Author: Eric Malikyte
A while back, I released a video on the largest asteroid impacts that our planet has experienced since the start of the 2000’s, in that video we briefly mentioned a comparison to the power and devastation of nuclear weapons.
However, while I got the details for the units (megatons and kilotons and all the info concerning asteroid impacts) right, I messed up when I said that the first hydrogen bomb was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II, which I was alerted to via my amazing comments section (thank you, people).
This prompted me to construct a new video discussing the terrifying power of nuclear weapons!
So, let’s jump in!
Although the atomic age is considered to have started when the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945, there is an interesting history spanning nearly five decades that led up to that test, a somewhat foreboding prologue, if you will.
Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 when Antoine-Henri Becquerel discovered that a mineral containing uranium would darken a photographic plate without the aid of a light source. In fact, this discovery was made in close proximity to Wilhelm Rontgen’s observation of X-rays.
The result of this monumental discovery led to scientists like Marie Curie’s pioneering research in radioactivity. Curie became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, twice, in two scientific fields, and she also went on to become the first-ever woman professor.
Sadly, she died in 1934 at the age of 66 from aplastic anemia caused from radiation exposure.
We’ll touch more on radiation sickness in a bit.
In the early days of radiation research, this was an all-too-common result, thanks to the fact that scientists didn’t know enough about the inherent dangers involved in handling radioactive substances.
Nevertheless, this period of research helped to unlock the secrets of not only radiation but the realization that it had an atomic origin led to a host of new discoveries, uncovering the nature of atomic structure as well as many fundamental processes and phenomena that we observe in the known universe.
It also led to the development of medical technologies like X-ray imaging, radiation treatment for tumors…and of course, the most destructive weapon that humanity has ever built (so far at least), nuclear weapons.
The Cold War and the Threat to Civilization
The first and only nuclear weapons to be used in war (knock on wood, am I right, guys?) would be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, a mere decade after Marie Curie’s death.
Nearly 140,000 people out of Hiroshima’s 350,000-person population died during the initial blast, and it’s estimated that 74,000 people died in Nagasaki. But the radiation released by the bombs caused the deaths of thousands more in the weeks, months, and years that followed the tragic event.
The people who survived this horrific event are known as the hibakusha and though the narrative surrounding the bombings (at least in American schools) is that they brought an abrupt end to the war on August 14th, 1945, critics have since argued that Japan was about to surrender anyway, labeling the nuclear bombing as unwarranted and barbaric.
It’s important to illustrate just how terrifying these weapons are before we dive into how they function. Personally, they plagued my nightmares as a kid and as a teenager (thanks in no small part to seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day at a very young age…which totally didn’t mess me up at all…no, not at all).
The fear I felt as a child pails in comparison to the fear the world felt during the Cold War Era, which was ushered in by the detonation of those first two bombs.
Between 1945 and the 1980s the world held its collective breath as the United States and Soviet Union invested massive amounts of money into the stockpiling of thousands of nuclear bombs.
In this time period, it was common for school children to be taught to hide under their desks if they ever saw the telltale flash of a nuke detonating within their city skyline, known as “duck and cover” rhetoric, which is more than a little terrifying.
Governments built fallout shelters, just in case their respective land become inhospitable to life due to nuclear fallout and developed “continuity of government” plans to ensure that the backbone of our democracy remained intact, even if there were no citizens to govern once the irradiated ashes settled.
But thankfully, today we don’t have to worry about that since the Soviet Union fell two years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, right?
Wait, what do you mean North Korea has nukes? And there are eight other countries besides them that can launch nuclear weapons too? What?
Yes, in the modern era, nuclear weapons and warfare are still a very real threat to human civilization (though, probably not as immediate as some of the other threats that we’ve faced…
Despite there being plenty of deterrents and treaties, the US alone still has over 6,000 nuclear warheads, though a little over 2,000 of them are decommissioned and awaiting dismantlement. There is still plenty of potential nuclear destructive force to go around.
What’s frightening is that a 2018 study found that all it would take to destroy a country like China’s society is about 100 nuclear weapons.
But the consequences would not stop at a single country’s societal collapse, even under the best circumstances (like, you know, a country like China not deciding to retaliate with the full force of their nuclear arsenal). No. The environmental impact would be absolutely devastating.
But more on that later.
Now that I’ve effectively scared the living crap out of you, let’s talk about how the power of these terrifying weapons are measured.
Units and Measurements
In our video on the world’s most devastating asteroid impacts since 2000, we established that the first nuclear weapons to be used in armed conflict were measured in kilotons.
A kiloton equals the force of 1000 tons of TNT (or dynamite), and a megaton is much, much stronger than that, equaling 1 million tons of TNT!
That’s a massive difference! In fact, the only other destructive force measured in megatons other than nukes are asteroid impacts like the one that killed the dinosaurs, which released a destructive force equal to 21-821 billion Hiroshima nuclear bombs.
That’s like (carry the one, remember PEMDAS, multiply by…) 100 million megatons!
The strongest weapons in our nuclear arsenal have a potential destructive force of 1.2 megatons. Far more destructive than the bombs used in World War II (which I know, loses its impact after learning what an asteroid can do).
Fission and Fusion
The Little Boy was the first nuclear weapon to be used in armed conflict and the second nuclear weapon ever detonated after the Trinity test. Like the Thin Man, which was an unsuccessful nuke developed by Lieutenant Commander Francis Birch’s group at the Manhattan Project Los Alamos Laboratory in the midst of World War II, the Little Boy was a gun-type fission weapon that used the nuclear fission of uranium-235 to produce its destructive reaction.
(It’s important to note that while Thin Man and Little Boy were both gun-type fission weapons, Thin Man was based on plutonium-239)
Nuclear fission happens when the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller nuclei. This process often produces gamma photons and releases a massive amount of energy. The fission of heavy elements was discovered in December of 1938 by Otto Hahn, a German scientist and assistant to Fritz Strassman.
The process was named by Otto Robert Frisch, who compared the energy released during the reaction to the biological fission of living cells.
Fission is considered to be an exothermic reaction, which is a reaction for which the overall standard enthalpy exchange is negative.
Basically, Otto Hahn, Otto Robert Frisch, and Lise Meitner observed that when uranium-235 was bombarded with neutrons, it created an unstable compound nucleus that later split into two equal parts, releasing 200 million times the energy of the neutron which triggered the reaction!
Fission is basically a type of nuclear transmission because the resulting fragments (otherwise known as daughter atoms) are not the same element as the original present atom. The two or more nuclei that are produced in the reaction are usually comparable but slightly offset in size.
Nuclear fission is not just used in nuclear weapons; however, it’s also used in nuclear power production.
Fusion, on the other hand, is the process that happens inside our sun. Nuclear fusion happens when atomic nuclei are combined to form one or more different atomic nuclei. For example, inside the core of the sun (which is a main-sequence star) it fuses hydrogen nuclei into helium, and it fuses 500 million metric tons of hydrogen for each second that passes.
Now, nuclear fusion is an endothermic reaction, which is a reaction that increases the enthalpic H of the system.
Fusion requires a lot of heat to happen. Stars are able to produce the required heat because of the immense pressures going on inside their cores, but here on Earth it’s basically impossible to use pressure to produce the same result. So fusion experiments require creative solutions to achieve this. Though no fusion reactor has been able to produce a reaction that has yielded more energy than what was used to generate the reaction, fusion does happen in some nuclear weapons.
Namely, the Hydrogen bomb.
The H-bomb’s enormous explosive power is due to an uncontrolled self-sustained chain reaction in which isotopes of hydrogen fuse under extremely high temperatures to form helium.
This is quite a bit different from how an atomic bomb works in that it is entirely dependent on the energy produced when two light atomic nuclei fuse to form a heavier nucleus.
Now, under normal circumstances atomic nuclei carry positive charges, causing them to repel against each other, but under the temperatures produced in an H-bomb explosion (and within the sun) they are heated up to such an extent that their kinetic energy allows them to overcome this repulsion and combine.
Now, hydrogen atoms are ideal candidates for this fusion reaction because they carry weak positive charges, making them far less resistant to their process.
Hydrogen nuclei that fuse during his process lose about 0.63 percent of their mass, converting that mass entirely to energy so that they can “fit” together into a single larger helium atom. If you’ve ever read anything about Albert Einstein, then this formula should look very familiar [Show formula E = mc squared]. E = mc squared means that the amount of energy created is equal to the amount of mass that is converted multiplied by the speed of light squared.
Other isotopes of hydrogen-like deuterium and tritium provide ideal interaction between nuclei for this process, making them the go-to solution for fusion reactor experiments.
In our current thermonuclear bombs, lithium-6 deuteride is used as fuel to produce this reaction and early on in the process it’s transformed into tritium.
Now, in thermonuclear bombs, conventional explosives are used on fissionable uranium to create a fission chain reaction, which then produces another explosion and an absolutely scorching temperature of several million degrees. It’s this explosion, the force and heat combined, that allow fusion to happen, causing a secondary stage and blowing the uranium container apart.
But that all sounds really complicated, so let’s break it down a bit more simplistically.
Step 1. A chemical explosion compresses fuel to initiate a fission reaction.
Step 2. X-rays from the primary are reflected by the casing and heat foam.
Step 3. Foam, now a plasma, compresses the secondary fuel, igniting it.
Step 4. Fusion fuel causes the casing to explode.
All of this happens in a FRACTION of a second. Which is both terrifying and also incredible.
Okay, that’s how nuclear devices work.
But what about the impact on the human body and the environment?
Yep, let’s talk about that thing that we based an amazing RPG series on…FALLOUT.
(War, war never changes).
Lasting Environmental Impact
A nuclear explosion generates intense white light that is powerful enough to permanently blind someone. Though a great deal of destruction happens in this initial blast and the shockwave that follows, turning buildings and people within a radius equaling several miles into rubble and ashes, it’s the fallout that it produces that is most devastating to the environment.
This radioactive fallout contaminates the air, soil, and water, and its effects can last for years after the explosion. What’s worse, is that fallout can be picked up by Earth’s complex weather systems, distributing it all around the world.
During the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the fallout coming from the series of meltdowns and hydrogen explosions reached as far as Tokyo, 238 kilometers away (147.8 miles), and in 2016 radioactive isotopes from this accident were also detected as far away as California (man, am I glad I moved to the East Coast…). Though, it’s important to note that the levels of radiation detected at this stage aren’t lethal.
But remember that 2018 study we mentioned earlier that suggested that the number of nuclear bombs necessary to collapse a country’s society would be around 100? Well, that study also suggests that such a nuclear exchange would have far-reaching consequences for the environment.
It’s not just the fallout that we’d have to worry about, but a potential drop in global temperatures caused by all of those bombs kicking soot into the atmosphere and blocking the sun’s light, kickstarting a nuclear winter.
But before you go thinking this might be a suitable solution to climate change, think again, because the study also suggested that at least 34 million people would die if 100 nuclear weapons were to be used in a place like China, and many, many more would die as a result of fallout and the global cooling effects caused by the destruction.
Other effects on the environment would include reduced precipitation, impacted food production, and as a result of that last one, mass starvation.
And that’s not even considering the strange things that fallout on a country-wide scale would do to wildlife.
A while back we released a video on how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has changed the environment, and that may just be the perfect companion piece to this article.