A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. They are also called the weapons of mass destruction. The first fission (“atomic”) bomb test released the same amount of energy as approximately 20,000 tons of TNT. The first thermonuclear (“hydrogen”) bomb test released the same amount of energy as approximately 10,000,000 tons of TNT.
Since their introduction in 1945, nuclear explosives have been the most feared of the weapons of mass destruction, in part because of their ability to cause enormous instantaneous devastation and of the persistent effects of the radiation they emit, unseen and undetectable by unaided human senses. The Manhattan Project cost the United States $2 billion in 1945 spending power and required the combined efforts of a continent-spanning industrial enterprise and a pool of scientists, many of whom had already been awarded the Nobel Prize and many more who would go on to become Nobel Laureates. This array of talent was needed in 1942 if there were to be any hope of completing a weapon during the Second World War. Because nuclear fission was discovered in Germany, which remained the home of many brilliant scientists, the United States perceived itself to be in a race to build an atomic bomb.
There are two basic types of nuclear weapons: those which derive the majority of their energy from nuclear fission reactions alone, and those which use fission reactions to begin nuclear fusion reactions that produce a large amount of the total energy output.
Nuclear Fission: An ordinary “atomic” bomb of the kinds used in World War II uses the process of nuclear fission to release the binding energy in certain nuclei. The energy release is rapid and, because of the large amounts of energy locked in nuclei, violent. The principal materials used for fission weapons are U-235 and Pu-239, which are termed fissile because they can be split into two roughly equal-mass fragments when struck by a neutron of even low energies. When a large enough mass of either material is assembled, a self-sustaining chain reaction results after the first fission is produced.
Fission weapons require a system to assemble a supercritical mass from a sub-critical mass in a very short time. Two classic assembly systems have been used, gun and implosion. In the simpler gun-type device, two subcritical masses are brought together by using a mechanism similar to an artillery gun to shoot one mass (the projectile) at the other mass (the target). The Hiroshima weapon was gun-assembled and used 235 U as a fuel. Gun-assembled weapons using highly enriched uranium are considered the easiest of all nuclear devices to construct and the most foolproof.
In the gun device, two pieces of fissionable material, each less than a critical mass, are brought together very rapidly to form a single supercritical one. This gun-type assembly may be achieved in a tubular device in which a high explosive is used to blow one subcritical piece of fissionable material from one end of the tube into another subcritical piece held at the opposite end of the tube.
Because of the short time interval between spontaneous neutron emissions (and, therefore, the large number of background neutrons) found in plutonium because of the decay by spontaneous fission of the isotope Pu-240, Manhattan Project scientists devised the implosion method of assembly in which high explosives are arranged to form an imploding shock wave which compresses the fissile material to supercriticality.
The core of fissile material that is formed into a super-critical mass by chemical high explosives (HE) or propellants. When the high explosive is detonated, an inwardly directed implosion wave is produced. This wave compresses the sphere of fissionable material. The decrease in surface to volume ratio of this compressed mass plus its increased density is then such as to make the mass supercritical. The HE is exploded by detonators timed electronically by a fuzing system, which may use altitude sensors or other means of control.
The basics of the Teller–Ulam design for a hydrogen bomb: a fission bomb uses radiation to compress and heat a separate section of fusion fuel.
The other basic type of nuclear weapon produces a large amount of its energy through nuclear fusion reactions. Such fusion weapons are generally referred to as thermonuclear weapons or more colloquially as hydrogen bombs (abbreviated as H-bombs), as they rely on fusion reactions between isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium). However, all such weapons derive a significant portion, and sometimes a majority, of their energy from fission. This is because a fission weapon is required as a “trigger” for the fusion reactions, and the fusion reactions can themselves trigger additional fission reactions.
Fusion reactions do not create fission products, and thus contribute far less to the creation of nuclear fallout than fission reactions. However, because all thermonuclear weapons contain at least one fission stage, and many high-yield thermonuclear devices have a final fission stage from depleted uranium, thermonuclear weapons can generate at least as much nuclear fallout as fission-only weapons, if not substantially more.
Nuclear Weapon Effects
Nuclear detonations are the most devastating of the weapons of mass destruction. To make this point one need only recall the pictures from Hiroshima or the international furor over the accidental but enormous radiation release from the Chernobyl power plant. The contamination from Chernobyl was significantly larger than would have been expected from a nuclear detonation of about 20 kT at ground level, but was comparable in extent to what might result from a small nuclear war in which a dozen or so weapons of nominal yield were exploded at altitudes intended to maximize blast damage.
A nuclear detonation creates a severe environment including blast, thermal pulse, neutrons, x- and gamma-rays, radiation, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and ionization of the upper atmosphere. Depending upon the environment in which the nuclear de-vice is detonated, blast effects are manifested as ground shock, water shock, blueout, cratering, and large amounts of dust and radioactive fallout. All pose problems for the survival of friendly systems and can lead to the destruction or neutralization of hostile assets.
The energy of a nuclear explosion is transferred to the surrounding medium in three distinct forms: blast; thermal radiation; and nuclear radiation. The distribution of energy among these three forms will depend on the yield of the weapon, the location of the burst, and the characteristics of the environment. For a low altitude atmospheric detonation of a moderate sized weapon in the kiloton range, the energy is distributed roughly as follows:
50% as blast;
35% as thermal radiation; made up of a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum, including infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light and some soft x-ray emitted at the time of the explosion; and
15% as nuclear radiation; including 5% as initial ionizing radiation consisting chiefly of neutrons and gamma rays emitted within the first minute after detonation, and 10% as residual nuclear radiation. Residual nuclear radiation is the hazard in fallout.
Considerable variation from this distribution will occur with changes in yield or location of the detonation.
Because of the tremendous amounts of energy liberated per unit mass in a nuclear detonation, temperatures of several tens of million degrees centigrade develop in the immediate area of the detonation. This is in marked contrast to the few thousand degrees of a conventional explosion. At these very high temperatures the nonfissioned parts of the nuclear weapon are vaporized. The atoms do not release the energy as kinetic energy but release it in the form of large amounts of electromagnetic radiation. In an atmospheric detonation, this electromagnetic radiation, consisting chiefly of soft x-ray, is absorbed within a few meters of the point of detonation by the surrounding atmosphere, heating it to extremely high temperatures and forming a brilliantly hot sphere of air and gaseous weapon residues, the so-called fireball. Immediately upon formation, the fireball begins to grow rapidly and rise like a hot air balloon. Within a millisecond after detonation, the diameter of the fireball from a 1 megaton (Mt) air burst is 150 m. This increases to a maximum of 2200 m within 10 seconds, at which time the fireball is also rising at the rate of 100 m/sec. The initial rapid expansion of the fireball severely compresses the surrounding atmosphere, producing a powerful blast wave.