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Understanding Radiation: Distribution of Energy in Nuclear Explosions



It has been mentioned that one important difference between nuclear and conventional (or chemical) explosions is the appearance of an appreciable proportion of the energy as thermal radiation in the former case. The basic reason for this difference is that, weight for weight, the energy produced by a nuclear explosive is millions of times as great as that produced by a chemical explosive.

Consequently, the temperatures reached in the former case are very much higher than in the latter, namely, tens of millions of degrees in a nuclear explosion compared with a few thousands in a conventional explosion. As a result of this great difference in temperature, the distribution of the explosion energy is quite different in the two cases.

Broadly speaking, the energy may be divided into three categories kinetic (or external) energy, i.e. , energy of motion of electrons, atoms, and molecules as a whole; internal energy of these particles and thermal radiation energy. The proportion of thermal radiation energy increases rapidly with increasing temperature.

At the moderate temperatures attained in a chemical explosion, the amount of thermal radiation is comparatively small, and so essentially all the energy released at the time of the explosion appears as kinetic and internal energy. This is almost entirely converted into blast and shock, in the manner described earlier. Because of the very much higher temperatures in a nuclear explosion, however, a considerable proportion of the energy is re leased as thermal radiation. The manner in which this takes place is described later.

The fraction of the explosion energy received at a distance from the burst point in each of the forms depicted in Figure 6-2 depends on the nature and yield of the weapon and particularly on the environment of the explosion.

For a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere below an altitude of about 100,000 feet, from 35 to 45 percent of the explosion energy is received as thermal energy in the visible and infrared portions of the spectrum.

In addition, below an altitude of about 40,000 feet, about 50 percent of the explosive energy is used in the production of air shock. At somewhat higher altitudes, where there is less air with which the energy of the exploding, nuclear weapon can interact, the proportion of energy converted into shock is decreased whereas that emitted as thermal radiation is correspondingly increased.

The expect distribution of energy between air shock and thermal radiation is related in a complex manner to the explosive energy yield, the burst altitude, and, to some extent, to the weapon design, as will be seen in this and later chapters.

However, an approximate rule of thumb for a fission weapon exploded in the air at an altitude of less than about 40,000 feet is that 35 percent of the explosion energy is in the form of thermal radiation and 50 percent produces air shock. Thus, for a burst at moderately low altitudes, the air shock energy from a fission weapon will be about half of that from a conventional high explosive with the same total energy release; in the latter, essentially all of the explosive energy is in the form of air blast.

This means that if a 20-kiloton fission weapon, for example, is exploded in the air below 40,000 feet or so, the energy used in the production of blast would be roughly equivalent to that from 10 kilotons of TNT.

Regardless of the height of burst, approximately 85 percent of the explosive energy of a nuclear fission weapon produces air blast (and shock), thermal radiation, and heat. The remaining 15 percent of the energy is released as various nuclear radiations. Of this, 5 percent constitutes the initial nuclear radiation, defined as that produced within a minute or so of the explosion.

The final 10 percent of the total fission energy represents that of the residual (or delayed) nuclear radiation which is emitted over a period of time. This is largely due to the radioactivity of the fission products present in the weapon residues (or debris) after the explosion. In a thermonuclear device, in which only about half of the total energy a rises from fission, the residual nuclear radiation carries only 5 percent of the energy released in the explosion.

It should be noted that there are no nuclear radiations from a conventional explosion since the nuclei are unaffected in the chemical reactions which take place.

Because about 10 percent of the total fission energy is released in the form of residual nuclear radiation some time after the detonation, this is not included when the energy yield of a nuclear explosion is stated, e.g., in terms of the TNT equivalent.

Hence, in a pure fission weapon the explosion energy is about 90 percent of the total fission energy, and in a thermonuclear device it is, on the average, about 95 percent of the total energy of the fission and fusion reactions. This common convention will be adhered to in subsequent chapters.

For example, when the yield of a nuclear weapon is quoted or used in equations, figures, etc., it will represent that portion of the energy delivered within a minute or so, and will exclude the contribution of the residual nuclear radiation.

The initial nuclear radiation consists mainly of “gamma rays,” which are electromagnetic radiations of high energy originating in atomic nuclei, and neutrons. These radiations, especially gamma rays, can travel great distances through air and can penetrate considerable thicknesses of material.

Although they can neither be seen nor felt by human beings, except at very high intensities which cause a tingling sensation, gamma rays and neutrons can produce harmful effects even at a distance from their source. Consequently, the initial nuclear radiation is an important aspect of nuclear explosions.

The delayed nuclear radiation arises mainly front the fission products which, in the course of their radioactive decay, emit gamma rays and another type of nuclear radiation called “beta particles.” The latter are electrons, i.e., particles carrying a negative electric charge, moving with high speed; they are formed by a change (neutron proton + electron) within the nuclei of the radioactive atoms. Beta particles, which are also invisible, are much less penetrating than gamma rays, but like the latter they represent a potential hazard.

The spontaneous emission of beta particles and gamma rays from radioactive substances, i.e., a radioactive nuclide (or radionuclide), such as the fission products, is a gradual process. It takes place over a period of time, at a rate depending upon the nature of the material and upon the amount present.

Because of the continuous decay, the quantity of the radionuclide and the rate of emission of radiation decrease steadily. This means that the residual nuclear radiation, due mainly to the fission products, is most intense soon after the explosion but diminishes in the course of time.