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Weird Facts about Nuclear Weapons

Anything from Hirosima to James Bond may come to mind when yo think of nuclear weapons. At any rate, extreme danger always enters the picture. There is nothing soothing about these deadly pieces of machinery but this is information will hopefully pull back a little of a cloak from their mystique…

315Cn Weird Facts about Nuclear WeaponsNuclear Weapons on Wikipedia:

nuclear weapons testing 150x150 Weird Facts about Nuclear WeaponsA nuclear weapon is an explosive device that derives its destructive force from nuclear reactions, either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter. The first fission (“atomic”) bomb test released the same amount of energy as approximately 20,000 tons of TNT. The first thermonuclear (“hydrogen”) bomb test released the same amount of energy as approximately 10,000,000 tons of TNT.

A modern thermonuclear weapon weighing little more than a thousand kilograms (2,200 pounds) can produce an explosion comparable to the detonation of more than a billion kilograms (2.2 billion pounds) of conventional high explosive. Thus, even single small nuclear devices no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire and radiation. Nuclear weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, and their use and control has been a major focus of international relations policy since their debut.

In the history of warfare, only two nuclear weapons have been detonated offensively, both near the end of World War II. The first was detonated on the morning of 6 August 1945, when the United States dropped a uranium gun-type device code-named “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The second was detonated three days later when the United States dropped a plutonium implosion-type device code-named “Fat Man” on the city of Nagasaki, Japan. These two bombings resulted in the deaths of approximately 200,000 Japanese people (mostly civilians) from acute injuries sustained from the explosion. The role of the bombings in Japan’s surrender and the U.S.’s ethical justification for them remains the subject of scholarly and popular debate.

Since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear weapons have been detonated on over two thousand occasions for testing purposes and demonstration purposes. A few states have possessed such weapons or are suspected of seeking them. The only countries known to have detonated nuclear weapons—and that acknowledge possessing such weapons—are (chronologically) the United States, the Soviet Union (succeeded as a nuclear power by Russia), the United Kingdom, France, the People’s Republic of China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel is also widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, though it does not acknowledge having them.

5 Things You Didn’t Know about AK-47

ak 47 5 Things You Didnt Know about AK 47Guns have always been a fascinating topic in America. From who’s using them to what model, make and brand they are, guns have become a staple in our modern society. Now, whether that’s a sad or thrilling fact, we’ve decided to let our readers in on some interesting facts about one of America’s most loved (and hated) assault rifles: the AK-47.

With a new book on the market entitled AK-47: The Story of the People’s Gun, Michael Hodges is an expert on this particular weapon, and we got Hodges to let us in on a few little-known facts about the AK-47 while researching his work.

1- The inventor of the AK-47 did not profit from the gun

Although by some estimates there are 100 million AK-47-style assault rifles in circulation around the world, the gun’s inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, did not become rich (unlike Eugene Stoner, the inventor of the American M16 assault rifle, who died a wealthy man). Communist states had no patents, and until its collapse in 1991, Kalashnikov was simply an employee of the Soviet Union. “I invented a weapon to save the motherland, to save the state from fascism,” he said. “My career has been dedicated to my country.”

Despite that country awarding him the Hero of Socialist Labor medal and many other accolades, this particular Socialist hero, who just happened to change the world, started life as an enemy of the Soviet Union. Kalashnikov narrowly escaped being shot by Stalin’s special police after his family was denounced as Kulaks in 1932, and exiled to Siberia. Kalashnikov escaped again when a Panzer shell blew him from his tank in 1941, as the Soviets fought desperately to halt the Nazi advance on Moscow.

2- The AK-47 is the perfect weapon for children

The AK-47 can be stripped in under a minute and cleaned quickly in almost any climatic condition. Even if it isn’t cleaned, an AK-47 is still more likely to fire than any of its rivals given similar treatment on the battlefield. With only eight moving parts the AK-47 is cheap to manufacture and easy to use — so easy in fact that children can be taught how to properly handle this weapon in a single hour. Sudanese child soldier Emmanuel Jal picked up his first AK-47 when he was 9 years old. A fully loaded AK-47 weighs four kilograms: “I don’t know how I lifted the AK when I was tired. It was so heavy,” he remembers. “We only had a few AKs but we weren’t scared, it was like a game with toy guns. When the fighting starts you can put the gun down and run away, or pull the trigger. Once you’ve done that you are hooked; it makes you think that no one can touch you. Once you’ve fired an AK-47 you become brave.”

3- America may have given bin Laden his first AK-47

Since 1998, Osama bin Laden has regularly included an AK-47 in the propaganda videos he releases after terrorist outrages. Consequently, the gun has come to represent the global jihad, and AK-47 is an integral part of the regime at fundamentalist camps, as far apart as the English home counties and the jungles of the Philippines.

These groups and their adherents are dedicated to the destruction of Israel and America — yet it is highly likely that it was Israel and America that inadvertently put an AK-47 into bin Laden’s hands. When the Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon in 1982 to “crush” the Palestinian Liberation Organization they captured thousands of AK-47s.These guns found their way, via the CIA and the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, to the Mujahadeen resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It is probable that amongst them would have been the AK-47 that equips bin Laden.

4- The AK-47 is the U.S. army’s most resilient enemy

U.S. forces first came into large-scale contact with the AK-47 during the Vietnam War. Their own M16s malfunctioned in the heat and damp of the jungle, but the Chinese-supplied AK-47s used by the communists continued to fire. Consequently, thousands of GIs picked up AK-47s from fallen Viet Cong guerrillas. This led Americans to open fire on their own side because they presumed the distinctive pop-pop-pop sound of an AK-47 revealed an enemy position. So many GIs threw away their guns in favor of AK-47s that a House of Representatives hearing in 1971 discovered that the U.S. Army attempted to stop the media reporting the phenomenon. Today, nearly 40 years later, in the sand and heat of Iraq, American soldiers are once again giving up their own U.S.-manufactured weapons in favor of the AK-47.

5- The AK-47 is the weapon of choice for U.S. mass murderers

On January 17, 1989, Patrick Purdey walked into the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, armed with a Chinese-manufactured AK-47. It was fitted with a barrel magazine holding 75 rounds — both of which he bought legally over a gun-shop counter. When he walked out again five children were dead and 29 were injured. In December 1997, Arturo Reyes Torres entered his former place of work, the Caltrans Maintenance Yard, with an AK-47, killed four and wounded two. There are many more examples of AK-47 murders in the U.S. The online Urban Dictionary defines “Columbine” like so: “The constant bullying of the preppies and jocks has caused him to pick up his AK-47 and go Columbine on everyone.”

Ironically, the Columbine killers did not use AK-47s, but it doesn’t matter; in America gun crime is now perceived as AK crime.

rifle-ing through history

From the killing grounds of Sadr City to the murderous barrios of Bogotá, from the battlefields of Somalia to the ghettos of the United States, the AK-47 dominates the world. Invented by a Russian tank commander at the end of World War II, by rights it should be in the dustbin of history. However, such was the genius of his design that 60 years later — for millions of unfortunate people around the world, and scores of countries wracked by conflict — Mikhail Kalashnikov’s iconic assault rifle is both the present and, tragically, the future.

To learn even more about the AK-47, check out Michael Hodges’ book, AK-47: The Story of the People’s Gun.


Nuclear weapons

Fission weapons
A few words about nuclear weapons technology..

Nuclear weapons exploit two principle physical, or more specifically nuclear, properties of certain substances: fission and fusion.

Fission is possible in a number of heavy elements, but in weapons it is principally confined to what is termed slow neutron fission in just two particular isotopes: 235U and 239Pu. These are termed fissile, and are the source of energy in atomic weapons. An explosive chain reaction can be started with relatively slight energy input (so-called slow neutrons) in such material.

Pu239Ga11111111 Nuclear weapons
An actual 239Pu ingot, alloyed with gallium for improved physical properties

Isotopes are ‘varieties’ of an element which differ only in their number of neutrons. For example, hydrogen exists as 1H 2H and 3H — different isotopes of the same chemical element, with no, one, and two neutrons respectively. All the chemical properties, and most of the physical properties, are the same between isotopes. Nuclear properties may differ significantly, however.

The fission, or ‘splitting’ of an atom, releases a very large amount of energy per unit volume — but a single atom is very small indeed. The key to an uncontrolled or explosive release of this energy in a mass of fissile material large enough to constitute a weapon is the establishment of a chain reaction with a short time period and high growth rate. This is surprisingly easy to do.

Fission of 235U (uranium) or 239Pu (plutonium) starts in most weapons with an incident source of neutrons. These strike atoms of the fissile material, which (in most cases) fissions, and each atom in so doing releases, on average, somewhat more than 2 neutrons. These then strike other atoms in the mass of material, and so on.

If the mass is too small, or has too large a surface area, too many neutrons escape and a chain reaction is not possible; such a mass is termed subcritical. If the neutrons generated exactly equal the number consumed in subsequent fissions, the mass is said to be critical. If the mass is in excess of this, it is termed supercritical.

Fission (atomic) weapons are simply based on assembling a supercritical mass of fissile material quickly enough to counter disassembly forces.

The majority of the energy release is nearly instantaneous, the mean time from neutron release to fission can be of the order of 10 nanoseconds, and the chain reaction builds exponentially. The result is that greater than 99% of the very considerable energy released in an atomic explosion is generated in the last few (typically 4-5) generations of fission — less than a tenth of a microsecond.*

This tremendous energy release in a small space over fantastically short periods of time creates some unusual phenomena — physical conditions that have no equal on earth, no matter how much TNT is stacked up.

Plutonium (239Pu) is the principal fissile material used in today’s nuclear weapons. The actual amount of this fissile material required for a nuclear weapon is shockingly small.

Below is a scale model of the amount of 239Pu required in a weapon with the force that destroyed the city of Nagasaki in 1945:

Pu32inch Nuclear weapons

In the Fat Man (Nagasaki) weapon design an excess of Pu was provided. Most of the remaining bulk of the weapon was comprised of two concentric shells of high explosives. Each of these was carefully fashioned from two types of explosives with differing burn rates. These, when detonated symmetrically on the outermost layer, caused an implosion or inward-moving explosion.

The two explosive types were shaped to create a roughly spherical convergent shockwave which, when it reached the Pu ‘pit’ in the center of the device, caused it to collapse.

The Pu pit became denser, underwent a phase change, and became supercritical.

A small neutron source, the initiator, placed in the very center of this Pu pit, provided an initial burst of neutrons — final generations of which, less than a microsecond later, saw the destruction of an entire city and more than 30,000 people..

Nearly all the design information for weapons such as these is now in the public domain; in fact, considering the fact that fission weapons exploit such a simple and fundamental physical (nuclear) property, it is no surprise that this is so. It is more surprising that so much stayed secret for so long, at least from the general public.

A neutron reflector, often made of beryllium, is placed outside the central pit to reflect neutrons back into the pit. A tamper, often made of depleted uranium or 238U helps control premature disassembly. Modern fission devices use a technique called ‘boosting’ (referred to in the next section), to control and enhance the yield of the device.

Today’s nuclear threat lies mostly in preventing this fissile special nuclear material (often referred to as SNM) from falling into the wrong hands: once there, it is a very short step to construct a working weapon.

What we do now to keep these devices out of the hands of groups like Al-Qaeda is vital to civilized peoples.

abomb Nuclear weapons

A schematic of a hypothetical ‘boosted’ fission weapon (showing unnecessary 235U)

trinity Nuclear weapons The gadget device used in the Trinity test: the world’s first nuclear weapon test. Note spherical geometry and the HE detonator arrangement. New Mexico, 21KT, 1945.

grable Nuclear weapons Typical fission weapon, shortly after detonation at the Nevada test site, with roughly the same yield as the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima. Reddish vapor surrounding the plasma toroid includes intensely radioactive fission fragments and ionized nitrogen oxides from the atmosphere. (Grable, 15KT, 1953)

Fusion Weapon

Fission weapons discussed above are ultimately limited in their destructive capability by the sheer size a subcritical mass can assume — and be imploded quickly enough by high explosives to form a supercritical assembly. The largest known pure fission weapon tested had a 500 kiloton yield. This is some thirty-eight times the release which destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. Not satisfied that this was powerful enough, designers developed thermonuclear (fusion) weapons.

Fusion exploits the energy released in the fusing of two atoms to form a new element; e.g. deuterium atoms fusing to form helium, 2H + 2H = 4He2 , as occurs on the sun. For atoms to fuse, very high temperatures and pressures are required. Only fusion of the lightest element, hydrogen, has proven practical. And only the heavy isotopes of hydrogen, 2H (deuterium) and 3H (tritium), have a low enough threshold for fusion to have been used in weapons successfully thus far.

The first method tried (boosting) involved simply placing 3H in a void within the center of a fission weapon, where tremendous temperatures and high pressures were attendant to the fission explosion. This worked; contributing energy to the overall explosion, and boosting the efficiency of the Pu fissioning as well (fusion reactions also release neutrons, but with much higher energy).

Because 3H is a gas at room temperature, it can be easily ‘bled’ into the central cavity from a storage bottle prior to an explosion, and impact the final yield of the device. This is still used today, and allows for what is termed ‘dial-a-yield’ capability on many stockpiled weapons.

Multistage thermonuclear weapons — the main component of today’s strategic nuclear forces — are more complex. These employ a ‘primary’ fission weapon to serve merely as a trigger. As mentioned above, the fission weapon is characterized by a tremendous energy release in a small space over a short period of time. As a result, a very large fraction of the initial energy release is in the form of thermal X-rays.

These X-rays are channeled to a ‘secondary’ fusion package. The X-rays travel into a cavity within a b28.jpg (8660 bytes)cylindrical radiation container.

b28 Nuclear weaponsThe radiation pressure from these X-rays either directly, or through an intermediate material often cited as a polystyrene foam, ablates a cylindrical enclosure containing thermonuclear fuel (shown in blue at left); this can be Li2H (lithium deuteride).

Running along the central axis of this fuel is a rod of fissile material, termed a ‘sparkplug’.

The contracting fuel package becomes denser, the sparkplug begins to fission, neutrons from this transmute the Li2H into 3H that can readily fuse with 2H (the fusion reaction 3H + 2H has a very high cross-section, or probability, in typical secondary designs), heat increases greatly, and fusion continues through the fuel mass.

A final ‘tertiary’ stage can be added to this in the form of an exterior blanket of 238U, wrapping the outer surface of the radiation case or the fuel package. 238U is not fissionable by the slower neutrons which dominate the fission weapon environment, but fusion releases copious high energy neutrons and this can fast fission the ordinary uranium.

This is a cheap (and radiologically very dirty) way to greatly increase yield. The largest weapon ever detonated — the Soviet Union’s ‘super bomb’, was some 60 MT in yield, and would have been nearer 100MT had this technique been used in its tertiary. Again, to control the yield precisely, 3H may be bled from a separate tank into the core of the primary, as shown in the hypothetical diagram on the left of a modern thermonuclear weapon.

This primary/secondary/tertiary or multistage arrangement can be increased — unlike the fission weapon — to provide insane governments with any arbitrarily large yield.

bravo Nuclear weapons

Rare photo of the actual shrimp device used in Castle Bravo. Note the cylindrical geometry, and the emergent spherical fission trigger on the right. Light pipes leading to ceiling are visible near the fission trigger and at two points along the secondary for transmitting early diagnostic information to remote collection points, before they themselves are destroyed. Note the ‘danger, no smoking’ sign at lower left. 15MT, 1954.

Fusion, or thermonuclear weapons, are not simple to design nor are they likely targets of construction for would-be terrorists today.

Many aspects of the relevant radiation transport, X-ray opacities, and ultra-high T and D equations-of-state (EOS) for relevant materials are still classified to this day (though increasing dissemination of weapons-adaptable information from the inertially-confined fusion (ICF) area may change this in time). Keeping such information classified makes good sense.

romeo Nuclear weaponsTypical appearance of a thermonuclear weapon detonation — from many miles away.
(Castle Romeo, 7MT, 1954)

Special techniques were required to record the fleeting moments of a weapon’s initial detonation. One such method was the Rapatronic camera, developed by Dr. Harold Edgerton. The images it created are bizarre. Check out our collection of Rapatronic photographs.

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