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Home > History & Science > Historically significant nuclear explosions

The "Atomic Age" of nuclear weaponry has been a defining feature of global politics since the mid-1940s. Over this time, the USA, USSR, & France have conducted nearly 2,000 nuclear explosion tests between them. These include atmospheric, underwater, and underground detonations in some of the most remote areas of the world known to man. At the peak of the nuclear arms race, the two superpowers of the USA & the USSR had around 60,000 warheads combined between them, enough to destroy modern civilization as we know it. Now as time goes on, gradually more countries join the list of those with nuclear capabilities, the most recent of which was North Korea in 2006. Out of this long history of detonations, I have outlined the historically most significant events below...

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Comments (3)

Operation Teapot looks seriously dangerous for those soldiers!

By muddbandit (2415) - Prophet | 27.03.10

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I dunno man, Fat Man was only the 3rd test, and it ended World War 2!

By igor (3303) - Prophet | 27.03.10

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Surely it has to be Trinity, the first one ever?

By jerryriver (1443) - Prophet | 27.03.10

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1) Trinity, 1945 (USA)

The Trinity test marked the official start of the Atomic Age with the first ever nuclear detonation of a device codenamed "The Gadget". The test was executed in Socorro, New Mexico, on 16th July 1945, and had the equivalent explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT. As this had never been done before, the observers of the experiment had a betting pool circulating around the base over what they thought would actually happen. These predictions ranged from the device being a dud, to the destruction of the entire state of New Mexico, to the ignition of the atmosphere and the consequential incineration of the planet. In addition, journalist William L. Laurence, who was covering the event, left a number of options of reports to publish with his office at the New York Times, one of which reported a freak accident where everyone involved in the project was destroyed. The explosion left a crater of radioactive glass 10ft deep and 1,100ft wide.

trinity tower
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2) Fat Man, 1945 (USA)

Fat Man was the second and last atomic bomb to be used during a state of war on a civilian population. The explosion yielded 21,000 tonnes of equivalent TNT, and effectively brought an abrupt end to the bloodiest war in history with the surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces just six days after the attack on 2nd September 1945. Like Hiroshima, the death tolls were catastrophic, with well over 100,000 lives lost as a result of the blast. Some of the people killed in the blast were those that had previously been at Hiroshima three days earlier, and moved for shelter. It is historically one of the most important and defining moments in military history, one which went on to initiate a nuclear arms race with the two prevailing superpowers that emerged from the Second World War. Still to this day, a strong debate exists amongst historians over the ethical nature of the U.S. using atomic warfare as a means to end the long conflict and prevent further bloodshed.

fat man nagasaki
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3) Tsar Bomba, 1961 (USSR)

Tsar Bomba is the king of nuclear weapons. It is by far the largest and most powerful nuclear explosion ever detonated by mankind. At 57 million equivalent tons of TNT, the blast generated a fireball that could have caused 3rd degree burns up to 67 miles away from the point of ground zero. The explosion produced blast damage up to 600 miles away due to atmospheric focusing, and even smashed windows in neighbouring Finland. The prevailing mushroom cloud reached an altitude of 40 miles high, and the seismic shock was measurable even on its third passage around the planet. The actual design of the AN602 device was capable of yielding a 100 million ton explosion, but due to fears over the resulting nuclear fallout, the device was scaled down. Weighing in at 27 tons, the weapon was far from practicable in a wartime environment, as the plane that carried it had to be heavily modified, including the removal of a fuel tank. It was detonated as an example to show off the power of the USSR.

Tsar Bomba
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4) Little Boy, 1945 (USA)

Little Boy was the second ever detonation of a nuclear device, and the first to be done so over a civilian population. The bomb was armed during flight at approximately 31,000ft and detonated 1,900ft above the streets of Hiroshima with a blast equivalent to 16,000 tonnes of TNT. Some 30% of the population, around 75,000, were killed instantly by the immediate fireball of the blast, while another 150,000 would die over the coming months due to serious injuries and radiation exposure. The aircraft carrying the bomb, the U.S. Enola Gay and two accompanying B-29s, were actually spotted on radar by a radio operator in Hiroshima on their approach to the city. Due to the low number of three aircraft showing on the radar, the decision was made not to intercept the oncoming attack with Japanese fighters in an effort to try and conserve fuel. This attack was followed by the Fat Man detonation at Nagasaki just three days later.

little boy
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5) Castle Bravo, 1954 (USA)

Castle Bravo was the codename given to the first U.S. test of a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb device named "Shrimp", on 1st March, 1954, at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, in the west Pacific Ocean. The design rendered the previous cryogenic model redundant, as it could yield more power, and was a lot more compact, making it a very practicable weapon for use during a conflict. The actual explosion was far greater than anticipated due to inaccurate calculations made at the Los Alamos National Observatory; the expected yield was 4 - 6 million tons equivalent, but actually produced 15 million tons. The explosion was so large in fact, that it still holds the record for the most powerful U.S. detonation to this day. The mushroom cloud soared 130,000ft high and could be seen up to 250 miles away. The local area was highly contaminated with radiation, and a Japanese fishing boat ironically named "The Lucky Dragon" became infected.

castle bravo

6) Ivy Mike, 1952 (USA)

Ivy Mike was the first successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb at Enewetak, an atoll in the west Pacific Ocean. The significance of this experiment was in the logistics of the bomb device itself, which proved the viability of "Teller–Ulam" bomb design. The unit was extremely powerful, and later through further improvements in thermonuclear technology, became very mobile and relatively easy to deploy. Virtually all of the nuclear devices of the major nuclear armed nations use this principal design to this day. The weight of the entire device used in this test was weighed in at massive 73.8 metric tonnes, resembling an appearance more like an office block than a bomb, and was extremely impracticable for deployment during a conflict. Edward Teller, a key person in the development of the device design, was in Berkeley, California at the time of the blast and was able to read the success of the explosion through shockwaves travelling through the earth on a seismometer.

ivy mike

7) Operation Teapot, 1955 (USA)

Operation Teapot was a series of fourteen nuclear explosions that were conducted at the Nevada Test Site during the first half of 1955. They were significant in the fact that whole mock communities known colloquially as "survival towns" were constructed at regular intervals near the blast zones to test their vulnerability to a potential attack. Military vehicles and military personnel were also placed in a very close proximity to the blast zone as part of the experiment. After the blast, they were then ordered to close in up to just 900 metres from the still forming mushroom cloud, creating a high risk of suffering from radiation sickness. Today, this experiment seems somewhat ludicrous, you can view a great video presentation that was released for general viewing in 1955 below. It demonstrates the great naivety towards a reckless use of power that existed at the time.

operation teapot

8) Baker, 1946 (USA)

Baker was the second of two devices used in the first underwater nuclear detonation tests, codenamed Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll, in the west Pacific Ocean, July, 1946. The experiment was conducted in order to find out how conventional navy ships would cope under the enormous forces exerted by a nuclear blast. The test ships included the USS Arkansas and the USS Saratoga, both of which played important roles during the Second World War. Operation Crossroads was the first time there had been serious radioactive contamination of the surrounding area after a blast. In the previous atmospheric testing, the radioactive fallout would be dispersed across the globe in a heavily diluted form by the stratosphere. Underwater detonations concentrate the radiation into the surrounding water and islands, rendering the area unsuitable for farming even to this day. Although participants in the tests were provided with radiation protection, their lives were shortened on average by 3 months.

baker operation crossroads

9) Hurricane, 1952 (UK)

Operation Hurricane marked the full integration for Britain as a global nuclear power with their first test of an atomic device on the Montebello Islands, located about 80 miles from the coast of Western Australia. It was very similar in design to the Fat Man (Nagasaki) device, but yielded a slightly larger explosion at around 25,000 tonnes, compared to 21,000 tonnes for the former. For safety reasons, the decision was made to carry out the detonation in Australian waters on the HMS Plym, as the land mass of the British Isles was far to constrictive and densely populated to not cause any long lasting damage. The test was arranged due to a strong fear by the government at the time that a ship entering British waters carrying a smuggled nuclear device could cause serious damage to an important trade port or navy installation. Their fear was well grounded, the threat of the Soviet Union was growing, and during the 1950s Britain still had a lot of her Empire intact to protect.

operation hurricane

10) Gerboise Bleue, 1960 (France)

Gerboise Bleue was the first nuclear detonation test by France during the Algerian War in the Sahara desert on 13th February 1960. Although it was executed during a time of war, it was not intended to cause any harm to France’s enemies. It was also by far the largest ever yielding explosion for a nations first attempt at around 65,000 tonnes of TNT equivalent. In comparison, the U.S. Trinity test yielded 20,000 tonnes. This detonation marked the beginning of a long period of nuclear testing for the French government, peaking in 1985 with the controversial attack on the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, New Zealand, a Greenpeace boat used as a platform to protest against French nuclear activities on islands in the west Pacific Ocean.

Gerboise Bleue
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