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Misconceptions about radiation


A miscalculation in a test leading to a mass fear of radioactivity
Edward Teller Scientist
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That was 1954 and Los Alamos after its first success with the hydrogen bomb, they now attempted and succeeded in constructing a hydrogen bomb that was really relatively easily deliverable. Their trouble was that it gave about twice as much yield, or a little more, quite a few megatons, more than they counted on. What was much worse was when they decided to fire the shot they had a wind pattern that looked all right. At the time of the shot in an unpredicted way, the wind pattern changed and there was radioactive fallout on an island quite a few miles, almost 100 miles I believe, to the east of the shot. Actually, the people on that island got too much radiation, none of them got permanently hurt, but temporarily, a temporary radiation sickness did occur. There was one thing that was even worse. The shot was announced and ships were said not to go into certain parts of the Pacific next to the island. A Japanese fishing boat whose translated name was "The Fortunate Dragon", got some fallout and the people on the fishing boat did not know what was happening, did not wash down the material and they did get radiation sickness and as a consequence one of the people on that fishing boat died in a few weeks. Now here is this very remarkable fact: the end of the war was accomplished by two nuclear explosions, more than hundred thousand people killed, now in peace time, by an accident one person died. The reaction in the United States was extremely strong. There was a twofold consequence of all this which I would like clearly to state right here. One is that all - or one was - that all our experiments, both those of Los Alamos and Livermore, were from that- then onward, carried out with much greater caution and that was the last serious accident that ever occurred. On the other hand, there also originated a fear, a fear of radioactivity that in the course of years kept growing, growing out of all proportion, all- of all proportion of reality.

The late Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller helped to develop the atomic bomb and provided the theoretical framework for the hydrogen bomb. During his long and sometimes controversial career he was a staunch advocate of nuclear power and also of a strong defence policy, calling for the development of advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Listeners: John H. Nuckolls

John H. Nuckolls was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1988 to 1994. He joined the Laboratory in 1955, 3 years after its establishment, with a masters degree in physics from Columbia. He rose to become the Laboratory's Associate Director for Physics before his appointment as Director in 1988.

Nuckolls, a laser fusion and nuclear weapons physicist, helped pioneer the use of computers to understand and simulate physics phenomena at extremes of temperature, density and short time scales. He is internationally recognised for his work in the development and control of nuclear explosions and as a pioneer in the development of laser fusion.

Duration: 4 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 29 September 2010