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Soviet Atomic Bomb Project
Andrei Sakharov and Igor Kurchatov.jpeg
The fathers of Soviet nuclear program dr. Andrei Sakharov (left) with dr. Igor Kurchatov (right)]]
Active 1940-1949
Country Soviet Union
Allegiance  USSR
Branch Emblema NKVD.svg NKVD
Lavrentiy Beria

The Soviet project to develop an atomic bomb began during World War II in the Soviet Union. The program was started after Stalin learned of the American efforts to developed an Atomic bomb. The scientific research was directed by noted Soviet nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov. The USSR tested its first nuclear weapon in August 1949.


Nuclear physics in the Soviet Union

Soviet interest in nuclear physics had begun in the early 1930s, an era in which a variety of important nuclear discoveries and achievements were made (the identification of the neutron and proton as fundamental particles, the operation of the first cyclotron to values of over 1 MeV, and the first splitting of the atomic nucleus by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton). The mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky had made a number of public calls even before 1917 for a survey of Russia's uranium deposits. But such surveys were never made, as it was discovered that the main motivation for uranium ores at the time—radium, which had scientific as well as medical uses—could be retrieved from borehole water from the Ukhta oilfields.

Nuclear physics was not strong in the country, as much of the ideology of the Soviet Union revolved around science for primarily practical and industrial applications. Fearing the possibility of something like Lysenkoism in physics, Soviet physicists, led by Abram Ioffe, had attempted to emphasize their commitment to strengthening the Soviet economy and industry, and were purposefully avoiding lines of research which could be accused of being too "theoretical" and "impractical," which is what nuclear physics was generally perceived to be in the 1920s and early 1930s.

After the discovery of nuclear fission in the late 1930s, scientists in the Soviet Union, like scientists all over the world, realized that nuclear reactions could, in theory, be used to release large amounts of binding energy from the atomic nucleus of uranium. As in the West, the news of fission created great excitement amongst Soviet scientists and many physicists switched their lines of research to those involving nuclear physics in particular, as it was considered a promising field of research. Few scientists thought it would be possible to harness the power of nuclear energy for human purposes within the span of many decades. Soviet nuclear research was not far behind Western scientists: Yakov Frenkel did the first theoretical work on fission in the Soviet Union in 1940, and Georgii Flerov and Lev Rusinov concluded that 3±1 neutrons were emitted per fission only days after similar conclusions had been reached by the team of Frederic Joliot-Curie.

Beginnings of the program

Joseph Stalin was first informed of American nuclear research because of a letter sent to him in April 1942 by Georgii Flerov, who pointed out that nothing was being published in the physics journals by Americans, Britons, or Germans, on nuclear fission since the year of its discovery, 1939, and that indeed many of the most prominent physicists in Allied countries seemed not to be publishing at all. This nonevent was very suspicious, and accordingly Flerov urged Stalin to start a program. However, because the Soviet Union was still involved with the war with Germany on its home front, a large scale domestic effort could not yet be undertaken.

Administration and personnel

The administrative head of the project was initially Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, but he was replaced in 1944 by the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) chief Lavrentii Beria. The scientific head of the project was the nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov. Other important figures included Yuli Khariton, Yakov Zeldovich and the future dissident and lead theoretical designer of the hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov.


The Soviet atomic project benefited from highly successful espionage efforts on the part of the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) as well as the foreign intelligence department of the NKVD. Evidence from intelligence sources in the UK had a role to play in the decision of the Soviet State Defense Council (GKO), in September 1942, to approve resolution 2352, which signalled the beginning of the Soviet atom bomb project.

Through sources in the Manhattan project, notably Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet intelligence obtained important information on the progress of the US atomic bomb effort. Intelligence reports were shown to the head of the Soviet atomic project Igor Kurchatov and had a significant impact on the direction of his own team's research.

For example, Soviet work on methods of uranium isotope separation was altered when it transpired, to Kurchatov's surprise, that the Americans had opted for the gaseous diffusion method. Whilst research on other separation methods continued throughout the war years, the emphasis was placed on replicating US success with gaseous diffusion. Another important breakthrough, attributed to intelligence, was the possibility of using plutonium, instead of uranium, in a fission weapon. Extraction of plutonium in the so-called "uranium pipe" allowed the bypass of the difficult process of uranium separation altogether - something that Kurchatov had learned from the Manhattan project rather than the efforts of his own team.

In 1945 the Soviet intelligence obtained rough "blueprints" of the first US atomic device, which may have contributed to the Soviet bomb project. Scholar Alexei Kojevnikov has estimated, based on newly released Soviet documents, that the primary way in which the espionage may have sped up the Soviet project was that it allowed Khariton to avoid dangerous tests to determine the size of the critical mass: "tickling the dragon's tail," as it was called in the U.S., consumed a good deal of time and claimed at least two lives; see Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. and Louis Slotin.

In the 1990s, with the declassification of Soviet intelligence materials, which showed the extent and the type of the information obtained by the Soviets from US sources, a heated debate ensued in Russia and abroad as to the relative importance of espionage, as opposed to the Soviet scientists' own efforts, in the making of the Soviet bomb. The vast majority of scholars agree that whereas the Soviet atomic project was first and foremost a product of local expertise and scientific talent, it is clear that espionage efforts contributed to the project in various ways and most certainly shortened the time needed to develop the atomic bomb.

Logistical problems the Soviets faced

The single largest problem during the early Soviet project was the procurement of uranium ore, as it had no known domestic sources at the beginning of the project. The first Soviet nuclear reactor was fueled using uranium confiscated from the remains of the German atomic bomb project. The Germans themselves got most of this uranium from invaded Belgium who mined it in its African colony Congo. Further sources of uranium in the early years of the program were mines in East Germany (SAG Wismut), Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Poland—eventually, however, large domestic sources were discovered.

The uranium for the Soviet nuclear weapons program came from the following countries in the years 1945 to 1950 (mine production only):

  • 1945: Soviet Union: 14.6 t
  • 1946: Soviet Union: 50.0 t; Germany: 15 t; Czechoslovakia: 18t; Bulgaria: 26.6t
  • 1947: Soviet Union: 129.3 t; Germany: 150 t; Czechoslovakia: 49.1 t; Bulgaria: 7.6t; Poland: 2.3t
  • 1948: Soviet Union: 182.5 t; Germany: 321.2 t; Czechoslovakia: 103.2 t; Bulgaria: 18.2t; Poland: 9.3t
  • 1949: Soviet Union: 278.6 t; Germany: 767.8 t; Czechoslovakia: 147.3 t; Bulgaria: 30.3t; Poland: 43.3t
  • 1950: Soviet Union: 416.9 t; Germany: 1,224 t; Czechoslovakia: 281.4 t; Bulgaria: 70.9t; Poland: 63.6t [1]

Important Soviet nuclear tests

Joe One, the first Soviet atomic test.


The first Soviet atomic test was First Lightning (Первая молния) August 29, 1949, and was code-named by the Americans as Joe 1. The design was very similar to the first US "fatman" plutonium bomb, using TNT/hexogen implosion lens design.


On September 24, 1951, a 38.3 kiloton device was tested based on tritium "boosted" uranium implosion device (not a shot-gun design like the US "thin man" bomb) with a levitated core.[2] This test was code named Joe-2 by American analysts.


On October 18, 1951, a 41.2 kiloton device was detonated, a boosted weapon using a composite construction of levitated plutonium core and a uranium 235 shell. Code named Joe-3 in the USA, this was the first Soviet air-dropped bomb test. Released at an altitude of 10 km, it detonated 400 meters above the ground.


RDS-4 represented a branch of research on small tactical weapons. It was a boosted fission device using plutonium in a "levitated" core design. The first test was an air drop on August 23, 1953, yielding 28 kilotons. The RDS-4 comprised the warhead of the R-5M medium range ballistic missile, which was tested with a live warhead for the first and only time on February 2, 1956. The RDS-5 was a similar levitated core design but with a composite plutonium core and uranium 235 shell.


The first Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb was on August 12, 1953 and was nicknamed Joe 4 by the Americans. It used a layer-cake design of fission and fusion fuels (uranium 235 and lithium-6 deuteride) and produced a yield of 400 kilotons, mostly from neutron-initiated fission rather than fusion.


A much lower-power version of the RDS-4, with a 3-10 kiloton yield (the RDS-9) was developed for the T-5 nuclear torpedo. A 3.5 kiloton underwater test was performed with the torpedo on September 21, 1955.


The mushroom cloud from the first "true" Soviet hydrogen bomb test in 1955.

The first Soviet test of a "true" hydrogen bomb in the megaton range was on November 22, 1955. It was dubbed RDS-37 by the Soviets. It was of the multi-staged, radiation implosion thermonuclear design called Sakharov's "Third Idea" in the USSR and the Teller-Ulam design in the USA, [1]

A color image of RDS-37.

Joe 1, Joe 4, and RDS-37 were all tested at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan.

Tsar Bomba

The Tsar Bomba (Царь-бомба) was the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. It was a three-stage hydrogen bomb with a yield of about 50 megatons.[3] This is equivalent to ten times the amount of all the explosives used in World War II combined.[4] It was detonated on October 30, 1961, in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, and was capable of approximately 100 megatons, but was purposely reduced shortly before the launch. Although weaponized, it was not entered into service; it was simply a demonstrative testing on the capabilities of the Soviet Union's military technology at that time. The explosion was hot enough to induce third degree burns at 100 km distance[5]. Maria Mayer also helped with this bomb.


Chagan nuclear test, photo not to be confused with Joe 1.

Chagan was shot in the Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy or Project 7, the Soviet equivalent of the US Operation Plowshare to investigate peaceful uses of nuclear weapons. It was a subsurface detonation (note the debris fallout in the photo), and was fired on January 15, 1965. The site was a dry bed of the Chagan River at the edge of the Semipalatinsk Test Site, and was chosen such that the lip of the crater would dam the river during its high spring flow. The resultant crater had a diameter of 408 meters and was 100 meters deep. A major lake (10,000,000 m³) soon formed behind the 20–35 m high upraised lip, known as Lake Chagan or Lake Balapan.

The photo is sometimes confused with Joe 1 in literature.

Secret cities

During the Cold War the Soviet Union created at least ten closed cities, known as Atomgrads, in which nuclear weapons-related research and development took place. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all of the cities changed their names (most of the original code-names were simply the oblast and a number). All are still legally "closed", though some have parts of them accessible to foreign visitors with special permits (Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk).

Cold War name Current name Established Primary function(s)
Arzamas-16 Sarov 1946 Weapons design and research, warhead assembly
Sverdlovsk-44 Novouralsk 1946 Uranium enrichment
Chelyabinsk-40 and later 65 Ozyorsk 1947 Plutonium production, component manufacturing
Sverdlovsk-45 Lesnoy 1947 Uranium enrichment, warhead assembly
Tomsk-7 Seversk 1949 Uranium enrichment, component manufacturing
Krasnoyarsk-26 Zheleznogorsk 1950 Plutonium production
Zlatoust-36 Tryokhgorny 1952 Warhead assembly
Penza-19 Zarechny 1955 Warhead assembly
Krasnoyarsk-45 Zelenogorsk 1956 Uranium enrichment
Chelyabinsk-70 Snezhinsk 1957 Weapons design and research

Environmental impact

The hastily constructed nuclear industry providing the materials for the bomb project has caused severe environmental and health hazards by the release of radioactivity. The single most damaging incident, the Kyshtym Disaster, took place at the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant Mayak in 1957 and is considered to be the largest release of radioactivity by accident, several times more severe than the Chernobyl disaster.

See also


  1. ^ Chronik der Wismut, Wismut GmbH 1999
  2. ^ Andryushin et al, "Taming the Nucleus"
  3. ^ The yield of the test has been estimated between 50 and 57 megatons by different sources over time. Today all Russian sources use 50 megatons as the official figure. See the section "Was it 50 Megatons or 57?" at "The Tsar Bomba ("King of Bombs")". Retrieved 11-05-2006.  
  4. ^ DeGroot, Gerard J. The Bomb: A Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. p. 254.
  5. ^


The two most authoritative books on the Soviet project are Holloway and Rhodes:

  • David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956 (Yale University Press, 1994), ISBN 0-300-06056-4
  • Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1995), ISBN 0-684-80400-X

Since their writing, though, a number of important documents have been released by the Russian government under the heading Atomnyi Proekt SSSR starting in 1998, which have suggested significant changes from the other historical sources (which were bound by certain methodological problems relating to the state of declassification at the time of their writing). Many corrections have been made in a number of chapters in Kojevnikov's 2004 book:

  • Alexei Kojevnikov, Stalin's Great Science: The Times and Adventures of Soviet Physicists (Imperial College Press, 2004), ISBN 1-86094-420-5

External links

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