CHAPTER II: Descriptions of Nuclear Explosions


2.01 A number of characteristic phenomena, some of which are visible whereas others are not directly apparent, are associated with nuclear explosions. Certain aspects of these phenomena will depend on the type of burst, i.e., air, high-altitude, surface, or subsurface, as indicated in Chapter I. This dependence arises from direct and secondary interactions of the output of the exploding weapon with its environment, and leads to variations in the distribution of the energy released, particularly among blast, shock, and thermal radiation. In addition, the design of the weapon can also affect the energy distribution. Finally, meteorological conditions, such as temperature, humidity, wind, precipitation, and atmospheric pressure, and even the nature of the terrain over which the explosion occurs, may influence some of the observed effects. Nevertheless, the gross phenomena associated with a particular type of nuclear explosion, namely, high-altitude, air, surface, underwater, or underground, remain unchanged. It is such phenomena that are described in this chapter.

2.02 The descriptions of explosions at very high altitudes as well as those in the air nearer to the ground refer mainly to nuclear devices with energies in the vicinity of 1-megaton TNT equivalent. For underwater bursts, the information is based on the detonations of a few weapons with roughly 20 to 30 kilotons of TNT energy in shallow and moderately deep, and deep water. Indications will be given of the results to be expected for explosions of other yields. As a general rule, however, the basic phenomena for a burst in a particular environment are not greatly dependent upon the energy of the explosion. In the following discussion it will be supposed, first, that a typical air burst takes place at such a height that the fireball, even at its maximum, is well above the surface of the earth. The modifications, as well as the special effects, resulting from a surface burst and for one at very high altitude will be included. In addition, some of the characteristic phenomena associated with underwater and underground nuclear explosions will be described.



2.03 As already seen, the fission of uranium (or plutonium) or the fusion of the isotopes of hydrogen in a nuclear weapon leads to the liberation of a large amount of energy in a very small period of time within a limited quantity of matter. As a result, the fission products, bomb casing, and other weapon parts are raised to extremely high temperatures, similar to those in the center of the sun. The maximum temperature attained by the fission weapon residues is several tens of million degrees, which may be compared with a maximum of 5,0000C (or 9,0000F) in a conventional high-explosive weapon. Because of the great heat produced by the nuclear explosion, all the materials are converted into the gaseous form. Since the gases, at the instant of explosion, are restricted to the region occupied by the original constituents in the weapon, tremendous pressures will be produced. These pressures are probably over a million times the atmospheric pressure, i.e., of the order of many millions of pounds per square inch.

2.04 Within less than a millionth of a second of the detonation of the weapon, the extremely hot weapon residues radiate large amounts of energy, mainly as invisible X rays, which are absorbed within a few feet in the surrounding (sea-level) atmosphere ( 1.78). This leads to the formation of an extremely hot and highly luminous (incandescent) spherical mass of air and gaseous weapon residues which is the fireball referred to in 1.32; a typical fireball accompanying an air burst is shown in Fig. 2.04. The surface brightness decreases with time, but after about a millisecond,[1] the fireball from a 1 megaton nuclear weapon would appear to an observer 50 miles away to be many times more brilliant than the sun at noon. In several of the nuclear tests made in the atmosphere at low altitude at the Nevada Test Site, in all of which the energy yields were less than 100 kilotons, the glare in the sky, in the early hours of the dawn, was visible 400 (or more) miles away. This was not the result of direct (line-of-sight) transmission, but rather of scattering and diffraction, i.e., bending, of the light rays by particles of dust and possibly by moisture in the atmosphere. However, high-altitude bursts in the megaton range have been seen directly as far a 700 miles away.

Megaton-range Fireball

Figure 2.04 Fireball from an air burst in the megaton energy range, photographed from an altitude of 12,000 feet at a distance of about 50 miles. The fireball is partially surrounded by the condensation cloud (see 2.48).

2.05 The surface temperatures of the fireball, upon which the brightness (or luminance) depends, do not vary greatly with the total energy yield of the weapon. Consequently, the observed brightness of the fireball in an air burst is roughly the same, regardless of the amount of energy released in the explosion. Immediately after its formation the fireball begins to grow in size, engulfing the surrounding air. This growth is accompanied by a decrease in temperature because of the accompanying increase in mass. At the same time, the fireball rises, like a hot-air balloon. Within seven-tenths of a millisecond from the detonation, the fireball from a 1-megaton weapon is about 440 feet across, and this increases to a maximum value of about 5,700 feet in 10 seconds. It is then rising at a rate of 250 to 350 feet per second. After a minute, the fireball has cooled to such an extent that it no longer emits visible radiation. It has then risen roughly 4.5 miles from the point of burst.


2.06 While the fireball is still luminous, the temperature, in the interior at least, is so high that all the weapon materials are in the form of vapor. This includes the radioactive fission products, uranium (or plutonium) that has escaped fission, and the weapon casing (and other) materials. As the fireball increases in size and cools, the vapors condense to form a cloud containing solid particles of the weapon debris, as well as many small drops of water derived from the air sucked into the rising fireball.

2.07 Quite early in the ascent of the fireball, cooling of the outside by radiation and the drag of the air through which it rises frequently bring about a change in shape. The roughly spherical form becomes a toroid (or doughnut), although this shape and its associated motion are often soon hidden by the radioactive cloud and debris. As it ascends, the toroid undergoes a violent, internal circulatory motion as shown in Fig. 2.07a. The formation of the torrid is usually observed in the lower part of the visible cloud, as may be seen in the lighter, i.e., more luminous, portion of Fig. 2.07b. The circulation entrains more air through the bottom of the toroid, thereby cooling the cloud and dissipating the energy contained in the fireball. As a result, the toroidal motion slows and may stop completely as the cloud rises toward its maximum height.

2.08 The color of the radioactive cloud is initially red or reddish brown, due to the presence of various colored compounds (nitrous acid and oxides of nitrogen) at the surface of the fireball. These result from chemical interaction of nitrogen, oxygen, and water vapor in the air at the existing high temperatures and under the influence of the nuclear radiation. As the fireball cools and condensation occurs, the color of the cloud changes to white, mainly due to the water droplets as in an ordinary cloud.

2.09 Depending on the height of burst of the nuclear weapon and the nature of the terrain below, a strong updraft with inflowing winds, called "afterwinds," is produced in the immediate vicinity. These afterwinds can cause varying amounts of dirt and debris to be sucked up from the earth's surface into the radioactive cloud (Fig. 2.07b).

2.10 In an air burst with a moderate (or small) amount of dirt and debris drawn up into the cloud, only a relatively small proportion of the dirt particles become contaminated with radioactivity. This is because the particles do not mix intimately with the weapon residues in the cloud at the time when the fission products are still vaporized and about to condense. For a burst near the land surface, however, large quantities of dirt and other debris are drawn into the cloud at early times. Good mixing then occurs during the initial phases of cloud formation and growth. Consequently, when the vaporized fission products condense they do so on the foreign matter, thus forming highly radioactive particles ( 2.23).

Diagram of Toroidal Circulation

Figure 2.07a Cutaway showing artist’s conception of toroidal circulation within the radioactive cloud from a nuclear explosion.

2.11 At first the rising mass of weapon residues carries the particles upward, but after a time they begin to fall slowly under the influence of gravity, at rates dependent upon their size. Consequently, a lengthening (and widening) column of cloud (or smoke) is produced. This cloud consists chiefly of very small particles of radioactive fission products and weapon residues, water droplets, and larger particles of dirt and debris carried up by the after-winds.

2.12 The speed with which the top of the radioactive cloud continues to ascend depends on the meteorological conditions as well as on the energy yield of the weapon. An approximate indication of the rate of rise of the cloud from a 1-megaton explosion is given by the results in Table 2.12 and the curve in Fig. 2.12. Thus, in general, the cloud will have attained a height of 3 miles in 30 seconds and 5 miles in about a minute. The average rate of rise during the first minute or so is nearly 300 miles per hour (440 feet per second). These values should be regarded as rough averages only, and large deviations may be expected in different circumstances (see also Figs. l0.158a, b, c).

Fireball of Low-Altitude Burst

Figure 2.07b Low air burst showing toroidal fireball and dirt cloud

2.13 The eventual height reached by the radioactive cloud depends upon the heat energy of the weapon, and upon the atmospheric conditions, e.g., moisture content and stability. The greater the amount of heat generated the greater will be the upward thrust due to buoyancy and so the greater will be the distance the cloud ascends. The maximum height attained by the radioactive cloud is strongly influenced by the tropopause, i.e., the boundary between the troposphere below and the stratosphere above, assuming that the cloud attains the height of the troposphere.[2]

2.14 When the cloud reaches the tropopause, there is a tendency for it to spread out laterally, i.e., sideways. But if sufficient energy remains in the radioactive cloud at this height, a portion of it will penetrate the tropopause and ascend into the more stable air of the stratosphere.

Table 2.12



Heigth (miles) Time (miuntes) Rate of Rise (mph)
2 0.3 330
4 0.7 270
6 1.1 220
10 2.5 140
12 3.8 27
Chart of Cloud Top Height

Figure 2.12. Height of cloud top above burst height at various times after a 1-megaton explosion for a moderately low air burst.

2.15 The cloud attains its maximum height after about 10 minutes and is then said to be "stabilized." It continues to grow laterally, however, to produce the characteristic mushroom shape (Fig. 2.15). The cloud may continue to be visible for about an hour or more before being dispersed by the winds into the surrounding atmosphere where it merges with natural clouds in the sky.

Megaton-range Mushroom Cloud

Figure 2.15. The mushroom cloud formed in a nuclear explosion in the megaton energy range, photographed from an altitude of 12,000 feet at a distance of about 50 miles.

2.16 The dimensions of the stabilized cloud formed in a nuclear explosion depend on the meteorological conditions, which vary with time and place. Approximate average values of cloud height and radius (at about 10 minutes after the explosion), attained in land surface or low air bursts, for conditions most likely to be encountered in the continental United States, are given in Fig. 2.16 as a function of the energy yield of the explosion. The flattening of the height curve in the range of about 20- to 100-kilotons TNT equivalent is due to the effect of the tropopause in slowing down the cloud rise. For yields below about 15 kilotons the heights indicated are distances above the burst point but for higher yields the values are above sea level. For land surface bursts, the maximum cloud height is somewhat less than given by Fig. 2.16 because of the mass of dirt and debris carried aloft by the explosion.

2.17 For yields below about 20 kilotons, the radius of the stem of the mushroom cloud is about half the cloud radius. With increasing yield, however, the ratio of these dimensions decreases, and for yields in the megaton range the stem may be only one-fifth to one-tenth as wide as the cloud. For clouds which do not penetrate the tropopause the base of the mushroom head is, very roughly, at about one-half the altitude of the top. For higher yields, the broad base will probably be in the vicinity of the tropopause. There is a change in cloud shape in going from the kiloton to the megaton range. A typical cloud from a 10-kiloton air burst would reach a height of 19,000 feet with the base at about 10,000 feet; the horizontal dimensions would also be roughly 10,000 feet. For an explosion in the megaton range, however, the horizontal dimensions are greater than the total height (cf. Fig. 2.16)


2.18 Since many of the phenomena and effects of a nuclear explosion occurring on or near the earth's surface are similar to those associated with an air burst, it is convenient before proceeding further to refer to some of the special characteristics of a surface burst. In such a burst, the fireball in its rapid initial growth, abuts (or touches) the surface of the earth (Fig. 2.18a). Because of the intense heat, some of the rock, soil, and other material in the area is vaporized and taken into the fireball. Additional material is melted, either completely or on its surface, and the strong afterwinds cause large amounts of dirt, dust, and other particles to be sucked up as the fireball rises (Fig. 2.18b).

Chart of Cloud Height vs Yield

Figure 2.16. Approximate values of stabilized cloud height and radius as a function of explosion yield for land surface or low air bursts.

2.19 An important difference between a surface burst and an air burst is, consequently, that in the surface burst the radioactive cloud is much more heavily loaded with debris. This consists of particles ranging in size from the very small ones produced by condensation as the fireball cools to the much larger debris particles which have been raised by the afterwinds. The exact composition of the cloud will, of course, depend on the nature of the surface materials and the extent of their contact with the fireball.

Megaton-Range Fireball

Figure 2.18a. Fireball formed by a nuclear explosion in the megaton energy range near the earth’s surface. The maximum diameter of the fireball was 3 1/4 miles.

2.20 For a surface burst associated with a moderate amount of debris, such as has been the case in several test explosions in which the weapons were detonated near the ground, the rate of rise of the cloud is much the same as given earlier for an air burst (Table 2.12). The radioactive cloud reaches a height of several miles before spreading out abruptly into a mushroom shape.

2.21 When the fireball touches the earth's surface, a crater is formed as a result of the vaporization of dirt and other material and the removal of soil, etc., by the blast wave and winds accompanying the explosion. The size of the crater will vary with the height above the surface at which the weapon is exploded and with the character of the soil, as well as with the energy of the explosion. It is believed that for a 1-megaton weapon there would be no appreciable crater formation unless detonation occurs at an altitude of 450 feet or less.

2.22 If a nuclear weapon is exploded near a water surface, large amounts of water are vaporized and carried up into the radioactive cloud. When the cloud reaches high altitudes the vapor condenses to form water droplets, similar to those in an ordinary atmospheric cloud.

Dirt Cloud from Surface Burst

Figure 2.18b. Formation of dirt cloud in surface burst.


2.23 In a surface burst, large quantities of earth or water enter the fireball at an early stage and are fused or vaporized. When sufficient cooling has occurred, the fission products and other radioactive residues become incorporated with the earth particles as a result of the condensation of vaporized fission products into fused particles of earth, etc. A small proportion of the solid particles formed upon further cooling are contaminated fairly uniformly throughout with the radioactive fission products and other weapon residues,[3] but as a general rule the contamination is found mainly in a thin shell near the surface of the particles ( 9.50). In water droplets, the small fission product particles occur at discrete points within the drops. As the violent disturbance due to the explosion subsides, the contaminated particles and droplets gradually descend to earth. This phenomenon is referred to as "fallout," and the same name is applied to the particles themselves when they reach the ground. It is the fallout, with its associated radioactivity which decays over a long period of time, that is the main source of the residual nuclear radiation referred to in the preceding chapter.

2.24 The extent and nature of the fallout can range between wide extremes. The actual situation is determined by a combination of circumstances associated with the energy yield and design of the weapon, the height of the explosion, the nature of the surface beneath the point of burst, and the meteorological conditions. In an air burst, for example, occurring at an appreciable distance above the earth's surface, so that no large amounts of surface materials are sucked into the cloud, the contaminated particles become widely dispersed. The magnitude of the hazard from fallout will then be far less than if the explosion were a surface burst. Thus at Hiroshima (height of burst 1670 feet, yield about 12.5 kilotons) and Nagasaki (height of burst 1640 feet, yield about 22 kilotons) injuries due to fallout were completely absent.

2.25 On the other hand, a nuclear explosion occurring at or near the earth's surface can result in severe contamination by the radioactive fallout. From the 15-megaton thermonuclear device tested at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954—the BRAVO shot of Operation CASTLE—the fallout caused substantial contamination over an area of more than 7,000 square miles. The contaminated region was roughly cigar-shaped and extended more than 20 statute miles upwind and over 350 miles downwind. The width in the crosswind direction was variable, the maximum being over 60 miles ( 9.104).

2.26 The meteorological conditions which determine the shape, extent, and location of the fallout pattern from a nuclear explosion are the height of the tropopause, atmospheric winds, and the occurrence of precipitation. For a given explosion energy yield, type of burst, and tropopause height, the fallout pattern is affected mainly by the directions and speeds of the winds over the fallout area, from the earth's surface to the top of the stabilized cloud, which may be as high as 100,000 feet. Furthermore, variations in the winds, from the time of burst until the particles reach the ground, perhaps several hours later, affect the fallout pattern following a nuclear explosion (see Chapter IX).

2.27 It should be understood that fallout is a gradual phenomenon extending over a period of time. In the BRAVO explosion, for example, about 10 hours elapsed before the contaminated particles began to fall at the extremities of the 7,000 square mile area. By that time, the radioactive cloud had thinned out to such an extent that it was no longer visible. This brings up the important fact that fallout can occur even when the cloud cannot be seen. Nevertheless, the area of contamination which presents the most serious hazard generally results from the fallout of visible particles. The sizes of these particles range from that of fine sand, i.e., approximately 100 micrometers[4] in diameter, or smaller, in the more distant portions of the fallout area, to pieces about the size of a marble, i.e., roughly 1 cm (0.4 inch) in diameter, and even larger close to the burst point.

2.28 Particles in this size range arrive on the ground within one day after the explosion, and will not have traveled too far, e.g., up to a few hundred miles, from the region of the shot, depending on the wind. Thus, the fallout pattern from particles of visible size is established within about 24 hours after the burst. This is referred to as "early" fallout, also sometimes called "local" or "close-in" fallout. In addition, there is the deposition of very small particles which descend very slowly over large areas of the earth's surface. This is the "delayed" (or "worldwide") fallout, to which residues from nuclear explosions of various types—air, high-altitude, surface, and shallow subsurface—may contribute (see Chapter IX).

2.29 Although the test of March 1, 1954 produced the most extensive early fallout yet recorded, it should be pointed out that the phenomenon was not necessarily characteristic of (nor restricted to) thermonuclear explosions. It is very probable that if the same device had been detonated at an appreciable distance above the coral island, so that the large fireball did not touch the surface of the ground, the early fallout would have been of insignificant proportions.

2.30 The general term "scavenging" is used to describe various processes resulting in the removal of radioactivity from the cloud and its deposition on the earth. One of these processes arises from the entrainment in the cloud of quantities of dirt and debris sucked up in a surface (or near-surface) nuclear burst. The condensation of the fission-product and other radioactive vapors on the particles and their subsequent relatively rapid fall to earth leads to a certain degree of scavenging.

2.31 Another scavenging process, which can occur at any time in the history of the radioactive cloud, is that due to rain falling through the weapon debris and carrying contaminated particles down with it. This is one mechanism for the production of "hot spots," i.e., areas on the ground of much higher activity than the surroundings, in both early and delayed fallout patterns. Since rains (other than thundershowers) generally originate from atmospheric clouds whose tops are between about 10,000 and 30,000 feet altitude, it is only below this region that scavenging by rain is likely to take place. Another effect that rain may have if it occurs either during or after the deposition of the fallout is to wash radioactive debris over the surface of the ground. This may result in cleansing some areas and reducing their activity while causing hot spots in other (lower) areas.


2.32 At a fraction of a second after a nuclear explosion, a high-pressure wave develops and moves outward from the fireball (Fig. 2.32). This is the shock wave or blast wave, mentioned in 1.01 and to be considered subsequently in more detail, which is the cause of much destruction accompanying an air burst. The front of the blast wave, i.e., the shock front, travels rapidly away from the fireball, behaving like a moving wall of highly compressed air. After the lapse of 10 seconds, when the fireball of a 1-megaton nuclear weapon has attained its maximum size (5,700 feet across), the shock front is some 3 miles farther ahead. At 50 seconds after the explosion, when the fireball is no longer visible, the blast wave has traveled about 12 miles. It is then moving at about 1 ,150 feet per second, which is slightly faster than the speed of sound at sea level.

2.33 When the blast wave strikes the surface of the earth, it is reflected back, similar to a sound wave producing an echo. This reflected blast wave, like the original (or direct) wave, is also capable of causing material damage. At a certain region on the surface, the position of which depends chiefly on the height of the burst and the energy of the explosion, the direct and reflected wave fronts merge. This merging phenomenon is called the "Mach effect." The "overpressure," i.e., the pressure in excess of the normal atmospheric value, at the front of the Mach wave is generally about twice as great as that at the direct blast wave front.

2.34 For an air burst of a 1-megaton nuclear weapon at an altitude of 6,500 feet, the Mach effect will begin approximately 4.5 seconds after the explosion, in a rough circle at a radius of 1.3 miles from ground zero.[5] The overpressure on the ground at the blast wave front at this time is about 20 pounds per square inch, so that the total air pressure is more than double the normal atmospheric pressure.[6]

Shock Wave Separates from Fireball

Figure 2.32. The faintly luminous shock front seen just ahead of the fireball soon after breakaway (see 2.120).

2.35 At first the height of the Mach front is small, but as the blast wave front continues to move outward, the height increases steadily. At the same time, however, the overpressure, like that in the original (or direct) wave, decreases correspondingly because of the continuous loss of energy and the ever-increasing area of the advancing front. After the lapse of about 40 seconds, when the Mach front from a 1-megaton nuclear weapon is 10 miles from ground zero, the overpressure will have decreased to roughly 1 pound per square inch.

2.36 The distance from ground zero at which the Mach effect commences varies with the height of burst. Thus, as seen in Fig. 2.32, in the low-altitude (100 feet) detonation at the TRINITY (Alamogordo) test, the Mach front was apparent when the direct shock front had advanced a short distance from the fireball. At the other extreme, in a very high air burst there might be no detectable Mach effect. (The TRINITY test, conducted on July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, New Mexico, was the first test of a nuclear (implosion) weapon; the yield was estimated to be about 19 kilotons.)

2.37 Strong transient winds are associated with the passage of the shock (and Mach) front. These blast winds ( 3.07) are very much stronger than the ground wind (or afterwind) due to the updraft caused by the rising fireball ( 2.09) which occurs at a later time. The blast winds may have peak velocities of several hundred miles an hour fairly near to ground zero; even at more than 6 miles from the explosion of a 1-megaton nuclear weapon, the peak velocity will be greater than 70 miles per hour. It is evident that such strong winds can contribute greatly to the blast damage resulting from the explosion of a nuclear weapon.



2.38 Immediately after the explosion, the weapon residues emit the primary thermal radiation ( 1.77). Because of the very high temperature, much of this is in the form of X rays which are absorbed within a layer of a few feet of air; the energy is then re-emitted from the fireball as (secondary) thermal radiation of longer wavelength, consisting of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared rays. Because of certain phenomena occurring in the fireball (see 2.106 et seq.), the surface temperature undergoes a curious change. The temperature of the interior falls steadily, but the apparent surface temperature of the fireball decreases more rapidly for a small fraction of a second. Then, the apparent surface temperature increases again for a somewhat longer time, after which it falls continuously (see Fig. 2.123). In other words, there are effectively two surface-temperature pulses; the first is of very short duration, whereas the second lasts for a much longer time. The behavior is quite general for air (and surface) bursts, although the duration times of the pulses increase with the energy yield of the explosion.

Two Pulses of Thermal Radiation

Figure 2.39. Emission of thermal radiation in two pulses in an air burst.

2.39 Corresponding to the two surface-temperature pulses, there are two pulses of emission of thermal radiation from the fireball (Fig. 2.39). In the first pulse, which lasts about a tenth of a second for a 1-megaton explosion, the surface temperatures are mostly very high. As a result, much of the radiation emitted by the fireball during this pulse is in the ultraviolet region. Although ultraviolet radiation can cause skin burns, in most circumstances following an ordinary air burst the first pulse of thermal radiation is not a significant hazard in this respect, for several reasons. In the first place, only about 1 percent of the thermal radiation appears in the initial pulse because of its short duration. Second, the ultraviolet rays are readily attenuated by the intervening air, so that the dose delivered at a distance from the explosion may be comparatively small. Furthermore, it appears that the ultraviolet radiation from the first pulse could cause significant effects on the human skin only within ranges at which other thermal radiation effects are much more serious. It should be mentioned, however, that although the first radiation pulse may be disregarded as a source of skin burns, it is capable of producing permanent or temporary effects on the eyes, especially of individuals who happen to be looking in the direction of the explosion.

2.40 In contrast to the first pulse, the second radiation pulse may last for several seconds, e.g., about 10 seconds for a 1-megaton explosion; it carries about 99 percent of the total thermal radiation energy. Since the temperatures are lower than in the first pulse, most of the rays reaching the earth consist of visible and infrared (invisible) light. It is this radiation which is the main cause of skin burns of various degrees suffered by exposed individuals up to 12 miles or more, and of eye effects at even greater distances, from the explosion of a 1-megaton weapon. For weapons of higher energy, the effective damage range is greater, as will be explained in Chapter VII. The radiation from the second pulse can also cause fires to start under suitable conditions.


2.41 As stated in Chapter I, the explosion of a nuclear weapon is associated with the emission of various nuclear radiations, consisting of neutrons, gamma rays, and alpha and beta particles. Essentially all the neutrons and part of the gamma rays are emitted in the actual fission process. These are referred to as the "prompt nuclear radiation’s" because they are produced simultaneously with the nuclear explosion. Some of the neutrons liberated in fission are immediately captured and others undergo "scattering collisions" with various nuclei present in the weapon. These processes are frequently accompanied by the instantaneous emission of gamma rays. In addition, many of the escaping neutrons undergo similar interactions with atomic nuclei of the air, thus forming an extended source of gamma rays around the burst point. The remainder of the gamma rays and the beta particles are liberated over a period of time as the fission products undergo radioactive decay. The alpha particles are expelled, in an analogous manner, as a result of the decay of the uranium (or plutonium) which has escaped fission in the weapon.

2.42 The initial nuclear radiation is generally defined as that emitted from both the fireball and the radioactive cloud within the first minute after the explosion. It includes neutrons and gamma rays given off almost instantaneously, as well as the gamma rays emitted by the fission products and other radioactive species in the rising cloud. It should be noted that the alpha and beta particles present in the initial radiation have not been considered. This is because they are so easily absorbed that they will not reach more than a few yards, at most, from the radioactive cloud.

2.43 The somewhat arbitrary time period of 1 minute for the duration of the initial nuclear radiations was originally based upon the following considerations. As a consequence of attenuation by the air, the effective range of the fission gamma rays and of those from the fission products from a 20-kiloton explosion is very roughly 2 miles. In other words, gamma rays originating from such a source at an altitude of over 2 miles can be ignored, as far as their effect at the earth's surface is concerned. Thus, when the radioactive cloud has reached a height of 2 miles, the effects of the initial nuclear radiations are no longer significant. Since it takes roughly a minute for the cloud to rise this distance, the initial nuclear radiation was defined as that emitted in the first minute after the explosion.

2.44 The foregoing arguments are based on the characteristics of a 20-kiloton nuclear weapon. For a detonation of higher energy, the maximum distance over which the gamma rays are effective will be larger than given above. However, at the same time, there is an increase in the rate at which the cloud rises. Similarly for a weapon of lower energy, the effective distance is less, but so also is the rate of ascent of the cloud. The period over which the initial nuclear radiation extends may consequently be taken to be approximately the same, namely, 1 minute, irrespective of the energy release of the explosion.

2.45 Neutrons are the only significant nuclear radiations produced directly in the thermonuclear reactions mentioned in 1.69. Alpha particles (helium nuclei) are also formed, but they do not travel very far from the explosion. Some of the neutrons will escape but others will be captured by the various nuclei present in the exploding weapon. Those neutrons absorbed by fissionable species may lead to the liberation of more neutrons as well as to the emission of gamma rays. In addition, the capture of neutrons in nonfission reactions is usually accompanied by gamma rays. It is seen, therefore, that the initial radiations from an explosion in which both fission and fusion (thermonuclear) processes occur consist essentially of neutrons and gamma rays. The relative proportions of these two radiations may be somewhat different than for a weapon in which all the energy release is due to fission, but for present purposes the difference may be disregarded.


2.46 If a detonation occurs at or near the earth's surface, the EMP phenomenon referred to in 1.38 produces intense electric and magnetic fields which may extend to distances up to several miles, depending on the weapon yield. The close-in region near the burst point is highly ionized and large electric currents flow in the air and the ground, producing a pulse of electromagnetic radiation. Beyond this close-in region the electromagnetic field strength, as measured on (or near) the ground, drops sharply and then more slowly with increasing distance from the explosion. The intense fields may damage unprotected electrical and electronic equipment at distances exceeding those at which significant air blast damage may occur, especially for weapons of low yield (see Chapter XI).


2.47 There are a number of interesting phenomena associated with a nuclear air burst that are worth mentioning although they have no connection with the destructive or other harmful effects of the explosion. Soon after the detonation, a violet-colored glow may be observed, particularly at night or in dim daylight, at some distance from the fireball. This glow may persist for an appreciable length of time, being distinctly visible near the head of the radioactive cloud. It is believed to be the ultimate result of a complex series of processes initiated by the action of the various radiations on the nitrogen and oxygen of the air.

2.48 Another early phenomenon following a nuclear explosion in certain circumstances is the formation of a "condensation cloud." This is sometimes called the Wilson cloud (or cloud-chamber effect) because it is the result of conditions analogous to those utilized by scientists in the Wilson cloud chamber. It will be seen in Chapter III that the passage of a high-pressure shock front in air is followed by a rarefaction (or suction) wave. During the compression (or blast) phase, the temperature of the air rises and during the decompression (or suction) phase it falls. For moderately low blast pressures, the temperature can drop below its original, preshock value, so that if the air contains a fair amount of water vapor, condensation accompanied by cloud formation will occur.

Condensation Cloud

Figure 2.49. Condensation cloud formed in an air burst over water.

2.49 The condensation cloud which was observed in the ABLE Test at Bikini in 1946 is shown in Fig. 2.49. Since the device was detonated just above the surface of the lagoon, the air was nearly saturated with water vapor and the conditions were suitable for the production of a Wilson cloud. It can be seen from the photograph that the cloud formed some way ahead of the fireball. The reason is that the shock front must travel a considerable distance before the blast pressure has fallen sufficiently for a low temperature to be attained in the subsequent decompression phase. At the time the temperature has dropped to that required for condensation to occur, the blast wave front has moved still farther away, as is apparent in Fig. 2.49, where the disk-like formation on the surface of the water indicates the passage of the shock wave.

2.50 The relatively high humidity of the air makes the conditions for the formation of the condensation cloud most favorable in nuclear explosions occurring over (or under) water, as in the Bikini tests in 1946. The cloud commenced to form 1 to 2 seconds after the detonation, and it had dispersed completely within another second or so, as the air warmed up and the water droplets evaporated. The original dome-like cloud first changed to a ring shape, as seen in Fig. 2.50, and then disappeared.

Late-Stage Condensation Cloud

Figure 2.50 Late stage of the condensation cloud in an air burst over water.

2.51 Since the Wilson condensation cloud forms after the fireball has emitted most of its thermal radiation, it has little influence on this radiation. It is true that fairly thick clouds, especially smoke clouds, can attenuate the thermal radiation reaching the earth from the fireball. However, apart from being formed at too late a stage, the condensation cloud is too tenuous to have any appreciable effect in this connection.



2.52 Nuclear devices were exploded at high altitudes during the summer of 1958 as part of the HARDTACK test series in the Pacific Ocean and the ARGUS operation in the South Atlantic Ocean. Additional high-altitude nuclear tests were conducted during the FISHBOWL test series in 1962. In the HARDTACK series, two high-altitude bursts, with energy yields in the megaton range, were set off in the vicinity of Johnston Island, 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. The first device, named TEAK, was detonated on August 1, 1958 (Greenwich Civil Time) at an altitude of 252,000 feet, i.e., nearly 48 miles. The second, called ORANGE, was exploded at an altitude of 141,000 feet, i.e., nearly 27 miles, on August 12, 1958 (GCT). During the FISHBOWL series, a megaton and three submegaton devices were detonated at high altitudes in the vicinity of Johnston Island. The STARFISH PRIME device, with a yield of 1.4 megatons, was exploded at an altitude of about 248 miles on July 9, 1962 (GCT). The three submegaton devices, CHECKMATE, BLUEGILL TRIPLE PRIME, and KINGFISH, were detonated at altitudes of tens of miles on October 20, 1962, October 26, 1962, and November 1, 1962 (GCT), respectively.

2.53 The ARGUS operation was not intended as a test of nuclear weapons or their destructive effects. It was an experiment designed to provide information on the trapping of electrically charged particles in the earth's magnetic field ( 2.145). The operation consisted of three high-altitude nuclear detonations, each having a yield from 1 to 2 kilotons TNT equivalent. The burst altitudes were from about 125 to 300 miles.


2.54 If a burst occurs in the altitude regime of roughly 10 to 50 miles, the explosion energy radiated as X rays will be deposited in the burst region, although over a much larger volume of air than at lower altitudes. In this manner, the ORANGE shot created a large fireball almost spherical in shape. In general, the fireball behavior was in agreement with the expected interactions of the various radiations and kinetic energy of the expanding weapon debris with the ambient air ( 2.130 et seq.).

2.55 The mechanism of fireball formation changes appreciably at still higher burst altitude, since the X-rays are able to penetrate to greater distances in the low-density air. Starting at an explosion altitude of about 50 miles, the interaction of the weapon debris energy with the atmosphere becomes the dominant mechanism for producing a fireball. Because the debris is highly ionized ( 1.38), the earth's magnetic field, i.e., the geomagnetic field, will influence the location and distribution of the late-time fireball from bursts above about 50 miles altitude.

2.56 The TEAK explosion was accompanied by a sharp and bright flash of light which was visible above the horizon from Hawaii, over 700 miles away. Because of the long range of the X rays in the low-density atmosphere in the immediate vicinity of the burst, the fireball grew very rapidly in size. In 0.3 second, its diameter was already 11 miles and it increased to 18 miles in 3.5 seconds. The fireball also ascended with great rapidity, the initial rate of rise being about a mile per second. Surrounding the fireball was a very large red luminous spherical wave, arising apparently from electronically excited oxygen atoms produced by a shock wave passing through the low-density air (Fig. 2.56).

2.57 At about a minute or so after the detonation, the TEAK fireball had risen to a height of over 90 miles, and it was then directly (line-of-sight) visible from Hawaii. The rate of rise of the fireball was estimated to be some 3,300 feet per second and it was expanding horizontally at a rate of about 1,000) feet per second. The large red luminous sphere was observed for a few minutes; at roughly 6 minutes after the explosion it was nearly 600 miles in diameter.

High-altitude TEAK shot

Figure 2.56.Fireball and red luminous spherical wave formed after the TEAK high-altitude shot. (The photograph was taken from Hawaii, 780 miles from the explosion.)

2.58 The formation and growth of the fireball changes even more drastically as the explosion altitude increases above 65 miles. Because X rays can penetrate the low-density atmosphere to great distances before being absorbed, there is no local fireball. Below about 190 miles (depending on weapon yield), the energy initially appearing as the rapid outward motion of debris particles will still be deposited relatively locally, resulting in a highly heated and ionized region. The geomagnetic field plays an increasingly important role in controlling debris motion as the detonation altitude increases. Above about 200 miles, where the air density is very low, the geomagnetic field is the dominant factor in slowing the expansion of the ionized debris across the field lines. Upward and downward motion along the field lines, however, is not greatly affected ( 10.64). When the debris is stopped by the atmosphere, at about 75 miles altitude, it may heat and ionize the air sufficiently to cause a visible region which will subsequently rise and expand. Such a phenomenon was observed following the STARFISH PRIME event.

2.59 A special feature of explosions at altitudes between about 20 and 50 miles is the extreme brightness; of the fireball. It is visible at distances of several hundred miles and is capable of producing injury to the eyes over large areas ( 12.79 et seq.).

2.60 Additional important effects that result from high-altitude bursts are the widespread ionization and other disturbances of the portion of the upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere. These disturbances affect the propagation of radio and radar waves, sometimes over extended areas (see Chapter X). Following the TEAK event, propagation of high-frequency (HF) radio communications (Table 10.91) was degraded over a region of several thousand miles in diameter for a period lasting from shortly after midnight until sunrise. Some very-high-frequency (VHF) communications circuits in the Pacific area were unable to function for about 30 seconds after the STARFISH PRIME event.

2.61 Detonations above about 19 miles can produce EMP effects ( 2.46) on the ground over large areas, increasing with the yield of the explosion and the height of burst. For fairly large yields and burst heights, the EMP fields may be significant at nearly all points within the line of sight, i.e., to the horizon, from the burst point. Although these fields are weaker than those in the close-in region surrounding a surface burst, they are of sufficient magnitude to damage some unprotected electrical and electronic equipment. The mechanism of formation and the effects of the EMP are treated in Chapter XI.

2.62 An interesting visible effect of high-altitude nuclear explosions is the creation of an ''artificial aurora." Within a second or two after burst time of the TEAK shot a brilliant aurora appeared from the bottom of the fireball and purple streamers were seen to spread toward the north. Less than a second later, an aurora was observed at Apia, in the Samoan Islands, more than 2,000 miles from the point of burst, although at no time was the fireball in direct view. The formation of the aurora is attributed to the motion along the lines of the earth's magnetic field of beta particles (electrons), emitted by the radioactive fission fragments. Because of the natural cloud cover over Johnston Island at the time of burst, direct observation of the ORANGE fireball was not possible from the ground. However, such observations were made from aircraft flying above the low clouds. The auroras were less marked than from the TEAK shot, but an aurora lasting 17 minutes was again seen from Apia. Similar auroral effects were observed after the other high-altitude explosions mentioned in 2.52.



  1. A millisecond is a one-thousandth part of a second.
  2. The tropopause is the boundary between the troposphere and the relatively stable air of the stratosphere. It varies with season and latitude, ranging from 25,000 feet near the poles to about 55,000 feet in equatorial regions ( 9.128).
  3. These residues include radioactive species formed at the time of the explosion by neutron capture in various materials ( 9.31).
  4. A micrometer (also called a micron) is a one-millionth part of a meter, i.e., 10-6 meter, or about 0.00004 (or 4 x l0-5) inch.
  5. The term "ground zero" refers to the point on the earth's surface immediately below (or above) the point of detonation. For a burst over (or under) water, the corresponding point is generally called "surface zero." The term "surface zero" or "surface ground zero" is also commonly used for ground surface and underground explosions. In some publications, ground (or surface) zero is called the "hypocenter" of the explosion.
  6. The normal atmospheric pressure at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch.