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Fireball engulfs desert

May 29, 2007 |  7:45 am

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. 

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