Cobalt bomb

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A cobalt bomb is a type of "salted bomb": a nuclear weapon designed to produce enhanced amounts of radioactive fallout, intended to contaminate a large area with radioactive material. The concept of a cobalt bomb was originally described in a radio program by physicist Leó Szilárd on February 26, 1950.[1] His intent was not to propose that such a weapon be built, but to show that nuclear weapon technology would soon reach the point where it could end human life on Earth, a doomsday device.[2][3] Such "salted" weapons were requested by the U.S. Air Force and seriously investigated, but not deployed.[citation needed] In the 1964 edition of the U.S. Department of Defense book The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, a new section titled radiological warfare clarified the "Doomsday device" issue.[4]

The Russian Federation has allegedly developed cobalt warheads for use with their Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System nuclear torpedoes.[5][6][7] However many commentators doubt that this is a real project, and see it as more likely to be a staged leak to intimidate the US. Amongst other comments on it, Edward Moore Geist wrote a paper in which he says that "Russian decision makers would have little confidence that these areas would be in the intended locations"[8] and Russian military experts are cited as saying that "Robotic torpedo shown could have other purposes, such as delivering deep-sea equipment or installing surveillance devices."[9]

The Operation Antler/Round 1 test by the British at the Tadje site in the Maralinga range in Australia on September 14, 1957, tested a bomb using cobalt pellets as a radiochemical tracer for estimating yield. This was considered a failure and the experiment was not repeated.[10] The triple "taiga" nuclear salvo test, as part of the preliminary March 1971 Pechora–Kama Canal project, produced relatively high amounts of Co-60 from the steel that surrounded the Taiga devices, with this fusion generated neutron activation product being responsible for about half of the gamma dose now (2011) at the test site. This high percentage contribution is largely because the devices did not rely much at all on fission reactions and thus the quantity of gamma emitting cesium-137 fallout, is therefore comparatively low. Photosynthesizing vegetation exists all around the lake that was formed.[11][12]


A cobalt bomb could be made by placing a quantity of ordinary cobalt metal (59Co) around a thermonuclear bomb. When the bomb explodes, the neutrons produced by the fusion reaction in the secondary stage of the thermonuclear bomb's explosion would transmute the cobalt to the radioactive cobalt-60 (60Co), which would be vaporized by the explosion. The cobalt would then condense and fall back to Earth with the dust and debris from the explosion, contaminating the ground.

The deposited cobalt-60 would have a half-life of 5.27 years, decaying into 60Ni and emitting two gamma rays with energies of 1.17 and 1.33 MeV, hence the overall nuclear equation of the reaction is:

+ n → 60
+ e + gamma rays.

Nickel-60 is a stable isotope and undergoes no further decays after emitting the gamma rays.

The 5.27 year half life of the 60Co is long enough to allow it to settle out before significant decay has occurred, and to render it impractical to wait in shelters for it to decay, yet short enough that intense radiation is produced.[10] Many isotopes are more radioactive (gold-198, tantalum-182, zinc-65, sodium-24, and many more), but they would decay faster, possibly allowing some population to survive in shelters.

Fallout from cobalt bombs vs. other nuclear weapons[edit]

Fission products are more deadly than neutron-activated cobalt in the first few weeks following detonation. After one to six months, the fission products from even a large-yield thermonuclear weapon decay to levels tolerable by humans. The large-yield three-stage (fission–fusion–fission) thermonuclear weapon is thus automatically a weapon of radiological warfare, but its fallout decays much more rapidly than that of a cobalt bomb. Areas irradiated by fallout from even a large-yield thermonuclear weapon begin to increasingly become habitable again after one to six months; a cobalt bomb's fallout on the other hand would render affected areas effectively stuck in this interim state for decades of habitable, but not safely so under constant habitation, conditions.

Initially, gamma radiation from the fission products of an equivalent size fission-fusion-fission bomb are much more intense than Co-60: 15,000 times more intense at 1 hour; 35 times more intense at 1 week; 5 times more intense at 1 month; and about equal at 6 months. Thereafter fission product fallout radiation levels drop off rapidly, so that Co-60 fallout is 8 times more intense than fission at 1 year and 150 times more intense at 5 years. The very long-lived isotopes produced by fission would overtake the 60Co again after about 75 years.[13]

Theoretically, a device containing 510 tons of Co-59 can spread 1 g of the material to each square km of the Earth's surface (510,000,000 km2). Radiation output from 1 g of Co-60 over one half life is equivalent to 44,000 GBq, which is sufficient to kill any inhabitants. If one assumes that all of the material is converted to Co-60 at 100 percent efficiency and if it is spread evenly across the Earth's surface, it is possible for a single bomb to kill every person on Earth. However, in fact, complete 100% conversion into Co-60 is unlikely, as 1957 British experiment at Maralinga showed that Co-59's neutron absorption ability was much lower than predicted, resulting in a very limited formation of Co-60 isotope in practice.

In addition, another important point in considering the effects of cobalt bombs is that deposition of fallout is not even throughout the path downwind from a detonation, so that there are going to be areas relatively unaffected by fallout and places where there is unusually intense fallout, so that the Earth would not be universally rendered lifeless by a cobalt bomb.[14] The fallout and devastation following a nuclear detonation does not scale upwards linearly with the explosive yield (equivalent to tons of TNT). As a result, the concept of "overkill"—the idea that one can simply estimate the destruction and fallout created by a thermonuclear weapon of the size postulated by Leo Szilard's "cobalt bomb" thought experiment by extrapolating from the effects of thermonuclear weapons of smaller yields—is fallacious.[15][dubious ]

Example of radiation levels vs. time[edit]

Assume a cobalt bomb deposits intense fallout causing a dose rate of 10 sieverts (Sv) per hour. At this dose rate, any unsheltered person exposed to the fallout would receive a lethal dose in about 30 minutes (assuming a median lethal dose of 5 Sv). People in well-built shelters would be safe due to radiation shielding.

After one half-life of 5.27 years, only half of the cobalt-60 will have decayed, and the dose rate in the affected area would be 5 Sv/hour. At this dose rate, a person exposed to the radiation would receive a lethal dose in 1 hour.

After 10 half-lives (about 53 years), the dose rate would have decayed to around 10 mSv/hour. At this point, a healthy person could spend 1 to 4 days exposed to the fallout with no immediate effects.

After 20 half-lives (about 105 years), the dose rate would have decayed to around 10 μSv/hour. At this stage, humans could remain unsheltered full-time since their yearly radiation dose would be about 80 mSv. However, this yearly dose rate is on the order of 30 times greater than the peacetime exposure rate of 2.5 mSv/year. As a result, the rate of cancer incidence in the survivor population would likely increase.

After 25 half-lives (about 130 years), the dose rate from cobalt-60 would have decayed to less than 0.4 μSv/hour (natural background radiation) and could be considered negligible.


In practice it is unlikely that people would simply sit and wait for nuclear decay to go to completion, as in all historical fallout cases, decontamination of valuable land has occurred. This is most commonly done with the use of simple equipment such as lead glass covered excavators and bulldozers, similar to those employed in the Lake Chagan project.[16] By skimming off the thin layer of fallout on the topsoil surface and burying it in the likes of a deep trench along with isolating it from ground water sources, the gamma air dose is cut by orders of magnitude.[17][18] The decontamination after the Goiânia accident in Brazil 1987 and the possibility of a "dirty bomb" with Co-60, which has similarities with the environment that one would be faced with after a nuclear yielding cobalt bomb's fallout had settled, has prompted the invention of "Sequestration[disambiguation needed] Coatings" and cheap liquid phase sorbents for Co-60 that would further aid in decontamination, including that of water.[19][20][21] However, in the aftermath of a nuclear war, the possibility of nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) which could destroy the electronics of radiation detectors and ignition systems of excavators and bulldozers, and the general disorganization of society, make it doubtful whether the surviving population in the affected areas would even be aware of the extent of contamination, or have working equipment and fuel to decontaminate the enormous areas involved.[citation needed]

Russian nuclear-armed torpedo design[edit]

In 2015, a Russian nuclear-armed torpedo design was apparently leaked. It has been speculated that the warhead would be a cobalt bomb, designed for "creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time".[9]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In Beneath the Planet of the Apes the main character, upon seeing that the underground people worship a giant bomb that can wipe out the world, comments "They finally made one, cased in cobalt" in reference to a cobalt bomb that could wipe out the world.
  • In Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, they imagine a type of cobalt-salted bomb being employed by the Soviet Union as a nuclear deterrent. The cobalt-salted bomb is later deployed by a system akin to the USSR's Dead Hand nuclear defence mechanism. The Russian Ambassador says "If you take, say, fifty H-bombs in the hundred megaton range and jacket them with Cobalt Thorium G, when they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud. A lethal cloud of radioactivity which will encircle the earth for ninety-three years!"
  • In the James Bond film Goldfinger, the title character informs Bond he intends to set off a "particularly dirty" atomic device in the US Gold Repository at Fort Knox, Kentucky as part of Operation Grand Slam, a scheme intended to contaminate the gold at Fort Knox to increase value of the gold he has been stockpiling. Bond asks Goldfinger if the bomb is "cobalt and iodine?"
  • In the Nevil Shute novel On the Beach, cobalt bombs are mentioned as the cause of the radioactivity that is approaching Australia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brian Clegg. Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction. St. Martins Griffin. p. 77. ISBN 978-1-250-01649-2. 
  2. ^ Bhushan, K.; G. Katyal (2002). Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare. India: APH Publishing. pp. 75–77. ISBN 81-7648-312-5. 
  3. ^ Sublette, Carey (July 2007). "Types of nuclear weapons". FAQ. The Nuclear Weapon Archive. Retrieved 2010-02-13. 
  4. ^ Samuel Glasstone, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 1962, revised 1964, U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy, pp. 464–465. This section was removed from later editions, but, according to Glasstone in 1978, not because it was inaccurate or because the weapons had changed.
  5. ^ Peck, Michael. "Russia's New Super-Torpedo Carries the Threat of Nuclear Contamination". The National Interest. 
  6. ^ "'Secret' Russian nuclear torpedo blueprint leaked". Fox News. November 12, 2015. 
  7. ^ "'Assured unacceptable damage': Russian TV accidentally leaks secret 'nuclear torpedo' design". RT. 
  8. ^ Geist, Edward Moore (July 3, 2016). "Would Russia's undersea "doomsday drone" carry a cobalt bomb?". 72 (4): 238–242. doi:10.1080/00963402.2016.1195199 – via Taylor and Francis+NEJM. 
  9. ^ a b "Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV 'leak'". BBC News. November 12, 2015. Retrieved February 16, 2017. 
  10. ^ a b "1.6 Cobalt Bombs and other Salted Bombs". Retrieved February 10, 2011. 
  11. ^ "Radiological investigations at the 'Taiga' nuclear explosion site: Site description and in situ measurements". Journal of Environmental Radioactivity. 102: 672–680. doi:10.1016/j.jenvrad.2011.04.003. 
  12. ^ "Radiological investigations at the 'Taiga' nuclear explosion site, part II: man-made γ-ray emitting radionuclides in the ground and the resultant kerma rate in air". Journal of Environmental Radioactivity. 109: 1–12. doi:10.1016/j.jenvrad.2011.12.009. 
  13. ^ "Section 1.0 Types of Nuclear Weapons". 
  14. ^ Samuel Glasstone; Philip J. Dolan, eds. (1977). "The Effects of Nuclear Weapons" (PDF) (3rd ed.). Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Defense and Department of Energy. 
  15. ^ Martin, Brian (December 1982). "The global health effects of nuclear war". Current Affairs Bulletin. 59 (7): 14–26. 
  16. ^ Born of Nuclear Blast: Russia's Lakes of Mystery. YouTube. November 28, 2010. 
  17. ^ Joint FAO/IAEA Programme. "Joint Division Questions & Answers - Nuclear Emergency Response for Food and Agriculture, NAFA". 
  18. ^ International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Enmergy Agency, 2000 - Technology & Engineering - restoration of environments with radioactive residues : papers and discussions, 697 pages
  19. ^ "Scavenging cobalt from radwaste". 
  20. ^ "Sequestration Coating Performance Requirements for Mitigation of Contamination from a Radiological Dispersion Device- 9067" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-11-12. 
  21. ^ John Drake. "Sequestration Coating Performance Requirements for Mitigation of Contamination from a Radiological Dispersion Device" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-11-12.