A nuclear explosion happens when the energy of a
nucleus of a radioactive element is released. As
you and I both know, an atom of almost any
element is made of electrons, protons, and
neutrons, with the latter two particles
belonging to the nucleus of the atom. A
radioactive element is one that is unstable and
consequently will give off energy and/or
particles over time. The rate at which a
radioactive atom gives off energy can be
increased when the atom interacts with other
particles, such as neutrons that don't belong to
a particular atom.
In the world of nuclear explosions, there are
two processes that lead to energy release:
nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. When
a free neutron runs into the nucleus of an atom,
it may split the nucleus and release energy.
This splitting is known as fission. Fusion
happens when two hydrogen atoms fuse and form
one helium atom and a lot of free energy.
Nuclear explosions take place in a lot of shapes
and sizes. The same type of explosion that can
destroy cities is the same type of explosion
that can power them. The difference is whether
these explosions are controlled or not.
I'm guessing you're interested in the
uncontrolled explosion of a nuclear weapon.
Nuclear weapons are devices that package
enriched radioactive elements for violent
delivery. Radioactive elements are all around
us; you're on the receiving end of them right
now! However, they naturally occur in such low
concentrations that you need not be frightened.
On the other hand, enriched radioactive elements
are elements with such a high concentration of
radioactive atoms that they are likely to
spontaneously react with each other and release
a dangerous amount of energy. People have found
uranium and plutonium work very well for this
Nuclear weapons are bombs that trigger chain
reactions of enriched radioactive material. A
single fission reaction happens in 500
billionths of a second and releases over 200
millions times the original energy of the free
neutron that triggered it! The only nuclear
bombs ever dropped were fission bombs. Roughly 2
thousandths of a pound of material released the
energetic equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT in
the case of the Hiroshima bomb Little Boy and
20,000 tons of TNT in the case of the Nagasaki
bomb Fat Man. This amount of energy released in
such a short amount of time was enough to kill
over 140,000 people and injure almost 250,000.
Fusion bombs release even more energy with less
material, but have never been used. Let's hope
they never are!
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