Nuclear weapon

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Hydrogen bomb test " Romeo " (explosive force 11 megatons TNT equivalent ) on March 27, 1954 on Bikini Atoll

A nuclear weapon ( atomic weapon , nuclear weapon , atomic bomb , nuclear warhead ) is a weapon whose effect is based on nuclear physical reactions - nuclear fission and / or nuclear fusion . Conventional weapons, on the other hand, get their explosion energy from chemical reactions in which the atomic nuclei remain unchanged. The development of nuclear weapons technology began with the Second World War .

Together with biological and chemical weapons , nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction . When a nuclear weapon explodes, a great deal of energy is released in the form of heat , pressure waves and ionizing radiation . As a result, one nuclear weapon can destroy an entire city and kill hundreds of thousands of people in a very short space of time. The radiation causes acute radiation sickness and long-term health damage . By the fallout (fallout) large areas are contaminated .

The nuclear fission opened up towards the end of the Second World War to realize the explosive force of thousands of tons of TNT in explosive devices that could be used by the military. The further development to the technically more sophisticated fusion bomb promised bombs with several million tons of TNT equivalent as part of the arms race at the beginning of the Cold War .

The atomic bomb was first developed by the USA in the Manhattan Project . On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon test with a nuclear weapon explosion took place under the project name Trinity . On August 6 and 9, 1945, the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki , claiming hundreds of thousands of victims.

Atomic bombs have not been used as weapons since then. Almost 2100 nuclear weapons tests took place. On June 30, 1946, a USAAF plane dropped an atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific (→ Operation Crossroads ).

The Soviet Union also developed nuclear weapons from 1949 onwards. On 30 October 1961, the Soviet Union exploded on the island of Novaya Zemlya , the Zar bomb , with 57 megatons strongest ever ignited nuclear weapon.

During the Cold War there was an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, at the height of which the two states owned around 70,000 nuclear warheads. Their nuclear arsenal had a combined explosive power of more than 800,000 Hiroshima bombs towards the end of the Cold War .

The need to produce plutonium and enriched uranium for building nuclear weapons led to the development and construction of uranium enrichment plants and the first nuclear reactors . The experience gained in this way accelerated the development of a civilian use of nuclear energy .

During the Cold War, nuclear weapons were also thought to have an inhibiting effect: the threat of total annihilation of mankind maintained the “ balance of terror ” and thus avoided direct confrontation. According to some politicians and political scientists, this contributed to the fact that there was no direct war between the two military blocs. Little by little, other states acquired nuclear weapons; Today nine states are considered to be nuclear powers : USA , Russia , Great Britain , France , China , Israel , India , Pakistan and North Korea (in chronological order).

Together these states have around 13,865 nuclear warheads today (January 2019); In the mid-1980s there were around 70,000. That is enough to destroy humanity several times (so-called overkill ). Worldwide, partly also in the USA itself, the use of these weapons of mass destruction is condemned mainly against the civilian population as immoral and ethically irresponsible. The development of the atomic bomb is now seen by many as the darkest chapter in the history of technology and science , and the atomic bomb has become the epitome of the "curse of technology".

The proliferation to prevent nuclear weapons, is considered a major challenge to international security in the 21st century. Since the first use of nuclear weapons, in view of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and the danger that nuclear weapons, and particularly nuclear war, pose to mankind, there have been many calls for their complete disarmament . Some international treaties have led to restrictions and reductions in the nuclear arsenals ( arms control ) and to nuclear weapon-free zones .



Shortly after the discovery of radioactivity towards the end of the 19th century, it became clear that when radioactive elements decay over long periods of time, enormous amounts of energy are released. Therefore, speculations soon arose about the technical and military use of this new type of energy. The word atomic bomb 'atomic bomb' was coined by HG Wells in his 1914 novel The World Set Free ' Liberated World ' , who used it to describe a weapon that, with the help of induced radioactivity, was supposed to cause a prolonged explosion. The term atomic bomb thus emerged two decades before the discovery of nuclear fission , the basis for the nuclear weapons developed since the 1940s, to which the term, which had already been introduced in literary terms, was finally transferred. Wells had dedicated his book to the chemist Frederick Soddy , a collaborator of the then leading nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford .

In 1911, Rutherford described the basic structure of atoms with his atomic model, consisting of a heavy nucleus and a light shell of electrons . In the period that followed, the so-called atomic physical processes, which also include chemical reactions and in which the electron shell is essentially involved, were distinguished from the more energetic processes in the atomic nucleus (such as radioactivity and nuclear fission ), which became the subject of nuclear physics . Therefore, in the more recent technical jargon, terms such as nuclear weapon or nuclear weapon (from the Latin nuclearis , “relating to the nucleus” ) and nuclear power plant are preferred over atomic bombs and nuclear power plants ; however, such usage is sometimes viewed as euphemistic . The official language also partly continues to use the compositions with atomic : In Germany, for example, the licensing authorities responsible for nuclear energy are sometimes referred to as the atomic supervision , there is an atomic law , and a predecessor of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research had the title of the atomic ministry . The conventional names are also common in the parlance of most other nations, as the name of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows.

The term atom bomb initially only included nuclear weapons (A bomb) based on nuclear fission (Fission), in contrast to this, fusion weapons were called hydrogen bombs (H bombs); there are also special developments such as the cobalt bomb and the neutron bomb . The terms nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons are generic terms for all types of weapons that exploit energy gains from nuclear reactions .


Well known for their work in the development of nuclear weapons are Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller . The first scientist who seriously thought about nuclear weapons was probably the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd ; In September 1933 he considered the possibility of bringing atomic nuclei to an energy-supplying chain reaction by bombarding them with neutrons . At the time, this idea was still speculative. In 1934, the German chemist Ida Noddack-Tacke suggested " that when heavy nuclei are bombarded with neutrons, these nuclei disintegrate into several larger fragments ."

With the discovery of neutron-induced fission of uranium nuclei in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Straßmann and its correct theoretical interpretation by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch , the most important theoretical principles and experimental findings were published in 1939, which made nuclear weapons appear possible if there was sufficient availability of fissile uranium. The two German-Austrian emigrants Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch who worked at the University of Birmingham first recognized this possibility . In a secret memorandum from March 1940, they described theoretical calculations for building a uranium bomb and warned urgently of the possibility of Germany building an atomic bomb. As a result, the British MAUD Commission, also kept secret, was set up to recommend research into the construction of an atomic bomb.

Even before the start of the Second World War on September 1, 1939, the three from Germany to the targeted US emigre physicist Leo Szilard , Albert Einstein and Eugene Wigner in August 1939 a letter to the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to him to warn of the possibility of the development of an atomic bomb in Germany and to encourage him to develop his own atomic bomb. In the fall of 1940, Enrico Fermi and Szilárd received money to start developing a nuclear reactor . When the success of this work convinced the US government that the development of an atomic bomb was basically possible and that Germany, the enemy of the war, had this possibility, research was intensified and ultimately led to the Manhattan Project .

German nuclear fission project

In Nazi Germany worked during the Second World War scientists like Werner Heisenberg , Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker , Walther Gerlach , Kurt Diebner and Otto Hahn , among others, as part of the German uranium project on the utilization of nuclear fission to meet German war aims.

The US fear that Germany could develop its own nuclear explosive device in this way was an important reason to initiate its own atom bomb program. It was assumed that several research groups, distributed over the territory of the German Reich and partly working independently of one another, worked on the development of a German nuclear weapon until the end of the war. After the war, however, it was found that the uranium project did not develop nuclear weapons. In the last large-scale experiment, the Haigerloch research reactor , the research group around Heisenberg had not even succeeded in producing a critical nuclear chain reaction.

However, there is also research that speaks of secret experiments by Kurt Diebner's research group with radiating material in connection with explosions. This is questioned by many physicists and so far no evidence has been found for the implementation of such tests.

Manhattan project

The Trinity bomb, the world's first detonated atomic bomb, one day before the test

In 1942, the Los Alamos research laboratory in the US state of New Mexico was designed under the code name "Project Y" (as part of the Manhattan Project) under the utmost secrecy . From 1943 onwards, several thousand people worked there under the scientific direction of Robert Oppenheimer , many of them scientists and technicians.

On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated above ground near Alamogordo ( Trinity test ). The nuclear fuel used in the bomb was plutonium and had an explosive force of 21 kilotons of TNT equivalent .

Because of Germany's surrender in early May 1945, 2½ months before the Trinity test, no atomic bomb was used in Germany. The first and so far only air raids with atomic bombs were carried out on August 6 and 9, 1945 against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki .

Use against Hiroshima and Nagasaki

On August 6, 1945, 21 days after the first successful test at Alamogordo , the bomber Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb (explosive: uranium-235), called Little Boy , over the coastal city of Hiroshima , where it was released at 8:15 a.m. Detonated about 600 m above the ground local time. Around 90,000 people died immediately, and another 50,000 people died of radiation sickness within days to weeks .

On August 9, 1945, the Bockscar bomber was supposed to drop the second atomic bomb (explosive: Plutonium-239), called Fat Man , over Kokura . When visibility was still poor there even after three approaches and fuel was running out, the commander turned to the alternative destination, the coastal city of Nagasaki . Since the cloud cover was too thick there too, the city center was missed by several kilometers. Because the urban area is also hilly than Hiroshima's, which hindered the propagation of the pressure wave, there were fewer victims to complain about - although Fat Man's explosive power was a little more than 50% stronger than that of Little Boy. Nevertheless, 36,000 people died instantly in this attack; another 40,000 people were so badly exposed that they died within days to weeks.

For a long time it was assumed that tens of thousands more people would have died over the course of years and decades from the long-term effects of radiation exposure. Studies from Germany, the USA and Japan have revised these estimates downwards significantly: accordingly, slightly more than 700 deaths can be attributed to nuclear contamination .

The importance and necessity of the use of atomic bombs are still controversial today. Proponents have argued that the operation reduced the length of the war and saved the lives of millions of people. Others have argued that using an atomic bomb was not ethically justifiable; the war would have ended in a short time even without the use of atomic bombs, had there been alternatives that had been discarded, not used or not considered.

Development after the Second World War

The United States was the only state to have operational nuclear weapons for three years and used them to carry out tests underwater, for example. In 1948 they had around 50 warheads ready for use. In view of their military inferiority to the Soviet Union in conventional respects, a massive atomic retaliatory strike against the USSR was designed for the first time in early 1948 in the “Halfmoon” plan , which initially carried 133 atomic bombs on 70 Soviet cities, but soon afterwards reduced the existing 50 atomic bombs to 20 Soviet ones Cities.

Meanwhile, Britain and the Soviet Union were working on their own atomic bombs. The Soviet Union was informed about the atomic bomb program by Klaus Fuchs as early as the Second World War . The Soviet atomic bomb project led to the successful detonation of the first own atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, which Great Britain only managed on October 2, 1952 and France on February 13, 1960. In 1962, Great Britain allowed the USA to conduct the Dominic test series on Christmas Island Kiritimati in the Pacific. The People's Republic of China detonated the first atomic bomb on October 16, 1964 at the Lop Nor nuclear weapons test site in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. This nuclear weapon was developed using Soviet technology.

Testimonials from soldiers; Test subjects in nuclear weapons tests

Atomic bomb test at the
Nevada Test Site during the Desert Rock Maneuver , Nov. 1, 1951

The picture on the right shows an American troop test with soldiers a short distance away from the atomic explosion in 1951 in the USA; it documents the sometimes carefree, sometimes ignorant handling of radioactivity .

Around 20,000 British soldiers were also relocated to test areas in Australia (12 tests), to Kiritimati (6 attempts) and to Malden Island (3 attempts) without being informed in detail .

The mostly young soldiers were instructed to protect their eyes with hands or elbows during the tests. The soldiers, referred to as Atomic Veterans as witnesses to those tests , reported the explosions as incomparably frightening experiences. They reported that the radiation released was so bright and penetrating that the blood vessels and bones of one's own hands and arms were visible through the skin. The subsequent heat wave from the explosion felt like fire penetrating the body. The shock wave also indirectly led to bruises and broken bones , as soldiers were thrown away by the shock wave . Almost all soldiers used in the tests suffered physical and mental damage. Some soldiers were unable to conceive after the tests ; Overall, a much higher child mortality rate and more frequent malformations were observed in the offspring of the soldiers . Many of those veterans became chronically ill and had various forms of cancer . Long-term damage was reported to be a factor in their eventual cause of death in nearly all of those present for those tests.

Development of the hydrogen bomb

The further development of nuclear weapons led to the hydrogen bomb . The USA set fire on October 31/1. November 1952 their first hydrogen bomb (code name Ivy Mike ). It released an energy of 10.4 megatons TNT equivalent, 800 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

The Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen bomb on August 12, 1953 at the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapons test site . On November 22, 1955, she detonated her first transportable H-bomb. During Operation Redwing (May 4 to July 21, 1956) on May 20, 1956, the United States tested a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb based on the Teller-Ulam design for the first time . On 30 October 1961, the Soviet Union exploded on the island of Novaya Zemlya , the Zar bomb , the strongest with 57 MT ever ignited nuclear weapon.

Great Britain detonated its first hydrogen bomb in 1957 (Operation Grapple), China detonated the first on June 17, 1967 at the Lop Nor test site (Test No. 6) and France on August 24, 1968 on the Fangataufa Atoll (Canopus).

Britain joined the ban on atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in 1962. All tests were then carried out underground in cooperation with the USA on the Nevada Test Site (24 tests), most recently in 1991. Great Britain carried out a total of 45 tests.

Development after the Cold War

After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, experts questioned the military sense of nuclear weapons, since any target can also be destroyed with conventional weapons of the desired magnitude. The greatest danger of nuclear armament is a use by terrorists , because they could cause great damage with little effort when using nuclear weapons; Nuclear weapons against it are in the fight against the terrorism completely unsuitable.

Regardless of this development, the USA and Russia, as the successor states of the Soviet Union, remained the states with the most nuclear weapons. Your arsenal will continue to be maintained; it received less and less public attention after the end of the Cold War.

The development of such small nuclear weapons has been assessed as a danger in the professional world, since their use would hardly attract attention. Instead of destroyed cities and thousands of dead, the world public would only see a small crater. As a consequence, the inhibition threshold to use nuclear weapons would decrease and in this way to wage wars comparatively cheaply - without losing one's own soldiers and without an overly negative image. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would also be called into question, which could have unforeseeable consequences (abolition of the treaty).

Atomic bomb Little Boy on a transport vehicle shortly before departure for Hiroshima (13 kT TNT equivalent explosive force)


The technical development of nuclear weapons since the 1940s has produced a great variety of different variants. A basic distinction is made between atomic bombs based on the nuclear fission or fission principle (“classic” atomic bomb) and according to the nuclear fusion principle (hydrogen or H bomb).

To trigger a nuclear fission bomb, a supercritical mass of fissile material is brought together. How high this mass is depends on the material, geometry and construction. The smallest critical mass can be achieved with a spherical shape of the fissile material; uranium- 235 or plutonium- 239 are used most frequently . The supercriticality leads to a nuclear fission chain reaction with a rapidly increasing nuclear reaction rate . The energy released in this way causes the material to vaporize explosively.

In the case of the fusion bomb, a nuclear fission bomb is first detonated. The pressures and temperatures generated inside the bomb are sufficient to ignite the fusion reaction with the 6 Li it contains . With the deuterium present and the tritium produced in the reaction mentioned , the thermonuclear reaction starts.

Atomic bomb explosion

The two methods of assembling subcritical masses: gun design and implosion
Atomic bomb " Fat Man " ("Fat Man") is loaded onto a transport truck, shortly before the flight to Nagasaki (explosive force 22 kT TNT)
Outline sketch of a “gun design” atom bomb

Several different systems have been developed to detonate atomic bombs, i.e. to set the nuclear fission process in motion.

Gun design

The simplest principle is to use a conventional explosive charge to shoot a nuclear explosive element, which is subcritical in itself, at a second, likewise subcritical one, in order to join the two parts to form a supercritical mass. Either two hemispheres made of fissile material with two explosive capsules are shot at each other or a cylindrical body made of fissile material is shot at a ball with a corresponding hole.

Such a structure of an atom bomb is called a gun design . The Little Boy atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the USA on August 6, 1945 was built according to this system and had an explosive force of 13 kilotons of TNT .


Another method is implosion , in which the fissile material is present as a hollow sphere. This is surrounded by a layer of explosive, which is ignited by a number of electric detonators during the explosion in such a way that the resulting pressure wave compresses the fissure material in the center. This implosion increases its density , creating a supercritical state .

Both the Alamogordo test bomb and the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, were implosion bombs. These had an explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT .


The energy released when a nuclear weapon explodes is usually expressed in kilotons . A kiloton, abbreviated to kT, is the energy that is released during the detonation of 1000 tons (1 Gg) of TNT (approx. 4 · 10 12 J ). This is why the term TNT equivalent is also used. For various reasons, the explosive power of conventional and nuclear weapons can only be roughly equated with this unit. In the case of very strong explosions, e.g. from hydrogen bombs , the explosive force is given in megatons , MT for short . This unit corresponds to the energy of one million tons (1 Tg) of TNT.

However, the pure explosive power alone is not a measure of the effectiveness of a nuclear weapon. Various other factors are important depending on the type, area of ​​application and explosion level of the weapon. The following parameters are used, among others:

The American LGM-118A Peacekeeper (MX) can transport up to ten independently controllable re-entry vehicles , each with a W87 warhead.
  • Total radius of destruction: the radius around the center of the explosion in which all animal and human life as well as all buildings, plants, etc. are completely destroyed. Depending on the size of the bomb, this can be up to 10 km. The experimental Soviet Tsar bomb in its most powerful version had a total destruction radius of up to 20 km. This is followed by other radii in which the destructive power of the bomb decreases, e.g. B. the radius where the chance of survival is greater than 50%; then the one where it is over 80%, and so on.
  • Millions dead: number of people killed in an explosion in a metropolitan area. This size depends very much on the location. In particular, the population density and the way the city is built have a major impact on the number of deaths. During the Cold War, model calculations were carried out on the use of powerful nuclear weapons against key targets, including Moscow , Leningrad , Washington, DC and New York . Nowadays there are corresponding simulations that assume a terrorist attack with a small nuclear weapon (a few kilotons).
  • Number of warheads: Many nuclear missiles have multiple nuclear warheads, which are then separated from the launcher at a great height and spread over a large area. A single missile can devastate huge areas in this way, for example the Soviet SS-18 Satan - depending on the equipment - can distribute its warheads over an area of ​​up to 60,000 km². (For comparison: Bavaria has an area of ​​70,552 km².) With modern missiles, the individual warheads can be controlled in such a way that a single target can be attacked with each warhead.

These are not fixed units in each case, but only guide values ​​that can be used to estimate the damage to a nuclear weapon. Depending on the intended use, other variables can also be of interest, such as mechanical, thermal and electromagnetic power, or the resulting fallout and long-term effects. Sometimes only technical parameters such as dimensions and weight are important. In order to get an exact picture of the effect of a single bomb, detailed knowledge of various data is necessary.

The most powerful nuclear weapons constructed as regular military warheads are hydrogen bombs with an explosive force of up to 25 MT (warhead for SS-18 ICBM or Mk-41 bomb for B-52 bombers). The most powerful nuclear weapon currently in use is probably the warhead of the Chinese DF-5A ICBM with 3 MT. Typically, however, there are significantly less, such as 100 kT for the most common American nuclear weapon, the W-76-0 . Without nuclear fusion, i.e. only with fission of uranium or plutonium nuclei, 500 kT (American Ivy King test - Mk-18 bomb) to 800 kT (strongest French test) are achieved. Fat Man , dropped on Nagasaki , had only 20 kT of explosive power. Some modern nuclear weapons also allow you to choose the explosive force, so the American B83 bomb can be detonated with a few kT up to 1.2 MT.


Strategic nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapon dropped on an aircraft during Operation Ivy

Strategic nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons with high explosive power that are not used on the battlefield, but are intended to destroy targets in the enemy hinterland, such as. B. entire cities or missile silos of ICBMs . Their explosive power ranges from the kiloton range up to theoretically more than 100 megatons of TNT for the hydrogen bomb .

The nuclear triad consists of ICBMs , anti-submarine ballistic missiles and strategic bombers . The distribution of nuclear weapons on several types of platforms is intended to ensure the effectiveness of a nuclear power in the event of a conflict.

Strategic nuclear weapons are:

  • free-falling nuclear bombs dropped directly on the target by aircraft (mostly long-range bombers);
  • land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear warheads, which are stationed in silos or mobile on the mainland;
  • land-based medium - range missiles (MRBM, IRBM) with nuclear warheads, which are mounted in silos or on mobile launchers. A particular problem with these weapons is the extremely short flight and thus reaction time of just a few minutes. They are therefore considered to be particularly susceptible to the unintentional triggering of a nuclear strike, since after radar-based (false) detection of such a missile there is practically no time to trigger political decision-making processes. Examples of these missiles are the Jupiter missiles that the US stationed in Turkey in the 1950s and those missiles that the USSR wanted to station in Cuba - which then sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such weapons are now only deployed by states that lack ICBM technology, such as Pakistan or Israel.
  • Submarine-based ballistic missile (SLBM) with a nuclear warhead;
  • airborne ballistic missile (ALBM) with nuclear warhead launched from aircraft;
  • Cruise missiles (cruise missiles) with nuclear warhead, the aircraft (ALCM), warships or submarines can be fired, are primarily intended for the "tactical" use.

Depending on its design, a rocket can also transport several nuclear warheads (so-called MIRV design, Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicle ) and thus devastate radii of several hundred kilometers.

Tactical nuclear weapons

Nuclear artillery
shell testing during Operation Upshot-Knothole
Test of an underwater nuclear bomb during Operation Wigwam

Tactical nuclear weapons (also called nuclear battlefield weapons) are intended to be used to combat opposing armed forces in a similar way to conventional weapons. Their sphere of activity and, as a rule, also the explosive power are significantly lower than with strategic weapons. The smallest tactical nuclear weapon in service has an explosive force of around 0.3 kT. The small effective radius should allow use relatively close to your own positions.

Tactical nuclear weapons have existed and come in various forms:

The term “tactical” can be misunderstood as these weapons can cause extremely serious damage and release considerable radioactivity, which would have devastating effects in the event of war. The NATO nuclear strategy " Flexible Response " assumed that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was controllable. If conventional weapons prove to be too weak, the use of tactical nuclear weapons would make it possible to repel attacks on NATO territory without the conflict having to escalate into a comprehensive nuclear exchange (so-called all-out ). On the Soviet side, this theory was rejected from the start. It was thought impossible to limit it once nuclear weapons were used. France was also very skeptical of the concept.

Special nuclear weapons

Neutron bombs

Neutron bombs are tactical nuclear weapons that, compared to conventional designs, generate a lower explosive force (around 1 kT) but more powerful neutron radiation.

Above all, it was hoped that this would increase its effectiveness against armored forces: In order to destroy tanks, a bomb normally has to explode in the immediate vicinity, as the armor offers protection against pressure and heat. On the other hand, it hardly protects against neutron radiation, since neutrons can penetrate even heavy materials almost unhindered. A neutron bomb explosion could therefore kill the crew of a tank instantly without destroying the tank itself. However, the neutron radiation generates secondary radioactivity in the target area, which makes the area and the material remaining there permanently unusable.

In addition, neutron bombs can be used to make enemy nuclear weapons (e.g. approaching missiles) unusable by destroying the ignition or control electronics.

The development and stationing of neutron bombs, also in Germany, were initially justified in such a way that a war waged with them would devastate land and infrastructure less than conventional nuclear weapons, even with the larger number of explosions required. However, model calculations soon showed that this would hardly apply in practice. Because in the effectively irradiated area, the effects of pressure and heat would be fatal, buildings and systems would also be destroyed and the material would become radioactive if captured. A “clean” alternative to the classic atomic bomb would therefore not be achieved.

The approach of the neutron weapon to kill people and things, e.g. B. Panzer received, was sharply criticized by many people in Western Europe from 1977 onwards. Egon Bahr spoke of a “symbol of the perversion of human thought”. It was also criticized that death from a neutron bomb is particularly cruel. People exposed to strong neutron beams would die a painful and slow death. Victims would experience hair loss, paralysis, loss of sensory perception and articulation, spasms, uncontrolled diarrhea, and fluid loss for several weeks until they eventually die. The peace movement developed in 1977, first in the Netherlands and then in West Germany a campaign against the neutron bomb.

In addition, the critics feared that the neutron bomb would lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and thus increase the risk of an escalation to war with more powerful nuclear bombs.

Around 800 neutron explosive devices have been built in the United States since 1974. The last neutron bombs were officially scrapped in 1992.

For a stationing place in Germany in the 1980s see special ammunition depot Gießen .

Mini nukes

So-called mini-nukes are nuclear weapons with an explosive force of less than five kilotons. New research on small, technically advanced nuclear weapons is planned for the United States. In May 2003, the US Senate lifted a ten-year-old ban on the development of mini-nukes. This decision was weakened in Congress by a resolution that allows research but maintains a ban on the development or manufacture of new low-explosive nuclear weapons.

Suitcase bombs , for example for use by secret services or terrorists, have been described and are also presented on the High Energy Weapons Archive ; But it is also emphasized there that the physical feasibility is more than doubtful (for example, excessive amounts of conventional explosives would have been necessary for ignition). On the other hand, the weight of the American W-54 warhead for the Davy Crockett light gun was only 23 kilograms. The egg-shaped weapon from the 1950s was only about 27 cm in diameter by 40 cm in length and achieved a maximum explosive force of about 0.02 kT TNT equivalent.

Furthermore, in the 50s and 60s, a drive technology using small atomic explosive devices was in development by NASA, just as it should be used for manned or unmanned missions. The concept was discarded, but the documents of the 'Orion Project' are still under lock and key, especially to avoid misuse by e. B. Prevent terrorists.

Bunker crusher

Nuclear bunkering weapons are designed to penetrate deep into the earth to destroy underground and hardened bunkers. It is impossible that the bombs, dropped from the air, can penetrate deep enough below the surface and that the explosion takes place completely underground. Thus, a bomb crater is created and highly radioactive material is ejected into the air. Likewise, large-scale destruction around the actual target is to be feared as a result of the vibrations generated. There is already a "Bunker Buster" in the US arsenal: the B-61-11, which, according to the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of US nuclear weapons policy published in January 2002, has an explosive force of more than five kilotons and therefore none "Mini-Nuke" is. This weapon penetrates from a height of a good 13,000 meters only up to seven meters into the earth and 2-3 meters into frozen ground. The US has about 50 of these bombs available.

Dirty bomb

In the case of a dirty bomb , the effect of the explosion is further increased with the extensive and long-term contamination from radioactive fallout. This is achieved by setting up the weapon or by a nuclear explosion on the ground (for the latter see nuclear weapon explosion ). The cobalt bomb in particular was called the dirty bomb. In this design, a cobalt jacket is attached around the actual explosive device. This metal is converted into 60 Co by the explosion , a highly radiating isotope with a relatively long half-life that should rain down as dust and contaminate the area in question for a long time.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the term dirty bomb was re-coined. It is used to designate an explosive device made of conventional explosives, to which radioactive material has been added, which should be distributed as far as possible by the explosion. A nuclear explosion does not take place. It is believed that terrorists could use such IEDs to create terror.

The International Atomic Energy Agency also warns that terrorists may use radioactive material, e.g. B. from successor states of the Soviet Union , could acquire. There, as in the USA, substances from industry, research institutions or hospitals are repeatedly lost. Since the material for a dirty bomb can be obtained from civil nuclear technology, all nuclear technology is also counted as dual-use products.

As an example of the consequences of a dirty bomb is partly Goiânia accident in Brazil used in 1987, broke with the thieves in an abandoned hospital and a container with radioactive 137 cesium stole and took home. Out of curiosity and ignorance, many people around them handled the bluish fluorescent material and carried parts of the substance around with them. Several residential districts were affected, and eventually four people died of radiation sickness , ten others required intensive medical treatment, and 85 buildings had to be demolished or decontaminated.

Nuclear weapons in Europe

Protesters against nuclear weapons in Europe on the Day of the Victims of Fascism , 1984 in East Berlin
Demonstration against nuclear weapons in Germany, August 2008 at Büchel Air Base

All states in Europe have ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty , which came into force on March 5, 1970 . According to the treaty, the possession of nuclear weapons (of the states in Europe) is only allowed in Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union or their successor state Russia. The European nuclear powers, like the other European countries, are not allowed to pass on nuclear weapons. In addition, through the Germany Treaty that came into force on May 5, 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany committed itself vis-à-vis the victorious powers of World War II to refrain from building nuclear weapons. This waiver was confirmed in the 1990 Two Plus Four Treaty .

The nuclear weapons stored in Europe (see special ammunition depots ) were drastically reduced after the end of the Cold War. Between 1990 and 1996, around 208 NATO nuclear weapons silos were built at European air force bases . Originally, 438 NATO bunkers were planned for this purpose, but they were no longer needed. The bunkers for bombs controlled by the US armed forces, which were available to the NATO armed forces in an emergency, had not all been stocked. By 1998 Great Britain had dismantled its arsenal of drop bombs on the bases. From 1996 the other arsenals were then emptied.

The USA and Great Britain stored up to 5,000 nuclear weapons in German bunkers during the Cold War, including the Zebra package intended for use within Germany . It is believed that in Europe today as part of the nuclear sharing are an estimated 480 nuclear weapons stored, including 20 in the German Büchel Air Base . There, the Air Force is training the use of nuclear weapons with Tornado- type fighter-bombers as part of nuclear participation . The German air force bases in Memmingen and Nörvenich had no nuclear weapons at their disposal as early as 1995. It is also assumed that the 130 warheads were withdrawn from Ramstein Air Base .

The two Western European nuclear powers Great Britain and France began to convert parts of their arsenals to sea-based systems as early as the 1960s and 1970s. Both states now maintain four ballistic nuclear submarines , each of which can be equipped with 16 nuclear missiles . France only has 60 warheads available for use by bombers, Great Britain has had only sea-based systems since 2000. As a result of this change, the number of storage facilities at air force bases has also been reduced. The sea-based warheads make up the largest part of the nuclear weapons stationed in Europe today. The British warheads are completely stored in the Clyde naval base , the French in Brest .

The Switzerland began shortly after the American atomic bombing a study on the production of its own weapons. The Swiss nuclear weapons program was, after initial secrecy until 1958, by two referendums in 1962 and 1963 legitimized in a unique way, continued in the form of plans and definitively halted until 1988, even though Switzerland had in 1969 signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1995, its unlimited extension was approved, and in 2016 the remaining 20 kg of weapons-grade plutonium were transported from the Swiss warehouse to the USA.

NATO air bases with nuclear weapons

(Status: 2011, for the number of weapons and storage systems, status: 2019, for the locations with stored nuclear weapons)

  • Great Britain
    • Lakenheath (33 WS3 storage systems, currently no weapons stored)
  • Netherlands
    • Volkel (eleven WS3 storage systems, 10–20 bombs B61 -3/4)
  • Belgium
    • Kleine Brogel (eleven WS3 storage systems, 10–20 bombs B61-3 / 4)
  • Germany
    • Büchel Air Base (eleven WS3 storage systems, 10–20 B61-3 / 4 bombs)
    • Ramstein Air Base (55 WS3 storage systems, currently no weapons stored)
  • Italy
    • Aviano (18 WS3 storage systems, 50 B61-3 / 4 bombs)
    • Ghedi-Torre (eleven WS3 storage systems, 10–20 bombs B61-3 / 4)
  • Greece
    • Araxos (eleven WS3 storage systems, currently no weapons stored)
  • Turkey

Current status

  • Nuclear powers in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (China, France, Russia, UK, USA)
  • Nuclear powers outside the NPT (India, North Korea, Pakistan)
  • unexplained nuclear powers outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Israel)
  • suspected nuclear weapons program (Iran, Saudi Arabia)
  • Member States of Nuclear Participation
  • Former nuclear powers
  • Abandoned nuclear weapons program
  • The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are considered official nuclear powers. They are listed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as states with nuclear weapons.

    Two states have so far made the number of their nuclear warheads public. However, these numbers only refer to the warheads that can be deployed, not those that are deactivated.

    The exact number of nuclear warheads is often unclear and needs to be estimated. The " Federation of American Scientists " announced the following figures for 2009:

    • China : ≈ 180
    • France : ≈ 300
    • Great Britain: ≈ 160
    • Russia : ≈ 13,000 (4,830 operational)
    • USA: 9,400 (2,700 operational)

    India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are not listed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but still have nuclear weapons and delivery systems (2008 figures):

    The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Foundation published the following information in the 2007 Proliferation Report:

    • China: 410
    • France: 350
    • Great Britain: 200
    • Russia: ≈ 16,000
    • United States: ≈ 10,300


    • India: ≈ 75 to 110
    • Israel: ≈ 100 to 170
    • Pakistan: ≈ 50 to 110

    In May 2010, the United States reported the number of operational nuclear warheads as of September 2009 as 5,113. In 1967 there were still 31,255 warheads.

    The UK reported the full number of its warheads at the end of May 2010. During a question time , British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the country had 225 nuclear weapons. In doing so, the British government changed its traditional attitude of only disclosing the number of warheads ready for use.

    Although it has not been officially confirmed for a long time, it is undisputed that Israel has also had nuclear weapons since the 1970s. Mordechai Vanunu , then a technician at the Negev Nuclear Research Center , revealed the existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons project in 1986 and was kidnapped by the Mossad from Rome to Israel. On December 11, 2006, the Israeli Prime Minister Olmert admitted to the German broadcaster Sat.1 that Israel was a nuclear power. However, this was later denied by him. Previously there were protests at home and abroad in response to this statement. In January 2007, Iranian media reported that Israel was planning a nuclear attack on Iran, which Tel Aviv denied.

    North Korean nuclear weapons

    North Korea also announced in spring 2005 that it had developed nuclear weapons as a deterrent; however, the statement was and is doubted by various sides. However, it was and is undisputed that North Korea maintains an ambitious program to acquire nuclear weapons. On October 3, 2006, the North Korean government announced that it would carry out atomic bomb tests.

    On October 9, 2006 at 10:36 a.m. local time, a successful underground nuclear weapons test was carried out in Hwadaeri near Kilju and was later confirmed by seismic measurements in Russia and the USA. According to South Korean estimates, the explosive force was over 800 tons of TNT. Russia's Defense Ministry, on the other hand, assumes 5 to 15 kilotons of TNT. (For comparison: the Hiroshima bomb had an explosive force of the equivalent of 13 kilotons of TNT.) However, it is still not clear whether the detonation of October 9, 2006 was actually a nuclear explosion. It is possible that the demolition could also have been carried out by conventional means in order to increase political pressure on the international community. From spy planes in the USA there are indications of a very weak increase in radioactivity in the atmosphere above the test area, which, however, was so weak that it was only discovered on the second attempt. A second nuclear weapon test was apparently successful on May 25, 2009, with an explosive force of 20 kilotons being said to have been achieved. On January 6, 2016, North Korea announced that a successful test of a hydrogen bomb had been carried out. However, experts doubt that it was really a successful test of a hydrogen bomb, since the energy released is too low for a hydrogen bomb to explode. Either the test failed or it was just a hybrid atomic bomb .

    Programs of Iran

    The pursuit of nuclear weapons is imputed to Iran , above all from Israel and the USA . However, there is no proof of this. According to its own information, Iran is working on the civil use of nuclear power for energy generation.

    Diplomats in Vienna, the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency ( IAEA ), told the FAZ in 2015 that a few weeks ago Iran had already installed 1,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment in the facility in Natans. This is a significant increase, since Iran initially only had 164 centrifuges in operation twice after the start of enrichment a year ago. The government in Tehran even reported on April 12, 2007 that it had a total of 3,000 centrifuges in operation, which means that enrichment on an industrial level had been achieved.

    The number of centrifuges is considered important because it shows the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. Western governments fear that Iran is trying to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear program. Around 3,000 centrifuges are considered necessary to produce the material for one or two atom bombs a year.

    Programs or possessions in the past

    With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were three other successor states of the USSR with nuclear weapons in addition to Russia: Ukraine , Belarus and Kazakhstan . Ukraine was at times the country with the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. All of these states were parties to the START 1 treaty, which was signed by the Soviet Union and the USA in 1991 and came into force in 1995. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan committed to the NPT treaty and pledged to destroy their nuclear arsenal. Kazakhstan and Belarus became nuclear weapons free by 1996. The last Ukrainian warhead was destroyed in Russia in October 2001.

    South Africa developed a nuclear weapon under the apartheid government, probably with Israeli help, and possibly conducted a test off the coast in September 1979 . Shortly before the end of apartheid, South Africa destroyed its six nuclear weapons in order to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1991 and thus to be able to reintegrate into international society. By 1994, all South African nuclear weapons facilities were dismantled.

    Argentina , Brazil , Libya and Switzerland had nuclear weapons programs in the past, but have given them up and officially ended them. The government of Sweden discussed after 1945 whether it wanted to develop nuclear weapons and decided against it.

    Accidents with nuclear weapons

    Between 1950 and 1980, 32 accidents involving American nuclear weapons alone were known. According to research by Eric Schlosser, the US government recorded at least 700 "significant" accidents and incidents between 1950 and 1968, in which around 1250 nuclear weapons were involved. In the 1950s and 1960s in particular, many weapons had to be dropped by bombers during emergency landings. Some of the weapons were never found again because they were dropped (but not detonated) in the oceans. Greenpeace estimates that around 50 atomic bombs were lost. The US is officially missing eleven bombs. Radioactive contamination was found in several cases.

    Atomic bomber crashes and other accidents are very problematic because the impact can scatter the fissile material in the area, even if the bomb does not ignite. In the case of plutonium , this is particularly dangerous as it is also chemically toxic .

    See also:

    In the Soviet Union in particular, massive amounts of radioactive material ended up in the environment ( Mayak , Lake Karachay ) not only in the event of accidents, but also as part of the disposal process within normal production .

    Disarmament and arms limitation

    Because of the enormous destructive power of nuclear bombs, there have always been efforts to abolish and generally ban all nuclear weapons in order to prevent humanity from being destroyed with them. However, the Cold War and the power interests of individual nations prevented a swift move away from weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, a number of agreements were implemented, each signaling a major step towards a world free of nuclear weapons. However, it is questioned whether the contracts are actually as effective as desired.

    On October 10, 1963, the test ban agreement came into force, in which some great powers agreed not to detonate any nuclear weapons in water, in space or in the atmosphere. Underground tests should not exceed a certain strength. To date, 120 nations have acceded to this agreement.

    The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain on July 1, 1968 and came into force in 1970. After North Korea withdrew its signature in 2003, the agreement is valid in 188 countries. The People's Republic of China and France (both 1992) are also among the signatory states. Accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty means that the signatory states are obliged to submit to the checks carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency at regular intervals to ensure that the treaty is being observed. Article VI, however, states that the states undertake to conduct negotiations "in the near future" that guarantee "complete disarmament".

    The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) has been open for signature since 1996 . It will only enter into force once it has been ratified by a certain group of countries, including: the USA. Some important countries have not yet been ratified. The USA in particular rejects arms controls.

    Compliance with the contracts is verified by various techniques: earthquake measuring stations react to even the smallest vibrations and enable a very precise location of underground detonations. You can also clearly distinguish the seismographic signatures of earthquakes and nuclear weapons tests. Hydroacoustics can detect and localize underwater explosions. Special microphones and radionuclide detectors can detect, identify and localize atmospheric nuclear explosions. The measuring stations are distributed all over the world. When the contract comes into force, there will also be an on-site inspection option . Implementation of the treaty is being prepared by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

    Bilateral agreements between the USA and the Soviet Union or Russia with the aim of limiting or disarming strategic nuclear weapons are the SALT I and II talks (1969 to 1979), which among other things led to the ABM Treaty (1972), the INF Contract (1987), START I and II (1991 and 1993) and the SORT contract (2002).


    Uranium- based atomic bombs contain highly enriched uranium . One speaks of weapons-grade uranium only from an enrichment level of 85%. Natural uranium has 0.7% uranium-235; For use in light water reactors , the uranium must be enriched to a 3–4% 235 U content (reactor grade) . Highly enriched uranium is therefore a valuable raw material.

    On the other hand, the plutonium from plutonium bombs - a very problematic substance due to its long half-life and its high level of radiotoxicity - cannot be destroyed: “The plutonium can only be disposed of in the form of final storage after mixing with other nuclear waste or by converting it into MOX elements . "

    Between 1993 and 2013, the US and Russia successfully cooperated on the megaton-to-megawatt disarmament project. By converting 500 tons of Russian nuclear weapons into electricity, the US covered 10% of its electricity generation for 20 years and Russia received a total of 17 billion US dollars.

    Campaigns for the abolition of nuclear weapons

    Numerous international campaigns are committed to the elimination of all nuclear weapons, including:

    Numerous appeals for nuclear disarmament and arms control have also been made to politicians by physicists - such as B. the Franck Report , the Russell Einstein Manifesto , which led to the founding of the Pugwash movement , the Mainau rally or the declaration of the Göttingen Eighteen . The German Physical Society (DPG) also pointed out the dangers associated with the existence of nuclear weapons in a series of resolutions and called for the reduction of the existing arsenals and the conclusion of a nuclear test ban contract . In its resolution of April 2010, the DPG initially advocated the abandonment of the initial use and the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons remaining in Germany and Europe.

    In addition, all Christian churches speak out in principle against the use of any kind of nuclear weapon, and in some cases against their possession. It was not until 2006 that the World Council of Churches again called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

    Based on Catholic philosophers in Great Britain in the early 1960s, ethical concerns were raised against the strategy of nuclear deterrence. For many people, the use of an atomic weapon has been immoral, as it will necessarily result in the death of civilians and the poisoning of the earth. It was argued as follows: If the use of nuclear weapons is immoral, then this also applies to the strategy of nuclear deterrence, since this includes the conditional intention to commit an immoral act.

    In the Catholic Church, with the Second Vatican Council (1965), the use of so-called scientific weapons indicated that a just defense should cross the boundaries, since the use of these can cause “tremendous and uncontrollable destruction”. The pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes also pronounces a ban on total war, which is “indiscriminately aimed at the destruction of entire cities or large areas and their people”. (GS 80)

    The violation of the principles of discrimination and proportionality (see Just War ) are the main points of criticism of the use of nuclear weapons.

    Negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban treaty began on March 27, 2017, following a resolution by the UN General Assembly . What is sought is an "unambiguous political commitment" to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. This is the first, fast-to-reach step towards a concrete disarmament measures comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention intended. However, initially only two thirds of the 193 member states take part in the negotiations. The nuclear powers and almost all NATO countries including Germany are not involved.

    See also



    Illustrated book

    Novels and plays

    Web links

    Commons : Nuclear Weapons  - Collection of Images
    Wiktionary: atomic bomb  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

    Individual evidence

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