Carl Robichaud: Silence and a Patch of Green at the Soviet Union's Ground Zero

Semipalatinsk Observation Tower
Semipalatinsk Observation Tower

Carl Robichaud, Program Officer in International Peace and Security, is traveling with a group of journalists as part of the International Reporting Project’s trip to Kazakhstan, getting a firsthand look at energy, environment, human rights and nuclear issues there. He will be sending updates from the trip. You can read his first installment on nuclear test survivors here.

At the end of a dusty one-lane dirt road through the arid Kazak steppe, with its palate of greys and browns, we stop at a circle of lush green. Insects and birds flit above what looks like a small creek, the only spot of color across the desiccated plain.

This tiny oasis is the last remaining sign that anything happened on this spot. That and the beeping from the small handheld dosimeter, which constantly monitors our radiation levels. This oasis in Semipalatinsk was created sixty years ago this week, on August 12, 1953, by the detonation of the RDS-6/Joe-4 device, the first Soviet bomb to create a fusion or thermonuclear explosion. The small crater left by the bomb became a basin, where the limited water in the area collected, and improbably became the greenest spot in sight. This device was not a "true" hydrogen bomb since it derived nearly all of its yield from fission, but at 400 kilotons was still more than twenty times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It would pave the way to the first staged thermonuclear weapon just two years later, in 1955, with a massive yield of 1.4 megatons. The explosion was as hot as the surface of the sun. The era of thermonuclear deterrence had begun.

As terrible as the first fission weapons were, they would pale in comparison to the thermonuclear devices that would attain yields that were orders of magnitude higher. Soon a single submarine would hold enough firepower to devastate an entire nation. Robert Oppenheimer, chief architect of the U.S. atomic bomb, would later recall that upon viewing the Trinity test he remembered a line from the Bhagavad-Ghita: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another,” he said.

We scanned the landscape. Radiating from this center are several rows of observation towers, visible in the distance. These towers, referred to as “geese,” were once three stories each, but had decayed at different rates over decades of testing and now resembled the cairns of Easter Island. They were arrayed in several lines, each converging on this single point like the bulls-eye on a dartboard. It had rained earlier and long waves of clouds rolled on to the horizon. The place was completely quiet but for the wind. The serenity made it hard to imagine that this was the very spot where the very forces of the sun had been unleashed upon the surface of the earth.