Nuclear Testing: `Oppenheimer` Shines Light on Manhattan Project Legacy

The release of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ on 21 July highlights continued relevance of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts more than 75 years after first atomic explosion.

The Manhattan Project, created by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada, was a top-secret World War II programme spurred by the fear that the German government under Adolf Hitler had been working on a new type of weapon that utilised nuclear technology. In the hopes of creating such a weapon faster, a deadly endeavour began, eventually leading to the development of two types of atomic bombs: a uranium-based design called Little Boy and a plutonium-based weapon called Fat Man.

The new movie ‘Oppenheimer’ by director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception and Dunkirk) explores the life and career of the mastermind behind the first atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico from 1943 to 1945. Later in his career, Oppenheimer lobbied for international arms control and argued against the development of the hydrogen bomb, seeming to realise the existential threat nuclear weapons posed to humanity. “All the films I’ve made, one way or another, are film noirs,” Nolan said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They’re all stories about consequences. And with ‘Oppenheimer’, the consequences are the fastest to arrive and the most extreme.”

On 16 July 1945, as a part of the Manhattan Project, the world’s first nuclear weapon was successfully detonated, testing an implosion-design plutonium device, nicknamed the Gadget. Known as the Trinity Test, this explosion created a gigantic mushroom cloud approximately 12 kilometres high. Witnessing the fiery blast, Oppenheimer famously quoted a piece of Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was not wrong; this test ushered in the atomic age, triggering a nuclear arms race that ultimately resulted in more than 2,000 nuclear tests being conducted at more than 60 sites around the world.

Here are important facts you should know about nuclear testing before watching the movie to better understand the legacy of this initial test.

What is nuclear testing and how does it work?

Nuclear tests are experiments carried out to determine a nuclear weapon’s effectiveness, yield, and explosive capability. When a nuclear explosion occurs, a great deal of energy is instantaneously released, which interacts with the environment and propagates sound vibrations through the earth, the ocean, or the atmosphere. Physical products, namely radioactive particles and/or gases, are released into the surrounding medium, which may leak into the atmosphere even if the actual explosion occurred underground or under water.

What is the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)?

While the United States was the first state to conduct a nuclear test, other countries soon followed. In 1954, the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, called for a moratorium on nuclear testing and in 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was adopted to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space and under water. It was not until 1996 however, that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) opened for signature after years of negotiation.

The CTBT bans all nuclear tests by everyone, everywhere, and for all time to help protect the world from the consequences of these explosions. By banning nuclear tests, the Treaty can help prevent the development of nuclear weapons by countries that do not currently have them, upgrades to existing nuclear arsenals or the creation of new, more powerful nuclear weapons.

The Treaty is backed by a state-of-the-art verification system that can detect a nuclear test anywhere in the world. It has become a cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation architecture and an essential stepping-stone on the path to nuclear disarmament.

How does the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) monitor the globe for nuclear tests?

The CTBTO uses four different monitoring technologies to detect nuclear tests anywhere in the world. Its International Monitoring System (IMS) comprises seismic stations monitoring for an underground test by measuring shockwaves through the ground; hydroacoustic stations detecting soundwaves from an underwater explosion; infrasound stations listening for ultra-low-frequency soundwaves moving through the atmosphere at levels inaudible to the human ear; and radionuclide stations detecting radioactive particles or gases from atmospheric explosions or vented by underground or underwater nuclear explosions.

This global network of monitoring stations provides data to CTBTO’s International Data Center (IDC), which is processed and distributed to CTBTO’s Member States in both raw and analysed form. Once the Treaty enters into force, Member States will be able to request an On-site Inspection (OSI), as the final verification measure of the CTBT, to gather further evidence on the ground if there is a suspected violation of the Treaty

Although it is has not yet entered into force, the CTBT enjoys near-universal support with 186 signatures and 177 ratifications (at the time of publishing) and has already established a powerful norm against nuclear testing.  Between the Trinity Test in July 1945 and when the CTBT opened for signature in September 1996, more than 2,000 nuclear tests were conducted. Since the Treaty opened for signature, only 10 announced tests have taken place, with only one state conducting tests this century. The ability to detect these test explosions ensures that no country can conduct a nuclear test in secret.

Oppenheimer’s legacy today

Although the Manhattan Project’s mission was to put an end to World War II, the global community continues to deal with its impacts today. The success of the Trinity Test in July 1945 was followed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. Sources differ on the number of casualties caused by the bombings, with some estimates as high as 166,000 deaths, the majority of whom were civilians. It also triggered an arms race that led to decades of nuclear testing. This unrestrained quest to create ever more powerful weapons continued unabated until the CTBT opened for signature. Today, at a time when the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime seems to be eroding, the Treaty is one of the few bright spots on which there is near-universal agreement.

When a country supports the Treaty, even if it doesn’t have a nuclear programme or has never conducted nuclear testing, it demonstrates its commitment to global peace and security for present and future generations.

Want to learn more?

Click on the images below to explore how CTBTO is working to permanently end nuclear testing

What is the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty?

Learn about the CTBT verification system

CTBTO in brief: The IMS for nuclear tests

Nagasaki Atomic bomb Survivor tells her story

CTBTO Executive Secretary Robert Floyd briefs the UN Security Council

International Day Against Nuclear Tests (IDANT)

Opening statement of Executive Secretary Robert Floyd at 7th CTBT Science & Technology Conference