The Cold War was the most dangerous time in human history. The United States and the Soviet Union raced to see which side could build horrifyingly powerful weapons of all sorts. While both sides tested chemical and biological weapons (occasionally dousing their own people with them by accident), most Cold War fears centered around nuclear weapons, and with good reason. Their terrible power was demonstrated when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The weapons produced during the Cold War made the Fat Man and Little Boy look like fire crackers.
One such weapon was so stupendously powerful that, even today, it is a source of terrified awe. The dubious distinction of having produced the most powerful weapon in history went to the USSR, in the form of the test device the West nicknamed the Tsar Bomb.
The biggest man-made explosion in history
The Tsar Bomb was meant to be a show of force by the Soviet Union, to show that the Soviet weapons program was superior to its American counterpart, and boy did it ever deliver. The device was a three stage thermonuclear weapon. An initial fission reaction involving Uranium-238 (the fissile material used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) would kick start the fusion of hydrogen, which would then result in further fusion reactions that would release immense amounts of energy. The bomb weighed in at approximately 60,000 pounds (27 metric tons), measuring 26 feet (8 meters) long and 6.9 feet (2.1 meters) in diameter. It was so large that the plane carrying it, a Tu-95 heavy bomber, had to be modified in order to carry the bomb to the test site, a remote spit of land on the northern fringe of Russia. Designers initially intended the bomb to have a yield of 100 megatons, but they were afraid of excessive fall out and halved the yield to 50 megatons.
Whew. Those are a lot of numbers. Let’s put some things in perspective. A megaton refers to the explosive force of 1 million tons of TNT. That means the Tsar Bomb released energy equivalent to 50 million tons of TNT. To put some perspective on these numbers, that made the Tsar Bomb 1400 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
The day of the test, that much energy was unleashed 2.5 miles (4km) above the surface of the Earth. Everything within about 22 miles (35km) of the blast was annihilated. A fire ball about 2.5 miles (3.5km) high seared the sky, resulting in a mushroom cloud 25 miles (40km) wide at its base that stretched 40 miles (64km) into the atmosphere.
Buildings for hundreds of miles around were destroyed or severely damaged in the resulting shock wave. The blast wave shattered windows as far away as 560 miles (900 km) away. The heat generated by the blast was enough to cause 3rd degree burns 62 miles (100km) from the blast site, and the fireball was visible 620 miles (1000km) away. The shock wave circled the globe three times before finally dissipating. American analysts registered the blast as a 5.2 on the Richter Scale.
If a weapon as powerful as the Tsar Bomb were dropped over a populated area, the results would be unthinkable. The Tsar Bomb would annihilate a city the size of New York in the blink of an eye. The fact that the Tsar Bomb was the cleanest nuclear weapon ever detonated (the fission phase was limited to cut the production of radioactive fallout) would be of little comfort for those caught within its huge destructive radius. With only a few modifications, the Tsar Bomb could have been made to yield 100 megatons, which would have resulted in a much “dirtier” explosion and killed millions more if it were used as a weapon.
Luckily, the Tsar Bomb was not a feasible weapon. It was simply too large to be practical. A lot of the energy of the test explosion was released into the atmosphere — not exactly where you want it to go when you are trying to wipe out an enemy– and it was so heavy that there was no feasible way to deliver it.
Of course, that shouldn’t leave you feeling too relaxed. While no weapon today is as massive as the test device detonated in 1961, warheads with half that yield have been successfully mounted to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) that can be launched to any point in the world within a few moments. As if that is not terrifying enough, there are ICBM’s mounted with multiple, targeted warheads that can carpet bomb a region with nuclear death. If anything, nuclear technology has become more deadly since the most powerful weapon in history was detonated.
“Tsar Bomba.” Wikipedia.org March 27, 2014. Wikipedia. March 30, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba>
“Big Ivan, The Tsar Bomb (“King of Bombs”)” NuclearWeaponsArchive.org. September 3, 2007. The Nuclear Weapon Archive. March 30, 2014. <http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Russia/TsarBomba.html>