When the nuclear bomb known as “Little Boy” detonated 1,500 feet above Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m., Aug. 9, 1945, it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT. The bomb killed an estimated 140,000 people. Many nuclear weapons in arsenals today could set off explosions much more powerful than that. The most powerful nuclear explosion in history was the Tsar Bomba, which had a yield of 50 megatons, equivalent to a force of 50,000,000 tons of TNT.
Nuclear weapons are currently divided into two basic categories. Intercontinental missiles, launched from submarines, aircraft, and land, can fly over 3,000 miles and destroy the world’s largest cities. Tactical nuclear weapons are much smaller and built to use on battlefields. As the Ukraine invasion drags on there is anxiety that either of these types of weapons could be launched. (This is how an ICBM works.)
To determine the most powerful nuclear explosion in history, 24/7 Wall St. consulted various sources, including The Natural Resources Defense Council, atomicarchive.com, and Wikipedia. We included the 26 tests that yielded at least 4 megatons.
The number of the most powerful nuclear detonations is divided almost equally between the Soviet Union and the United States. One nuclear test by China is on the list. Most of the nuclear explosions occurred either by air drop or on a barge at sea.
All 13 of the Soviet Union’s most powerful nuclear tests took place within the borders of Russia on the two islands of Novaya Zemlya on the Russian Arctic coast. This was designated as a nuclear weapons test site in 1954, and the indigenous Nenets people had to be forcibly relocated. (This is what a nuclear attack would do to America’s 25 largest cities.)
The Soviets conducted 130 nuclear tests there between 1955 and 1990. These included the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear device ever detonated at 50 megatons of TNT equivalent, about 3,500 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. It was set off on Oct. 30, 1961. The Tsar Bomba blast was more than twice as devastating as the second-biggest nuclear explosion ever.
Nearly all of the American nuclear tests, including most on the list, took place at various atolls in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, dubbed the Pacific Proving Grounds. Bikini Atoll was the site of seven of the largest U.S. nuclear explosions between 1946 and 1958. More than 70 years after the first nuclear weapons were detonated in the atolls, elevated levels of radiation remain there, and the atolls are sparsely inhabited.
Three nuclear tests, including the massive Cannikin shot in 1971, were conducted on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian island group in southwest Alaska. Some people performing work related to the underground nuclear tests at Amchitka before Jan. 1, 1974, were exposed to ionizing radiation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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