Special Report

The Most Powerful Nuclear Explosions in History, Ranked

peer_gynt / Flickr

With the Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer earning millions at the box office, Americans are being transported back to the dawn of the atomic age. This was a time when devices of cataclysmic power were being built and tested. The first two finished products ended a world war in horrific fashion and signaled the dawn of the Cold War: of nuclear proliferation and treaties and moments when the world was literally brought to the brink of nonexistence.

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. Since that time, weapons that have been developed dwarf the two bombs thousands of times over.

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.

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. (This is what a nuclear attack would do to America’s 25 largest cities.)

Click here to see the most powerful nuclear explosions in human history

Source: China Photos / Getty Images

26. Test (21)
> Megaton yield: 4.00
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: China
> Test site: Lop Nur, China

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Source: Bettmann / Bettmann via Getty Images

25. Test #392
> Megaton yield: 4.00
> Deployment: Underground Shaft
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

24. Test #114
> Megaton yield: 4.00
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

23. Test #160
> Megaton yield: 4.20
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

22. Navajo
> Megaton yield: 4.50
> Deployment: Barge
> Country: USA
> Test site: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

21. Cannikin
> Megaton yield: 4.80
> Deployment: Underground Shaft
> Country: USA
> Test site: Amchitka, United States

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

20. Test #131
> Megaton yield: 5.00
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

19. Tewa
> Megaton yield: 5.00
> Deployment: Barge
> Country: USA
> Test site: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

18. Castle Union
> Megaton yield: 6.90
> Deployment: Barge
> Country: USA
> Test site: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

17. Bighorn
> Megaton yield: 7.70
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: USA
> Test site: Kiritimati, Kiribati

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

16. Test #183
> Megaton yield: 8.20
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

15. Housatonic
> Megaton yield: 8.30
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: USA
> Test site: Johnston Atoll, United States

Source: Courtesy of nuclearweaponarchive.org

14. Oak
> Megaton yield: 8.90
> Deployment: Barge
> Country: USA
> Test site: Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

13. Poplar
> Megaton yield: 9.30
> Deployment: Barge
> Country: USA
> Test site: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

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Source: Bettmann / Getty Images

12. Test #168
> Megaton yield: 10.00
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

Source: John van Hasselt - Corbis / Getty Images

11. Test #158
> Megaton yield: 10.00
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

10. Ivy Mike
> Megaton yield: 10.40
> Deployment: Ground
> Country: USA
> Test site: Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

9. Castle Romeo
> Megaton yield: 11.00
> Deployment: Barge
> Country: USA
> Test site: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

8. Test #123
> Megaton yield: 12.50
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

7. Castle Yankee
> Megaton yield: 13.50
> Deployment: Barge
> Country: USA
> Test site: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

6. Castle Bravo
> Megaton yield: 15.00
> Deployment: Ground
> Country: USA
> Test site: Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

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5. Test #173
> Megaton yield: 19.10
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

4. Test #174
> Megaton yield: 20.00
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

3. Test #147
> Megaton yield: 21.10
> Deployment: Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

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Source: Bettmann / Bettmann via Getty Images

2. Test #219
> Megaton yield: 24.20
> Deployment: Missile Warhead
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

1. Tsar Bomba, Test #130
> Megaton yield: 50.00
> Deployment: Parachute Air Drop
> Country: Soviet Union
> Test site: Novaya Zemlya, Russia

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