When we talk of nuclear weapons our first thought usually goes to those bombs that razed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WW2. Both were the first of their kind to be used against humans and opened up the beginning of the era known as the Cold War, a period of rivalry between USSR and US defined by their reluctance to engage in overt military actions for fear of nuclear retaliation. After the destructive capabilities of the nuclear weaponry had been proved, both rivals competed to develop the most lethal improvements, from the Hydrogen bomb to the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), seeking the ultimate edge over their rival. It was with this frame of mind that the USSR developed and tested the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful weapon ever created by men, and detonated on 30th October 1961.
1# The Tsar Bomba compared to Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs
The Tsar Bomba, officially designated RDS-220, codename Vanya and nicknamed Big Ivan (Vanya is a pet form of the name Ivan), has its origins in the mid 50’s, when the Soviet Union sought to obtain a nuclear device that would deter the US from attacking, and or give them the upper hand in the event of atomic warfare. To have an idea of the destructive capabilities of Vanya, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Little Boy and Fat Man, had a yield of 15kt and 18kt respectively (a kiloton being equivalent to 1.000 metric tones of TNT). But their Russian big brother was designed to possess the godly power of 50 megatons, that’s 50.000kt or 50 million tons of TNT! Little Boy and Fat Man razed their targets flat and killed more than 200.000 people so imagine what a bomb 1.570 stronger that those two combined together, could do.
But fasten your belts because that’s not all. The most shocking fact was that Vanya was originally intended to have 100 megatons yield, this being eventually discarded not due technical issues, but out of considerations for the safety of the pilot and for fear of bigger fallout. Thoughts on the impracticabilities to transport and deploy such a colossal device played for the final decision to go on with the 50 megatones yield, still way stronger than Castle Bravo, the most powerful bomb of the US, detonated with a yield of 15 megatons.
2# The test site
To accommodate the expected hefty cargo, a strategic heavy bomber, the Tupolev Tu-95 had to be refitted, with several fuel tanks removed and the bomb bay doors readjusted, in addition of having to provide the bomb with a 800kg parchute to slow down its fall and give the aircraft time to escape the blast radius and shockwave. Once completed, the bomb weighted 27 metric tones and was 8 metres long by 2.1 metres in diameter, effectively way too heavy and large to be accommodated as payload of an ICBM or carried by a conventional bomber. To pilot the new Tupolev Tu-95V, Major Andrei Durnovtsev was chosen, and accompanying him was a Tupolev Tu-16, dedicated to observe and film the procedure. With all the preparations met, Kruschev announced the impending final test for the Tsar Bomba on his speech to the 22nd Congres of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) on 17th October 1961.
The testing grounds were located on the cape of Sukhoy Nos (Dry Nose), the northern island of Severny, of the archipielago Novaya Zemlya (New Land), sparsely populated and located in the Arctic Ocean, making it an ideal test ground for nuclear explosions. Durnovtsev and the filming Tu-16 took off and dropped Vanya at 10.500 metres, later exploding at 4.200 metres. No doubt Durnovtsev and those accompanying him didn’t cease to think for an instant of what they were told by the scientific team, that their chances of escaping the somewhat unpredictable blast were of 50%. With this in mind the Tu-95V and the Tu-16 spirited away in the two and half minutes that it took for the Tsar Bomb to descend with its parachute, and despite the Tu-16 being well past the minimum 30 miles range for safety, Durnovtsev had only managed to put 27 miles from point 0.
3# The detonation. Radius, footage, and the crater
What the Tu-16 recorded next was the blinding flash and an 8-km-wide fireball that bounced on the ground and went up to reach nearly 8km height, followed by the characteristic mushroom cloud 67km high with a cap width of 95km. Everything within the 3,5km radius of the fireball was pulverised while houses and buildings within less than a hundred kilometres, were destroyed or severely damaged by the scorching blast and shockwave, even causing some windows as far as Norway and Finland, to break.
In the footage you can see the bomb being assembled, the Tu-95V and Durnovtsev. The explosion is seen both from the ground and the air, and even a glimpse of the elusive crater is shown at the end
Both planes had been painted with reflective paint and their crews provided with special googles to protect them from the dazzling light, but Durnovtsev’s Tu-95V was unfortunately hit by the shockwave, descending 1km with several members of the crew loosing consciousness. Despite this, Durnovtsev showed cold blood and managed to remain awake to land safely, and for his daring escape he was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest award in the country.
As to the crater itself there are no images I could find, and I’ve even attempted to seek a trace on Google Maps without luck (it’s more difficult than finding Wally!), but even if the fireball bounced on the ground there must be some mark to be spotted like the following at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.
4# The power to destroy a country
Estimations of the test gave it between 50 to 58 megatons, making it not only easily capable of obliterating a metropolis like Paris, but even of effectively destroying a small country. The test was deemed a success and it was accepted that the yield could have been increased to a 100 megatons, but if this was so, why aren’t we seeing more Tsar Bombs deployed in the modern nuclear arsenals of the US, Rusia, or China?
First were the logistic difficulties in transporting the bomb and in fitting a plane for this purpose. On the second place was the safety of the pilot and as we have seen, Durnovtsev had a close shave. Environmental concerns were another dissuasive element for it was estimated that the release of a 100 megatons bomb would have been responsible for the 26% of the total fallout since the invention of nuclear weapons. Needles to say, mutual destruction wasn’t the first choice of the superpowers but their last, desperate, resort. And then were exposed the tactical limitations of the Tsar Bomb, which despite its raw power lacked the tactical flexibility and long range of the ICBM. The choice of the latter as the atomic weapon of choice during the Cold War paid its dividends when the MIRV payloads (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle) were developed, allowing several nuclear warheads in a single ICBM, capable to simoultaneously strike different targets and thus difficulting its interception through an enemy rocket.
5# Nuclear proliferation. For or against?
The fall of the USSR and the consequent thawing of the arms race brought down the number of nuclear warheads, well over 60.000 at the height of the Cold War, to 14.000 as to 2019, 90% owned by the US and Russia, thanks to several international treaties like START 1, New START, and the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It is worth pointing that many of the radioactive components of the nuclear fuel that was once refined for the payloads, won’t disappear within hundreds of millions of years, and risks of leaks or accidents like Chernobyl or the possibility of terrorist groups obtaining the material and the technology needed to develop their own nuclear bomb, is a disturbing reality. Ironically enough, the threat of nuclear annihilation has effectively deterred the nuclear powers (US, Russia, China, UK, France, and possibly India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel) of engaging in overt conflict with each other and their allies, thus preventing (I pray!) the outbreak of another worldwide conflict like WW2.