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The untold story of the world’s biggest nuclear bomb

The Tsar Bomba is dead; long live the Tsar Bomba. As the United States, Russia, and China seem to be engaged in new arms races in several domains, including unusual and new forms of nuclear delivery vehicles, the Tsar Bomba is a potent example of how nationalism, fear, and high-technology can combine in a fashion that is ultimately dangerous, wasteful, and pointless.

The untold story of the world’s biggest nuclear bomb,  Bulletin,  By Alex Wellerstein, October 29, 2021   n the early hours of October 30, 1961, a bomber took off from an airstrip in northern Russia and began its flight through cloudy skies over the frigid Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. Slung below the plane’s belly was a nuclear bomb the size of a small school bus—the largest and most powerful bomb ever created.

At 11:32 a.m., the bombardier released the weapon. As the bomb fell, an enormous parachute unfurled to slow its descent, giving the pilot time to retreat to a safe distance. A minute or so later, the bomb detonated. A cameraman watching from the island recalled:

A fire-red ball of enormous size rose and grew. It grew larger and larger, and when it reached enormous size, it went up. Behind it, like a funnel, the whole earth seemed to be drawn in. The sight was fantastic, unreal, and the fireball looked like some other planet. It was an unearthly spectacle! [1]

The flash alone lasted more than a minute. The fireball expanded to nearly six miles in diameter—large enough to include the entire urban core of Washington or San Francisco, or all of midtown and downtown Manhattan. Over several minutes it rose and mushroomed into a massive cloud. Within ten minutes, it had reached a height of 42 miles and a diameter of some 60 miles. One civilian witness remarked that it was “as if the Earth was killed.” Decades later, the weapon would be given the name it is most commonly known by today: Tsar Bomba, meaning “emperor bomb.”

Designed to have a maximum explosive yield of 100 million tons (or 100 megatons) of TNT equivalent, the 60,000-pound monster bomb was detonated at only half its strength. Still, at 50 megatons, it was more than 3,300 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that killed at least 70,000 people in Hiroshima, and more than 40 times as powerful as the largest nuclear bomb in the US arsenal today. Its single test represents about one tenth of the total yield of all nuclear weapons ever tested by all nations.[2]

At the time of its detonation, the Tsar Bomba held the world’s attention, largely as an object of infamy, recklessness, and terror. Within two years, though, the Soviet Union and the United States would sign and ratify the Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, and the 50-megaton bomb would fall into relative obscurity.

From the very beginning, the United States sought to minimize the importance of the 50-megaton test, and it became fashionable in both the United States and the former Soviet Union to dismiss it as a political stunt with little technical or strategic importance. But recently declassified files from the Kennedy administration now indicate that the Tsar Bomba was taken far more seriously as a weapon, and possibly as something to emulate, than ever was indicated publicly.

And memoirs from former Soviet weapons workers, only recently available outside Russia, make clear that the gigantic bomb’s place in the history of Soviet thermonuclear weapons may be far more important than has been appreciated. Sixty years after the detonation, it’s now finally possible to piece together a deeper understanding of the creation of the Tsar Bomba and its broader impacts.

The Tsar Bomba is not just a subject for history; some of the same dynamics exist today. It is not just the story of a single weapon that was detonated six decades ago, but a parable about political posturing and technical enablement that applies just as acutely today. In a new era of nuclear weapons and delivery competition, the Tsar Bomba is a potent example of how nationalism, fear, and high-technology can combine in a fashion that is ultimately dangerous, wasteful, and pointless.

From kilotons to megatons to gigatons

…………………….. By the spring of 1951, Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam at Los Alamos had developed their design for a workable hydrogen bomb

………………. Only a few months later, in July 1954, Teller made it clear he thought 15 megatons was child’s play. At a secret meeting of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, Teller broached, as he put it, “the possibility of much bigger bangs.” At his Livermore laboratory, he reported, they were working on two new weapon designs, dubbed Gnomon and Sundial. Gnomon would be 1,000 megatons and would be used like a “primary” to set off Sundial, which would be 10,000 megatons. Most of Teller’s testimony remains classified to this day, but other scientists at the meeting recorded, after Teller had left, that they were “shocked” by his proposal. “It would contaminate the Earth,” one suggested. Physicist I. I. Rabi, by then an experienced Teller skeptic, suggested it was probably just an “advertising stunt.”[4] But he was wrong; Livermore would for several years continue working on Gnomon, at least, and had even planned to test a prototype for the device in Operation Redwing in 1956 (but the test never took place).[5]

All of which is to say that the idea of making hydrogen bombs in the hundreds-of-megatons yield range was hardly unusual in the late 1950s. If anything, it was tame compared to the gigaton ambitions of one of the H-bomb’s inventors. It is hard to convey the damage of a gigaton bomb, because at such yields many traditional scaling laws do not work (the bomb blows a hole in the atmosphere, essentially). However, a study from 1963 suggested that, if detonated 28 miles (45 kilometers) above the surface of the Earth, a 10,000-megaton weapon could set fires over an area 500 miles (800 kilometers) in diameter. Which is to say, an area about the size of France.[6]………………………….

Planning for a 100-megaton bomb……………

Russian accounts by participants claim Arzamas-16 scientists had been inspired, in part, by speculations about gigantic, gigaton-range bombs in the foreign press in May 1960. The physicist and designer Victor Adamski said that Sakharov and others tried to immediately assess the plausibility of the news reports, and came up with the schema that was ultimately used for the Tsar Bomba…………………

Sakharov was already queasy about the long-term deaths from nuclear fallout, and he wanted to minimize the excess radioactivity produced by the test. In 1958, he had calculated that for every megaton of even “clean” nuclear weapons, there would be some 6,600 premature deaths over the next 8,000 years across the globe, owing to carbon atoms in the atmosphere that would become radioactive under the bomb’s neutron flux.[17………………….

An American Tsar Bomba?

…………………  Even after denouncing the Tsar Bomba as pointless terrorism, there were scientists and military planners working for the US government who were considering nuclear weapons with yields 20 times larger……………….

The Limited Test Ban Treaty

In 1963, the United States stood at a crossroads. Down one path was a new generation of “very high-yield” nuclear weapons with continued atmospheric nuclear testing. Down the other was the possibility of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which would ban future atmospheric testing, effectively precluding the development of high-yield weapons.

……………….. even while the United States professed to not care about “very high-yield” weapons, it continued to study them well into the Johnson administration. 

…………. the Soviets never broke the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and smaller warheads became the norm. Warheads that could be mounted in multiples and independently targeted on a single missile, or put into submarines, became the core of the arsenal. Large, high-yield weapons would, eventually, be mostly phased out. The dismissal of the uselessness of the Tsar Bomba would become orthodoxy, as even the CIA (eventually) concluded that the Soviets were not going to field such a thing in numbers or try to put superbombs on missiles.

……………..  even if such weapons are now purely relegated to history, we should remember that the decision not to deploy them was not made because the Soviet Union and United States shied away from the shocking megatonnage. It was because massive bombs were harder to use, and something about them symbolized the ridiculousness of the arms race in a way that making thousands of “smaller” weapons (some as big as 20–30 megatons) did not.

The United States did not make 50- to 100-megaton bombs or gigaton bombs, but it made a gigaton arsenal……………. Today it is probably around 2,000 megatons—more than enough to devastate the planet in a full-scale nuclear war.

The Tsar Bomba is dead; long live the Tsar Bomba. As the United States, Russia, and China seem to be engaged in new arms races in several domains, including unusual and new forms of nuclear delivery vehicles, the Tsar Bomba is a potent example of how nationalism, fear, and high-technology can combine in a fashion that is ultimately dangerous, wasteful, and pointless. “Very high-yield” nuclear weapons weren’t necessary for deterrence, and they were explored at the expense of not only other weapons systems, but also the multitude of other things that nations could spend their wealth and resources on. They didn’t bring safety or security.

November 1, 2021 - Posted by | Russia, weapons and war

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