Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of nuclear bombs, with Vladimir Putin warning that anyone in the West who goes to war against Moscow will be exposed to “consequences never seen in history”. But concretely, how powerful can these weapons be?
Nuclear bombs (the most powerful ever developed) use the energy released by the fission of heavy atomic nuclei. Their destructive effects are mainly due to blast, burns and the effect of radiation. However, so far only two of these bombs have been dropped for truly destructive purposes: those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 which resulted in the deaths of 103,000 to 220,000 people.
Other of these bombs have also been dropped, but as part of tests. Here are the most powerful. Note that there are a number of nuclear weapon detonations whose returns are uncertain. Only detonations whose yields are known with certainty are therefore included here.
Tsar Bomba and test 219
In 1961, Russia and the United States were in the midst of the Cold War and were fighting to develop the most powerful nuclear weapons on the planet. In the end, it was the Soviet Union that had “the biggest”.
Officially named RDS-220, but usually nicknamed “Big Ivan”, “Vanya” or “Tsar Bomba”, this bomb measuring eight meters long and about two meters high exploded over the Russian Arctic four thousand meters above sea level. altitude with a destructive force of fifty megatons (it had been designed to have an explosive yield of up to one hundred megatons). In other words, this bomb was about 3300 times more powerful than the fifteen kiloton nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima by the United States.
According to reports, the fireball from the explosion measured nearly 9.7 km in diameter, revealing then a mushroom of ionizing gas 90 km in diameter and approximately 65 km high. In 2020, remember that the Russian authorities declassified the images of the test, visible below.
On December 24, 1962, New Year’s Eve, the Soviet Union followed up with the explosion of another bomb at the test site in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, still in the Arctic. With a destructive force of 24.2 megatons, this nuclear bomb (the 219 test) was half as powerful as the “Tsar Bomba”, but it remains the second most formidable weapon ever to have exploded. It is estimated that it was about 1,600 times more powerful than that of Hiroshima.
Note that Test 219 was also one of the last nuclear bombs dropped from the air by the Soviet Union. A treaty signed in 1963 obliged the countries concerned to conduct their tests underground.
Test 147 and Test 173
On August 5, 1962, the Soviet Union released a 21.1 megaton bomb on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago (still in the Arctic). Known as “Test 147′, it was the third most powerful nuclear detonation in history. It is estimated that it was about 1,400 times more powerful than that of Hiroshima. Despite its immense power, this nuclear detonation is not as well known as others on this list.
According to the Nukemap website, if such a weapon were to burst over New York today, it would produce a fireball that would cover all of Central Park as well as an intense wave of thermal radiation capable of covering all of it. from the city.
On September 25, 1962, the Soviet Union released a 19.1 megaton nuclear bomb on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Known simply as “Test 173”, it is the fourth most powerful nuclear weapon ever fired (about 1,270 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb). Historically, this bomb was dropped just weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war.
During the crisis, the Soviet Union had deployed several nuclear missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy then considered attacking the sites, eventually ordering a naval blockade to prevent more nuclear weapons from reaching Cuba. The Soviet Union had finally agreed to withdraw its missiles in exchange for the United States withdrawing its missiles from Turkey.
The United States and Castle Bravo
On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated a fifteen-megaton nuclear weapon on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in a test dubbed “Castle Bravo.” This was not dropped by the air, but exploded on the surface. This is the fifth most powerful nuclear weapon detonation in history.
Note that the yield was about two and a half times greater than expected, causing nuclear fallout to spread about 18,000 square kilometers across the Pacific. Residents of the Marshall Islands, US military personnel and the crew of a Japanese fishing trawler were exposed to radiation. Some of these residents have also suffered from a high rate of cancer. Several years later, the US government paid compensation to the residents of the island. Retired American servicemen even launched a lawsuit against the government in 1984, alleging that the American government had minimized the danger of radiation.