A neutron bomb
, technically referred to as an enhanced radiation weapon
(ERW), is a type of tactical nuclear weapon
formerly built mainly by the United States
specifically to release a large portion of its energy
as energetic neutron radiation
. This contrasts with standard thermonuclear weapons, which are designed to capture this intense neutron radiation to increase its overall explosive yield. In terms of yield, ERWs typically produce about one-tenth that of a fission-type atomic weapon. Even with their significantly lower explosive power, ERWs are still capable of much greater destruction than any conventional bomb. Meanwhile, relative to other nuclear weapons, damage is more focused on biological material than on material infrastructure (though extreme blast and heat effects are not eliminated—see Technical overview
Conception of the neutron bomb is generally credited to Samuel Cohen of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who developed the concept in 1958. Although initially opposed by President John F. Kennedy, its testing was authorized and carried out in 1963 at an underground Nevada test facility. Development was subsequently postponed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 following protests against his administration's plans to deploy neutron warheads in Europe. President Ronald Reagan restarted production in 1981.
Three types of ERW were built by the United States. The W66 warhead, for the anti-ICBM Sprint missile system, was produced and deployed in the mid 1970s and retired soon thereafter, along with the missile system. The W70 Mod 3 warhead was developed for the short-range, tactical Lance missile, and the W79 Mod 0 was developed for artillery shells. The latter two types were retired by President George H. W. Bush in 1992, following the end of the Cold War. The last W70 Mod 3 warhead was dismantled in 1996, and the last (W79 Mod 0) was dismantled by 2003, when the dismantling of all W79 variants was completed..
France tested a neutron bomb at the Mururoa Atoll on June 24, 1980. Enhanced radiation weapons were also produced by France in the early 1980s, though they have since destroyed these weapons. The 1999 "Cox Report" indicates that China is able to produce neutron bombs,, although no country is currently known to deploy them.
An ERW is a fission-fusion thermonuclear weapon in which the burst of neutrons generated by a fusion reaction is intentionally allowed to escape the weapon, rather than being absorbed by its other components. The weapon's X-ray mirrors and shell are made of chromium or nickel so that the neutrons can escape. Contrast this with cobalt bombs, also known as salted bombs.
Neutron bombs have low yields compared with other nuclear weapons. This is because neutrons are absorbed by air, so a high-yield neutron bomb is not able to radiate neutrons beyond its blast range and so would have no destructive advantage over a normal hydrogen bomb. Note that using the explosive yield of ERWs to measure destructive power can be deceptive: most of the injuries caused by an ERW come from ionizing radiation, not from heat and blast.
This intense burst of high-energy neutrons is intended as the principal killing mechanism, although large amounts of heat and blast are also produced. Although neutron bombs are commonly believed to "leave the infrastructure intact", current designs have explosive yields in the kiloton range,, the detonation of which would cause heavy destruction through blast and heat effects. A yield of one kiloton is not high for a nuclear weapon, but is still nearly two orders of magnitude (100 times) bigger than the most powerful conventional bombs.
One of the uses for which this weapon was conceived is large-scale anti-tank weaponry. Armored vehicles offer a relatively high degree of protection against heat and blast, the primary destructive mechanisms of normal nuclear weapons. That is, military personnel inside a tank can be expected to survive a nuclear explosion at relatively close range, while the vehicle's NBC protection systems ensure a high degree of operability even in a nuclear fallout environment. By contrast, ER weapons are meant to kill a much higher percentage of enemy personnel inside such protected environments through the release of a higher percentage of their yield in the form of neutron radiation, against which even tank armor is not very effective.
The term enhanced radiation refers only to the burst of neutron radiation released at the moment of detonation, not to any enhancement of residual radiation in fallout.
A neutron bomb requires considerable amounts of tritium, which has a half-life of 12.3 years, compounding the difficulties of extended storage. For a weapon to remain effective over time, tritium components would have to be periodically replaced.
Neutron bomb tactics
Neutron bombs could be used as strategic anti-ballistic missile weapons or as tactical weapons intended for use against armored forces; in fact, the neutron bomb was originally conceived as a weapon that could stop Soviet armored divisions from overrunning Western Europe without destroying Western Europe in the process.
As an anti-ballistic missile weapon, an ER warhead was developed for the Sprint missile system as part of the Safeguard Program to protect United States cities and missile silos from incoming Soviet warheads by damaging their electronic components with the intense neutron flux.
Tactical neutron bombs are primarily intended to kill soldiers who are protected by armor. Armored vehicles are extremely resistant to blast and heat produced by nuclear weapons, so the effective range of a nuclear weapon against tanks is determined by the lethal range of the radiation, although this is also reduced by the armor. By emitting large amounts of lethal radiation of the most penetrating kind, ER warheads maximize the lethal range of a given yield of nuclear warhead against armored targets.
One problem with using radiation as a tactical anti-personnel weapon is that to bring about rapid death of the individuals targeted, a radiation dose that is many times the lethal level must be administered. A radiation dose of 6 Gy is normally considered lethal. It will kill at least half of those who are exposed to it, but no effect is noticeable for several hours. Neutron bombs were intended to deliver a dose of 80 Gy to quickly kill targets. A 1 kt ER warhead can do this to a T-72 tank crew at a range of 690 m, compared to 360 m for a pure fission bomb. For a 6 Gy dose, the distances are 1100 m and 700 m respectively, and for unprotected soldiers 6 Gy exposures occur at 1350 m and 900 m. The lethal range for tactical neutron bombs exceeds the lethal range for blast and heat even for unprotected troops, which is likely the reasoning for the idea that a neutron bomb destroys life and not infrastructure. If a neutron bomb were detonated at the correct altitude, deadly levels of radiation would blanket a wide area with minimal heat and blast effects when compared to a pure bomb.
The neutron flux can induce significant amounts of short-lived secondary radioactivity in the environment in the high flux region near the burst point. The alloys used in steel armor can develop radioactivity that is dangerous for 24-48 hours. If a tank exposed to a 1 kt neutron bomb at 690 m (the effective range for immediate crew incapacitation) is immediately occupied by a new crew, they will receive a lethal dose of radiation within 24 hours.
One significant drawback of the weapon is that not all targeted troops will die or be incapacitated immediately. After a brief bout of nausea, many of those hit with about 5-50 Sv of radiation will experience a temporary recovery (the latent or "walking ghost phase") lasting days to weeks. Moreover, these victims would likely be aware of their inevitable fate and react accordingly.
In popular culture
Art and literature
- In Frank Herbert's novel Dune Messiah (1969), set more than 22,000 years in the future, an atomic weapon with an adjustable radiation yield called a stone burner is used in an assassination attempt.
- In Kurt Vonnegut's book Deadeye Dick (1982), an American town, Midland City, Ohio, is depopulated because a neutron bomb detonates on the freeway. All structures are intact, the townspeople are buried under a parking lot and the area fenced off. Because of the lack of property damage, there is talk of using the fenced off town as a camp for Haitian refugees.
- In Richard Ryan's novel Funnelweb (1997), the Australian government negotiates for an American neutron bomb to be detonated in the city of Sydney to dispatch the infestation of enormous mutant spiders. However, the blast does not have any effect on spiders living beneath the ground, allowing these later, stronger generations of mutant spiders to take hold.
- In 1979, artist Chris Burden created a piece of installation art called The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, which consists of 50,000 nickels with matchstick tips glued to them, arranged in tight rows across the floor of the gallery. It can be said to represent the 50,000-strong Soviet tank force at the time.
- A popular book about the development of punk rock in 1970s California is entitled We Got the Neutron Bomb : The Untold Story of L.A. Punk. The title itself being the name of a song by the punk rock band, the Weirdos.
- The comic-book series The Incredible Hulk featured the "gamma bomb", an "anti" neutron bomb which destroyed buildings and landscape, but often left living targets alive and intact. An experiment with a gamma bomb transformed Bruce Banner into his green-skinned alter-ego.
- In David Graham's paperback Down to a Sunless Sea, during the nuclear war, a neutron bomb was used to attack Lajes Field in the Azores, because the Soviet command wanted to use the refueling station during a follow-up conventional attack on America.
- In David Lynn Goleman's sci fi novel "Event", the Event Group uses a neutron bomb to kill the alien Talkhans after weakening them with dust off of a local salt flat.
- In the novel '48 hours' by Thom Whittaker, many neutron bombs were assembled by Russia to continue with their plan of world domination, and launched from a Russian space station at targets all over the United States.
Film and television
- In the television show Ashes to Ashes the RWF claims that the government is testing a Neutron Bomb.
- In the 2006 film District B13, the French government attempts to detonate a neutron bomb with a range of 4 miles inside District B13 to wipe out the gangs and criminals in the area. They seem to be certain that the bomb will cause no collateral damage and that the district will be reinhabitable within a few days. It is also referred to as a "clean bomb" due to the lack of long term radiation it is said to produce, of course they are detonating it in the middle of a city, but apparently the walls built around the district will stop any stray radiation from harming nearby Paris.
- The character "J. Frank Parnell" in the 1984 film Repo Man mentions the neutron bomb in the course of justifying voluntary lobotomies: "Friend of mine had one. Designer of the neutron bomb. You ever hear of the neutron bomb? Destroys people - leaves buildings standing. Fits in a suitcase. It's so small, no one knows it's there until - BLAMMO. Eyes melt, skin explodes, everybody dead. So immoral, working on the thing can drive you mad. That's what happened to this friend of mine. So he had a lobotomy. Now he's well again." The DVD release contains footage of Alex Cox interviewing, then watching Repo Man with nuclear physicist Samuel Cohen, inventor of the W70 warhead. Cohen mentions it being one of his favorite films.
- In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror VIII", France uses a 6-megaton neutron bomb to wipe out Springfield, leaving the town intact but its residents turned to charred skeletons in their places. The French Launch button is marked Le Bombe Neutron. The bomb features an Intel Processor.
- In the 1987 film Robocop, a TV news report mentions a French-made, 3-megaton neutron bomb that the white ruling party in the "besieged city state" of Pretoria is prepared to use as a last line of defense.
- In the Doctor Who serial The Daleks (1963-64), neutron bombs were extensively utilized in the war between the Dals and the Thals many hundreds of years previous to the story.
- In the Blake's 7 episode Countdown, a weapon whose effects are very similar to a neutron bomb is used by the Federation to enforce their will on a rebellious planet.
- In the Ultraman Tiga episode "Ultraman Tiga: Star of the Dinosaurs" (1996), the two Weaponizers each have half a neutron bomb inside them, able to kill all life on Earth when brought together.
- In an Alias second season episode, one of the Rambaldi artifacts is a reusable suitcase neutron bomb.
- Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame played a character known as “Mr. Neutron.” As the voiceover implied, there was always a nuclear threat when Mr. Neutron was in town: "Mr. Neutron! The man whose incredible power has made him the most feared man of all time... waits for his moment to destroy this little world utterly!" Original Air Date: November 28, 1974 (Season 4, Episode 5).
- Neutron bombs are mentioned in various episodes of the science fiction television series Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda (TV series). For example, a Nietzschian Princess plans to assassinate a capital city using a small pocket neutron bomb.
- In the science fiction series Deathlands, the characters often encounter the remains of cities that remained more or less intact, and their survival was attributed to the use of neutron bombs that killed the population and left the buildings.
- In the post-apocalyptic series Doomsday Warrior, the KGB primarily uses neutron bombs to destroy the American holdouts they discover.
- Working in a "nuke-proof" bunker 600 feet below the earth, Olga and Parker, in the TV series Seven Days, are spared the effects of an enhanced neutron bomb explosion which evaporates all animal life on the planet.
- In the 1987 Norwegian movie Etter Rubicon (After Rubicon), a neutron-grenade goes off when a US-military chopper crashes during a NATO-exercise, causing what is (at first) believed to be a mysterious illness. The main issue of the movie however, was the possible conflict between Norway as a "No Nukes-zone" and the USA as an ally.
- In Walter Klenhard's 2002 TBS Superstation Original Television Motion Picture Disappearance the Neutron Bomb is offered as a clue as to what might have happened to the strange town of Weaver.
- In The Outer Limits 1996 season 2 episode The Light Brigade, a Human cruiser, tasked with a mission to destroy the enemy homeworld in an interstellar war, is hit by the radiation from an alien neutron bomb, which kills the majority of the crew. The only survivors are a small number of men on the opposite side of the vessel from the blast, who nonetheless realize they have received a lethal, if not immediately fatal dose.
- In the television miniseries The Martian Chronicles, the Earth is devastated in a nuclear war that uses neutron bombs.
- The idea of a selectively-destructive bomb was parodied in the spy comedy The Nude Bomb, where a terrorist force utilized the 'bomb' of the film's title which destroyed only clothing, doing no other damage but leaving those in the effect zone completely naked.
- Pearl Jam's song "Wishlist" begins with the lines "I wish I was a neutron bomb, for once I could go off."
- R.E.M.'s song "The Wake-Up Bomb" features the lyrics "I had to write the great American novel, I had a neutron bomb / I had to teach the world to sing by the age of 21."
- The anarchist rock band the Zounds referred to the destructive power of the neutron bomb in their song "Target/Mr. Disney/War" during the Mr. Disney segment. "Oh Mr. Disney, where have you gone? Mickey's being threatened by a neutron bomb."
- A satirical Dead Kennedys song titled "Kill the Poor" discusses the possible use of the weapon for population control in inner city areas: "Efficiency and progress is ours once more/ Now that we have the Neutron bomb / It's nice and quick and clean and gets things done / Away with excess enemy / But no less value to property / No sense in war but perfect sense back home."
- On W.A.S.P.'s album "The Headless Children," there is a song called "The Neutron Bomber."
- The Circle Jerks song Making the Bombs alludes to neutrons bombs: "I like the kind that save the buildings / Why take it out on pillars of stone? / You gotta kill, you gotta maim / The real estate is not to blame."
- GWAR perform a song called "Bring Back the Bomb" on their album War Party.
- On Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger's live album "Precious friend", Guthrie talks to the audience about the neutron bomb and theorizes that if it exists then so must its opposite, "you can't have a light without a dark to stick it in." He then talks about an "un-neutron bomb" which destroys everything but living things (a term later coined vivatron bomb), "all the buildings melt, and all the guns disintegrate and there's nothing there but flowers growing and... there's naked people everywhere!"
- The short-lived Chicago punk rock band The Broadways are critical of neutron bombs in their song "I Hear Things Are Just As Bad Down In Lake Erie": "The neutron bomb is so fucking ingenious, / kill a million people instantly but preserve their machines. / Erase a culture and a race, but their fax machines are safe."
- Los Angeles punk band the Controllers have a song entitled (We Got the) Neutron Bomb which predates that of The Weirdos.
- Venezuelan folk singer Ali Primera in his song "Panfleto para Don Samuel" alludes to neutrons bombs: "Y además de sabotear aviones, ya produjo su bomba de neutrones que solo mata gente según dicen"
- Punk band The Weirdos have a song called "We Got the Neutron Bomb."
- Singer/actor Keith Carradine performed a song called "Neutron Bomb" on his 1978 album Lost and Found.
- In the 1981 release "You Are What You Is", Frank Zappa referred to the Neutron Bomb in the song "Dumb All Over" - "... Or rent a nice French bomb / to poof them out of existence / while leaving the real estate just where we need it / to use again / for temples in which to praise OUR GOD (Cause he can really take care of business)".
- The Diagram Brothers album "Some Marvels of Modern Science" on the New Hormones record label has a track entitled "Isn't It Interesting How Neutron Bombs Work".
- In the PC strategy game series Master of Orion, a weapon called the Neutron Bomb is a high-yield space-to-ground bombing device used to destroy planetary defenses and population. It can also be used in ship-to-ship combat by bombers and heavy fighters. It has no special anti-personnel properties. The effects of real-world neutron bombs are best represented in-game by the Neutron Blaster, Death Ray, Death Spore, and Bio-Terminator weapons.
- In the collectible card game Shadowfist there is a card called Neutron Bomb which kills all characters in play.
- In the Playstation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night there is a use item called the Neutron Bomb that does large amounts of damage to all enemies on the screen
- In the PC strategy game Command & Conquer: Generals - Zero Hour the Chinese forces have access to neutron bombs and neutron mines. They are used to kill enemy infantry and disable enemy vehicles by killing their crews.
- In the PSP Game Metal Gear Acid 2, Metal Gear "Chaioth Ha Qadesh" has the ability to launch Neutron Bombs as its main weapon.
- In the PC game Soldier of Fortune, members of the terrorist group "The Order" are trying to create a neutron bomb, in order to wipe out the UN headquarters in New York.
- In the MMORPGs City of Heroes and City of Villains, the power 'Neutron Bomb' is available to characters with the Radiation Blast powerset.
- In an expansion to the board game Supremacy, Neutron Bombs are available for superpowers to use.
- In the PC strategy game Total Annihilation, the Core forces have access to a Neutron Missile launcher which destroys all units in the missile's area of effect, leaving buildings unharmed.
- In the text-based MMORPG game Combat Grounds, the player can construct the neutron bomb.
- In the N64 game Perfect Dark, the player can unlock a handheld grenade like device named 'N-Bomb', described as a Neutron Weapon which disarms and eventually knocks out anyone caught in its blast radius.
- In the MMORPG Neocron, the Dome of York created a prototype Neutron Bomb to be used against the city of Neocron. It was later sabotaged causing it to detonate on its launch pad, wiping out all life in the Dome and nearly destroying the city.
- Cohen, Sam, The Truth About the Neutron Bomb: The Inventor of the Bomb Speaks Out, William Morrow & Co., 1983, ISBN 0-688-01646-4
- Cohen, Sam, "Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb", Xlibris Corporation, 2000, ISBN 0-7388-2230-2