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Arzamas-16 and the first Soviet atomic bomb (part 1)

Wednesday 1, January 2014, 2:09 pm Red

Behind the curious name of Arzamas-16 an incredible story hides. Arzamas-16 was the codename of a Russian city (today called Sarov) then in the 1940s ceased to exist, at least officially. The Soviet government removed it from all maps, and its name disappeared from every document. This happened in 1946, when it became the Russian research centre to develop a nuclear bomb to compete against the Americans.

The atomic race

Before the space race, there was another competition between Russians and Americans: the atomic one. Since 1939 Americans and Russians secretly investigated to achieve nuclear capability in order to attain worldwide control. But this race was uneven. The United States could use the minds of those fleeing from the war in Europe (World War II). Many scientists reached the American borders with firsthand knowledge of the Nazi nuclear experiments. Additionally, USA ground possessed sources to obtain uranium, essential to make atomic bombs. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had to make do with their scientists (which, in any case, were among the best in the world), their network of international spies and a total lack of radioactive minerals.

location of sarov
Location of Sarov

The key ingredient: uranium

The lack of uranium substantially slowed the Soviet plans to obtain the desired bomb. The situation became so desperate that the head of the Soviet nuclear project, Igor Kurchatov, sent a letter to Hitler offering to purchase a kilogram of refined uranium. At that moment, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression Pact was in force, and the Germans controlled very productive mines in Czechoslovakia. But the need for uranium to reinforce Nazi vehicles first and the beginning of the German invasion of Russia later, frustrated Kurchatov’s plans.

But it wasn't all bad news. In the 1940's, uranium deposits were discovered in the Urals, Altay and Turkestan, in Soviet Central Asia. The rush to have uranium was so great that operators were forced to work with their own hands to get the mineral. This was later refined in a gigantic complex in Chelyabinsk-Zlatoust and then sent to Moscow to the laboratory where the bomb would be assembled.

kurchatov
Kurchatov at his laboratory

Espionage and the effectiveness of having a ”secret city”

In 1945, the United States managed to create the atomic bomb thanks to their research project called the Manhattan Project. The Americans were confident that their nuclear supremacy would last, according to their estimates, some twenty years. But they were wrong. The Soviet Union was informed, sometimes within hours, about the progress that occurred in Los Alamos, the center for research and design of the Manhattan Project. The Russian spies were doing their job perfectly, as they managed to infiltrate Los Alamos and work there.

Meanwhile, the network of American spies never infiltrated into the heart of the Soviet atomic development. The information obtained was very poor and hardly trustworthy. This lack of information was due to the great Soviet plan behind Arzamas-16. While Americans were confident that the Russians would not reach nuclear capability until at least the 50s, the Soviet Union was giving birth to one of those stories that could have come out of the brain of a science fiction writer: the hiding of a whole city.

arzamas
Sarov before becoming in Arzamas-16

SECOND PART: click here to read more about this interesting story, where we will find out what happened in the secret city of Arzamas-16.

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