History and context

This page provides information about where you can find more details on the internet about nuclear weapons, their development, and the science behind them.


History and development of nuclear weapons

The world's first nuclear weapon was exploded in July 1945 in the 'Trinity' test in New Mexico following the work of a team of international scientists on the Manhattan Project during World War II. The history of the Manhattan Project and the earliest years of nuclear weapons development is given in a timeline which has been prepared by the Atomic Archive.

Following the Trinity test nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945. After World War II the USA was joined in 1949 by the Soviet Union as a nuclear weapons power, signalling the beginning of the Cold War nuclear stand-off, followed by the UK in 1952 and France and China in the 1960s.

Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, gives a brief history of the nuclear age in a lecture to the Carnegigie International Non-Proliferation Conference which is available to watch in two Youtube videos here and here.

The US National Nuclear Security Administration website has a timeline of key events in the history of the USA's nuclear weapons programme, and Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto has created a video and multimedia presentation giving the timeline for every nuclear weapon test conducted between 1945 and 1998.

For more advanced studies, Alex Wellerstein has published a list of web-based primary sources for nuclear history on the 'Restricted Data' blog site.


How nuclear weapons work

Nuclear weapons are manufactured principally from highly enriched uranium or plutonium. The Center for American Progress has produced an infographic which outlines how materials suitable for use in a nuclear weapon are produced.

Early nuclear weapons, including the types exploded in warfare in Japan in 1945, employ the principles of nuclear fission to create a chain reaction in a critical mass of either enriched uranium or plutonium. In the simplest design, the 'gun assembly, a mass of fissile uranium is fired at a uranium target in a similar manner to firing a bullet along a gun barrel. The two masses achieve a critical mass when they combine. In more sophisticated implosion devices a fissile mass of uranium plutonium, or a combination of the two is surrounded by high explosives which are triggered to compress the mass and bring about criticality.

Modern thermonuclear weapons derive their destructive power from a two-stage reaction: a 'primary' nuclear fission explosion which initiates a much more powerful 'secondary' nuclear fusion reaction. The principles involved are explained in straightforward terms in the Wikipedia article on thermonuclear weapons.

Also recommended is a video from the Institute of Global Leadership in which Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor at Harvard University, explains in simple terms how different types of nuclear weapon work.  A slightly more detailed account of nuclear warhead science written by scientists from the UK Ministry of Defence and Atomic Weapons Establishment is given in an article published in 'Nature' in 2002.

The destructive effects of nuclear weapons can be simulated using the Nukemap application by Alex Wellerstein at the 'Restricted Data' blog, which models the effects of detonating different types of nuclear weapon at any location in the world. The controversial 'Protect and Survive' videos produced by the UK government in the early 1980s to advise the public on steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack are now available to watch on Youtube.

Links between nuclear materials and human health are discussed in a video presented for Earth Focus by Dr Jeffrey Patterson, former president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. The video considers what kinds of radiation we are exposed to and what, if any, dose of radiation is safe.


Nuclear weapon states and their forces

Five nuclear weapon states are recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – the main international treaty which controls the spread of nuclear weapons. These are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. India and Pakistan have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty but have both tested nuclear weapons and declared that they possess nuclear weapons. Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not formally confirmed whether or not it possesses nuclear weapons, but is widely believed to do so. North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state but in 2003 announced that it had withdrawn from the Treaty and in October 2006 conducted its first nuclear weapons test.  The CNN website has a 'Who has what' interactive web page showing information about the nuclear programmes of these nations.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists regularly publishes a series of 'Nuclear Notebooks' outlining the status of nuclear forces for each state which possesses nuclear weapons, and Carey Sublette's Nuclear Weapons Archive website also provides information on the nuclear weapons arsenals and development programmes of the declared nuclear states.  The Guardian newspaper has prepared a set of infographics to show the number of nuclear warheads deployed by those nations which possess nuclear weapons.


The UK's nuclear weapons

Nuclear Information Service has prepared an interactive timeline showing the history of the UK's nuclear weapons programme which you can visit here.

The UK's nuclear weapons – past, present, and future – are discussed from a political perspective by Professor Lord Peter Hennessey of Queen Mary University of London in a video filmed by the Royal United Services Institute and available on Youtube.

Information about early designs of UK nuclear weapons is available from Brian Burnell's nuclear weapons history website.

The UK currently deploys only a single nuclear weapons system – the submarine-based Trident system – as a 'minimum deterrent'. Details of the UK's current nuclear forces are given in a 'Nuclear Notebook' report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and a timeline for steps taken in the programme to replace the Trident system has been prepared by the Defense Industry Daily news website.

The story of the UK peace movement and opposition to nuclear weapons is told in the video documentary 'Beating the Bomb' and in a parallel vein, Scilla Elworthy, founder of the Oxford Research Group, talks about alternatives to nuclear weapons such as non-violent means for resisting conflict and overcoming oppression in a 'Tedtalk' lecture on the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) channel.