When Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the world’s first nuclear explosion, he uttered the now infamous words, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
The weapon he had helped to devise would be deployed against Japan in 1945, playing a major part in bringing World War II to a close but at a terrible cost. As war gave way to an uneasy peace, the rest of the world’s powers scrambled to develop atomic weapons of their own. The nuclear arms race had begun.
10. The Connection between Godzilla, the Bikini Bathing Suit, and Nuclear Bombs
The Bikini Islands in the Pacific Ocean were favoured by the United States to try out their latest nuclear toys, and between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were tested there. Most explosive of all was a hydrogen bomb detonated in 1954, which came very close to achieving 1,000 times as much explosive force as the bomb which had been dropped on Hiroshima. This turned out to be a problem, as it was twice as powerful as had been predicted. The bomb vaporised part of the island, left a mile-wide crater in the lagoon floor, and the radiation contaminated 23 crewmembers of a Japanese fishing vessel which had been fishing outside of the expected danger area. The resulting scandal inspired the film Godzilla, featuring a gigantic violent sea monster awoken by a nuclear explosion.
As well as providing inspiration for giant atomic monsters, the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll also left their mark on the world of fashion. When Louis Reard came to look for a name for the two-piece bathing suit he had designed he decided to call it the bikini simply because people would recognise and remember the name.
9. Project A119
The launch of Sputnik in 1957 had American military chiefs worried. The Soviet satellite didn’t do a great deal, it just orbited the Earth every 98 minutes while emitting a beep audible to anyone with the equipment to pick it up. However, it was a symbol that the Soviets were technologically advanced and winning the space race.
The U.S. hatched an ambitious plan intended to demonstrate their own military might. They would detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon. The secret project went by two names, the somewhat euphemistic “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” and the more mysterious “Project A119.”
Many of the documents around the project are still classified so we can’t be sure exactly why the project was abandoned, we can only be grateful that it was.
8. Testing a Hydrogen Bomb in Space
In 1962, having given up on trying to blow up the moon, American scientists wanted to see what would happen if a nuclear bomb was exploded in space. In an operation codenamed Operation Starfish Prime, a powerful hydrogen bomb was launched in the nose of a Thor rocket to detonate some 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean.
The test wasn’t without its controversy and brought forth protests across the globe. However, The Honolulu Advertiser was rather more upbeat with its cheerful headline “Nuclear Blast Tonight May be Dazzling; Good View Likely.”
The device detonated in space at 11pm Honolulu time, on July 9th. Once again the explosion turned out to be more powerful than had been expected. The night sky was lit up by the blast and glowed in blue, red and green. An electromagnetic pulse knocked out electrical services up to 1500 kilometres away, disrupted telephone service, set off burglar alarms, and damaged satellites.
Later in the same year, the Soviet Union detonated their own nuclear device in space. Further high-altitude detonations were temporarily banned after America and the Soviet Union both signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.
7. The Biggest Bomb of all
The most powerful nuclear device ever constructed was detonated in the Arctic by the Soviet Union on October 30th, 1961. The bomb, which was known as “The Tsar Bomb,” weighed in at a whopping 27 tonnes and required a specially modified Soviet heavy bomber to carry it. Not only that, but the bomb had to be carried to the ground by a parachute, to allow the aircraft to escape the very considerable blast zone. It wasn’t the most practical of weapons, but it allowed the Soviets to send a message about how good they’d gotten to be at making really big explosions.
When the bomb detonated, it was with the force of 50 million tonnes of high explosive. That’s something in the region of 3800 times more powerful than the bomb used against Hiroshima. So powerful was the blast, that windows were broken in Finland, some 900 kilometres away, and the shockwave travelled around the Earth three times. Astonishingly, the bomb had the potential to deliver a blast twice as powerful but it had to be scaled back or the aircraft which dropped it would have been consumed by the explosion. Blowing up their own pilots was something that even the Soviet Union balked at.
6. Not all Nuclear Bombs are designed to go off with a Big Bang
All nuclear weapons are scary but the neutron bomb is possibly the most terrifying of them all. Unlike most bombs, it’s not designed to cause a huge explosion. In fact, it was specifically designed to create as small of a blast as possible. Instead of a fiery explosion, the neutron bomb is intended to spew out vast amounts of radiation killing anybody unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity whilst leaving buildings and infrastructure intact.
The neutron bomb was developed by the United States in the 1970s, but more recently the Chinese government announced they also have the technology to build the weapon. As far as we know, it has never been used in combat, however, Saif Eddin, a former commander in Sadaam Hussain’s Iraqi army, claims the United States deployed the weapon against the elite Republican Guard in Baghdad.
5. Civilian uses for Nuclear Bombs
We tend to think of nuclear bombs as a weapon of war. However, during the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union looked at ways they could put part of their nuclear arsenal to civilian use. The US project, founded in 1961, was known as Operation Plowshare and one of its keenest advocates was Dr Edward Teller, also known as the father of the hydrogen bomb.
Teller had noticed that nuclear bombs were really rather good at making enormous holes. With that in mind he came up with a whole host of proposals which we should be glad never made it off the drawing board. For instance, Teller thought the Panama Canal to be rather too small, and that the US could really do with another route connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Exploding a few hundred strategically placed nuclear bombs would cut out a second canal in no time at all. Other suggestions, for what Teller proposed to term geographical engineering, were to blast away land to create harbours and underground explosions to create caverns in which to store drinking water. Although the damaging effects of radiation were well known by this time, they seem to have been conveniently ignored.
4. American Missiles were prevented from Launching by a Laughably Poor Security Code
In 1962 the American government took the wise decision that it might be a nice idea to add an extra layer of security to prevent an accidental nuclear apocalypse. Every missile was supposed to be fitted with a Permissive Action Link (PAL), which prevented the missile from being fired without the correct 8 digit code. The system was designed to be almost impregnable, with one weapons designer describing it as being so complex to bypass it would be like “performing a tonsillectomy whilst entering the patient from the wrong end.”
With the system in place, the only thing left was to choose a code which nobody could possibly guess, so the finest strategic minds in the country settled on 00000000. Just in case anybody did somehow manage to forget, the code was handed out on a checklist to the launch crews.
3. One Man Prevented a Nuclear War – and Gained a Vacuum Cleaner
Not many people know the name Stanislov Petrov, yet on 26th September, 1983, he held the fate of the world in his hands. A lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Strategic Rocket Forces, Petrov wasn’t even supposed to be at work that night, but he was filling in for a colleague who had called in sick.
Cold War tensions were running high. President Ronald Reagan had recently described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” NATO was conducting military manoeuvres in Europe, and three weeks earlier the USSR had shot down a South Korean airliner which they claimed had invaded their airspace on a spying mission. Petrov would have known all of this when the information on his screen told him that five US intercontinental ballistic missiles, each more than 100 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, were headed towards the Soviet Union.
Petrov picked up the phone to the Kremlin knowing that his advice would determine whether the Soviet Union launched a counterstrike. He told them it was a mistake. The system, known as Oko, had only come on stream the previous year and Petrov trusted his gut rather than the machines. Fortunately for the world, his guts were right.
In 2004, Petrov was gifted a World Citizen Award and a cheque for $1,000. He gave most of the money to his grandchildren. With the rest he bought himself something he had always wanted – a vacuum cleaner.
2. The Bombs of Today are Way More Powerful than those used in World War II
The bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrifying weapons which brought terrible destruction to the people of Japan. However, they were little more than ambitious fireworks compared to the devices which are available to the nuclear powers of the world today.
The yield of a nuclear device is measured in kilotons or megatons. Little Boy, the bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima, was a 16 kiloton weapon, which means it exploded with the force of 16 thousand tonnes of high explosives. Nowadays weapons like that are considered to be tactical nuclear weapons designed for use against armies on the battlefield. Strategic nuclear weapons, which are the type which will start hitting us in the face if a full-scale nuclear war ever breaks out, are measured in millions of tonnes of high explosive. In other words, they have an explosive yield of a thousand or more times greater than the bombs used against Japan in World War II.
1. Nuclear War may be Inevitable
So far we have been lucky. Despite several close calls and some careless blunders, only two of the thousands of nuclear weapons which have been constructed have ever been used in anger. However, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the end of the Cold War has made the threat of nuclear war an irrelevance. In many ways, things are more dangerous than ever. There are two nuclear powers in India and Pakistan who refuse to play nicely with each other, a newly armed and unpredictable North Korean regime, and a belligerent Russia keen to reassert its power.
According to some analysts, a nuclear war be inevitable. Even if the risk is only 0.5% per year that would mean a 5% chance of a nuclear war every decade. Given enough time even a small possibility becomes a certainty. The only way to prevent it would be worldwide disarmament, something which is very hard to foresee happening any time soon.
One Stanford University Professor, Martin Hellman, predicts that any child born today runs a ten percent chance of being killed in a nuclear war. We can only hope we continue to be lucky.