What is a nuclear blast?

A nuclear blast, produced by explosion of a nuclear bomb (sometimes called a nuclear detonation), involves the joining or splitting of atoms (called fusion and fission) to produce an intense pulse or wave of heat, light, air pressure, and radiation. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II produced nuclear blasts.
Nuclear Symbol

When a nuclear device is exploded, a large fireball is created. Everything inside of this fireball vaporizes, including soil and water, and is carried upwards. This creates the mushroom cloud that we associate with a nuclear blast, detonation, or explosion. Radioactive material from the nuclear device mixes with the vaporized material in the mushroom cloud. As this vaporized radioactive material cools, it becomes condensed and forms particles, such as dust. The condensed radioactive material then falls back to the earth; this is what is known as fallout. Because fallout is in the form of particles, it can be carried long distances on wind currents and end up miles from the site of the explosion. Fallout is radioactive and can cause contamination of anything on which it lands, including food and water supplies.

After detonation of a nuclear bomb, the smaller particles that rise from the blast lose most of their radiation in 24 hours or so. If you are within 30 to 50 miles of the blast, there will be larger particles (sand sized) which may take 3 or 4 days for their radiation to fall to safe levels. Generally speaking, the first 24 hours are the most critical time to stay in the shelter. If the wind is not blowing toward you from where the explosion or nuclear power plant is located, in a couple of days you can come out and be safe.

If you are above ground without a sufficient place built to protect you from radiation, the radioactive fallout will leave its effects on persons tens and even hundreds of miles away from the site of the weapon detonation and can result in slow and agonizing death over a period of time for those affected.

What are the effects of a nuclear blast?

The effects on a person from a nuclear blast will depend on the size of the bomb and the distance the person is from the explosion. However, a nuclear blast would likely cause great destruction, death, and injury, and have a wide area of impact.
In a nuclear blast, injury or death may occur as a result of the blast itself or as a result of debris thrown from the blast. People may experience moderate to severe skin burns, depending on their distance from the blast site. Those who look directly at the blast could experience eye damage ranging from temporary blindness to severe burns on the retina. Individuals near the blast site would be exposed to high levels of radiation and could develop symptoms of radiation sickness (called acute radiation syndrome, or ARS). While severe burns would appear in minutes, other health effects might take days or weeks to appear. These effects range from mild, such as skin reddening, to severe effects such as cancer and death, depending on the amount of radiation absorbed by the body (the dose), the type of radiation, the route of exposure, and the length of time of the exposure.
People may experience two types of exposure from radioactive materials from a nuclear blast: external exposure and internal exposure. External exposure would occur when people were exposed to radiation outside of their bodies from the blast or its fallout. Internal exposure would occur when people ate food or breathed air that was contaminated with radioactive fallout. Both internal and external exposure from fallout could occur miles away from the blast site. Exposure to very large doses of external radiation may cause death within a few days or months. External exposure to lower doses of radiation and internal exposure from breathing or eating food contaminated with radioactive fallout may lead to an increased risk of developing cancer and other health effects.

Is there a chance of a Nuclear Blast?

One has only to watch the news or read a newspaper to see that there is a chance of a nuclear blast. Whether the blast is accidental or on purpose, the chance is there.

A Dirty Bomb
The most accessible nuclear device for any terrorist would be a radiological dispersion bomb. This so-called 'dirty bomb' would consist of waste by-products from nuclear reactors wrapped in conventional explosives, which upon detonation would spew deadly radioactive particles into the environment. This is an expedient weapon, in that radioactive waste material is relatively easy to obtain. Radioactive waste is widely found throughout the world, and in general is not as well guarded as actual nuclear weapons.
In the United States, radioactive waste is located at more than 70 commercial nuclear power sites, in 31 states. Enormous quantities also exist overseas — in Europe and Japan in particular. Tons of wastes are transported long distances, including between continents (Japan to Europe and back).

In Russia, security for nuclear waste is especially poor, and the potential for diversion and actual use by Islamic radicals has been shown to be very real indeed. In 1996, Islamic rebels from the break-away province of Chechnya planted, but did not detonate, such a device in Moscow's Izmailovo park to demonstrate Russia's vulnerability. This dirty bomb consisted of a deadly brew of dynamite and one of the highly radioactive by-products of nuclear fission — Cesium 137.

Extreme versions of such gamma-ray emitting bombs, such as a dynamite-laden casket of spent fuel from a nuclear power plant, would not kill quite as many people as died on Sept. 11. A worst-case calculation for an explosion in downtown Manhattan during noontime: more than 2,000 deaths and many thousands more suffering from radiation poisoning. Treatment of those exposed would be greatly hampered by inadequate medical facilities and training. The United States has only a single hospital emergency room dedicated to treating patients exposed to radiation hazards, at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

A credible threat to explode such a bomb in a U.S. city could have a powerful impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign and military policy, and could possibly have a paralyzing effect. Not only would the potential loss of life be considerable, but also the prospect of mass evacuation of dense urban centers would loom large in the minds of policy-makers.
Attack on Nuclear Power Plants
A terrorist attack on a commercial nuclear power plant with a commercial jet or heavy munitions could have a similar affect to a radiological bomb, and cause for greater casualties. If such an attack were to cause either a meltdown of the reactor core (similar to the Chernobyl disaster), or a dispersal of the spent fuel waste on the site, extensive casualties could be expected. In such an instance, the power plant would be the source of the radiological contamination, and the plane or armament would be the explosive mechanism for spreading lethal radiation over large areas.
Diversion of Nuclear Material or Weapons
The threat from radiological dispersion dims in comparison to the possibility that terrorists could build or obtain an actual atomic bomb. An explosion of even low yield could kill hundreds of thousands of people. A relatively small bomb, say 15-kilotons, detonated in Manhattan could immediately kill upwards of 100,000 inhabitants, followed by a comparable number of deaths in the lingering aftermath.
Fortunately, bomb-grade nuclear fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) is relatively heavily guarded in most, if not all, nuclear weapon states.
Nonetheless, the possibility of diversion remains. Massive quantities of fissile material exist around the world. Sophisticated terrorists could fairly readily design and fabricate a workable atomic bomb once they manage to acquire the precious deadly ingredients (the Hiroshima bomb which used a simple gun-barrel design is the prime example).


The World's Nuclear Arsenals: Updated January 21, 2009


Suspected Strategic Nuclear Weapons

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United Kingdom

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United States (PDF)






During a Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical emergency all reliable sources say to find a room with as few doors and windows as possible.  This room should be already stocked with emergency supplies such as water, food, battery’s, flashlights, bedding, emergency radios, and plastic sheeting and duct tape for sealing the windows and doors.  If it is a Nuclear or radiological emergency, the room should be low in the building.  If it is Chemical emergency, they say the higher the room in the building the better. 

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