TIME Science

When the U.S. Army Brought Reporters to a Still-Hot Atomic Test Site

First Nuclear Test 0.025 Sec
Fotosearch / Getty Images Image labeled '0.025 Sec' of the first Nuclear Test, codenamed 'Trinity', conducted by Los Alamos National Laboratory at Alamogordo, N.M., in 1945

The first nuclear weapon test took place on July 16, 1945

The Trinity nuclear weapon test—the first time an atomic bomb was detonated, exactly 70 years ago on July 16, 1945—is famous today for J. Robert Oppenheimer’s observation “I am become Death” and for the world-changing events that followed the successful explosion. At the time, however, it was the opposite of famous: one journalist attended (from the New York Times) but, for weeks, officials explained away the explosion with a phony cover story.

By that September, however, the U.S. was ready to show off the New Mexico site of the blast.

The Sept. 17, 1945, issue of TIME reported that the Army had brought 31 reporters to see “the first awesome footprint of man’s newest genie” and that the intervening weeks had not lessened its visual impact:

Seen from the air, the crater itself seems a lake of green jade shaped like a splashy star and set in a sere disc of burnt vegetation half a mile wide. From close up the “lake” is a glistening incrustation of blue-green glass 2,400 ft. in diameter, formed when the molten soil solidified in air. The glass takes strange shapes—lopsided marbles, knobbly sheets a quarter-inch thick, broken, thin-walled bubbles, green, wormlike forms.

In the glass lake’s center, directly beneath the bomb’s exploding point, is a crater of bare earth about 15 ft. deep and 300 ft. across. Scientists told newsmen the earth here was pushed downward ten feet by the explosion’s force. Stumps of the four reinforced-concrete tower pillars that supported the bomb still stand in the crater, flaked and twisted. The rest of the tower has vanished into vapor.

But that news junket wasn’t just a matter of showing off the weapons’ power. Rather, it was a concerted public relations effort to counter news out of Japan that the bombs had made Hiroshima and Nagasaki unsafe in the long term. In New Mexico, however, it appeared that the vegetation in the area was continuing to grow healthily. Even though reporters were asked to wear protective shoes and to stay away from still-radioactive “hot spots” in the actual detonation crater, the Army aimed to prove that the lingering effects of the bomb were limited. After all, would they be bringing journalists to walk around near the Trinity site if that weren’t the case?

Just as the reporters were able to visit the New Mexico test site, citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were eventually able to return to their cities. A variety of factors, such as the tonnage of the bombs and the height of detonation, meant that the radiation dissipated more quickly than might have otherwise been the case. However, the damage to those who were present before that point in time was immense. Many of those who seemed to have survived unscathed fell ill later.

In fact, that very same issue of TIME carried another story, in the health section rather than the science section, with a report from a Dutch doctor who happened to be a prisoner of war in Japan at the time of the bombings. He told TIME about people with a set of strange symptoms—swelling, hemorrhages, fever, internal bleeding. “Many (though not all) of the bomb victims who seemed to be recovering,” the magazine reported, “collapsed and died several weeks later.”

But, seven decades later, it now seems that scientists might have been wrong about the residual radiation all along: last September, the U.S. National Cancer Institute announced plans to study a possible link between the Trinity test and high cancer rates in the area.

TIME White House

See How the 2016 Field Reacted to the Iran Nuclear Deal

What the presidential candidates are saying

President Obama’s proposed deal on the Iranian nuclear program has become a hot topic among the people running to replace him.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her rivals for the Democratic nomination generally support the deal, while the Republican field is divided only on how vigorously they oppose it.

This video shows some of the reactions from the 2016 presidential field to the proposed deal.

The agreement reduces the current Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, restricts its acquisition of new nuclear fuel for 15 years, and restricts its own research on nuclear technologies for 10 years.

In exchange, Iran is rewarded with sanctions relief that could lead to hundreds of billions in an economic boost to the economy, along with an ending of a conventional weapons arms embargo against Iran in five years and an embargo against ballistic missile technology imports in 8 years, if the country continues to live up to its commitments.

Republicans in Congress have vowed to block the deal.

Read Next: What to Know About the Iran Nuclear Deal

TIME White House

Obama Attacks Critics of Iran Nuclear Deal

The President comes out swinging

President Obama challenged his critics Wednesday with a muscular defense of his deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program, describing the deal as the only path forward to avoid a military confrontation with the Persian nation.

“No one has presented to me or the American people a better alternative,” he said, during a midday press conference in the East Room, which seemed, at times, more like a lecture than a question-and-answer session. “I am hearing a lot of talk that this is a bad deal. … What I haven’t heard is what is your preferred alternative.”

“The reason is because there are really only two alternatives here,” he continued. “Either the issue of Iran receiving a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically or it is done through force.”

He said arguments that the deal should have addressed broader concerns about Iran, including the countries human rights record and support for terrorism, “defies logic and makes no sense.” “My hope is that building on this deal we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently,” he said. “But we are not counting on it.”

The agreement reduces the current Iranian stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, restricts its acquisition of new nuclear fuel for 15 years, and restricts its own research on nuclear technologies for 10 years. In exchange, Iran is rewarded with sanctions relief that could lead to hundreds of billions in economic boost to the economy, along with an ending of a conventional weapons arms embargo against Iran in five years and an embargo against ballistic missile technology imports in 8 years, if the country continues to live up to its commitments.

Republicans in Congress have vowed to attempt to block the deal, though the president has promised to veto any effort to change details of the agreement. There is little evidence that Republicans and Democrats who oppose the deal would be able to.

“I expect the debate to be robust and that’s how it should be,” Obama said. “I’m not betting on the Republican Party rallying behind this agreement. I do expect the debate to be based on facts and not speculation. And that I welcome.”

Read Next: What to Know About the Iran Nuclear Deal

TIME Iran

What to Know About the Iran Nuclear Deal

A brief guide to what happened and what's next

The U.S. and other world powers announced a deal with Iran early Tuesday to curb its nuclear program in exchange for giving the country relief from economic sanctions. Here’s what you need to know.

How did this deal come about?

For decades, Iran has been working to develop nuclear fuel that the U.S. worried could be used to create a nuclear weapon. In recent years, American intelligence officials have warned that Iran is “keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” and had acquired low-enriched uranium, which could theoretically be used to make the fissile material necessary for a nuclear weapon.

Shortly after President Obama took office, the United States joined with other major powers, including China and Russia, to put crippling economic sanctions on Iran to pressure the country to abandon its nuclear program. Over the last two years, Iran and the U.S. have been negotiating to remove those sanctions in exchange for a dismantling of the nuclear program and an ongoing regime of inspections.

So what’s in the deal?

The basic trade is this: Iran will get relief from sanctions, including access to international oil markets, which will bring it a windfall of about $100 billion. In exchange, Iran must dispose of most of its low-enriched uranium, stop efforts to produce or acquire more nuclear fuel, and consent to an inspections regime meant to ensure that the country does not cheat in its promise not to pursue a nuclear weapon over the next decade. The inspections will be overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency, an intergovernmental group headquartered in Austria. “Because of this deal, we will, for the first time, be in a position to verify all of these commitments,” Obama said Tuesday morning. “That means this deal is not built on trust; it is built on verification. Inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran’s key nuclear facilities.”

How is the world reacting to the deal?

The world’s major nuclear powers appear to be on board, and the United Nations Security Council is expected to take action in the coming weeks to remove sanctions. Iran’s regional neighbors, however, are less pleased. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim nation, is wary that the deal will allow Shiite Iran to grow as a regional and world power. Similarly, Israel, a longtime military foe of Iran, opposes the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal a “historic mistake for the world.” He continued, “Iran will receive hundreds of billions of dollars with which it can fuel its terror machine and its expansion and aggression throughout the Middle East and across the globe.”

How are American political leaders reacting to the deal?

Republican presidential candidates are uniformly against the deal, and have promised to make it a central part of the coming campaign. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called it “one of America’s worst diplomatic failures.” South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham described it as “far worse than I ever dreamed it could be.” Republicans in the Senate will seek Democratic allies in the coming month in an effort to vote to block the deal.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is supporting the deal.

Obama has promised to veto any congressional effort to change the agreement, and there is little chance that Republicans will get the two-thirds majority needed to override that veto.

TIME Iran

Iran’s Zarif Says They Have ‘Never Been Closer’ to a Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed optimism that a deal could be reached in talks between Iran and six world powers over the country’s nuclear program, he said in a YouTube video shot from the Palais Coburg where marathon negotiations have been taking place.

“At this eleventh hours, despite differences that remain, we have never been closer to a lasting outcome,” said Zarif in English. “Getting to yes requires the courage to compromise, the self confidence to be flexible, the maturity to be reasonable, the wisdom to set aside illusions and the audacity to break old habits.”

Though Zarif did not name his negotiating partners—the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia—his choice of vocabulary was clearly aimed at the United States. With his use of the words “audacity” and later in the four-minute statement, “hope.” The title of President Obama’s second book was The Audacity of Hope.

Iranians are known for their careful and symbolic choice of language. Zarif ended his remarks with a quote from Kay Khosrow, a revered king and character in the Shahnameh, the Persian-speaking world’s national epic written around 1010 A.D. by nobleman Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi Tusi: “Be relentless in striving for the cause of good / Bring the spring, you must / Banish the winter, you should.”

Those lines were cited by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his first address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013 and again later tweeted by Rouhani as a reference to turning a page and remaking the dawn of a new era.

This is not the first time Zarif, who spent five years from 2002 in New York as Iran’s United Nations representative, has taken to YouTube to address the West directly in English. In November 2013, he defended Iran’s nuclear program on a similar YouTube video—replete with the same piano muzak opening and closing.

Interestingly, Zarif did not focus his remarks solely on the talks being held by the so-called P5+1, for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. He also mentioned the importance of building strong relationships to fight violent extremism, a clear reference to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “Our common threat today is the growing menace of violent extremism and outright barbarism,” Zarif said.

The talks, which include Secretary of State John Kerry, were due to end on June 30, but were extended until July 7 to allow for more negotiations. Zarif’s remarks come as some perceived a hardening of Iran’s position given remarks by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week demanding the end to bruising economic sanctions by the six world powers before Iran begin to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.

TIME Israel

The U.S. and Israel Are Divided — and That Won’t Change

President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington on Oct. 1, 2014.
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington on Oct. 1, 2014.

Obama and Netanyahu don't like each other, but Israel and the U.S. will have problems even when they're both out of office

Some accuse President Obama of undermining Israel’s security to protect a peace process that’s going nowhere. Others say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poisoning Israel’s relations with his country’s superpower protector and isolating Israel internationally. It’s clear that Obama and Netanyahu don’t trust or like each other. But the widening divide between these countries can’t be reduced to a personality conflict between leaders. Differences in the interests and worldviews of the two governments are becoming more important.

Begin with the “two-state solution.” In Washington, leaders of both parties will continue to prioritize the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. But Obama isn’t the only U.S. official who publicly supports the idea of an eventual Israeli compromise with Palestinians. Former President George W. Bush described himself in 2008 as the “first American president to call for a Palestinian state.” Support for this aspiration remains part of the Republican Party platform.

Israelis, on the other hand, even those who support a two-state solution in principle, are far more aware of the challenges in creating a viable country that connects Gaza and the West Bank—to say nothing of the political nightmare of trying to evict thousands of Israeli settlers from disputed land. Support for a two-state solution is not dead in either country, but Americans and Israelis do not look at this question with the same eyes. With every surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, that gap becomes more obvious.

Obama and Netanyahu also hold opposing views on how best to ensure that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons, but that difference reflects divergent ideas within their governments on the role Iran might play in the future. For the Obama administration, Iran might one day become an agent of change in the Middle East, because it’s a country that holds genuinely contested elections, however flawed, and it’s one in which a sizeable majority isn’t old enough to remember the religious revolution that the country’s leaders say gives them their mandate. For Israel’s government, Iran’s hardliners remain in firm control. Whatever the aspirations of its young people, Israel believes Iran must remain isolated until its elections are fully free and fair and its leaders recognize Israel’s right to exist. Nuclear negotiations have widened this gap.

These differences are made possible by the reality that the United States can afford to be less involved in the region’s rivalries than it once was. First, following the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is limited public support in the United States for any military commitment that might require a costly long-term occupation of territory. Bombing ISIS is one thing; invading Iraq all over again is another. Americans are not ready for a war with Iran. Second, the remarkable surge in U.S. domestic energy production of recent years leaves the U.S. less vulnerable to Middle East conflict. By the end of this decade, the United States will produce almost half the crude oil it consumes. More than 80 percent of its oil will come from North and South America. By 2020, the US could be the world’s largest oil producer, and by 2035 the country could become almost entirely energy self-sufficient.

That advantage allows the U.S. President to shift security and trade policy toward a stronger focus on East Asia, the region more important than any other for the strength and resilience of the global economy over the next generation. The men and women hoping to succeed Obama as President can afford to offer familiar reassurances on America’s commitment to Israel’s security, but the shifting international landscape, the challenges and opportunities created by China’s continued rise and new trans-Pacific trade opportunities will occupy a growing percentage of the next administration’s time.

Netanyahu has won another term, though his staying power will remain in question. Obama will be in office for another 22 months. The next leaders of the two countries will surely like each other better than Netanyahu and Obama do, but differences in U.S. and Israeli national interests are not going away.

TIME Opinion

Who Are the Nuclear Scofflaws?

atomic bomb
US Army / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Photos recorded by U.S. Army automatic motion picture camera six miles distant when an atomic bomb was exploded at Alamo-Gordo in 1945

Surprise: The US is on the list. So is Russia. But Iran? Nope

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Given all the frothing by hawkish U.S. Senators about Iran’s possible development of nuclear weapons, one might think that Iran was violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

But it’s not. The NPT, signed by 190 nations and in effect since 1970, is a treaty in which the non-nuclear nations agreed to forgo developing nuclear weapons and the nuclear nations agreed to divest themselves of their nuclear weapons. It also granted nations the right to develop peaceful nuclear power. The current negotiations in which Iran is engaged with other nations are merely designed to guarantee that Iran, which signed the NPT, does not cross the line from developing nuclear power to developing nuclear weapons.

Nine nations, however, have flouted the NPT by either developing nuclear weapons since the treaty went into effect or failing to honor the commitment to disarm. These nine scofflaws and their nuclear arsenals are Russia (7,500 nuclear warheads), the United States (7,100 nuclear warheads), France (300 nuclear warheads), China (250 nuclear warheads), Britain (215 nuclear warheads), Pakistan (100-120 nuclear warheads), India (90-110 nuclear warheads), Israel (80 nuclear warheads), and North Korea (10 nuclear warheads).

Nor are the nuclear powers likely to be in compliance with the NPT any time soon. The Indian and Pakistani governments are engaged in a rapid nuclear weapons buildup, while the British government is contemplating the development of a new, more advanced nuclear weapons system. Although, in recent decades, the U.S. and Russian governments did reduce their nuclear arsenals substantially, that process has come to a halt in recent years, as relations have soured between the two nations. Indeed, both countries are currently engaged in a new, extremely dangerous nuclear arms race. The U.S. government has committed itself to spending $1 trillion to “modernize” its nuclear facilities and build new nuclear weapons. For its part, the Russian government is investing heavily in the upgrading of its nuclear warheads and the development of new delivery systems, such as nuclear missiles and nuclear submarines.

What can be done about this flouting of the NPT, some 45 years after it went into operation?

That will almost certainly be a major issue at an NPT Review Conference that will convene at the UN headquarters, in New York City, from April 27 to May 22. These review conferences, held every five years, attract high-level national officials from around the world to discuss the treaty’s implementation. For a very brief time, the review conferences even draw the attention of television and other news commentators before the mass communications media return to their preoccupation with scandals, arrests, and the lives of movie stars.

This spring’s NPT review conference might be particularly lively, given the heightening frustration of the non-nuclear powers at the failure of the nuclear powers to fulfill their NPT commitments. At recent disarmament conferences in Norway, Mexico and Austria, the representatives of a large number of non-nuclear nations, ignoring the opposition of the nuclear powers, focused on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. One rising demand among restless non-nuclear nations and among nuclear disarmament groups is to develop a nuclear weapons ban treaty, whether or not the nuclear powers are willing to participate in negotiations.

To heighten the pressure for the abolition of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament groups are staging a Peace and Planet mobilization, in Manhattan, on the eve of the NPT review conference. Calling for a “Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just, and Sustainable World,” the mobilization involves an international conference (comprised of plenaries and workshops) on April 24 and 25, plus a culminating interfaith convocation, rally, march, and festival on April 26. Among the hundreds of endorsing organizations are many devoted to peace (Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Veterans for Peace, and Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom), environmentalism (Earth Action, Friends of the Earth, and 350NYC), religion (Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Unitarian Universalist UN Office, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist General Board of Church & Society), workers’ rights (New Jersey Industrial Union Council, United Electrical Workers, and Working Families Party), and human welfare (American Friends Service Committee and National Association of Social Workers).

Of course, how much effect the proponents of a nuclear weapons-free world will have on the cynical officials of the nuclear powers remains to be seen. After as many as 45 years of stalling on their own nuclear disarmament, it is hard to imagine that they are finally ready to begin negotiating a treaty effectively banning nuclear weapons―or at least their nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, let us encourage Iran not to follow the bad example set by the nuclear powers. And let us ask the nuclear-armed nations, now telling Iran that it should forgo the possession of nuclear weapons, when they are going to start practicing what they preach.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of “Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement” (Stanford University Press).

TIME Iran

These 5 Facts Explain the State of Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Brendan Smialowski—Reuters Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Sanctions, demographics, oil and cyberwarfare

As leaders in the United States and Iran maintain laser focus on the ongoing nuclear negotiations, it’s valuable to take a broader look at Iran’s politics, its economy, and its relations with the United States. Here are five stats that explain everything from Iran’s goals in cyberspace to its views of Western powers.

1. Sanctions and their discontents

Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy. According to the Congressional Research Service, Iran’s economy is 15 to 20% smaller than it would have been without the sanctions that have been enacted since 2010. They leave Iran unable to access nearly four-fifths of the $100 billion in reserves the country holds in international accounts. Iran’s oil output has fallen off a cliff. Four years ago, Iran sold some 2.5 million barrels of oil and condensates a day. Over the last year, the country has averaged just over a million barrels a day. Even as the exports have fallen and the price has plummeted, oil still accounts for 42% of government revenues. Iran’s latest budget will slash spending by 11% after accounting for inflation.

(Bloomberg, The Economist)

2. Cyber-spending spree

But despite the belt-tightening, Tehran has been willing to splurge in one area. Funding for cyber security in the 2015/16 budget is 1200% higher than the $3.4 million allotted in 2013/14. Up until 2010, Iran’s chief focus in cyberspace was managing internal dissidents. But after news of the Stuxnet virus—a U.S.-led cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program—went public in 2010, Iran’s leaders shifted gears. According to one estimate, Iran spent over $1 billion on its cyber capabilities in 2012 alone. That year, it conducted the Shamoon attack, wiping data from about 30,000 machines belonging to Saudi oil company Aramco. In 2013, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard publicly declared that Iran was “the fourth biggest cyber power among the world’s cyber armies.”

(Global Voices, Wired, Strategic Studies Institute, Wall Street Journal)

3. New generation and old leadership

The median age in Iran is 28, and youth unemployment in the country hovers around 25%. Nearly seven out of ten Iranians are under 35 years old, too young to remember the Iranian revolution of 1979. But the country is controlled by older men, many of whom had an instrumental role in the revolution. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 75 years old; there have been concerns about his health and Iran’s eventual succession plan. Iran’s Assembly of Experts is an opaque institution with huge symbolic importance: it is tasked with selecting and overseeing Iran’s Supreme Leader. The Assembly’s Chairman passed away in October at the age of 83. His replacement? Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who is…83 years old.

(New York Times, CIA World Factbook, BBC)

4. The feeling is mutual

Over 70% of Iranians view the United States unfavorably—and 58% have “very unfavorable” views. On the flip side, more than three-quarters of surveyed Americans have unfavorable views of Iran. But that’s a more modest stance than some other European powers: 80% of French and 85% of Germans have unfavorable views of Iran. According to recent polls, Iran is no longer considered “the United States’ greatest enemy today.” In 2012, 32% of those polled chose Iran, good for first place. In 2015, just 9% selected Iran, placing it fourth behind China, North Korea and Russia, respectively.

(Center for International & Security Studies, Pew Research Center, Vox)

5. Support for a deal?

Negative views of Iran haven’t undermined Americans’ desire to try and cut a deal: 68% of Americans favor diplomacy with Iran. It’s a bipartisan majority: 77% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans are in favor of talks. Iranians have mixed expectations: only 48% think that President Rouhani will be successful in reaching an agreement. But if we do see a final deal, a lot more than Iranian oil could open up. Western businesses would love to break into a country that is more populous than Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Israel, Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan combined.

(Center for International & Security Studies, CNN survey, CIA World Factbook)

TIME Iran

The Middle East Nuclear Race Is Already Under Way

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, center right, talk outside with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear programme in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 19, 2015.
Brian Snyder—AFP/Getty Images Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, talk with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 19, 2015

While the U.S. and other world powers work to constrain Iran's nuclear program, five rival nations plan atomic programs

One of the most important reasons why the U.S. is trying to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran is to prevent an Iranian bomb from triggering a nuclear race in the Middle East. Yet even as talks continue now in Switzerland, Tehran’s regional rivals have already begun quietly acting on their own atomic ambitions. Nuclear power may be on the wane almost everywhere else in the world, but it’s all the rage in the place with all that oil.

Egypt’s announcement last month that it was hiring Russia to build a reactor near Alexandria made it only the latest entrant in an emerging atomic derby. Every other major Sunni power in the region has announced similar plans. And though none appear either as ambitious nor as ambiguous as what’s taken place in Iran — which set out to master the entire atomic-fuel cycle, a red flag for a military program — each announcement lays down a marker in a region that, until recently, was notable as the one place on the planet where governments had made little progress on nuclear power.

With the exception of Israel, which has never publicly acknowledged its widely known nuclear arsenal, no Middle Eastern country beyond Iran had a nuclear program — peaceful or otherwise — until the wealthy United Arab Emirates began building a reactor in July 2012 (due for completion in 2017). The list now includes, in addition to Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — the last Iran’s archrival, and which last year revealed plans to build 16 nuclear plants over the next two decades. When the President of South Korea — which has 23 nuclear plants of its own — visited the Kingdom earlier this month, leaders of both countries signed a memo of understanding calling for Seoul to build two of the nuclear plants. The Saudis have made similar arrangements with China, Argentina and France.

“It’s not just because nuclear power is seen as a first step toward a nuclear-weapons option,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. State Department nuclear expert who now runs the nonproliferation and disarmament program at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There is also a prestige factor: keeping up with the neighbors.”

Middle Eastern nations may have legitimate reasons to invest in nuclear energy. Jordan, for instance, has almost no oil in liquid form, and almost less water. Saudi Arabia and the UAE possess huge crude reserves, but lose potential export revenue when they burn oil at home to create electricity — huge amounts of which are sucked up by desalination plants. Turkey, despite impressive hydroelectric potential, must import oil and natural gas.

But all that has been true for decades. What’s changed in recent years is the nuclear capabilities of Iran — a Shi‘ite Muslim country Sunni leaders have come to regard as major threat. Jordan’s King Abdullah II famously warned of a “Shia crescent” of Iran-aligned countries reaching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Saudis have made it clear that they will acquire a nuclear weapon should Iran get one.

“This is not the shortest way to a nuclear weapon, by any means,” says Sharon Squassoni, director of the proliferation-prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “But if I put myself in their shoes, I’d think it probably makes sense to start down this path to see if we can develop a civilian nuclear [program], and if we pick up some capabilities along the way, that’s all right.”‘

Suspicion rises with every new announcement partly because the Middle East is bucking a global trend. Worldwide, the number of nuclear plants has declined since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. Reactions differed by country. Germany forswore nuclear energy altogether after the disaster, while China pressed ahead, planning more than 100 new reactors. But in most places, the environmental risks and high costs have turned countries off nuclear power.

“My beef with nuclear energy is that it’s sort of held up as this very prestigious thing,” Squassoni tells TIME. “We do nuclear deals with our best allies … all this stuff about strategic partnership. And really, it’s this extremely expensive, complicated, slightly dangerous way to boil water. And that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re boiling water to turn those turbines.”

The expense alone may prevent some Middle Eastern nations from every actually joining the “nuclear club.” Building an atomic plant costs at least $5 billion, Fitzpatrick notes, and Egypt is desperately poor; Jordan relies heavily on remittances and foreign aid. But the Saudis still have money to burn and, according to former White House official Gary Samore, have consistently rebuffed U.S. imprecations to sign a pledge not to divert any nuclear program toward producing a bomb (a pledge the UAE took). Saudi Arabia has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but then so has Iran, and in the end a race can be run by as few as two: India and Pakistan, bitter neighbors, neither of which are rich, went nuclear in 1974 and 1998, respectively. They’ve gone to war once since, raising anxiety levels around the world.

So the talks in Switzerland are about more than preventing Iran from getting the bomb. They are also about persuading Iran’s neighbors that the nuclear option is effectively off the table. If the talks end with a final agreement that looks like a win for the Islamic Republic, diplomats say its neighbors will fast track their own plans. “If the accord is not sufficiently solid then regional countries would say it’s not serious enough, so we are also going to get the nuclear weapon,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 Radio on Saturday. “And that would lead to an extremely dangerous nuclear proliferation.”

Read next: Israel Denies Spying on Iran Nuclear Talks With U.S.

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TIME Science

When Mushroom Clouds Were All the Rage

Atomic Bomb Test, Nevada
Interim Archives / Getty Images Capturing an atomic explosion at a test site in the Nevada desert in 1957.

Jan. 27, 1951: The first atomic bomb is detonated at the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nev.

The mushroom clouds that appeared over the Nevada desert were a spectacular tourist attraction — at least initially.

After the first nuclear device was detonated at the Nevada Test Site on this day, Jan. 27, in 1951, atomic fever swept across the nation, bringing waves of visitors to Las Vegas, an ideal vantage point from which to see the clouds rising above the test site 65 mi. away. “At week’s end the Atomic Energy Commission cautiously confirmed the fact that the first atomic explosion had taken place in its new 5,000-sq.-mi. testing ground on the remote and barren plateau northwest of Las Vegas known as Frenchman Flat,” TIME reported in the Feb. 5, 1951, issue. “It was the first atomic explosion in the U.S. since the historic test at Alamogordo in 1945.” The 12 years during which the site averaged one explosion every three weeks was a boom time for Vegas, which nicknamed itself “Atomic City” and sponsored “Miss Atom Bomb” beauty contests, adorning winners with mushroom-cloud crowns.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce printed calendars listing detonation times and suggestions for the best viewing locations. According to the PBS history show “American Experience,” many tourists watched the bombs go off from the Sky Room at the Desert Inn hotel and casino, but others picnicked as close to the test site as they could get.

One lucky group of newscasters was allowed to broadcast the explosion of a 31-kiloton bomb — dubbed the “Big Shot” — from the edge of Nevada’s Yucca Lake, 10 mi. from ground zero. One reporter, per PBS, narrated the experience in majestic terms: “A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella… You brace yourself against the shock wave… Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away.”

Residents of St. George, Utah, therefore, considered themselves exceptionally fortunate: they had a front-row seat for nearly every blast that rocked the desert. According to a TIME, parents in this tiny town, just downwind of the test site, regularly woke their children before dawn and brought them to a hilltop where they could watch the mushroom clouds rise with the sun.

“When a pinkish-red cloud drifted over St. George hours later, the parents were not frightened,” TIME reported. “After all, the Atomic Energy Commission had assured them that ‘there is no danger’ from radioactive fallout. Some parents even held Geiger counters on their children and exclaimed in wonder as the needles jumped.”

By the time that story was published, in 1979, an alarming number of the children who had once watched the bombs burst in St. George had died of leukemia. Others developed thyroid cancer as adults. Awe over the A-bomb’s pyrotechnical power had been replaced by a better-informed fear of its dangers, and the test site had moved its nuclear operations underground.

Read the original report on the first atomic explosion, from the Feb. 5, 1951, issue of TIME, here in the TIME Vault: “A Kinda Flash”

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