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How does a Nuclear Bomb differ from a Conventional Bomb?

Every now and then we hear of countries of the world carrying out heated discussions about nuclear bombs. The topics range from who has the right to own a nuclear bomb and who does not, who should use it and who must not and so on. But what exactly happens when such a bomb actually explodes? And how are nuclear bombs different from conventional bombs?

The greatest difference between the two types of bombs is the sheer scale of destruction they cause. While a conventional bomb can be targetted to damage a particular area and the people living there, nuclear bombs are weapons of mass destruction. Just consider this: a 1 megaton (million ton) nuclear bomb is enough to wipe out the largest city on Earth. (1 ton=1000 kilograms)

Conventional Bomb versus Nuclear Bomb

A conventional bomb releases most of its energy in the form of blast. Atomic bombs on the other hand, release 50 per cent energy as blast, 35 per cent as heat and 15 per cent as nuclear radiation. You could get an idea as to how disastrous a nuclear bomb could be, by this simple comparison: one kilogram of nuclear fission fuel can release energy 20,000,000 times more than one kilogram of TNT (tri-nitro-toluene), the explosive material used in conventional bombs.

How devastating?

When a nuclear bomb explodes, most people within a radius of three to thirty miles would either get killed or seriously injured. The possible burn out in towns and cities could be as large as 100 square kilometres for a 1 megaton explosion.

Heat and Blast

Small or large, all nuclear blasts create fireballs with temperatures exceeding 300,000 degrees celsius. These fireballs act as shock waves that blow down everything in their path for many kilometres around. The explosion also results in hurricane winds and firestorms over large areas.

In addition to great heat and blast, nuclear bombs also result in radiation in the form of gamma rays, neutrons and alpha and beta particles. Radioactive reactions of a nuclear blast generally occur in two ways.

The first is an immediate radioactivity pulse, which can kill people on the spot if the dose is high enough.

The second form is persistent radioactivity or one that continues to be present even after the blast. This is produced partly from unused fuel, partly from radioactive decay products of the fuel generated during the explosion, and partly from materials that absorb radiation.

All of these together constitute radioactive ‘dust’ or fallout. After the blast is over, this radioactive dust hangs in the atmosphere. As it is spread all around by wind and rain, it contaminates water and air. These contaminated elements are consumed by plants and thus enter into the bodies of other organisms in the food chain. So even when the blast itself is finished, living beings continue to suffer from its after-effects.

Many of these components emit radiation for really large periods of time, ranging for a thousand years or more.

Effects of radioactivity on living organisms

Radioactivity is a powerful energy and can damage the organs it passes through. These include the DNA, cells, blood cells, and the skin.

Exposure to nuclear weapon radiation leads to ill-health and malfunctioning of the body. It damages the cells involved in reproduction, can cause still-births, and genetic damages.

Thus, unlike any conventional weapons of warfare, the damage caused by nuclear weapons is not limited either in space, or, even more critically, in time.

Nuclear weapons leave effects that pass from one generation to another. And they do not respect any borders for the water, soil and air they pollute know no boundaries. That is something that most countries lose sight of.

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