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Things We Were Surprised And A Little Worried To Learn About Nuclear Weapons

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Vote up all the nuclear facts that blow your mind.

On August 6, 1945, the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in an effort to lower the curtain on the Pacific Theater of World War II. Three days later, the American military dropped another one, this time on Nagasaki. The mass devastation of the two Japanese cities was horrific enough to persuade the world to holster its nuclear weapons rather than use them again.

So far, at least.

Although nukes haven't been used in warfare since 1945, they have nonetheless impacted the world in troubling ways. What exactly is so worrying about nuclear weapons?

Unlike in 1945, thousands of them exist today. To perfect these killing machines over the decades, secret tests frequently spewed radioactive material into the atmosphere - and onto unsuspecting residential communities. Entire nuclear warheads have gone missing. And some things that are popularly believed to protect people in the event of a nuclear attack are, in fact, useless.

Nuclear weapons are highly complicated, hugely destructive instruments - and there are some unsettling facts about them and their history that we wish we didn't know.

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    57 VOTES

    The US Has Lost At Least Six Nuclear Weapons

    Nuclear weapons are highly protected objects that are always accounted for, right? Historically, the devices are protected by layers of security clearances. But sometimes, even the best protected objects can go astray. Nuclear weapons that have been compromised in some way - whether through an accidental launching or a theft - are called "broken arrows." And the US alone has had to deal with them no fewer than 32 times.

    A specific subset of broken arrows are nukes that have simply been lost - sometimes through disasters. In 1965, for example, a plane carrying a nuclear device fell off the USS TiconderogaIt slipped into the Pacific Ocean and has never been recovered.

    Since the development of its nuclear program in the 1940s, the US has completely lost six nuclear weapons.

    57 votes
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    27 VOTES

    'Gadget' Was The First Nuclear Bomb

    Products of the so-called Manhattan Project, Little Boy and Fat Man are probably the best-known bombs, as the US dropped them on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. 

    But Little Boy and Fat Man were not the first nuclear weapons cooked up by American scientists cooked up, who had to be sure their bombs would actually work. 

    In July 1945, they tested "Gadget" in New Mexico; its detonation was so powerful and unsettling that it prompted project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer to remember a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

    Why was the bomb nicknamed "Gadget"? Robert Serber, one of the physicists on the project, once called the weapon a "bomb," and that alarmed Oppenheimer. Serber later recalled that Oppenheimer dispatched another physicist to relay a message:

    After a couple of minutes Oppie sent John Manley to tell me not to use that word. Too many workmen around, Manley said. They were worried about security. I should use "gadget" instead.

    27 votes
  • The Castle Bravo Nuclear Weapons Test Was Unexpectedly Powerful And Sickened Residents Who Lived Nearby
    Photo: US Department of Energy/NOAA / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    45 VOTES

    The Castle Bravo Nuclear Weapons Test Was Unexpectedly Powerful And Sickened Residents Who Lived Nearby

    On March 1, 1954, American scientists tested a nuclear weapon nicknamed "Shrimp" - and quickly learned the tiny name was a terrible misnomer. Shrimp was more powerful than anyone had anticipated.

    The operation to test Shrimp was known as "Castle Bravo," which was part of a series of nuclear tests American officials undertook at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. When officials detonated Shrimp, the explosion was 2.5 more powerful than what they had planned for. 

    That fatal miscalculation had far-reaching effects. People in the Marshall Islands - who had never consented to the nuclear tests - were the most impacted. As Ariana Rowberry recounted for the Brookings Institute, about "five hours after Castle Bravo detonated, radioactive powder began to fall on [nearby] Rongelap Atoll. Believing that this powder was snow, many inhabitants played in and ate the powder." Many residents in the Marshall Islands dealt with long-term health issues afterward.

    Nuclear fallout from Castle Bravo impacted other parts of the Pacific too - an area of approximately 7,000 square miles experienced nuclear fallout.

    45 votes
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    53 VOTES

    Don't Use Hair Conditioner After A Nuclear Blast

    When a nuclear device detonates, the explosion triggers chemical reactions that shed radioactive particles, which rain down in a fairly large radius. Someone who may have survived an initial blast may be covered in these small particles; if that's the case, they should definitely avoid hair conditioner for a while. 

    As expert Andrew Karam explained to NPR, human hair follicles contain scales. "Radiation contamination particles can get between those scales," he said, adding that conditioner - which is engineered to trap moisture against a follicle - can trap particles of contamination inside the hair's scales.

    53 votes
  • Nuclear Weapons - And The Materials To Assemble Them - Are Available On The Black Market
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    50 VOTES

    Nuclear Weapons - And The Materials To Assemble Them - Are Available On The Black Market

    The materials needed to assemble nuclear weapons aren't exactly easy to find; big-box stores generally don't stock their shelves with uranium, for instance.

    But that doesn't mean they're impossible to find.

    A black market exists that trades in nuclear weapons materials. In 2010, authorities caught up with two men peddling enriched uranium.

    Actual nuclear weapons can also be had for the right price. Journalists from France and the US have both successfully tracked down a black-market purveyor of such weapons. 

    50 votes
  • Nuclear Bombs Can Create Firestorms
    Photo: US Navy Public Affairs / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    33 VOTES

    Nuclear Bombs Can Create Firestorms

    A nuclear weapon's initial detonation will instantly kill anyone within a certain radius of the blast. But the thing about nuclear weapons is that their after-effects maximize devastation, leaving even more death and destruction in their wake.

    The heat the devices generate is supernatural; scientists estimate that, at the time of explosion, the heat is up to five times hotter than the sun. It's no wonder that one of the aftereffects of a nuclear bombing can be a firestorm, depending on the size of the blast and other conditions. As Encyclopedia Britannica described it:

    If the individual fires are extensive enough, they can coalesce into a mass fire known as a firestorm, generating a single convective column of rising hot gases that sucks in fresh air from the periphery. The inward-rushing winds and the extremely high temperatures generated in a firestorm consume virtually everything combustible.

    When the US bombed Hiroshima in August 1945, a firestorm raged across the city's level ground and incinerated 4.4 square miles. 

    33 votes