The “King of Bombs” and the Craze of Cold War Nuclear Armament

Zone of total destruction of the Tsar Bomba on a map of Paris: red circle = total destruction

On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the hydrogen bomb Tsar Bomba over Novaya Zemlya, which still is the largest explosive device ever detonated, nuclear or otherwise.

Just to get an idea of the bomb’s power, the Tsar Bomba measured ten times the power of all explosives used during World War II. Still, the bomb was known for the very little amount of fallout, produced during the explosion since about 97% of the entire energy produced resulted from fusion only.

The head of construction in the bomb project was Soviet physicist Yulii Borisovich Khariton. Khariton studied under Ernest Rutherford and became head of the Explosion Laboratory at the Institute of Chemical Physics in Cambridge. During the project, Khariton worked with several assistants such as Andrei Sakharov, who spoke openly against nuclear weapons after the bomb was detonated and became a dissident.

Model of the Tsar Bomba

The Tu-95V plane carrying the bomb during the test was specially modified and flown by Major Andrei Durnovtsev and was accompanied by an observer plane and both were painted white to limit heat damages on the air craft. Since the bomb was attached to a parachute, the two planes had enough time to clear the scene, when the bomb was released. On October 30, 1961 at 11:32 am, the Tsar Bomba detonated over the Mityushikha Bay nuclear testing range. The responsible filming crew stated: “Outside, there was a sea of light, an ocean of light suddenly bursting out… Once our plane came out of the clouds, in between them, a huge balloon of bright orange color appeared! It was like Jupiter – powerful, and conceited, and confident, slowly and silently crawling up“. The bomb’s own shock wave prevented that the fireball impacted on the ground and the famous mushroom cloud was about 64 kilometres high. Every building in a range of 55 km was destroyed or at least lost its roof or windows and radio communication was interrupted for more than one hour. Even at a distance of 270 km, people felt a thermal pulse.

Due to its enormous impact, the bomb proved to be quite impractical. It was too heavy and therefore limited the range and speed of carry it. Also, a great amount of its high-yield destructiveness was radiated into space, which was very inefficient. Later research on bombs focused more on efficiency, accuracy and “safety”. Another danger with creating even more powerful bombs was that the explosion went upwards, wherefore radiation would be sent into the atmosphere and affect the country originally launching the bomb.

To get an idea how nuclear bombs work, you may watch Matthew Bunn’s lecture at Belfer Center, Harvard. 

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