The terms “nuclear war” and “nuclear weapons” bring a concern to world leaders and their people.
For the last 100 years, nuclear weapons have brought complete destruction. Countries compete head-to-head in a nuclear arms race, in addition to the nuclear powers of the world refusal to give up their research and possession of nuclear weapons and technology out of fear of vulnerability.
An example of this fear is the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. US lawmakers are advising US President Joe Biden to ensure the Taliban don’t undermine Pakistan’s defenses. If they do, there’s a possibility of the Taliban taking control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
The origin and history of nuclear weapons brought distress and horror to its effects, no matter how many tried to prevent or justify the spread of nuclear technology.
The Origin of Nuclear Bombs
Nuclear weapons harness the forces that hold the nucleus of an atom together. The nucleus contains the entire atom’s mass. When the particles of the nucleus (protons and neutrons) split or merge, there’s a release of energy that results in either nuclear fusion or nuclear fission.
Nuclear fusion is when the nucleus of an atom splits into two small fragments by a neutron.
Nuclear fission is when two small atoms are brought together to form a larger one.
Although the types of energy are different, each causes a great amount of destruction, and it all started on a sidewalk.
A Sidewalk in London
Leo Szilárd, a Hungarian physicist, stepped off a sidewalk in London on September 12, 1933. At that moment, he thought of a nuclear chain that releases and harnesses its energy in atoms at the same time.
The Atomic Bomb
Also known as an “atom bomb” or “nuclear bomb”, the atomic bomb was created through nuclear fusion.
When a neutron strikes a nucleus of an atom of radioactive material, two or three neutrons are knocked free. Energy is released when the neurons split from the nucleus.
Therefore, there’s an immediate reaction.
The Hydrogen Bomb
Also called the “H-Bomb”, atomic energy is released when light nuclei merge at high temperatures, creating heavier atoms. The total mass of the heavier nucleus is less than the mass of the two original nuclei. The leftover mass becomes energy.
The difference in the mass upsets the balance and disrupts the energy binding the heavier nucleus, resulting in an unstable nucleus.
Due to the high temperatures, this is where the term “thermonuclear” comes in.
Hydrogen isotopes fused together, giving it the name “hydrogen bomb”. Moreover, it has higher destructive power than the atomic bomb.
The Manhattan Project
During World War II (WWII), the US government and industrial and scientific sectors became part of a joint effort under the code name, the Manhattan Project.
The Reason behind the Formation
The Manhattan Project responded to the possibility of German scientists excelling in their knowledge of nuclear weapons. The US also feared the Germans were already ten years ahead of them, which brought more significant concern about Adolf Hitler using those weapons.
Moreover, Hitler controlled uranium mines in Czechoslovakia and purchased uranium abroad, along with having Dr. Klaud Clusius, the foremost atomic scientist, working for him.
Years after Szilárd’s thought on a sidewalk in London, Austrian scientist Lise Meitner and Austrian-British physicist Otto Frisch made that thought a reality. They concluded that an atom bomb of uranium flooded with neutrons could stretch until it split into two.
Frisch dubbed this “nuclear fission”.
They additionally deduced that a large amount of energy created a chain reaction. Therefore, Szilárd’s idea was achievable.
Szilárd and Eugene Wigner, another Hungarian scientist, wanted to warn the world leaders about Germany’s discovery.
While visiting Albert Einstein, they informed him that his equation, E=mc², would likely be used by Nazi Germany to create nuclear weapons. Einstein’s equation theorizes that small masses can unleash immense energy.
On August 2, 1939, Einstein signed a letter to US President F.D. Roosevelt. He warned of a new source of energy and Nazi Germany’s potential development of nuclear weaponry.
Soon after receiving the warning, Roosevelt appointed a committee to investigate. The US was also conducting atomic research but progress was slow.
In August 1942, the Manhattan Project was formed, named after the first offices in Manhattan. Its given name was to disguise its true purpose.
Over time, its headquarters moved to Washington, and many other project sites were scattered across the country.
Many physicists, chemists, metallurgists (scientists who studied the properties and applications of metals), explosive experts, and military personnel were part of the Manhattan Project.
Here are a few key members:
- J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American physicist known as the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’.
- Leo Szilárd developed the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction with Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, and the engineer’s team.
- Hans Bethe, a German-American nuclear physicist and Chief of the Theoretical Division, was responsible for discovering crucial aspects of physics that made the atomic bomb possible.
- Ernest O. Lawrence, an American nuclear physicist and Program Chief, invented the cyclotron. His duties included researching the electromagnetic separation of atoms for the atomic bomb.
- Klaus Fuchs, a German theoretical physicist, contributed many important theories, but he’s infamously known as a Soviet Union spy.
The location of the weapons research lab was Los Alamos, Mexico, where the groups of scientists built and tested the first nuclear bomb.
In 1945, Los Almost, scientists created two distinct bombs:
- The “Little Boy”, a uranium-based design.
- The “Fat Man”, a plutonium-based design.
On July 16, 1945, the atomic age officially began. The first atomic bomb test was at the Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert.
The result was an enormous mushroom cloud at 40,000 ft. (12,200 meters) high and complete destruction.
Nuclear Power upon Japan
During the time of the Trinity Site test, Allied powers defeated Nazi Germany in Europe. However, Japan sought to fight to the end in the Pacific, even if there was no indication of their victory.
Japan proved to be more dangerous when faced with defeat, especially in July 1945, when they caused Allied casualties.
The US, Great Britain, and China set an ultimatum for Japan’s unconditional surrender, the Potsdam Declaration, but Japan rejected the Allies’ demand to surrender. Their response met with a threat of destruction.
The first target was a manufacturing center and 350,000 people. A 9000-pound (4082 kg) uranium bomb was loaded onto a B-29 bomber plane.
On the morning of August 6, 1945, the “Little Boy” dropped via parachute and exploded 2000 ft (610 meters) above Hiroshima.
It engulfed the city and brought a blinding flash of heat and light. Bronze statues melted and roof tiles fused together. Those exposed, but far from the blast, burned from the intense radioactive energy.
Immediately after its explosion, close to 80,000 people died.
Even after the deaths and destruction, Japan refused to surrender.
Due to poor visibility, the initial second target, Kokura, was unharmed.
Instead, the plane headed to Nagasaki, a port city with 263,000 people, including military factories. Like Hiroshima, Nagasaki didn’t suffer the initial US bombings during WWII.
The “Fat Man” has greater complexity than the “Little Boy”. The decision to use the plutonium implosive device days after the Hiroshima bombing came from two observations:
- The changeable Japanese weather (a major factor that could postpone deployment.
- Two bombings might finally lead to Japan’s surrender.
The “Fat Man”, 40% more powerful than “Little Boy”, primarily targeted military factories. The surrounding hills managed to contain the initial blast and restrict the damage.
The result: 14,000 homes were destroyed and the blast vaporized the people closest to it. Those within the radius of the blast burned and were likey to have died from radiation poisoning.
After an initial total of 30,000 deaths in 1946, reports from 1951 revealed the final total of 100,000 deaths linked to the Nagasaki bombing.
Not only did the bombing affect Japan’s decision, but the USSR declared war on Japan.
Emperor Hirohito gathered with the war council. Soon after, the emperor made the decision of his own will and Japan sent a message to the US to accept the Potsdam Declaration.
The Cold War
The basis of The Cold War began with control over the conquered areas of Eastern Europe.
In the beginning, the US possessed atomic weapons.
In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, and thus began the nuclear arms race where countries started creating more and bigger bombs.
In 1952, the US tested the hydrogen bomb for the first time and the Soviet Union followed with its own version in 1953.
With the US ahead with the hydrogen bombs, the Soviet Union sent a network of spies to infiltrate, creating the term “international espionage”. The spies shared US blueprints of the hydrogen bomb and the regional sources of uranium in Eastern Europe.
As a result, nuclear testing and research became high-profile goals for several countries.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day political and military stand-off in October 1962. The participants were the leaders of the US and Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union installed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, 90 miles (145 km) from US shores. An American spy plan secretly photographed the Soviet Union as they built their nuclear missile site.
US President J.F. Kennedy notified the Americans about the missiles after being made aware himself. Then, he announced the decision to have a naval blockade, if necessary, to counteract the perceived threat.
At the same time, leaders from the US and Soviet Union saw the horrifying possibility of nuclear war and made a deal.
As part of the deal, the Soviet Union dismantled their weapons site in Cuba and removed the missiles and the US vowed not to invade Cuba.
A separate deal, a 25-year secret, mentions the US agreeing to remove their nuclear missiles from Turkey.
Although the crisis was over, the nuclear arms race was not.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
The NPT is an agreement signed by major nuclear and non-nuclear powers that swore cooperation in lessening the spread of nuclear technology.
It was a step toward the prevention of nuclear proliferation and was seen as a success for advocates of arms control.
Nuclear Proliferation: the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons technology, or fissile material to others that do not already have them. (britannica.com)
The objectives of the NPT are:
- preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology,
- promoting cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and
- further achieving the goal of nuclear disarmament, as well as general and complete disarmament.
In 1961, 16 years after the US nuclear bombs descended on Japan, the United Nations (UN) called for the treaty. Without it, approximately 25 countries could obtain nuclear weapons.
The UN Resolution encouraged the US and Soviet Union to prepare drafts of what to include in the treaty. The drafts became the basis for negotiations. A total of 190 countries signed the treaty and five of those countries already possess nuclear weapons: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China.
There are also countries that possess nuclear weapons that have not signed it, such as India, Pakistan, Ireland and North Korea. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
The treaty came into effect on January 22, 2021. Its purpose is to lessen the consequences of testing nuclear weapons and requires countries to help victims of nuclear testing and use and clear the contaminated areas.
Above all, it outlaws nuclear weapons and the transfer of nuclear weapons. Countries are prohibited from producing, testing, acquiring, possessing and/or storing nuclear weapons. The signatories are forbidden from allowing nuclear technology to be stationed, installed and/or deployed from their territories.
Some of the world’s nuclear powers have not signed the treaty, including the US and Russia.
Some say it’s a move forward to total disarmament. Others, who likely possess nuclear weapons, say it undermines the NPT. However, it is stated that the TPNW does not undermine the NPT and, instead, adds to and reinforces its objectives.
The true reason behind the treaty is to bring an international understanding of the unacceptable use of nuclear weapons.
Since their development, nuclear weapons have become part of a neverending battle between countries to gain the upper hand. Although they are not in use, they are an underlying threat to those that possess them and those that do not.
The threat grows with the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan and the impending fear of what one can do with a single bomb or missile.
From what the past shows us, no matter how noble a cay may appear, the use of nuclear weapons brings more than a message.
“The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
-John F. Kennedy.