The nuclear bomb: destroyers of planets?
The nuclear bomb was first demonstrated at a test site in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, and was first used in battle a month later by the United States against targets in Japan. Since this time, nuclear weapons have not been used in war – leading to the establishment of a ‘nuclear taboo’ - although several thousand nuclear tests have taken place around the globe.
The weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were roughly the equivalent to 15-20 thousand tonnes of TNT each (or conventional explosive). The combined death toll from these two devices (which were about the size of a small car, and dropped from a B29 aeroplane) is estimated at around 200,000. The destructive magnitude of the nuclear bomb expanded exponentially, so that by the 1960s explosive power of each bomb was measured in the millions of tonnes of TNT (megatons). By the 1970s, world stockpiles of nuclear bombs had approached approximately 70,000 – the majority of which were held by the United States and the Soviet Union – leading experts to claim that the world could be destroyed ‘many times over’.
Since 1945, eight countries have demonstrated the capacity to produce the bomb; the United States (1945), the Soviet Union/Russia (1949), the United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), China (1964), India (1974), Pakistan (1998) and most recently North Korea (2006). Israel is widely accepted to have nuclear weapons, and Iran is rumoured to be on the road to acquiring the capability. The US, Russia, UK, France and China are all signatories of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which prohibits nuclear proliferation and works towards nuclear disarmament. India, Pakistan and North Korea are not. So far, the condition of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) – whereby no rational nuclear state would ever strike first with nuclear weapons for fear of the overwhelming nuclear retaliation that would follow – has allowed for a relatively stable balance of terror in the nuclear world.
There are two main ‘fuels’ for nuclear weapons; Uranium 235 - which must be separated from the much more prevalent Uranium 238, and Plutonium 239 – which is not a naturally occurring element, but is produced by reacting Uranium. These fuels can then be used in either a fission device (the so-called A-bomb), or the much more powerful H-Bomb which relies on a mixture of fission and fusion. Constructing a nuclear device is not particularly complicated, but acquiring the necessary fissile materials and the means to deliver the weapon is – it is this, rather than the scientific challenge that has made nuclear acquisition so difficult and costly. Modern Hydrogen bombs are capable of destroying entire cities, while just a small number of hydrogen bombs detonated on Britain would probably be enough to destroy the country as we know it. A large nuclear exchange could theoretically destroy life on our planet.
Today, there remain around 20000 nuclear weapons in the world, the majority of which are still held by the United States and Russia. While this is a significant reduction from the darkest days of the Cold War, we are still a long way from realising the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. Indeed, many would suggest that such a goal is impossible, and that nuclear weapons are here to stay. In an era of international terrorism and new global actors, it remains to be seen whether the luck that has spared the world a nuclear exchange since 1945 can continue to hold out indefinitely into the future.
Dr Andrew Futter
- Ballistic missile defence policy
- The shifting nature of strategic and nuclear deterrence
- The link between cyber weapons and nuclear strategy
- Nuclear weapons policy
- Nuclear deterrence and nuclear non-proliferation issues
- Projects relating to contemporary US foreign and security policy
- Projects in strategic studies or diplomatic history