Nuclear Friday: Will we have Beer?

Finally, an important question. Will we be able to salvage beer after a nuclear attack? Short answer, yes. I hope that makes everyone feel better. The US government really did test the effects of nuclear weapons on beer during Operation Teapot, a series of 14 tests during 1954 and 1955.

They were actually investigating much more than beer. Operation Cue was a program to investigate the ability of human bodies and various kinds of civilian structures to withstand a nuclear detonation at differing ranges from the blast. And the people who survive have to eat and drink, don’t they? So some of the structures were stocked with food and drink, and some food and drink was left out in the open and directly exposed to radiation at close range, though they took measures to shield it from most of the shock wave of the blast.

So will thirsty survivors be able to emerge from their shelters and then be able to replenish their precious bodily fluids by scavenging soft drinks and beer from damaged stores? Would even beer that had been left out on the street near ground zero be safe? Yes, bottles, at least the 1950’s returnable type, held up surprisingly well even when exposed to intense radiation and moderate blast. Beverages very close to the central fireball became mildly radioactive from neutron flux, but were deemed safe by the standards of the time. Bottles and cans just a bit further out had no residual radioactivity. And drink containers of every type survived the blast wave very well. That makes sense because they are designed to hold pressure inside, and the internal pressure helps them resist external pressure. Most bottles and cans that were destroyed were either punctured or shattered by flying debris, or broke when they fell off of simulated store shelves.

But before you start thinking I am an overly optimistic loon who thinks we’d have just gotten our hair mussed in a nuclear exchange, let’s take a look at an official Civil Defense film about Operation Cue. I will explain some of the problems with its conclusions in a moment.

First off, this video can be confusing because of the use of code names. Just remember: Operation Teapot – series of 14 tests. Operation Cue – test program on structures, bodies, and food. Operation Cue performed a series of tests during two of the bomb tests during Operation Teapot. This video depicts the Apple-2 shot, one of the 14 tests of operation teapot. Operation Cue also did studies at the Apple-1 shot.

You will also notice this is a 1964 re-release of an earlier film. The part with the narrator at the beginning was not in the original. The Soviets didn’t build their first megaton level weapon until around the end of the time period covered by Operation Teapot. The narration in the rest of the video is in the original 50’s version. And notice the storyline about the female reporter? Well, food safety is a big part of the film, so  we gotta have a woman covering that part. She covers some of the technical aspects of the test too, but this is still a fine example of 1950’s gender expectations.

And now I will ask the question that some of you are probably asking. ARE THESE PEOPLE COMPLETELY INSANE?  Yes, they were, but just a little. Mostly they were ignorant.

Apple-2 was a “tower shot” of 28-30 kilotons, a little less than 50% stronger than the Fat Man device dropped on Nagasaki. It was a plutonium implosion pure fission weapon similar in design to the Fat Man. The exact data on this particular bomb is still a classified secret, so I don’t know the exact amount of plutonium that was in the bomb, but the general consensus among nuke geeks is that Apple-2 contained less plutonium than Fat Man. It was a much more efficient bomb, more of its fissile material underwent complete fission. The experimenters were expecting 25 kT and they got a little over 28. That extra yield could only have come from unexpected efficiency, even more plutonium than expected split all the way. Awesome. Lower amount of residual radiation and less fallout. What’s the problem then?

APPLE-2 was a tower shot, that’s the problem. It wasn’t detonated over a half mile above ground like Fat Man. It was just stuck up on a tower like the very first test back in 1945. There are no pictures of the tower in the video, and no pictures anywhere else, but I’m pretty sure this tower was not a half mile tall. So even though Apple-2 was a cleaner bomb, the radiation risks were much higher than at Nagasaki.

When the bombs fell on Japan, they were set to detonate high in the air to maximize the area covered by the blast wave. This meant they generated very little dangerous fallout. In the case of an air burst like this, the only source of fallout is the unconsumed fissile material, and the height of the explosion assures that most of that is sucked back into the “stem” of the mushroom cloud and dispersed at densities that are not very harmful. Yes, there were “black rain” deaths in Japan, but not very many. Things could have been much worse under different conditions.

And the conditions that would make things worse are exactly the conditions you get with a tower shot like Apple-2. In a tower shot the central fireball and its neutron flux actually touch the ground. Neutron absorption by materials in the ground actually generates new radioactive materials. And since the blast is so low, much of this material is blown outward close to the ground near the blast and some just stays right there near ground zero. And the radioactive material that does get sucked up in the stem tends to fall in a long dense stream depending on the wind.

So yes, the people in the video were risking quite a bit by going into Survival Town only a day and a half after the blast. Nagasaki was safer. But the story of how we started taking fallout more seriously will have to wait for a later Nuclear Friday. In the meantime. Enjoy  your salvaged beer.

Pop culture bonus link: The above civil defense film was the inspiration for the Doom Town sequence in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. But do you know there is a connection between that movie and the early drafts of of Back to the Future? Read about it here.

Cool reference: My favorite nuke geek discusses nukebeer.

As always, feel free to leave a comment. Questions about fallout? And what about that neutron flux? Didn’t there used to be a bomb that worked that way? There still is!






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