The nuclear bomb was one of the greatest threats of the 20th century. While it is as deadly today as it was then, the likelihood of a nuclear war has decreased significantly. How did nuclear weapons come about?
Nuclear bomb – what is it?
The image of the weapon that is the nuclear bomb has been preserved in historical chronicles, textbooks, as well as many outstanding examples of art and literature. You don’t need to be a scientist to know what this weapon is and how much of a threat it presents. However, from a purely technical, academic point of view, defining such an object can be quite a problem.
The nuclear bomb is one of the deadliest weapons created by humanity. It works by generating a huge amount of energy in an extremely short time. Various kinds of physical processes can be used to cause an explosion. The two most important ones are fission of elements (the older method) and nuclear fusion, which is used in the construction of the hydrogen bomb.
The effect of the use of nuclear weapons is radioactive contamination of the soil, water reservoirs and the atmosphere. It annihilates all life in a large area – depending on the amount of emitted energy, it can be from several to several dozen kilometers. The consequence of detonation is also the formation of an atomic mushroom, an electromagnetic pulse, and the production of an enormous amount of heat. The temperature within the detonation center is so extremely high that the organisms within it literally evaporate.
Nuclear armaments play a huge role in international politics. Countries that are economically and scientifically advanced enough to acquire it belong to the elite group of the so-called nuclear states. Currently, it includes France, England, USA, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. The nuclear bomb in the arsenal is a strong negotiating argument, especially when conducting political talks from a position of strength. Although it was used only twice during an armed conflict (in 1945), it still remains an essential element of the defense of any country that owns it.
Building the Atomic Bomb
The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki mark the culmination of many years of nuclear research that preceded the construction of the atomic bomb. Most discoveries in this field were made in Europe and North America. During the first three decades of the 20th century, work on the study of the properties of the atom and the use of its potential for civil and military purposes was moderate. The situation was radically changed by the outbreak of World War II, which prompted both the Axis and the Allies to intensify their research.
The theoretical background for building a nuclear bomb was created by Ernest Rutherford in England at the beginning of the previous century. He was a pioneer in research on heavy element chain reactions, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1908. However, the first actual atomic fission took place in 1938, in Hitler’s Germany.
Although it was originally intended to be used in the civilian field, the militarizing Third Reich quickly redirected its research for military purposes. Historical consensus is that by the outbreak of World War II, the Nazi military machine was closer to developing a functioning nuclear bomb than any other country. Germany is credited with, among others, invention of the world’s first working nuclear bomb fuse.
The decisive stage in the construction of the first nuclear weapon was the American Manhattan Project, which you probably learned about in school. It was carried out by the most prominent US scientists, often emigrants from Nazi Germany. It is worth remembering that the Soviet Union competed with the United States in construction of the bomb, despite being formal allies. However, the Americans were the first to build a fully operational nuclear weapon.
The range of an atomic bomb
The range of an nuclear bomb explosion depends on many factors – the amount and type of elements used in its construction, the mode of operation (fission or fusion), topography, buildings, and weather conditions. The supposed firepower of this weapon is measured using the equivalent of tons of TNT, i.e. in kilotons or megatons. For example, the bombs used during the atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a power of 15 and 20 kilotons of TNT, respectively.
Assuming the 15-kiloton bomb case is discussed, the extent of the damage would be truly catastrophic. The diameter of the hole in the ground that would arise from the use of this weapon would be approx. 1000 meters (about 3200 ft). Immediately after detonating the bomb, a fireball with a radius of approx. 1500 meters (about 5000 ft) would be created, which would then transform into the so-called atomic mushroom. The seismic wave would destroy all objects within 6,000 meters (about 20000 ft). If you got too close to the detonation site, most probably there wouldn’t be any trace of you left.
However, the range of the nuclear bomb does not end with these statistics. In addition to the effects described above, it would cause a fire of apocalyptic proportions. All the buildings that had not been destroyed during the explosion would have burned down. It would also deal with wood, plastics, and fabrics. People at greater distances would have survived such a catastrophe, albeit with numerous burns and symptoms of radiation sickness.
The research conducted several years ago provided reliable information on the hypothetical effects of detonating an atomic bomb in a major European city (e.g. Warsaw – capital city of Poland) with the same strength as that dropped on Nagasaki. The historic center of the city as well as all adjacent districts would be completely destroyed. The fire would engulf the suburbs, and the shock wave would be felt even in towns located several kilometers away.
The Most Powerful Nuclear Bombs
History knows many examples of test detonations of high-strength atomic bombs – many times greater than the ones that caused such destruction in Japan. Many of the most powerful bombs were primarily of political importance in the context of the ongoing Cold War. The United States, Western Europe, China and the USSR presented their military capabilities in order to intimidate each other.
Some of these tests have gone down in history with extremely negative associations – especially in the face of a lack of respect for the natural environment. The most powerful atomic bomb in history is the so-called Tsar Bomba detonated during the times of Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 on the Soviet Severny Island of Novaya Zemlya territory. Its strength in TNT equivalent was exactly 58.6 megatons. The detonation was visible from a distance of more than 1000 kilometers (620 miles, including in the American Alaska, as well as in the Scandinavian countries and Greenland).
The height of the mushroom cloud was 67 kilometers (above 40 miles), and the shock wave circled the entire Earth three times. In some places, even very distant from the point of the explosion, the houses were left with broken windows. One of the side effects of the explosion is ionization of the atmosphere. Within 40 minutes, within a radius of even several hundred kilometers, there were problems with establishing radio communication. However, the radioactive contamination turned out to be insignificant – it was a hydrogen bomb, which was a “cleaner” type of nuclear charge.
Two more bombs, which broke the records of emitted energy, also belong to the USSR: the so-called test 219 with a capacity of more than 24 megatons, as well as 174 (20 megatons). They did not differ much from the famous Tsar Bomba – they were detonated in northern Russia. The bomb from the Castle Bravo test, conducted by the Americans in 1954, also deserves an inglorious distinction. It happened in the midst of an atomic fever in international relations.
The US planned that the power of this bomb would be “only” 6 megatons, but as a result of calculation errors, a charge with an actual strength of about 15 megatons was detonated. One of the effects of the test was the radioactive contamination of large swaths of land, as well as causing radiation sickness in hundreds of inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, which lie near Bikini Atoll, where the tests were carried out. Also a cruise ship named Happy Dragon fell victim to the radiation.
Detonation of an atomic bomb in space – what would be the result?
Remember that detonation of a nuclear charge in space cannot actually take place. This has been regulated by law – under treaties successively signed in the second half of the 20th century, all atomic tests on water, in the air, atmosphere or outer space are completely forbidden. The only country that evades these regulations is North Korea, making it an element of international blackmail. Fortunately, this country does not have the means to place nuclear warheads in space.
An explosion of an atomic bomb in space would lead to serious consequences, but in a different way than the charges detonated “traditionally” on our planet. There is no atmosphere in a vacuum, so there would be no mushroom or fire. The most important effect would be an electromagnetic pulse that would likely disrupt the operation of a large number of Earth’s artificial satellites. The consequence of such a detonation would therefore be significant difficulties in wireless communication, caused by the strength of the bomb.
It is worth remembering that there are also people in space – these are members of the International Space Station crew. They would be exposed to radiation sickness, which, in isolation, could lead to death. This is, thankfully, an absolutely fictional scenario. It remains to be hoped that it will continue to do so for the next few centuries – until nuclear weapons are fully phased out and completely removed. Sooner or later, even North Korea will have to move on and stop its dangerous nuclear experiments.