Soviet atomic bomb project

The Soviet project to develop an atomic bomb began during World War II in the Soviet Union. The USSR tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949.

Nuclear physics in the Soviet Union

Soviet interest in nuclear physics had begun in the early 1930s, an era in which a variety of important nuclear discoveries and achievements were made (the identification of the neutron and positrons as fundamental particles, the operation of the first cyclotron to values of over 1 MeV, and the first splitting of the atomic nucleus by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton). The mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky had made a number of public calls even before 1917 for a survey of Russia's uranium deposits. But such surveys were never made, as it was discovered that the main motivation for uranium ores at the time—radium, which had scientific as well as medical uses—could be retrieved from borehole water from the Ukhta oilfields.

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.

Beginnings of the program

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.

Administration and personnel

The administrative head of the project was Stalin's former chief of security Lavrentii Beria, and its scientific head was the physicist Igor Kurchatov. The project started outside Moscow and later moved to the village of Sarov, which then disappeared from the maps for forty-five years.

Other important figures were Yuli Khariton, Yakov Zeldovich and the future dissident and lead theoretical designer of their hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov.


The USSR got details of British initial research, from Klaus Fuchs and possibly John Cairncross, though Alan Nunn May was recruited later in Canada. Beria’s report to Stalin of March 1942 had the MAUD report and other British documents (Rhodes page 53, 58).

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 SpiesAlan 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.

Logistical problems the Soviets faced

The single largest problem during the early Soviet project was the procurement of uranium ore, as it had no known domestic sources at the beginning of the project. The first Soviet nuclear reactor was fueled using uranium confiscated from the remains of the German atomic bomb project - eventually, however, large domestic sources were discovered.

Important Soviet nuclear tests

First Lightning

The first Soviet atomic test was First Lightning (Первая молния) August 29, 1949, and was code-named by the Americans as Joe 1. It was a replica of the American Fat Man bomb whose design the Soviets knew from espionage.

Joe Four

The first Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb was on August 12, 1953 and was nicknamed Joe 4 by the Americans; it was not a "true" fusion bomb (it was more like a "boosted" fission bomb than a staged thermonuclear device, and had a yield comparable to large fission weapons; around 90% of its yield was directly or indirectly from fission).


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.

Joe 1, Joe 4, and RDS-37 were all tested at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan.

Tsar Bomba

The Tsar Bomba (Царь бомба) was the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. It was a three-stage hydrogen bomb with a yield of about 50 megatons. This is equivalent to ten times the amount of all the explosives used in World War II combined. It was detonated on October 30, 1961, in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, and was capable of approximately 100 megatons, but was purposely reduced shortly before the launch. Although weaponized, it was not entered into service; it was simply a demonstration of the capabilities of the Soviet Union's military technology at that time. The explosion was hot enough to induce third degree burns at 100 km.


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.

Secret cities

During the Cold War the Soviet Union created at least ten closed cities, known as Atomgrads, in which nuclear weapons-related research and development took place. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all of the cities changed their names (most of the original code-names were simply the oblast and a number). All are still legally "closed", though some have parts of them accessible to foreign visitors with special permits (Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk).

Cold War name Current name Established Primary function(s)

Sarov 1946

Weapons design and research, warhead assembly

Novouralsk 1946

Uranium enrichment
Chelyabinsk-40 and later 65

Ozyorsk 1947

Plutonium production, component manufacturing

Lesnoy 1947

Uranium enrichment, warhead assembly

Seversk 1949

Uranium enrichment, component manufacturing

Zheleznogorsk 1950

Plutonium production

Tryokhgorny 1952

Warhead assembly

Zarechny 1955

Warhead assembly

Zelenogorsk 1956

Uranium enrichment

Snezhinsk 1957

Weapons design and research

Environmental impact

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.

See also


The two most authoritative books on the Soviet project are Holloway and Rhodes:

  • David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956 (Yale University Press, 1994), ISBN 0-300-06056-4
  • Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1995), ISBN 0-684-80400-X

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:

  • Alexei Kojevnikov, Stalin's Great Science: The Times and Adventures of Soviet Physicists (Imperial College Press, 2004), ISBN 1-86094-420-5

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