As the aircraft approached the Mityushikha Bay test range, Major Andrei Durnovtsev and his crew checked their instruments and donned heavy goggles. At 11:32 am Moscow time the Tu-95N released its weapon then climbed and banked sharply. The Tsar Bomb fell to its glory, its oddly sleek locomotive-sized mass trailing its gigantic parachute as it dropped towards ground zero.
Big Ivan detonated at 13,000 feet and its fireball still nearly reached the ground. Its own shockwave reflected off Novaya Zemlya's surface bounced the five-mile-wide incandescent sphere skywards. Seismometers recorded a an impact equal to a magnitude 5 earthquake. Buildings were leveled 30 miles away, windowpanes broken 500 miles distant.
The flash was visible at 600 miles and the thermal pulse felt over 165 miles away. The EMP pulse blacked out radio communications for hundreds of miles for over an hour. An enormous mushroom cloud climbed over 20 miles up through the hole blown in the Earth's atmosphere.
Ground zero was gone. “The ground surface of the island has been levelled, swept and licked so that it looks like a skating rink,” a witness reported. “The same goes for rocks. The snow has melted and their sides and edges are shiny. There is not a trace of unevenness in the ground.... Everything in this area has been swept clean, scoured, melted and blown away.”
US agencies rated the Tsar Bomba's yield at 57 million tons of TNT equivalent—far and away a world's record that still stands. Soviet scientists arrived at a 50-megaton yield but for decades their nation was happy to accept the higher American figure.
And yet it could have been even more powerful—a full 100 megatons. A month after the Berlin Wall went up Andrei Sakharov decided to substitute the third-stage uranium cladding for steel, reducing the bomb's yield by 50%. As a result, for all its enormous power Big Ivan remains the “cleanest” nuclear weapon ever tested, as it derived more than half its power from nuclear fusion with far fewer radionuclides produced per megaton.
So was the Tsar Bomb really a functional weapon? Most probably not. Its military utility was questionable.
Setting aside its declared political purpose, the Tu-95N bomber—the USSR's only way of delivering the Tsar Bomb—was not a practical delivery platform: NATO fighters would shoot the lumbering plane out of the sky long before it had a chance to drop its huge bomb. You can count on one hand the number of targets in Europe big enough to merit the Tsar Bomb's attentions. One Tsar Bomb alone could burn down West Germany—if it could get there.
Big Ivan was a one-off, essentially a technical stunt. There are hints that the clean 50-megaton design was considered for weaponization, but nothing concrete. Curiously enough, at about the same time American nuclear weaponeers had, according to Alex Wallerstein , arrived at breakthrough high-yield bomb designs. Had atmospheric nuclear testing continued the US might have tested a 100-megaton weapon half the weight of Big Ivan—light enough to actually fight with.
Some toys are best left in their boxes. Andrei Sakharov came to think so after witnessing the Tsar Bomb's test, and later became the Soviet Union's leading dissident and anti-nuclear sage. That was the Tsar Bomb's biggest effect.
Steve Weintz, a frequent contributor to many publications such as WarIsBoring, is a writer, filmmaker, artist, animator.
Image: Creative Commons.