Nuclear weapon

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The Nevada Nuclear Test Site where the first nuclear weapons were tested
A nuclear weapon is an explosive device which derives its destructive force from an uncontrolled nuclear detonation, releasing massive amounts of thermal, and (as a byproduct), radioactive energy. Conventional weapons use a chemical reaction as the source of their explosive force.

Nuclear weapons usually have dramatically more destructive power than conventional weapon, where the power of a nuclear weapon is measured in kilotons. One kiloton has the equivalent explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT.

Little Boy was the first of two atomic bombs ever used during warfare. It was developed by the United States during World War II, and was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. It had an explosive for of approximately 13 kilotons. Modern U.S. nuclear weapons such as the W88 warhead used on the Trident II missile, have a yield of 475 kilotons. Given the strength and size of the current US nuclear arsenal, the use of even a fraction of it would have devastating effects on the world's climate, probably rendering it unsuitable for human life.

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Types of Nuclear Weapons

Fission Bombs

Fission bombs are characterized by a type of bomb where the nuclear force comes from a fission reaction. At it’s simplest, two sub-critical amounts of a fissile material are joined to form a critical mass which undergoes a spontaneous chain reaction. Bombs such as these usually use isotopes of uranium (uranium-235, uranium-233) or plutonium-239 as the fissile material.

Little Boy and Fat Man, developed and used in World War II by the United States are examples of fission bombs.

Fusion Bombs

Fusion bombs, also known as thermonuclear bombs, derive their energy from the fusion of atoms, usually either deuterium or tritium, which are isotopes of hydrogen. Fusion of hydrogen to helium is thought to be the process that causes our sun and stars to shine.

A thermonuclear detonation is typically started with the ignition of a compression fission bomb, which through a series of steps depending on the particular bomb design, produces temperatures and pressures high enough to ignite the fusion reaction of either the tritium or deuterium at the core of the bomb.

Dirty Bomb

A dirty bomb is bomb designed to spread radioactive material through the detonation of conventional explosives. A dirty bomb does not detonate its nuclear material during the explosion.

The primary danger posed by a dirty bomb is the residual radioactive material contaminating the area around the blast site. The specific danger posed depends on the radioactive material used in the bomb, which can range from elevated levels of cancer to radiation poisoning. Even if the radioactivity is too low to be a serious danger, such a weapon could still induce fear in a population.

A dirty bomb is of no conventional military use, but would be highly dangerous if used for terrorism. Although this has never before happened, it remains a concern.

Nuclear States

The following countries are known to possess nuclear weapons:

  1. United States
  2. Russia
  3. United Kingdom
  4. France
  5. China
  6. India
  7. Israel
  8. Pakistan
  9. North Korea

The following countries are known to have once had nuclear weapons:

  1. South Africa (dismantled stockpile in 1990's)
  2. Belarus
  3. Ukraine
  4. Kazakhstan

Many other countries have at one time had an active nuclear weapons development program, but most have officially stopped research into nuclear weapons. Although a country may have the technology for nuclear power, it may not have the capability to produce nuclear weapons, which would require the ability to enrich uranium.

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