Why we longed for the peaceful atom: A flashback of Armageddon

Tuesday’s New York Times contains a William J. Broad article, “New video shows largest hydrogen bomb ever exploded,” explaining that Russia’s Rosatom has released a previously secret video of exactly that. In October 1961 the Soviet Union set off Tsar Bombya in remote Novaya Zemlya, an explosion almost unthinkably stupendous at 50 megatons, over 3,000 Hiroshima bombs’ worth, over three times as large as the largest U.S. hydrogen bomb test seven years earlier. The article above is behind a paywall but you can find the actual Rosatom video on YouTube! I don’t recommend you watch it – it is existentially terrifying, a 30-minute Soviet-triumphalist-style newsreel that rocked me, followed by what looks like 10 extra minutes of outtakes. Nihilism skulks a viewing – who can believe either the cataclysmic explosion or the matter-of-fact exposition!

Now why do I mention this newly excavated reminder of the excesses of the nuclear arms race, something I have no abiding interest in? Simply this: that period between 1954 and 1961 enfolds a generation of atomic scientists and engineers yearning (I don’t use that word lightly) for the “peaceful atom,” that is, nuclear electricity. If you lived through that half-decade or so, that era, would you not also dream of an Eden far from Tsar Bombya’s hell?