Meet the Nuclear Weapons Nerds

Castle Bravo, the first high-yield thermonuclear weapon U.S. design test at at Bikini Atoll.
Photo: Department of Defense, Defense Atomic Support Agency / National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Courtesy Alexander Mikhalchenko, from his “Thousands of Suns” exhibition at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow
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John Coster-Mullen was driving his truck to a warehouse in Oshkosh, Wisconsin when he told me that he owns uranium. He’d been talking on the phone for about hour, and I hadn’t been able to ask a single question about the project that has consumed a quarter century of his lifethe reverse-engineering of America’s first nuclear bomb. I was too engrossed to interrupt. The news of uranium, though, made me stutter.

The kind of uranium Coster-Mullen owns isn’t used in nuclear weapons. Not all uranium can blow up the better part of Manhattan—just one of many facts I learned while digging into the community of people who collect images, scholarship, and artifacts relating to nuclear weapons, and yes, even uranium. Stepping into their world of compulsive collecting and dedicated communicating, you begin to understand that this terrible, powerful, almost supernatural deadly force is very much a human creation.  

“The discovery of how to unleash the energy locked up in a nuclei of atoms was... as momentous as the discovery of fire,” Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, told the Atomic Heritage Foundation in 2013. It was a turning point in human cultural evolution, fundamentally altering international relations. If these bombs were detonated in major cities, millions would die if not from the explosion and fires, then by the release of radioactive materials. If countries with nuclear weapons were to engage in nuclear warfare, mutually assured destruction would guarantee the annihilation of both. It is not surprising that many have become avid collectors and students of nuclear history. Some are just more obsessive than others.

According to Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, they can be divided into two groups. The first group consists of people who are very informal about their interest and are sometimes quite enthusiastic about nuclear technology in general. The second group are those who he considers more than just random people on the internet, and is made of people who are more dedicated, and are often activists of some sort—either anti-nuclear or anti-secrecy. “They are both interesting groups but have somewhat different agendas,” he concludes. Of those in the second group, I encountered a diverse set of backgrounds—scientists, special effects gurus, miners, collectors, academics, truck drivers, artists, writers and students to name a few. Whatever their personal motivations, they often share personality traits similar to that of outsider artists in that they are detail-oriented and almost frighteningly driven.

They live all over the world. But we start in Moscow.

“I wanted to show that no nuclear explosions are the same. Just as there are no identical snowflakes, there are no identical nuclear explosions,” Alexander Mikhalchenko told me over email.

At 14, the Russian curator began collecting photographs of nuclear explosions after debating with a classmate which blasts were more powerful—atomic or hydrogen. Eight years later, not only has he been able to conclude that hydrogen bombs pack a bigger punch, but he’s amassed Russia’s largest private collection of photographs on the subject. In December 2017, The Multimedia Art Museum (MAM) in Moscow acknowledged the authority of that collection, working with Mikhalchenko to produce Thousands of Suns, an exhibition focusing on his photographs of American nuclear tests from 1946-1962. (The exhibition closed May 25th.)

None of the images are classified and the vast majority are public domain, but many have not been published or shown before. Beyond providing a visual historical record, photographs allowed scientists to study and evaluate their nuclear designs and tests so they could measure the amount of energy released when a nuclear weapon is detonated. (Basically, the yield or power of the explosion.) They also used the photographs to look at weapons effects, test model calculations, and study the behavior of the cloud formation.

What’s truly extraordinary about the exhibition was that given Mikhalchenko’s background, he was able to assemble a collection at all. When he started making photo requests in 2012, he was an unknown Russian with a spotty command of the English language—that makes people suspicious. (He had founded a group blog called NUKES on VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, but other than that had very little internet presence.)

Eventually, the three to four hours he says he spends researching the topic every day paid off. The exhibition showcases an astonishing variety of images. Organized roughly chronologically, the show consists of photographs selected for the scientific and historical significance of the tests they document. The five major sections—the first nuclear tests, tests in the Pacific and high-altitude nuclear explosions, Nevada nuclear test site explosions, Rapatronic camera images, and images that picture the impact of these tests on the American public—were all taken prior to the 1963 signing of the Moscow Treaty. The treaty banned nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater and thus eliminated opportunities for photographic documentation of nuclear weapons testing in those environments.

The exhibition includes a surprising number of rare or previously unseen images, from a shot of children practicing “duck and cover” drills while a nuclear bomb explodes on the horizon, to the pristine city-sized cloud of poison from the Oak barge test.

In many cases, the photographs seem to picture our own removed relationship to the bombs. They’re so cinematic, they often don’t look real. Even Rapatronic images seem constructed. Made with high-speed cameras capable of capturing a still image with as little as a 10 nanosecond exposure time, these images resemble x-rays of single cell organisms from Mars—a far cry from the more iconic mushroom clouds and fireballs.

The photographs of nuclear tests included in the show were conducted during the arms race that followed the second World War between Russia and the United States. In 1949, only four years after the World War II had ended, Russia detonated its first atom bomb. Both governments invested heavily in the development of these weapons, and up until the end of the Cold War in 1987, fear of mutually assured destruction was a part of daily life for Russians and United States citizens alike. This context is only alluded to in the exhibition, though recent geopolitical developments remind of that era,
from Trump’s regular taunting of North Korea last year, to the 2014 U.S. taunting by Kremlin appointed newscaster Dmitry Kiselyov. Russia, he reminded viewers, is “the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive dust.”

Perhaps because these images focus on the explosions and their cultural impact, none impart the destructive effect the bomb had on the people living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, adding to the level of remove. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes dedicates no less to 19 pages to first hand accounts of the devastation in Hiroshima, recounting story after story chronicling men, women, and children whose skin hung off them as if it were a loose rubber glove. “Silence was the only sound the dead could make,” wrote Rhodes in his description of the aftermath. In this show, that mass human suffering is removed, thus allowing the material released by the United States government to retain some of its original purpose as propaganda.

Like Mikhalchenko, nearly every nuclear weapons expert told me their work was driven by the desire to make a serious issue more understood. “My goal personally is have people wrap their minds around the bomb,” Wellerstein told me, expressing dismay that many view the use of nuclear weapons as akin to an apocalypse. According to Wellerstein, the problem with the misperception is that the entire world will be transformed into a toxic river in less than three hours, is that it absolves people of the responsibilities that come with surviving a nuclear war. “You don’t write to your congressman about the heat death of the universe—things that are out of your control, but you do write to them if you want the subway fixed. Putting these problems in the category of the subway system gives you more agency.”

In an effort to create a better understanding of these bombs, Wellerstein co-founded Reinventing Civil Defense with Kristyn Karl, an assistant professor of Political Science at Stevens Institute of Technology. The two year project will run through 2019, and aims to develop nuclear risk communication strategies through the funding of creative proposals. For example, Wellerstein’s NUKEMAP, a website enables users to model the explosion of different nuclear weapons anywhere on his map will be transformed into a virtual environment that simulates nuclear events. This transforms an already nerdy tool that enables users not only to chose basic bombing options such as whether the nuke will explode in the air or on the surface, but a drop down menu which will calculate and visualize virtually every measurable effect of the bomb. The website’s footer reads “154.7 million detonations and counting!”

Unsurprisingly given Wellerstein’s interests, the types of explosion images he prefers are educational and often banal compared the iconic fireball photograph of the first atomic bomb. (Wellerstein describes this image as the “blob” and complains that the press reproduces the same 12 images of nuclear explosions.) He lauds a photograph in Mikhalchenko’s show picturing the Fizeau test at Los Alamos for its mundane ugliness and fauns over a photograph of the Trinity bomb that consists only of a grey blob with black burn marks from the heat. It literally looks like nothing, but he explains that the physicality adds a level of strangeness to the images and reveals that photographers didn’t even know how far away to stand from the bombs.

He reserves his greatest praise, though, for Paul Shambroom’s Nuclear Weapon series, 1992-2001, singling out an image of a soldier sweeping the floor around B83 nuclear gravity bombs. “It’s total banal,” he explained—the most extreme version of the beauty and boringness that help people think differently about weapons.

Like the extended research performed by Mikhalchenko, Shambroom spent hours each day researching weapons policy and navigating government administration to get the clearance needed to take his photographs. The images picture bunkers and weapons that had previously been classified.

“Anything that is difficult to see people obsess over,” Shambroom told me, speaking not just of his own history of documenting hidden places, but the attention this series attracted from the weapons nerd community. According to the artist, his book on the subject sold out roughly a year and a half after its release in 2003, wildly exceeding expectations. After its publication, Shambroom received more emails requesting further documentation than he did inquires about his artistic vision. “People would say ‘I see that you photographed [this object] but you didn’t photograph the back of it,’” he told me. “And in fact, the answer to that was, some of the places where I photographed let me in, but would say, ‘The back of this thing is classified, so you can’t photograph that.’”

Secrecy and the idea that someone or something is keeping information away from view came up repeatedly as a motivating factor for the obsessive personalities that dominate the community. John Coster-Mullen may be the best example of this—the truck driver who has literally driven across the country in search of clues that would help him reconstruct the original atom bomb. His work had resulted in, among other things, a self-published spiral bound book titled, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. Appropriately, he describes himself as a “nuclear archeologist,” conducting interviews, sourcing documents from public archives, drawing measurements from photos, and even conducting test site digs on public land—all in service of creating an exact replica of the atom bomb.

“I’ve found out everything there is to know about those two bombs,” said Coster-Mullen, who considers his project complete. But over the course of our conversation, I got the sense he felt resentful of the cost. He told me that in 2015, the former Los Alamos National Library Weapon’s Division Director John C. Hopkins accused him of being in violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). (The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory disputed this claim, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory never returned my fact checking requests.) No legal action has come of that accusation, but Coster-Mullen says now government officials at Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) no longer speak to him. He believes they have been warned not to do so.

He’s not the only one I spoke to who had been accused of distributing classified material. Peter Kuran, a visual effects artist who directed and produced the 1995 film Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, told me that government officials had asked him how he was able to put so many classified scenes in his movie. But like Coster-Mullen, Kuran’s work was reconstructed from unclassified sources. According to the artist, when the footage is taken, the government removes what they want to keep—the selected takes. The rest, he says, is b-roll that can be stuck back together so it looks almost exactly like the classified version.

Kuran’s work restoring footage got him a lot of work for the government, though his explanation of the film made me wonder if the classification process was a bit more subjective than I thought. I reached out to Department of Defense, Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration for comment, their public information officer Nolan O’Brien disputed that perception. “We do not remove selected takes because we want to,” he told me over email. “But we would remove portions that are classified, export controlled, or official use only, as we are legally required to do so.” The explanations for why such things were classified were themselves classified, so he was unable to share them. Perhaps, though, the explanation wouldn’t have made any sense to a lay person. “A lot of photography wasn’t just to make pretty pictures, it was done to measure things,” Kuran explained. “Unless you know what all those measurements are, they’re just pretty pictures.”

The pretty pictures are not without impact, though, which Kuran himself acknowledges. He restored all of those images for his film because he wanted to make the films seem more real and less like “stock newsreel footage.” That desire for a more real or concrete relationship with nuclear weapons invariably comes up with members in this community from the decade long collection project of Mikhalchenko to Coster-Mullen’s 25 years of research on the bomb. It has also led some to either collect or work with uranium, the substance used for fuel in many nuclear weapons.

Natural uranium itself is not especially carcinogenic. In fact, according to Wellerstein, “It is so weakly radioactive that its chemical toxicity will hurt you well before its radiation will, (which is to say, if you ingest enough for there to be a radiological hazard, you have probably already ingested enough for the chemical toxicity to be an even bigger hazard.)” You can buy uranium on eBay. You can even buy uranium ore online, which is poisonous and given countless miners cancer. Beyond this, though, acquiring radioactive material requires a lot of yard sale rummaging and connections to a small and unique community of uranium collectors.

In addition to the thrill of buying a substance connected to the most powerful bombs in the world, the draw of this material and the weapons, according to author and historian Richard Rhodes ties to its almost unreal strength. “It’s like looking down into an open volcano,” Rhodes told me over the phone. “Nuclear weapons attract the imagination of anyone who is fascinated with the enormous powers that are abroad in the universe—much of which we never see from day to day unless we look up at the sky or watch the sun go by.”

Also at work is what Rhodes refers to as “secondary gain.” As the author explained it, a primary gain might be identified as one of safety—most people are interested in finding ways to limit or get rid of nuclear weapons, not blow them up. The secondary gain is that those studying the subject get to work with the materials. “I know that’s how a lot of the scientists who have designed these things have felt over the years,” he said by way of example. “Although they are reluctant to admit it.”

The sense of control and power can offer a thrill, particularly given the volatile nature of the materials. That’s part of the allure of the work of artist and scientist Jim Sanborn. In the past, Sanborn has re-enacted the original splitting of a uranium atom, and collected all kinds of radioactive material for other projects spun out of his interest in the development of nuclear weapons. (He is perhaps best known for Kryptos, though, a public sculpture located in the courtyard of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, that consists of large steel shell covered in encrypted text that not even the CIA has cracked.)

Sanborn’s research brought him into contact with nuclear scientists, uranium miners, and related family members he says collected material related to their work. For example, when working on Critical Assembly, a reconstruction of the assembly room for the first nuclear weapon, Sanborn connected with many of the scientists who had worked on the project and purchased workplace paraphernalia the government had sold off over the years. “I was either dealing with the wife of the deceased scientists and/or the scientists themselves.” He told me. “I’d go to their homes and they’d go around back into the basement and they’d bring the objects up like it was the Holy Grail.”

While is not unusual for workers in any profession to collect memorabilia from their work, the number of people who found hazardous materials desirable to own seems unusual. For example, Uranium Autoradiographs 2001-2003, a series of blue abstract radiographs produced by exposing film to radiation brought him into direct contact with individuals who owned large amounts of yellow cake.

According to Sanborn, that occurred when seeking out an 86-year-old uranium miner in Uravan, Utah, who was rumored to know where impure uranium oxide could be found. The house had a 50 foot long walk way up to the door and a stone wall around the house topped with bright yellow stones. When he asked where he could find yellow cake, the miner replied, “Well, you just walked through a whole ton of it.” He used the ore to decorate his home.

“That stuff is floating around,” Sanborn told me, recalling a guy he met years ago who had an object that was so highly radioactive it sparked when tapped. “I’m pretty sure he had 235,” he said, referring to the uranium isotope that can sustain nuclear fission. (He also recalled meeting a man in Wisconsin who decorated the walls of his daughter’s room with depleted uranium projectiles.)

This seemed a lot farther down the road of crazy than the handful of obsessive nerds Wellerstein described as being “more than just random people on the internet,” so I asked Sanborn why people were so interested in the material. “There’s nothing like it on Earth that has similar properties,” he told me. “It can be beautiful, it glows in the dark and if you’re not totally aware or chose not be aware of its dangers. It’s an incredible substance.”

According to Eric LoPresti, a painter focusing on nuclear test sites who also works as a UX architect, the unusual qualities of the substance may contribute to our own tendency to idealize advancement. In the same way that nuclear weapons were initiated by a small group of scientists who thought the technology would end all wars, the internet was founded by men and women who believed that a connected world would bring about radical improvements to infrastructure. In both cases, idealism has blinded us to the risks those advancements brought. “As an artist I think the first step is to visualize them in more revealing ways than they have been to date,” he said.

Those words seemed consistent with that of Mikhalchenko, Wellerstein, and Kuran, who similarly spoke of the need to cast these objects in new light. Rhodes, too, spoke of the need for a shift in perception when it comes to nuclear weapons. “They exist in the same space as Gods and demons,” he lamented. When I spoke to complete outsiders about the desires of these experts, though, I encountered skepticism. Would a different looking photograph really motivate a person to get more involved in their management? And even if it did how many people were going to see these images?

“The scale is too small,” Rhodes conceded. “That’s the paradox of writing books, mostly. You write about these things and how many people actually get around to reading the book? What influence does it finally have?”

Indeed, Rhodes told me that up until two years ago, most Americans he met didn’t know the US even owned nuclear weapons any more. (Recent spats between President Donald Trump and North Korea dictator Kim Jung Un changed that.) The Cold War was over and according to a 2016 survey of American fears by Chapman University, more people feared The Affordable Care Act than the threat of nuclear war. Everyone I spoke to expressed concern about how little was known and none held any illusions about how many people they reached. “I’m the biggest fish in a puddle,” Coster-Mullen told me.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to yellowcake as “high-grade uranium” and 235 uranium as “weapons-grade uranium.” In fact, yellowcake is impure uranium oxide obtained during processing of uranium ore, and 235 uranium is a uranium isotope that can sustain a fission chain reaction. We regret the error.