100 Suns
Michael Light

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003
ISBN 1-4000-4113-9

100 SunsThis book has the size, heft and appearance of a coffee table book, but to my mind it is much more than that. It is the record of an astonishing, almost incomprehensible, scientific, engineering and logistical effort, yet this record is shunned by many people because of its association with weapons of mass destruction. Some substantiation of these statements seems to be in order, along with some words on how your reviewer came to be aware of this record.


In December 1938 in Germany, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission: that uranium atoms could be split thereby releasing significant amounts of energy. This caused an immediate stir in the scientific community, which recognized the potential for a very powerful bomb. In October 1941, even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that brought the United States into the Second World War, President Roosevelt approved the project to build an atomic bomb. Less than four years later, on 16 July 1945, the world's first atomic bomb, the Trinity event, was detonated at White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, and a few weeks after that, on 06 August and 09 August, atomic weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At that moment, the concept of nuclear weapons, and knowledge of their awesome power and potential, went from a closely-guarded military secret to public knowledge.

The early weapons were very inefficient in terms of their usage of costly and scarce fissile material, and also very large and heavy. Therefore in the immediate post-war period the United States embarked on an extensive and costly testing program to make the weapons more efficient and also to better understand their terminal effects. Then in 1952 came the so-called hydrogen bomb based on the concept of nuclear fusion: that light atoms, e.g. hydrogen, could be fused together to make a heavier atom, e.g. helium, also with the release of significant energy. This led to another generation of testing.

Atmospheric testing of these concepts continued through 1962, at which point testing activities were moved underground, and therefore largely out of the public eye. The United States conducted its last underground test in 1992.


The focus of this book is, of course, the one hundred pictures of U.S. atomic tests, evenly divided between tests at the Nevada Test Site, south of Las Vegas, and tests, including most of the higher-yield tests, in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The pictures, many in full colour, are spectacular, but in fact contain no militarily interesting information. Many in fact, especially for the higher-yield tests in the Pacific, were taken from many miles away and minutes after the event was initiated.

None of the tests, certainly none of the tests documented in this book, involved operational weapons, although several are described as "prototypes". Indeed, many of the tests were of bomb components rather than all-up devices and, as such, had relatively low yields.

On the other hand, some of the larger tests could be truly described as experiments. For example, the test device for the Ivy Mike event, intended to demonstrate the principle of a fusion weapon, weighed eighty tons and required one thousand litres of liquid deuterium -- not just liquid hydrogen, which would have been hard enough -- assembled on a bare coral atoll. Then the Castle Bravo event, which ended up having the highest yield of any U.S. nuclear test, was the first test using solid Lithium Deuteride as the fuel for the fusion reaction.

All of the pictures were sourced from the U.S. National Archives and Los Alamos National Laboratory. In turn, most of the pictures are credited to the U.S. Air Force 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron, a unit set up specifically to document the nuclear weapons testing program. This unit was based at the shadowy Lookout Mountain Air Force Station in Hollywood. Perhaps a strange place for such a unit to be based, but it allowed unit personnel to easily access the latest photographic and cinematographic technology.

But the pictures by themselves are only part of the story. The book also includes notes on each of the events featured in the photographs, including notes on the engineering purpose of each test, on the radiation environment after each test, on the location and movement of any troops involved, and on the nature and extent of the radioactive fallout, in some cases very intense and extensive but at the time shrouded in secrecy.

But the pictures together with the notes thereon still serve to give a glimpse, perhaps a humbling glimpse, into the truly awesome power of the primal forces of nature that the scientists were tampering with. It must be remembered that these tests were carried out in the days before computer simulations were available, so each test carried with it an element of scientific uncertainty -- and danger.

Finally, the book includes a year-by-year summary of the evolution of the world-wide nuclear arms race, focusing, of course, on the race between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also referencing weapons programs in the United Kingdom, France, China, India and Pakistan.

In the latter summary, it is interesting to note mounting concern about the increasing amounts of radioactive fallout. One can perhaps speculate on the extent to which such concerns may have led the United States and the USSR to agree to terminate atmospheric testing, to later initiate comprehensive test bans, and, still later, treaties to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Not a scholarly publication, but nevertheless a valuable factual reference work, including the photographic evidence to hold the reader's attention. Highly recommended.

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100 Suns:
Reviewer's Back Story

John Anderson

In the late 1950s, partly because of the enormous cost and engineering complications of full-scale nuclear testing, partly because of the extremely onerous security restrictions surrounding such testing, and partly because of the looming ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, under the auspices of the Tripartite Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP), initiated a program to simulate the blast effects of nuclear weapons using conventional explosives, albeit at a reduced scale. This work was carried out at Suffield Experiment Station (SES, now DRDC Suffield) outside of Medicine Hat Alberta.

The work began with experiments involving eight-pound TNT charges, later progressing to sixty-four pound charges, and then a few tests with 1000 lb charges. The first large-scale test, using twenty tons (40,000 lb) of TNT, took place in 1960. The following year a test using one hundred tons (200,000 pounds) of TNT was conducted. The culmination of this work was Operation SNOWBALL, a test involving 500 tons (1,000,000 lb) of TNT, carried out on 17 July 1964. At the time, SNOWBALL was the largest deliberately-initiated non-nuclear unconfined explosion in world history.

(Operation SNOWBALL was followed in 1965 by Operation SAILOR HAT, a series of three 500-ton events, organized by the U.S. Navy and carried out in Hawaii, to look at nuclear weapons effects on naval vessels. Suffield supported Canadian Navy participation by HMCS Fraser, but had no part in the preparation and management of the tests themselves.)

The work at Suffield was not secret; I recall seeing an article in Weekend Magazine around 1959, when I was still in high school in Toronto, that discussed the program and the plans for a 500-ton test. And, of course, everyone living in the area around Medicine Hat was well aware of what was being planned.

Although the program was based at what is now DRDC Suffield, scientists came up from the United States every year to participate in the work. Many of them brought their families and stayed all summer. Much of the instrumentation and other equipment that the US scientists and engineers brought north to Canada in support of their participation in this work was borrowed from inventory that the United States maintained to support nuclear testing.

Scientists from the United Kingdom also took part, but for them the cost impediment of large-scale participation was much greater.

I, your reviewer, was introduced to this work when I joined the Defence Research Board of Canada as a newly-minted Defence Scientific Service Officer (DSSO) in May 1966. By that time, SNOWBALL and SAILOR HAT were in the rear-view mirror, and effort was concentrated on Operation DISTANT PLAIN, a series of 20-ton and 50-ton events scheduled for that s ummer. I was immediately awe-struck by the seemingly no-expense-spared scale of the logistical and engineering effort that was being poured into the program, all in an effort to understand and quantify the terminal effects of nuclear weapons. This was, of course, at the height of the Cold War, with the threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union perceived as real and substantive.

But the scale of involvement in such large-scale testing went well beyond personnel at SES. The Meteorological Branch of the Department of Transport (now part of Environment Canada) was deeply involved in characterizing the atmospheric conditions prior to each test, including launching high-altitude sounding rockets from CFB Cold Lake. Also, because the effects of the blast would be felt well outside he perimeter of the Suffield experimental range, a helicopter was used to set out pressure gauges for miles down range to record the effects. And, finally, the Air Force provided a specially-equipped P2 Neptune aircraft that flew at high altitude over each test to provide aerial photography of the blast phenomenology. This aircraft was kept in service specifically to support the work at SES long after the rest of the Neptune fleet had been retired.

And the Air Force also provided a med-evac helicopter that was stationed on site every day for the months that workers were on site preparing for the test.

Canada's and Suffield's involvement in this work continued through Operation PRAIRIE FLAT (1968) and Operation DIAL PACK (1970). The last test in which Suffield contributed significant resources was Operation MIXED COMPANY (1972) which was mounted at a site near Grand Junction, Colorado.

Although I never heard an official reason for discontinuing the program, it was clear that Canada's continued involvement in and support of the program would involve a financial commitment that would severely strain Canada's limited defence research budget. The program then moved to the United States and continued well into the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

At that point, the need for live testing to determine the effects of nuclear blast on targets of interest was largely overtaken, but not eliminated (see following), by the increasing fidelity of numerical simulation technology.

Your reviewer left Suffield at the end of 1981 to pursue other endeavours, and so effectively lost touch with the program.


At the same time as scientists and engineers were trying to characterize nuclear weapons effects through experiments, efforts were underway to predict weapons effects analytically and later numerically. Neither I, your reviewer, nor Suffield was involved in this work, other than as customers seeking to extrapolate the results of our experiments which were, in turn, used to validate the simulations.

One of the earliest analyses was prepared in the United Kingdom in 1941 by Sir Geoffrey Taylor, but not published in the open literature until 1950, This was the so-called similarity solution, extremely valuable work and a surprisingly good prediction within its assumptions of instantaneous energy release at a mathematical point in free space.

This early work predated the advent of general-purpose digital computers, development of which accelerated in the late 1940's and early 1950s. Their advent opened the way for more detailed numerical simulations of nuclear weapons phenomenology. One of the first such calculations was published by Harold Brode in the early 1950s. Subsequently Brode published more sophisticated calulations, including that of the blast from a spherical charge of TNT, analogous to the testing that was then being carried out at Suffield. The simulation technology continued to evolve, aided by the increasing sophistication and power of digital computing, but as the results came closer and closer to reality, the results ceased being published in the open literature.

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