Andrey Sakharov, Nuclear Bomb Maker Turns as Human Rights Activist

Andrey Sakharov.
Andrey Sakharov.
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The Soviet discovery of the major ideas behind the thermonuclear bomb went through several stages. Later in 1948, Sakharov proposed a design in which alternating layers of deuterium and uranium are placed between the fissile core of an atomic bomb and the surrounding chemical high explosive.

The scheme analogous to American physicist Edward Teller’s “Alarm Clock” design was called Sloika, or “Layer Cake” as it is usually translated. Sakharov referred to it as the “First Idea.” Sakharov credits Ginzburg for the “Second Idea.”

Then, in 1949 Ginzburg published reports proposing substituting lithium deuteride for the liquid deuterium. When bombarded with neutrons, the lithium yields tritium, which when fused with the deuterium generates a greater release of energy.

In March 1950 Sakharov arrived at the “Installation” (KB-11 and later Arzamas-16), located in what became the secret Soviet city of Sarov. Under the scientific leadership of Yuly B. Khariton, work at KB-11 had begun three years earlier to develop and produce Soviet nuclear weapons.

Members of the Tamm and the Zeldovich groups also went there to work on the thermonuclear bomb. A Layer Cake model, small and light enough to be deliverable by airplane, was detonated on August 12, 1953, with a yield of 400 kilotons.

Sakharov was rewarded with full membership in the Soviet Academy of Sciences at age 32 and accorded the privileges of the Nomenklatura, or elite members of the Soviet Union. While the 1953 test was a significant milestone in thermonuclear development, it was not based on the most advanced principles, and further work continued.

In the late 1950s, Sakharov became concerned about the consequences of testing in the atmosphere, foreseeing an eventual increased global death toll over time.

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