The Worlds Largest Thermonuclear device: The Tsar Bomb

What was the world killing monstrosity?

Image taken from 100 miles away. This is a real image of the Tsar bomb exploding.

The Tsar Bomb was, and still remains, the largest thermonuclear weapon ever created. It’s production began in July of 1961, ordered by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who originally wanted a 100 megaton bomb to be built and tested as a testament to the Soviet technical strength and military might. This order for construction came only a few months before the moratorium (the suspension of all nuclear testing by both the USSR and the USA by a legally non-binding agreement that can be revoked at any time) was revoked. As geopolitical tensions rose, the Soviets needed a way to strike fear into the hearts of Europe and the USA. The solution was the Tsar Bomb. October came and political leaders from all sides pleaded with the Soviets to not test the bomb. President Kennedy even made the accusation that the test was for political gain and had no real military application. The test proceeded on schedule despite fears of burning a hole in the atmosphere and contrary to the wishes of economists, politicians, and scientists. The Tsar Bomb test was successful in elevating levels of fear and unease in Europe. So what is this bomb's history? How was it made? What were the risks? And why was it made?

When a bomb the size of the Tsar was ordered it presented serious time-related and logistical problems for the engineers. How could they get a bomb to be as big in size of the blast and yield as requested whilst preserving deployability? The explosion part of the problem was a simple solution, just add another stage. With this, one can theoretically increase the yield infinitely. Although the original order was for a 100 MT bomb, the engineers that he chose for the project needed proof of concept, therefore they cut the yield in half to 50 megatons. This was done not only to produce a conceptual model but also to limit fallout. Note that ‘Little Boy’, the atom bomb (a weaker version of a hydrogen bomb) that almost flattened Hiroshima in World War II, is equivalent to less than a percent of the power that the Tsar Bomb created. 

Khrushchev needed the hydrogen bomb by October 1961, leaving the engineers only fourteen weeks to build the bomb. Khrushchev himself was very much involved in its development with periodical checks and reviews of progress.

The Tsar Bomb or as it was officially known, the RDS-220 was the first device of its kind. Not the first hydrogen bomb, but it was the first and only three-stage thermonuclear device. This weapon used a more radioactive substance, Plutonium-235. The bomb's three stages would allow for more energy to be put into the blast and increase the size of the fireball. Adding a third stage is a way to increase energy and so theoretically, one could indefinitely increase the yield of the bomb. This theory led to the idea of the backyard bomb, a bomb that has so many stages an individual would only need to set it off in a yard and hit any desired target in the world with a lethal dose of radiation. The drawback is that when practically applied, it would be so big that it would be impossible to keep secret. A thermonuclear weapon is going to be huge and one with three stages like the Tsar is going to be huge and it is going to be heavy. The Soviets needed a way to transport the bomb to the testing site and test it without getting caught in the blast radius. The engineers “modified a TU-95 bomber and coated it with a white reflective paint that would protect it from thermal radiation.” The bomber was modified and utilized for transporting, testing, and recording the Tsar Bomb. To avoid the fireball of the blast, the engineers added a one-ton parachute to the back of the bomb.

The Soviet Government saw this as a military accomplishment and applauded the military and science divisions. This was a seen as a triumph of the Soviets by Kruschev and assumed it would strike fear into the hearts of the western nations. President Kennedy would later go on to show that fear in this letter sent to Kremlin “We call upon the Soviet Union to reconsider this decision if, in fact, it has been made. We the United States know about high-yield weapons... but we also know that such weapons are not essential to our military needs.” It would later go on to state “such an explosion could only serve some unconfessed political purpose.” The American government sent a diplomat to many allies of the Soviets and to their own, asking for their help in convincing the Soviets to not test a weapon of such magnitude.

The US needed to stop the Soviets from achieving their weapons goals. If the US could get them to stop the development, then they would be able to slow and hopefully stop the Soviets from achieving military supremacy over the United States. The question that remained for American diplomats was what the military of the United States needed to do to prevent the Soviets from getting the Tsar bomb finished. Should NATO allow the Soviets to test the bomb, or should they attempt a secret mission to destroy the weapon? Conventional political logic dictated that they do nothing and let the Soviets test the weapon themselves. On the other hand, citizens of NATO member nations of the US, such as Finland and Norway, are theoretically threatened by the testing of this weapon through radiation and thermal radiation. So, letting the Soviets test the weapon could harm American allies. American politicians ultimately decided that attempting to destroy the weapon could spark an all-out war with the Soviets. And if they achieved this weapon it could destroy the United States if they were to use it.

The Tsar bomb is considered one of the cleanest nuclear weapons ever detonated. The reason being is that the weapon disintegrated and destroyed 97 percent of all of its own fallout. The American government did not know this was going to happen and assumed that it would create a massive amount of fallout affecting allies close to the testing site, such as Finland and Norway.

"Scientists have discovered after the test of the Tsar bomb that there was a spike in radioactive material inside of dead reindeer. They started to wonder why but then they figured out they were close to the testing site of Tsar bomb, although they were in Finland, they were still close enough to feel radioactive material that came from the blast. Radiation had poisoned the ground and the soil the reindeer were able to eat for nutrition and so because of that, the reindeer had radioactive material from the weapon’s blast, inside of them. The reindeer ended up becoming polluted with the radioactive material from the dangerous test of the Tsar bomb’

The remaining three percent of the fallout was scattered across Finland’s most northern regions, affecting elk and reindeer populations. Although it was only three percent, it was still a lot of fallout to be dealt with.

“The Tsar Bomb was 26 feet long, about seven feet in diameter, and weighed more than 60,000 pounds. It was so large it couldn’t fit inside the bombay of the modified bear bomber used to drop it.” The Tsar bomb was carried underneath the plane due to its massive size. If one was to look at footage of the test you can see it is very similar in shape to “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, used in the second world war by the United States on the Japanese.

There were many fears that accompanied the testing of the Tsar bomb. Such fears included the idea that it would burn a hole in the atmosphere. One little girl heard about the test and wrote to President Kennedy asking for him to get the Soviets to stop bombing the North Pole for the sake of Santa Claus, it scared children that much. President Kennedy sent a response to the girl in order to keep her calm. Although it was pure courtesy, it gave light into the fear that citizens big and small had.

The testing of the Tsar bomb led to many real-world effects. The first was the end to a 16-year moratorium, it led to a new type of weapon the three-stage thermonuclear device, it scared people, and it almost sparked war. Geopolitical tensions grew during this time. In the span of a year, the Soviets would applaud their government and their military for the production of the weapon and other countries such as Finland, Norway, England, France, Germany, and the United States all pleaded for the Soviets to not test it or at least not test the bomb above ground. 

They did not want a fallout risk going into not only the north, but they also did not want fallout risk going into Europe or radiation leak that could kill millions just because the Soviets wanted to show the Americans who's boss.

Now Reading
The Worlds Largest Thermonuclear device: The Tsar Bomb
Read Next
Military Inventions You Use Every Day