bomb produced by the USSR
, tested in 1961
. The name, which roughly translates as "King of Bombs", is a reference to the Russian
proclivity for producing large but ultimately useless artifacts
for show. The world's largest bell
and the world's largest cannon
- the Tsar Kolokol
and Tsar Pushka
, respectively - are both Russian-made. Both have virtually no use whatsoever.
In July 1961, Russian President Nikita Khruschev met with bomb designer Andrei Sakharov and directed him to develop a 100 megaton bomb. This effort was entirely political - the bomb's manufacture following the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 and America's current obsession with nuclear fallout shelters. The device produced - referred to as the "Big Bomb" by Sakharov - was and remains the most powerful nuclear weapon ever manufactured.
On October 30th 1961, a Tupolev Tu-95 Bear was flown into the vicinity of Novaya Zemlya Island, accompanied by a Tu-16 Badger airborne laboratory. From an altitude of 10,500m the Tu-95 dropped a Tsar Bomba device, which descended by parachute. At 4000m (13,000ft), by which time the release plane was safe some 45km away, the bomb exploded.
The initial flash from the explosion was so bright that despite cloudy skies it was clearly seen by the bomb design team and test supervisors, monitoring the test from the Kola Peninsula some 1,000km away. Despite the considerable altitude of the burst (as a comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the US detonated about 1,900ft above the ground), the fireball still reached down to the ground and upward almost to the same altitude as the release plane. The mushroom cloud topped out at 210,000ft (64-65km) and the shockwave from the explosion circled the Earth three times, flattening wooden houses hundreds of miles away and sending out an electromagnetic pulse that cut off local radio communications for almost an hour.
The bomb yielded 50 megatons, but the United States estimated it at 57 megatons so this was the figure Russia publicly circulated after the test. The bomb was entirely a display of Soviet power, so an overstatement by their main enemy of the bomb's destructive capacity could only be a good thing.
Some time later, photographs were taken of ground zero. The surface of the island was described as:
"levelled, swept and licked so that it looks like a skating rink". "The same goes for rocks...their sides and edges are shiny. There is not a trace of unevenness in the ground...Everything in the area has been swept clean, scoured, and blown away."
The bomb tested was a limited version of a three-stage design, retarded by replacing the tertiary and possibly secondary stages of the uranium fusion stage tamper with lead. This reduced the yield by roughly 50%, and eliminated 97% of the fallout (1.5Mt of fission, instead of an estimated 51.5Mt produced in the three-stage version of the bomb). This means that Tsar Bomba - in the form it was tested - is the cleanest nuclear weapon ever exploded: 97% of the energy it produced came from fusion reactions, as opposed to fission. Having said that, if the weapon had been tested at full yield it would have increased the world's total fission fallout (since the invention of the atomic bomb) by twenty-five per cent.
Weapons such as Tsar Bomba are virtually useless for military purposes; there is simply no need for such destructive power. A 100Mt weapon would flatten everything in a 30km radius, cause heavy damage out to 100km and still cause third degree burns 170km away from ground zero. At the time of development only New York, Chicago and Los Angeles would merit an attack by such a weapon and this has changed little since then. Anything smaller would be overkill by a significant margin, and something the nukes already deployed at the time were perfectly adequate to use against. The writeup formerly preceding this one also noted that damage effects scale in accordance with the inverse square law, meaning it is rather inefficient to use weapons of this size to destroy a city, as compared to several smaller ones.
Furthermore, the only Russian delivery system capable of hefting the 27-ton Tsar Bomba (the Tu-95) was incapable of intercontinental range with such a large payload, close to the Tu-95's weight capacity. In fact, at 2 metres wide and 8 metres long, the bomb was so large that a standard Tu-95 bomb bay was incapable of accommodating it. Parts of the fuselage as well as all the bomb bay doors had to be removed from the test aircraft before it could carry the device.
A clip from footage of the burst is the first nuclear explosion seen on the film Thirteen Days, a drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Tsar Bomba replica is on display at the Russian Atomic Museum.
- (Author unknown) "The Soviet Weapons Program - The Tsar Bomba";
- Hall, Kevin; "Tsar Bomba (King of the Bombs)";
- (Author unknown) "Tsar Bomba (King of the Bombs)";
- Sublette, Carey; "Carey Sublette's Nuclear Weapons FAQ" (section 4.5);