It made news last week when the PANTEX plant in Texas completed dismantling one of the last Cold War monsters, an early-’60s vintage USAF B-53 nuclear gravity bomb. Using the same “physics package” as the Titan II ICBM warhead, the B-53 was a bunker-buster fitted with huge parachutes and an aluminum-honeycomb crumple zone; its 9 megatons of fission and fusion power could pulverize granite mountains and reduce whole cities to radioactive ash. Within strategic-arms treaties, the U.S. managed retain a few in reserve until the late 1990s — when smaller, more accurate weapons were deployed in the same bunker-busting role.
The B-53 had a venerable pedigree, according to Nuclearweaponarchive.org: “The Mk-53 apparently can trace a design lineage back to the very first solid-fuel radiation implosion device ever tested, the Shrimp detonated in the Castle Bravo test.”
It’s also the 50th anniversary of the Tsar of Bombs, “Big Ivan” as it was known to its creator Andrei Sakharov.
Nikita Khrushchev ordered several nuclear spectacles to be staged during JFK’s first year in office, and Sakharov’s 100-megaton bomb was to be the climax. No bomb so gigantic had yet been designed or tested, but when the Premier/General Secretary notified the world of the forthcoming test, to commemorate the October Revolution, Sahkarov and his team got cracking. One would not want to fail Krushchev.
The team decided to substitute inert lead for uranium in the third-stage tampers; this cut the bomb’s yield in half, but also greatly reduced the fallout, which could have boosted atmospheric radioactivity by 25 percent.
In less than 10 months, the Arzamas-16 weaponeers developed and built an enormous device as large as a small tank — a bomb so big that the Bison bomber to carry it required radical surgery on its bomb bay in order to fit just part of the weapon’s bulk inside the fuselage. If anything displayed the military impracticality of such a weapon it was this, for the slow turboprop Bison was slowed further by drag and maximum payload. There was no target in Western Europe big enough to merit such a blow, even if the lumbering Bison made it through air defenses.
Big Ivan was released over the Novaya Zemlya Test Range on October 30, 1961 and exploded at 13,000 feet altitude. The detonation was measured at 57 megatons and produced a magnitude-5 earthquake. Everything was obliterated out to 16 miles from ground zero, everything knocked flat out to 30 miles. Unprotected observers could have received 3rd-degree burns over 60 miles away.
The remains of Big Ivan are embedded in the bones of everyone alive on Earth at that time.