Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of history is aware that only two nuclear weapons have ever been used in anger, and both were dropped by the United States during World War II. The first destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, and the second ravaged the city of Nagasaki three days later. Those two atomic blasts are far from the only time nuclear warheads were used, or tested. In fact, there are probably nuclear warheads being tested right now as you read this article.
If you thought you were stressed out and losing sleep over the kind of test you forgot to study for in school, learning a bit about some of these nuclear tests might have you staring at the ceiling in existential dread for days on end. The potential destruction from these thoroughly tested and proven weapons is mind-boggling, so much so that most people deal with the implications by effectively rejecting them. But as there is an unfortunate and steady growth of nuclear weapons around the globe right now, a wiser approach is probably to learn about these awful devices in hopes that with knowledge will come discretion and restraint. Also, hiding under the bed sheets is always a viable option, too.
15. Alamogordo – The First Nuclear Bomb Ever
On July 16th, 1945, years of frenzied research, development, and physical labor all paid off when the first-ever nuclear bomb was detonated in a test explosion codenamed “Trinity” that sent a mushroom cloud rising more than 40,000 feet into the air. The blast yielded an explosive force estimated to be equivalent to some 20,000 tons of TNT. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this first nuclear explosion is that within less than a month of the concept of a nuclear weapon being proven effective, the technology was used against a target. The nuclear age began and then accelerated at an all-out sprint.
14. Ivy Mike – The First Hydrogen Bomb
The nuclear warheads dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were immensely powerful compared to all conventional bombs that had been used before them. But even those mighty weapons paled in comparison to the destructive power of the first thermonuclear weapon. Codenamed “Ivy Mike,” the first hydrogen bomb was a complex device as large as a small building. The blast, which occurred on November 1st, 1952, produced an explosive force equivalent to ten megatons of TNT. A megaton, FYI, is equivalent to one MILLION TONS of TNT. And one ton of TNT is enough to level a building, by the way. And then some.
13. The M65 – The Atomic Cannon
What’s eleven-inches wide, 55-inches long, and can destroy most of a decent-sized city? Why, the W9 cannon-fired nuclear warhead, that’s what. This (relatively) pint-sized warhead that packed plenty of punch (about the same power as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, in fact) was designed to be shot out of the M65 Atomic Cannon, a massive artillery piece modeled after the mighty rail guns of WWII. Between the early 1950s and early 1960s, nearly two dozen M65 cannons and a number of nuclear shells were developed, but only one warhead was ever detonated, and that was during a test on May 25th, 1953.
12. RDS-1 – The Soviets Go Nuclear
The American monopoly on nuclear weapons didn’t last long. After the first nuclear explosions in the summer of 1945, there was but a four-year gap until the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics joined the United States in being a nuclear-armed power. That gap ended with the August 29th, 1949 detonation of the RDS-1 bomb, a warhead modeled almost directly on the American Fat Man weapon deployed at Hiroshima. American reconnaissance aircraft confirmed the test by detecting radioactive material on the 1st of September. The bomb test took Western powers by surprise, as most experts assumed the USSR was still years from a successful test. The only silver lining was that the Soviets meant to keep the test a secret, but it was immediately detected and thus allowed the Americans to plan accordingly (which meant more and bigger bombs, of course).
11. JOE 4 – The Soviets Go Thermonuclear
Just as America was the world’s sole nuclear-armed power for but a short while, so too were we the only thermonuclear power for but a little while. In fact, that monopoly lasted less than a year, because on August 12th, 1953 the Soviets detonated a thermonuclear device Americans codenamed Joe 4. Joe 4, which combined both fission and fusion, was not a total success and yielded a blast force of only (take that “only” with a grain of salt) 400 kilotons of TNT. (Remember that America’s first hydrogen bomb created a ten megaton blast. Much bigger.) But don’t worry, the Soviets set off a much bigger bomb two years later.
10. Smiling Buddha – India Gets the Bomb
The nuclear-armed club expanded to the Indian Subcontinent on the 18th of May, 1974. The test explosion, ironically named “Smiling Buddha,” despite the fact that nuclear weapons have precious little in common with the Four Noble Truths, yielded a blast force that is still debated about today and will likely never be known for sure, as is common with underground test. (Especially those that likely went awry.) But regardless of the true kiloton measure of the explosion, India had demonstrated its ability to create and detonate a nuclear weapon, thus putting its bitter rival and next door neighbour Pakistan on high alert.
9. Chagai-I – Five Fast Blasts for Pakistan
It took a number of years for Pakistan to complete an actual detonation of a nuclear weapon following India’s test blast in 1974, but when they caught up, they did so with gusto. Pakistan conducted a number of tests that did not involve actual detonations in the latter decades of the 20th century, and likely had the capacity to detonate a device throughout the 1980s, but held off in consideration of political fallout. That reticence ended in a major way on May 28th, 1998, when Pakistan simultaneously detonated not one, not two, but in fact five nuclear weapons at once, thus showing the world (and mostly showing India) that they could make a very big boom.
8. The W-49 and SM-65 Atlas – Destruction Delivered
The W-49 thermonuclear warhead created a blast yield that measured at around 1.44 megatons of TNT. That’s more than enough force to level dozens of square miles and kill millions of people, but it’s much smaller than other weapons tested before its development in the late 1950s. So why was this device so notable? Because it rode atop the SM-65 Atlas ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile. That meant that this mighty weapon could effectively be “delivered” to anywhere on earth, which can also be taken to mean nowhere and no one was thereafter safe. And while the W-49 and Atlas were in the American arsenal, the Soviets had their own nuclear-armed ICBMs, too.
7. Yucca – The Nuclear Age Goes High Altitude
On April 28th, 1958, the United States military detonated a nuclear bomb codenamed Yucca at a height of more than 85,000 feet. The bomb was lifted to that lofty height by a massive helium-filled balloon, and its massive airburst created a shockwave detected some thirty miles away (by the aircraft carrier that launched the balloon, in fact) and was the first of a series of high altitude nuclear tests that would take place that year. While a bomb set off at that height can do plenty of damage on the ground, its chief destructive power is to ruin electrical systems for miles around. Imagine such a blast above New York or LA, for example; plenty of short-term death and suffering, and then a blackout lasting weeks or even months.
6. 596 – China Goes Nuclear
If there was one thing America and the rest of the Western powers did not need in the 1960s, it was yet another communist nation armed with nuclear weapons. (Remember the whole Cuban Missile Crisis from 1963?) Thus when China became a nuclear player in October of 1964, it was an occasion not celebrated with much exuberance in the western hemisphere. The first bomb detonated by the People’s Republic of China wasn’t all that big, really, but the thermonuclear device they exploded three years later certainly was. And they kept right on testing nuclear weapons for the next thirty years.
5. Crossroads – Nuclear Destruction from the Depths
In July 25 of 1946, the United States conducted the first two of many nuclear test blasts at Bikini Atoll, a series of remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. The first was a bomb dropped from a plane; the second was a warhead detonated at ninety feet below the surface. This second blast proved quite destructive, sinking target ships within a one-kilometer range, but even worse was the contamination it caused. The radioactivity released by the underwater blast contaminated the surrounding water, the seafloor, and most of the nearby ships that remained afloat. The blast also sent tsunami-like waves crashing over nearby beaches.
4. North Korea Gets the Bomb. Then Says Sorry.
On October 9th, 2006, the North Korean government placed a call to their neighbour and (sole) ally China to say that they were going to test a nuclear bomb soon. That soon came all of twenty minutes later. With an underground blast of unclear size but confirmed as nuclear based on radioactivity detected later, North Korea, AKA the DPRK, aka the Hermit Kingdom, became a nuclear player. Then, shortly thereafter, leader Kim Jong-il issued an apology and said they would not test any more nukes. Peace talks then resumed among the Koreans (North and South), Americans, Chinese, Russians, and Japan. But then they did it again a few years later. And then again.
3. Star Fish Prime – Nuclear Weapons…In Space!
Star Fish Prime was the rather awesome name given to an ultimately pointless test of a nuclear weapon. The warhead in question would have been unremarkable by the standards of weaponry developed by its July 1962 blast. However, in this case the blast took place some 250 miles above the surface of the earth, technically placing it the bomb in space. The blast briefly resembled a setting sun when seen from the ground, and may have disabled a few satellites and spread a lot of radiation. It did help demonstrate how far an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) could be spread, however.
2. The SADM – AKA the Suitcase Bomb
In case you were wondering, suitcase nuclear weapons are in fact a real thing. The SADM, or Special Atomic Demolition Munition, used the XW-54 warhead that produced an explosion measuring up to six kilotons in blast force. The idea was to strap this nuclear weapon to a soldier who would parachute or hike into enemy territory, deploy the weapon with a timer, and then run away. The resulting blast could easily level military bases, factories, roadways and bridges, and then some. It could also easily fall into the hands of a terrorist, madman, or an idiot. The program still persisted for several decades, though.
1. Tsar Bomba – The Biggest Bomb Ever
The RDS-220 hydrogen bomb was detonated by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on October 31, 1961, and remains the largest weapon ever detonated by mankind. Nicknamed the Tsar Bomba by the Americans, the mighty warhead produced a blast estimated at 57 megatons in force. That is about 1,500 times more destructive power than both of the nukes dropped on Japan combined. But try this out, instead: the blast was more powerful than the combined power every single conventional bombed used during all of the Second World War… times ten. Oh, and with a slight modification, the Tsar Bomba probably could have been twice as powerful as well.
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