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Nuclear explosion

A nuclear explosion (nuclear detonation) can be caused by a nuclear weapon. Such explosions produce "mushroom clouds[?]". Nuclear explosions are radioactive.

Table of contents
1 Blast Damage
2 Thermal radiation
3 Electromagnetic pulse
4 Radiation
5 Nuclear fallout
1 References

Effects of a nuclear weapon

The energy released from a nuclear weapon comes in four primary categories:

  • Blast
  • 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 as great per gram as that produced by a chemical explosive and the temperatures reached is tens of millions of degrees.

When a nuclear weapon explodes, the bomb's material comes to an equilibrium temperature in about a microsecond. At this time about 75% of the energy is emitted as primary thermal radiation, mostly soft X-rays. Almost all of the rest of the energy is kinetic energy in rapidly-moving weapon debris.

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 the fireball.

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.

Blast Damage

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/hr. The range for blast effects increases with the explosive yield of the weapon. In a typical air burst, 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 forms severe hemorrhage or to 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.

Thermal radiation

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.

Electromagnetic pulse

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 can't 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.

Nuclear fallout

The residual radiation hazard from a nuclear explosion is in the form of radioactive fallout and neutron-induced activity. Residual ionizing radiation arises from:

Fission Products. These are intermediate weight isotopes which are formed when a heavy uranium or plutonium nucleus is split in a fission reaction. There are over 300 different fission products that may result from a fission reaction. Many of these are radioactive with widely differing half-lives. Some are very short, i.e., fractions of a second, while a few are long enough that the materials can be a hazard for months or years. Their principal mode of decay is by the emission of beta and gamma radiation. Approximately 60 grams of fission products are formed per kiloton of yield. The estimated activity of this quantity of fission products 1 minute after detonation is equal to that of 1.1 x 1021 Bq (30 million kilograms of radium) in equilibrium with its decay products.

Unfissioned Nuclear Material. Nuclear weapons are relatively inefficient in their use of fissionable material, and much of the uranium and plutonium is dispersed by the explosion without undergoing fission. Such unfissioned nuclear material decays by the emission of alpha particles and is of relatively minor importance.

Neutron-Induced Activity. If atomic nuclei capture neutrons when exposed to a flux of neutron radiation, they will, as a rule, become radioactive (neutron-induced activity) and then decay by emission of beta and gamma radiation over an extended period of time. Neutrons emitted as part of the initial nuclear radiation will cause activation of the weapon residues. In addition, atoms of environmental material, such as soil, air, and water, may be activated, depending on their composition and distance from the burst. For example, a small area around ground zero may become hazardous as a result of exposure of the minerals in the soil to initial neutron radiation. This is due principally to neutron capture by sodium (Na), manganese, aluminum, and silicon in the soil. This is a negligible hazard because of the limited area involved.

Worldwide Fallout: After an air burst the fission products, unfissioned nuclear material, and weapon residues which have been vaporized by the heat of the fireball will condense into a fine suspension of very small particles 0.01 to 20 micrometers in diameter. These particles may be quickly drawn up into the stratosphere, particularly if the explosive yield exceeds 10 Kt. They will then be dispersed by atmospheric winds and will gradually settle to the earth's surface after weeks, months, and even years as worldwide fallout.

The radiobiological hazard of worldwide fallout is essentially a long-term one due to the potential accumulation of long-lived radioisotopes, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137, in the body as a result of ingestion of foods incorporating these radioactive materials. This hazard is much less serious than those which are associated with local fallout and, therefore, is not discussed at length in this publication. Local fallout is of much greater immediate operational concern.

Local Fallout: In a land or water surface burst, large amounts of earth or water will be vaporized by the heat of the fireball and drawn up into the radioactive cloud. This material will become radioactive when it condenses, with fission products and other radiocontaminants that have become neutron-activated.

There will be large amounts of particles of less than 0.1 micrometer to several millimeters in diameter generated in a surface burst in addition to the very fine particles which contribute to worldwide fallout.

The larger particles will not rise into the stratosphere and consequently will settle to earth within about 24 hours as local fallout.

Severe local fallout contamination can extend far beyond the blast and thermal effects, particularly in the case of high yield surface detonations.

Whenever individuals remain in a radiologically contaminated area, such contamination will lead to an immediate external radiation exposure as well as a possible later internal hazard due to inhalation and ingestion of radiocontaminants.

In severe cases of fallout contamination, lethal doses of external radiation may be incurred if protective or evasive measures are not undertaken.

In cases of water surface (and shallow underwater) bursts, the particles tend to be rather lighter and smaller and so produce less local fallout but will extend over a greater area. The particles contain mostly sea salts with some water; these can have a cloud seeding affect causing local rainout and areas of high local fallout.

For subsurface bursts, there is an additional phenomenon present called "base surge." The base surge is a cloud that rolls outward from the bottom of the column produced by a subsurface explosion. For underwater bursts the visible surge is, in effect, a cloud of liquid (water) droplets with the property of flowing almost as if it were a homogeneous fluid. After the water evaporates, an invisible base surge of small radioactive particles may persist.

For subsurface land bursts, the surge is made up of small solid particles, but it still behaves like a fluid. A soil earth medium favors base surge formation in an underground burst.

Meteorological Effects: Meteorological conditions will greatly influence fallout, particularly local fallout. Atmospheric winds are able to distribute fallout over large areas. For example, as a result of a surface burst of a 15 Mt thermonuclear device at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, a roughly cigar-shaped area of the Pacific extending over 500 km downwind and varying in width to a maximum of 100 km was severely contaminated.

Snow and rain, especially if they come from considerable heights, will accelerate local fallout. Under special meteorological conditions, such as a local rain shower that originates above the radioactive cloud, limited areas of heavy contamination may be formed.

Blast and thermal injuries in many cases will far outnumber radiation injuries. However, radiation effects are considerably more complex and varied than are blast or thermal effects and are subject to considerable misunderstanding. A wide range of biological changes may follow the irradiation of animals, ranging from rapid death following high doses of penetrating whole-body radiation to essentially normal lives for a variable period of time until the development of delayed radiation effects, in a portion of the exposed population, following low dose exposures.

Median Lethal Dose (LD50): When comparing the effects of various types or circumstances, that dose which is lethal to 50% of a given population is a very useful parameter. The term is usually defined for a specific time, being limited, generally, to studies of acute lethality. The common time periods used are 30 days or less for most small laboratory animals and to 60 days for large animals and humans. It should be understood that the LD50 assumes that the individuals did not receive other injuries or medical treatment.

For yields of 5-10 Kt (or less), initial nuclear radiation is the dominant casualty producer on the battlefield. Military personnel receiving an acute incapacitation dose (30 Gy) will become performance degraded almost immediately and combat ineffective within several hours. However, they will not die until 5-6 days after exposure if they do not receive any other injuries which make them more susceptible to the radiation dose. Soldiers receiving less than a total of 150 cGy will remain combat effective. Between those two extremes, military personnel receiving doses greater than 150 cGy will become degraded; some will eventually die. A dose of 530-830 cGy is considered lethal but not immediately incapacitating. Personnel exposed to this amount of radiation will become performance degraded within 2-3 hours, depending on how physically demanding the tasks they must perform are, and will remain in this degraded state at least 2 days. However, at that point they will experience a recovery period and be effective at performing nondemanding tasks for about 6 days, after which they will relapse into a degraded state of performance and remain so for about 4 weeks. At this time they will begin exhibiting radiation symptoms of sufficient severity to render them totally ineffective. Death follows at approximately 6 weeks after exposure.

Late or delayed effects of radiation occur following a wide range of doses and dose rates. Delayed effects may appear months to years after irradiation and include a wide variety of effects involving almost all tissues or organs. Some of the possible delayed consequences of radiation injury are life shortening, carcinogenesis, cataract formation, chronic radiodermatitis, decreased fertility, and genetic mutations.

For videos and more on the effects of a thermonuclear device check [1] (http://nuketesting.enviroweb.org/nukeffct/)


  • Glasstone, Samuel and Dolan, Philip J., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (third edition), U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977. (| Available Online (http://nuketesting.enviroweb.org/nukeffct/))
  • NATO Handbook on the Medical Aspects of NBC Defecsive Operations (Part I - Nuclear), Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, Washington, D.C., 1996. (Available Online (http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/doctrine/dod/fm8-9/1toc.htm))
  • Smyth, H. DeW., Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, Princeton University Press, 1945. (Available Online (http://nuketesting.enviroweb.org/hew/Smyth/index))
  • The Effects of Nuclear War, Office of Technology Assessment (May 1979)

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