Weapons of mass destruction

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Symbols of the three major WMD varieties. Collect 'em all!
It never changes
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A view to kill
Not to be confused with WND, which is a different kind of terrible.
And the great danger facing us today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science... The real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness—that's the atomic bomb that we've got to fear today... Within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[1]

Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are devices capable of inflicting indiscriminate death several orders of magnitude greater than conventional ordnance. They are so deadly that their very existence is considered a grave threat to the whole world.[2] In the modern day, the term WMD is almost exclusively applied to weapons of nuclear, biological, or chemical properties.

The term was first used around 1937 to describe civilian bombing by aircraft formations; this definition was seemingly confirmed for much of World War II.[2] As did the world, the term changed irrevocably in 1945 after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the United States deployed two nuclear weapons against cities in Japan. Not only were countless people burned to death and disfigured, but even more died later due to what we now understand as radiation injuries.[3] During the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union stockpiled tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. They also built disturbingly large numbers of biological and chemical agents, which had been used before in both world wars to cause incalculable human suffering.[4][5][6]

After the Cold War ended, WMDs still remained and remain a threat to world security. Biological and chemical agents are relatively easy to assemble and transport, often with tools available on the open market.[7][8] Rogue nations have gotten their hands on WMDs in such manner, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which used raw materials sent from the US,[9] and Rhodesia, which used homebrew anthrax and chemical agents against black Africans fighting against racial inequality.[10] Aum Shinrikyo also launched a terrorist attack in Tokyo with sarin gas, although they "only" caused 13 deaths.[11]

Nuclear weapons are also still at large. Today, some countries, such as France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have declared nuclear arsenals at their disposal.[12] Israel seems to have a nuclear stockpile, although it officially refuses to confirm or deny this.[13] Iran has also been exploring nuclear technology, which has been a global headache since about 2003 and got worse after US President Donald Trump reneged on the agreement the Obama administration struck to limit Iran's capacity to build a weapon.[14]

Nuclear weapons[edit]

Carbonized corpse in Nagasaki.
See the main article on this topic: Nuclear war


As they release much more energy than chemical explosives, nuclear weapons are capable of causing immense civilian casualties in a very short amount of time. Luckily, only two such weapons have been used in open warfare. Because of the sophistication of actual nuclear weapons it is unlikely that non-state actors would have the resources to develop a bomb by themselves (although it is possible that a state could give away a bomb, sell a bomb, or have one stolen). A greater risk is a terrorist group seeding a conventional explosive with radioactive material creating a "dirty bomb."

Fission bomb[edit]

All nuclear weapons rely on the process of nuclear fission, a radioactive decay process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more smaller pieces.[15] This process releases a very large amount of energy, which could be useful for, say, a giant-ass bomb. This is your standard "vanilla" nuclear weapon, also called an atom bomb, or a fission bomb. In basic terms, these bombs trigger a fission reaction by either smacking one bit of fissile material into another or else compressing that fissile material.[16] Both bombs deployed over Japan during World War II were of this variety.

Of course, it wasn't good enough to build a giant-ass bomb. US nuclear scientists were looking for a giant-ass bomb. Enter the...

Fusion bomb[edit]

The Tsar Bomba test viewed from 100 miles away.
We scientists are clever — too clever — are you not satisfied? Is four square miles in one bomb not enough? Men are still thinking. Just tell us how big you want it!
—Richard Feynman, American physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project.[17]

Fusion devices, also called hydrogen bombs or thermonuclear bombs, are many thousands of times more powerful than their lame fission cousins. For comparison, the most powerful fission bombs ever built can produce explosions equal to 500,000 tons of TNT while the first ever hydrogen bomb tested in 1952 had the force of 10 million tons of TNT, or 10 megatons.[18] If you want more comparison, Little Boy flattened Hiroshima with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT, while Fat Man did the same to Nagasaki with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.[18] After the US started testing fusion devices, the Soviets clapped back in 1961 with the biggest nuclear bomb ever built, the Tsar Bomba, which had the force of 50 megatons of TNT.[18] The Tsar Bomba test shattered windows in houses 500 miles away, created a mushroom cloud eight times the height of Mt. Everest, and generated enough heat to give people third-degree burns from 60 miles away.[19] Goddamn.

So now that you have an idea of how destructive these things can be, let's look at how fusion bombs actually work. Hydrogen bombs use the same fission mechanism as before, but they go one step further and use the energy from fission to combine atoms.[20] That combination process is called nuclear fusion, and it's the same process that powers the sun.

Salted bomb[edit]

Needle made of cobalt-60 for treating tumors. Notice the doctor is holding it with forceps.

In the other direction, there are bombs that produce smaller explosions but also scatter huge amounts of radioactive material. It's true that conventional nuclear weapons produce radiation, and that's due to the contamination of surrounding dust particulates.[21] That's more of a side effect, as most nuclear weapons are detonated in the atmosphere in order to create a destructive pressure wave.

In contrast, salted weapons are designed to spread radioactive material intentionally. Here's how that works: the actual bomb is encased in an ordinary, stable substance such as cobalt-59. When the bomb explodes, fast-moving neutrons escaping the reaction collide with the cobalt atoms and turn them into cobalt-60, which is dangerously radioactive.[21] The explosion vaporizes the cobalt-60 and scatters it over hundreds or perhaps thousands of square miles, rendering all of that land deadly and unlivable.[21] Forget nuclear winter, these bombs are meant to render much of the planet uninhabitable to human life.

Luckily, as far as anyone knows, these bombs don't exist in any large numbers. Russia claims to building them, however,[21] and the UK tested a little one in Australia in 1957.[22]

"Dirty" bomb[edit]

Atomb bomb blisters in a Hiroshima victim.

Dirty bombs, which you might know about from watching 24, technically aren't nuclear bombs. These are regular old bombs which are combined with radioactive material in the hopes that the explosion will spread that material.[23]

Dirty bombs are probably an overstated threat, since it would be very hard to get enough of the right kind of radioactive material to actually cause damage, and the actual explosion wouldn't be any bigger.[23] Whatever radioactive dust is actually spread would be fairly easy to isolate; the explosion itself would be the more destructive part of that equation.[24] The only real fear of a dirty bomb is that it would cause mass panic and require costly cleanup, which is why the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has snarkily termed them "weapons of mass disruption".[23]

Effects on human health[edit]

The American, English and French newspapers are spewing out elegant dissertations on the atomic bomb. We can sum it up in a single phrase: mechanized civilization has just achieved the last degree of savagery.
—Albert Camus, French reporter, 8 August, 1945.[25]

Getting caught in a nuclear blast will probably kill you. Duh. However, radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion can fuck you up over the long term. The actual blast is composed of terrible heat and then an all-destroying pressure wave. After that comes the radioactive fallout, as clouds of irradiated particles of dust and bomb debris slowly fall back to the ground.[26] This is what will account for most of the bomb's victims, as atmospheric winds will spread that radioactive dust across a large area.

Sadly, studying the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has given us a great deal of information about how fallout effects human health. Radiation interferes with those cells in the body that rapidly divide, like hair follicles, intestinal cells, and bone marrow.[26] Short term health conditions include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blistering, ulceration, cataracts, hair loss, and depletion of blood cells.[27] Those who die relatively quickly from radiation injuries typically suffer extensive cell death in the central nervous system, which results in seizures, respiratory failure, and eventually a coma from which the victim does not awaken.[27]

Biological weapons[edit]

Photomicrograph of Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

Biological warfare involves attempting to infect the enemy with a contagious virus, bacteria, fungi or parasite that will cause them to die or be incapacitated, or siccing genetically engineered superpredators on them in the world of SciFi. Biological warfare was used in antiquity, as warring factions often disseminated dead people and animals to enemy cities in order to cause the inhabitants to become sick. Although they were prohibited by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, proposals for use of biological warfare in World War II existed, such as the UK's proposed Operation Vegetarian, which involved dropping anthrax onto German cattle fields so that when the cattle's meat and milk were consumed the consumer would become fatally sick, potentially causing millions of deaths.[28] Also during World War II, Unit 731 of the Japanese conducted biological warfare, resulting in the torture and death of many thousands.[29]

In 1972, a United Nations resolution prohibited the production of bioweapons, though several nations are still suspected of owning them. Terrorists have also attempted to use or acquire biological agents, most notably the Osho cult which tried to use salmonella to poison voters in an election,[30] and the 2001 anthrax attacks which killed five people in the US.[31]

Clostridium botulinum[edit]

Clostridium botulinum is one of the bacterium which is noted for its potential use as a bioweapon. It produces a toxin which induces the disease "botulism", a rare and potentially fatal illness that attacks the body's nerves to cause muscle weakness, paralysis, difficulty breathing, and eventually death.[32]

Skin lesions caused by anthrax.

The US considers botulism to be a major potential bioweapon threat, as it's extremely lethal and relatively easy to produce.[33] Terrorist groups have attempted to use botulism before; Aum Shinrikyo tried to use it multiple times against the US and Japan but without any successful kills.[34] Japan's Unit 731 also used botulism on prisoners of war. More recently, Saddam Hussein's Iraq maintained a program between 1988 and 1991 which produced botulinum toxin.[35]

Bacillus anthracis[edit]

Anthrax is perhaps the most notorious biological agent, having been used in the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, used by Rhodesia against Africans,[10] and was a part of Saddam Hussein's short-lived biological weapons program.[35] This is because anthrax is both common and deadly. It's easily found in soil, it's colorless and odorless, and it's long-lasting.[36] That last trait comes from the fact that the anthrax bacteria can lie dormant for years before "activating" upon entering a living host.[37]

In terms of symptons, anthrax causes blistering and abdominal bleeding with about 25% risk of death from these symptoms.[38]

Chemical weapons[edit]

Canadian WWI soldier with severe mustard gas blisters.
In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. It is a higher form of killing.
—Fritz Haber, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1918[39]
The use of any chemical weapon is appalling. The indiscriminate nature of poison gas and the harrowing effects produced in the human body seems especially callous and inhumane.
—Kathryn Harkup, reporter for The Guardian.[40]

Although chemicals had been used as tools of war for thousands of years—e.g. poisoned arrows, boiling tar, arsenic smoke and noxious fumes, etc.—modern chemical warfare has its genesis on the battlefields of World War I.[41] The first full-scale deployment of deadly chemical warfare agents during World War I was at the Second Battle of Ypres, on April 22, 1915, when the Germans attacked French, Canadian and Algerian troops with chlorine gas. Deaths were light, though injuries relatively heavy. The various powers soon developed more potent agents, such as Sulfur Mustard ("mustard gas"), phosgene, sarin, and VX. Other notable uses in warfare after World War I include the Iran-Iraq War and several reported chemical attacks in Syria. In early 2018 a nerve agent was deployed by the Russian government in an attempted assassination of an ex-KGB spy in the UK that left him, his daughter, and a Police Detective comatose and is believed to have less severely impacted at least 120 more.

The most famous use of chemical weapons by terrorists was the Tokyo subway sarin attackWikipedia by followers of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Many modern chemical products can be repurposed for use as a weapon (Chlorine, for example, is readily available since it is used to disinfect water supplies), so there is a greater risk of this type of chemical terrorism than nuclear or biological.

Blistering agents[edit]

Mustard gas shells owned by the US military.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines blistering agents as "chemicals which have severely irritating properties that produce fluid filled pockets on the skin and damage to the eyes, lungs and other mucous membranes."[42] Blistering agents were first used in World War I and were then deployed again during the Iran-Iraq War.

Likely the most infamous blistering agent chemical weapon is mustard gas (Cl-CH2CH2)2S, a colorless or pale yellow gas that causes mass incapacitation by inducing severe pus-filled blistering in the eyes, respiratory tract, and on the skin.[43] Although mustard gas exposure usually wasn't lethal, it did permanently disfigure many people with scarring and even blindness.

Blood agents[edit]

Zyklon B labels from the Dachau camp, used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials.

Blood agents absorb into the blood, usually via inhalation, and inhibit the red blood cells' ability to carry oxygen.[44] This makes them very fast-acting and lethal, and they cause death through respiratory failure and critical organ damage. They are either cyanide- or arsenic-based.

The most infamous example of a blood agent is hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which was first used as a weapon by France in 1916.[45] Like all of the best chemical weapons, hydrogen cyanide is colorless and odorless. Even worse than that however was Zyklon B, which Nazi Germany used to murder millions of people in death camps.[46] You see, the problem with hydrogen cyanide is that it disperses into the atmosphere faster than other gases, making it impractical for field use. But using it against prisoners seems to work just fine.

Pulmonary agent[edit]

Pulmonary agents are chemical weapons which are specifically designed to impede a person's ability to breathe.[47] They act by burning a person's respiratory tract, causing a fatal fluid buildup in the lungs. Notable pulmonary agents used as weapons include chlorine (Cl) and phosgene (COCl2). Chlorine gas was actually the first chemical weapon used in modern history, as the German Empire launched chlorine at British and French troops during the Battle of Ypres in 1915.[48] Gas wasn't a decisive weapon, but it was effective at clearing enemy formations and causing panic, so both sides went on to use chlorine and other weapons. Chlorine kills by reacting with the water present in a person's mucus membranes, forming a mixture of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and hypochlorous acid (HOCl).[49] By virtue of being fucking acid, these substances then burn the shit out of those mucous membrances, causing nausea, shortness of breath, excruciating pain, fluid buildup in the lungs, and possibly death.[50]

Using a rabbit to test for nerve gas leaks.

Phosgene was also used during the first world war, in this case pioneered by the French.[51] It was detectable for its "musty hay" odor, but this trait didn't stop it from being by far the most effective and lethal chemical weapon in WWI.[52] Phosgene was also used by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War, having been directly authorized by Emperor Hirohito.[53]

Nerve agents[edit]

Nerve agents disrupt the chemical communications through the nervous system. They accomplish this by blocking an enzyme called Acetylcholinesterase (AChE), causing the accumulation of the neurotransmitter between nerve cells and thus fatally overstimulating the nervous system until it ceases to function.[54] They absorb through the lungs and skin, and they have rapid effects.

German scientists invented the first nerve agents in the 1930s while trying to invent better insecticides; the resulting compounds were way, way too toxic to be used for that purpose.[55] These two compounds were tabun (C5H11N2O2P) and sarin (C4H10FO2P), which became the first in a new and nastier breed of gas weapon. Since then, research continued and by the Cold War, countries like the UK and the US were accidentally killing people and animals from dozens of miles away with absurdly deadly nerve agents.[55]

In 2018, an unknown actor (probably Russia) poisoned an exiled Russian dissident and dozens of other people in the UK with an agent called "Novichok", which is perhaps the deadliest known nerve agent.[56]

Invasion of Iraq[edit]

Colin Powell presents a vial of "anthrax" to the UN, 2003.
See the main article on this topic: Iraq War
The invasion of Iraq will surely go down in history as one of the most cowardly wars ever fought. It was a war in which a band of rich nations, armed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, rounded on a poor nation, falsely accused it of having nuclear weapons, used the United Nations to force it to disarm, then invaded it, occupied it, and are now in the process of selling it.
—Arundhati Roy's 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture.[57]

The ostensible casus belli of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the insistence by the Bush Administration that weapons of mass destruction really were present in that country, despite the fact that the regime denied the charges, and UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Dr Al-Baraday found nothing.

Subsequent to the war, Saddam Hussein was deposed and US forces occupied the country and searched every square inch for any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. They turned up nothing they admitted to — and neither are they likely to as they concluded the weapons didn't exist and stopped looking for them shortly after the end of the invasion. It's puzzling. At the Press Correspondent's Dinner in 2004 Bush looked for WMDs under the papers he had arranged on the podium and he still didn't find anything. Maybe the trouble was that he was looking for "nucular" weapons.

In reality, Saddam did have chemical weapons at one point, which Ronald Reagan very generously supplied during the Iran-Iraq War.[notes 1] They were degraded and largely dismantled by the 1990s. Nonetheless, some soldiers were injured by abandoned chemical weapons.[58]

See also[edit]


  1. Well, technically, he only supplied the material to help make chemical weapons.


  1. Martin Luther King, Jr. Wikiquote.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Weapon of mass destruction. Britannica.
  3. Radiation injury. Britannica.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on United States biological weapons program.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on United States chemical weapons program.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Russia and weapons of mass destruction.
  7. Fact Sheet: Biological Weapons. Center for Arms Control and Non Proliferation.
  8. Fact Sheet: Chemical Weapons. Center for Arms Control and Non Proliferation.
  9. Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran SHANE HARRIS AND MATTHEW M. AID | AUGUST 26, 2013
  11. Tokyo Sarin attack: Japan executes last Aum Shinrikyo members on death row. BBC News.
  12. A Guide to Nuclear Weapons. The Nuclear Weapon Archive.
  13. Israel's nuclear capability and policy of strategic ambiguity. The Guardian.
  14. Iran's Nuclear Capabilities Fast Facts. CNN.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Nuclear fission.
  16. Science Behind the Atom Bomb. Atomic Heritage Foundation.
  17. Richard Feynman. Wikiquote.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Hydrogen bombs versus atomic bombs, explained. Vox.
  19. Ingeniously Charting The Horrifying Power Of Today’s Nuclear Bombs. Fast Company.
  20. What's The Actual Difference Between a Hydrogen Bomb And an Atomic Bomb? Science Alert.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Why Putin's new 'doomsday' device is so much more deadly and horrific than a regular nuke. Business Insider.
  22. See the Wikipedia article on Salted bomb.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Backgrounder on Dirty Bombs. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  24. Radiological Dispersal Device. US Centers for Disease Control.
  25. Nuclear weapons. Wikiquote.
  26. 26.0 26.1 How Nuclear Bombs Work. How Stuff Works.
  27. 27.0 27.1 See the Wikipedia article on Effects of nuclear explosions on human health.
  28. Operation Vegetarian: in 1942, the British planned on killing millions of Germans by dropping anthrax onto their pastures. Vintage News.
  29. Unit 731: Japan's Secret Biological Warfare in World War II by Peter Williams & David Wallace (1989). Free Press. ISBN 0029353017.
  30. See the Wikipedia article on 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack.
  31. See the Wikipedia article on 2001 anthrax attacks.
  32. Botulism. US Centers for Disease Control.
  33. Botulinum Toxin (Botulism). Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
  34. Botulinum Toxin: A Bioterrorism Weapon. EMS World.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction. PBS.
  36. 6 deadly bioweapons the US Army has faced since 1969. Business Insider.
  37. What Is Anthrax? Live Science.
  38. See the Wikipedia article on Anthrax.
  39. A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Gas and Germ Warfare by Robert Harris & Jeremy Paxman (1982) Hill & Wang. ISBN 080905471X.
  40. Chlorine: the gas of war crimes. The Guardian.
  41. Professor Haber is referred to be the godfather of chemical warfare. Documentary film about Fritz Shimon Haber (2005)
  42. Blister Agents Guide. US Department of Labor.
  43. What Is Mustard Gas? Live Science.
  44. Walsh, C. J. (2008). "Blood agents". In Ayn Embar-seddon; Allan D. Pass (eds.). Forensic Science. Salem Press. p. 150. ISBN 978-1-58765-423-7.
  45. Schnedlitz, Markus (2008) Chemische Kampfstoffe: Geschichte, Eigenschaften, Wirkung. GRIN Verlag. p. 13. ISBN 364023360-3.
  46. Dwork, D.; van Pelt, R. J. (1996). Auschwitz, 1270 to the present. Norton. p. 443. ISBN 978-0-393-03933-7.
  47. See the Wikipedia article on Pulmonary agent.
  48. How Gas Became a Terror Weapon. Imperial War Museum.
  49. Chemical reactions of the period 3 elements. Chemistry Guide.
  50. Facts about Chlorine. US Centers for Disease Control.
  51. Nye, Mary Jo (1999). Before big science: the pursuit of modern chemistry and physics, 1800–1940. Harvard University Press. p. 193. ISBN 0-674-06382-1.
  52. Facts About Phosgene. US Centers for Disease Control.
  53. See the Wikipedia article on Phosgene.
  54. What is a Chemical Weapon?. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
  55. 55.0 55.1 Nerve Agents: What Are They and How Do They Work? American Scientist.
  56. Amesbury poisoning: What are Novichok agents and what do they do? BBC News.
  57. Roy's full speech. Sydney Morning Post.
  58. The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons, The New York Times