The Ethics of Science

Nuclear Research in the Soviet Union

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, various documents became available to historians. Utilizing these and interviewing important figures involved in the Soviet research on the neclear weapons, many people are working on the history of the Soviet endeavor of making the nuclear weapons. The following two books, in particular, are quite impressive in revealing various aspects of the history, including the personalities of historical figures, the details of the World War II, the cold war after that, espionage, and many other things. The following timeline was extracted from these two books.

Holloway, David (1994) Stalin and the Bomb, Yale University Press.

Rhodes, Richard (1995) Dark Sun, the making of the hydrogen bomb, Simon and Shuster. [His earlier book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1986 is also worthwhile.]

Known as "the Beard", Kurchatov was the Russian counterpart of Oppenheimer. Kurchatov superimposed on "Joe 1" of August 1949


1932 Abram Ioffe (1880-1960), a Russian don physicist, nominated Igor Kurchatov as the leader of nuclear research.
1934 The first cyclotron constructed by Kurchatov and A. I. Alikhanov (1904-70)
1935 "The Great Terror" began (Stalin wanted to eliminate all people against him)
1939 The news of nuclear fission struck Russian physicists; Iulii Khariton (1904-1996) and I. B. Zel'dovich (1914-87) reported their series of research.

The NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the state security organization, headed by Beria) began espionage to collect information on nuclear research.

Nov.: Kurchatov argued for the feasibility of a nuclear reactor, and a uranium bomb, at the 5th All-Union Conference on Nuclear Physics in Moscow.

1941 June: German Army attacked the Soviet Union (and about 30 million people were killed by the end of the war!)

March: Beria reported to Stalin about the information (based on espionage) of nuclear research in Europe and the United States.

April: Physicist G. Flerov (1913-90) wrote a letter to Stalin, urging the research on the nuclear bomb; Stalin, consulting major physicists, decided to accept Flerov's advice, despite the unfavorable state of the war and economy. This enhanced the activities of espionage.

September: The Soviet govenment chose Kurchatov as the leader of the new project of manufacturing the atomic bomb.


February: Kurchatov's initial plan, (1) to make a reactor, and (2) to make a fission bomb (but with almost no amount of U235 ready yet). He did not know yet another possibility of using plutonium.

March: Based on the information (through espionage) of British research, Kurchatov knew many things; most important is the possibility of using plutonium.

May-July: Kurchatov examined American documents, containing those on the Chicago reactor (constructed by Fermi). Although the information was rather old, it must have helped greatly the Russian plan; Kurchatov knew what to check, what to confirm.

December: Klaus Fuchs (who was a very good physicist, but leaking to the Soviet Union important documents of the British research on the atomic bomb) came to the United States, as a member of the British team. Soon, he came in contact with Harry Gold who was working as a spy for the Soviet Union.


June: Normandy invasion by Anglo-American troops

August: Fuchs went to Los Alamos, as one of the two assistants of Rudolf Peierls in order to help the team of the plutonium bomb, which was in a great trouble. Thus Fuchs got involved deeply in the crucial design of the plutonium bomb; and his contribution to the Soviet espionage was to become the greatest. But there were many other persons involved in the soviet espionage.

August: Another important connection existed between David Greenglass (a mechanist at Los Alamos) and Julius Rosenberg (a spy who became famous after the war, and executed with his wife, June 1953). Greenglass provided the information of high-explosive lenses used in the plutonium bomb.

August-October: Leningrad cyclotron repaired and began operation. And a small amount of plutonium was produced.

November: The first piece of metallic uranium produced.


February: Fuchs handed a bulk of documents to Gold; these contained up-to-date information on plutonium bomb, including the use of high-explosive lenses.

March: Kurchatov knew the method of implosion from the new documents of espionage (but not Fuchs documents).

April: Kurchatov examined Fuchs documents, and suspected that the US project is going far ahead. While Berlin was going to fall, from Mid-April, an American team and a Soviet team indepenently rushed to remove uranium ore from Germany; the Americans got about 1100 tons, the Soviets got about130 tons.

May: Kurchatov and Pervukhin (high official) appealed directly to Stalin that the Soviet nuclear research was in a poor state because of the lack of support; but Stalin did not respond, because he doubted the credibility of the information collected by espionage.

June 2: Fuchs met Gold in Santa Fe, and handed important documents including the detailed description of the plutonium bomb.

June 3: Gold next met David Greenglass in Alburquerque, and obtained the documents on implosion device.

July 2: Kurchatov obtained the newest information on the plutonium bomb (including an approximate date of the first experiment) from an NKVD official.

July 16: The first explosion of the plutonium bomb (in New Mexico)

July 24: Truman, speaking to Stalin, alluded to "a new weapon", at the Potsdam Conference.

August: Informed of the Hiroshima explosion, Stalin became furious; on August 7, he nominated Beria as the Director of the bomb project. On August 8, The Soviet declared war against Japan. In the middle of August, Stalin ordered, "Provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time".

August 11: Smyth Report (Atomic Energy for Military Purposes) appeared in lithoprint edition; its typeset edition appeared on Sept. 1, but a crucial sentence was deleted. The Russian translation appeared early in 1946.

September 19: Fuchs again met Gold in Santa Fe, and handed a report on the plutonium bomb; the report also contained the production rate of U235 and of plutonium at this point.

October 18: Beria received a detailed explanation of the plutonium bomb from the Soviet intelligence. Despite all this, the Soviet had to construct the atomic industry from almost nothing.

October-November: Peter Kapitsa (1894-1984) wrote letters to Stalin and questioned Beria's leadership; Kapitsa urged to pursue the Soviet's own, original way for developing the nuclear weapon, whereas Beria insisted on manufacturing copies of the American bomb (a surer way). Eventually, Kapitsa was placed under house arrest for the next 8 years (he would have been killed by Beria, were not Stalin's inhibition).


January 25: Kurchatov met Stalin and other high officials; and Stalin promised full support for the bomb project. The average salary for scientists increased sharply, and Kurchatov, in particular, was given a new elegant house on the same ground for the F-l reactor under construction.

April: Sarov was chosen by Iurii Khariton as the site of a new lab for the bomb project. It was later called Arzamas-16 or "Los Arzamas", the Russian counterpart of Los Alamos.

June 14: Fuchs remained in Los Alamos until June, and in all probability, leaked new information on the atomic bomb and also on the early thermo-nuclear project proposed by Edward Teller, to the Soviet Union.

July: Two Russian obervers saw the American Bikini demonstration. Kurchatov's team began construction of the F-1 reactor (which was quite similar to the Hanford 305 test reactor, of the United States); this reactor began its operation in December, and began to produce plutonium.

In the same summer, the construction of the first production reactor began at Cheliabinsk-40; this was the Russian equivalent of the Hanford plant. This reactor, designed by Dollezhal', was to begin its operation two years later, in 1948.

December 25: The F-1 reactor began operation

Sometime in 1946, a report on a fusion bomb by Zel'dovich, Khariton et al.


April-August: Plutonium separated from uranium oxicide produced in the F-1 reactor.

The ideological campaign against "Western culture" began.


July: Cheliabinsk-40 reactor began to operate. Around the same time, Lysenko obtained support from Stalin, and denounced genetics as "bourgeois" fabrication. The Party Central Committee claimed ultimate authority in science. This climate threatened physics too; according to philosophers, relativity and quantum physics are against the communist ideology. According to a story, Beria asked Kurchatov whether quantum mechanics and relativity are "idealistic", and Kurchatov answered, if these were rejected as such, the atomic bomb would have to be rejected also! Holloway argues that "It was the atomic bomb that saved the Soviet physics in 1949" (Holloway 1994, 211).

By the summer, Zel'dovich's group had done calculations for a specific design for the fusion bomb. Kurchatov asked Igor Tamm (1895-1971) for cheking this calculation and assessing the plan. Tamm recruited A. Sakharov (1921-1989) and others. Sakharov's First Idea, "Layer Cake" (fission-fusion-fission reaction, by means of alternate layers of light and heavy fuel); this replaced Zel'dovich plan.

Second Idea by V. Ginzburg, to use lithium deuteride, which can produce tritium in the course of explosion. After the 1949 test of the plutonium bomb, the hydrogen bomb became a top priority. The Soviets pursued their own ideas, instead of immitating American ideas.


June: Plutonium hemispheres produced, and the first atomic bomb was ready by the summer.

August 29: The first test at the site south of Semipalatinsk-21

1950 Spring: Tamm's group moved from Moscow to Arzamas-16.
1951 Teller-Ulam Configuration, multi-stage ignition (using X-rays) devised
1952 Nov.: Mike test (USA)

March 5: Stalin died.

June 26: Beria arrested; he was executed on December 23.

August: Kapitsa released from house arrest.

August 12: Joe 4 (Layer Cake) test, directed by Kurchatov. It yielded 400 kilotons.

Computers introduced for calculations.


March: US began a series of superbomb (with lithium deutride) tests in Bikini; Bravo produced an unexpectedly large yield of 15 megatons, and a Japanese fishery boat and Bikini inhabitants suffered from fallout.

Spring: Third Idea, equivalent of Teller-Ulam configuration, occurred, and Kurchatov approved of pursuing this, in spite of the contrary order from the Party; this caused a big trouble with high officials.


August: Geneva conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy; Kurchatov directed the Soviet preparations, and the Soviet scientists in the conference made a good impression on the western scholars, and this occasion became the beginning of a reconstruction of the international scientific community after a 20-year interval.

November 22: The Soviet first Super, Semipalatinsk, yielding 1.6 megatons (even though reduced to a half). It was dropped from a plane. A few casualties due to the test. Kurchatov was shocked by the sight of the ground zero, and felt that this weapon must not be allowed to be used; he deceided to retire from any further tests.

1956 April: Kurchatov visited Britain with Khrushchev and Bulganin; and he delivered a lecture on the controlled fusion research in the Soviet Union. This made an impact on the Western scholars, breaking the spell of secrecy.

Some of the Soviet Nuclear Sites

See also High Energy Weapons Archive, which includes the Soviet Program, and many other programs in other countries. Citizen Kurchatov is also instructive.

(1) The Soviet research on nuclear weapons was begun under the notorious Stalin regime; does this preclude the "ethics of the scientist" for the Societ physicists and engineers? This problem is aptly discussed by David Holloway.

In his memoirs [published in 1989] Dollezhal', the chief designer of the first production reactor, discusses his own thoughts in 1946 when Kurchatov first drew him into the atomic project. Dollezhal' had regarded the bombing of Hiroshima as a "repulsive act of cynical antihumanism". If that was so, did the Soviet Union have the right to make and use the same weapon? His answer to this was yes, on two grounds. First, making the weapon was not the same as using it against peaceful cities. The military and political leadership would choose the targets. And although Dollezhal' knew something of the terrible purge of 1937, "those affairs were internal --- domestic, so to speak". The Soviet Union, as far as he knew, did not contravene the laws of war: unlike the Germans they had not destroyed the noncombatant population; unlike the Allies they had not carpet-bombed German cities. Dollezhal's second argument was that possession of the bomb did not necessarily mean that it would be used. All the main combatants in the war had had chemical weapons, but no one had emplyed them. That was because they feared retaliation. Hence the Soviet Union needed all the means of attack possessed by the aggressor, if it wanted to prevent such weapons from being used.

... The United States might declare the Soviet Union an enemy at any time in the future:

The security of the country and patriotic duty demanded that we create the atomic bomb. And these were not mere words. This was objective reality. ...The ancients had a point when they coined the phrase "If you want peace, prepare for war."

From this reasoning Dollezhal' drew the conclusion that work on the bomb was morally justified. In his memoirs he writes that in a conversation early in 1946 he found that this was Kurchatov's position too. (Holloway 1994, 205-6)

(2) Holloway argues against York's conjecture (in York 1989, 96-102) about arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. The Soviet team invented "Layer Cake" design independently in 1948; and although the American "Mike" test increased the urgency, the Soviet team independently came to the idea of multi-stage ignition of the fusion fuel. Thus, the "worst" scenario of York was, all in all, the likeliest. This may well be true, but York's overall conclusion is not subverted, as Holloway himself admits; that is, even in that "worst" case, the US would have been still ahead of the Soviet Union, with respect to the overall nuclear power.

(3) What is crucially important is Kurchatov's change of attitude, after the superbomb test. The same sort of change can be found in other people in the Soviet project, including Sakharov, of course. We may conjecture that they realized, as a scientist, the real danger of the nuclear bomb, by seeing its actual power; presumably, Oppenheimer realized the same after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Franck before the Trinity test.

(4) What about the politicians? Stalin and Beria did not trust their own scientists nor their own espionage results. Thus they realized the importance of the atomic bomb only after Hiroshima. Even after this, they did not believe in the ingenuity of their own first-rate scientists; so they insisted on having copies of the American bomb. Their obscurantism destroyed a branch of biology, genetics; and while insisting on the Communist and the Soviet own biology, they insisted on relying on the "Western Bomb", a clear inconsistency. After Stalin died, the same obscurantism persisted. Malenkov, after the American Bikini experiment (1954), stated that "a new world war, which with modern weapons means the end of world civilization", and a number of nuclear scientists tried to support this view (Holloway 1994, 336-8). But the Party leadership denied this, and that was the beginning of Malenkov's fall. After such a war, not human civilization, but the burgeoisie is supposed to be destroyed and the communism is to flourish.

(5) Kapitsa, released from house arrest, wrote several letters to Khrushchev, warning the weakness of the Soviet science (Holloway 1994, 357). Which is to claim the authority on science, the scientist community or the Party? But the Party is still to retain its authority. Khrushchev needed ten more years for coming close to Malenkov's 1954 statement (recall the Cuban crisis).

[See also Newsletter 51; back to Index]

If you wish to know the prospect of fusion reactor, visit the following sites:

http://p-grp.nucleng.kyoto-u.ac.jp/fusion/ (by Atsushi Fukuyama)

http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~RT6K-OKN/fusion.htm (by Kunihiko Okano; his astronomical gallery is also good)

Last modified, January 8, 2004. (c) Soshichi Uchii.