Nuclear tests that history will remember

The mushroom cloud of the Tsar Bomba, the biggest thermonuclear device to ever be tested in the history of mankind. Photo: Discovery Channel

In light of Aug. 9 being Nagasaki Day, we bring to you some of the most powerful nuclear tests ever to be conducted.

1. Trinity

The precursor to both "Little Boy" and "Fat Man", the bombs that brought an end to WW II, the "Trinity", unofficially called "The Gadget", was detonated over the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico. With a yield of 20 kilotonnes (same as Fat Man), the bomb had a fireball radius of 200 metres. The fireball would incinerate everything in its radius, turning it into radioactive ash and dust, and third-degree thermal radiation burns would be reported in a 2.27 km radius.

2. Little Boy

The first of the only two nuclear devices to be detonated over a civilian location during wartime, "Little Boy" was a Uranium-235 device with a yield of 15 kilotonnes. The bomb tore through most of Hiroshima, burning it to cinders and claiming over 1,00,000 lives. The fireball was 180 meters and third-degree burns were reported in a radius of 1.91 km.


3. Fat Man

The second of the two nuclear devices, "Fat Man" was originally meant to fall over Kokura, but various circumstances forced it to be dropped on Nagasaki. The bomb was a Plutonium-239 device with consequential effects similar to "Trinity", but due to the bomb falling in the Urakami Valley, the damage was contained significantly.


4. Operation Crossroads

The first nuclear test to not take place during wartime, "Operation Crossroads" was conducted in the Bikini Atoll, northeast of Papua New Guinea. This test, among the others that took place in the Marshall Islands, was announced beforehand with extensive preparations and viewed by an invited audience. The yield was 23 kilotonnes, leading to a fireball of around 280 metres and a third-degree burn range of 2.04 km.


5. Operation Greenhouse

Like most others in the series, "Operation Greenhouse" was known to the public. The device was the first to use fusion fuel to accelerate the fission reaction, boosting yields while allowing for smaller devices to be built. The core of the device was Uranium-238 and it had a core of hydrogen isotopes to build the energy for generating fission in the Uranium. It had a yield of 225 kilotonnes, which put the fireball at over half a kilometre and third-degree burn radius at 5.58 km.


6. Ivy Mike

If there was one saving grace of this device, it was that with a weight of 82 tonnes, the device was something that could not be deployed. "Ivy Mike" was the first thermonuclear device to be detonated in history. The core was liquid Deuterium in the cryogenic state, with a yield of over 10 megatonnes. The fireball of the device was 3.2 km, almost as big as the "Greenhouse" burn radius, and its third-degree burn radius was 29.1 km. It was tested in the Enewetak Atoll.


7. Castle Bravo

Arguably the most infamous nuclear test of all time, "Castle Bravo" proved that thermonuclear devices were now a viable weapon merely two years after the mammoth "Ivy Mike" test. The device is also well-known for being the most powerful test conducted by the United States, accidentally. The designers of the device expected a yield of 5 megatonnes, but a miscalculation in the Lithium-7 isotope, which was supposed to turn into Lithium-8 and decay harmlessly, instead became Tritium, which was severely more reactive, leading to a yield of 15 megatonnes.

The test was supposed to be a secret, but traces of radioactive material came as far as India and even the United States, which led to an outcry, culminating in the ban on atmospheric thermonuclear tests. This is also the test that inspired the 1954 classic "Godzilla", being the test that contaminated the fishing boat "Lucky Dragon 5".

The fireball of the device was over 7 km across and the third-degree burn radius was over 34 km.


8. Tsar Bomba

The undisputed "Tsar" of thermonuclear tests, the "Tsar Bomba" was the biggest device ever to be detonated in the nuclear age. The device had a yield of 50 megatonnes - though Soviet researchers artificially limited it to that by using lead tampers instead of Uranium-238 - without which it would have a yield of an unthinkable 100 megatonnes. With a fireball of over 8 km at its widest and the burn radius of over 60 km, the Tsar Bomba was truly death incarnate. It was so dangerous that the Soviets actually attached a parachute to the device to slow its descent and give the deployment crew some more time to escape.


9. Smiling Buddha and Operation Shakti

The only nuclear tests ever conducted by India, the Pokhran devices had a yield between 8 and 45 kilotonnes. The devices were tested in Pokhran, Rajasthan, and like many big tests, they still bear the scars of the days gone by. Pokhran-II resulted in sanctions from many states, including Japan and the US, but marked India as a full-fledged nuclear state.


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Nuclear tests that history will remember


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