The catastrophically huge impacts behind the science of Nuclear Weapons has been visualized in a way to better understand it’s capabilities.
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The world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, USA, in 1945, signalling the start of the Atomic Age.
Since then, the world’s nuclear arsenal has grown, and as geopolitical tensions rise, the prospect of a nuclear holocaust is understandably terrifying.
However, despite their catastrophically huge impacts, nuclear weapons science is atomically small….
The Atomic Science of Nuclear Weapons
Atoms are the building blocks of all matter, and they are made up of varying combinations of three particles: protons, electrons, and neutrons. Nuclear weapons work by utilising the interactions of protons and neutrons to produce a chain reaction that is explosive.
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The nucleus, which is made up of firmly bonded protons and neutrons, is at the heart of every atom. While each element in the periodic table has its own number of protons, the number of neutrons can vary. As a result, certain elements have numerous “species,” sometimes known as isotopes.
Here are some examples of uranium isotopes:
- Uranium-238: 92 protons, 146 neutrons
- Uranium-235: 92 protons, 143 neutrons
- Uranium-234: 92 protons, 142 neutrons
There are two types of isotopes: stable and unstable. The number of neutrons in stable isotopes is relatively constant or unchanging. A chemical element with too many neutrons, on the other hand, becomes unstable or fissile.
When fissile isotopes try to become stable, they lose neutrons and energy in the process. Nuclear weapons get their explosivity from this energy.
Nuclear weapons can be classified into two categories:
- Atomic Bombs: These rely on a domino effect of multiple fission reactions to produce an explosion, using either uranium or plutonium.
- Hydrogen Bombs: These rely on a combination of fission and fusion using uranium or plutonium, with the help of lighter elements like the isotopes of hydrogen.
What’s the difference between fission and fusion reactions, exactly?
Splitting Atoms: Nuclear Fission
Nuclear fission, the process utilised in nuclear reactors, generates significant amounts of energy by splitting a heavy unstable atom into two smaller atoms, thereby initiating a nuclear chain reaction.
When a neutron is shot into the nucleus of a fissile atom, such as uranium-235, it divides into two smaller atoms known as “fissile fragments,” as well as extra neutrons and energy. By striking the nuclei of other uranium-235 atoms, these excess neutrons can start a self-sustaining chain reaction, ending in an atomic explosion.
Nuclear fission is used in atomic bombs, though it’s worth noting that a fission chain reaction requires a specific amount of fissile material, such as uranium-235, termed as the supercritical mass.
Merging Atoms: Nuclear Fusion
Nuclear fusion amplifies a fission reaction in hydrogen bombs, resulting in a considerably more powerful explosion than atomic bombs.
Fusion is the polar opposite of fission in that it works by joining two atoms to generate a third unstable atom, rather than splitting a heavy atom into smaller atoms. The Sun is likewise powered by the same method.
Nuclear fusion relies mostly on isotopes of lighter elements, such as the two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. When these two atoms are exposed to great heat and pressure, they fuse together to generate a very unstable helium isotope that emits energy and neutrons.
The fission events of heavier atoms like uranium-235 are then fueled by the emitted neutrons, resulting in an explosive chain reaction.
How Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs Compare
What makes hydrogen bombs so strong, and how do they compare to atomic bombs?
Little Boy and Fat Man were the bombs used in the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thereby ending World War II. The magnitude of those bombings was unprecedented at the time. When compared to hydrogen bombs, though, it is evident how strong nuclear weapons have gotten.
Castle Bravo was the codename for the United States’ largest-ever nuclear weapon test, a hydrogen bomb with a yield of 15,000 kilotons—a 1,000-fold increase in power over Little Boy. Furthermore, radioactive residues from the explosion, which occurred near Fiji in the Marshall Islands, have been discovered in Australia, India, Japan, the United States, and Europe.
In 1961, the Soviet Union tested Tsar Bomba, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon, seven years later. The explosion released 51,000 kilotons of explosive energy, with a 60-kilometer devastating radius.
Given the devastating power of a single nuclear weapon, it’s difficult to envisage a nuclear conflict ending without absolute devastation, especially given the world’s nuclear arsenal of over 13,000 warheads.
Visualized by Visual Capitalist‘s Govind Bhutada and Mark Belan.