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The Science of Nuclear Weapons, Visualized

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this infographic visualizes the science of how nuclear weapons work, including the processes of fission and fusion

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Visualized: How Nuclear Weapons Work

In 1945, the world’s first-ever nuclear weapon was detonated at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, United States, marking the beginning of the Atomic Age.

Since then, the global nuclear stockpile has multiplied, and when geopolitical tensions rise, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse understandably causes widespread concern.

But despite their catastrophically large effects, the science of how nuclear weapons work is atomically small.

The Atomic Science of Nuclear Weapons

All matter is composed of atoms, which host different combinations of three particles—protons, electrons, and neutrons. Nuclear weapons work by capitalizing on the interactions of protons and neutrons to create an explosive chain reaction.

At the center of every atom is a core called the nucleus, which is composed of closely-bound protons and neutrons. While the number of protons is unique to each element in the periodic table, the number of neutrons can vary. As a result, there are multiple “species” of some elements, known as isotopes.

For example, here are some isotopes of uranium:

  • Uranium-238: 92 protons, 146 neutrons
  • Uranium-235: 92 protons, 143 neutrons
  • Uranium-234: 92 protons, 142 neutrons

These isotopes can be stable or unstable. Stable isotopes have a relatively static or unchanging number of neutrons. But when a chemical element has too many neutrons, it becomes unstable or fissile.

When fissile isotopes attempt to become stable, they shed excess neutrons and energy. This energy is where nuclear weapons get their explosivity from.

There are two types of nuclear weapons:

  • Atomic Bombs: These rely on a domino effect of multiple fission reactions to produce an explosion, using either uranium or plutonium.
  • Hydrogen Bombs: These rely on a combination of fission and fusion using uranium or plutonium, with the help of lighter elements like the isotopes of hydrogen.

So, what exactly is the difference between fission and fusion reactions?

Splitting Atoms: Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission—the process used by nuclear reactors—produces large amounts of energy by breaking apart a heavier unstable atom into two smaller atoms, starting a nuclear chain reaction.

When a neutron is fired into the nucleus of a fissile atom like uranium-235, the uranium atom splits into two smaller atoms known as “fissile fragments” in addition to more neutrons and energy. These excess neutrons can then start a self-sustaining chain reaction by hitting the nuclei of other uranium-235 atoms, resulting in an atomic explosion.

Atomic bombs use nuclear fission, though it’s important to note that a fission chain reaction requires a particular amount of a fissile material like uranium-235, known as the supercritical mass.

Merging Atoms: Nuclear Fusion

Hydrogen bombs use a combination of fission and fusion, with nuclear fusion amplifying a fission reaction to produce a much more powerful explosion than atomic bombs.

Fusion is essentially the opposite of fission—instead of splitting a heavier atom into smaller atoms, it works by putting together two atoms to form a third unstable atom. It’s also the same process that fuels the Sun.

Nuclear fusion mainly relies on isotopes of lighter elements, like the two isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium. When subjected to intense heat and pressure, these two atoms fuse together to form an extremely unstable helium isotope, which releases energy and neutrons.

The released neutrons then fuel the fission reactions of heavier atoms like uranium-235, creating an explosive chain reaction.

How Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs Compare

Just how powerful are hydrogen bombs, and how do they compare to atomic bombs?

BombTypeEnergy produced (kilotons of TNT)
Little Boy 🇺🇸 Atomic15kt
Fat Man 🇺🇸 Atomic21kt
Castle Bravo 🇺🇸 Hydrogen15,000kt
Tsar Bomba 🇷🇺Hydrogen51,000kt

The bombs Little Boy and Fat Man were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, bringing a destructive end to World War II. The scale of these bombings was, at the time, unparalleled. But comparing these to hydrogen bombs shows just how powerful nuclear weapons have become.

Castle Bravo was the codename for the United States’ largest-ever nuclear weapon test, a hydrogen bomb that produced a yield of 15,000 kilotons—making it 1,000 times more powerful than Little Boy. What’s more, radioactive traces from the explosion, which took place on the Marshall Islands near Fiji, were found in Australia, India, Japan, U.S., and Europe.

Seven years later, the Soviet Union tested Tsar Bomba in 1961, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon. The explosion produced 51,000 kilotons of explosive energy, with a destructive radius of roughly 60km.

Given how damaging a single nuke can be, it’s difficult to imagine the outcome of an actual nuclear conflict without fear of total annihilation, especially with the world’s nuclear arsenal sitting at over 13,000 warheads.

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Charted: Contributions to UN Peacekeeping Forces by Country

In 2023, the UN Peacekeeping Forces, under the purview of the Security Council, comprised of more than 60,000 personnel from 118 countries.

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A cropped chart showing the funding and personnel contributors to UN Peacekeeping forces, and location of current missions.

Charted: Contributions to UN Peacekeeping Forces by Country

An earlier version of this graphic was posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

With their sky blue helmets, berets, and badges, the UN Peacekeeping forces are meant to be a symbol of international cooperation in conflict zones around the world.

They’re composed entirely from voluntary contributions from UN Member States—and include police and civilian roles along with military personnel.

The visualization by creator Preyash Shah serves as a primer on the UN Peacekeeping forces. It shows which countries are the biggest personnel contributors, which of them are top funders, and also lists the current ongoing peacekeeping operations. Data for this chart comes from the UN Peacekeeping archives.

Countries by Troop Contributions to UN Peacekeeping (2023)

From South Asia, a trio of countries—Nepal, Bangladesh, and India—are each contributing more than 6,000 personnel to the UN peacekeepers.

A majority of these representatives are soldiers, heavily involved in the four active peacekeeping missions in Africa.

RankCountryPersonnel
1🇳🇵 Nepal6,247
2🇧🇩 Bangladesh6,197
3🇮🇳 India6,073
4🇷🇼 Rwanda5,919
5🇵🇰 Pakistan4,164
6🇮🇩 Indonesia2,717
7🇬🇭 Ghana2,664
8🇨🇳 China2,267
9🇪🇬 Egypt1,739
10🇲🇦 Morocco1,715
11🇹🇿 Tanzania1,544
12🇪🇹 Ethiopia1,509
13🇸🇳 Senegal1,194
14🇿🇦 South Africa1,133
15🇨🇲 Cameroon1,103
16🇺🇾 Uruguay1,016
17🇿🇲 Zambia996
18🇹🇳 Tunisia988
19🇲🇳 Mongolia898
20🇮🇹 Italy872
21🇲🇾 Malaysia865
22🇲🇼 Malawi802
23🇲🇷 Mauritania787
24🇧🇮 Burundi769
25🇰🇭 Cambodia734
26🇪🇸 Spain688
27🇺🇬 Uganda654
28🇫🇷 France587
29🇱🇰 Sri Lanka561
30🇰🇷 South Korea545
31🇮🇪 Ireland458
32🇰🇪 Kenya456
33🇳🇬 Nigeria421
34🇹🇬 Togo408
35🇩🇪 Germany383
36🇯🇴 Jordan357
37🇫🇯 Fiji339
38🇧🇯 Benin319
39🇦🇷 Argentina292
40🇹🇭 Thailand289
41🇬🇧 UK280
42🇻🇳 Viet Nam274
43🇷🇸 Serbia271
44🇵🇪 Peru262
45🇸🇰 Slovakia244
46🇵🇹 Portugal239
47🇩🇯 Djibouti226
48🇧🇹 Bhutan219
49🇬🇹 Guatemala218
50🇫🇮 Finland204
51🇵🇱 Poland202
52🇨🇬 Congo189
53🇸🇻 El Salvador187
54🇦🇹 Austria177
55🇱🇷 Liberia161
56🇧🇫 Burkina Faso156
57🇹🇷 Turkiye154
58🇨🇮 Côte d'Ivoire132
59🇬🇷 Greece103
60🇳🇪 Niger88
61🇷🇺 Russia88
62🇬🇲 Gambia81
63🇧🇷 Brazil79
64🇬🇳 Guinea74
65🇵🇾 Paraguay59
66🇳🇴 Norway51
67🇷🇴 Romania49
68🇿🇼 Zimbabwe49
69🇨🇦 Canada47
70🇭🇺 Hungary38
71🇧🇦 Bosnia & Herzegovina34
72🇦🇲 Armenia33
73🇧🇳 Brunei Darussalam29
74🇸🇪 Sweden29
75🇲🇱 Mali28
76🇧🇴 Bolivia27
77🇺🇸 U.S.27
78🇦🇺 Australia26
79🇸🇱 Sierra Leone26
80🇵🇭 Philippines21
81🇨🇭 Switzerland19
82🇨🇿 Czech Republic18
83🇰🇿 Kazakhstan18
84🇲🇽 Mexico18
85🇭🇳 Honduras17
86🇨🇱 Chile15
87🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan15
88🇹🇩 Chad14
89🇭🇷 Croatia13
90🇳🇱 Netherlands13
91🇪🇨 Ecuador11
92🇩🇴 Dominican Republic10
93🇳🇦 Namibia10
94🇲🇩 Moldova10
95🇲🇹 Malta9
96🇩🇰 Denmark8
97🇳🇿 New Zealand8
98🇸🇮 Slovenia7
99🇪🇪 Estonia6
100🇲🇪 Montenegro6
101🇨🇴 Colombia5
102🇲🇬 Madagascar5
103🇦🇱 Albania4
104🇯🇵 Japan4
105🇱🇻 Latvia4
106🇧🇪 Belgium3
107🇩🇿 Algeria2
108🇦🇴 Angola2
109🇦🇿 Azerbaijan2
110🇧🇼 Botswana2
111🇨🇾 Cyprus2
112🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea2
113🇹🇱 Timor-Leste2
114🇱🇹 Lithuania1
115🇲🇰 North Macedonia1
116🇶🇦 Qatar1
117🇸🇹 Sao Tome & Principe1
118🇹🇯 Tajikistan1
N/A🌐 World66,839

Source: Troop & Police Contributors, United Nations Peacekeeping.

However, these three countries—and the others in the top 15—are outliers when looking at overall troop contributions.

Of the 118 countries currently volunteering forces to the UN, 103 of them have fewer than 1,000 UN Peacekeepers.

The U.S. for example currently has only 27 personnel in the peacekeepers, as of November 2023. Of them, 21 are staff officers, four are “experts on mission,” and two are police; none are troops.

Other countries that have zero “boots on the ground” include: Canada, Japan, and Australia.

Countries by Financial Contributions to UN Peacekeeping (2021)

While all UN member states are mandated to contribute to the peacekeeping budget, the share of financial contributions is similarly unevenly distributed.

Most of the world’s largest economies are also the top funders to the UN peacekeeping forces.

For the financial year 2020–2021, the U.S. contributed nearly $2 billion to the UN peacekeepers, followed by China ($1 billion), Japan ($563 million), Germany ($401 million) and the UK ($381 million).

RankCountryRegionContributionEstimated Value
(USD Millions)
1🇺🇸 U.S.North America27.89%$1,835
2🇨🇳 ChinaAsia15.21%$1,000
3🇯🇵 JapanAsia8.56%$563
4🇩🇪 GermanyEurope6.09%$401
5🇬🇧 UKEurope5.79%$381
6🇫🇷 FranceEurope5.61%$369
7🇮🇹 ItalyEurope3.30%$217
8🇷🇺 RussiaAsia3.04%$200
9🇨🇦 CanadaNorth America2.73%$180
10🇰🇷 South KoreaAsia2.26%$149
N/A🌐 RoWN/A19.52%$1,284
N/ATotalN/A100%$6,579

Source: How We are Funded, United Nations Peacekeeping.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council carry a greater financial responsibility to the peacekeeping budget, in accordance with their security council privileges.

Ranked: Current UN Peacekeeping Missions by Personnel (2023)

As of November, 2023, there are 11 active UN peacekeeping missions in operation. There have been more than 60 peacekeeping operations since 1948; the first one was established in Palestine to oversee the truce between Arab and Jewish communities.

RankLocationEstablishedUNPK Personnel
1🇨🇫 Central African Republic201418,448
2🇸🇸 South Sudan201118,412
3🇨🇩 DRC201017,971
4🇱🇧 Lebanon197810,385
5🇸🇩 Sudan &
🇸🇸 South Sudan
20113,388
6🇸🇾 Syria19741,331
7🇨🇾 Cyprus19641,017
8🇪🇭 Western Sahara1991468
9🇮🇱 Israel &
🇵🇸 Palestine
1948375
10🇽🇰 Kosovo1999353
11🇮🇳 India &
🇵🇰 Pakistan
1949104

Source: Where We Operate, United Nations Peacekeeping.

A key tenant of the missions is to protect civilians and human rights, and several of them have failed in this regard, including the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the decade of Balkan civil wars.

And peacekeepers themselves have also garnered less than stellar reputations, after perpetrating sexual abuse in the Central African Republic and Congo, and causing a cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2010.

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