Sakharov's Role in Development of Nuclear Weapons

  December 20, 2021   Read time 2 min
Sakharov's Role in Development of Nuclear Weapons
In spring 1950, Sakharov and Tamm joined other nuclear weapons designers in a secret, tightly guarded city in the central Volga River region of the Soviet Union.

This city, similar in concept and purpose to Los Alamos, had several names: “the Installation,” Sarov (the official name, after a famous Orthodox monastery), and Arzamas-16. While one group of Russian hydrogen bomb designers pursued the truba concept, Tamm’s team of physicists pursued Sakharov’s sloyka approach. In response to the first U.S. hydrogen bomb test (Mike, in 1952), the Soviets successfully tested Sakharov’s sloyka design on August 12, 1953. With this thermonuclear explosion, Sakharov became known as the “father of the Soviet H-bomb.”

For the next two decades, he designed bigger and better hydrogen bombs, including the 50-megaton-plus-yield “Czar” bomb tested on October 30, 1961, in the atmosphere above the Novaya Zemlya test site in Russia. It was the most powerful device ever exploded. Sakharov was generously rewarded for his nuclear weapons work. In 1953, he was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He received numerous awards, and special privileges including a dacha (cottage) in an elite suburb of Moscow.

Paralleling their thermonuclear weapons work, Sakharov and Tamm proposed in 1950 an innovative concept for a controlled thermonuclear fusion reactor. This device, called the TOKAMAK (an acronym for the Russian for “Torroidal Chamber with Magnetic Coil”). During a visit to the British nuclear center at Harwell in the United Kingdom, Kurchatov provided information about this originally classified concept. Since Kurchatov’s disclosure, the TOKAMAK concept has remained at the forefront of international efforts in the peaceful uses of nuclear fusion energy.

In 1957, Kurchatov requested that Sakharov write a technical article condemning the new U.S. effort to develop a “clean” (minimal residual radiation) bomb. Sakharov responded to the assignment much more seriously than Kurchatov had intended him to, by publishing two worldchanging papers: “Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions and Nonthreshold Biological Effects” and “The Radioactive Danger of Nuclear Tests.” These widely circulated papers marked a turning point in his life. While remaining loyal to his native land, Sakharov began to transition from his role as father of the Soviet H-bomb to that of a brilliant nuclear scientist and courageous political dissident who helped bring about major changes in the Soviet Union.

In the late 1950s, Sakharov began expressing grave concerns to senior Soviet officials about the long-term consequences of atmospheric nuclear testing. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, began test-exploding Sakharov’s progressively more powerful nuclear devices, primarily as an instrument of international politics. The United States responded with its own series of high-yield atmospheric nuclear tests. Appalled at the environmental consequences and driven by a deep sense of moral responsibility, Sakharov vigorously campaigned from within the Soviet Union for the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. This important nuclear treaty prohibited the signatory governments (the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) from testing nuclear weapons in Earth’s atmosphere, under the sea, or in outer space. Although underground nuclear testing was still permitted, Sakharov’s efforts proved instrumental in ending the politically motivated testing of bigger and bigger thermonuclear devices in the atmosphere.

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