Premiering tonight on PBS (check your local listings) is the latest installment of WNET Thirteen’s, Secrets of the Dead. Tonight’s episode details the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union to build and detonate the world’s most powerful nuclear bomb. Beginning in the 1950’s, these two super powers worked blindly and pushed science into unknown territory.
The documentary begins with the United States leading the way in their goal to win the arms race. After the end of World War II, the U.S. Government realized that it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union would begin pursuing the atom bomb. Trying to stay one step ahead of their new Cold War enemies, the U.S. nuclear program took off. By 1954, the U.S. had already tested a hydrogen bomb and plans were set in motion to test a larger one on the remote Bikini Atoll islands of the South Pacific. The Natives were evacuated and navy ships were anchored 20 miles away while scientists were barricaded in a concrete bunker on one of the nearby islands . Originally, scientists believed this new bomb, “Castle Bravo,” would have a blast of 5 megatons. They miscalculated. The blast was 15 megatons!
It was thought that the isolation of the Bikini Atoll were make it a safe place to test this nuclear bomb. Instead, radioactive fallout carried to that naval ship, the USS Curtiss, as well as a small, Japanese fishing boat that was 82 miles from the islands. The scientists feared for their lives as the concrete walls shook, ready to collapse, and radiation levels steadily rose. The explosion was so enormous, three coral islands were vaporized and ash shot up 100,000 feet in the air. Anyone curious about the sheer devastating power of a nuclear bomb need only see the declassified footage from the Castle Bravo testing to understand why the Cold War filled the world with dread.
At the same time the U.S. was doing their testing, the Soviets were creating their own bombs. It seems that with each news report about U.S. success in their nuclear program, the USSR followed up with something far more powerful. While the Unites States soon began focusing on making smaller, more precise bombs, the Soviets continued working on weapons with the destructive power to wipe out entire cities. On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union achieved the dubious honor of creating the world’s biggest bomb. The “Tsar,” as is was called, was a 50 megaton monster that, when detonated, released energy that equated to ten times the entire quantity of explosives used in World War II. The Tsar made Castle Bravo look impotent. So devastating was the power of this one bomb that the man responsible for inventing the bomb, scientist Andrei Sakharov, became an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons soon after it was detonated.
The World’s Biggest Bomb is an intriguing hour of television that should interest both fans of science and historical documentaries. The detonation footage is chilling and really leaves one to wonder why anyone would want to have that kind of an arsenal at their fingertips. The scientists interviewed claim that it was for defensive purposes, to remain one step ahead of the enemy. I say, once you launch a nuclear attack, you won’t have any enemies to worry about, or friends or family, either. The documentary includes interviews with Dr. Harold Agnew, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of the men who worked on “Castle Bravo,” and Dr. Boris Altshuler, a nuclear scientist who worked with Sakharov. The most lively of the talking heads is historian Richard Rhodes, whose enthusiasm and ability to relate complex scientific terminology in layman terms makes him riveting to listen to whenever he appears on screen.
The World’s Biggest Bomb was written, produced and edited by Andy Webb and is narrated by Liev Shreiber. If you miss it on your local PBS station, you can also watch it on pbs.org/secrets.