Sakharov and Kurchatov,
1957, Kurchatov asked Sakharov to write an article denouncing
the new American military development of a so-called “clean
bomb” that would leave less radioactive debris. Sakharov took
the matter more seriously than a mere propaganda exercise. Some Western
activists had begun to warn about the dangers of radioactive fallout
from any nuclear explosion. Passionate debate was under way in the
United States and elsewhere. Using available biological data, Sakharov
calculated that detonation of a one-megaton “clean” H-bomb
would produce enough radioactive carbon to have long-lasting global
effects, resulting in 6,600 deaths worldwide over the next 8,000 years.
Sakharov’s papers, “Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions
and Nonthreshold Biological Effects,” and “The Radioactive
Danger of Nuclear Tests,” disputed the soothing conclusions
of the American weapons specialist Edward Teller, as well as most
of his Soviet colleagues, who argued that tests of nuclear weapons
were practically safe. For Sakharov, the death toll from nuclear testing
in the atmosphere – however small compared to deaths from other
causes – was simply a fact proved by science, with inescapable
consequences of radioactive carbon do not mitigate the moral responsibility
for future victims. Only an extreme lack of imagination can let one ignore
suffering that occurs out of sight. The conscience of the modern scientist
must not make distinctions between the suffering of his contemporaries
and the suffering of generations yet unborn.”
at the “Installation” in which Sakharov lived until 1968.
force of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,
10 October 1963. Photo shows the Washington signing of the
Protocol of Deposits of the Instruments of Ratification of the treaty.
The treaty itself was signed about two weeks earlier.
bombs and missile warheads in the Russian Atomic Weapon Museum at
Sarov ("the Installation"). If loaded with actual hydrogen
bombs, each would be capable of annihilating a
city. Sakharov's ideas were central to the design of some of these
bombs. Click on the picture to see a larger version.
raising the question: “What moral and political conclusions
must be made from these numbers?” Sakharov went beyond the boundaries
of the discipline of physics and accepted a role of greater responsibility.
He considered this paper as the starting point for his growing social
awareness. It was published in 1958 shortly after the Soviet Union
announced a temporary moratorium on nuclear tests.
The turning phase in the
career of Sakharov the weapon designer were the years 1961-63. In
July 1961 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to revoke the
moratorium on bomb tests, announcing his decision at a specially convened
meeting at the Kremlin. Sakharov was the only one who openly objected
that a renewal of testing would yield little technically while damaging
international security. But obeying the order from the head of state,
he took part in the preparations for testing. Sakharov trusted Khrushchev
– trusted too much – because of the politician’s
exposure of Stalin’s crimes, his mass rehabilitation of the
victims of the Terror, a general cultural “thaw,” and
the call for peaceful coexistence with the West at the Twentieth Party
Congress in 1956.
The so-called Tsar Bomb
was developed under Sakharov and tested on October 30, 1961. It was
the most powerful device ever exploded on Earth.
for more on Sakharov’s
Sakharov’s illusory world cracked the next year, 1962 when he
learned “the most terrible lesson” – he desperately
tried but failed to prevent another bomb test, which was unnecessary
from the technical point of view but still produced deadly fallout.
crime had been committed, and I couldn’t prevent it! A feeling
of impotence, unbearable bitterness, shame and humiliation overcame
me. I dropped my face on the table and wept. This was probably the most
terrible lesson of my life: you can’t sit on two chairs.”
“military-industrial complex” (similar to what President
Eisenhower had warned Americans against in his farewell address of
January 1961), had defeated Sakharov in September 1962. He could no
longer think that there was something important he did not know about
foreign policy or how capitalists conduct negotiations. This was all
domestic, internal, technical, all under his nose. His understanding
of his personal responsibility became even stronger.
He put this
understanding to work in facilitating the 1963 Moscow Ban on Testing.
a real international treaty was a difficult process
delayed by mutual distrust. Sakharov’s scientific estimates
of radioactive hazards, and his moral convictions, led him to continuing
efforts to push the Soviet leadership to stop atmospheric nuclear
tests. He finally succeeded in convincing them to accept an American
proposal for a limited ban. The 1963 Test-Ban Treaty, signed in Moscow
by the US, the USSR, and the United Kingdom, banned all nuclear weapons
tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and underwater, but allowed
the tests to continue underground.
“I consider the Moscow
Treaty of historic significance. It has saved the lives of hundreds
of thousands, possibly millions, of people who would have perished had
testing continued. And perhaps even more important, the treaty was a
step toward reducing the risk of thermonuclear war. I am proud of my
contribution to the Moscow Treaty.”
device at the Installation
that similar situations may arise again, Sakharov decided to remain
at the weapons design installation a while longer: “I still believed
that my presence at the Installation could at some crisis point be decisively
important,” he recalled, “and this was one of the reasons
I didn’t leave. . . . But from the fall of 1963, I began to work
seriously on pure science as well.”
Personal Responsibility, 1964-1968
The Hydrogen Bomb, 1950-1956
© 1998 -
American Institute of Physics and Gennady Gorelik