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Published on Jan 13, 2007
Credit: Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie (1995) by Peter Kuran
Operation Plumbbob was a series of nuclear tests conducted between May 28 and October 7, 1957, at the Nevada Test Site, following Operation Redwing, and preceding Operation Hardtack I. It was the biggest, longest, and most controversial test series in the continental United States.
The operation was the sixth test series and consisted of 29 explosions, of which two did not produce any nuclear yield. 21 laboratories and government agencies were involved. While most Operation Plumbbob tests contributed to the development of warheads for intercontinental and intermediate range missiles, they also tested air defense and anti-submarine warheads with small yields. They included 43 military effects tests on civil and military structures, radiation and bio-medical studies, and aircraft structural tests. Operation Plumbbob had the tallest tower tests to date in the U.S. nuclear testing program, as well as high-altitude balloon tests. One nuclear test involved the largest troop maneuver ever associated with U.S. nuclear testing.
Almost 1,200 pigs were subjected to bio-medical experiments and blast-effects studies during Operation Plumbbob. On shot Priscilla (37 KT), 719 pigs were used in various different experiments on Frenchman Flat. Some pigs were placed in elevated cages and provided with suits made of different materials, to test which materials provided best protection from the thermal pulse. Other pigs were placed in pens at measuring distances from the epicenter behind large sheets of glass to test the effects of flying debris on living targets.
Approximately 18,000 members of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines participated in exercises Desert Rock VII and VIII during Operation Plumbbob. The military was interested in knowing how the average foot-soldier would stand up, physically and psychologically, to the rigors of the tactical nuclear battlefield.
Studies were conducted of radiation contamination and fallout from a simulated accidental detonation of a weapon; and projects concerning earth motion, blast loading and neutron output were carried out.
Nuclear weapons safety experiments were conducted to study the possibility of a nuclear weapon detonation during an accident. On July 26, 1957, a safety experiment, "Pascal-A" was detonated in an unstemmed hole at NTS, becoming the first underground shaft nuclear test. The knowledge gained here would provide data to prevent nuclear yields in case of accidential detonations, for example a plane crash.
The Rainier shot, conducted September 19, 1957, was the first fully contained underground nuclear test, meaning that no fission products were vented into the atmosphere. This test of 1.7 kilotons could be detected around the world by seismologists using ordinary seismic instruments. The Rainier test became the prototype for larger and more powerful underground tests.