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Nuclear Weapon Radiation Effects | Underground Bomb Shelter

Nuclear Weapon Radiation Effects

by the Federation of American Scientists

Blast and thermal effects occur to some extent in all types of explosions, whether conventional or nuclear. The release of ionizing radiation, however, is a phenomenon unique to nuclear explosions and is an additional casualty producing mechanism superimposed on blast and thermal effects. This radiation is basically of two kinds, electromagnetic and particulate, and is emitted not only at the time of detonation (initial radiation) but also for long periods of time afterward (residual radiation). Initial or prompt nuclear radiation is that ionizing radiation emitted within the first minute after detonation and results almost entirely from the nuclear processes occurring at detonation. Residual radiation is defined as that radiation which is emitted later than 1 minute after detonation and arises principally from the decay of radioisotopes produced during the explosion.

About 5% of the energy released in a nuclear air burst is transmitted in the form of initial neutron and gamma radiation. The neutrons result almost exclusively from the energy producing fission and fusion reactions, while the initial gamma radiation includes that arising from these reactions as well as that resulting from the decay of short-lived fission products. The intensity of initial nuclear radiation decreases rapidly with distance from the point of burst due to the spread of radiation over a larger area as it travels away from the explosion, and to absorption, scattering, and capture by the atmosphere. The character of the radiation received at a given location also varies with distance from the explosion. Near the point of the explosion, the neutron intensity is greater than the gamma intensity, but with increasing distance the neutron-gamma ratio decreases. Ultimately, the neutron component of initial radiation becomes negligible in comparison with the gamma component. The range for significant levels of initial radiation does not increase markedly with weapon yield and, as a result, the initial radiation becomes less of a hazard with increasing yield. With larger weapons, above 50 Kt, blast and thermal effects are so much greater in importance that prompt radiation effects can be ignored.

Blast and thermal injuries in many cases will far outnumber radiation injuries. However, radiation effects are considerably more complex and varied than are blast or thermal effects. A wide range of biological changes may follow the irradiation of an animal, ranging from rapid death following high doses of penetrating whole-body radiation to an essentially normal life for a variable period of time until the development of delayed radiation effects, in a portion of the exposed population, following low dose exposures. When comparing the effects of radiation, that dose which is lethal to 50% of a given population is a very useful parameter. The term is usually defined for a specific time, being limited, generally, to studies of acute lethality. The common time periods used are 30 days or less for most small laboratory animals and to 60 days for large animals and humans. On occasion, when a specific type of death is being studied, the time period used will be shorter. The specified period of time is indicated by a second number in the subscript; LD50/30 and LD50/5 indicate 50% mortality within 30 days and 5 days, respectively. The LD50 is a median,

Many military systems (and, increasingly, civilian systems such as communications and weather satellites) must be capable of operating in environments containing sources of both natural and man-made radiation. In this context “radiation” refers to particle-like effects caused by neutrons, photons, and charged particles. When energetic radiation passes through matter, many complex processes occur including Compton scattering, photoelectric excitation, Auger electron emission, and pair production caused by photons; ionization caused by charged particles; and various nuclear processes caused by neutrons. Neutron-induced reactions can stimulate the release of charged particles and photons.

As the level of integration of modern electronics increases, and as the size of individual devices on chips shrinks, electronic systems become increasingly vulnerable to any unwanted charge deposition or atomic displacement within the silicon base of the semiconductors. Effects which are generally short-lived are classed as transient radiation effects in electronics (TREE). EMP generated within the system by the passage of radiation through cases, circuit boards, components, and devices is called systems-generated EMP or SGEMP.

The quantification of both phenomena is critical to the design of optical and electronic packages which can survive these effects. Ideally, such subsystems should be produced without significant increases in either cost or weight. Because the radiation which causes TREE and SGEMP is relatively strongly absorbed in the atmosphere, both phenomena are of primary importance to space systems exposed to high-altitude, high-yield nuclear detonations.

Survivability analysis of semiconductor electronics requires quantitative understanding of at least the following:

  • Ionization effects (both total dose and dose rate) which produce enhanced photocurrents in the transient state and can also cause permanent trapping of free charge in metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) devices.
  • Displacement effects (displacement of lattice atoms leading to changes in the band gap energy levels) and thermo-mechanical shock induced by the rapid deposition of energy from the nuclear detonation.

These effects depend not merely on total dose but also on dose rate. Naturally occurring effects include total dose from electrons and protons trapped in the Van Allen belts and single-event upset (SEU) or even single-event burnout. SEU results when enough ionization charge is deposited by a high-energy particle (natural or man-produced) in a device to change the state of the circuit—for example, flipping a bit from zero to one. The effect on a power transistor can be so severe that the device burns out permanently.

Large x- and gamma-ray dose rates can cause transient upset and permanent failure. These dose rates are delivered over a 10–100 ns time period. Delayed gammas in a 1–10 microsecond period at the same dose rate can cause latchup and burnout of devices. Latchup is the initiation of a high-current, low-voltage path within the integrated circuit and causes the circuit to malfunction or burnout by joule heating.

Neutron fluences of greater than 10 10 n/cm 2 can cause permanent damage. A nuclear weapon will typically deliver this dose in a period from 0.1 to 10 ms. Total ionization greater than 5,000 rads in silicon delivered over seconds to minutes will degrade semiconductors for long periods. As device sizes decrease, the threshold for damage may go down.

Residual Radiation

The residual radiation hazard from a nuclear explosion is in the form of radioactive fallout and neutron-induced activity.

These are intermediate weight isotopes which are formed when a heavy uranium or plutonium nucleus is split in a fission reaction. There are over 300 different fission products that may result from a fission reaction. Many of these are radioactive with widely differing half-lives. Some are very short, i.e., fractions of a second, while a few are long enough that the materials can be a hazard for months or years. Their principal mode of decay is by the emission of beta and gamma radiation. Approximately 60 grams of fission products are formed per kiloton of yield. The estimated activity of this quantity of fission products 1 minute after detonation is equal to that of 1.1 x 1021 Bq (30 million kilograms of radium) in equilibrium with its decay products.

Nuclear weapons are relatively inefficient in their use of fissionable material, and much of the uranium and plutonium is dispersed by the explosion without undergoing fission. Such unfissioned nuclear material decays by the emission of alpha particles and is of relatively minor importance.

If atomic nuclei capture neutrons when exposed to a flux of neutron radiation, they will, as a rule, become radioactive (neutron-induced activity) and then decay by emission of beta and gamma radiation over an extended period of time. Neutrons emitted as part of the initial nuclear radiation will cause activation of the weapon residues. In addition, atoms of environmental material, such as soil, air, and water, may be activated, depending on their composition and distance from the burst. For example, a small area around ground zero may become hazardous as a result of exposure of the minerals in the soil to initial neutron radiation. This is due principally to neutron capture by sodium (Na), manganese, aluminum, and silicon in the soil. This is a negligible hazard because of the limited area involved.

After an air burst the fission products, unfissioned nuclear material, and weapon residues which have been vaporized by the heat of the fireball will condense into a fine suspension of very small particles 0.01 to 20 micrometers in diameter. These particles may be quickly drawn up into the stratosphere, particularly so if the explosive yield exceeds 10 Kt. They will then be dispersed by atmospheric winds and will gradually settle to the earth’s surface after weeks, months, and even years as worldwide fallout. The radiobiological hazard of worldwide fallout is essentially a long-term one due to the potential accumulation of long-lived radioisotopes, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137, in the body as a result of ingestion of foods which had incorporated these radioactive materials. This hazard is much less serious than those which are associated with local fallout and, therefore, is not discussed at length in this publication. Local fallout is of much greater immediate operational concern.

In a land or water surface burst, large amounts of earth or water will be vaporized by the heat of the fireball and drawn up into the radioactive cloud. This material will become radioactive when it condenses with fission products and other radiocontaminants or has become neutron-activated. There will be large amounts of particles of less than 0.1 micrometer to several millimeters in diameter generated in a surface burst in addition to the very fine particles which contribute to worldwide fallout. The larger particles will not rise into the stratosphere and consequently will settle to earth within about 24 hours as local fallout. Severe local fallout contamination can extend far beyond the blast and thermal effects, particularly in the case of high yield surface detonations. Whenever individuals remain in a radiologically contaminated area, such contamination will lead to an immediate external radiation exposure as well as a possible later internal hazard due to inhalation and ingestion of radio contaminants. In severe cases of fallout contamination, lethal doses of external radiation may be incurred if protective or evasive measures are not undertaken. In cases of water surface (and shallow underwater) bursts, the particles tend to be rather lighter and smaller and so produce less local fallout but will extend over a greater area. The particles contain mostly sea salts with some water; these can have a cloud seeding affect causing local rainout and areas of high local fallout. For subsurface bursts, there is an additional phenomenon present called “base surge.” The base surge is a cloud that rolls outward from the bottom of the column produced by a subsurface explosion. For underwater bursts the visible surge is, in effect, a cloud of liquid (water) droplets with the property of flowing almost as if it were a homogeneous fluid. After the water evaporates, an invisible base surge of small radioactive particles may persist. For subsurface land bursts, the surge is made up of small solid particles, but it still behaves like a fluid. A soil earth medium favors base surge formation in an underground burst.

Meteorological conditions will greatly influence fallout, particularly local fallout. Atmospheric winds are able to distribute fallout over large areas. For example, as a result of a surface burst of a 15 Mt thermonuclear device at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, a roughly cigar-shaped area of the Pacific extending over 500 km downwind and varying in width to a maximum of 100 km was severely contaminated. Snow and rain, especially if they come from considerable heights, will accelerate local fallout. Under special meteorological conditions, such as a local rain shower that originates above the radioactive cloud, limited areas of heavy contamination may be formed.

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