We Copied the Charge Design, Not the Bomb Itself, Maintains Professor Arkadiy Brish, Doctor of Technical Sciences, One of the Developers of Soviet Nuclear WeaponsMoscow LITERATURNAYA GAZETA No 36, 7 Sep 94 p 10
[Interview with Professor Arkadiy Brish, doctor of technical sciences, by LITERATURNAYA GAZETA commentator Oleg Moroz]
Moroz: You began working in KB-11 [Design Bureau]--later renamed Arzamas-16--in the summer of 1947. Was it known at the time that our leading physicists had put together wish lists for intelligence and received relevant data from it?
Brish: I was in somewhat close contact with Tsukkerman, Dukhov, Shchelkin, and Khariton. At the time there was never any mention of receiving intelligence information. Even more importantly, there was no mention of it even later, over the subsequent decades. Only five years ago did I bring up this topic with Yuliy Borisovich Khariton. "Did we really receive something from intelligence or borrow something?" I asked him. "We did not know anything about it." He said that actually there had been certain information... I became very interested in this then and obtained permission to look through the materials kept by Kurchatov in two safes in the Urals. They were later transferred to the ministry. I looked through a total of 15-20 files. My impression was that only 5 to 10 percent of this material was related to weapons. Mainly they dealt with questions of isotope separation, enrichment, plutonium production, and all sorts of reactor-related matters... As to weapons-related questions--there were different designs of the atomic charge there. I did not see any blueprints.
Moroz: Nevertheless, blueprints and calculations were obtained by intelligence. This is a widely acknowledged fact. Apparently it simply is kept in a different place.
Brish: I do not believe it. A whole boxcar would be needed to carry a full set of blueprints for the bomb... Again, people confuse the design of an atomic bomb and that of an atomic charge. A charge is a charge, and a bomb is a bomb. When designing the latter, completely different problems have to be solved than when designing the charge. These include automatic and safety systems, hitting the target, various aerodynamics issues... In this respect we did not have to borrow anything. Therefore, when he speaks of atomic bomb design, Khariton most likely means atomic charge design. Since different versions of it were under consideration, having relevant intelligence data made it easier to understand which direction to head. However, I repeat that until lately there was no talk about it in our community--in the community of leading scientists who participated in the creation of the atomic bomb. Quite the opposite, numerous inventions were made, discoveries, pioneer work.
Moroz: Whichever--now it is official that the first Soviet atomic bomb detonated in 1949 was a copy of the American bomb...
Brish: It was a copy with respect to the charge design. For this you do not need any blueprints. Everything may be sketched by hand. Here is the central plutonium part... Here are the uranium components... The explosive compound... The lenses... I can clearly imagine the course of Yuliy Borisovich Khariton's thought when he saw this design: The first thing that needs to be done is to form a convergent shock wave. I think that neither Khariton nor Zeldovich got into it until that point. For them it was probably a discovery of sorts. Next, they also saw the means of forming such a wave--the bratol [as transliterated] lens. I asked Yuliy Borisovich: "Apparently this was a surprise for you?" He said: "Yes, Zeldovich and I did not know this."
Moroz: You mean that the meaning of the wording "the bomb was copied" boils down to precisely this: the convergent shock wave, the bratol lens?
Brish: Apparently. And the word "copy" greatly exaggerates the substance of the matter. I regret that Yuliy Borisovich used this word. Khariton is an unambiguously honest person. He attaches great significance to the idea, to who expressed it first... He put one meaning in the word "copy," but it is interpreted quite differently. You also have to imagine the atmosphere of these years. Different versions were under consideration. Everything was to be approved by Vannikov, Beriya, the council... And any deviation from what the Americans were doing was met with criticism: "Why do you need to split hairs? Why are you trying to make it better? Do everything like they do!" But what does it mean to "do what they do?" Another "flying fortress"? Our designers decided to reproduce it in their own way. But Stalin ordered: No "liberties," do it exactly the same as the American version. Meanwhile, it was not possible to replicate it precisely. Neither the aircraft nor the bomb. I am given the nuclear charge design, for instance... Here is an explosive with a certain index... "Reproduce!" But each country has its own explosives. We could not get the American material. You have to figure out its properties--stability, aging. It has to be ideally uniform. For this you need to develop a special technology for its production. We spent two years, day and night, doing this... Next, the plutonium, uranium, and aluminum in our country were different from that which the Americans used. Our own fastenings. And everything had to be figured out... Therefore, choosing a nuclear charge version is only a beginning.
Moroz: Still, who had access to intelligence data?
Brish: Beriya, Kurchatov, Savenyagin, and Khariton, I think... Apparently Zeldovich... They had the opportunity to compare this data with what we were doing. For the rest of the staff working on the atomic bomb project, all this was under lock and key. I am certain that neither Dukhov nor anybody else knew anything about it. We were all very close, and had someone known something, it would have slipped out eventually, at some joint feast...
Moroz: In your recent remarks at the Russian Academy of Sciences presidium you said that the role of intelligence at the first stage was of a "special nature." What does this mean?
Brish: It was special in the following way. A number of our scientists--Flerov, Kurchatov, Semenov--submitted proposals to the government to start working on an atomic bomb. However, if there had been no intelligence data saying that the West was already conducting such work, neither Stalin nor Beriya would have accepted the need for it. Therefore, at the first stage intelligence data played a tremendous stimulating role. It was during the war, in 1943, that Kurchatov was made the director of a specially created institute. In this, of course, the main role was played by intelligence data--not someone's reputation or anything else--nothing was trusted at the time. In 1945 the Americans detonated three bombs. At this point neither Stalin nor anyone else could question the viability of such project. KB-11 was set up in 1946.
Moroz: You said that you looked through 15-20 files from Kurchatov's safes. How many were there altogether.
Brish: I believe 30 or 40.
Moroz: If we assume that they came from intelligence--is it possible that all these data were obtained by one person--for instance, Klaus Fuchs--or were they obtained by several intelligence officers?
Brish: I believe that more than one person was working on this. I am looking, for instance, at the subject of interest to me--the automatic detonation system. And I see some general discourse, and suddenly there is a piece of information that the condenser weighs 200 kg. On one hand, complete ignorance of the substance of the matter, and on the other--information about the concrete weight of one of the parts. It is unlikely that this information came from Fuchs. Next, there is a lot of information on reactors there. This is also not his field, assuming that he was working on the implosive bomb... A lot of information on separation of isotopes... I do not think that one person could provide all this information.
Moroz: Do you find absurd the contention that Fuchs could have been helped by one of the leading figures working in Los Alamos--Oppenheimer, Fermi, Bor, Scillard?
Brish: All these contentions have no proof.
Moroz: The explanation now given to the fact that our bomb was a copy is that in the event a test failed, it would have been the end not only for the collective working on it, but all Soviet physical science would be wiped out. Did you personally feel such a danger then? Were you afraid that you would be arrested?
Brish: I could easily imagine that we would be arrested in the case of a failure. And not only before the first detonation. I was never certain. True, almost no one had ever been arrested among my colleagues. But if we failed... failed in a major way... Actually, it did happen once. In 1954. A nuclear detonation did not commence during the test. Only the "initiating" detonation of the regular explosives. A commission was working on it. The investigation never got underway. If it did, it is hard to tell what would have happened... The main point is that it is practically impossible to figure out why the detonation failed to materialize, because everything is destroyed in the explosion. You have complete freedom of conjecture.
Moroz: But in those times long investigations were not in fashion. If they wanted to have Khariton's or someone else's head, they would have easily done it without any investigation. Which means they did not want to. They needed Khariton.
Brish: Yes... One could always find substantiation if one wanted to. There was documentation, after all. You can always find something to criticize if you really want to. I recently looked through that commission's documents. There were grounds for penalties. For instance, a certain measuring devise was supposed to be brought in. It was not--someone forgot. Sedition. Second, a test set of capsules had not been detonated... For me as a specialist it is clear that this was not the cause of the failed test, but formally, if there are violations, deviations from instructions, and there is a failure, you have the culprits ready-made for you. You cannot prove anything to anybody.
Moroz: You have been working on nuclear weapons for 47 years, to this day. All these years you have continued getting intelligence data, have you not? You are probably still getting it. Does it help in your work?
Brish: Yes, of course, I have been and am receiving it. And I can tell you with certainty: It is of secondary importance. Here, for instance, you can see the latest report. What is being done in the United States and how... I can tell you honestly: It is almost impossible to comprehend this data fully, in depth. Until you do the work yourself, touch it with your own hands. You can ask me: What did you borrow from this? What did you steal? Nothing, I did not steal anything. I cannot steal anything. They have their own solutions. Based on their own technology. Here, for instance, they put a different wire... Here they did something differently... Positioned it differently... Do not think that creating a difficult construction--which a nuclear bomb is--boils down to a certain idea and scheme. That is only a beginning. It is only in mystery novels that as soon as you manage to photograph the documents, everything becomes clear.
Moroz: Along with real spy information of varying degrees of value, sometimes, as we know, you get simply disinformation. Have you encountered it?
Brish: Yes. Some time around 1960 we got information about the so-called meson bomb--incredibly powerful, thousands of times more powerful than the existing ones. Zeldovich says: "Nonsense!" Khariton did not believe it either. Nevertheless, the bosses decided to set up a special unit, which spent several years doing all sorts of calculations. In the end this line of research was closed. Of course, some costs had been incurred...
Moroz: Which means that the disinformation worked as intended.
Brish: Yes. Much depends in this respect on who gets the information. It is one thing when the recipient is a scientist, and quite another when it is a politician. The latter will try to squeeze everything possible out of it to further his goals--to reinforce his standing, to move up the career ladder. And when it comes out that the whole thing is a soap bubble, the person who got it going is often already far away, doing completely different things, in a completely different area...