New Light on Soviet Bomb Program

October 25, 1996

College Park, MD, October 24, 1996---Cloaked in secrecy, the Soviet nuclear program throughout the Cold War was a matter of great speculation and uncertain assumptions in the West. It was the lack of hard information that led to the escalation of the Cold War. How soon would Soviet scientists produce a bomb? And how would we know? How important was espionage for the Soviet nuclear program? What were the health and environmental risks for Soviets, both scientists and civilians? How much did Soviet weaponeers themselves know of the overall program in which they worked?

In May 1996, more than 300 people met in Dubna, Russia, for a unique conference on the history of the Soviet nuclear program. Many of the participants worked on nuclear weapons; others were Russian historians; still others wanted to assess the damage -- human, environmental and economic -- of the program. Only about 30 conferees were Westerners.

The November 1996 special issue of Physics Today contains not only a very human account of that extraordinary meeting, but also a seminal historical paper that was presented at the conference, offering many new details of the Soviet bomb program in the 1940s and 1950s. Rounding out this issue of Physics Today is the hitherto untold story of the crucial role of US Navy scientists, and of rainwater, in detecting the first Soviet bomb test -- years earlier than anyone expected it.

In recent years, publications both in Russia and in the US, along with a number of extravagant claims by a former Soviet spymaster, have glorified the role of espionage in the Soviet nuclear program. The Dubna conference reveals the true role of stolen information: useful for getting started, but becoming nearly irrelevant as the Soviet scientists came up with their own ideas and breakthroughs. Many details are given in this issue of Physics Today.

Putting a human face on the program was Liya Sokhina. As a young chemist, she was responsible for collecting plutonium oxide with a dust broom and bag -- but without gloves or mask. Sokhina, now 71, beat the odds, telling the Dubna conference that "This was the most dangerous place to be ...typical radiation doses were 100 rad per year ... we were constantly breathing radioactive aerosols ...many colleagues died in the 1950s ... but the country depended on us."


---At the end of World War II, 45 metric tons of uranium were "liberated" from East Germany, allowing the Soviets to save perhaps a year's time on the startup of their F-1 reactor (which still operates today on its original fuel).

---The time interval between achieving the first nuclear chain reaction to detonating the first nuclear bomb was virtually the same in the USSR (32 months) as in the US (31 months).

---During the height of the Cold War, the US spent about 12% of its "national income" (a United Nations term) on defense, while the USSR spent more than 50% of its national income on similar programs.

---The fact that rain could wash radioactive debris out of the atmosphere was discovered accidentally in the US, but used immediately to set up a detection system for nuclear bomb tests.

---Soviet scientists were thinking about thermonuclear explosions as early as December, 1945, but the Council of Ministers' first resolution to pursue such work was not until February, 1948.

---Klaus Fuchs passed more information, including the idea of "radiation implosion," to the Soviets than he admitted in his 1950 confession. However, the real significance of that idea was unknown, even to Fuchs and other Western physicists, at the time.

---By 1955, the USSR was on a par with, and in some aspects ahead of, the US in the nuclear arms race.

---Andrei Sakharov's "layer cake" weapon design was similar to, but entirely independent of, Edward Teller's "alarm clock" design.

---The USSR had a large head start with using Lithium-6 Deuteride, a highly efficient nuclear fuel, having begun in 1953. The US did not use it extensively until 1956.

---The first Soviet calculations and theoretical predictions for thermonuclear energy release were considerably more accurate than comparable ones in the US, in part because the US was still using Lithium-7 Deuteride, whose properties were not well known.

The Dubna conference, and the articles published in Physics Today, explore the history of the Soviet nuclear program, from newly opened archives, newly released documents, and the participants themselves. But beyond that, they showcase the intertwined natures of the Soviet and US nuclear weapons programs, with a common history, competition and drama.
Physics Today is the monthly magazine of the American Institute of Physics. To receive a copy of the articles described above, please contact Judy Barker, Physics Today, 301-209-3046 or

Several contributors to the special issue of Physics Today, and other experts, are available for comment:

Dr. David Holloway (was at Dubna) Codirector, Center for International Security and Arms Control Stanford University Stanford, California 415-723-1737

Dr. Arnold Kramish (was at Dubna) Retired from Atomic Energy Commission, Rand Corp. Consultant Reston, Virginia 703-620-2982

Tom Reed (was at Dubna) Secretary of the Air Force for Gerald Ford, and Special Assistant for National Security for Ronald Reagan Consultant to Lawrence Livermore National Lab Healdsburg, California 707-431-1780

Dr. Herb Friedman (detected first Soviet bomb test; was not at Dubna) Chief Scientist Emeritus, Naval Research Laboratory Washington, DC 202-767-3363; home 703-243-5810

Dr. Gennady Gorelik (historian of Soviet nuclear program; was at Dubna) Center for Philosophy and History of Science Boston University Boston, Massachusetts 617-738-1630

Dr. Alexei Kojevniko (historian of Soviet physics; was not at Dubna) Humanities and Social Science California Institute of Technology Pasadena, California 818-395-4558

American Institute of Physics

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