On July 16, 1945, Manhattan Project scientists, government officials and soldiers witnessed the successful Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The “Gadget” yielded about 20 kilotons of force, slightly more than the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima a few weeks later. The Anglo-American Manhattan Project had launched the Atomic Age.
Since then, the world’s nuclear arsenal has grown to about 15,000 weapons, many with power exceeding the atomic bombs of World War II. North Korea’s controversial nuclear tests and the debate over the 2015 Iran deal reveal that the nuclear genie unleashed by the Gadget will not go back into the lamp.
In its development of the atomic bomb, the United States spent about $30 billion (in 2016 dollars) and employed an estimated 485,000 people. Large companies such as DuPont, Chrysler, and Union Carbide and Carbon partnered with the War Department in this top-secret effort. The bulk of the money spent on the Manhattan Project went to enrich uranium and produce plutonium — an enormous undertaking that required scientific experimentation, as well as the speedy construction of large uranium enrichment plants and the world’s first nuclear reactors.
The success of the project stunned atomic scientists in other nations. When Werner Heisenberg, head of the German atomic bomb project, heard of the bombing of Hiroshima, he declared, “I don’t believe a word of the whole thing.” It was incomprehensible to him that the United States had undertaken such a massive enterprise. Nazi Germany’s own efforts had floundered, because its scientists and military gave the atomic bomb project low priority and did not share important information.
After the war’s end, Joseph Stalin called for a crash atomic bomb program and created a top-secret closed city for nuclear research, Arzamas-16. There, the Soviets followed the U.S. equation to build their own atomic weapon. With a little help from spies, including Manhattan Project physicist Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in 1949. The Cold War arms race had begun.
Today, eight countries have successfully detonated nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. (Israel is also believed to have nuclear weapons but has not openly conducted a test.) Although the technical knowledge behind the atomic bomb design is easier for physicists to crack, they still encounter engineering challenges to enrich uranium and produce plutonium.
Why? Because as the Manhattan Project showed, perseverance and resources matter. After 30 years, North Korea began producing weapons-grade plutonium. In the past 10 years, it has accelerated investments into its nuclear weapons program to much self-proclaimed success — five nuclear tests with yields ranging from one to 10 kilotons, according to its government.
Other countries, however, have determined that the political and economic price of building a bomb are too high. Argentina, South Korea, Sweden and Brazil abandoned their nuclear weapons programs for various reasons. Iran, after seeing its economy suffer under sanctions, decided to bow to international pressure and delay its nuclear weapons program — for now. Many nuclear experts celebrated the 2015 Iran deal that the Obama administration signed because it limited Iran’s ability to produce weapons-grade nuclear material — a proven necessity for atomic success.
But nuclear weapons remain one of the most powerful tools in a country’s military and diplomatic arsenal. So it will be a long time — if ever — before humanity can successfully reach Global Zero, an effort recently endorsed by the United Nations. After all, the idea of international control of nuclear weapons was a goal that some Manhattan Project scientists were pushing since 1945. But as long as they can follow the blueprint set out by the Manhattan Project, nations will continue to enter the nuclear club, and there’s little the international community can do to prevent it.
Alexandra Levy is the program director at the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preservation of the Manhattan Project and its legacy. This column was first published by The Washington Post.