If ever there was a picture of beauty belying a deeper cruelty, if ever there was an image of our power to cause untold harm, if ever there was a sign of man’s capacity to tap Mother Nature’s energy only to ravage her – the giant, rising mass of the mushroom cloud is it. Since their inception in the 1940s under the aegis of the Manhattan Project, through the better-than-you Cold War standoff when their threat loomed like the Sword of Damocles, nuclear explosions have become symbols of the modern world.
Here we present some of the biggest ever nuclear explosions to tear across the face of our fair planet captured on camera. Measured in megatons – millions of tons of TNT – even the smallest of these most massive of blasts yielded hundreds of times the combined power of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Operation Ivy – Mike
Image: US Government
Detonated on November 1, 1952 at Enewetak, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, the 82-tonne block of a device codenamed Mike yielded an estimated 10.4 megatons of explosive power – almost 500 times that of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Ivy Mike is generally considered the world’s first triumphant test of an H bomb. The blast obliterated the island of Elugelab, creating an underwater crater 6,240 ft (1.9 km) wide and 164 ft (50 m) deep where the landmass had been.
Ivy Mike’s raging spherical fireball was around 3.25 miles (5.2 km) wide. Its mushroom cloud soared to 57,000 ft (17.0 km) in just 90 seconds, entering the stratosphere, and one minute later reached 108,000 ft (33.0 km), before stabilising at 120,000 ft (37 km); the crown eventually stretched 100 miles (160 km) across with a stem 20 miles (32 km) wide. The nature of the device was such that it produced large quantities of fallout, lethal radioactive particles raining down on Earth.
The perfectly circular expanding shockwave and torrents of water from the explosion stripped the test islands clean of vegetation, while irradiated coral debris fell on ships moored 30 miles (48 km) away. The immediate area around the atoll was heavily contaminated for some time. A censored film of the explosion was released to the public, and was for many days played continually on television channels, the awesome display of power doubtless delighting audiences of the time.
Operation Castle – Romeo
One of three tests listed here that formed part of the Operation Castle series of high-energy US nuclear tests, Castle Romeo is inscribed in history as the third largest ever carried out by the US; the yield it threw up: 11 megatons. The device was detonated on March 27, 1954 at Bikini Atoll – located, as was Ivy Mike, in the Pacific Proving Grounds, the aptly chosen name describing a number of nuclear testing sites in the Marshall Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific.
A first of its kind, Castle Romeo was detonated on a barge moored in the middle of the crater from the Castle Bravo test – after the shrewd realisation that powerful thermonuclear devices destroy islands if they are set off on land. Like Bravo before it, Romeo ‘ran away’, the forces unleashed behaving so as to produce more than double their predicted yield in a photogenic explosion emblazoned in the consciousness of the 20th century of America flexing its nuclear might.
One particular image of the Castle Romeo fireball has become the most highly reprinted photo of any nuclear explosion. This image of molecular muscle is often used to represent nuclear weapons in general on book covers, magazine splashes and in other media, such is its luridly threatening appearance – clouds recoiling from the expanding spectre in their midst – and apocalyptic red-orange tones.
Operation Castle – Yankee
The codename for another test in the Castle series – it almost sounds like art – Yankee was carried out little over a month after Romeo on May 5, 1954, again at Bikini Atoll. Though expected to give off a yield of 6 to 10 megatons, this searing explosion produced 13.5, the second largest ever by a US fusion weapon test. Like the Ivy Mike, Bravo and Romeo tests, a high portion of the yield was due to the fast fission of uranium tamper – but Yankee’s was the biggest to date.
Image: National Archives
Taken two minutes after zero hour, at a height of around 12,000 ft and distance of 50 miles from the detonation site, the picture above shows Romeo’s mushroom cloud growing to an altitude of 40,000 ft (12 km), the height of 32 Empire State Buildings. Ten minutes later, as it approached its crescendo, the cloud column had pushed upward around 25 miles (40 km), deep into the stratosphere, while its ballooning head went up to 10 miles (16 km), and spread for 100 (160 km). It’s almost operatic.
Operation Castle – Bravo
Bravo tested the first practical fusion bomb in the US arsenal, which with a yield of 15 megatons – 1,200 times more powerful than the Little Boy weapon dropped on Hiroshima – is the largest nuclear device detonated by the US yet. This show of what science and technology can do also led to the most major unintentional radiological contamination ever caused by the US, its blast cloud spreading dangerously over 7000 sq miles of the Pacific, including several islands around the Bikini Atoll.
When Bravo was detonated on March 1, 1954, within a second it formed a golden dome almost 4.5 miles (7 km) across, visible over 250 miles (400 km) away. In one minute, the mushroom cloud rolled to 47,000 ft (14 km) in height and 7 miles (11 km) across, reaching 130,000 feet (40 km) high and 62 miles (100 km) wide in less than ten. The intense thermal flash ignited a fire on an island 23 miles (37 km) away, and the explosion left a crater 6,500 ft (2,000 m) wide and 250 ft (75 m) deep.
Exceeding its predicted yield by almost triple, the fallout from Bravo’s detonation poisoned islanders on and around the test site, plus the crew of Daigo Fukuryu Maru (‘Lucky Dragon No 5’), a Japanese fishing boat, one of whom died later that year. Hundreds were exposed to significant to high levels of radiation, many suffering serious long-term health effects, including birth defects. Intended to be a secret, Bravo led to global calls for a ban on atmospheric thermonuclear testing.
An explosion to leave you dumbstruck, the Tsar Bomba, developed by the USSR and detonated on October 30, 1961 over the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, is by far the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested, and the single most potent explosive ever used by man. This behemoth H bomb’s yield of 50 megatons was equivalent to 10 times the total explosives used in WWII, including both Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Tsar Bomba’s facts speak for themselves. Designed to detonate at a height of 2.5 miles (4 km), its fireball was so huge it touched the ground while almost reaching the altitude of the deploying bomber 6.5 miles (10.5 km) in the air. Like a new sun, the dazzling orb was seen and felt almost 620 miles (1,000 km) from ground zero, and the heat from its initial flash could have caused third degree burns as far as 100 km (62 miles) away. A sabre had been shaken like never before.
The mushroom cloud that formed was about 40 miles (64 km) high and 25 miles (40 km) wide, and the blast could be seen and felt in Scandinavia, where it shattered windows. What kind of device held this phenomenal force? Mercifully, an impractical one weighing 27 tonnes that when attached to a parachute just gave the planes time to fly about 28 miles (45 km) to safety. Not so if the bomb had yielded the 100 megatons it was originally designed to. Too much risk from radioactive fallout, the Soviets decided in the end. Thank the gods for small miracles.