Visiting Trinity

October 11, 2017

by Steve

July 16, 1945. This is a date that everyone should know, because it marks the dawn of a new era in human history. This is the date of the detonation of the first nuclear device, which ushered in the nuclear age. Man had learned how to harness the power of the atom, and it would be used either for good, like unlimited energy or medical imaging, or evil, like destroying the entire planet. Or a bit of both. Scientists at Los Alamos had been working on the Manhattan project in secrecy trying to determine how to create a bomb that would use nuclear fission. There were huge technical challenges, and they were in a race with Germany. It was believed that whoever solved the problem first, would win the war. World War II.

I won't retell the history of the Manhattan project. You can read more about it here, if you like. The scientists were working on two different bomb types, a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb. It had been determined that you could trigger a nuclear reaction with enriched uranium by using explosives to force one mass of uranium into another, like a bullet going down the barrel of a gun into a target.  This was the design of the "Little Boy" bomb that was exploded over Hiroshima. They were so confident in it that it was not even tested prior to use. 

Part of the problem was that it was extremely difficult to get significant amounts of enriched uranium, so there was very little material available for testing. For this reason, they were also working on a plutonium bomb. But research had determined that the method of triggering nuclear fission in uranium would not work for plutonium, and a new method needed to be found. The design for the "Fat Man" plutonium bomb, the one dropped on Nagasaki, required a sphere of plutonium surrounded by explosives that would force it to compress on itself in an implosion that would trigger the nuclear reaction. This required incredibly precise timing and had never been done before. They were not sure if it would work, so they tested in the New Mexico desert.

Ground Zero
The Trinity Site is where that test was conducted. Miles away from any towns, in what is now a vast missile test range, it was the ideal location. The White Sands Missile Range is an active site for our nation's military to conduct missile tests, so it is closed to the public except for two days a year, when you can visit the Trinity Site, the ground zero of the nuclear age. The days are the first Saturday in April and in October. We happened to be staying in Ruidoso, NM, not too far away in early October, so I decided to go.

Geiger counter at ground zero

I knew in advance that there would not be a lot to see. A nuclear explosion tends to obliterate everything nearby, and of course 72 years have passed. But the semi-annual public access to the site is wildly popular, and people come from all over for this and begin lining up hours before opening. I arrived mid-morning, after driving across miles and miles of uninhabited desert. From the entrance of the missile range, it's still another 22 miles to the actual site. At ground zero there is an obelisk marking the spot directly below where the bomb was detonated. The tower that held the bomb 100 feet high was vaporized and only a small part of one leg remains visible in a lump of molten concrete.

Platform leg in molten concrete
The fireball, estimated to be one million degrees hot, vaporized tons of desert sand. As it cooled, the vaporized sand turned to liquid, and the sky rained boiling sand. Further cooling turned the sand back to solid, yielding a new mineral called Trinitite. While the site had been covered in this green glassy like substance, they have since removed it all so that visitors don't try to run off with it. They had samples on site for us to see and handle. It's still radioactive, although after 72 years it's a pretty low level. They do say that after you visit the site 10 times you get a free chest X-ray.

After visiting ground zero, I boarded a bus to see the small farmhouse where the bomb was assembled. I was struck by the ordinariness of it all. You kind of expect to see something a little more high-tech, but in 1945, this kind of science was pretty crude. They did seal the windows of the bomb-assembly room with plastic to keep the dust out.

the farmhouse

the assembly room

For me the site was a sobering reminder of the awesome power we have unleashed and the responsibility to use it carefully. The test bomb at Trinity was a much smaller version of the one detonated at Nagasaki, and that one was much smaller than the typical warhead in our nuclear arsenal. Yet it created an indentation in the earth 8 feet deep and a half mile across and lit up the sky for hundreds of miles. In Gallup, more than 200 miles away, they thought that the local armory had exploded.

If you're ever in this area in early April or October and get a chance to visit Trinity, I recommend it. It's not the greatest tourist site, there isn't a whole lot to see, but it is worth it to take the time and reflect a bit on the power that we have unleashed.

You Might Also Like


Popular Posts

Follow by Email