Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A nuclear explosion (nuclear detonation) has occurred:
- twice using a nuclear weapon during war (during World War II, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki)
- about 2,000 times during testing of nuclear weapons
- 27 times in a series of tests of nuclear explosives for construction purposes; see Operation Plowshare
Potential other applications (not yet applied, or the idea was considered but abandoned):
- nuclear pulse propulsion, including using a nuclear explosion as asteroid deflection strategy.
- fusion power; see PACER
Nuclear explosions are associated with "mushroom clouds" although mushroom clouds can occur with ground based chemical explosions and it is possible to have an air burst nuclear explosion without these clouds. Nuclear explosions produce large amounts of radiation and can also produce large amounts of radioactive materials.
In the case of a fizzle the effects of the first part of the nuclear chain reaction prevent it to be continued, by blowing the material apart too soon.
Effects of a nuclear explosion
The energy released from a nuclear weapon comes in four primary categories:
- Thermal radiation
- Ionizing radiation
- Residual radiation (fallout)
The amount of energy released in each form depends on the design of the weapon, and the environment in which it is detonated.
The energy produced by a nuclear explosive is millions of times more per gram than that produced by a chemical (conventional) explosive and the temperatures reached are in the tens of millions of degrees.
The energy of a nuclear explosive is initially released in the form of gamma rays and neutrons. When there is a surrounding material such as air, rock, or water, this radiation interacts with the material, rapidly heating it to an equilibrium temperature in about a microsecond. The hot material emits thermal radiation, mostly soft X-rays, which accounts for 75% of the energy of the explosion. In addition, the heating and vaporization of the surrounding material causes it to rapidly expand and the kinetic energy of this expansion accounts for almost all of the remaining energy.
The interaction of the X-rays and debris with the surroundings determines how much energy is produced as blast and how much as light. In general, the denser the medium around the bomb, the more it will absorb, and the more powerful the shockwave will be.
When a nuclear detonation occurs in air near sea level, most of the soft X-rays in the primary thermal radiation are absorbed within a few feet. Some energy is reradiated in the ultraviolet, visible light and infrared, but most of the energy heats a spherical volume of air. This forms a fireball and its associated effects.
In a burst at high altitudes, where the air density is low, the soft X-rays travel long distances before they are absorbed. The energy is so diluted that the blast wave may be half as strong or less. The rest of the energy is dissipated as a more powerful thermal pulse.
In 1945 there was some initial speculation among the scientists developing the first nuclear weapons that there might be a possibility of igniting the earth's atmosphere with a large enough nuclear explosion. This would concern a nuclear reaction of two nitrogen atoms forming a carbon and an oxygen atom, with release of energy. This energy would heat up the remaining nitrogen enough to keep the reaction going until all nitrogen were finished. This was, however, quickly shown to be unlikely enough to be considered impossible . Nevertheless, the notion has persisted as a rumor for many years.
The high temperatures and pressures cause gas to move outward radially in a thin, dense shell called "the hydrodynamic front." The front acts like a piston that pushes against and compresses the surrounding medium to make a spherically expanding shock wave. At first, this shock wave is inside the surface of the developing fireball, which is created in a volume of air by the X-rays. However, within a fraction of a second the dense shock front obscures the fireball, making the characteristic double pulse of light seen from a nuclear detonation.
Much of the destruction caused by a nuclear explosion is due to blast effects. Most buildings, except reinforced or blast-resistant structures, will suffer moderate to severe damage when subjected to overpressures of only 35.5 kilopascals (kPa) (5 pounds/square inch or 0.35 Atm).
The blast wind may exceed several hundred km/h. The range for blast effects increases with the explosive yield of the weapon and also depends on the burst altitude. Contrary to what one might expect from geometry the blast range is not maximal for surface or low altitude blasts but increases with altitude up to an "optimum burst altitude" and then decreases rapidly for higher altitudes. This is due to the nonlinear behaviour of shock waves. If the blast wave reaches the ground it is reflected. Below a certain reflection angle the reflected wave and the direct wave merge and form a reinforced horizontal wave, the so-called Mach stem (named after Ernst Mach). For each goal overpressure there is a certain optimum burst height at which the blast range is maximized. In a typical air burst, where the blast range is maximized for 5 to 20 PSI, these values of overpressure and wind velocity noted above will prevail at a range of 0.7 km for 1 kiloton (kt) yield; 3.2 km for 100 kt; and 15.0 km for 10 Megatons (Mt).
Two distinct, simultaneous phenomena are associated with the blast wave in air:
- Static overpressure, i.e., the sharp increase in pressure exerted by the shock wave. The overpressure at any given point is directly proportional to the density of the air in the wave.
- Dynamic pressures, i.e., drag exerted by the blast winds required to form the blast wave. These winds push, tumble and tear objects.
Most of the material damage caused by a nuclear air burst is caused by a combination of the high static overpressures and the blast winds. The long compression of the blast wave weakens structures, which are then torn apart by the blast winds. The compression, vacuum and drag phases together may last several seconds or longer, and exert forces many times greater than the strongest hurricane.
Acting on the human body, the shock waves cause pressure waves through the tissues. These waves mostly damage junctions between tissues of different densities (bone and muscle) or the interface between tissue and air. Lungs and the gut, which contain air, are particularly injured. The damage causes severe hemorrhaging or air embolisms, either of which can be rapidly fatal. The overpressure estimated to damage lungs is about 68.9 kPa. Some eardrums would probably rupture around 22 kPa (0.2 atm) and half would rupture between 90 and 130 kPa (0.9 to 1.2 atm).
Blast Winds: The drag energies of the blast winds are proportional to the cubes of their velocities multiplied by the durations. These winds may reach several hundred kilometers per hour.
Nuclear weapons emit large amounts of electromagnetic radiation as visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light. The chief hazards are burns and eye injuries. On clear days, these injuries can occur well beyond blast ranges. The light is so powerful that it can start fires that spread rapidly in the debris left by a blast. The range of thermal effects increases markedly with weapon yield.
There are two types of eye injuries from the thermal radiation of a weapon:
Flash blindness is caused by the initial brilliant flash of light produced by the nuclear detonation. More light energy is received on the retina than can be tolerated, but less than is required for irreversible injury. The retina is particularity susceptible to visible and short wavelength infrared light, since this part of the electromagnetic spectrum is focused by the lens on the retina. The result is bleaching of the visual pigments and temporary blindness for up to 40 minutes.
A retinal burn resulting in permanent damage from scarring is also caused by the concentration of direct thermal energy on the retina by the lens. It will occur only when the fireball is actually in the individual's field of vision and would be a relatively uncommon injury. Retinal burns, however, may be sustained at considerable distances from the explosion. The apparent size of the fireball, a function of yield and range will determine the degree and extent of retinal scarring. A scar in the central visual field would be more debilitating. Generally, a limited visual field defect, which will be barely noticeable, is all that is likely to occur.
Since thermal radiation travels in straight lines from the fireball (unless scattered) any opaque object will produce a protective shadow. If fog or haze scatters the light, it will heat things from all directions and shielding will be less effective.
When thermal radiation strikes an object, part will be reflected, part transmitted, and the rest absorbed. The fraction that is absorbed depends on the nature and color of the material. A thin material may transmit a lot. A light colored object may reflect much of the incident radiation and thus escape damage. The absorbed thermal radiation raises the temperature of the surface and results in scorching, charring, and burning of wood, paper, fabrics, etc. If the material is a poor thermal conductor, the heat is confined to the surface of the material.
Actual ignition of materials depends on the how long the thermal pulse lasts and the thickness and moisture content of the target. Near ground zero where the light exceeds 125 joules/cm2, what can burn, will. Farther away, only the most easily ignited materials will flame. Incendiary effects are compounded by secondary fires started by the blast wave effects such as from upset stoves and furnaces.
In Hiroshima, a tremendous fire storm developed within 20 minutes after detonation. A fire storm has gale force winds blowing in towards the center of the fire from all points of the compass. It is not, however, a phenomenon peculiar to nuclear explosions, having been observed frequently in large forest fires and following incendiary raids during World War II.
At altitudes above the majority of the air, the x-rays ionize the upper air, moving large numbers of electrons. The moving electric charge causes a single wide-frequency radio pulse. The pulse is powerful enough so that most long metal objects would act as antennas, and generate high voltages when the pulse passes. These voltages and the associated high currents could destroy unshielded electronics and even many wires. There are no known biological effects of EMP except from failure of critical medical and transportation equipment. The ionized air also disrupts radio traffic that would normally bounce from the ionosphere.
One can shield ordinary radios and car ignition parts by wrapping them completely in aluminum foil, or any other form of Faraday cage. Of course radios cannot operate when shielded, because broadcast radio waves cannot reach them.
About 5% of the energy released in a nuclear air burst is in the form of initial neutron and gamma radiation. The neutrons result almost exclusively from the fission and fusion reactions, while the initial gamma radiation includes that arising from these reactions as well as that resulting from the decay of short-lived fission products.
The intensity of initial nuclear radiation decreases rapidly with distance from the point of burst because the radiation spreads over a larger area as it travels away from the explosion. It is also reduced by atmospheric absorption and scattering.
The character of the radiation received at a given location also varies with distance from the explosion. Near the point of the explosion, the neutron intensity is greater than the gamma intensity, but with increasing distance the neutron-gamma ratio decreases. Ultimately, the neutron component of initial radiation becomes negligible in comparison with the gamma component. The range for significant levels of initial radiation does not increase markedly with weapon yield and, as a result, the initial radiation becomes less of a hazard with increasing yield. With larger weapons, above 50 kt, blast and thermal effects are so much greater in importance that prompt radiation effects can be ignored.
Summary of the effects
The following table summarizes the most important effects of nuclear explosions under certain conditions:
- relatively flat terrain,
- clear weather, visibility 20 kilometres,
- height of burst optimized for 15 PSI (103 kPa),
- "average" bombs, i.e. no neutron bombs or other devices with extremely enhanced or reduced radiation.
Due to the applied cubic root scaling the peak overpressure in ground zero is approximately 42 PSI (290 kPa) in all cases.
Effective range GR / km
Explosive yield / Height of Burst
1 kT / 200 m
20 kT / 540 m
1 MT / 2.0 km
20 MT / 5.4 km
Urban areas almost completely levelled (20 PSI)
Destruction of most civil buildings (5 PSI)
Moderate damage to civil buildings (1 PSI)
Thermal radiation effects
Third degree burns
Second degree burns
First degree burns
Effects of instant nuclear radiation (at slant range1 SR / km)
Lethal2 total dose (neutrons and gamma rays)
Total dose for acute radiation syndrome2
1) For the direct radiation effects the slant range instead of the ground range is shown here, because some effects are not given even at ground zero for some burst heights. If the effect occurs at ground zero the ground range can simply be derived from slant range and burst altitude.
2) "Acute radiation syndrome" corresponds here to a total dose of one grays, "lethal" to ten grays. Note that this is only a rough estimate since biological conditions are neglected here.
- Cold War
- Nuclear testing
- Duck and cover - a short educational film produced in 1951 to teach children what to do in case of nuclear explosion.
- Nuclear weapon
- History of nuclear weapons
- Nuclear weapon design
- Nuclear warfare
- Rope trick
- Glasstone, Samuel and Dolan, Philip J., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (third edition), U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977. PDF Version
- NATO Handbook on the Medical Aspects of NBC Defensive Operations (Part I - Nuclear), Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, Washington, D.C., 1996.
- Smyth, H. DeW., Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, Princeton University Press, 1945. (Smyth Report)
- The Effects of Nuclear War, Office of Technology Assessment (May 1979).
- The Federation of American Scientists provide solid information on weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons and their effects
- The Nuclear War Survival Skills is a public domain text and is an excellent source on how to survive a nuclear attack.
- Oklahoma Geological Survey Nuclear Explosion Catalog lists 2,199 explosions with their date, country, location, yield, etc.
- Australian Government database of all nuclear explosions
- Nuclear Weapon Archive from Carey Sublette (NWA) is a reliable source of information and has links to other sources.
- NWA repository of blast models mainly used for the effects table (especially DOS programs BLAST and WE)