Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction, harnessing the forces that hold the nucleus of an atom together. The weapons use the energy released when the particles of the nucleus are split. In this article we are looking at how a nuclear bomb works – and as a warning, it will get a bit science-y!
Nuclear fission happens when the nucleus of an atom is split into smaller fragments, and it is nuclear fission which produces an atomic bomb. When a single neutron strikes the nucleus of a radioactive material such as plutonium or uranium, it knocks more neutrons free.
Energy is released when the neutrons split from the nucleus, and they bounce around and hit other radioactive nuclei, splitting them, which releases more energy and more neutrons. The chain reaction happens almost instantaneously and the effect is monumental.
Two atomic bombs were exploded in World War II, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Hiroshima bomb, called “Little Boy”, was made from uranium 235, and it is thought the fission of less than one kilogram of uranium released energy equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.
The Nagasaki bomb, called the “Fat Man” was made from plutonium 239. The fission of slightly more than one kilogram of plutonium is believed to have released the energy equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT.
Nuclear fusion is a reaction that releases energy when the light nuclei at high temperatures forms heavier atoms. Hydrogen bombs use nuclear fusion, and have bigger destructive power than atomic bombs.
The high temperatures required to cause a nuclear fusion reaction is a process called a thermonuclear explosion. This is done with the isotopes of hydrogen (tritium and deuterium) which fuse together to form helium atoms. This process led to the name “hydrogen bomb” describing the isotope fusion.
The first hydrogen bomb was exploded in 1952 in the Marshall Islands, a United States associated country in the Pacific Ocean. Its destructive power was several megatons of TNT. The blast created a light brighter than the sun and the heatwave was felt 50km away. In 1953, the Soviet Union detonated a hydrogen bomb in the megaton range, and the following year the US exploded a 15 megaton bomb, which has a fireball 4.8km in diameter.
Aside from the two atomic bombs used by the United States in World War II, there have been no other nuclear bombs used in warfare. If they ever were, the effects would be disastrous.
At the heart of a nuclear explosion is a temperature of several million degrees. The wide area caused by the explosion and the heat flash literally vaporises human tissue. People in buildings are generally shielded from a direct blast, but the blast and heat can cause buildings to collapse and flammable materials catch fire. Hiding in underground shelters can help a person survive the heat flash, but the oxygen is sucked out by the fire.
Further from the initial area of impact there is a greater chance of survival, but still with horrible consequences. There would be fatal burns, blinding from the light flash, bleeding and internal injuries, as well as the radioactive effects, which last several decades.
The effects of a nuclear war would also effect the environment, further damaging the climate on a scale no other weapon could compare to. It has been estimated billions would starve from the result of nuclear war.
Away from the destructive impact of a nuclear weapon is nuclear energy, which works the same way as an atomic bomb, using the fission process. Nuclear energy has some great benefits relating to power generation; it is a much greener solution to fossil fuels, emitting relatively low amounts of carbon dioxide, meaning the contribution of nuclear power plants to global warming is low. Also, the technology is already available and as we have mentioned above, an atom splitting can generate a high amount of electrical energy in one single plant.
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