Before the first atomic bomb was detonated, there were some fears that a fission bomb could “ignite the atmosphere.” Yes, if you’ve just watched Oppenheimer, read about the Manhattan Project, or looked into atomic weapons at all, you’ll be familiar with the concept. Physicists determined the risk was “near zero,” proceeded ahead with the Trinity test, and the world lived to see another day.
You might be wondering what this all means. How could the very air around us be set aflame, and how did physicists figure out it wasn’t a problem? Let’s explore the common misunderstandings around this concept, and the physical reactions at play.
2022 was a harrowing year in a long line of harrowing years. A brutal war in Europe raised the prospect of nuclear war as the leaders behind the invasion rattled sabers and made thinly veiled threats to use weapons of mass destruction. And all this as we’re still working our way through the fallout of a global pandemic.
Those hot-headed threats raise an interesting question, however. Decades have passed since either Russia or the United States ran a live nuclear weapons test. Given that, would the nukes even work if they were fired in anger?
Continue reading “If They Fire The Nukes, Will They Even Work?”
Nuclear explosives were first developed as weapons of war in the pitched environment of World War II. However, after the war had passed, thoughts turned to alternative uses for this new powerful technology. Scientists and engineers alike dreamed up wild schemes to dig new canals or blast humans into space with the mighty power of the atom.
Few of these ever came to pass, with radiological concerns being the most common reason why. However, the Soviet Union did in fact manage to put nuclear explosions to good use for civilian ends. One of the first examples was using a nuke to plug an out-of-control gas well in the mid 1960s.
Continue reading “Yes, You Can Put Out A Burning Gas Well With A Nuclear Bomb”
On August 8th, an experimental nuclear device exploded at a military test facility in Nyonoksa, Russia. Thirty kilometers away, radiation levels in the city of Severodvinsk reportedly peaked at twenty times normal levels for the span of a few hours. Rumors began circulating about the severity of the event, and conflicting reports regarding forced evacuations of residents from nearby villages had some media outlets drawing comparisons with the Soviet Union’s handling of the Chernobyl disaster.
Today, there remain more questions than answers surrounding what happened at the Nyonoksa facility. It’s still unclear how many people were killed or injured in the explosion, or what the next steps are for the Russian government in terms of environmental cleanup at the coastal site. The exceptionally vague explanation given by state nuclear agency Rosatom saying that the explosion “occurred during the period of work related to the engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources in a liquid propulsion system”, has done little to assuage concerns.
The consensus of global intelligence agencies is that the test was likely part of Russia’s program to develop the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. Better known by its NATO designation SSC-X-9 Skyfall, the missile is said to offer virtually unlimited flight range and endurance. In theory the missile could remain airborne indefinitely, ready to divert to its intended target at a moment’s notice. An effectively unlimited range also means it could take whatever unpredictable or circuitous route necessary to best avoid the air defenses of the target nation. All while traveling at near-hypersonic speeds that make interception exceptionally difficult.
Such incredible claims might sound like saber rattling, or perhaps even something out of science fiction. But in reality, the basic technology for a nuclear-powered missile was developed and successfully tested nearly sixty years ago. Let’s take a look at this relic of the Cold War, and find out how Russia may be working to resolve some of the issues that lead to it being abandoned. Continue reading “Echos Of The Cold War: Nuclear-Powered Missiles Have Been Tried Before”