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A nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from the nuclear reaction of fission or from a combination of fission and fusion. As a result, even a nuclear weapon with a small yield is significantly more powerful than the largest conventional explosives available, with a single weapon capable of destroying an entire city.
In the history of warfare, only two nuclear weapons have been detonated offensively, both by the United States of America during the closing days of World War II. The first was detonated on the morning of 6 August 1945, when the United States dropped a uranium gun-type device code-named "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The second was detonated three days later when the United States dropped a plutonium implosion-type device code-named "Fat Man" on the city of Nagasaki. These bombings resulted in the immediate deaths of around 120,000 people from injuries sustained from the explosion and acute radiation sickness, and even more deaths over time from long-term effects of radiation. The use of these weapons was and remains controversial. (See Wikipedia's Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki article for a full discussion.)
Since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for testing purposes and demonstration purposes. The only countries known to have detonated such weapons are (chronologically) the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, the People's Republic of China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Various other countries may hold nuclear weapons but have never publicly admitted possession, or their claims to possession have not been verified. For example, Israel, who has modern airborne delivery systems and appears to have an extensive nuclear program with hundreds of warheads (see Wikipedia), officially maintains a policy of "ambiguity" with respect to its actual possession of nuclear weapons. According to some estimates, it possesses as many as 200 nuclear warheads. Iran currently stands accused by the United States of attempting to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, though its government states that its acknowledged nuclear activities, such as uranium enrichment, are for non-weapons purposes. South Africa also secretly developed a small nuclear arsenal, but disassembled it in the early 1990s. (For more information see Wikipedia's List of states with nuclear weapons.)
Apart from their use as weapons, nuclear explosives have been tested and used for various non-military uses. Synthetic elements, such as einsteinium and fermium, created by neutron bombardment of uranium and plutonium during thermonuclear explosions, were discovered in the aftermath of the first hydrogen bomb test.
The first nuclear weapons were created in the United States by an international team, including many displaced scientists from central Europe, which included Germany, with assistance from the United Kingdom and Canada during World War II as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. While the first weapons were developed primarily out of fear that Nazi Germany would develop them first, they were eventually used against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first test was conducted on July 16, 1945 at a site near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The Soviet Union developed and tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949, based partially on information obtained from Soviet espionage in the United States. Both the U.S. and USSR would go on to develop weapons powered by nuclear fusion (hydrogen bombs) by the mid-1950s. With the invention of reliable rocketry during the 1960s, it became possible for nuclear weapons to be delivered anywhere in the world on a very short notice, and the two Cold War superpowers adopted a strategy of deterrence to maintain a shaky peace.
Nuclear weapons were symbols of military and national power, and nuclear testing often used both to test new designs as well as to send political messages. Other nations also developed nuclear weapons during this time, including the United Kingdom, France, and China. These five members of the "nuclear club" agreed to attempt to limit the spread of nuclear proliferation to other nations, though four other countries (India, South Africa, Pakistan, and Israel) developed or acquired nuclear arms during this time. At the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Russian Federation inherited the weapons of the former USSR, and along with the U.S., pledged to reduce their stockpile for increased international safety. Nuclear proliferation has continued, though, with Pakistan testing their first weapons in 1998, and North Korea performing a test in 2006. In January 2005, Pakistani metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan confessed to selling nuclear technology and information of nuclear weapons to Iran, Libya, and North Korea in a massive, international proliferation ring. On October 9, 2006, North Korea claimed it had conducted an underground nuclear test, though the very small apparent yield of the blast has led many to conclude that it was not fully successful (see Wikipedia). Additionally, since 9/11 increased attention has been given to the threat of nuclear terrorism, whereby non-state actors manage to develop, purchase, or steal nuclear arms and detonate them against civilians. Post-Cold War discussions of nuclear weapons have focused on the fact that the "rationality" of nuclear deterrence, credited with the lack of use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, may not apply in a world with only one superpower, or a world where the nuclear actors are stateless.
There have been (at least) four major false alarms, the most recent in 1995, that almost resulted in the U.S. or USSR/Russia launching its weapons in retaliation for a supposed attack. Additionally, during the Cold War the U.S. and USSR came close to nuclear warfare several times, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As of 2006, there are estimated to be at least 27,000 nuclear weapons held by at least eight countries, 96 percent of them in the possession of the United States and Russia.
Nuclear weapons have been at the heart of many national and international political disputes, have played a major part in popular culture since their dramatic public debut in the 1940s, and have usually symbolized the ultimate ability of mankind to utilize the strength of nature for destruction. Dozens of movies, books, television shows, plays, and other cultural productions have been made with nuclear weapons as either the explicit subject or an implied leitmotiv.
Types of nuclear weaponsEdit
There are two basic types of nuclear weapons. The first are weapons which produce their explosive energy through nuclear fission reactions alone. These are known colloquially as atomic bombs, A-bombs, or fission bombs. In fission weapons, a mass of fissile material (enriched uranium or plutonium) is assembled into a supercritical mass—the amount of material needed to start an exponentially growing nuclear chain reaction—either by shooting one piece of sub-critical material into another (the "gun" method), or by compressing a sub-critical sphere of material using chemical explosives to many times its original density (the "implosion" method). The latter approach is considered more sophisticated than the former, and only the latter approach can be used if plutonium is the fissile material.
A major challenge in all nuclear weapon designs is to ensure that a significant fraction of the fuel is consumed before the weapon destroys itself. The amount of energy released by fission bombs can range between the equivalent of less than a ton of TNT upwards to around 500,000 tons (500 kilotons) of TNT.
The second basic type of nuclear weapon produces a large amount of its energy through nuclear fusion reactions, and can be over a thousand times more powerful than fission bombs as fusion reactions release much more energy per unit of mass than fission reactions. These are known as hydrogen bombs, H-bombs, thermonuclear bombs, or fusion bombs. Only six countries—United States, Russia, United Kingdom, People's Republic of China, France and India—have detonated hydrogen bombs.
Hydrogen bombs work by using the energy of a fission bomb in order to compress and heat fusion fuel. In the Teller-Ulam design, which accounts for all multi-megaton yield hydrogen bombs, this is accomplished by placing a fission bomb and fusion fuel (tritium, deuterium, or lithium deuteride) in proximity within a special, radiation-reflecting container. When the fission bomb is detonated, gamma and X-rays emitted at the speed of light first compress the fusion fuel, then heat it to thermonuclear temperatures. The ensuing fusion reaction creates enormous numbers of high-speed neutrons, which then can induce fission in materials which normally are not prone to it, such as depleted uranium. Each of these components is known as a "stage," with the fission bomb as the "primary" and the fusion capsule as the "secondary." In large hydrogen bombs, about half of the yield, and much of the resulting nuclear fallout, comes from the final fissioning of depleted uranium. By chaining together numerous stages with increasing amounts of fusion fuel, thermonuclear weapons can be made to an almost arbitrary yield; the largest ever detonated (the Tsar Bomba of the USSR) released an energy equivalent to over 50 million tons (megatons) of TNT. Most hydrogen bombs are considerably smaller than this, though, due to constraints in fitting them into the space and weight requirements of missile warheads.
There are many other types of nuclear weapons as well. For example, a boosted fission weapon is a fission bomb which increases its explosive yield through a small amount of fusion reactions, but it is not a hydrogen bomb. In the boosted bomb, the neutrons produced by the fusion reactions serve primarily to increase the efficiency of the fission bomb. Some weapons are designed for special purposes; a neutron bomb is a nuclear weapon that yields a relatively small explosion but a relatively large amount of radiation; such a device could theoretically be used to cause massive casualties while leaving infrastructure mostly intact and creating a minimal amount of fallout. The detonation of a nuclear weapon is accompanied by a blast of neutron radiation. Surrounding a nuclear weapon with suitable materials (such as cobalt or gold) creates a weapon known as a salted bomb. This device can produce exceptionally large quantities of radioactive contamination. Most variety in nuclear weapon design is in different yields of nuclear weapons for different types of purposes, and in manipulating design elements to attempt to make weapons extremely small.