I don’t think people appreciate the power of nuclear weapons.
‘Hiroshima!’ people cry. Sometimes people even remember the other one: ‘Nagasaaaaaaaaakkeeeee!’ Yes, atomic weapons have only ever been used twice. Little Boy and Fat Man were incredibly primitive devices — really, Little Boy hadn’t even been tested before they dropped it. Fat Man had been tested just once. They were dropped, about 150,000 people died, and that was that. No more atomic weapons — just research… lots and lots of research. Tests, displays of power — but so far, nuclear weapons have never again been used in war.
Believe it or not, those weapons used on Japan were really quite weak: just 15 and 21 kilotons, or 15,000 and 21,000 tons of TNT. Little Boy and Fat Man were what’s known as ‘atomic bombs’, primitive designs that came out after just a few years of research into critical atomic masses. Little Boy, the bomb that killed about 100,000 people in Hiroshima, simply shot a lump of uranium into a larger lump of uranium. Boom. So it goes.
But 21 kilotons wasn’t enough. 100,000 incinerated or terminally toxified in a moment of brilliant, burning energy wasn’t enough.
So we invented the hydrogen bomb. Hydrogen bombs produce anywhere from a few hundred kilotons of explosive force, to 100 megatons — 100 million tons of TNT. The largest bomb ever tested was the Russian Tsar Bomba — if used in war, it would wipe out an area the size of Paris. Blam: 10 million dead souls. The fireball from such a bomb would instantly incinerate anyone within a 3.5 kilometre radius of the bomb — anyone within a radius of 35 kilometres would’ve been caught in the actual explosion.
Fortunately, 50 megaton bombs aren’t feasible in modern war — they’re too big, too slow, too easily intercepted. Instead, we have fleets of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that can strike almost anywhere on Earth within 30 minutes. You wouldn’t even see or hear it coming: by the time the missile begins its descent, it’s moving at 4 kilometres per second. These ICBMs generally carry multiple warheads of around 350 kilotons each — some 10 or 20 times stronger than the bombs dropped in Japan. The Russians and Americans have missiles that can carry 10 or 12 nuclear warheads, called MIRVs. Enough warheads for a single missile to wipe out every metropolitan city in England or France… in just 30 minutes from launch to detonation. At any time, America or Russia or China has thousands of these ICBMs ready to launch within a few minutes. Thousands of missiles, each individually capable of wiping out 10, 20, 30 million people within half an hour of launching.
When people talk of ‘thermonuclear war’, or simply ‘nuclear war’, they mean a war where explosive devices 20 to 200 times the strength of those dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki are simply scattered over our fair planet’s surface. Everyone would die. Fucking crazy.