Nuclear Energy and Weapons

A nuclear weapon is an explosive device.  Nuclear weapons derive its destructive force from nuclear reactions.  These reactions are either fission or a combination of fission and fusion. Both reactions release vast quantities of energy from relatively small amounts of matter.

Nuclear weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, and their use and control has been a major focus of international relations policy since their debut.

There are two basic types of nuclear weapon. The first type produces its explosive energy through nuclear fission reactions alone.  Such fission weapons are commonly referred to as atomic bombs or atom bombs, though their energy comes specifically from the nucleus of the atom.

In fission weapons, a mass of fissile material (enriched uranium or plutonium) is assembled into a supercritical mass—the amount of material needed to start an exponentially growing nuclear chain reaction—either by shooting one piece of sub-critical material into another (the “gun” method), or by compressing a sub-critical sphere of material using chemical explosives to many times its original density (the “implosion” method).  The latter approach is considered more sophisticated than the former, and only the latter approach can be used if plutonium is the fissile material.

The second basic type of nuclear weapon produces a large amount of its energy through nuclear fusion reactions.  Such fusion weapons are generally referred to as thermonuclear weapons or more colloquially as hydrogen bombs, as they rely on fusion reactions between isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium).  However, all such weapons derive a significant portion – and sometimes a majority – of their energy from fission (including fission induced by neutrons from fusion reactions).  Unlike fission weapons, there are no inherent limits on the energy released by thermonuclear weapons.

Beginning with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and continuing through the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, there have been many treaties to limit or reduce nuclear weapons testing and stockpiles.  The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has as one of its explicit conditions that all signatories must “pursue negotiations in good faith” towards the long-term goal of “complete disarmament”.  However, no nuclear state has treated that aspect of the agreement as having binding force.

Despite all the controversy surrounding the subject, there are various advantages of nuclear energy.  These include-

  • The Earth has limited supplies of coal and oil.  Nuclear power plants could still produce electricity after coal and oil become scarce.
  • Nuclear power plants need less fuel than ones which burn fossil fuels.  One ton of uranium produces more energy than is produced by several million tons of coal or several million barrels of oil.
  • Coal and oil burning plants pollute the air.  Well-operated nuclear power plants do not release contaminants into the environment.

On the other hand, there are certain disadvantages associated with the use of nuclear energy.

The nations of the world now have more than enough nuclear bombs to kill every person on Earth.

  • Nuclear explosions produce radiation. The nuclear radiation harms the cells of the body which can make people sick or even kill them. Illness can strike people years after their exposure to nuclear radiation.
  • One possible type of reactor disaster is known as a meltdown. In such an accident, the fission reaction goes out of control, leading to a nuclear explosion and the emission of great amounts of radiation.
  • Nuclear reactors also have waste disposal problems.  Reactors produce nuclear waste products which emit dangerous radiation. Because they could kill people who touch them, they cannot be thrown away like ordinary garbage.
  • Nuclear reactors only last for about forty to fifty years.

Despite its pros and cons, it is undisputable that nuclear energy is here to stay.


Inside Nuclear Energy and Weapons