March 29, 1955
The pre-dawn stillness of the Nevada desert was torn with a brilliant flash followed by a shock wave and roar. Atop a 500 foot steel tower, atoms collided violently at 4:55 am. A mushroom cloud lifted into pre-dawn sky, a small sun so powerful that the glow was "plainly visible" in San Luis Obispo, even through the fog. The Telegram-Tribune reported a white flash followed by a blue tinge in the sky emanating from roughly 280 miles away.
Code-named Apple, it was a 14-kiloton tower detonation. The test failed to provide the predicted 40-kiloton yield. Unconfirmed news reports at the time pegged the output at 25-kilotons and did not mention a failure. Programs to expand the nuclear arsenal were shrouded in secrecy at the time. Apple was designed as a lightweight thermonuclear weapon primary and radiation implosion system using small quantities of fusion fuel. The device was less than 29.5 inches wide and 74.6 inches long weighing 2300 pounds. The weight was a little less than a compact car like the Ford Fiesta.
During the Teapot series of tests structures optimistically named Survival Towns were built and blown up to test the destructive power of new devices. Shaking from Apple cracked a ceiling in Las Vegas, 75 miles away.
The weather conditions must have been favorable because six hours and five minutes later the nuclear genie was again unleashed, the first time two nuclear devices were set off in the same day at the Nevada Test site. The meteorologist on site had the authority to call off tests if fallout-laden winds were blowing toward population centers.
Wasp Prime was a 3.2-kiloton airdrop detonated 737 feet above sea level. It was a repeat of the Wasp test with a higher yield core dropped from a B-36 bomber. It tested the effects of low altitude detonations. Later in the series a high altitude test would be fired at 36,620 feet. News reports called it a "baby" A-bomb dropped from 15,000 feet.
These were the eighth and ninth nuclear blasts of the year.
The Teapot series of tests included 14 detonations. Only 1 was below ground, 13 were atmospheric tests in the Nevada desert. The series ran from February to May 1955.
According to the radiochemistry website the Teapot series released 11% of the atmospheric radiation due to continental nuclear tests and can be expected to eventually cause about 13,000 cases of thyroid cancer leading to some 650 deaths.
Teapot series had two objectives. The first was to train ground forces on a nuclear battlefield. The second was to improve nuclear weapons delivered by bombers, missiles and as a battlefield weapon.
About 8,700 Department of Defense personnel participated in Teapot and the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps supplied the bulk of the human radiation experiment with a handful of civilian scientists, observers and technicians.
The shots in the Teapot series were named for flying insects, fruits and vegetables — the last called Zucchini.
In all there were 928 nuclear detonations in the Nevada desert, the tests went underground after Little Feller I in 1962 and the last detonation, Divider, was in 1992. Aerial photos show the test site landscape cratered like the moon. It is not surprising that Nevada residents oppose storing the nation's nuclear waste at the nearby Yucca Mountain site. They no doubt feel they have given enough.
According to a Brookings Institute study the United States spent an estimated $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons and related programs in constant 1996 dollars. Some argue the money was well spent; the United States deterred other nuclear powers from attacking during the Cold War. In the nuclear age, a Pearl Harbor type surprise attack would be The End.
It is clear however that there was a price paid in lives and treasure.
One of my former neighbors was one of those soldiers in the Nevada desert, huddled in a trench under the eerie glow of an artificial sun. The Korean War veteran was certain radiation exposure was the root cause of his chronic health problems. He would make regular trips to a Veterans Administration doctor in Fresno, a living casualty of the Cold War.
Though the automated watermarks say otherwise the images are public domain courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office. If you are interested in the subject, "A Nuclear Family Vacation" by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger is a good read.
The main photo on the front page, Madonna Construction was busy building the 9.3-mile stretch of freeway from Santa Margarita to Atascadero. The company had spent $250,000 on new earthmovers, the first of their size in the nation. The new Terra Cobra could carry a third more earth, 28.5 cubic yards, and travel faster from 35 to 38 miles per hour. They were building one of two pedestrian under-crossings on Highway 101 that I am aware of. The other is in Pismo Beach. A third crossing for livestock is at Santa Margarita Ranch. The four-lane freeway segment was budgeted at $2,965,000 and was expected to be complete in June 1956.