70 years of nuclear testing in Nevada: why the pollution they created has benefited us
On January 27, 1951, about 100 km from Los Angeles (California), an explosion thundered, illuminating the morning sky for several seconds. Then the nuclear operation "Ranger" began at the test site in Nevada. This was only the first series of nuclear tests in the arms race. What happens there after 70 years, the publication told with the BBC.
Over the next decade, the countries participating in the Cold War detonated several hundreds of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, continuously increasing the power of the charges, and as a result, a radioactive cloud covered the entire planet.
The consequences of these explosions are felt to this day: traces of global radioactive contamination can be easily found in any living organism, including newborn children - radioactive strontium-90 that does not exist in nature is found in their milk teeth that have not yet erupted.
However, the nuclear confrontation that nearly destroyed the planet in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and still supplies Hollywood scriptwriters with plausible versions of the picturesque Armageddon has another, lighter side.
While some politicians continue to dream of nuclear superiority, scientists have found a way to at least partially reverse the consequences of the arms race for good.
“You feel like a wave of heat from the explosion covers you, and the light spills around,” recalled a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Frank Farmer, who took part in a secret nuclear test half a century later. - It becomes so light that you just shine through - you can look at bones on your hands.
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In the 1950s, as part of the Hooper Island floating workshop team, Farmer took part in the preparation, organization and elimination of the consequences of 35 nuclear tests. Each of them could easily wipe out a city of impressive size from the face of the Earth.
Frank witnessed 18 nuclear bombs dropped with his own eyes - sometimes from a distance of only a few kilometers. Moreover, all this happened without any protective equipment. At that time, little was known about the destructive effects of radiation on the body, and the operations themselves were deeply classified.
It was not until many years later that Farmer realized that he and his colleagues in this experiment had become guinea pigs. As well as several tens of thousands of servicemen. Up to a third of the witnesses to the experimental explosions later became disabled, many had children with developmental disorders.
The ardor of the arms race was tempered only in 1963, when the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, Outer Space and Under Water was signed in Moscow.
Half empty or half full
Nevertheless, according to Sarah Heath, professor of nuclear chemistry at the University of Manchester, it would be wrong to consider the decade of atmospheric nuclear testing as something unambiguously bad - a kind of black page in world history.
“In a sense, this is a question of whether your glass is half full or half empty. In any, even the most negative experience, you can find something positive, ”she says.
It cannot be denied that atomic explosions led to irreversible, sometimes catastrophic consequences for many direct participants in the tests, and the planet was really covered with a dense layer of radioactive dust.
However, the same explosions made it possible to make a number of important scientific discoveries and gave rise to new branches of knowledge.
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Some of them became a natural continuation of ongoing military experiments. The most obvious example is nuclear power. “Peaceful atom” is so named precisely because it owes its appearance to the military atom, that is, the development and testing of nuclear weapons.
According to Professor Heath, the construction of the Calder Hall nuclear power plant - the first nuclear power plant in the UK and the second in the world - is "a direct consequence of our efforts to obtain an atomic bomb."
“A bomb is when you release energy and allow it to reach super critical levels,” she explains. "But along the way, you understand how this technology works and how to safely operate the reactor - which means that the same process can be used to generate energy."
Another similar, but not so obvious example is given by Andrey Baklitsky, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Studies at MGIMO.
The preparation of nuclear tests and the analysis of explosions already carried out required such a volume of complex calculations that they gave a powerful impetus to the development of computer technology. The calculations carried out by electronics saved so much time and money that the defense departments willingly invested in their development, which ultimately led to the emergence of a separate type of computer - supercomputers.
Seven decades after the nuclear tests, many ways have been invented to use radioactive contamination in the interests of science.
For example, scientists have managed to better understand the structure of the oceans by tracking the tritium atoms formed during sea explosions. Observations of how tritium moves between ocean layers continue to this day.
Art critics have found an unexpected use for radioactive contamination: they have learned with high accuracy to identify forgeries of works by famous artists.
This is because carbon has a naturally occurring radioactive isotope, carbon-14. Usually, it is formed in small quantities in the upper atmosphere under the action of cosmic radiation, it is relatively evenly spread throughout the planet - and sooner or later it sinks to earth with precipitation.
Since carbon forms the basis of organic life and is contained in all living cells, plants absorb it (along with the usual isotope). From there, it enters the body of herbivores, then predators.
The half-life of carbon-14 is known and is about 5 years - that is, after this time, half of the radioactive atoms will turn into ordinary ones.
When an organism dies, the entry of new radioactive atoms into it stops, and the existing ones continue to decay, so that over time, the ratio of the two isotopes begins to change. It is on this that the method of radiocarbon analysis, developed by the American physicist Willard Libby, is based and makes it possible to quite accurately establish the date of birth or death.
The discovery was made in the mid-1940s, and in 1960 Libby received the Nobel Prize for it.
As Sarah Heath explains, nuclear tests resulted in the release of many radioactive elements, but carbon-14 was the longest-lived among them. Its concentration in the atmosphere soared that all living organisms that were born after the middle of the last century are strikingly different in chemical composition. This means that they are quite easy to determine in the laboratory.
This is exactly what happened in 2014. Italian nuclear physicists have discovered that the painting, allegedly by French cubist artist Fernand Léger, was painted on canvas made at least four years after the death of the alleged author.
If, as the owners of the painting claimed, the canvas had really been painted in 1914 by Léger himself, there would have been no trace of nuclear tests carried out half a century later.
"We cannot change the horrors of the past"
Sometimes echoes of nuclear tests can be found in the most unexpected fields of knowledge, for example in space exploration.
Having studied the fused rock left after explosions at nuclear test sites, scientists have found that in some respects it is very similar to samples of lunar soil. So indirect confirmation received the theory that the Moon was formed as a result of the collision of the Earth with a giant celestial body, comparable in size to Mars.
The energy of this hypothetical collision had to be so great that it was almost impossible to reproduce something similar in laboratory conditions. Until this happened by accident - as a result of a powerful nuclear explosion.
Observations of military personnel who received a high dose of radiation during the tests laid the foundation for the development of nuclear medicine, radioisotope diagnostics and radiation therapy.
Monitoring stations, originally built to track nuclear tests anywhere in the world (so as not to miss an explosion carried out by a potential adversary), today provide scientists with valuable data on earthquakes and tsunamis.
Thanks to the observation centers left over from the Cold War, we can hear in advance an awakening volcano or quickly detect a radiation leak.
Even the GPS system, which every smartphone owner uses every day today, owes a large part to the need to accurately target nuclear missiles.
At the same time, it seems that there is no need for new nuclear tests.
“Since 1996, the official nuclear states have not carried out nuclear tests,” recalls Andrei Baklitsky, “but the data and computer modeling technologies collected over the previous decades make it possible to maintain existing nuclear warheads in combat readiness and safety, as well as to produce new charges. And this situation can continue for a long time. "
“We cannot change the horrors of the past - what has already happened. But if you can find something positive in them and use them for good, then I think it just needs to be done, ”agrees Professor Sarah Heath.
“What happened in the 1950s and 1960s is terrible. But if it is possible to collect the data obtained as a result of these terrible experiments and send them to a peaceful channel, then it is wrong to ignore the knowledge gained - no matter what the purpose is, ”she is sure.
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