Articles

THE DEATH RAY IS HERE

Only full realization of the horrors of a “hot war” can avert catastrophe. There is no real defense against the death rays locked in the atom bomb

JOHN E. PFEIFFER April 15 1949
Articles

THE DEATH RAY IS HERE

Only full realization of the horrors of a “hot war” can avert catastrophe. There is no real defense against the death rays locked in the atom bomb

JOHN E. PFEIFFER April 15 1949

THE DEATH RAY IS HERE

Only full realization of the horrors of a “hot war” can avert catastrophe. There is no real defense against the death rays locked in the atom bomb

JOHN E. PFEIFFER

Articles

IT'S 8.30 in the morning, tomorrow morning, and you're just finishing breakfast.. Suddenly the room is bathed in the light of a billion photo-

flash bulbs. A few seconds later there’s a terrific explosion, the house shakes violently and you hear the scream of raging hurricane winds. You’re still sitting at the table as possibilities flood through your mind—a gas-main explosion, a bomb—The Bomb?

Let’s assume you’re lucky. You live out in the suburbs. Only a small part of one wall has been blown in. Your house isn’t on fire, and the highspeed fragments of shattered windowpanes have missed you and your family. You get up and rush to the window and, through the haze of rubble, you hear scattered shouts like the yells of newsboys with a special midnight edition, or the cries of a distant New Year’s Eve celebration. Then a gust of wind sweeps the dust away, giving you a clear view. You see chaos where the skyline was, the crumbled ruins of a thousand buildings, the bonfires that were once homes like yours.

Your first impulse is to rush out to learn what had happened. That would be natural but it might not be smart. The unique and least familiar effect of the atom bomb is an invisible radiation. Perhaps the streets are contaminated with radioactive poisons. You don’t know. And what about yourself and your family? Apparently no one’s hurt, but this is World War III, not World War II, and things aren’t quite that simple.

In the old days after an air raid persons who hadn’t been obviously injured knew they were safe, at least until the next one. But that first blinding flash may have given you a lethal dose of neutrons or gamma rays. You don’t know. Your telephone and radio are “temporarily out of order.” Inside your house you’re isolated from the rest of the community; death may be waiting outside, or creeping through the holes where your windows used to lie. Whatever you do, it’s a 50-50 chance that it will be the wrong thing, and the situation is ideal for cold, rising panic—a weapon almost as powerful as the bomb itself.

The only unlikely assumption about this picture is that the bomb will drop tomorrow morning. If it were to fall next year, or five years hence, almost everything else —the flash, the blast, the firewould l)e as described.

Short of a cessation of the present armament race, the current situation is building up to its first climax—the day when the world’s newspapers carry the officially

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confirmed headline, SOVIET UNION MAKING ATOM BOMBS.

If that story breaks, our way of life will undergo an accelerating and radical transformation. Another war if it comes— would permit no Pearl Harbors. and plans already under way will be speeded to prevent as many bombs as possible from hitting their targets “just in case.” Radar-detection networks reaching into the stratosphere and far beyond the borders of the United States and the Soviet Union will be established on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Liven at this relatively early date the United States Air Forces have requested a $160 million radar network with a range of 300 miles as an absolute minimum.

The Face of Death

Every large city will need hundreds of strong shelters to protect against atom-bomb blast and radiation. Sixteen inches of concrete are enough to reduce gamma rays to one per cent of their initial energy, and the walls of future shelters may have to be even thicker.

You may have to spend an afternoon or two a week in highly organized civilian-defense training, pushed many times more actively than were similar plans in North America during the last war. You may have to accompany the fire department on emergency calls, not only to learn fire fighting and rescue techniques, but to know suffering firsthand; trips to local morgues have also been suggested to accustom people to the face of deat h.

You will have to be taught the meaning of those clicks on the Geiger counters. and perhaps you will be provided with instruments that ring bells when

radioactivity reaches dangerous levels. Also, you’ll have to learn a good deal in advance about methods of dealing with radioactive substances. Perhaps scientists will develop a cheap, lightweight material that can absorb “hot” chemicals and can be built into walls and used to fill blown-out windowpanes. Perhaps aerosol mists of tiny absorbent particles will help take the radioactivity out. of the air in the streets.

There’ll be special methods for treating walls and other surfaces—and for decontaminating your clothes and exposed parts of your body. Since two thirds of the bomb’s radioactive fragments are metal atoms which aren’t soluble in soap, you’ll probably be using dilute acids on clothing.

For the hands Manhattan Project scientists used potassium permanganate which forms a brown chemicalabsorbing layer on the skin: the layer can ÍK» scrubbed off or dissolved in sodium bisulphite. Titanium dioxide, a substance used in antisunburn creams and oils, can be used on the face or other parts of the body as a paste; this substance removes some of the radioactive materials from the skin and carries them off upon washing. These measures, of course, are only laboratory practice: but we may all have to learn something like them sooner or later.

Your life will change markedly even before any war starts and the enemy launches his first atom bombs. Afterward, if your city is well-prepared and defended, perhaps only a small percentage of the bombs will hit their targets. Advance warnings, plus shelters and efficient fire fighting and decontamination techniques, may reduce the element of surprise and save many lives. It’s currently estimated that an atom bomb would cause 50,000 deaths and 50,000 injuries in a North American city, but that’s assuming it goes off at high noon when the street?

are crowded. Good defenses may reduce casualties by 50% or more, but death is only one of the bomb’s byproducts. The bomb is a saturation weapon; it destroys and irradiates square miles instead of blocks.

If you’re not obviously injured when that hypothetical breakfast-hour bomb falls, you’ll probably know what to do. You will have been trained to await word from radio stations or loudspeaker systems, not the sort we’re used to now, but mobile units ready to be rushed in from the suburbs or nearby towns. In fact, mobility will be the key word of the wartime world — mobile kitchens, mobile hospitals, mobile weapons, mobile churches and mobile homes. We will become 20thcentury nomads in a society on wheels.

World War 11 gave millions of civilians an idea of what it’s like to move from place to place with little privacy or private property. Since the atom bomb is the greatest and fastest creator of displaced persons, a World War 111 would cause similar upheavals on a far larger scale. And even if you and your home aren’t affected by the bombs, you’d have to join in mass evacuations anyway, because there isn’t much point living near a place where you can’t contribute to the war effort. Everyone will have to be ready ¡ to movenot a few blocks away, but j perhaps hundreds of miles.

And— if war should come—don’t expect a quick one on the short-butsweet theory. Military experts claim the atom bomb by itself will not win a full-scale battle between major powers. It. will destroy vast areas, but other bombs would do that. The difference will be in speed and totality of destruction and deadly radiation which under certain circumstances may make cities uninhabitable for weeks. There will he other mass-destruction weapons and drawn-out attacks and counterattacks. Sooner or later someone will have to try to invade someone else’s territory, i which means crossing an ocean to land masses of men on an alien coastline. Military experts expect that if there’s another war it will be a long one. Historians will be arguing for decades about who won it.

Rays Don’t Hurt at First

When the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs fell in August, 1945, most people underestimated the effects of radiation. After all, the bomb had been exploded high enough in the air so that most of the radioactivity went up into the clouds instead of down on the city. Hut later reports revealed that, even allowing for this precaution, radiation did more harm than many experts had expected. Out of some 120,000 deaths in the two cities, about 10% were due to invisible rays and thousands of persons suffered from lingering or permanent aftereffects. Furthermore, there’s a good chance that the proportion of such casualties will be increased in another war.

The bombs dropped on Japan give some idea of what might happen. The explosive in the Hiroshima weapon was U-235; the weight of the charge is still secret. As each uranium atom broke into two or more fragments, the protons and neutrons that made up its nucleus rearranged themselves in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, the resulting "splashes” in space giving rise to the whole spectrum of electromagnetic waves. Each atom became a tiny radar transmitter, releasing pulses of energy in the form of gamma rays, which resemble X-rays but are far more penetrating.

Persons exposed to these rays—and to the neutron bullets that are also emitted in the explosion-felt no pain.

Within a few hours after the bomb fell they had attacks of nausea and vomited. These minor symptoms usually passed quickly, and from there on later effects depended on how much radiation had passed into their bodies. One measure of radiation is the roentgen, a unit named after Wilhelm Roentgen, the German physicist who discovered Xrays in 1895. All of us are continually absorbing natural radiation from the cosmic rays and from tiny amounts of radioactive material in the ground and air; the total dose rarely exceeds seven roentgens in an average lifetime.

People can take far larger doses—if. they’re concentrated on only a part of the body or are spread out over a long period of time. Thus, the radium in the luminous dials of wrist watches may emit the equivalent of seven tenths of a roentgen a day, or more than 10,000 roentgens in 40 years, without doing any damage. Cancer patients may receive as much as 20,000 roentgens in a single treatment, but the area exposed is usually extremely small. The trouble comes when large doses affect the entire body in a matter of hours or days or, in the case of the Hiroshima bomb, in a split second.

When gamma rays enter the body they “shake” the molecules in the tissue cells and knock millions of electrons out of their accustomed orbits. As a result, many molecules become electrified or ionized, and this interferes with the functioning of certain vital substances called enzymes. These compounds are biology’s chemists. They build up and break down the food you eat in an intricate series of reactions that make life possible. When enough of them are knocked out, the cell dies.

For Bad Cases No Hope

Young and growing cells are particularly vulnerable to atomic radiations. Multiplying red and white cells in the bone marrow and lymph tissues fit into this category, and so do the cells that form the mucous protective coatings of the intestines. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki persons who received the largest gamma-ray doses suffered from severe attacks of diarrhea during the day after the bomb fell.

All persons exposed to doses ranging from many thousands down to 800 to 1.000 roentgens died within a fortnight. At 400 to 600 roentgens 50% of the victims died; complete recovery was the rule from 50 to 200 roentgens. Death often came from pneumonia, blood poisoning, or other forms of secondary weakening of the body’s first line of defense against disease. Other later symptoms included loss of hair,

often at the crown of the head (giving the appearance of a monk’s tonsure),

and anaemia.

Since the bomb destroyed hospitals and killed or injured most of the cities'

doctors, many patients obtained poor, if any, treatment. More fortunate sufferers received blood transfusion to combat the anaemia, injections of toluidine blue dye or protamine (a fishegg extract) to reduce hemorrhages, and anti-infection sulfa drugs or penicillin.

But, despite accelerating research on new treatments, nothing will save the most severely stricken. For example, in 1946 doctors could not save Dr. Louis B. Slot in, t he Winnipeg biologist who assembled the first New Mexico bomb and, after a laboratory accident, voluntarily exposed himself for a fraction of a second to gamma rays to shield his co-workers (tests on coins in his pockets revealed that he’d received about 800 roentgens).

Since sperm and the germinal tissues that manufacture them are extrasusceptible to gamma rays, practically

every man who has had radiation sickness suffered some degree of sterility. Most of them recovered within three or four months, but official figures don’t tell what that “most” means. Judging by reports from Japanese doctors at Hiroshima, a conservative estimate is that 80% of male patients regained complete reproductive powers (potency was not affected).

Two thirds of the women exposed to bomb radiations suffered menstrual disturbances and many who were pregnant had miscarriages.

What about “freak” changes (mutations) in future generations? Animal tests have provided no definite evidence as yet. No abnormal births have been reported among the descendants of the more than 3,500 goats, pigs, mice, guinea pigs and rats exposed to the atom explosions at Bikini Atoll in July, 1946, although radiation killed about 15% of the total. Five thousand Bikini fish are being studied at the University of Washington in Seattle; many of them are still radioactive nearly three years after the explosion but there’s no information about later generations.

The only positive evidence comes from plant tests. In a greenhouse on a six-acre farm near California’s Santa Anita race track are rows of long tables displaying ears of corn grown from seeds placed carefully in moistureproof packages on Bikini battleships as far as 1,500 yards from the explosions. Dr. Ernest G. Anderson, California Institute of Technology biologist who has been harvesting the seeds, has a grim collection of plants with twisted stalks, shrunken kernels and bleached husks produced from irradiated seeds.

Will Humans Change?

Geneticists are convinced that the Hiroshima bomb will affect coming human generations. It has been calculated that germ-cell exposure to 300 roentgens in 25 years would be enough to double the rate of spontaneous change of human genes (the cell particles which transmit inherited characteristics) — and thousands of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are alive today after receiving such doses in the bombs’ first flashes. But few doctors believe there’s much chance of obtaining direct proof in the form of statistically valid case reports on abnormal births.

For one thing, survivors who received significant amounts of radiation aren’t expected to produce many children, perhaps no more than 12,000 in the next decade, and some changes would not show up for another generation after that. Moreover, many Japanese families still kill malformed babies, and there’s little likelihood that medical records will ever be complete enough to provide meaningful facts.

Of course, Manhattan Project scientists regard the first two bombs as experimental model T’s. The efficiency of the Hiroshima bomb is unknown— but it was small. The Nagasaki bomb with its plutonium charge was potentially twice as powerful. Recent U. S. Atomic Energy Commission reports reveal that, as might be expected, the two Bikini (1946) and three Eniwetok (April, May, 1948) test bombs have already advanced beyond the Nagasaki version.

No one is saying how much better— or worse—the new bombs are as far as radiation is concerned, but Dr. R. E. Lapp, of the U. S. War Department’s general staff, has published some estimates based on the assumption that a bomb twice as powerful as the Nagasaki model is exploded 2,500 feet over a large city. These estimates, combined with medical figures previ-

ously released, add up to the following picture.

All persons exposed to the gamma rays from this superweapon and within a one-mile radius would receive doses of at least 800 roentgens, and 99% of them would die. Only half the people standing one mile to one and tliree quarter miles from “ground zero” would survive the radiation, which falls to a minimum of 400 roentgens in this second zone. Everyone in the third zone (one and three quarter miles to two and a half miles from the explosion centre) would get sick if exposed, but only 20% or less would perish because the radiation falls as low as 200 roentgens.

But the atom bomb has further unrevealed powers. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions took place at heights of about 1,500 to 2,000 feet, and the vast pinkish-white clouds that billowed into the stratosphere were packed with radioactivity comparable in intensity to that of tons of radium.

American military leaders were reasonably sure that the Japanese would surrender in the near future, but supposing occupation hadn’t been expected for months or longer? Supposing the bombs were to fall at the beginning rather than at the end of a war? Strategy might dictate the dropping of a bomb whose firing mechanism was set to cause an explosion at ground level, so that a large proportion of that pinkish-white cloud would have clung to the earth as a radioactive poison gas.

The atoms of such a gas could enter the body through the lungs and open wounds. In this case the gamma rays emitted from the gas would cause damage as well as the emanations of alpha and beta particles and neutrons. (Alpha particles are the nucleus or core of the helium atom, beta particles the electrons which revolve about this core.)

There’s never been an attack of this sort. Mass internal radiation has not yet been tested. But the danger can be indicated by considering what happened at Bikini, where a bomb exploded just beneath the surface of the lagoon. The blast made a hole in the waters and sent a column containing 10 million tons of water to a peak height of nearly two miles. A vast cloud of spray settled at about 7,500 feet, and a radioactive rain poured down for 15 to 20 minutes; the cloud spread like an umbrella over an area of 18 square miles.

Of course, ocean currents carried the radioactive materials out into the open sea and diluted them to harmless concentrations. But what if an atom bomb exploded in Lake Ontario near Toronto? How much radioactive material would fall on the city and how long would its effects last? To make a guess at the answers to these questions, you can refer to published figures, which state that the splitting of 2.2 pounds of atomic explosives in the Hiroshima bomb produced about 20 million watts of radiation. That’s equal to the radioactivity of 3,200,000 pounds of radium, most of which went up with the mushrooming cloud.

But for a Lake Ontario explosion, let’s assume that half the radioactive material falls back to earth and half of that is actually distributed through the city’s atmosphere, the rest dropping into the lake. That would still leave the j equivalent of 800,000 pounds of radiam contaminating an area of say eight square miles—or more than 156 pounds per acre (the internal radiation from about 35 billionths of an ounce of radium accumulated in the body is fatal).

Radioactive materials slowly transform themselves into harmless stable substances, so that in a day the potency

of this radioactive mass would fall to less than a tenth of its original value. In 10 days there’d be the equivalent of about 3,200 pounds of radium in the air, walls and streets; three to four months later the concentration would have dropped by a further factor of 16. Small areas, of course, would stay dangerously radioactive longer.

Some of the ships blasted at Bikini are still so hot (radioactive) today, nearly three years after exposure, that they’re useless for anything but training men in decontamination work.

A harbor burst of this sort might make a vast area uninhabitable for weeks, hut the full effects of blast and heat would be lost. Only military experts can judge whether it would be better to explode the bomb at or near ground level, thus increasing the radioactivity effects and reducing the total area destroyed.

What about the possibility of using radioactive substances as poison gases?

Every pound of uranium-235 or plutonium manufactured yields a pound of radioactive byproducts, and these might be delivered to a target in bombs or guided missiles, or poured into the stratosphere winds in an effort to contaminate distant cities. If such plans are being contemplated, there’s no evidence aside from a few dubious “leaks” from closed-door U. S. Senate hearings. But at least one top-ranking physicist—Prof. P. M. S. Blackett of Manchester University in England (author of “Fear, War and the Bomb”) —takes the threat of radioactive poisons seriously enough to remark that they might make “a weapon many times more powerful than the present atomic bombs.”

Judging by open-air tests, it would be extremely difficult for a nation to test

an atom bomb without other nations finding out about it. The bomb’s telltale is the radioactive cloud which climbs into the stratosphere, is swept away by prevailing winds, and may make two or more circuits around the earth before it is completely dispersed.

Those clouds can be detected by sensitive Geiger counters and other instruments. The New Mexico test bomb spread its hot byproducts over an upper-atmosphere area as large as Australia, and two and a half days later nearly doubled the radioactivity of the air over Maryland 1,700 miles away. About 100 hours after Test Able at Bikini, University of California scientists announced a sharp rise in the overhead radioactivity at San Francisco 4,700 miles away.

Only hope for a nation to prevent potential enemies from learning about its tests is to explode bombs in isolated subterranean caves or deep beneath the water, when air-borne radioactivity would be greatly reduced or eliminated.

Meanwhile, the cold war goes on. More powerful bombs, radioactive clouds, secret tests—these are only a small part of it. President Truman’s 1950 budget sets aside more than $210 millions for atomic weapons, a record figure. Canada spent $6 millions last year on nuclear research. And latest reports describe new construction on a giant underground uranium factory in Russia’s Sanga Valley just across the Turkish-lranian border.

Only by a full realization of the horrors of a “hot war”—for an atomic war could leave great sections of our cities as “hot” as the doomed ships of Bikini—can man avert what might be the final catastrophe of the western world. There is no real defense against the death rays locked in the atom. if