What You Need to Know
About the Most Important Issue
In the World Today

Bruce A. Roth

Appendix C—How A Nuclear Bomb Works (Simplified)

Nuclear bombs explode like conventional bombs, but with far greater force. This section explains how a nuclear explosion creates a force that is virtually impossible to duplicate with a conventional bomb.

An atomic bomb explodes as a result of an atomic reaction rather than by combustion. The atomic reaction releases the energy, which holds the atomic particles in the bomb’s explosive material together. Although the explosion of a nuclear bomb produces some shrapnel from its metal casing, its real destructive force is the creation of a powerful shock wave.

Atoms are the smallest building blocks of elements, such as oxygen, gold, and carbon. They are composed of three basic particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. The protons and neutrons form the nucleus. The electrons are attracted to the nucleus and orbit around the nucleus at dazzling speeds. Every element has a unique atomic structure, i.e., different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Albert Einstein realized that energy (heat, light, electricity, and magnetism) and matter (any material substance) are really the same things, but in different forms. Matter is compressed energy. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, nor can matter be created or destroyed.

Einstein’s famous, yet elegantly simple equation, E=mc2, explains the relationship between energy and matter.

"E" stands for energy. It is measured in joules.
"m" stands for mass, or weight. Mass is measured in kilograms.
"c" is the symbol for the speed of light, 300,000,000 meters per second.

The energy in matter is equal to its mass times the square of the speed of light.

A joule is a very small amount of energy. However, atoms are also very small; in fact, they are invisible to the naked eye. A 10 pound chunk of U235 (about the size of a grapefruit) would contain around 11,544,100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. That many atoms would produce 408,233,000,000,000,000,000 joules. Now that’s a lot of “joulery!” If all of that energy could be released, it would be equivalent to:

  • The shock from 253,561,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 trillion volts of electricity.
  • Calories from eating 195 trillion Big Macs®. (Only 175 billion hamburgers have been served by McDonald’s as of April 15, 2005.)
  • The heat and light from 47 trillion 100 watt light bulbs, turned on for one day.
  • 3 trillion gallons of burning gasoline.
  • 4 billion lightning bolts.
  • 303 million cars with 500 horsepower engines, racing for 1 hour.
  • 4 million space shuttles sent into orbit.
  • 41 thousand hurricanes.
  • 41 severe earthquakes, measuring 8 on the Richter Scale.
  • 4 volcanoes, the size of Krakatoa.[1]

[1]University of Syracuse, Department of Physics, "Rough Values of Power of Various Processes,"


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