The power of chemical explosives comes from the rapid release of heat and the formation of gases when atoms in the chemicals break their bonds to other atoms. The power of nuclear explosives comes not from breaking chemical bonds but from the core of the atom itself. When unstable nuclei of heavy elements, such are uranium or plutonium, are split apart, or when the nuclei of light elements, such as the isotopes of hydrogen deuterium or tritium, are forced together, in nuclear explosives they release tremendous amounts of uncontrolled energy. These nuclear reactions are called fission and fusion. Fission creates the explosive power of the atomic bomb. Fusion creates the power of the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb. Like chemical explosives, nuclear weapons create heat and a shock wave generated by expanding gases. The power of nuclear explosive, however, is far greater than any chemical explosive. A ball of uranium- 239 small enough to fit into your hand can explode with the force equal to 20,000 tons of TNT. The heat or thermal radiation released during the explosion travels with the speed of light and the shock wave destroys objects in its path with hurricane-like winds. Nuclear explosives are so much more powerful than chemical explosives that their force is measured in terms of thousands of tons (kilotons) of TNT. Unlike chemical explosives, nuclear explosives also generate radioactive fallout.
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