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The Tsar Bomba: Building the World’s Biggest Nuke

Some bombs are quite simply, too big. On 30th October 1961, a modified Soviet Tu-95 bomber lifted off from Olenya airfield in the far north of Russia. Attached to the bottom of the aircraft, as it was too big to fit inside, was a bomb of cataclysmic proportions. 

The testing that day of what has come to be known as the Tsar Bomba (Tsar’s Bomb) was an attempt by the Soviet regime to showcase their emerging might by unleashing the most powerful nuclear weapon the world had yet seen. 

At roughly 11.30 am Moscow time, the Tsar Bomba was released and began its slow parachuted descent down into Novaya Zemlya, a barren archipelago in the Barents Sea, as the two aircraft in the vicinity raced to escape the apocalyptic blast – their chances of survival had already been put at now more than 50-50. 

The Nuclear Age Emerges

The nuclear weapons age began on 6th August 1945. In a flash, much of the city of Hiroshima was flattened by the American uranium nuclear bomb named ‘Little Boy’. Three days later, another plane entered Japanese airspace, it’s target was the city of Kokura.

But in one of those twists of fate that delivers salvation to some and death to others, cloud cover and smoke from previous bombing raids obscured much of the city. The aircraft diverted to its secondary target and Kokura was saved. But hell was merely redirected. Above the city of Nagasaki, the ‘Fat Man’ plutonium bomb drifted down from the sky and once again, the sky lit up and thousands died. 

The power of these nuclear weapons was all-consuming. Nothing like them had ever been seen and suddenly one nation could annihilate vast sways of the planet in an instant. The Japanese swiftly surrendered and peace settled across the world – but it was an uneasy peace. 

The Soviet Union had suspected the Allies were building a nuclear weapon and several spies even managed to infiltrate the Manhattan Project, the program that spawned the first nuclear weapons and one that we have already done a video on here on Megaprojects, so if you’re interested in apocalyptical weapons, why not give that a watch after. 

Joseph Stalin, no doubt received the news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with mixed feelings. The U.S was of course a faithful ally of the Soviet Union during World War II, with the Americans going as far as pumping equipment and vehicles into the country that helped to keep it going even as the Nazis came within a whisper of seizing Moscow.

But let’s be honest, Joseph Stalin was a maniacal tyrant whose dark shadow would remain over eastern Europe for the best part of forty-five years. His decision to abandon those taking part in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 to the Nazis instead of ordering in the Red Army which sat on the outskirts of the city to assist, was a way of gutting the Polish resistance without having to do the dirty work himself. This was a man who had diabolical grand plans and he must have looked on with greedy envy at the United States’ new superweapon.      

The Soviet Nuclear Program 

Once the terrifying might of nuclear weapons was truly revealed, the Soviet nuclear program kicked into gear. Like the Americans and the British, the Soviet too gathered as many German scientists related to the field as possible and pressed them into service to create a program that could rival the Manhattan Project.     

Slowly the Soviet nuclear program did develop – how much of this was down to homegrown ingenuity and how much came from espionage is still keenly debated – but I bet you can decide which side the Russians today sit on in this particular debate. No doubt the Soviets had some excellent scientists within their ranks, but it’s equally clear that they certainly had quite a significant leg up – as I’m just coming to.  

The Soviets tested their first nuclear weapon, known as RDS-1 or Izdeliye 501 – though the Americans referred to it as Joe-1 – on 29th August 1949. To say that the speed at which the first test was carried out took the Americans by surprise would be an understatement. They had anticipated the Soviets would take 5 or 6 years to test their first weapon but they had done it in four. 

RDS-1 Replica
RDS-1 Replica by Sergey Rodovnichenko is licensed under CC-BY-SA

This was perhaps partly explained with the arrests, convictions and eventual executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in the United States. The pair had acted as the lynchpin for a U.S based spy ring passing on secrets to the Soviets and they were the first American civilians to ever be executed for such charges.  

Things moved rapidly from there. Up until 1961, the Soviet Union carried out no fewer than 85 different tests. These ranged from small tactical nukes to the first hydrogen bomb which was tested on 12th August 1953, and the first hydrogen bomb that lay in the megaton range on 22nd November 1955 – called RDS-37. 

A Bomb to Rule Them All  

Despite their blossoming nuclear program, Soviet leaders knew that they still lagged behind the United States. In a world where posturing and brinkmanship were quickly becoming the name of the game, the U.S clearly had the upper-hand when it came to a nuclear deterrent. 

In 1960 it was decided that the Soviet Union needed to go big – really big. In many ways, the Soviet authorities knew there wasn’t a nuclear equilibrium between the two countries, but a gigantic nuclear test would not only make it seem like there was but would force the world to take the Soviet superpower seriously. 

The Tsar Bomba

The bomb that was created was monstrous in almost every way. It was 8 metres (26ft) in length – about as big as a double-decker bus – with a diameter of 2.1 metres (6ft 11 inches). It weighed 27,000 kg (60,000 lb) and had an unspeakable blast yield of around 50 megatons. To give you an idea of that kind of power, here are a few points of comparison. 

That blast yield was over 3,000 times more powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, while also representing 10% of the combined yield of all nuclear tests to date. In terms of its destructive power, it was about a quarter of the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, one of the most destructive eruptions the earth has ever seen. An eruption so big in fact, the sound wave apparently circled the globe 7 times.   

But here’s the real standout fact. The Tsar Bomba was 10 times more powerful than all of the munitions used in World War II. Now, this is a statistic that is a little hard to get your head around – 10 times more powerful than every single bullet, bomb, explosive device and grenade used throughout a six-year World War. This was a bomb of apocalyptic proportions.   

Another quite astonishing aspect of the Tsar Bomb was that it was only half as powerful as it was originally designed to be. The initial design called for a 100 megaton three-layered bomb, with uranium layers separating each stage. However, it soon became clear to those involved that something of that size would be difficult to contain and might well affect the USSR itself. Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, who would later completely denounce the use of nuclear weapons, played a key role in the construction of the Tsar Bomba – and the wise reduction to ‘only’ 50 megatons.  

Product 602, as it was first known, was not an entirely new bomb. Product 202 had been built in the mid-1950s, with a yield of between 15 and 30 megatons depending on your source, and after successful tests, it remained in storage for a short period before being resurrected and several of its components were used to build Product 602. 

The first design was a three-stage bomb, beginning with a nuclear charge, followed by a thermonuclear reaction and finally, a fast fission process, ominously known as a “Jekyll-Hyde reaction” – in which a heavy atom absorbs a high-energy neutron, called a fast neutron, and splits, producing a massive amount of energy – even by nuclear standards. The last two stages were estimated to produce a 50 megaton yield each, while the first would generate only 1.5 megatons. 

Thankfully, common sense prevailed, and the bomb was reduced to 50 megatons. This was done when the third and perhaps second stage had their uranium-238 fusion tampers replaced by lead tampers – these are also called neutron reflectors and essentially act to scatter the neutrons and so reduce their overall power. This meant that the fast fission process was completely eliminated and because of this 97% of the total yield resulted from the thermonuclear fusion – meaning that the Tsar Bomba was in fact one of the ‘cleanest’ nuclear weapons ever because of its low amount of fallout in comparison to its yield. 

The Test

News of the impending Soviet test began to creep out around a month before the test. During his visit to the US, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had strangely mentioned the bomb to a US politician and the information found its way into the New York Time on 8th September 1961. It’s unlikely that this would have been down to a slip of the tongue and was most likely a clever ploy to alert the world that something big was on the horizon. 

On 30th October 1961, a modified TU-95 bomber which had had its engines, bomb bay, suspension and release mechanisms all redesigned and painted bright white to reduce possible radiation damage, loaded the Tsar Bomba into its bomb holder below the aircraft. The massive nuclear weapon now represented 15% of the total weight of both the aircraft and the bomb. 

The aircraft taxied slowly into position before lifting off from the Olenya airfield. Onboard were 9 members of the crew and as I said right at the start of the video, their survival was put at no more than 50-50. Simply put, nobody was quite sure exactly what would come next. Flying close by was an observer aircraft that would film the explosion. 

Two hours after take-off, with the plane now 10,500 metres (34,500 ft) above Novaya Zemlya, the largest nuclear weapon in history was released. Attached to it was a 1,600-square-metre (17,000 sq ft) parachute, which in theory would allow the bomber and the observer aircraft filming to get around 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the blast site before detonation. 

At 11.32 Moscow time, the Tsar Bomba detonated with ferocious power about 4000 metres (13,000ft) above the ground. Scientists had reasoned that the massive fireball would hit the ground but the bomb’s shockwave was so strong that it bounced back and prevented this. The fireball itself had a width of around 8km (5 miles) and reached up to almost where the plane had dropped the bomb. The mushroom cloud was unimaginably big, reaching 67 km (42 miles) into the sky – that’s over seven times the height of Mt Everest. The cap reached a peak width of 95 km (59 miles), while its base spread out to 40 km (25 miles). The total power was thought to reach 57 Megatons and so exceeded expectations while mimicking a 5.5 earthquake on the Richter scale.  

The blast wave circled the Earth three times and when it hit the escaping bomber, it caused it to plummet 1,000 metres (3,300ft) before the pilot regained control. A small abandoned village on the island of Severny around 55 km (34 mi) from ground zero was entirely destroyed, while settlements hundreds of kilometres from the blast were affected with wooden buildings blown down and roofs pulled off the stone ones. The flash of light was seen up 1,000km (620 miles) and communication systems in the area were badly affected for the next few hours.   

Fallout  

The massive nuclear test was met with global outrage, as you can probably guess, led by the United States and its allies. Considering the largest U.S detonation at that point had been around 15 megatons, it must have been a chastening piece of news. But what could they do? 

The detonation of the Tsar Bomba did exactly what the leaders of the Soviet Union had hoped it would. It struck fear through much of the world and announced the USSR as a true nuclear power capable of unleashing the kind of damage that could flatten large cities in an instant. A calculation made at the time estimated that if it had been dropped on Washington D.C, it would have caused roughly 2.2 million deaths and spread as far as Pennsylvania.  

But oddly, the Tsar Bomba proved to be a tipping point. The United States did not immediately run off and detonate something even bigger and in 1963 the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, Outer Space and Under Water was signed in Moscow, signalling an end to this kind of large-scale testing.

The superpowers instead turned to smaller nuclear weapons that could be carried by intercontinental missiles, and to this day, the Tsar Bomba remains the most powerful man-made explosion the world has ever seen. A cataclysmic show of might that caught the world’s attention, but thankfully acted as the peak of large-scale bomb madness. We’ve never seen anything like the Tsar Bomba since, and remember, it was actually supposed to be twice as big.  

The monster atomic bomb that was too big to use – BBC Future  

Top 10 greatest explosions ever | Live Science

Tsar Bomba – Wikipedia

Russia declassifies footage of ‘Tsar Bomba’ — the most powerful nuclear bomb in history | Live Science

Tsar Bomba | Atomic Heritage Foundation  

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