The Origins of the Atomic Bomb

It was the discovery that went on to cause devastation to millions and leave a scar on the world’s history. Atomic energy, and in particular nuclear weapons and bombs, radically altered the nature of human conflict and war, as well as forever changing the complex nature of international diplomacy. With such political unrest, a country with nuclear weapons is a danger to the world. A major objective of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is to stop even more countries from building or testing any more nuclear weapons. The IAEA also has spent the two decades try to rogue states and countries from obtaining nuclear bombs.

Inventing the Atomic Bomb

The ability to make an atomic bomb was brought about by Albert Einstein’s famous theory that E=mc squared. Einstein discovered that matter and energy are two different forms of the same thing, that matter can be turned into energy, and vice versa. What Einstein’s formula shows is the amount of energy a certain mass would release if it was suddenly turned into energy. In the case of atomic bombs, the mass being turned into energy is uranium or plutonium.

When it came to making the theory a reality in designing nuclear weaponry, the first atomic bombs were invented as part of the ‘Manhattan Project’ between 1942 and 1945. It was during the Manhattan Project that it was discovered that while uranium occurs naturally, plutonium could be isolated as an element. The two different bomb designs used either uranium or plutonium atomic devices.

Atomic bombs that use uranium are designed in a similar way to a cannon, where two sub-critical masses are bought together within a barrel to form a critical reaction, that is, an explosion. Plutonium bombs rely on the implosion technique, where the weapon is squeezed by explosives to generate the critical reaction needed for the explosion.

Modern nuclear bombs or warheads are powered by nuclear fusion. In this process, protons are fused together. Two protons stuck together have less mass than two single, separate protons. When the protons are forced together, the extra mass left over is turned into energy that is then released.

The First Atomic Bomb Explosion

The Bomb that Changed a War

The first atomic bomb explosion was on the 16th of July 1945 when a test was conducted in New Mexico. The bomb was a plutonium implosion device that had the codename ‘Trinity’. Then on August 6th 1945 a uranium cannon-type atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan, and a plutonium implosion atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945. The explosions at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of 15 and 21 kilotons respectively. To put that into perspective, one kiloton is the equivalent to the explosive power of 1000 tons of TNT.

Statistics and numbers vary greatly, but it is believed that in Hiroshima roughly 66,000 people were killed from the initial blast, with another 69,000 injured, and in Nagasaki around 39,000 people were killed and 25,000 injured. However shocking those figures are, the real damage from the atomic bombs dropped has come from the radiation that people were exposed to from the blast. The survivors of the initial bomb explosions were exposed to high levels of radiation, which causes medical issues that range from mental disabilities in unborn babies to deadly cancers. Studies also show that genetic mutations from radiation exposure can continue through generations, so there really is no way of telling how many people will be affected from the radiation exposure that came with the dropping of the atomic bombs.

atomic bomb(127197)Credit: Wikimedia

Atomic Bomb Testing

Since 1945 the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan have conducted thousands of nuclear weapons tests that have ranged in size up to 58 megatons, which is almost three thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.

Until the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty was signed on the 5th of August 1963, tests of nuclear devices were conducted in the Earth’s atmosphere. The global contamination from these tests caused such an international outcry, that the US, Russia and Britain agreed to sign the treaty to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere. France and China soon followed, with the last atmospheric nuclear test occurring on October 16th 1980 in China. Since the signing of the treaty, nuclear weapon testing has been conducted underground.

Facts about Nuclear Weapons

Some are interesting, some are scary!

  • There are still roughly 26,000 nuclear warheads or bombs in the world, enough to destroy humanity and the world many times over.
  • The US and Russia own more than 95 per cent of all the world’s nuclear weapons.
  • It takes only 15 to 24 kilograms (33 to 53 pounds) of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) to make a nuclear weapon. Currently there is up to 2,000,000 kilograms (4,409,245 pounds) of HEU in stockpiles around the world. There are 28 countries that have enough HEU to make one bomb, and 12 countries with enough HEU to make at least 20 bombs.
  • It takes around 3 to 5 kilograms (6.5 to 11 pounds) of plutonium to make a nuclear bomb. Around the world there are 500,000 kilograms (1,102,310 pounds) of separated plutonium in reserve stockpiles.
  • In a single five megaton nuclear bomb there is as much explosive power as all the explosives used in WWII.
  • Britain has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy over 80 per cent of the 195 capital cities across the globe.
  • In the 21st century, the US spend around 40 billion dollars a year on nuclear weapons.
  • The Manhattan Project that was responsible for developing the first nuclear weapons cost around 20 billion dollars, which is roughly 7 per cent of the total cost of the entire WWII.
  • Between 1942 and 1996, the US spent 5.8 trillion dollars on nuclear weapons.
  • Britain’s nuclear weapons system is called Trident and costs 4 billion dollars annually to run, and there are plans to replace and upgrade it, which will cost around 154 billion dollars.