A nuclear weapon is a weapon that derives its energy from nuclear reactions and has enormous destructive power - a single nuclear weapon is capable of destroying a city. Apart from test explosions, nuclear weapons have been used only twice - during World War II by the United States against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The declared nuclear powers are the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, People's Republic of China, India and Pakistan. In addition, Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, although it refuses to publicly state whether it possesses them or not, see Israel and weapons of mass destruction. See the list of countries with nuclear weapons for more details. Non-weaponized nuclear explosives have also been proposed for various civilian uses.
Table of contents
Types of weapons
Fission bombs derive their power from nuclear fission, where heavy nuclei (uranium or plutonium) split into lighter elements when bombarded by neutrons (producing more neutrons which bombard other nuclei, triggering a chain reaction). These are historically called atom bombs or A-bombs, though this name is not precise due to the fact that chemical reactions release energy from atomic bonds and fusion is no less atomic than fission. Despite this possible confusion, the term atom bomb has still been generally accepted to refer specifically to nuclear weapons, and most commonly to pure fission devices.
Fusion bombs are based on nuclear fusion where light nuclei such as hydrogen and helium combine together into heavier elements and release large amounts of energy. Weapons which have a fusion stage are also referred to as hydrogen bombs or H-bombs because of their primary fuel, or thermonuclear weapons because fusion reactions require extremely high temperatures for a chain reaction to occur.
Nuclear weapons are often described as either fission or fusion devices based on the dominant source of the weapon's energy. The distinction between these two types of weapon is blurred by the fact that they are combined in nearly all complex modern weapons: a smaller fission bomb is first used to reach the necessary conditions of high temperature and pressure to allow fusion to occur. On the other hand, a fission device is more efficient when a fusion core first boosts the weapon's energy. Since the distinguishing feature of both fission and fusion weapons is that they release energy from transformations of the atomic nucleus, the most accurate general term for all types of these explosive devices is "nuclear weapon."
Dirty bomb is now a term for a radiological weapon, a non-nuclear bomb that disperses radioactive material that was packed in with the bomb. When the bomb explodes, the scattering of this radioactive material causes radioactive contamination, a health hazard similar to that of nuclear fallout. One of the most publicly stated fears of Western governments since the September 11, 2001 attacks has been the terrorist detonation of a dirty bomb in a populated area. Dirty bombs, similar to other enhanced fallout weapons of more technologically sophisticated design, are area denial weapons that can render an area unfit for habitation for years or decades after the detonation.
Advanced thermonuclear weapons designs
The largest modern weapons include a fissionable outer shell of uranium. The intense fast neutrons from the fusion stage of the weapon will cause even natural (that is unenriched) uranium to fission, increasing the yield of the weapon many times.
The cobalt bomb uses cobalt in the shell, and the fusion neutrons convert the cobalt into cobalt-60, a powerful long-term (5 years) emitter of gamma rays. In general this type of weapon is a salted bomb and variable fallout effects can be obtained by using different salting isotopes. Gold has been proposed for short-term fallout (days), tantalum and zinc for fallout of intermediate duration (months), and cobalt for long term contamination (years). The primary purpose of this weapon is to create extremely radioactive fallout making a large region uninhabitable. No cobalt or other salted bomb has been built or tested publicly.
A final variant of the thermonuclear weapons is the enhanced radiation weapon, or neutron bomb which are small thermonuclear weapons in which the burst of neutrons generated by the fusion reaction is intentionally not absorbed inside the weapon, but allowed to escape. The X-ray mirrors and shell of the weapon are made of chromium or nickel so that the neutrons are permitted to escape. This intense burst of high-energy neutrons is the principal destructive mechanism. Neutrons are more penetrating than other types of radiation so many shielding materials that work well against gamma rays are rendered less effective. The term "enhanced radiation" refers only to the burst of ionizing radiation released at the moment of detonation, not to any enhancement of residual radiation in fallout (as in the salted bombs discussed above).
For more technical details see: Nuclear weapon design
Effects of a nuclear explosion
The energy released from a nuclear weapon comes in four primary categories:
- Blast40-60% of total energy
- Thermal radiation30-50% of total energy
- Ionizing radiation5% of total energy
- Residual radiation (fallout)5-10% of total energy
The dominant effects of a nuclear weapon (the blast and thermal radiation) are the same physical damage mechanisms as conventional explosives. The primary difference is that nuclear weapons are capable of releasing much larger amounts of energy at once. Most of the damage caused by a nuclear weapon is not directly related to the nuclear process of energy release, but would be present for any explosion of the same magnitude.
The damage done by each of the three initial forms of energy release differs with the size of the weapon. Thermal radiation drops off the slowest with distance, so the larger the weapon the more important this effect becomes. Ionizing radiation is strongly absorbed by air, so it is only dangerous by itself for smaller weapons. Blast damage falls off more quickly than thermal radiation but more slowly than ionizing radiation.
When a nuclear weapon explodes, the bomb's material comes to an equilibrium temperature in about a microsecond. At this time about 75% of the energy is emitted as primary thermal radiation, mostly soft X-rays. Almost all of the rest of the energy is kinetic energy in rapidly-moving weapon debris. The interaction of the x-rays and debris with the surroundings determines how much energy is produced as blast and how much as light. In general, the denser the medium around the bomb, the more it will absorb, and the more powerful the shockwave will be.
When a nuclear detonation occurs in air near sea-level, most of the soft X-rays in the primary thermal radiation are absorbed within a few feet. Some energy is re-radiated in the ultraviolet, visible light and infrared, but most of the energy heats a spherical volume of air. This forms the fireball.
In a burst at high altitudes, where the air density is low, the soft X-rays travel long distances before they are absorbed. The energy is so diluted that the blast wave may be half as strong or less. The rest of the energy is dissipated as a more powerful thermal pulse.
Much of the destruction caused by a nuclear explosion is due to blast effects. Most buildings, except reinforced or blast-resistant structures, will suffer moderate to severe damage when subjected to moderate overpressures. The blast wind may exceed several hundred km/h. The range for blast effects increases with the explosive yield of the weapon.
Two distinct, simultaneous phenomena are associated with the blast wave in air:
- Static overpressure, i.e., the sharp increase in pressure exerted by the shock wave. The overpressure at any given point is directly proportional to the density of the air in the wave.
- Dynamic pressures, i.e., drag exerted by the blast winds required to form the blast wave. These winds push, tumble and tear objects.
Nuclear weapons emit large amounts of electromagnetic radiation as visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light. The chief hazards are burns and eye injuries. On clear days, these injuries can occur well beyond blast ranges. The light is so powerful that it can start fires that spread rapidly in the debris left by a blast. The range of thermal effects increases markedly with weapon yield.
Since thermal radiation travels in straight lines from the fireball (unless scattered) any opaque object will produce a protective shadow. If fog or haze scatters the light, it will heat things from all directions and shielding will be less effective.
When thermal radiation strikes an object, part will be reflected, part transmitted, and the rest absorbed. The fraction that is absorbed depends on the nature and color of the material. A thin material may transmit a lot. A light colored object may reflect much of the incident radiation and thus escape damage. The absorbed thermal radiation raises the temperature of the surface and results in scorching, charring, and burning of wood, paper, fabrics, etc. If the material is a poor thermal conductor, the heat is confined to the surface of the material.
Actual ignition of materials depends on the how long the thermal pulse lasts and the thickness and moisture content of the target. Near ground zero where the light is most intense, what can burn, will. Farther away, only the most easily ignited materials will flame. Incendiary effects are compounded by secondary fires started by the blast wave effects such as from upset stoves and furnaces.
In Hiroshima, a tremendous fire storm developed within 20 minutes after detonation. A fire storm has gale force winds blowing in towards the center of the fire from all points of the compass. It is not, however, a phenomenon peculiar to nuclear explosions, having been observed frequently in large forest fires and following incendiary raids during World War II.
Electromagnetic pulse (EMP)
Gamma rays from a nuclear explosion produce high energy electrons through compton scattering. These electrons are captured in the earth's magnetic field, at altitudes between 20Km and 40Km, where they resonate. The oscillating electric current produces a coherent EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which lasts about 1 millisecond. Secondary effects may last for more than a second.
The pulse is powerful enough so that long metal objects act as antennas and generate high voltages when the pulse passes. These voltages, and the associated high currentss, can destroy unshielded electronics and even many wires. There are no known biological effects of EMP. The ionized air also disrupts radio traffic that would normally bounce off the ionosphere.
One can shield electronics by wrapping them completely in aluminum foil, or any other form of Faraday cage. Of course radios cannot operate when shielded, because broadcast radio waves can't reach them.
The largest-yield nuclear devices are designed for this use. An air burst at the right altitude produces continent wide effects.
About 5% of the energy released in a nuclear air burst is in the form of initial neutron and gamma radiation. The neutrons result almost exclusively from the fission and fusion reactions, while the initial gamma radiation includes that arising from these reactions as well as that resulting from the decay of short-lived fission products.
The intensity of initial nuclear radiation decreases rapidly with distance from the point of burst because the radiation spreads over a larger area as it travels away from the explosion. It is also reduced by atmospheric absorption and scattering.
The character of the radiation received at a given location also varies with distance from the explosion. Near the point of the explosion, the neutron intensity is greater than the gamma intensity, but with increasing distance the neutron-gamma ratio decreases. Ultimately, the neutron component of initial radiation becomes negligible in comparison with the gamma component. The range for significant levels of initial radiation does not increase markedly with weapon yield and, as a result, the initial radiation becomes less of a hazard with increasing yield. With larger weapons, above 50 kt, blast and thermal effects are so much greater in importance that prompt radiation effects can be ignored.
The residual radioactive contamination hazard from a nuclear explosion is in the form of radioactive fallout and neutron-induced activity. Residual ionizing radiation arises from:
- Fission Products. These are intermediate weight isotopes which are formed when a heavy uranium or plutonium nucleus is split in a fission reaction. There are over 300 different fission products that may result from a fission reaction. Many of these are radioactive with widely differing half-lives. Some are very short, i.e., fractions of a second, while a few are long enough that the materials can be a hazard for months or years. Their principal mode of decay is by the emission of beta and gamma radiation. Approximately 60 grams of fission products are formed per kilotonne of yield. The estimated activity of this quantity of fission products 1 minute after detonation is equal to that of 1.1 × 1021 Bq (30 million kg of radium) in equilibrium with its decay products.
- Unfissioned Nuclear Material. Nuclear weapons are relatively inefficient in their use of fissionable material, and much of the uranium and plutonium is dispersed by the explosion without undergoing fission. Such unfissioned nuclear material decays slowly by the emission of alpha particles and is of relatively minor importance.
- Neutron-Induced Activity. If atomic nuclei capture neutrons when exposed to a flux of neutron radiation, they will, as a rule, become radioactive (neutron-induced activity) and then decay by emission of beta and gamma radiation over an extended period of time. Neutrons emitted as part of the initial nuclear radiation will cause activation of the weapon residues. In addition, atoms of environmental material, such as soil, air, and water, may be activated, depending on their composition and distance from the burst. For example, a small area around ground zero may become hazardous as a result of exposure of the minerals in the soil to initial neutron radiation. This is due principally to neutron capture by various elements, such as sodium, manganese, aluminum and silicon in the soil. This is a negligible hazard because of the limited area involved.
Severe local fallout contamination can extend far beyond the blast and thermal effects, particularly in the case of high yield surface detonations. In detonations near a water surface, the particles tend to be lighter and smaller and produce less local fallout but will extend over a greater area. The particles contain mostly sea salts with some water; these can have a cloud seeding affect causing local rainout and areas of high local fallout.
The radiobiological hazard of worldwide fallout is essentially a long-term one due to the potential accumulation of long-lived radioisotopes, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137, in the body as a result of ingestion of foods incorporating these radioactive materials. The hazard of worldwide fallout is much less serious than the hazards which are associated with local fallout.
Blast and thermal injuries in many cases will far outnumber radiation injuries. However, radiation effects are considerably more complex and varied than are blast or thermal effects and are subject to considerable misunderstanding. A wide range of biological changes may follow the irradiation of animals, ranging from rapid death following high doses of penetrating whole-body radiation to essentially normal lives for a variable period of time until the development of delayed radiation effects, in a portion of the exposed population, following low dose exposures.
For more technical details see: nuclear explosion
The term strategic nuclear weapons is often used to denote large weapons which would be used to destroy large targets, such as cities. Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller weapons used to destroy specific targets such as military, communications, infrastructure.
Basic methods of delivery for strategic weapons are:
- bombers such as the B-52 and V bomber
- ballistic missiles - a missile using a ballistic trajectory involving a significant ascent and descent including suborbital and partial orbital trajectories. Most commonly ICBM and SLBM. Modern weapons also deliver Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) each of which carries a warhead and allows a single launched missile to strike a handful of targets.
- cruise missiles - A missile using a low altitude trajectory intended to avoid detection by radar systems. Cruise missiles have shorter range and lower payloads than ballistic missiles, usually, and are not known to carry MIRVs
- Portable bombs -- nuclear weapons that can be delivered in form of a suitcase bomb, or, for example, an ice cream truck.
See list of nuclear weapons for a list of the designs of nuclear weapons fielded by the various nuclear powers.
Nuclear weapons in culture
Nuclear weaponry has become a part of Western culture; the decades post-WW II can be termed the atomic age. The stunning power and the astonishing visual effects have been the topic of art including Andy Warhol's silkscreen Atomic Bomb (1965) and James Rosenquist's F-111 (1964-65) to Gregory Green's constructions and the efforts of artist James Acord to use uranium in his sculptures.
Films featuring nuclear war or the threat of it include (1964), On the Beach (1959), The Day After (1983), The War Game (1966), Threads (1985), WarGames (1983), Miracle Mile (1988), and The Sum of All Fears (2002). Films about nuclear weapons in the hands of individual terrorists or extortionists include Taiyo o nusunda otoko / The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979), True Lies (1994), Broken Arrow (1996), and The Peacemaker (1997). Also the series of movies Planet of the Apes finishes with the launching of cobalt bombs. Godzilla is considered by some to be an analogy to the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan.
Nuclear weapons are a staple element in science fiction novels. The chain reaction type nuclear bomb was predicted in a 1944 science fiction story by Cleve Cartmill titled "Deadline" which caused him to be investigated by the FBI, concerned that there had been a breach of security on the Manhattan Project.
Nuclear weapons are also one of the main targets of peace organisations. The CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) was one of the main organisations campaigning against the 'Bomb'. Its symbol entered modern popular culture as an icon of peace.
- More Technical Details
- Related Technology and Science
- Military Strategy
- Proliferation and Politics
- Glasstone, Samuel and Dolan, Philip J., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (third edition), U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977. PDF Version
- NATO Handbook on the Medical Aspects of NBC Defensive Operations (Part I - Nuclear), Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, Washington, D.C., 1996.
- Smyth, H. DeW., Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, Princeton University Press, 1945.
- The Effects of Nuclear War, Office of Technology Assessment (May 1979).
- Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Simon and Schuster, New York, (1995 ISBN 0684824140)
- Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon and Schuster, New York, (1986 ISBN 0684813785)
- Nuclear Weapon Archive from Carey Sublette is a reliable source of information and has links to other sources.
- The Federation of American Scientists provide solid information on weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons and their effects
- The Nuclear War Survival Skills is a public domain text and is an excellent source on how to survive a nuclear attack.
- Devotion to the Cause of Peace - The City of HIROSHIMA
- Step by step scenario of a 150 kiloton bomb exploding in Manhattan - click on the Next >> button at the bottom of each slide.