The Nuclear Bomb: The Great Threat Saves Lives

Nuclear bombs might wipe out humanity, but this formidable threat has also enabled humans to irradiate cancer with great precision, saving more lives than it has cost.

Nuclear bombs might wipe out humanity, but this formidable threat has also enabled humans to irradiate cancer with great precision, saving more lives than it has cost.

When Andre Durnovtsev dropped the bomb from the specially equipped aircraft ten kilometers above Serverny – an island in the Barents Sea, he and the crew knew that, according to the engineers’ calculations, there was only a half chance that they would survive this test explosion.

Soon after, a mushroom cloud rose 62 kilometers into the atmosphere, a flash of light could be detected almost 1,000 kilometers away, and the shock wave made many circles around the globe.

This was on October 30, 1961, and the Soviet Union had detonated the Tsar Bomba, but a larger nuclear bomb had never been detonated before or since.

The loan played with the plane’s crew, who however ran into a lot of trouble. Although the plane was more than 40 kilometers away when the bomb exploded, the shock wave caused it to fall almost 1 kilometer – a safe distance from the fireball that the explosion created in seconds.

In 2011, 50 years after Tsar Bomba, Vietnamese Do Quoc Hung is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. Five years later, he is still alive, and he can thank the atomic bomb for that.

Radiation therapy with the same chemicals that gave the Tsar Bomba its destructive power kills the cancer cells in his lungs and cures him.

Video: The doomsday clock shows 90 seconds to midnight.

Humanity is now closer to annihilating itself in a nuclear war than it has been since 1953 when the Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen bomb in a test. This is the assessment of the experts behind the so-called doomsday clock. At the beginning of the year 2023, the hands were advanced to 93 seconds to twelve. The reason is mainly the nuclear weapons of the North Koreans, the tension in the relations between the USA and Russia and the war in Ukraine.

The bomb scooped up nuclear medicine

The Tsar Bomba was 50 megatons, i.e. more than 3000 times larger than the atomic bomb that killed 135,000 people in the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

Five million billion billion watts, more than 1% of the Sun’s energy output, was unleashed when the Tsar Bomba exploded.

Larger bombs have never been constructed since, as it is unnecessary to achieve such a formidable destruction. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate killer, but it may seem paradoxical that they have also led to many advances in both science and technology.

The same processes that allow humans to build nuclear bombs are now being used in both environmentally friendly energy production and climate research. But the biggest gift of this formidable weapon is that it has created a whole new branch of medical science – nuclear medicine.

Were it not for the nuclear race that began in World War II, radioactivity research would never have reached its current state. The same rare materials that were used in the atomic bomb were soon after the war used for the exact opposite purpose – to save lives.

A laboratory creates a weapon against cancer

In the mountains of New Mexico, USA, you can find Los Alamos – the research institute where the first atomic bomb was built during the Second World War.

The research institute still works on nuclear bombs, but the same particle accelerator that was used to produce radioactive materials for bombs also creates life-saving chemicals in the treatment of cancer.

One of the most developed of them is actinium – 225. This substance connects to the body’s immune cells and therefore looks for cancer cells itself when it is injected into the body.

Actinium – 225 uses almost all of its energy in collisions with cancer cells, and thus the healthy cells of the body are spared.

Radiation from within

Actinium – 225 is among several radioactive materials that are injected into or placed inside the body.

Radiation from the outside

A so-called radiation gun continuously shoots the cancer with high-precision rays.

Radioactive iodine cured a patient

One day in 1943, the patient, “BB”, suddenly developed a severe headache. 20 years earlier, cancer had been diagnosed in his thyroid gland and removed, and doctor Sam Seidlin of Montefiore Hospital in New York tried a completely new chemotherapy: He gave BB a small dose of radioactive iodine.

Iodine is almost exclusively taken up through the thyroid gland, and with a Geiger meter, Seidlin could clearly see that the cancer had spread from there because the metastases also take up iodine.

Because of this disease, the patient produced too much of a certain hormone, but the radioactive iodine reduced the production.

Sam Seidlin now had the idea that he could purposefully fight cancer by giving higher doses of radioactive iodine. The treatment was successful – BB’s pain disappeared and the cancer stopped spreading.

Atomic research is an offspring of the atomic bomb

In 2012, the European Organization for Microparticles Research CERN discovered the so-called Higgs – a particle that gives all matter mass. This discovery probably would not have been possible without the atomic bomb and the nuclear race, which both increased our knowledge of particle physics and led to the creation of CERN.

This achievement of Sam Seidlin’s is described in a well-known article from 1946, which played its part in laying the foundation for an entirely new branch of medicine closely related to the development of the atomic bomb.

The nuclear bomb works with the help of many reactive radioactive substances. Some of them are found in small quantities in nature, while others have to be produced in a nuclear reactor and in a particle accelerator.

In 1942, the X-10 reactor was built at the secret Oakridge Research Institute in Tennessee, USA. X – 10 was the first reactor to produce plutonium – 210, the “fuel” in a conventional nuclear bomb.

There, physicists developed this reactive material into an atomic bomb by irradiating uranium-238 with neutrons. While the Oakridge scientists were working on different treatments of uranium, they discovered that iodine-131 can be produced by fissioning uranium-235, a process that takes place in a nuclear reactor.

A hydrogen bomb can destroy a big city

50 megaton bomb

The power of a hydrogen bomb is so insidious that just a single bomb is capable of wiping out a large city in a matter of seconds.

Nuclear bombs are normally detonated above the ground because otherwise part of the energy would be directed into the ground if the bomb was ignited by a collision above the surface.

The intense heat from the bomb ignites the air and a fireball rises into the sky following the same principles as a hot air balloon, forming a characteristic mushroom cloud.

Then come monstrous shock waves and dust and debris rise up from the Earth as the mushroom’s stem.

Approximately half of the bomb’s energy is released in the form of the shock wave, between a third and half of the bomb in heat, and the rest is radiation energy.

– Radiation: 3 km

50 – 90% of those closest to the bomb site die from radiation. It can take a few hours or weeks.

– Fireball: 4.5 km

Inside the fireball bomb, anything that can burn ignites, and heat radiation from the fireball spreads even further.

Shock wave: 9 km

All buildings are destroyed and in a radius of 20.5 km most smaller houses collapse. Almost all human beings die.

Burns: 60 km

Many people get third degree burns that can cause disability, or in the worst case scenario people need to be amputated.

In 1946, shortly after the end of the war, US authorities decided that the reactor should strive to produce medicine rather than bombs. This meant that radioactive iodine, which Sam Seidlin had shown in the same year could cure cancer, could now be produced in much larger quantities. Nuclear medicine was born.

Since the end of the Second World War, radioactive substances were mainly used to diagnose diseases. The chemicals are useful because they can be directed exactly to the part of the body that doctors want to study.

The principle is that radioactive substances bind to trace elements – substances that are taken up in certain organs or associated with cells that are infected. The mixture is injected into the body, and when certain cells are out of control due to the disease, they will absorb more of the substance.

With a so-called gamma camera, the doctors can then measure the radiation and thus get an accurate picture of the progress of the disease in a specific place in the body.

Americans were fascinated by the nuclear age

From the 1950s, the fascination with the atomic bomb and nuclear power was enormous, but most people were unaware of the dangers. Many imagined a golden nuclear age with, among other things, nuclear-powered cars.

– Las Vegas celebrated the mushroom cloud

Nuclear bomb tests caused great excitement, and in Las Vegas, only 100 kilometers from the test site in the Nevada desert, the entertainment industry sought to gain as much publicity as possible from the developments. Dancers in the city performed in bomb-inspired costumes. In 1957, one of them was chosen as “Miss Atomic Bomb” and photographed with a mushroom cloud made of cotton.

– The cars were supposed to have nuclear reactors

Many car manufacturers began designing nuclear powered cars shortly before the 1960s, inspired by nuclear powered ships and submarines already in use. Cars powered by small nuclear reactors were supposed to be both cheap to operate and pollution-free, but due to the obvious risk of accidents, such cars never hit the road.

– Bombs could dig tunnels

The US authorities had plans to use nuclear bombs instead of tunnel digging machines. One of the ideas in the early 1960s was to equip the Panama Canal with an atomic bomb and then name it the Pan – Atomic Canal. Another project involved building a new port in Alaska with the help of the atomic bomb.

The most widely used material for such diagnosis is currently technitium – 99m, which is extremely convenient because it emits easily measurable gamma rays at roughly the same wavelength as normal X-rays.

Furthermore, almost all of the material breaks down into the stable technitium – 99 in one day, and therefore the body is exposed to extremely low radiation.

Cobalt – 60 cuts like a knife

The nuclear reactors allowed humans to produce many different radioactive substances, one of which is cobalt-60 which does not occur in nature but can only be produced in a nuclear reactor by raining neutrons on cobalt-59.

Cobalt – 60 would prove to be the pioneer of a new technology that was simply called the gamma knife.

This is the treatment that in 2011 saved the life of the Vietnamese Do Quoc Hung despite having lung cancer that had previously been considered incurable.


Nuclear power has saved millions of lives

Almost two million lives are saved because nuclear power has replaced polluting coal-fired power plants.

The calculations are the results of two scientists at NASA who, for comparison, state that only 4,900 people died as a result of nuclear power from 1971 to 2009.

This figure is controversial, as there is a debate about how many deaths can be attributed to Chernobyl – the accident, but it is recognized that nuclear power is far less dangerous than coal-fired power plants.

  • 1,800,000 deaths have been prevented since nuclear power has replaced coal power plants.
  • Between 2000 and 2009, 76,000 lives a year have been saved due to nuclear power.
  • 7,000,000 deaths can be avoided in the next four decades if nuclear energy replaces fossil fuels.

Coal is 14 times more dangerous than nuclear power

– Nuclear energy

1.2 deaths per ten billion kWh (most pessimistic estimate) source: IEA


1.6 deaths per ten billion kWh (most pessimistic estimate) source: IEA

– Hydropower

1.6 deaths per ten billion kWh (most pessimistic estimate) source: IEA

– Kol

32.7 deaths per ten billion kWh (most pessimistic estimate) source: IEA

The technology with the gamma knife works in such a way that radioactive materials are exposed to radiation inside the body so that the rays only reach the cancer, just as if the surgeon were using an extremely precise knife.

The active substance in the gamma knife emits gamma radiation, but it is light with an extremely short wavelength that is powerful enough to tear electrons free from atoms in cancer cells.

This creates so-called ionized atoms – atoms with one electron pair that has been broken. The ions then interact with the atoms around them and thus kill the cancer cell

Nuclear explosions have provided insight into the body

The numerous test explosions between 1955 and 1963 doubled the amount of radioactive carbon-14 in the air. This substance is absorbed into the body and, as it breaks down in a known time, it has revealed how quickly the body’s different cell types regenerate.

This treatment was first tried in 1968 and it was the beginning of so-called radiation therapy.

Since then, this technology has been continuously refined, and now doctors more often use a rotary gamma knife, where the radiation source runs around the patient and irradiates him from different directions.

This makes the procedure even more precise and reduces radiation to healthy tissue, making it possible to cure patients like Do Quoc Hung.

The eighties and eighties of the last century produced another revolution.

With modern methods of scanning – CT – MR – and PET – scanning – which work with the help of radioactive tracers, it has become possible to map, for example, cancerous areas in the body in much greater detail.

It has made radiation therapy even more common because doctors can now target tumors with greater precision.

Speedometer treats cancer

This technological development has made particle accelerators much more widespread, and with them doctors can produce radiation with a higher energy content than with previous methods, thus killing cancer cells more efficiently.

The latest in radiology is the so-called microbeam radiation, a technology that has high hopes as it is incredibly precise.

The technology is based on a so-called synchrotron, which is a circular particle accelerator.

The world’s most powerful weapon mimics the sun

The original nuclear bomb got all its energy from splitting the nucleus of an atom – during nuclear fission. Nowadays, however, most nuclear bombs are so-called hydrogen bombs. This most powerful weapon of mankind simulates the processes in the interior of the Sun, where a pressure 250 billion times greater than that of the Earth’s surface and a temperature close to 15 million °C fuse hydrogen atoms with helium. The hydrogen bomb uses nuclear fission to initiate the fusion of hydrogen, which releases enormous amounts of energy.

The nuclear bomb gets all its energy from nuclear fission

Detonation: The force of the bomb is released by a ball of plastic explosive. Inside the ball is the bomb’s fuel, plutonium – 239, and also beryllium and polonium – 210. During the explosion, the unstable polonium – 210 is compressed with beryllium.

The nuclear bomb gets all its energy from nuclear fission

Nuclear fission: Polonium – 210 emits alpha radiation that knocks neutrons free from beryllium atoms. When they hit the plutonium-239 atoms, they split and release energy and 2-3 new neutrons so that all the atoms split in a flash in a chain reaction.

The hydrogen bomb adds fusion

Heating: The fusion process, the nuclear fission emits gamma radiation. The radiation is reflected from the inner sides of the bomb’s casing and heats it internally to about 100 mio. degrees. This heat of threat sets off the next stage of the bomb – fusion.

The hydrogen bomb adds fusion

Explosion: The fuel in the fusion stage of the bomb consists of two forms of heavy hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, in a shell of uranium. The process is secret, but the heat apparently causes the uranium shell to explode so that the opposite force compresses the hydrogen.

The hydrogen bomb adds fusion

Fusion: The intense pressure causes deuterium and tritium to fuse together into a new substance, helium, just as happens inside the Sun. The process releases enormous amounts of excess energy – more than four times that of nuclear fission.

A magnetic field accelerates particles steadily and the radiation increases in line with the increased speed.

The acceleration causes the particles to emit X-rays, and the radiation is focused so that the beam sent into the body measures down to seven micrometers (1/100,000 m) in diameter – about a tenth of a human hair.

The basic principle of the treatment is that many extremely precise pulses of radiation are fired at the diseased cells. In this way, damage to healthy cells is minimized.

The microradiation treatment is believed to be able to be used against reproduction in the central nervous system, which in the past have been extremely difficult to deal with.

The nuclear bomb was created as a weapon against enemies and made it possible for humans to completely destroy the Earth.

But this doomsday weapon also brought us life-saving technology by fighting enemies inside the body with astonishing precision.

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