Atomic vs. Nuclear Bombs: How Do These Devastating Weapons Compare?

What is the difference between these world ending bombs.
atomic bombs

Today, owning a nuclear arsenal represents the difference between being a main military power with powerful deterrent capabilities or being at risk of a probable attack from neighboring countries with stronger militaries.

After World War II nuclear arms race started, and extensive numbers of devastating nuclear weapons were produced, atomic bombs have always been mistaken for nuclear or hydrogen bombs, but their inner workings and explosion yield are entirely different.

Atomic vs. nuclear

The atomic bomb and the nuclear bomb aren’t the same things. They vary in the amount of energy needed for the nuclear reaction and are released in the following explosion.

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Rapatronic Picture 008
Milliseconds after ignition of a nuclear explosive by the Federal Government of the US

Atomic bombs use nuclear fission while nuclear bombs leverage nuclear fusion.

The atomic bombs work by splitting radioactive and unstable atoms into smaller ones, which initiates a nuclear chain reaction, resulting in the impulsive release of destructive energy. The principle of splitting atoms is known as nuclear fission.

A nuclear bomb is a more refined version of the atomic bomb because it demands smaller atoms to fuse into a larger atom which is named nuclear fusion, the contrasting process of the atomic bomb (nuclear fission). 

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In nuclear bombs, deuterium and tritium are fused to develop a larger atom such as hydrogen. Consequently, nuclear bombs are known as hydrogen bombs.

To perform nuclear fusion and make all the small atoms fuse into one, it needs to create an atomic explosion to get them to the correct temperature and pressure. The effect is an explosive reaction that unleashes energy in the form of pressure, heat, and radiation.

Atomic bomb

Atomic bomb
Nagasaki bomb 9 August 1945 by The Official CTBTO Photostream. Licensed under CC 2.0

The scientific name of the atomic bomb is the fission bomb. When the bomb was completed, it was tested on July 16, 1945, in Albuquerque, New Mexico – less than a month before it was first used on Japanese soil.

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Only 2 atomic bombs have been dropped in history, and their effects were devastating in terms of casualties and destruction.

Little Boy and Fat Man: the most famous atomic bombs

Spare Little Boy atomic bomb casing at the imperial War Museum in London
Spare Little Boy atomic bomb casing at the Imperial War Museum in London by Nick-D. Licensed under CC 4.0

On July 3, 1945, the atomic bomb called Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, causing a blast yield of 15 kilotons of TNT. 

The second atomic bomb, Fat Man, had a length of 128 inches (3.3 m) and was dropped in Nagasaki with a higher destructive force than Little Boy (21 kilotons).

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Nuclear bomb

Bomb Nuclear Danger Fire Atomic War Explosion
Bomb Nuclear Danger Fire Atomic War Explosion by maxpixel.net

Nuclear or hydrogen bombs cause a larger explosion than atomic bombs – and the shock waves, blast the heat, and radiation have a greater range as well.

It was initially designed under the leadership of Edward Teller in the US and exploded for the first time in the Pacific ocean in 1952.

These kinds of bombs also differ in their damaging power. A nuclear bomb like the Soviet Tsar’s bomb had a 50.000 kilotons explosion (equivalent to 50 million tons of dynamite), which is more potent than the 15 kilotons of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

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Tsar Bomba: the most powerful nuclear bomb

Tsar Bomba Revised
Tsar Bomba Revised by Croquan. Licensed under CC by 3.0

The Tsar Bomba was a hydrogen bomb conceived by the Soviet Union, responsible for the biggest human-made blast to date.

It was activated in 1961, as a military power demonstration in a Russian archipelago located in the Barents Sea, and its explosion was approximately 58 megatons (58.000 kilotons) of TNT. 

Atomic bombs and nuclear bombs are devastating

Since nuclear bombs generate explosions that are at least 1,000 times greater in power than an atomic bomb, they aren’t used as a weapon in combat but as a military method of nuclear deterrence and MAD (Mutual assured destruction).

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A nuclear bomb is stronger than an atomic bomb. The world’s supply of nuclear weapons is huge and they could even end the world and humanity.


Feature image credit: Operation Crossroads by US Department of Defense