Birthplace of the A-bomb: Nuclear New Mexico: Past and future – by Tom Vaughn (Desert Exposure – August 2015)

The atomic genie was let out of the bottle 70 years ago here in New Mexico. It can’t be put back in; nobody wants it to go away. Nuclear medicine, nuclear power, atomic clocks, nuclear propulsion in submarines and spacecraft … the technological advances made possible by atomic research are not to be given up. Yet the genie is still capable of destroying worlds, or at least wreaking havoc locally. The challenge today is to keep it corralled.

The earliest uses of uranium ores in New Mexico had nothing to do with radioactivity. Ground to a powder, the yellowish minerals were used by Native Americans to color designs on deerskin cradle-board coverings.

In the 1920s, low-grade uranium ores (autunite and torbernite) were recovered from old silver mines in the White Signal and Black Hawk mining districts west of Silver City for use in glazes and to color glass. Significant uranium deposits in these areas were identified during the uranium boom of the 1950s.

World War II gave birth to the Manhattan Project — a search for a super-weapon that could give its wielder a decisive victory. Building on earlier research into radioactivity and atomic physics, both Germany and the United States raced to produce an atomic bomb.

On the recommendation of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Manhattan Project manager Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, Jr., chose the Los Alamos Ranch School in 1942 as the site of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Oppenheimer became the first director of LANL. The University of California operated the laboratory under contract to the U.S., becoming one of the first Federally Funded Research & Development Centers (FFRDC), joining public and academic resources in pursuit of national security solutions.

The Manhattan Project was super-secret and it moved very fast. Two models of nuclear detonation were studied — gun-type and implosion — using two different elements — uranium and plutonium. The first prototype in 1943 — named “Thin Man” after a Dashiell Hammett novel — was a plutonium gun-type bomb. It was 14 feet long, weighed four tons and was unwieldy to handle and deliver to the target.

Back to the drawing boards. Two detonation strategies were pursued — uranium gun-type and plutonium implosion. On July 16, 1945, LANL tested a uranium implosion bomb (“Gadget”) at the Trinity Site in the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range – the first nuclear weapon exploded in history. Its explosive power equaled 20,000 tons of TNT (20KT).

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