What is a Neutron Bomb?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

A neutron bomb is a small thermonuclear device designed to kill armored enemy troops with radiation while doing minimal damage to the surrounding area. It gets its name from the source of the lethal radiation -- energized free neutrons. These radioactive bullets can penetrate several feet of earth and practically any form of vehicle armor. This is in contrast to conventional nuclear weapons that emit lots of heat and light, which is blocked comparatively easily relative to radiation.

The neutron bomb is a nuclear explosive that kills people and animals but leaves structures intact.
The neutron bomb is a nuclear explosive that kills people and animals but leaves structures intact.

Neutron bombs are also known as enhanced radiation bombs (ERBs). The bomb was invented by physicist Samuel T. Cohen in the early 1970s. The intent of the bomb was to make a "nicer nuke" that did its job of eliminating enemy troops with minimal collateral damage to civilians or infrastructure. The Pope was so excited by the neutron bomb that he gave Cohen a peace medal in 1979. Another "ethical" aspect of the bomb is the low quantity of enduring radioactivity it leaves in its wake.

Among other thermonuclear weapons, the blueprints for neutron bombs were allegedly stolen by a spy working for the People's Republic of China in the mid-1990s. The motive for creating the neutron bomb comes from the days when missiles and artillery shells were not as precise, meaning that collateral damage from conventional warfare was likely. Nowadays, we have smart bombs and precise systems that hit their targets with an error factor of less than a few meters. This largely obsoletes the neutron bomb.

A neutron bomb with explosive force equal to one kiloton of TNT will kill any human at distances of a few kilometers or miles. At distances under 1 km (0.62 miles), the radiation is so strong as to immediately incapacitate the victim. This is about ten times the threshold at which half the exposed persons die. Those located further from the epicenter are also doomed to perish, but the process can drag on for days.

The neutron bomb's radiation also impregnates itself into surrounding materials such as the alloys found in armor. Exposed tanks have to be classified as low-level nuclear waste and disposed of accordingly. Samuel Cohen has since expressed shame for creation of the bomb. Hopefully it will never be used.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

hangugeo112

China conducted nuclear tests out in the Western areas of the Taklamakan desert. They are probably conducting human tests on the native Uighurs out that way as well, measuring the capacity of the Neutron bomb. I am surprised that the Pope awarded someone for coming up with yet another creative way to painfully kill a lot of people.

JavaGhoul

If China has the neutron bomb, they probably also have all sorts of weaponry that we know nothing about. With their capacity, they could own the world, and not worry about repercussions. Not to mention the American economy is still going down the tube compared to theirs.

TrogJoe19

This bomb sounds like a good solution to making nuclear explosions more peaceful, but it is still a dangerous weapon. The world needs less dangerous weapons. I hope that nations will realize that war is a sad relic of the past, and that it is in our best interest as global citizens to disarm and pursue open relations everywhere.

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