How does an Atomic Bomb Work?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: L. S. Wynn
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  • Last Modified Date: 12 February 2020
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An atom bomb works by initiating a nuclear chain reaction, which releases a huge amount of energy relative to conventional explosives. Per unit volume, an atom bomb may be millions or billions of times more powerful than TNT. The first atomic explosion occurred on 16 July 1945 at the Alamogordo Test Range in New Mexico, during a test called Trinity. It was developed during the top secret Manhattan Project, which was directed by General Leslie R. Groves of the US Army.

Nuclear reactions occur when neutrons are fired at closely packed atoms with heavy nuclei (uranium or plutonium isotopes). These heavy nuclei break apart into lighter nuclei when hit by a neutron, in turn generating more neutrons which bombard other nuclei, creating a chain reaction. This process is known as fission. (Another process known as fusion releases energy by fusing together nuclei rather than breaking them apart.) By breaking down the nuclei themselves rather than releasing energy through a conventional chemical reaction, atom bombs can release more than 80 terajoules of energy per kilogram (TJ/kg).

In the earliest bombs, the chain reaction was initiated simply by firing two half-spheres of high purity uranium isotope at one another in a small chamber. In updated designs, a uranium or plutonium bomb core is surrounded by high-explosive lenses designed to compress the core upon detonation. The compressed core goes critical, initiating a chain reaction that persists until many of the heavy nuclei have been broken apart.


The atom bomb and its cousin the hydrogen bomb have probably been the most powerful weapons in the world since their creation many decades ago. Large bombs can destroy entire cities. Thousands of atom bombs have been detonated, though only two have been used in warfare - both used by the US against Japan during World War II. There are seven countries that openly declare possessing nuclear weapons; the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the People's Republic of China, India and Pakistan. The world currently possesses enough nuclear capability to make the human race go extinct many times over.


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Post 113

What is the word reaction for an atomic bomb?

Post 111

Now if any countries try to attack with nuclear or atomic bombs. There are literally enough nuclear and atomic bombs to destroy the world.

Post 110

@irontoenail - Always remembering, of course, that they have been used. Japan can testament to that. So, yes, there are definitely individual heroes, but for the most part I think they haven't been used because everyone has them now. Dropping the atomic bomb isn't a way to win a war now. It means everyone dies.

Post 109

@pleonasm - You know, for a while I was quite depressed whenever I thought about the fact that there are so many nuclear weapons stockpiled around the world.

But eventually I came to see that the fact that they haven't been used by now is fairly hopeful. I've even read stories about people during the cold war who were essentially told by (mistaken) co-workers that World War Three had started and that they had to push the button.

These people refused to do it. I know that not everyone would, but you know, there are people out there who wouldn't do it. And that's something that makes me hopeful about humanity.

Post 108

@anon124662 - I don't think there's a definitive answer to that. It would depend on what size the bombs were, how people were protected and so forth. There are places in the mountains where people have essentially burrowed under the mountain and can live in vaults. I don't know how many bombs it would take to penetrate that kind of protection. Then you have people on little islands and so forth.

Or, possibly, the human race could become extinct from just a couple of bombs, if they set off a nuclear winter (which is when the bombs create such a large dust cloud, it won't let the sun through). If that happened and it was bad enough, all life would potentially

go extinct.

I've also heard theories that a big enough atomic bomb drop in the wrong place could push the Earth out of orbit, again potentially changing the seasons enough so that everything dies.

I'm sure there is a government calculation somewhere about how many it would potentially take, but it is a complicated question.

Post 102

At least it helped me. I'm kind of satisfied. It needs a lot of pictures for better knowledge and sure bombs are okay for projects but dangerous for practice.

Post 100

this is probably not the best thing in the world.

Post 94

I agree it does need pictures but the information is very well thought out.

Post 93

If we could be extinct several times over, exactly how many do you think would be possible? I'm just asking cause "several" is pretty vague to me. Is it two? Six? Two-hundred-sixty-seven? Just my curiosity wanting to know!

Post 89

Enough to kill us all? How wonderfully reassuring.

Post 88

thanks. I'm doing a big project on Niels Borh (he created the atomic bomb).

Post 83

Great info. Especially the fact that the people have enough of these bombs to the destroy the world over and over again.

Post 69

this has helped me a lot.

Post 68

thanks a lot.

Post 67

I've been wondering about this for a while, thanks.

Post 64

this site is so good! i needed extra credit in science and this totally helped.

Post 61

thank you so much. i really needed this info. i'm doing weapons and strategy in World War II

Post 60

Great, thanks. saved me on my project and came up in my marks!

Post 58

Nice. thanks a lot

Post 54

cool beans. thanks a lot.

Post 52

thanks. now i know how it works. =)

Post 51

This saved my life. I have a big project and the a bomb is the subject.

Post 48

This saved my life. I have a big project and the a bomb is the subject.

Post 46

what chemicals react together to make the bomb explode?

Post 45

what excactly is able to split the atom?

Post 44

I really thought the atomic bomb was just from a simple atom being split.

Post 43

you really need pictures.

Post 42

a simple cartoon type video would help as well as the plain info which helps understand the process easily

Post 41

why do people attempt these vile destruction projects anyway? i am no hippy. why have something that could kill everyone?

Post 39

How is the reaction started? Is it due to the impact or is there an electronic trigger?

Post 22

Thank you so much I have always wondered about this. It's crazy to think that something so terrifying can be so fundamentally simple. thanks again

Post 14

I think this article is great and very informative. please explain how the fission process is started.

Post 13

wow. this is exactly what i need for my project! this answers everything. thanks a lot! this website is soooooooooo handy!

Post 11

if water exists on mars, can we use this technology by exploding nuclear bombs around mars with the intentions of creating "atmosphere"?

Post 10

why haven't you said that berylium and polonium is the trigger that gives the neutrons needed to start the fission process?

Post 9

But why are atomic weapons so destructive?

Post 8

This answered a lot of my questions.

Post 4

Wonderful info.....Need pictures!!!!!!!!

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