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Nuclear Weapons FAQs

As this site has been developed a number of questions have been sent to me.
Below are the twelve most frequently asked ones.


1) I've heard that it is possible to find the instructions for making a
     nuclear weapon on the internet. Is this true, and if so, should we
     be concerned by this?

2) What was the biggest nuclear bomb ever detonated?


3) What is the difference between fusion and fission?


4) Why invent fusion bombs, if fission bombs were so powerful
    anyway?


5) What is a "Dirty Bomb"?


6) What is the difference between ground-burst and air-burst
    weapons?


7) When was the first atomic bomb detonated?


8) What is a nuclear Winter?
 

9) What is a pre-emptive strike?


10) Is there a difference between an atom bomb and a
     nuclear bomb?

 

11) How did I become interested in this topic?


12) What is Nuclear Deterrence?

 


 

Question 1

I've heard that it is possible to find the instructions for making a nuclear weapon on the internet. Is this true, and if so, should we be concerned by this?

The instructions for making a nuclear device are probably fairly easily obtainable via the internet. The basic physics, is not,  in fact, that difficult to work out. However, I would not worry about this. Although making the bomb would not be too problematic, sourcing the components would be, especially the enriched uranium. It isn't something you can buy from your local supermarket.Top of Page


 

Question 2

What was the biggest nuclear bomb ever detonated?

The largest recorded nuclear bomb was detonated by USSR on 31st October 1961. It was estimated to be 58 megatons. 

In contrast, the largest detonation by the USA was 14.8 Megatons. It was detonated on 1st 1954, and was codenamed "Bravo". The fallout was so great that even today the island where the test took place is still uninhabitable.Top of Page


 

Question 3

What is the difference between fusion and fission?

Fission is where vast amounts of energy are released by splitting atoms apart.

Fusion releases equally vast amounts of energy by joining atoms together.
Top of Page


Question 4

Why invent fusion bombs, if fission bombs were so powerful anyway?

Fission bombs produce their destructive energy by splitting atoms of uranium apart. This system works, however, soon after the initial explosion the uranium235 atoms would be so far apart (atomically speaking) that the reaction would cease as no free neutrons  would hit other uranium atoms and keep the process going.

Unlike fission bombs, fusion bombs (thermonuclear devices), produce energy by bonding together lighter atoms to make heavier ones. Unlike the fission process there is no limit on the amount of fusions that can occur. Thus, fusion bombs can be made with higher yields, and are therefore more destructive.

As a very rough rule of thumb, a fusion bomb is around a thousand times more powerful, than an equivalently sized fission bomb.

Fusion bombs need incredible hot temperatures to begin the reaction process. For this they use small fission devices within them.

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Question 5

What is a "Dirty Bomb"?

A "dirty bomb" is not a nuclear device in the true sense of the term. It is a bomb which contains radio active material, packed around a conventional explosive. When detonated the explosive sends the radioactive material into the air and causes localised radioactivity. Although very dangerous, a dirty bomb is nothing like a true nuclear bomb. It is similar to comparing a firework with an artillery shell.

Top of Page


 

Question 6

What is the difference between ground-burst and air- burst weapons?

A ground-burst nuclear device explodes when it hits the ground. This causes a more localised area of damaged, but has the advantage of sucking up vast amounts of soil, rock and debris. This becomes radioactive, and then can spread as fallout over a much wider areas.

Air-burst weapons do not create as much fall-out. However the area of devastation they cause is more widespread. Also they create a much wider area of electrical black-out due to the EMP produced.

Each type of detonation has it's uses.

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Question 7

When was the first atomic bomb detonated?

July 16th saw American scientists explode the first Atomic. The location of the trail, called the Trinity test, was Alamogordo. Less than one month later the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.

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Question 8

What is a nuclear Winter?

If scientists are correct, a nuclear Winter would be the result of a large scale exchange of nuclear weapons. The dust and debris created by the massive explosions these caused would be sucked into the stratosphere. These particles would spread for thousands of miles, and would cause the heat and light from the Sun to be partially or totally obscured. The resulting cold and darkness would kill much of the vegetation on the Earth. With no vegetation it would be impossible for either animals or, ultimately, humans to survive.

The effect would be similar to a natural Winter, but this one would last for years rather than months.
Top of Page


 

Question 9

What is a pre-emptive strike?

A pre-emptive strike is the term used to describe a surprise attack on an enemy. It's purpose is to cripple the enemy, and thus prevent any retaliation. To negative this form of attack the Super-powers developed three differing method of delivering their weapons (by bomber, by missile and launched from submarine). This meant that if one or two delivery methods were destroyed in a surprise attack, then they would still be able to retaliate.
Top of Page


 

Question 10

Is there a difference between an atom bomb and a nuclear bomb?

Yes, atom bombs create their destructive power by means of fission reactions.

nuclear bombs (or thermonuclear bombs-to give them their proper title) are more powerful and work by the process of fusion.
Top of Page


 

Question 11

How did I become interested in this topic?

I first became interested in this topic when studying facts for my Avro Vulcan pages. I discovered the Vulcan would have been the backbone of Britain's nuclear deterrent, and wanted to find out more. The more I discovered the more questions I had! I am not an expert, but feel it is important to have as many facts a s possible on a particular subject if you want to make a valid judgement on it.
Top of Page


 

Question 12

What is Nuclear Deterrence?

Nuclear deterrence is what caused the Soviet Union and the USA to produce huge stockpiles of nuclear missiles and bombs during the Cold War years. If two opposing forces have a roughly equal amount of weapons, training, and troops then the outcome of a battle between them is usually unpredictable. If one side was clearly the stronger, then usually, this side would win.

Both the former Soviet Union and America didn't want to be the weaker side. So they both produced many bombs and missiles capable of causing much damage to the enemy.

As both sides had similar amounts of weapons, if a war had broken out, there would have been no clear cut winner. Thus neither side dare risk attacking the opposition. The oppositions weapons were a deterrent.

 USA + USSR could deliver about 1 million tonnes of destructive energy. 
Such destruction is basis of nuclear deterrence. 

The main policies are:

Deterrence

 The adversaries do not attack because of fear of retaliation.

Mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.)

Neither super power will attack the other because of unacceptable amount of damage that would be received.

The concept of M.A.D. lead to triad strategy ( basing weapons in submarines , aircrafts and missiles). This ensures that should one or two deliver systems be destroyed by a surprise attack, part of the nuclear arsenal survives and is able to retaliate.

Neither of the former Super-powers would divulge where their missiles and bombs were targeted at "soft" or military targets. In reality it was probably a mixture of both.

 Counter Force

 Enemies attack military targets or command posts. This is often harder to achieve due to better defences, but, if successful, helps prevent any retaliation.

 Counter Value

 Enemies attack society, populations or economy. This is far easier, but leaves the opposition free to retaliate.
Top of Page

It can be argued that, in fact, nuclear weapons have provided us with long term peace. There was only twenty-one years between the First World War and the Second World War. 
Since the introduction of nuclear weapons there has not been another World War in fifty-three years.

What do you think?

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