Nuclear physics was not strong in the country, as much of the ideology of the Soviet Union revolved around science for primarily practical and industrial applications. Fearing the possibility of something like Lysenkoism in physics, Soviet physicists, led by Abram Ioffe, had attempted to emphasize their commitment to strengthening the Soviet economy and industry, and were purposefully avoiding lines of research which could be accused of being too "theoretical" and "impractical," which is what nuclear physics was generally perceived to be in the 1920s and early 1930s.
After the discovery of nuclear fission in the late 1930s, scientists in the Soviet Union, like scientists all over the world, realized that nuclear reactions could, in theory, be used to release large amounts of binding energy from the atomic nucleus of uranium. As in the West, the news of fission created great excitement amongst Soviet scientists and many physicists switched their lines of research to those involving nuclear physics in particular, as it was considered a promising field of research. Few scientists thought it would be possible to harness the power of nuclear energy for human purposes within the span of many decades. Soviet nuclear research was not far behind Western scientists: Yakov Frenkel did the first theoretical work on fission in the Soviet Union in 1940, and Georgii Flerov and Lev Rusinov concluded that 3±1 neutrons were emitted per fission only days after similar conclusions had been reached by the team of Frederic Joliot-Curie.
Joseph Stalin was first informed of American nuclear research because of a letter sent to him in April 1942 by Georgii Flerov, who pointed out that nothing was being published in the physics journals by Americans, Britons, or Germans, on nuclear fission since the year of its discovery, 1939, and that indeed many of the most prominent physicists in Allied countries seemed not to be publishing at all. This nonevent was very suspicious, and accordingly Flerov urged Stalin to start a program. However, because the Soviet Union was still involved with the war with Germany on its home front, a large scale domestic effort could not yet be undertaken.
The project benefited from espionage information gathered from the Manhattan Project, which the Soviets code-named Enormoz. The intelligence obtained by Pavel Sudoplatov's agents under the control of Lavrentiy Beria from the Atomic Spies—Alan Nunn May, Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall and the Rosenbergs—was not however shared freely among the project's scientists, but was rather used as a "check" on the accuracy of their work. After the United States used its atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, and published the Smyth Report outlining the basics of their wartime program, Beria had the scientists duplicate the American process as closely as possible in terms of development of resources and factories. The reason was expedience: the goal was to produce a working weapon as soon as possible, and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki they knew that the Allied design would work.
Beria largely distrusted the scientists working under him, which was why he rarely gave them direct access to intelligence information after 1945. He was fond of having multiple teams of scientists working on the same problems, who would only find out the existence of the other team of scientists when they were brought together before Beria to explain the differences in their results with one another. Though Beria was not the chief of security at this time, his reputation for ruthlessness was always present, and the Soviet atomic bomb project received status as the highest priority of national security after 1945.
Scholar Alexei Kojevnikov has estimated, based on newly released Soviet documents, that the primary way in which the espionage may have sped up the Soviet project was that it allowed Khariton to avoid dangerous tests to determine the size of the critical mass: "tickling the dragon's tail," as it were called in the U.S., consumed a good deal of time and claimed at least two lives; see Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. and Louis Slotin.
The first Soviet test of a "true" hydrogen bomb in the megaton range was on November 22, 1955. It was dubbed RDS-37 by the Soviets. It was of the multi-staged, radiation implosion thermonuclear design called Sakharov's "Third Idea" in the USSR and the Teller-Ulam design in the USA.
Chagan was shot in the Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy or Project 7, the Soviet equivalent of the US Operation Plowshare to investigate peaceful uses of nuclear weapons. It was a subsurface detonation (note the debris fallout in the photo), and was fired on January 15, 1965. The site was a dry bed of the Chagan River at the edge of the Semipalatinsk Test Site, and was chosen such that the lip of the crater would dam the river during its high spring flow. The resultant crater had a diameter of 408 meters and was 100 meters deep. A major lake (10,000,000 m³) soon formed behind the 20-35 m high upraised lip, known as Lake Chagan or Lake Balapan.
The photo is sometimes confused with Joe 1 in literature.
|Cold War name||Current name||Established||Primary function(s)|
|Arzamas-16||Sarov||1946||Weapons design and research, warhead assembly|
|Chelyabinsk-40 and later 65||Ozyorsk||1947||Plutonium production, component manufacturing|
|Sverdlovsk-45||Lesnoy||1947||Uranium enrichment, warhead assembly|
|Tomsk-7||Seversk||1949||Uranium enrichment, component manufacturing|
|Chelyabinsk-70||Snezhinsk||1957||Weapons design and research|
The hastily constructed nuclear industry providing the materials for the bomb project has caused severe environmental and health hazards by the release of radioactivity. The single most damaging incident took place at the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant Mayak in 1957 and is considered to be the largest release of radioactivity by accident, several times more severe than the Chernobyl disaster.
Since their writing, though, a number of important documents have been released by the Russian government under the heading Atomnyi Proekt SSSR starting in 1998, which have suggested significant changes from the other historical sources (which were bound by certain methodological problems relating to the state of declassification at the time of their writing). Many corrections have been made in a number of chapters in Kojevnikov's 2004 book: