Everything You Need to Know About Nuclear Weapons

From the discovery of the subatomic particle, the unfortunate rise and rise of nuclear armaments.

Everything You Need to Know About Nuclear Weapons

Start at the Beginning

The 1932 identification of a subatomic particle called the neutron opened the door for the development of nuclear weapons. Unlike conventional explosions reliant on chemical reactions, nuclear weapons use atomic reactions – processes which fundamentally change the atoms involved.

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These weapons are so much more destructive than anything previous, that new words had to be coined measuring their effect against the explosive TNT. A one-kiloton nuclear weapon does as much damage as 1000 tons (907 tonnes) of TNT; a one-megaton weapon as much as one million tonnes. The first, and so far only, use of nuclear weapons in war was the US bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima with a 15-kiloton bomb on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki with a 20-kiloton one three days later. Together they killed around 120,000 people instantly and caused many more subsequent deaths.

“[I hope] we will eventually see the time when that number of nuclear weapons is down to zero and the world is a much better place.”General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1993

By the Numbers

Nuclear weapons estimates globally:

  • In 1950: 304
  • In 1960: 20,370
  • In 1987: 62,725
  • Today: 15,800

People who took part in anti-nuclear demonstrations globally in 1983:

  • 5 million

Of the estimated 125,000 warheads created since 1945, those built by the US and the USSR/ Russia:

  • 97%

What types are there?

Atomic bombs, such as the ones dropped on Japan, use fission, splitting the atom to release enormous amounts of energy. Thermonuclear weapons, aka “hydrogen bombs” use fusion, joining two lighter atoms (eg hydrogen) at extremely high temperatures to produce one heavier one (eg helium), for even more destructive power. A neutron bomb packs a lower overall punch but intensifies radiation to cause maximum human death with less damage to buildings. (A “dirty bomb” uses conventional explosive to disperse radioactive material but is not a nuclear weapon.) Modern nuclear weapons are powerful enough to kill millions from a single missile.

Which countries have them?

Nine countries own a combined total of almost 16,000 nuclear weapons. In descending order by estimated number of warheads, they are Russia, the US, France, China, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea (which may or may not have the warhead technology to deliver them).

“[If you] believe, like me, that Britain should keep the ultimate insurance policy of an independent nuclear deterrent, you have to accept there are circumstances in which its use would be justified.”British Prime Minister David Cameron, 2015

Wait, what happened to disarmament?

The thaw in relations between traditional superpowers at the end of the Cold War, saw a big drop in nuclear weapons since numbers peaked in 1987, but enough remain to cause incalculable destruction. Plus, in that period three new countries – India, Pakistan and North Korea – acquired their own. The United Nations continues to push for the elimination of nuclear weapons but signs are discouraging.

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