Effects of nuclear explosions

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military History and War

 A 23 kiloton tower shot called BADGER, fired on April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site, as part of the Operation Upshot-Knothole nuclear test series.
A 23 kiloton tower shot called BADGER, fired on April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site, as part of the Operation Upshot-Knothole nuclear test series.
Nuclear weapons
One of the first nuclear bombs.
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A nuclear explosion occurs as a result of the rapid release of energy from an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. The driving reaction may be nuclear fission, nuclear fusion or a multistage cascading combination of the two.

Atmospheric nuclear explosions are associated with " mushroom clouds" although mushroom clouds can occur with large chemical explosions and it is possible to have an air burst nuclear explosion without these clouds. Atmospheric nuclear explosions produce large amounts of radiation and radioactive debris. In 1963, all nuclear and many non-nuclear states signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, pledging to refrain from testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space. The treaty permitted underground tests.

The primary application to date has been military (i.e. nuclear weapons). However, there are other potential applications, which have not yet been explored, or have been considered all but abandoned. They include:

  • Nuclear pulse propulsion, including using a nuclear explosion as asteroid deflection strategy.
  • An unsafe prototype of fusion power; see PACER
  • Peaceful nuclear explosions


A nuclear explosion (nuclear detonation) has occurred on Earth twice using a nuclear weapon during war (during World War II, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), about 2,000 times during testing of nuclear weapons, and about 27 times in the U.S. and 156 in the U.S.S.R. in a series of peaceful nuclear explosions; see Operation Plowshare; and Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy

Milestone nuclear explosions

The following list is of milestone nuclear explosions. In addition to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first nuclear test of a given weapon type for a country is included, and tests which were otherwise notable (such as the largest test ever). All yields (explosive power) are given in their estimated energy equivalents in kilotons of TNT (see megaton).

Date Name Yield (kt) Country Significance
Jul 16 1945 Trinity 19 United States USA First fission weapon test
Aug 6 1945 Little Boy 15 United States USA Bombing of Hiroshima, Japan
Aug 9 1945 Fat Man 21 United States USA Bombing of Nagasaki, Japan
Aug 29 1949 Joe 1 22 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics USSR First fission weapon test by the USSR
Oct 3 1952 Hurricane 25 United Kingdom UK First fission weapon test by the UK
Nov 1 1952 Ivy Mike 10,200 United States USA First "staged" thermonuclear weapon test (not deployable)
Aug 12 1953 Joe 4 400 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics USSR First fusion weapon test by the USSR (not "staged", but deployable)
Mar 1 1954 Castle Bravo 15,000 United States USA First deployable "staged" thermonuclear weapon; fallout accident
Nov 22 1955 RDS-37 1,600 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics USSR First "staged" thermonuclear weapon test by the USSR (deployable)
Nov 8 1957 Grapple X 1,800 United Kingdom UK First (successful) "staged" thermonuclear weapon test by the UK
Feb 13 1960 Gerboise Bleue 60 France France First fission weapon test by France
Oct 31 1961 Tsar Bomba 50,000 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics USSR Largest thermonuclear weapon ever tested
Oct 16 1964 596 22 People's Republic of China China First fission weapon test by China
Jun 17 1967 Test No. 6 3,300 People's Republic of China China First "staged" thermonuclear weapon test by China
Aug 24 1968 Canopus 2,600 France France First "staged" thermonuclear test by France
May 18 1974 Smiling Buddha 12 India India First fission nuclear explosive test by India
May 11 1998 Shakti I 43 India India First potential fusion/boosted weapon test by India
(exact yields disputed, between 25kt and 45kt)
May 13 1998 Shakti II 12 India India First fission "weapon" test by India
May 28 1998 Chagai-I ~9 Pakistan Pakistan First fission weapon test by Pakistan
Oct 9 2006 Hwadae-ri <1 North Korea North Korea First fission device tested by North Korea

"Deployable" refers to whether the device tested could be hypothetically used in actual combat (in contrast with a proof-of-concept device). "Staging" refers to whether it was a "true" hydrogen bomb of the so-called Teller-Ulam configuration or simply a form of a boosted fission weapon. For a more complete list of nuclear test series, see List of nuclear tests. Some exact yield estimates, such as that of the Tsar Bomba and the tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, are somewhat contested among specialists.

Effects of a nuclear explosion

The energy released from a nuclear weapon comes in four primary categories:

  • Blast—40-60% of total energy
  • Thermal radiation—30-50% of total energy
  • Ionizing radiation—5% of total energy
  • Residual radiation ( Nuclear fallout)—5-10% of total energy
An American nuclear test.
An American nuclear test.

However, the above values vary depending on the design of the weapon, and the environment in which it is detonated. The interaction of the X-rays and debris with the surroundings determines how much energy is produced as blast and how much as light. In general, the denser the medium around the bomb, the more it will absorb, and the more powerful the shockwave will be. Thermal radiation drops off the slowest with distance, so the larger the weapon the more important this effect becomes. Ionizing radiation is strongly absorbed by air, so it is only dangerous by itself for smaller weapons. Blast damage falls off more quickly than thermal radiation but more slowly than ionizing radiation.

The dominant effects of a nuclear weapon (the blast and thermal radiation) are the same physical damage mechanisms as conventional explosives, but the energy produced by a nuclear explosive is millions of times more per gram and the temperatures reached are in the tens of millions of degrees.

The energy of a nuclear explosive is initially released in the form of gamma rays and neutrons. When there is a surrounding material such as air, rock, or water, this radiation interacts with the material, rapidly heating it to an equilibrium temperature in about a microsecond. The hot material emits thermal radiation, mostly soft X-rays, which accounts for 75% of the energy of the explosion. In addition, the heating and vaporization of the surrounding material causes it to rapidly expand and the kinetic energy of this expansion accounts for almost all of the remaining energy.

When a nuclear detonation occurs in air near sea level, most of the soft X-rays in the primary thermal radiation are absorbed within a few feet. Some energy is reradiated in the ultraviolet, visible light and infrared spectrum, but most of the energy heats a spherical volume of air. This forms a fireball and its associated effects.

In a burst at high altitudes, where the air density is low, the soft X-rays travel long distances before they are absorbed. The energy is so diluted that the blast wave may be half as strong or less. The rest of the energy is dissipated as a more powerful thermal pulse.

In 1945 there was some initial speculation among the scientists developing the first nuclear weapons that there might be a possibility of igniting the Earth's atmosphere with a large enough nuclear explosion. This would concern a nuclear reaction of two nitrogen atoms forming a carbon and an oxygen atom, with release of energy. This energy would heat up the remaining nitrogen enough to keep the reaction going until all nitrogen atoms were consumed. This was, however, quickly shown to be unlikely enough to be considered impossible . Nevertheless, the notion has persisted as a rumour for many years.

Direct effects

Blast damage

Overpressure ranges from 1 to 50 psi of a 1 kiloton of TNT air burst as a function of burst height. The thin black curve indicates the optimum burst height for a given ground range.
Overpressure ranges from 1 to 50 psi of a 1 kiloton of TNT air burst as a function of burst height. The thin black curve indicates the optimum burst height for a given ground range.

The high temperatures and pressures cause gas to move outward radially in a thin, dense shell called "the hydrodynamic front." The front acts like a piston that pushes against and compresses the surrounding medium to make a spherically expanding shock wave. At first, this shock wave is inside the surface of the developing fireball, which is created in a volume of air by the X-rays. However, within a fraction of a second the dense shock front obscures the fireball, making the characteristic double pulse of light seen from a nuclear detonation. For air bursts at or near sea-level between 50-60% of the explosion's energy goes into the blast wave, depending on the size and the yield-to-weight ratio of the bomb. As a general rule, the blast fraction is higher for low yield and/or high bomb mass. Furthermore, it decreases at high altitudes because there is less air mass to absorb radiation energy and convert it into blast. This effect is most important for altitudes above 30 km, corresponding to <1 per cent of sea-level air density.

Much of the destruction caused by a nuclear explosion is due to blast effects. Most buildings, except reinforced or blast-resistant structures, will suffer moderate to severe damage when subjected to overpressures of only 35.5 kilopascals (kPa) (5.15 pounds-force per square inch or 0.35 atm).

The blast wind may exceed several hundred km/h. The range for blast effects increases with the explosive yield of the weapon and also depends on the burst altitude. Contrary to what one might expect from geometry the blast range is not maximal for surface or low altitude blasts but increases with altitude up to an "optimum burst altitude" and then decreases rapidly for higher altitudes. This is due to the nonlinear behaviour of shock waves. If the blast wave reaches the ground it is reflected. Below a certain reflection angle the reflected wave and the direct wave merge and form a reinforced horizontal wave, the so-called Mach stem (named after Ernst Mach). For each goal overpressure there is a certain optimum burst height at which the blast range is maximized. In a typical air burst, where the blast range is maximized for 5 to 20 psi (35 to 140 kPa), these values of overpressure and wind velocity noted above will prevail at a range of 0.7 km for 1 kiloton (kt) of TNT yield; 3.2 km for 100 kt; and 15.0 km for 10 megatons (Mt) of TNT.

Two distinct, simultaneous phenomena are associated with the blast wave in air:

  • Static overpressure, i.e., the sharp increase in pressure exerted by the shock wave. The overpressure at any given point is directly proportional to the density of the air in the wave.
  • Dynamic pressures, i.e., drag exerted by the blast winds required to form the blast wave. These winds push, tumble and tear objects.

Most of the material damage caused by a nuclear air burst is caused by a combination of the high static overpressures and the blast winds. The long compression of the blast wave weakens structures, which are then torn apart by the blast winds. The compression, vacuum and drag phases together may last several seconds or longer, and exert forces many times greater than the strongest hurricane.

Acting on the human body, the shock waves cause pressure waves through the tissues. These waves mostly damage junctions between tissues of different densities ( bone and muscle) or the interface between tissue and air. Lungs and the abdominal cavity, which contain air, are particularly injured. The damage causes severe haemorrhaging or air embolisms, either of which can be rapidly fatal. The overpressure estimated to damage lungs is about 70 kPa. Some eardrums would probably rupture around 22 kPa (0.2 atm) and half would rupture between 90 and 130 kPa (0.9 to 1.2 atm).

Blast Winds: The drag energies of the blast winds are proportional to the cubes of their velocities multiplied by the durations. These winds may reach several hundred kilometers per hour.

Thermal radiation

At the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, "shadows" were burnt into the walls by the flash burn of the thermal radiation from the bomb.
At the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, "shadows" were burnt into the walls by the flash burn of the thermal radiation from the bomb.

Nuclear weapons emit large amounts of electromagnetic radiation as visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light. The chief hazards are burns and eye injuries. On clear days, these injuries can occur well beyond blast ranges. The light is so powerful that it can start fires that spread rapidly in the debris left by a blast. The range of thermal effects increases markedly with weapon yield. Thermal radiation accounts for between 35-45% of the energy released in the explosion, depending on the yield of the device.

There are two types of eye injuries from the thermal radiation of a weapon:

Flash blindness is caused by the initial brilliant flash of light produced by the nuclear detonation. More light energy is received on the retina than can be tolerated, but less than is required for irreversible injury. The retina is particularity susceptible to visible and short wavelength infrared light, since this part of the electromagnetic spectrum is focused by the lens on the retina. The result is bleaching of the visual pigments and temporary blindness for up to 40 minutes.

On this victim of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the pattern of the kimono is clearly visible as burns on the skin.
On this victim of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the pattern of the kimono is clearly visible as burns on the skin.

A retinal burn resulting in permanent damage from scarring is also caused by the concentration of direct thermal energy on the retina by the lens. It will occur only when the fireball is actually in the individual's field of vision and would be a relatively uncommon injury. Retinal burns, however, may be sustained at considerable distances from the explosion. The apparent size of the fireball, a function of yield and range will determine the degree and extent of retinal scarring. A scar in the central visual field would be more debilitating. Generally, a limited visual field defect, which will be barely noticeable, is all that is likely to occur.

Since thermal radiation travels in straight lines from the fireball (unless scattered) any opaque object will produce a protective shadow. If fog or haze scatters the light, it will heat things from all directions and shielding will be less effective. Massive spread of radiation would also occur, which would be at the mercy of the wind.

When thermal radiation strikes an object, part will be reflected, part transmitted, and the rest absorbed. The fraction that is absorbed depends on the nature and colour of the material. A thin material may transmit a lot. A light colored object may reflect much of the incident radiation and thus escape damage. The absorbed thermal radiation raises the temperature of the surface and results in scorching, charring, and burning of wood, paper, fabrics, etc. If the material is a poor thermal conductor, the heat is confined to the surface of the material.

Actual ignition of materials depends on how long the thermal pulse lasts and the thickness and moisture content of the target. Near ground zero where the light exceeds 125 J/ cm², what can burn, will. Farther away, only the most easily ignited materials will flame. Incendiary effects are compounded by secondary fires started by the blast wave effects such as from upset stoves and furnaces.

In Hiroshima, a tremendous fire storm developed within 20 minutes after detonation and destroyed many more buildings and homes. A fire storm has gale force winds blowing in towards the centre of the fire from all points of the compass. It is not, however, a phenomenon peculiar to nuclear explosions, having been observed frequently in large forest fires and following incendiary raids during World War II.

Indirect effects

Electromagnetic pulse

Gamma rays from a nuclear explosion produce high energy electrons through Compton scattering. These electrons are captured in the earth's magnetic field, at altitudes between twenty and forty kilometers, where they resonate. The oscillating electric current produces a coherent electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which lasts about one millisecond. Secondary effects may last for more than a second.

The pulse is powerful enough to cause long metal objects (such as cables) to act as antennae and generate high voltages when the pulse passes. These voltages, and the associated high currents, can destroy unshielded electronics and even many wires. There are no known biological effects of EMP. The ionized air also disrupts radio traffic that would normally bounce off the ionosphere.

One can shield electronics by wrapping them completely in conductive mesh, or any other form of Faraday cage. Of course radios cannot operate when shielded, because broadcast radio waves can't reach them.

The largest-yield nuclear devices are designed for this use. An air burst at the right altitude could produce continent-wide effects.

Ionizing radiation

About 5% of the energy released in a nuclear air burst is in the form of ionizing radiation: neutrons, gamma rays, alpha particles, and electrons moving at incredible speeds, but with different speeds that can be still far away from the speed of light (alpha particles). The neutrons result almost exclusively from the fission and fusion reactions, while the initial gamma radiation includes that arising from these reactions as well as that resulting from the decay of short-lived fission products.

The intensity of initial nuclear radiation decreases rapidly with distance from the point of burst because the radiation spreads over a larger area as it travels away from the explosion. It is also reduced by atmospheric absorption and scattering.

The character of the radiation received at a given location also varies with distance from the explosion. Near the point of the explosion, the neutron intensity is greater than the gamma intensity, but with increasing distance the neutron-gamma ratio decreases. Ultimately, the neutron component of initial radiation becomes negligible in comparison with the gamma component. The range for significant levels of initial radiation does not increase markedly with weapon yield and, as a result, the initial radiation becomes less of a hazard with increasing yield. With larger weapons, above fifty kt (200 TJ), blast and thermal effects are so much greater in importance that prompt radiation effects can be ignored.

The neutron radiation serves to transmute the surrounding matter, often rendering it radioactive. When added to the dust of radioactive material released by the bomb itself, a large amount of radioactive material is released into the environment. This form of radioactive contamination is known as nuclear fallout and poses the primary risk of exposure to ionizing radiation for a large nuclear weapon.


The pressure wave from an underground explosion will propagate through the ground and cause a minor earthquake. Theory suggests that a nuclear explosion could trigger fault rupture and cause a major quake at distances within a few tens of kilometers from the shot point.

Summary of the effects

The following table summarizes the most important effects of nuclear explosions under certain conditions.


Explosive yield / Height of Burst

1 kT / 200 m

20 kT / 540 m

1 MT / 2.0 km

20 MT / 5.4 km

Blast—effective ground range GR / km

Urban areas almost completely levelled (20 PSI)





Destruction of most civil buildings (5 PSI)





Moderate damage to civil buildings (1 PSI)





Thermal radiation—effective ground range GR / km






Third degree burns





Second degree burns





First degree burns





Effects of instant nuclear radiation—effective slant range1 SR / km

Lethal2 total dose (neutrons and gamma rays)





Total dose for acute radiation syndrome2





1) For the direct radiation effects the slant range instead of the ground range is shown here, because some effects are not given even at ground zero for some burst heights. If the effect occurs at ground zero the ground range can simply be derived from slant range and burst altitude (Pythagorean theorem).

2) "Acute radiation syndrome" corresponds here to a total dose of one gray, "lethal" to ten grays. Note that this is only a rough estimate since biological conditions are neglected here.

Other phenomena

As the fireball rises through still air, it takes on the flow pattern of a vortex ring with incandescent material in the vortex core as seen in certain photographs. At the explosion of nuclear bombs sometimes lightning discharges occur. Not related to the explosion itself, often there are smoke trails seen in photographs of nuclear explosions. These are formed from rockets emitting smoke launched before detonation. The smoke trails are used to determine the position of the shockwave, which is invisible, in the milliseconds after detonation through the refraction of light, which causes an optical break in the smoke trails as the shockwave passes. A fizzle occurs if the nuclear chain reaction is not sustained long enough to cause an explosion. This can happen if, for example, the yield of the fissile material used is too low, the compression explosives around fissile material misfire or the neutron initiator fails.


This is highly dependent on factors such as proximity to the blast and the direction of the wind carrying fallout.

There has also been controversy as to whether cockroaches would survive a nuclear blast. The answer is that they have a high degree of survivability, since they are resistant to radiation and can burrow underground for extended periods of time and avoid fallout. However, cockroaches would be instantly incinerated by the initial blast.

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