan nails it with, “Stupidity is the Dark Side”. While it can be cathartic to assign appellations of Eco-freak, Looney-tune, Moon-bat, Whacko, and What-not, a frightening percentage of people are dreadfully ignorant, and misinformed by mere ideology, about things they need to know if they are to fully participate as effective, intelligent citizens and members of society. It may also be said the same applies to being members of the Church Militant. How many go through life with little more than grade-school knowledge of their faith? On the question of will the many be saved, there may be an encouraging message in Christ’s words from the cross, when He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. I like to think, we will enjoy Paradise surrounded by the many dopes that have provided us with much amusement here on earth.

  9. William P Walsh, you are correct. It would take a land area the size of Minnesota to replace with wind turbines the nuclear power plants supplying 20% of our electricity, and it would take a land area the size of West Virgina to do the same with solar. Yet even in doing that, the 92+% capacity factor of a nuke would go to the 30-% capacity factor of renewable, which means that 70+% of the time when you need electricity you would not have it, so as you rightly noted, fossil fuel is still required as spinning reserve for that 70% of the time when there is no sun and no wind. Natural gas suppliers LOVE renewable energy because every wind farm and ever solar power installation IS a gas turbine plant. BTW, a 1/4 mile of natural gas pipeline can explode with the forrce of a small atomic device. CH4 is DANGEROUS. But uranium is safe (yes, I have held uranium in my hands and as I said previously, I still live, breathe, eat, drink, pee and poop). You are 100% right about people’s ignorrance being due to ideology, and think about whom that ideology benefits the most – the people who sell fossil fuel and the people who tax it. Why does Obama support useless green energy? Because of tax revenue off of natural gas. And wwhy does he oppose the Keystone pipeline? To keep prices high (benefitting his fossil fuel benefactors). It’s all a game designed to enrich corrporate executive and politician, and the game is called corporate socialism. I say mine the coal, frack the oil and gas, and recycle the plutonium – bring prices down and starve the greedy executives and politicians.

  10. To: Paul W. Primavera. Sir, you are a breath of fresh air and common sense, backed by your excellent knowledge of the uses of atomic energy. This is unfortunately a subject that most Americans are so ignorant of, I find most will not even allow themselves to hear the logical explanation of safe nuclear power versus a nuclear bomb. America could have been energy independent long ago had not this ignorant mindset taken hold of the populace.

  11. I have only two pet peeves with nuclear power:

    1) I agree with Edward Teller that commercial power reactors should be underground. There is a good reason why nobody remembers the 1969 Lucens reactor accident – it was literally far below the horizon.

    2) Nuclear waste should be diluted, solidified, and buried in the subducting side of the deep ocean trenches.

  12. To Tom D.,
    The reactor being designed by NuScale, the company for which I currently work, WILL be built underground:
    But why must a nuclear reactor be built underground, yet all the toxic chemical and explosive petroleum tanks off I-95 outside NYC are permitted to be built above ground? One sniper’s bullet could result in an incident like that at the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, India in the 1980s.
    What do you mean by nuclear waste? Used Nuclear Fuel? Fuel discharged from a light water reactor or a Candu heavy water reactor? Fuel which still has 95% of its energy content? Fuel that can be reprocessed / recycled and reused? Perhaps you did not see my post to the link about the GE-Hitachi PRISM reactor that can consume this nuclear waste. Read this.
    I worked with the man – Dr Eric Loewen – who came up with this design. You may rely absolutely on his work.
    BTW, why does 80 thousand tons of used fuel that can fit in a football field to a depth of 8 feet have to be sunk into ocean trenches, but the 100s of millions of tons of NOx, SOx and COx, and all the toxic materials like cadmium, mercury and nickel from fossil fuel power plants – material that NEVER EVER decays away – can be dumped willy nilly into the environment:

    It gets tiresome after a while answering all the same objections and correcting all the same disinformation and combating all the same ignorance. No offense is directed towards you, Tom D, but I cannot distill 30+ years of nuclear training and experience into a response on a blog post. It is ridiculous to require all nuclear reactors to be underground when there are far more toxic and deadly things than nuclear above ground, and it is ridiculous to bury used nuclear fuel in the ocean when that used fuel is a valuable resource. Even calling it nuclear waste is ridiculous. I cannot convey the level of ignorance I see in the general American population when it comes to science and engineering. It is as ignorant of those subjects as it is of the true teachings of the Catholic Church.
    Nuclear is SAFE. I have stood above spent nuclear fuel pools. I have been in the Containments of operating nuclear reactors. My Lord Jesus, help us! I have even slept next to a Subroc nuclear missile on a nuclear powered submarine when there were not enough racks on the submarine for all the sailors! And you want to build reactors underground and send “nuclear waste” into ocean trenches? Really?

  13. Paul, to your question “What do you mean by nuclear waste?” I do mean the waste we can’t economically deal with in other ways, since ocean burial would be expensive too.

    “I cannot convey the level of ignorance I see in the general American population when it comes to science and engineering.”
    Just science and engineering? Good God man, that’s just the surface. To me the great issues with our immoralities isn’t just that they are immoral, it’s also that our indulgences into immorality are turning us into a nation of narcissists who cannot possibly be bothered to look into the future for the threats it could face. Who needs to be bothered about it (it being solar warming, an asteroid, a Carrington event, the superflu bred in the world’s refugee camps, the Iranian nukes planted in our cities, new fungi to attack our crops) when Caitin’s bravery needs our applause now!

  14. For Tom D and anyone else “worried” about nuclear waste from light water and Candu heavy water reactors, aka spent fuel, aka used fuel, 95% to 99% of whose energy content can be recycled for use in fast neutron reactors, here is what the US currently does:
    But our friends in Canada are predictably smarter:
    We do NOT have a nuclear waste problem. We have a fear problem that enables corporate greed for money and political greed for power – keep people afraid of nuclear and promote useless, worthless renewable energy that necessitates constant fossil energy spinning reserve, then harvest the profit from selling energy off that fossil fuel to keep corporate executive rich and happy, and tax that fuel to keep liberal progressive politician rich and happy. Meanwhile, who’s the dupe and who pays? You and I! Global warming and nuclear waste are both hysteria mongering scams.

  15. Paul, I would agree that we do not have a nuclear waste problem, provided that we adopt the social attitudes that existed at the dawn of the ‘atomic age’. There seems to have been an attitude that Western Civilization was here to stay, and that in staying it was going to make sure that nuclear power was used properly and waste guarded. Ask anyone today if they think West Civ will be around any all you get are dumb stares. Most of our fumbling on this matter happens because we don’t believe in ourselves anymore.

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