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
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
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
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
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 being 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.
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