What is a Nuclear Weapon?
A nuclear weapon is any device that harnesses the immense power of the atom to create a bomb. For all the hype, they are essentially nothing more than extremely powerful bombs, bombs large enough to obliterate vast cities.
A typical nuclear warhead might have a power of one megaton. This means the power of 1,000,000 tons of TNT, the most powerful non-nuclear explosive. Imagine the size of this much TNT (a cube 300m by 300m by 300m) and compare it to one small nuclear warhead, and you realise the awesome power of nuclear weapons.
How many nuclear weapons are there?
There are more than 40,000, distributed as follows:
· USA: 12,070
· Russia: 28,240
· UK: 400
· France: 510
· China: 425
· India: 70
· Pakistan: 15
This many warheads could destroy the world many times over.
What would an impact be like?
The missile would be denoted above the ground, to maximise devastation. The first effect would be the heat, which would travel out form the bomb at the speed of light, burning everything for miles in 10,000°C flames. The air itself would seem to catch fire. Gas mains would explode; anyone seeing the blast from virtually any distance would be blinded. Then, seconds later, the shockwave would follow. This would smash through anything in its path, felling skyscrapers and blasting cars hundreds of feet into the air. It would be like a hurricane, just many times more powerful than anything natural. It would sweep through a city, destroying any structure within 15 kilometres of the blast. The shockwave would be so powerful that the air would not be able to absorb it all, so instead some energy would create an elector magnetic pulse that would destroy electrical circuit a huge distance from Ground Zero, potentially even knocking out satellites.
Why have atomic bombs?
The race to harness the power of the atom started in the World War 2. German and Allied scientists were desperate to develop the bomb, knowing that if the other side developed one first the war would be over. Fortunately, the German scientists abandoned the project near the end of the war, believing it to be impossible. The first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.
Things changed when Russia developed the bomb in 1949. Now Cold War enemies, Russia and America were locked in an arms race, both frantically producing thousands of warheads. However, it was only America that pursued the policy of MAD - mutually assured destruction. This effectively meant - and still does mean - allowing every American citizen to be held hostage by Russia. It means our only defence to a nuclear attack is one of our own, which does not save the lives of any of the hundreds of millions of people that would die in the strike.
Russia never pursued this policy - it has always tried to protect its population. All its citizens are trained in how to survive nuclear attacks., Cities have large bomb shelters, unlike in America. There are comprehensive evacuation plans. Food is stored in reserve for the aftermath of an attack. Russia is much better equipped to survive a nuclear war than America. Russia spends around 50 times more than America per person per year on preparing for a nuclear attack.
How do they work?
Nuclear bombs are based on the forces that hold atoms together. When these are broken, energy is released. Also released are parts of the atom called neutrons. These then collide with other atoms, destroying these and releasing more energy and neutrons. This is a chain reaction, which releases a vast amount of energy. This is a simple atom bomb.
Their power can be increased by adding hydrogen, in hydrogen bombs. When hydrogen is compressed by a vast amount, for example with the sort of energy created by an atom bomb, the atoms fuse together, creating a helium atom - and a lot more energy. The pressure required is greater than that in the centre of the sun.
Who is known to have access to these weapons?
Seven countries declare that they have nuclear weapons - the USA, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India and Pakistan. Israel is also known to have nuclear weapons but has never admitted it. South Africa is the only other country to have developed nuclear weapons but subsequently destroyed them. So we are left with eight nations.
Which of these threatens the US?
In order to pose a threat to the US, these countries need to get the warheads into range. For this, one of four things are needed:
1. Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). These have ranges of thousands of kilometres, allowing countries to destroy each other from great range.
2. Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). These are nuclear weapons launched from a submarine. The submarine can be move close enough to a rival to destroy it with even short range missiles.
3. Nearby missile bases. America has missile bases in Europe and, until fairly recently, Turkey. The USSR attempted to place missiles on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
4. Portable nuclear weapons, for example 'Suitcase Bombs'. These are small nuclear weapons that can be delivered by hand into an enemy's city, and then detonated. Another example would be placing nuclear bombs in trucks and driving into a city.
Of our seven other nuclear countries (excluding the US), Britain and France are NATO allies. India, Pakistan and Israel lack either a reason or the capability to hit the USA. This leaves China and Russia. They have both the ability and, potentially, the motive to attack America.
A Chinese missile strike would be devastating. Hundreds of cities would be destroyed, including every major one. But a Russian strike would be far worse. Virtually the entire population of America outside a nuclear bunker would be destroyed. Russia could scorch the entire surface of America many times over.
Which other states have nuclear weapons programs?
Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq had an advanced nuclear program. It had a state-of-the-art facility at Al Atheer, near Baghdad. This facility was destroyed by UN weapons inspectors in 1992. A plant was bing built at Tarmiya that would allow Iraq to produce enough enriched uranium to construct a nuclear weapon every two years. Their research was helped by former Soviet scientists. Before Iraq's defeat in the Gulf war, nobody knew of this research, showing how nuclear monitoring is insufficient.
A CIA report to Congress revealed that Iran is the most aggressive pursuer of nuclear weapons. In 1996 Iran attempted to acquire the required equipment from South Africa. In 1998 the Jerusalem Post reported that Iran had stolen to nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan. A US intelligence report said it was 98% sure that Iran had the necessary components for 2 or 3 nuclear weapons. Iran also ahs the necessary missiles to hit much of Europe.
North Korea is also believed to have a nuclear program. It has a nuclear reactor at Yogbyon, which uses MAGNOX technology, making excellent for producing weapons grade plutonium. Several more reactors are planned, which would give a total output of weapons grade plutonium of 230kg per year - enough for 40 nuclear weapons.
How difficult would it be for terrorists to construct nuclear weapons?
Many terrorists, like Al Qaeda, are extremely well financed, and fanatical enough to commit an atrocity on this scale. They may also be able to pay former Soviet nuclear scientists, some of whom have helped other countries with nuclear research. The design would not be difficult - in an experiment three physics students were able to design a nuclear weapon using only freely available information. Well-researched terrorist could construct a bomb with little difficulty if they acquired sufficient plutonium. This is not impossible - nuclear reactors produce such fuel and many of these are in countries, such as North Korea that may be willing to sell. Al Qaeda has already tried to purchase plutonium in Sudan.
Could terrorists have nuclear weapons?
Nobody knows, but it is possible. The collapse of the USSR has led to the possibility of many nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. Many terrorists would dream of creating such a weapon, but it would be cheaper to get ready made devices from the former USSR. The greatest risk from these could be 'suitcase bombs' - nuclear weapons the size of suitcases, which a terrorist could simply walk into a city with.
Why are suitcase bombs such a great risk?
Russia created around 250 suitcase bombs - nuclear weapons the size of suitcases. According to a Soviet defector called Aleksander Lebed it has lost track of more than 100 - each of which could kill more than 100,000 people. Many of these bombs were distributed and hidden in hostile countries. Possibly the worst effect of a terrorist nuclear device would be that it could trigger a nuclear war. If America thought Russia had used nuclear weapons against it, it would not hesitate to retaliate; so one small nuclear device could kill billions.