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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Weapon Blast Effects

As pictures of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and of the test structures erected at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950's amply demonstrate, the blast and shock waves produced by nuclear explosions are the principal means for destroying soft targets. Ground shock from a low-altitude, surface, or underground burst may be the only way to destroy hardened underground structures such as command facilities or missile silos.

Blast and shock effects are the primary damage-producing mechanisms for soft targets such as cities and are often the only effective mechanism for destroying underground structures such as missile silos. Nuclear weapons with yields below about one megaton are particularly identifiable as blast/shock weapons. Nuclear blast and shock phenomena differ from those produced by conventional chemical explosives because of their long duration and large overpressures. There is considerable overlap between the pressure regime of nuclear-produced blast and shock and that of air drag produced in strong hurricanes.

As a result of the very high temperatures and pressures at the point of detonation, the hot gaseous residues move outward radially from the center of the explosion with very high velocities. Most of this material is contained within a relatively thin, dense shell known as the hydrodynamic front. Acting much like a piston that pushes against and compresses the surrounding medium, the front transfers energy to the atmosphere by impulse and generates a steep-fronted, spherically expanding blast or shock wave. At first, this shock wave lags behind the surface of the developing fireball. However, within a fraction of a second after detonation, the rate of expansion of the fireball decreases to such an extent that the shock catches up with and then begins to move ahead of the fireball. For a fraction of a second, the dense shock front will obscure the fireball, accounting for the characteristic double peak of light seen with a nuclear detonation.

As it expands, the peak pressures of the blast wave diminish and the speed of propagation decreases from the initial supersonic velocity to that of sound in the transmitting medium. However, upon reflection from the earth's surface, the pressure in the wave will be reinforced by the fusion of the incident and the reflected wave (the Mach effect) described below.

A large part of the destruction caused by a nuclear explosion is due to blast effects. Objects within the path of the blast wave are subjected to severe, sharp increases in atmospheric pressure and to extraordinarily severe transient winds. Most buildings, with the exception of reinforced or blast- resistant structures, will suffer moderate to severe damage when subjected to overpressures of only 35.5 kiloPascals (kPa) (0.35 Atm). The velocity of the accompanying blast wind may exceed several hundred km/hr. Most materiel targets are drag- or wind-sensitive.

The range for blast effects increases significantly with the explosive yield of the weapon. In a typical air burst, these values of overpressure and wind velocity noted above will prevail at a range of 0.7 km for 1 kiloton (Kt) yield; 3.2 km for 100Kt; and 15.0 km for 10 Mt.

During the time the blast wave is passing through the superheated atmosphere in the fireball, it travels at supersonic velocities. After it leaves the vicinity of the fireball, it slows down to the normal speed of sound in the atmosphere. As long as the blast wave is expanding radially, its intensity decreases approximately as the square of the distance. When the expanding blast wave from a nuclear air burst strikes the surface of the earth, however, it is reflected, and the reflected wave reinforces and intensifies the primary wave.

Targets in the vicinity of ground zero may actually be subjected to two blast waves: the initial or incident wave, followed slightly later by a secondary reflected wave. This limited region close to ground zero in which the incident and reflected waves are separate is known as the region of regular reflection.

Beyond the area of regular reflection as it travels through air which is already heated and compressed by the incident blast wave, the reflected wave will move much more rapidly and will very quickly catch up with the incident wave. The two then fuse to form a combined wave front known as the Mach stem. The height of the Mach stem increases as the blast wave moves outward and becomes a nearly vertical blast front. As a result, blast pressures on the surface will not decrease as the square of the distance, and most direct blast damage will be horizontally directed, e.g., on the walls of a building rather than on the roof.

As the height of burst for an explosion of given yield is decreased, or as the yield of the explosion for a given height of burst is increased, Mach reflection commences nearer to ground zero and the overpressure near ground zero becomes larger. However, as the height of burst is decreased, the total area of coverage for blast effects is also markedly reduced. The choice of height of burst is largely dependent on the nature of the target. Relatively resistant targets require the concentrated blast of a low altitude or surface burst, while sensitive targets may be damaged by the less severe blast wave from an explosion at a higher altitude. In the latter case a larger area and, therefore, a larger number of targets can be damaged.

A surface burst results in the highest possible overpressures near ground zero. In such a burst, the shock front is hemispherical in form, and essentially all objects are subjected to a blast front similar to that in the Mach region described above. A subsurface burst produces the least air blast, since most of the energy is dissipated in the formation of a crater and the production of a ground shock wave.

Winds have a positive phase and a negative phase. During the positive phase, winds travel outward from the point of detonation. As the fireball rises, a slight vacuum is created. This will cause the winds to reverse and blow back toward the detonation. The velocities of this reverse wind are mild compared to the positive phase. The reversal of the winds will keep debris in the air longer and possibly cause more damage. The debris may fall back to the ground and settle after the positive phase and then be picked up again by the negative phase.

Most of the material damage caused by a nuclear air burst is caused by a combination of the high static overpressures and the dynamic or blast wind pressures. The relatively long duration of the compression phase of the blast wave is also significant in that structures weakened by the initial impact of the wave front are literally torn apart by the forces and pressures which follow. The compression and drag force phases together may last several seconds or longer, during which forces many times greater than those in the strongest hurricane are present. These persist even through the negative phase of a blast wave when a partial vacuum is present because of the violent displacement of air.


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