Types And Effects Of Nuclear Weapons, The Basics

by Ron G

Think of this as a primer if you will. It is written to cover the basics that will matter most to you as a prepper. I am intentionally leaving out a lot of technical jargon; there are others willing to throw that out at you. There will be some terms and concepts that do need to be understood. One I will use a lot is Ground Zero (GZ).

Ground Zero is that point on the surface of the earth directly under, at, or over, a nuclear detonation. Your location, distance, and direction, from GZ is very important.

It’s important that you understand that there are four types of nuclear detonations or “burst”. Sub Surface Burst, Surface Burst, Air Burst, and High Altitude Burst.

All nuclear burst will produce the same basic effects, blinding light, tremendous heat, massive blast wave, radiation, and the electromagnetic pulse. However, the type of burst will greatly determine the degree of each effect upon the target.

A Sub Surface Burst is one that occurs underground in which the fireball produced does not break thru to the atmosphere. The ground will shake and there may be a surface collapse at GZ but on the surface there will be no radiation or EMP released or blast wave. Really nothing to be concerned with and I mention it only because they have been used during weapons design testing programs in the past.

A Surface Burst is a detonation on or near enough to the surface where the fireball touches the earth’s surface. This is the one we almost always see in the movies and in illustrations for articles like this. There will be a brilliant flash of light, a massive fireball, and an intense outward-bound blast wave outward from GZ. As the fireball starts to rise a second blast wave, this time returning towards GZ, arrives and brings with it massive amount of debris. This debris is forced upward into the fireball and creates the stem of the familiar “Mushroom Cloud”. At GZ there is total destruction and depending on the size, design of the weapon, and to a degree the terrain, the area of total destruction can be considerable. Large areas of partial and incomplete destruction will extend even further.

Meanwhile the Mushroom Cloud continues to rise through the atmosphere, the stem discontinues and temperatures inside the fireball start to cool down. As it cools the prevailing winds will start to push the fireball downwind. Material inside the fireball, now radioactive, cools and starts to fall, largest, heaviest material first. By the time it reaches 30,000 feet the fireball will appear to be just another cloud but this cloud will be leaving behind a trail of radioactive fallout for several hundred miles.

GZ will not be survivable and will be radioactive for a long time. The further away from GZ you are the better your chances. A safe distance downwind will be much further than a safe distance cross or upwind.

An Air Burst is a detonation in which the fireball does not touch the surface of the earth. It has all the other characteristics of a Surface Burst but there is no Mushroom Cloud and most important there will be no significant fallout. What the Air Burst will do however is create a much larger area of destruction. It does this by creating three blast waves.

As the expanding blast wave (or initial wave) strikes the surface of the earth, it is reflected off the ground to form a second shock wave traveling behind the first. This reflected wave travels faster than the initial wave since it is traveling through air already moving at high-speed due to the passage of the initial wave. The reflected blast wave will merge with the initial wave to form a single wave. This is called a Mach wave. The over-pressure at the front of the Mach wave is generally about twice as great as that at the initial blast wave. If you have trouble picturing this try thinking of a ripple hitting the edge of a calm pond. This deflected wave becomes a second wave. The third wave will be the displaced air mass returning to GZ.

These types of detonation will double the area of destruction without the messy fallout. You can see the military advantage of this type of detonation. GZ will not be survivable but will not be radioactive for long. The distance from GZ you will need to survive the destructive blast are much greater but fallout will not be an issue.

Last of all is the High Altitude Burst. A detonation above 100,000 feet is a High Altitude Burst. No blast damage. No fallout. Your personal physical threat from this would be the potential flash blindness from the initial burst. The purpose of this type of detonation is the Electro Magnetic Pulse.

Lets review. A Sub Surface Burst is really not a military option. Surface or Air Burst, if you are at or are too close to GZ you are either toast or soon to be toast. If it was an Air Burst fallout is not a threat. If it was a Surface Burst and you are located far enough up or cross wind you should be in good shape. If you are downwind…

Fallout. Fallout is material that was made temporarily radioactive in the fireball through a process called ionization. It has a known decay rate.

There are multiple layers in the atmosphere; each layer is capable of having different wind speeds and directions. As the fireball becomes a fallout cloud and raises and lowers thru each layer the winds in that layer will have an effect. Lower levels will have less effect while upper levels will have more. In predicting where the fallout will go it helps to be a weatherman. Generally Continental US weather patterns flow from the South to North and West to East. But, there are seasonal variations. Understanding Highs and Lows and where you are in relation to them, would be useful information. Knowing that your westerly winds are the lower part of an upper level low that is moving south you can determine that the fallout will mostly travel south and east. (I once had to explain why surface winds have no effect to an Air Force General. The Major who ran the DoD weather school just sat there and grinned.

Fallout Protection is all about Time, Distance, and Shielding. The longer it takes for fallout to arrive the less there will be. If you are in a safe space, the longer you wait to go out the less you will be exposed to. The greater the distance between you and fallout that has arrived the less radiation you will be exposed to. The more mass between you and the fallout the less radiation will reach you. I think everyone understands these concepts well enough.

The next topic is very important. Targeting in Nuclear War.

In an all out war the first strikes will be against an enemy’s ability to strike back. Missile Silos, Bomber and Submarine Bases, and Command and Control Centers will be the first targets. Major military bases, seaports and manufacturing centers would be secondary. In a nuclear war most targets are going to be hit with Air Burst. Let me say it again. In a nuclear war most detonations are going to be Air Burst. (ICBM Silos and Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado will be exceptions to this). Fallout will be a problem, but probably not to the extent most of us think. Nuclear Winter? Forget about it. Totally made up bull!

One last thing, if you are outdoors and see an unexplainable, sudden, intense, flash of light and cannot identify the source, immediately drop to the ground, close your eyes, and cover your ears and open your mouth. You want to protect against flash blindness and the oncoming over-pressure of the blast wave. Remember, there will be a second blast wave in the opposite direction, so don’t be in a hurry to get up. Of course you may be far enough away that the wave(s) may never get there. Count that as a blessing.

M.D. Creekmore adds : If you’re interested in learning more about this subject (you should be) then I suggest that you order a copy of Nuclear War Survival Skills: Lifesaving Nuclear Facts and Self-Help Instructions

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Over the years, I’ve studied all facets of survivalism and have learned what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t. My calling is to teach others how to become better prepared for an uncertain future. My books and articles are based on real-world experience. You will find helpful tips, guides, and checklists – focusing on a very modest budget.