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On Anniversary of First Nuke Test in N.M., Scientists Recall Its Sobering Impact

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    When the first atom bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert 60 years ago in a test code-named "Trinity," J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled a line from Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
    It has been more than a decade since the United States has tested a nuclear explosive, but no matter how long the time that passes, the experience is indelibly etched in the mind and thinking of those who have felt the ground shake, or who have seen the blast.

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    Far from creating a generation of Dr. Strangeloves infatuated with the power they have created, weapons program veterans say, experiencing a test is sobering.
    Retired Sandia National Laboratories nuclear weapons designer Bob Peurifoy's first experience with the fearsome power of a nuclear blast came in the spring of 1953— a test called "Harry."
    Installed on a tower at the federal government's Nevada Test Site, the nuclear bomb used in Harry created a blast equivalent to some 32,000 tons of TNT— 50 percent larger than Trinity.
    Miles from ground zero, at an observation post known as "Photograph Hill," he saw the giant, boiling, multicolored mushroom cloud bloom from the desert floor. "It was something to behold," Peurifoy recalled in a recent interview.
    "They are scary," he said. "They focus the mind."
    In an interview with a television reporter 25 years after Trinity, Frank Oppenheimer— brother of Manhattan Project chief scientist Robert Oppenheimer— recalled the world's first atomic blast:
    "There was this sense of this ominous cloud hanging over us," Frank Oppenheimer said. "It was so brilliant purple, with all the radioactive glowing. And it just seemed to hang there forever ... It was terrifying."
    Trinity was the culmination of 23 months of intense work at Los Alamos, the new laboratory set up in the mountains of northern New Mexico for the top-secret World War II task of making an atomic bomb.
    At 5:29:45 a.m. local time on July 16, 1945, the flash from the plutonium bomb lit up the desert of what Spanish explorers had called the Jornada del Muerte, a stretch of forbidding desert in what is now White Sands Missile Range.
    It set the stage for the deadly bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month, and inaugurated nearly a half century of nuclear testing around the world.
    Much of that testing was done above ground until 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibited open-air nuclear blasts in part because of the dangers of the radioactive fallout they spread.
    Driven underground, U.S. nuclear weapons testing continued in tunnels and shafts dug into the Nevada desert until September 1992, when a test code-named "Divider" became the last of 1,030 nuclear tests to be conducted by the United States.
    The Soviets' last test was in 1990, Great Britain in 1991, and China and France in 1996. Only India and Pakistan have tested since then— a far cry from the heyday of nuclear testing in 1962, when 178 tests were set off worldwide, primarily by the United States and the Soviet Union, in the runup to the Limited Test Ban Treaty.
    The nuclear test remains a quintessential demonstration of national military might, though, and the international community is nervously eyeing North Korea, the next nation thought to be on the verge of developing the bomb.
    At the Nevada Test Site, workers maintain a modest capability to resume nuclear explosions if needed, but they acknowledge it would take years to set up for an actual blast, and none is planned.
    But even with no tests in more than a decade, the experience still tempers the work and attitudes of those running the nuclear weapons program today.
    Tom Hunter, now director of Sandia National Laboratories, remembers feeling the ground shake from the first tests he experienced in the 1960s.
    "You get this overwhelming sense," he recalled, "that this is serious stuff."
Atomic Anniversary:
    The Trinity Site, on White Sands Missile Range, will be open to the public Saturday, the 60th anniversary of the atom bomb test that launched the nuclear age. to get to the site, take the Stallion Range Center turnoff from Highway 380, 12 miles east of San Antonio, N.M. The gate will be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Trinity Site is another 17 miles along paved roads.