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“We all know the atomic bomb is very dangerous,” said the 1950s American-made educational short film, ‘Duck and Cover’. It seems somewhat of an understatement. Videos such as this have been said by some to be propaganda films to scare the west out of its wits regarding Soviet nuclear strength, but the movie has also been said to be factually incorrect. Some scientists stated that by the time you’d see something to duck and cover from, it would be too late. Others said it all depends on distance. The British followed with a slew of nightmarish nuclear annihilation information films scaring the bejeebies out all of those Brits glued to their TVs. Such disaster infomercials and educational films are now parodied, but those were some scary days. Today we’re going to look at the biggest threat of them all:
First of all, what is the Tsar Bomba? For years from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the Soviets had been testing nuclear bombs at quite a rapid rate. The BBC reports that they tested 26 nuclear bombs in the year of 1958 alone. But the Soviets came up with one particular bomb that was a giant, bigger than those dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, known as ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’. There were plenty of code names and nicknames for this monster: Project 27000, Product Code 202, RDS-220, RDS-202, Kuzinka Mat, Vanya, and more, but it came to be known in the west as the Tsar Bomb or King of Bombs. It weighed 27,000 kg (60,000 pounds), was 8 meters (25 feet) in length and had a diameter of 2.1 meters (6.9 feet). It had a blast yield of 50 megatons, but it’s said the Soviets could produce a 100 megaton bomb. The BBC reports, “It was more than a metal monstrosity too big to fit inside even the largest aircraft – it was a city destroyer, a weapon of last resort.”
To put that into context, it was so powerful that the plane dropping the bomb on the one and only test only had a 50 percent chance of surviving. They had to deploy a one ton parachute holding the bomb so it could drop slowly and then detonate. The pilots should then have been 50km (30 miles) away, and they had a chance of surviving. When it did drop and detonate on Severny Island, part of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago about 400 km (248.5 miles) off the Russian mainland, the blast could be seen 1,000 km (630 miles) away. The actual mushroom cloud reached 64km (40 miles) in height and spread over a distance of around 100km (63 miles). The worst thing is, people actually lived in the village of Severny, which was about 55km (34 miles) from Ground Zero. It’s said all the houses there were completely destroyed, but the death toll has never been reported. Even in places 100s of miles from the detonation site, houses were damaged. The pilot did escape, but not before he lost control of his plane and it plummeted around 1,000m (3,300ft). According to one source, “The heat wave from the explosion was enough to cause third degree burns to human skin as far away as 100 km (60 miles) and the electromagnetic energy generated by the event crippled communication in the northern Soviet Union for more than an hour.” It’s also reported that the blast shattered windows as far away as Norway and Finland.
Now, if we consider that the bomb that fell on Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945, killed 60,000 to 80,000 people instantly on detonation, and in total about 135,000 or more due to radiation sickness, we might ask what kind of damage this monster might have done if it had been dropped on, say, an American city. We should also state that years after the Japanese destruction, scores of people were said to have suffered from cancer as a result of radiation. The Tsar Bomb was said to be 1,500 times more powerful than those bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some have said it was even too big, with one US analyst stating, “It’s hard to find a use for it unless you want to knock down very large cities. It simply would be too big to use.”
With this in mind, what if one of those bombs was dropped on a city such as London, or New York, would the Duck and Cover advice be any good?
According to Nukemap, a website that actually attempts to illustrate what would happen in such a situation, if the Tsar Bomb was dropped on London with the population as it is now, about 5.8 million people would die. If the bomb was dropped on the center of London, the Independent reports that people living in Reading would suffer third degree burns. Reading is about 37 miles (59km) from London as the bird flies – and bomb blasts don’t take the roads. All buildings situated around the M25 (a motorway that goes around London) would collapse, and anyone living in that area if not dead from the blast would possibly die of radiation exposure within a week.
Nukemap, which was created by American nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein, actually lets you pick a spot and then detonate a bomb at places around the world. We chose Manhattan and we also chose the Tsar Bomb (a number of nuclear bombs are available). The bomb would have a fireball of about 5 miles (8km) and the radiation zone would stretch to Times Square and the Brooklyn Bridge. This is the zone in which between 50 and 90 percent of people would immediately die if they didn’t get medical assistance. One person pointed out that both cities of London and New York might fare better than other cities because they have so much life going on underground. Even so, for those above ground, just about anyone in the New York Metropolitan area would have third degree burns due to thermal radiation. The sickness and death that would follow in the weeks to come would be unspeakable.
We are talking about the 50 megaton bomb here, too, not the 100 megaton bomb that the Russians could have made. We dropped a theoretical 100 megaton bomb on Paris to see what would happen according to Nukemap. The fireball radius would be 6.1 km (3.7 miles), and an air blast radius of 32.6 km (20.2 miles). This alone, according to Nukemap, would mean within this area, “most residential buildings collapse, injuries are universal, fatalities are widespread.” Anyone who is 73.7 km (45.7 miles) from the middle of Paris would likely suffer third degree burns or worse. For all these cities it would be hard to estimate the number of deaths, but it is likely that anyone living close to the detonation site would be lucky to survive.
We’ve been curious about the United States nuclear program lately, so we decided to listen to an audiobook written by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser. His book, called Command and Control – Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, uncovers secrets about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal. It also touches on the subject of deploying weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them first.
We use Audible because it allows us to read our favorite books while we’re at home, and listen to them while we’re out doing other things. This book in particular is great for anybody who wants to learn more about the nuclear readiness of the United States.
Audible is offering our listeners a free audiobook with a 30-day trial membership, so you can check out the book we just talked about risk free. Download a title free and start listening. It’s that easy. Go to Audible dot com slash infographics or text infographics to 500-500 to get started today. Thanks for watching and as always don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time!