Nuclear Weapons


nuclear weapons

Hiroshima After the Atom Bomb

An aerial photograph reveals the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima, Japan, by an atomic bomb that was dropped on the city on August 6, 1945. Seventy thousand people were killed instantly, and 68 percent of the city was destroyed in the blast. The death toll eventually climbed to 200,000 due to radiation sickness.


Nuclear Weapons, explosive devices designed to release nuclear energy on a large scale. The first atomic bomb (or A-bomb), which was tested on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, represented a completely new type of explosive. All explosives prior to that time derived their power from the rapid burning or decomposition of some chemical compound. Such chemical processes release only the energy of the outermost electrons in the atom. See Atom.

Nuclear explosives, on the other hand, derive their energy from within the core, or nucleus, of the atom. The A-bomb gains its power from the splitting, or fission, of atomic nuclei in isotopes of plutonium or uranium. The first atomic bomb to be tested was a sphere of plutonium about the size of a baseball, which produced an explosion equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.

The A-bomb was developed, constructed, and tested by the Manhattan Project, a massive United States enterprise that was established in August 1942, during World War II (1939-1945). Many prominent American scientists, including the physicists Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer and the chemist Harold Urey, were associated with the project, which was headed by a U.S. Army engineer, then-Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves.

nuclear weapons

Nuclear Bombs

Nuclear weapons are the most powerful and destructive explosives in existence. Modern nuclear weapons, which may have the power of several million tons of TNT, generally have 8 to 40 times more explosive power than the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The devices shown here are nuclear bombs used in periodic exercises of the United States Air Force (USAF) strategic air command.

U.S. Air Force

After the war, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission became responsible for the oversight of all nuclear matters, including research on hydrogen bombs. In these bombs the source of energy is the fusion process, in which nuclei of the isotopes of hydrogen combine to form a heavier helium nucleus (see Thermonuclear, or Fusion, Weapons below). This weapons research resulted in the production of bombs that range in power from a fraction of a kiloton (1,000 tons of TNT equivalent) to many megatons (1 megaton equals 1 million tons of TNT equivalent). Furthermore, the physical size of a nuclear bomb was drastically reduced, permitting the development of nuclear artillery shells and small missiles that can be fired from portable launchers in the field. Although nuclear bombs were originally developed as strategic weapons to be carried by large bombers, nuclear weapons are now available for a variety of both strategic and tactical applications. Not only can they be delivered by different types of aircraft, but rockets and guided missiles of many sizes can now carry nuclear warheads and can be launched from the ground, the air, or underwater. Large rockets can carry multiple warheads for delivery to separate targets. See also ICBM; SLBM; MIRV.



In 1905 Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. According to this theory, the relation between mass and energy is expressed by the equation E = mc2, which states that a given mass (m) is associated with an amount of energy (E) equal to this mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c). A very small amount of matter is equivalent to a vast amount of energy. For example, 1 kg (2.2 lb) of matter converted completely into energy would be equivalent to the energy released by exploding 22 megatons of TNT.

In 1938 German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann split the uranium atom into two roughly equal parts by bombardment with neutrons. As a result of these experiments, the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, with her nephew, the British physicist Otto Robert Frisch, went on to explain the process of nuclear fission in 1939, placing the release of atomic energy within reach.



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Nuclear Fission and Nuclear Fusion

Both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion reactions can be used to generate large amounts of energy for destructive purposes. When an atom of 235U is bombarded by a neutron, it splits into atoms of cesium and rubidium, releasing a large amount of energy and three additional neutrons. These neutrons, if not controlled, can then cause more 235U atoms to split, leading rapidly to a nuclear explosion (A-bomb). Fusion reactions release energy when two light nuclei combine to make a heavier atom.

When a uranium or other suitable nucleus fissions, it breaks up into a pair of nuclear fragments and releases energy. At the same time, the nucleus emits very quickly a number of fast neutrons, the same type of particle that initiated the fission of the uranium nucleus. This makes it possible to achieve a self-sustaining series of nuclear fissions; the neutrons that are emitted in fission produce a chain reaction, with continuous release of energy.

The light isotope of uranium, uranium-235, is easily split by the fission neutrons and, upon fission, emits an average of about 2.5 neutrons. One neutron per generation of nuclear fissions is necessary to sustain the chain reactions. Others may be lost by escape from the mass of chain-reacting material, or they may be absorbed in impurities or in the heavy uranium isotope, uranium-238, if it is present. Any substance capable of sustaining a fission chain reaction is known as a fissile material.



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Fission Bomb

The first atomic bomb used in warfare was dropped by the United States on August 6, 1945. Called Little Boy, it produced an explosion that devastated the city of Hiroshima in Japan and killed tens of thousands of people in less than one minute. In this bomb, a mass of uranium about the size of a baseball produced an explosion as powerful as 15 kilotons of TNT. Little Boy, which is schematized here, was a gun-type fission bomb. A small wedge of uranium was fired at a larger target piece of uranium and, upon impact, the two pieces fused together briefly, forming what is called a super critical mass (a mass slightly greater than that necessary to sustain a chain reaction).

A small sphere of pure fissile material, such as uranium-235, about the size of a golf ball, would not sustain a chain reaction. Too many neutrons escape through the surface area, which is relatively large compared with its volume, and thus are lost to the chain reaction. In a mass of uranium-235 about the size of a baseball, however, the number of neutrons lost through the surface is compensated for by the neutrons generated in additional fissions taking place within the sphere. The minimum amount of fissile material (of a given shape) required to maintain the chain reaction is known as the critical mass. Increasing the size of the sphere produces a supercritical assembly, in which the successive generations of fissions increase very rapidly, leading to a possible explosion as a result of the extremely rapid release of a large amount of energy. In an atomic bomb, therefore, a mass of fissile material greater than the critical mass must be assembled instantaneously and held together for about a millionth of a second to permit the chain reaction to propagate before the bomb explodes. A heavy material, called a tamper, surrounds the fissile mass and prevents its premature disruption. The tamper also reduces the number of neutrons that escape.

If every atom in 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) of uranium were to split, the energy produced would equal the explosive power of 9.9 kilotons of TNT. In this hypothetical case, the efficiency of the process would be 100 percent. In the first A-bomb tests, this kind of efficiency was not approached. Moreover, a 0.5-kg (1.1-lb) mass is too small for a critical assembly.



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The Hiroshima Bomb

The first atomic bomb, which was made of uranium and was nicknamed “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945 by the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay. It killed 70,000 people instantly. Another 130,000 people later died from wounds or radiation sickness.

The National Archives/Corbis

Various systems have been devised to detonate the atomic bomb. The simplest system is the gun-type weapon, in which a projectile made of fissile material is fired at a target of the same material so that the two weld together into a supercritical assembly. The atomic bomb exploded by the United States over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, was a gun-type weapon made of fissile uranium. It had the energy of anywhere between 12.5 and 15 kilotons of TNT. Three days later the United States dropped a second atomic bomb made of plutonium over Nagasaki, Japan, with the energy equivalent of about 20 kilotons of TNT.

A more complex method, known as implosion, is used in a spherically shaped weapon. The outer part of the sphere consists of a layer of closely fitted and specially shaped devices, called lenses, consisting of high explosive and designed to concentrate the blast toward the center of the bomb. Each segment of the high explosive is equipped with a detonator, which in turn is wired to all other segments. An electrical impulse explodes all the chunks of high explosive simultaneously, resulting in a detonation wave that converges toward the core of the weapon. At the core is a sphere of fissile material, which is compressed by the powerful, inwardly directed pressure, or implosion. The density of the metal is increased, and a supercritical assembly is produced. The Alamogordo test bomb, as well as the one dropped by the United States on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, were of the implosion type. Each was equivalent to about 20 kilotons of TNT.

Regardless of the method used to attain a supercritical assembly, the chain reaction proceeds for about a millionth of a second, liberating vast amounts of heat energy. The extremely fast release of a very large amount of energy in a relatively small volume causes the temperature to rise to tens of millions of degrees. The resulting rapid expansion and vaporization of the bomb material causes a powerful explosion.



Much experimentation was necessary to make the production of fissile material practical.


Separation of Uranium Isotopes

The fissile isotope uranium-235 accounts for only 0.7 percent of natural uranium; the remainder is composed of the heavier uranium-238. No chemical methods suffice to separate uranium-235 from ordinary uranium, because both uranium isotopes are chemically identical. A number of techniques were devised to separate the two, all of which depend in principle on the slight difference in weight between the two types of uranium atoms.

A huge gaseous-diffusion plant was built during World War II in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This plant was enlarged after the war, and two similar plants were built near Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio. The feed material for this type of plant consists of extremely corrosive uranium hexafluoride gas. The gas is pumped against barriers that have many millions of tiny holes, through which the lighter molecules, which contain uranium-235 atoms, diffuse at a slightly greater rate than the heavier molecules, containing uranium-238 (see Diffusion). After the gas has been cycled through thousands of barriers, known as stages, it is highly enriched in the lighter isotope of uranium. The final product is weapon-grade uranium, containing more than 90 percent uranium-235.


Producing Plutonium

Although the heavy uranium isotope uranium-238 will not sustain a chain reaction, it can be converted into a fissile material by bombarding it with neutrons and transforming it into a new species of element. When the uranium-238 atom captures a neutron in its nucleus, it is transformed into the heavier isotope uranium-239. This nuclear species quickly disintegrates to form neptunium-239, an isotope of element 93 (see Neptunium). Another disintegration transmutes this isotope into an isotope of element 94, called plutonium-239. Plutonium-239, like uranium-235, undergoes fission after the absorption of a neutron and can be used as a bomb material. Producing plutonium-239 in large quantities requires an intense source of neutrons; the source is provided by the controlled chain reaction in a nuclear reactor. See Nuclear Chemistry; Nuclear Energy.

During World War II nuclear reactors were designed to provide neutrons to produce plutonium. Reactors capable of manufacturing large quantities of plutonium were established in Hanford, Washington, and near Aiken, South Carolina.



Even before the first atomic bomb was developed, scientists realized that a type of nuclear reaction different from the fission process was theoretically possible as a source of nuclear energy. Instead of using the energy released as a result of a chain reaction in fissile material, nuclear weapons could use the energy liberated in the fusion of light elements. This process is the opposite of fission, since it involves the fusing together of the nuclei of isotopes of light atoms such as hydrogen. It is for this reason that the weapons based on nuclear-fusion reactions are often called hydrogen bombs, or H-bombs. Of the three isotopes of hydrogen the two heaviest species, deuterium and tritium, combine most readily to form helium. Although the energy release in the fusion process is less per nuclear reaction than in fission, 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) of the lighter material contains many more atoms; thus, the energy liberated from 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) of hydrogen-isotope fuel is equivalent to that of about 29 kilotons of TNT, or almost three times as much as from uranium. This estimate, however, is based on complete fusion of all hydrogen atoms. Fusion reactions occur only at temperatures of several millions of degrees, the rate increasing enormously with increasing temperature; such reactions consequently are known as thermonuclear (heat-induced) reactions. Strictly speaking, the term thermonuclear implies that the nuclei have a range (or distribution) of energies characteristic of the temperature. This plays an important role in making rapid fusion reactions possible by an increase in temperature.

Development of the hydrogen bomb was impossible before the perfection of A-bombs, for only the latter could yield that tremendous heat necessary to achieve fusion of hydrogen atoms. Atomic scientists regarded the A-bomb as the trigger of the projected thermonuclear device.


Thermonuclear Tests

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Thermonuclear Explosion

A mushroom cloud results when a thermonuclear explosion occurs. This explosion on November 1, 1952, was part of Operation Ivy.

DOE/Science Source/Photo Researchers, Inc.

Following developmental tests in the spring of 1951 at the U.S. Enewetak Proving Grounds in the Marshall Islands during Operation Greenhouse, a full-scale, successful experiment was conducted on November 1, 1952, with a fusion-type device. This test, called Mike, which was part of Operation Ivy, produced an explosion with power equivalent to several million tons of TNT (that is, several megatons). The Soviet Union detonated a thermonuclear weapon in the megaton range in August 1953. On March 1, 1954, the United States exploded a fusion bomb with a power of 15 megatons. It created a glowing fireball, more than 4.8 km (more than 3 mi) in diameter, and a huge mushroom cloud, which quickly rose into the stratosphere.

The March 1954 explosion led to worldwide recognition of the nature of radioactive fallout. The fallout of radioactive debris from the huge bomb cloud also revealed much about the nature of the thermonuclear bomb. Had the bomb been a weapon consisting of an A-bomb trigger and a core of hydrogen isotopes, the only persistent radioactivity from the explosion would have been the result of the fission debris from the trigger and from the radioactivity induced by neutrons in coral and seawater. Some of the radioactive debris, however, fell on the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese vessel engaged in tuna fishing about 160 km (about 100 mi) from the test site. This radioactive dust was later analyzed by Japanese scientists. The results demonstrated that the bomb that dusted the Lucky Dragon with fallout was more than just an H-bomb.



The thermonuclear bomb exploded in 1954 was a three-stage weapon. The first stage consisted of a big A-bomb, which acted as a trigger. The second stage was the H-bomb phase resulting from the fusion of deuterium and tritium within the bomb. In the process helium and high-energy neutrons were formed. The third stage resulted from the impact of these high-speed neutrons on the outer jacket of the bomb, which consisted of natural uranium, or uranium-238. No chain reaction was produced, but the fusion neutrons had sufficient energy to cause fission of the uranium nuclei and thus added to the explosive yield and also to the radioactivity of the bomb residues.



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Nuclear Explosion

The initial explosion in the detonation of an atomic bomb is catastrophic for the surrounding area, leveling structures with intense shock waves and releasing vast amounts of heat. The characteristic mushroom cloud sends debris and radioactive material into the atmosphere, which can cause biological damage thousands of miles away from the explosion site.

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Atomic Bomb

When an atomic bomb explodes, a fireball creates shock and heat waves that destroy structures in the immediate vicinity of the blast. The rising fireball sucks up debris to form a mushroom cloud. Damage can occur over large distances. For example, the radius for severe damage could be approximately 18 km (11 mi) for a 10-megaton blast. Radioactive fallout may be dispersed worldwide through global atmospheric processes.

The effects of nuclear weapons were carefully observed, both after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and after many test explosions in the 1950s and early 1960s.


Blast Effects

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Deadly Mushroom Cloud over Hiroshima

On August 6, 1945, during World War II, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a Japanese city and military center. Sixty thousand to 70,000 people were reported killed or missing, according to U.S. estimates. Thousands more were made homeless. It was the first atomic bomb used against an enemy.

Hulton Deutsch

As is the case with explosions caused by conventional weapons, most of the damage to buildings and other structures from a nuclear explosion results, directly or indirectly, from the effects of blast. The very rapid expansion of the bomb materials produces a high-pressure pulse, or shock wave, that moves rapidly outward from the exploding bomb. In air, this shock wave is called a blast wave because it is equivalent to and is accompanied by powerful winds of much greater than hurricane force. Damage is caused both by the high excess (or overpressure) of air at the front of the blast wave and by the extremely strong winds that persist after the wave front has passed. The degree of blast damage suffered on the ground depends on the TNT equivalent of the explosion; the altitude at which the bomb is exploded, referred to as the height of burst; and the distance of the structure from ground zero, that is, the point directly under the bomb. For the 20-kiloton A-bombs detonated over Japan, the height of burst was about 580 m ( about 1,900 ft), because it was estimated that this height would produce a maximum area of damage. If the TNT equivalent had been larger, a greater height of burst would have been chosen.

Assuming a height of burst that will maximize the damage area, a 10-kiloton bomb will cause severe damage to wood-frame houses, such as are common in the United States, to a distance of more than 1.6 km (more than 1 mi) from ground zero and moderate damage as far as 2.4 km (1.5 mi). (A severely damaged house probably would be beyond repair.) The damage radius increases with the power of the bomb, approximately in proportion to its cube root. If exploded at the optimum height, therefore, a 10-megaton weapon, which is 1,000 times as powerful as a 10-kiloton weapon, will increase the distance tenfold, that is, out to 17.7 km (11 mi) for severe damage and 24 km (15 mi) for moderate damage of a frame house.


Thermal Effects

The very high temperatures attained in a nuclear explosion result in the formation of an extremely hot incandescent mass of gas called a fireball. For a 10-kiloton explosion in the air, the fireball will attain a maximum diameter of about 300 m (about 1,000 ft); for a 10-megaton weapon the fireball may be 4.8 km (3 mi) across. A flash of thermal (or heat) radiation is emitted from the fireball and spreads out over a large area, but with steadily decreasing intensity. The amount of heat energy received a certain distance from the nuclear explosion depends on the power of the weapon and the state of the atmosphere. If the visibility is poor or the explosion takes place above clouds, the effectiveness of the heat flash is decreased. The thermal radiation falling on exposed skin can cause what are called flash burns. A 10-kiloton explosion in the air can produce moderate (second-degree) flash burns, which require some medical attention, as far as 2.4 km (1.5 mi) from ground zero; for a 10-megaton bomb, the corresponding distance would be more than 32 km (more than 20 mi). Milder burns of bare skin would be experienced even farther out. Most ordinary clothing provides protection from the heat radiation, as does almost any opaque object. Flash burns occur only when the bare skin is directly exposed, or if the clothing is too thin to absorb the thermal radiation.

The heat radiation can initiate fires in dry, flammable materials, for example, paper and some fabrics, and such fires may spread if conditions are suitable. The evidence from the A-bomb explosions over Japan indicates that many fires, especially in the area near ground zero, originated from secondary causes, such as electrical short circuits, broken gas lines, and upset furnaces and boilers in industrial plants. The blast damage produced debris that helped to maintain the fires and denied access to fire-fighting equipment. Thus, much of the fire damage in Japan was a secondary effect of the blast wave.

Under some conditions, such as existed at Hiroshima but not at Nagasaki, many individual fires can combine to produce a fire storm similar to those that accompany some large forest fires. The heat of the fire causes a strong updraft, which produces strong winds drawn in toward the center of the burning area. These winds fan the flame and convert the area into a holocaust in which everything flammable is destroyed. Inasmuch as the flames are drawn inward, however, the area over which such a fire spreads may be limited.


Penetrating Radiation

Besides heat and blast, an exploding nuclear bomb has a unique effect—it releases penetrating nuclear radiation, which is quite different from thermal (or heat) radiation (see Radioactivity). When absorbed by the body, nuclear radiation can cause serious injury. For an explosion high in the air, the injury range for these radiations is less than for blast and fire damage or flash burns. In Japan, however, many individuals who were protected from blast and burns succumbed later to radiation injury.

Nuclear radiation from an explosion may be divided into two categories, namely, prompt radiation and residual radiation. The prompt radiation consists of an instantaneous burst of neutrons and gamma rays, which travel over an area of several square miles. Gamma rays are identical in effect to X rays (see X Ray). Both neutrons and gamma rays have the ability to penetrate solid matter, so that substantial thicknesses of shielding materials are required.

The residual nuclear radiation, generally known as fallout, can be a hazard over very large areas that are completely free from other effects of a nuclear explosion. In bombs that gain their energy from fission of uranium-235 or plutonium-239, two radioactive nuclei are produced for every fissile nucleus split. These fission products account for the persistent radioactivity in bomb debris, because many of the atoms have half-lives measured in days, months, or years.

Two distinct categories of fallout, namely, early and delayed, are known. If a nuclear explosion occurs near the surface, earth or water is taken up into a mushroom-shaped cloud and becomes contaminated with the radioactive weapon residues. The contaminated material begins to descend within a few minutes and may continue to fall for about 24 hours, covering an area of thousands of square miles downwind from the explosion. This constitutes the early fallout, which is an immediate hazard to human beings. No early fallout is associated with high-altitude explosions. If a nuclear bomb is exploded well above the ground, the radioactive residues rise to a great height in the mushroom cloud and descend gradually over a large area.

Human experience with radioactive fallout has been minimal. The principal known case histories have been derived from the accidental exposure of fishermen and local residents to the fallout from the 15-megaton explosion that occurred on March 1, 1954. The nature of radioactivity, however, and the immense areas contaminable by a single bomb undoubtedly make radioactive fallout potentially one of the most lethal effects of nuclear weapons.


Climatic Effects

Besides the blast and radiation damage from individual bombs, a large-scale nuclear exchange between nations could conceivably have a catastrophic global effect on climate. This possibility, proposed in a paper published by an international group of scientists in December 1983, has come to be known as the “nuclear winter” theory. According to these scientists, the explosion of not even one-half of the combined number of warheads in the United States and Russia would throw enormous quantities of dust and smoke into the atmosphere. The amount could be sufficient to block off sunlight for several months, particularly in the northern hemisphere, destroying plant life and creating a subfreezing climate until the dust dispersed. The ozone layer might also be affected, permitting further damage as a result of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Were the results sufficiently prolonged, they could spell the virtual end of human civilization. The nuclear winter theory has since become the subject of enormous controversy. It found support in a study released in December 1984 by the U.S. National Research Council, and other groups have undertaken similar research. In 1985, however, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report acknowledging the validity of the concept but saying that it would not affect defense policies.


Clean H-Bombs

On the average, about 50 percent of the power of an H-bomb results from thermonuclear-fusion reactions and the other 50 percent from fission that occurs in the A-bomb trigger and in the uranium jacket. A clean H-bomb is defined as one in which a significantly smaller proportion than 50 percent of the energy arises from fission. Because fusion does not produce any radioactive products directly, the fallout from a clean weapon is less than that from a normal or average H-bomb of the same total power. If an H-bomb were made with no uranium jacket but with a fission trigger, it would be relatively clean. Perhaps as little as 5 percent of the total explosive force might result from fission; the weapon would thus be 95 percent clean. The enhanced-radiation fusion bomb, also called the neutron bomb, which has been tested by the United States and other nuclear powers, does not release long-lasting radioactive fission products. However, the large number of neutrons released in thermonuclear reactions is known to induce radioactivity in materials, especially earth and water, within a relatively small area around the explosion. Thus the neutron bomb is considered a tactical weapon because it can do serious damage on the battlefield, penetrating tanks and other armored vehicles and causing death or serious injury to exposed individuals, without producing the radioactive fallout that endangers people or structures miles away. See also Arms Control; Guided Missiles; Warfare.