Trinity’s Shockwave Rolls On

It was an awesome spectacle; anyone who has ever seen an atomic explosion will never forget it. And all in compete silence; the bang came minutes later, quite loud though I had plugged my ears, and followed by a long rumble like heavy traffic very far away. I can still hear it.”

Otto Frisch, What Little I Remember


…but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass darkly…”

St. Paul, 1 Corinthians



I. From Kristallnacht to Trinitite

Shortly after Christmas 1938, the young Austrian physicist Otto Frisch went for a walk in the snowy Swedish countryside with his aunt and fellow-physicist Lise Meitner. Sweden had been home to the part-Jewish Meitner since the Anschluss, the Nazi occupation of Austria, in March 1938. Frisch, also part-Jewish, was visiting from Denmark, reeling at the recent detention of his father in the Dachau concentration camp following the Kristallnacht pogroms. Physics, however, eclipsed politics as they discussed the still-unpublished results of experiments conducted by Meitner and the German chemist Otto Hahn, in which uranium nuclei, bombarded by neutrons, bafflingly split into portions of a much lighter element, barium.

Lise Meitner lecturing at Catholic University in Washington, DC, 1946. (Smithsonian Institution)

Lise Meitner lecturing at Catholic University in Washington, DC, 1946. (Smithsonian Institution)

“Very odd,” as Meitner wrote to Hahn on December 21: “I find it very difficult to assume such a degree of bursting.” In Frisch’s summary of the problem, a uranium nucleus “was not like a brittle solid that can be broken”: how could it “have cleaved right across?”

As recounted in Frisch’s 1979 memoir What Little I Remember, Meitner, scribbling on “scraps of paper,” calculated that, precisely because the nucleus is not solid, but rather a “very wobbly, unstable drop,” it was “ready to divide itself at the slightest provocation, such as the impact of a single neutron.” (Years later, physicist I.I. Rabi noted that “when a neutron enters a nucleus, the effects are about as catastrophic as if the moon struck the earth.”) What she could not understand was the “very large energy” generated – 200 million electron volts (MeV)  – when the ‘drop’ broke apart. Before realizing that when it does, a sliver of its mass, one-fifth of a proton, ‘disappears’, or rather is converted to energy according to Einstein’s formula E=mc2. And hey presto, Frisch writes, “one-fifth of a proton mass was just equivalent to 200 MeV. So here was the source for that energy; it all fitted!


Frisch was the first scientist to borrow from biology the term ‘fission’ – the natural division of one cell into two – to describe the unnatural disintegration of nuclei, a process conjuring the “exciting vision that by assembling enough pure uranium (with appropriate care!) one might start a controlled chain reaction and liberate nuclear energy on a scale that really mattered.” Less than seven years later – 16 July 1945– Frisch stood in the stretch of New Mexico desert known as El Jornado del Muerte, the Journey of Death, waiting – with “the very first trace of dawn” in the sky – for the revolutionary weapon he had helped assemble (with incredible care) to create the first literal ‘false dawn’ in history:

Five, four, three, two, one…’ And then, without a sound, the sun was shining; or so it looked. Unable to find his welders’ goggles, Frisch – 25 miles from the blast – faced away from ‘zero.’ When he dared turn round, “that object on the horizon which looked like a small sun was still too bright to look at.” The “brilliant flash,” as detailed by Ferenc Morton Szasz in The Day The Sun Rose Twice, was “seen in three states…throwing out a multicolored cloud that surged 38,000 feet into the atmosphere… The heat at the center of the blast approximated that at the center of the sun, and the light created equaled almost twenty suns.”

The ‘Supersun,’ Szasz writes, created an surreal moonscape, “a crater half a mile across, fusing the sand into a greenish gray glass… Every living thing within the radius of a mile was annihilated – plants, snakes, ground squirrels, lizards, even the ants. The stench of death lingered about the area for three weeks.” The fused glass was known as trinitite  after the codename of the test, chosen by J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Los Alamos laboratory.

“Oppie was relaxing with a copy of John Donne’s poems,” historian Lamont Lansing writes, when asked to suggest a title. He “turned to the opening lines of the holy sonnet he had just read: ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for, you/As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend…’ ‘Trinity,’ said Oppenheimer softly. ‘We’ll call it Trinity.’”

Given the stunning, compressed violence of Donne’s poem (in which he begs the “force” of God to “break, blow, burn, and make me new,” to “imprison” and “ravish me”) the choice is blasphemously apt, surely signaling the Advent of ‘Man’ now in Godlike possession – to quote President Harry S. Truman, after the destruction of Hiroshima – of “the basic power of the universe.”


Lise Meitner was not at Frisch’s side to witness the ‘ravishing’ spectacle. As a world authority on fission, she surely could have been, but instead insisted: “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!” Not even the prospect of a ‘superweapon’ falling into Hitler’s hands – the scenario prompting Einstein to urge President Franklin D. Roosevelt to initiate what became the ‘Manhattan Project’ – was enough to shake her opposition to military research. By the time of Trinity, of course, the Nazi regime (which, as US intelligence had known since 1944, had never mounted a serious atomic program) had been defeated, replaced by Japan as the enemy to be, not deterred from using the Bomb, but devastated by it.

Trinity Test, 16 July 1945, southern New Mexico. (The Official CTBTO Photostream / CC BY (

Trinity Test, 16 July 1945, southern New Mexico. (The Official CTBTO Photostream / CC BY 2.0)

Here is some of what Meitner missed, drawn from eye-witness accounts (all by male scientists) commissioned by the US Army. Maurice Shapiro was “startled” by the “sharp report,” delivered after 90 seconds of deep silence, of the shock-wave; “my impression,” he concluded, “was that an enemy observer…would be deeply impressed.” Edwin McMillan reeled, in “awe rather than excitement,” from a fireball rising like a “dark-stem…goblet”. Philip Morrison recalled, with frankly pornographic precision, how a “turbulent red column rose straight up several thousand feet in a few seconds, growing a mushroom-like head of the same kind”. Kenneth Griesen, after a rush of “great relief” – “My god, it worked!” – stared quietly at “parts” of the Cloud “folding over and over like dough in a mixing bowl.” Cyril Smith, too, felt “relief that ‘it worked’” mixed with “consciousness of extreme silence, and a momentary question as to whether we had done more than we had intended.” “The obvious fact,” he elaborated:

…that of all of the reaction products were not proceeding upward in a neat ball but were lagging behind and being blown by low altitude winds over the ground in the direction of inhabited areas produced very definite reflection that this is not a pleasant weapon we have produced. Later reflections were on the manner of defense against it and the realization that a city is henceforth not the place in which to live.

Smith then engages in an early act of what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton would dub ‘psychic numbing’ in response to the intolerable new threat, insisting – on 25 July 1945! – that “no attention should be paid to any comment made in this report, since the described events occurred many days ago.”


II. A Plague Unleashed: The Testing Pandemic

Seventy-five years later, how much attention will be paid to the legacy of Trinity? The anniversary arrives at a time of pandemic, a ‘wildfire’ against which, for all its hideous force, all ‘manner of defense’ – medical, social, economic, etc. – is possible. Against nuclear fire, however – as the world’s leading medical authorities tirelessly warn  – nothing avails. This would be the case had the Bomb sprung – an atomic Athene from the brow of Sky-God Zeus – fully-armed at birth. But while Smith’s ‘not a pleasant weapon’ is surely candidate for understatement of all-time, just seven years after Trinity the US, soon followed by the USSR, crossed the ‘thermonuclear’ threshold, using the energy released in fission to fuse hydrogen nuclei in explosions tens or hundreds of times larger than the suddenly ‘crude’ devices which leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A mere 14 years after Meitner and Frisch’s walk in the snow, where was ‘henceforth a place in which to live?’

Trinity triggered a half-century of manic routine testing, with over 500 bombs detonated in the atmosphere – almost all by the Superpowers, distantly trailed by Britain and France – before the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963 drove the practice mainly underground. (The last above-ground test – so far – was by China in 1980.) In the coral-reef-vaporizing Castle Bravo test of March 1954, near Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands – part of America’s ‘Pacific Proving Grounds’ – a split-second fireball 4 miles wide rose to 130,000 feet, and 66 miles in diameter!

Visible over 2,000 miles away, the blast was over twice as powerful as predicted, producing, as Michael Light details in his 2003 study 100 Suns,  “the worst radiological disaster in US testing history,” leaving Bikini Atoll “uninhabitable to this day.” At 15 megatons – 1,000 Hiroshimas – Bravo was the largest nuclear explosion (so far) by the US. The biggest nuclear explosion anywhere (yet) was the 1961 Soviet Tsar Bomba test at the Novaya Zemyla site in the ‘Russian’ Arctic: 50 megatons (or more), 3,000+ Hiroshimas. 


The PTBT’s ban on tests in the atmosphere, as well as underwater and outer space, followed a record glut of 178 explosions in 1962 – and a close encounter with Apocalypse in the Cuban Missile Crisis that October. Global revulsion at the orgy, rising since the crew of the Japanese fishing boat The Lucky Dragon was stricken with fall-out from the far-away Bravo test, boiled over with news that the radioactive ‘decay product’ strontium-90, spread by rain and absorbed by bone and tooth, left babies sickened by their mothers’ milk.

In addition, a tragic new category of people appeared, the ‘Downwinders,’ those ‘in the way’ of the Cloud, condemned to death and suffering for decades after the explosions ‘stopped.’ Most were ordinary civilians, lied to and ignored by dictatorships and ‘democracies’ alike; others were soldiers, often cynically placed in harm’s way. And many were Indigenous peoples, watching swathes of their occupied territories ravaged – in America’s atomic playgrounds (New Mexico, Nevada, the Pacific); in the Australian desert, where Britain tested; in Lop Nor in China’s Xinjiang province, home to the now mass-incarcerated Uyghur Muslims; in Novaya Zemyla and Semipalatinsk in Soviet Kazakhstan; and in France’s imperial ‘backyards’ in Algeria and the South Pacific.

In less than two decades, then, above-ground testing became politically as well as literally poisonous. But for the next two decades, the orgy continued, and out-of-sight did not mean out-of-danger. “In fact,” as Lilly Adams of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted recently, “the second most fall-out intensive nuclear-weapons test in the continental US” – Sedan, 1962  – “was an underground test in Nevada, exposing millions of Americans to radioactive fallout as far away as Iowa and Illinois,” while “another test…intended to be fully contained underground…accidentally released 80,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 into the atmosphere.”

Iodine-131 causes, among other havoc, thyroid cancer, and in 1997, a study from the National Cancer Institute estimated that as many as 75,000 thyroid cancers in the continental US may have been caused by testing. Adams cites a 2017 study from the University of Arizona placing total US testing-related cancer deaths (again excluding the Marshall Islands) at between 340,000-460,000, while in 1991, a landmark report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, “Radioactive Heaven and Earth,” predicted an eventual global testing death toll of 2.4 million.


Over 1,500 underground tests have been conducted, most recently by North Korea in September 2017, a 200-kiloton (Trinity x. 10) blast which seems to have badly damaged the mountain supposed to ‘contain’ it. And true to the nuclear normal, almost always the scene of these unseen environmental crimes was colonized land.

In 2017, an ‘Indigenous Statement,’ signed by 16 groups and endorsed by dozens more, was delivered to delegates of 124 states gathered at the United Nations to negotiate the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ made possible in significant part by the allied activism of Indigenous victims of testing and the hibakusha, the survivors of the 1945 Bombings.

A choir of Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) sing "Never Again," 2012. (Source: The Official CTBTO Photostream / CC BY (

A choir of Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) sing “Never Again,” 2012. (Source: The Official CTBTO Photostream / CC BY 2.0)

“We write to remind these negotiating this important new treaty,” the Statement declared, that “indigenous communities have borne the brunt of these deadly experiments” in which “the authorities have subjected our peoples to epidemics of cancers, chronic diseases and congenital abnormalities,” treating “us as ‘guinea pigs’,” denying “us access to adequate medical care and even our own medical records.” Not only did “colonial forces” detonate “nuclear bombs on our sacred lands…believing they were worthless,” and their human (and other) inhabitants “expendable,” they pretended “the explosions would benefit humankind, that they would make the world safer. But we learnt that this was not true. We learnt that these bombs could only ever be a source of death, misery and destruction.”

Diplomats representing the liars and destroyers – the ‘nuclear nine’ and their few dozen allies, alas, including Canada – were not in the room to hear the Statement insist that “we were never asked for, and we never have given, permission to poison our soil, food, rivers and oceans,” and that “we continue to resist inhumane acts of radioactive racism,” tantamount to cultural genocide:

The nuclear tests permanently dislocated us from our homes and disconnected us from our traditional way of life. Future generations will never be able to enjoy and live off the land and the ocean in the way that our ancestors had done for thousands of years before the mushroom clouds descended.


III. A Vicious Circle: From Trinity to Trump

A central contention of Ban Treaty supporters is that only when (in the words of the Indigenous Statement) these ultimate “instruments of terror” have been abolished, will the era of testing definitively end.

14 kiloton atomic explosion, from a 1951 US nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site. (Operation Buster-Jangle, Charlie)

14 kiloton atomic explosion, from a 1951 US nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site. Operation Buster-Jangle, Charlie. (Source: Federal Government of the United States / Public domain)

With the end (as it seemed) of the Cold War, testing was banned by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Treaty, however will only ‘enter into force’ (become binding international law) once it is ratified by all 44 states listed as capable of producing – and thus, potentially, testing – ‘fissile materials’ (uranium and plutonium). Eight of the 44 (China, Congo, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, US) have yet to ratify; three of them – India and Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea, six times since 2009 – have kept the testing wave rolling; and now ‘Uncle Sam’ himself is actively considering “shaking the Nevada desert” again, to quote a remarkable statement from former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former US Senator Sam Nunn.

Moniz and Nunn, now at the helm of the highly-respected Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), were responding to reports “the Trump Administration has considered conducting the first US nuclear test explosion in almost 30 years to create ‘negotiating leverage’ with Russia and China”. The State Department, in fact, is accusing China and Russia of recently conducting extremely low-yield tests, a fanciful proposition,  probably masking a desire to test ‘new nukes,’ insanely identified by the Pentagon as potential ‘war winners.’

Such a prospect has naturally induced particular nausea in the ‘Downwinder’ region: in the ringing words of the Las Vegas Sun, “No. Hell no. Not now. Not ever. Nevada will not be subjected to nuclear bombing again!” As Tona Henderson, head of Idaho Downwinders, told Lilly Adams, it was “unbelievable…anyone would think it was alright to start nuclear testing again,” to “kill and maim our own citizens again.” Henderson then asks, again naturally: “Would you do these tests if your children or grandchildren were in the fallout path?”

What is unnatural, however, is the extent to which so many people and governments have taken their eye off the Nuclear Fireball: the degree to which we’ve collectively forgotten and denied that, in the all-too-grand ‘scheme of things’ established at Trinity, we all stand ‘in the fallout path.’ This is why three Marshallese activists – Shamanda Hanerg, Lani Kramer, and Desmond Doulatram are so right to argue not just that for “the US government to even consider continuing with nuclear testing would be an injustice to the People of the Marshall Islands,” but that now “more than ever we need to be emboldened and united in our quest to fight for justice and nuclear disarmament.”     

We need to keep one eye on the Great Prize, the safe harbor of Global Zero, and the other on that strange, bright ‘object on the horizon,’ still moving closer…



Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.