7 Things to Know About Nuclear Weapons

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What are nuclear weapons? 

A nuclear weapon is an advanced explosive device that is capable of producing destructive energy, by splitting the nucleus of an atom from material that can sustain a nuclear fission chain reaction.

There are two types of nuclear bombs, out of which one is known to use fission (the process of splitting the nucleus into two smaller nuclei), or a two-stage process that is based on fission and fusion (which is how multiple hydrogen nuclei join together to form a bigger nucleus).

Those that only use fission are known as “atomic bombs” (A-bombs), while those that use both fission and fusion are known as “hydrogen bombs” (H-bombs), also known as thermonuclear weapons. Now when it comes to material, there are three types of nuclear weapons: hydrogen, plutonium, and uranium.

Uranium bombs

Uranium bombs aren’t hard to make, but they need a material that’s very difficult to find: purified uranium-235. The uranium extracted from the Earth has only 0.7 percent of the U-235 isotope, which is the fissile material that’s found in a nuclear bomb or reactor.

The rest of 99.3 percent is U-238 isotope, which doesn’t directly contribute to the fission process, and has to be removed through the process of “enrichment”. The process is very difficult and expensive. Around 90% of the world’s enrichment capacity can be found in five nuclear weapons states. For example, the bomb that finished Hiroshima was a uranium bomb.

Plutonium bombs

Plutonium bombs are even more difficult to make, but they require a material that’s much easier to find: plutonium-239. Weapon-grade plutonium might be created using a nuclear power plant. The natural uranium in the reactor can be burned for three months, in order to get that fissile material, needed in a nuclear bomb.

However, the process of making a plutonium bomb is so complicated, that it’s oftentimes far outside the capabilities of the majority of nations, especially terrorist groups. The bomb that erased Nagasaki was a plutonium bomb.

Hydrogen Bombs

Hydrogen bombs (thermonuclear weapons) are by far the most difficult to make, as they require a uranium or plutonium bomb to act as a “trigger” for the fusion reaction. They also need a lot of testing, to make sure that the process works. There are only six countries (China, France, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) that have conducted thermonuclear weapon tests so far.

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