Trinitite: Glass Raindrops
The Power to Destroy the World
A Revolutionary Weapon
Relief and Shock
Members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders continue to raise concerns about the negative health effects fallout from the Trinity Test has caused them and their family members. Jim Eckles describes how the Trinity Test led to radioactive fallout.
Narrator: The Tularosa Basin Downwinders are individuals from central and southern New Mexico. They state that they have experienced undue hardship in the years since the Trinity Test because of the test's radioactive fallout. Many of the rural communities near the test site relied on cisterns and holding ponds for fresh water, and so radioactive fallout would have contaminated local water sources and food sources such as vegetables and animals. Eating food sources that have higher radiation levels can lead to various cancers, birth defects, and stillbirths. Downwinders believe the Trinity Test led to increased rates of cancer among local residents, other diseases that have caused financial and social stress, and death. They are seeking recognition for their suffering and compensation under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. When the Trinity Site is open to the public twice a year, Downwinders and their supporters gather to protest. Jim Eckles shares his thoughts on this issue.
Jim Eckles: Fallout, which was generated in the explosion, this uptake of metal and sand and earth into the fireball and gets irradiated, and you’ve got all of these elements made. There are radioactive elements beyond the plutonium, cesium, radioactive iodine, etc., etc. Most of them fall back to steady states pretty quickly, but a lot of them have long half-lives. They live on as the fireball rises. Of course, it forms a mushroom cloud and goes up to 40,000 feet.
Then the prevailing winds start carrying that cloud to the northeast. Of course, your bigger dust particles, materials are falling out at ground zero and immediately to the north. The smaller stuff starts falling out beyond that. You’ve got a plume of material distributed to the northeast. You go straight down the middle of that plume, and you’ve got fallout materials. As you get out perpendicular to that, it gets less and less and less.
This 40,000 feet gets this radioactive fallout up into the upper winds. It ends up going completely around the planet. Kodak reports that some of their packing material around film has got some radioactive dust in it, apparently, and fogs some of their film. It’s the straw that they used, which I think came from the Midwest.
Of course, the fallout, once it hits the sandy soil, gets buried in the ground pretty quickly. It was probably a hazard for those first few weeks. It would have been close to the ground, on buildings, on foliage, things like that.
The government didn’t do much follow-up on that. Of course, standards were not the standards we have today, either. They tolerated much more radiological exposure than we would today.
There is a group right now, for instance, the Tularosa Downwinders, claiming that ranchers in their area were exposed. The only problem they have is that in that map that Los Alamos produced where they measured radiation, Tularosa and the immediate area is not in that plume at all.
The fallout is still there, buried in the soil somewhere. Whether you can find it and prove that it came from Trinity Site, that’s something I don’t know anything about.
It’s still a sensitive issue. At the open houses, we have protesters that sit outside the gate and carry signs, letting the public know that this is still a concern for some people.
Trinitite: Glass Raindrops
Trinitite is the famous green glass that was formed by the Trinity Test and that tourists can see at the site today. Manhattan Project veteran Val Fitch recalls collecting some trinitite after the test, and Jim Eckles explains how the material was formed.
Narrator: Trinitite is a radioactive green glassy substance that resulted from the Trinity Test explosion. It can still be found by ground zero. Val Fitch, who served in the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos and who would go on to win the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics, remembers collecting some trinitite after the Trinity Test.
Val Fitch: We drove on a bit further to the point where the sand had been turned to glass. I pulled a little box out of the back that had contained a filament transformer, and I reached down with that box and scooped up some of the glassy material. We didn’t know what the radiation level was, but thought it was a good time to get out of there, so that we did.
Narrator: Jim Eckles explains how trinitite is formed.
Jim Eckles: I want to talk about the trinitite, the glass. Because when I first saw Trinity Site back in 1977, the accepted explanation of why the crater floor was once covered with this green glass was that the fireball sitting there, as it started to rise, heated the sandy bottom enough, to create glass. That’s what we told people for decades.
Then we got contacted by Rob Hermes and Bill Strickfaden at Los Alamos. They came up with this idea that the tower is vaporized in the fireball. They looked at the ground zero pictures after the explosion, and deduced the center section where it’s not just a depression, it’s actually gouged out. The sand is gone. It probably got lifted up into the fireball was well. It goes flashing into a liquid, maybe a gas, comes back to a liquid. In other words, we get a mist up in the fireball of liquid rock. It becomes raindrop physics after that. Stuff starts bumping together, and they start falling out.
Some of it—well, a lot of it—the little spheres of raindrops of glass hardened and remained intact on the ground. Thus they are in an anthill, these little bitty droplets. Some of it comes down still in a liquid, puddles, and starts to form bigger puddles. The heat still coming from above gives it a nice smooth surface on the top. In some places, there is no glass. This mechanism starts to explain pretty much everything that we see at Trinity site.
The pieces of trinitite are always on the surface now, as it rains and the winds blow and stuff comes up. When we have an open house, kids are always bringing those pieces of trinitite. We have tried to hammer it in their heads that they can’t take it home with them. They bring it to us and we throw it away afterwards, throw it back on the ground.
The Power to Destroy the World
Historian Jon Hunner provides a perspective on the importance of the Trinity Test in world history.
Narrator: The Trinity Test was a significant event in world history. Historian Jon Hunner offers his perspective.
Jon Hunner: Historians in the future will look back to the 20th century and see what happened at Los Alamos, and particularly what happened at Trinity with the detonation of the first atomic bomb, as the most significant—or at least one of the most significant—events of human history, at least in the 20th century.
This is where the binding energy of the atom is finally released and somewhat controlled by humans. So this new form of energy is released. This new form of destructive capability is released. It's both a promise and a peril. The promise of energy, sometimes limitless. In the early atomic age, they said, “Well, we’ll generate electricity from atomic energy. It’ll be so cheap, you won't have an electric meter on your house.” There was this promise of a future where energy was limitless and inexpensive, if not free.
There's also the peril of atomic weapons, which is of course the destruction of human history. I call it “Cliocide.” Clio is the muse of history. It goes back to the ancient Greeks. All these different occupations had muses. The muse of history was Clio. I say that atomic weapons could bring about “Cliocide,” which is the death of human history.
Scientists involved with the Manhattan Project knew this, and they said, “Before Trinity, before the Manhattan Project, it was only God who could destroy the earth. After the Manhattan Project and after Trinity, now humans had that ability.”
Perhaps that's why [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, sometime after the Trinity explosion, said, “I have become death, destroyer of worlds,” which goes back to a Hindu deity who is poised on a moment’s notice to destroy earth. It’s only through the devotion of his followers that this god doesn't destroy earth. Well, now humans had that ability, to destroy the earth.
A Revolutionary Weapon
Manhattan Project physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls and author Richard Rhodes how the atomic bomb has transformed modern warfare.
Narrator: Manhattan Project physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls and author Richard Rhodes explain the significance of the atomic bomb for modern warfare.
Rudolf Peierls: We said, “Well, this is very important because this means for warfare, this will be an extremely revolutionary weapon.”
Richard Rhodes: There’s a reason why we have had no world-scale wars since 1945. I think that reason is, the introduction of this fundamental change in our relationship with nature called the discovery of nuclear fission, and in the course of time, the application of fission to making fusion work, hydrogen bombs, if you will.
The relationship between nation-states was affected, because if two countries have nuclear weapons, they just simply can’t go to war with each other. If they do, they’ll destroy each other. That’s not the point of a war. The point of a war is to win a victory of some kind, one side, and the other side loses. But if both sides are destroyed, then war is pointless.
I’m not saying the weapons themselves keep the peace. I am saying that the fact that this technology makes it possible to have Mutually Assured Destruction, as it was called, whether it’s at the level of knowing how to build these weapons or at the level of actually having arsenals full of them. That’s made a deep and fundamental change in human affairs.
Relief and Shock
Manhattan Project veterans Val Fitch and Felix DePaul recalls different reactions to the Trinity Test. Some people were pleased with the test’s success, while others were horrified at the destruction such a powerful bomb would cause.
Narrator: Just how overwhelming was the experience of witnessing the Trinity Test? Val Fitch and Felix DePaula, who both served in the Army at Los Alamos, try to explain.
Val Fitch: After it was over and people started milling about and coming in and out of the main control bunker and so on, there was an MP on duty at the door. Just a single MP. He was supposedly there to control access, even though it had to be mainly symbolism, because the security was just knowing each other.
I saw him with an absolutely ashen face. I simply remarked to him, “Oh, the war will soon be over.” That was my main reaction at the time. And of course, I was right, fortunately.
Felix DePaula: The only thing I’d ever seen in the way of explosives was firecrackers, you know. So we had a great big explosive.
But this old man, an older man, I remember his name was Pop Borden. He had come from upstate New York. Now, this man had worked with dynamite in his days before he got in the service. I recall three, maybe four days after the detonation, that man still couldn’t get over the detonation. He couldn’t get over it. He’d go around and he’d say, “That’s the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
It still didn’t really make much of an impression on me until later on, after we had seen pictures of what had happened after they had dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he could see the devastation that it could bring on, because he had something to compare it to. I had nothing to compare it to.