FIRST LIGHTNING

This Animated GiF file courtesy of Elena Filatova ©

The first Soviet atomic test was First Lightning, August 29, 1949, and was code-named by the Americans as "Joe 1". It was a replica of the American Fat Man bomb whose design the Soviets knew.

The Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) was the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons. It is located on the steppe in northeast Kazakhstan (then the Kazakh SSR), south of the valley of the Irtysh River. The scientific buildings for the test site were located around 150 km west of the town of Semipalatinsk (later renamed Semey), near the border of East Kazakhstan Province and Pavlodar Province with most of the nuclear tests taking place at various sites further to the west and south, some as far as into Qaraghandy Province.

The site is also known by its postcode Semipalatinsk-21 (it was common practice for secret Soviet installations to be referred to only by their postcode).

The site was selected in 1947 by Lavrentii Beria, political head of the Soviet atomic bomb project. Gulag labour was employed to build the test facilities, including the laboratory complex in the northeast corner on the southern bank of the Irtysh River. The first Soviet bomb, Operation First Lightning was conducted in 1949 from a tower at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. The same area ("the experimental field", a region forty miles west of Kurchatov city) was used for more than 100 subsequent above-ground weapons tests. <.p>Later tests were moved to the Chagan River complex and nearby Balapan in the east of the STS. Once atmospheric tests were banned, testing was transferred to underground locations at Chagan, Murzhik (in the west), and at the Degelen Mountain complex in the south, which is riddled with boreholes and drifts for both subcritical and supercritical tests. After the closure of the Semipalatinsk labour camp, construction duties were performed by the 217th engineering and mining battalion (who later built the Baikonur Cosmodrome). Between 1949 and the cessation of atomic testing in 1989, 456 explosions were conducted at the STS, including 340 underground (borehole and tunnel) shots and 116 atmospheric (either air-drop or tower shots). The lab complex, still the administrative and scientific centre of the STS, was renamed Kurchatov City after Igor Kurchatov, leader of the initial Soviet nuclear programme. The location of Kurchatov city has been typically shown on various maps as "Konechnaya" (the name of the train station; now Degelen) or "Moldary".

Khaniton with replica of First Lightning.

I remember President Kennedy once stated...that the United States of America had the nuclear missile capacity to wipe out the Soviet Union two times over, while the Soviet Union had enough atomic weapons to wipe out the United States only once...When journalists asked me to comment...I said jokingly, "Yes, I know what Kennedy claims, and he is quite right. But I'm not complaining...We're satisfied to be able to finish off the United States first time round, Once is quite enough. What good does it do to annihilate a country twice? We're not a bloodthirsty people."

Nikita Khrushchev—quoting himself in Khrushchev Remembers: The last Testament, 1974, pg. 530

IVY MIKE

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