A Brief History
On August 29, 1949, nuclear scientists in the Soviet Union (USSR) successfully tested their first atomic bomb, an implosion type device they called “First Lightning.” Although the Soviet atom bomb program had started during World War II, the United States in coordination with scientists from Canada and the United Kingdom was the first nuclear power, testing the first atom bombs and dropping 2 of them on Japan in 1945.
The implosion type device is the type used in the Nagasaki bomb called “Fat Man.” Greatly simplified, it consists of a hollow sphere of Plutonium surrounded by high explosives that are set to explode at a precise simultaneous way in order to suddenly create a critical mass that yields an atomic blast. The type of nuke dropped on Hiroshima was a somewhat simpler bomb, called a “gun” type, where 2 chunks of enriched Uranium are forced at each other at high speed by explosives through a pipe where they meet with critical mass and produce the nuclear blast.
Sound simple? Sure, here it seems that way, but the enrichment of Uranium and creation of Plutonium and the precise machining and calculations to make it all work are quite complicated. Russian (and captured German) nuclear physicists were greatly aided in their efforts to make a workable bomb through the espionage efforts of the Soviet spy system. Many left-leaning Westerners (notably Julius and Ethel Rosenberg among others) were anxious to get atomic secrets to the Soviets in the belief that as long as the US was the only nuclear armed country militant American leaders would be tempted to use the horrible weapons. As it turns out, so far that sentiment has been correct, for no nuclear bomb has been used against another country since.
Head of the Soviet Atomic Bomb Project was Igor Kurchatov, a scientist known as “The Father of the Soviet atomic bomb.” Like the Americans, the Soviets were initially limited to potentially delivering their atom bomb by airplane, although soon enough bombs became small enough and missile/rocket technology advanced enough that in 1957 the Soviets developed the world’s first nuclear armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the R-7. The US quickly followed and soon there were sub-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear cruise missiles, nuclear artillery, and all sorts of varieties of nuclear weapons, including the fiendish US weapon, the Neutron Bomb that used a smaller blast but larger dose of radiation to destroy less property and kill more people. Nice.
Today there are 9 countries believed to have nuclear weapons, plus South Africa which had but no longer has such bombs. They include the US, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan, with North Korea recently joining the club. At its peak, the Soviet military is believed to have had as many as 45,000 nuclear warheads in their arsenal, with the US peaking at around 32,000. Today, Russia has about 7300 nuclear warheads and the US maintains 7100. Other countries range from France with 300 to North Korea with perhaps 8 nuclear bombs, leaving about 1093 nuclear warheads between the 7 smaller arsenals.
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump caused quite a stir when he suggested on March 29, 2016 that it might be a good thing for Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to develop their own nukes so that they were not reliant on the US nuclear umbrella for their own protection!
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Should all nukes be phased out somehow, or should even more nations have them to prevent anyone from using them? How could we get rid of them? Please share your ideas with your fellow readers in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Craig, Prof. Campbell. The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War. Yale University Press, 2008.
Herken, Gregg F. The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950. Knopf, 1981.