Tsar Bomba: The Most Powerful Man-Made Explosion in History

Ryan Castandea
March 25, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Location of the RDS-220 detonation site on Novaya Zemlya. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the dark days of The Cold War, the Soviet Union competed with the United States in a number of areas to reign as the lone global superpower after World War II. While this stressful period of competition led to great leaps in the realm of space exploration, a much more terrifying facet of The Cold War was the nuclear arms race. This race to nuclear supremacy began following the United States detonation of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 and was only sped up by the Soviets first successful atomic detonation of RDS-1 (nicknamed First Lightning) in 1949. [1] The nuclear arms race continued in momentum until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. [2]

In response to the growing number of nuclear tests performed by the U.S. throughout the duration of the Cold War, the USSRs response involved the creation and detonation of RDS-220 (nicknamed Tsar Bomba by the U.S.), a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb equivalent in power to approximately 4,000 Hiroshima bombs, on October 30th, 1961. [3] The detonation of this immensely powerful weapon opened the door to the idea of nuclear Armageddon that could come with the wartime use of such weapons.

Location of Test Site

RDS-220 was detonated at an altitude of approximately 4,000 meters above the island of Novaya Zemlya in northern Russia. [4] Figure 1 to the right displays the geographical location of Novaya Zemyla in relation to the rest of Russia and other Northeastern European countries. The remote island had no major cities or large centers of human population, thus making it an ideal test site for the RDS-220, although the damage from the explosion could not be foreseen. In order to decrease the falling speed of the bomb, a parachute was attached to the bomb before it was dropped from a height of approximately 10,500 meters from a Soviet TU-95 bomber. [4]

Design Information

The bomb itself was a magnificent sight. Built at Arzamas-16, the Tsar Bomba weighed in at over 20 tons and was 8 meters long. [5] With such a large bomb to drop, the TU-95 bomber assigned with dropping Tsar Bomba required pieces of its fuselage to be taken out of the plane so that the bomb could be suspended beneath it. [5] These measures were all taken to ensure that the bomber itself could properly deploy the bomb while avoiding possibly devastating complications.

Although the Tsar Bomba only hit a 50-megaton yield during its detonation, the project was initially a 100-megaton bomb design. [6] In an attempt to limit the unprecedented power of the detonation, the bomb engineers replaced a Uranium-238 tamper with a lead tamper, thus decreasing the overall yield of RDS-220. [6] This decision to strategically and intentionally decrease the yield of RDS-220 reveals the Soviet Unions awareness of the mass destruction that could come if the bomb was detonated at full capacity.

Damage of Detonation

Considering the amount of damage caused by the Tsar Bomba detonation, the Soviet Union was correct in taking this cautious approach. The flash from the explosion was visible from up to 1,000 kilometers away and the atmospheric disturbance orbited the earth three times. [5] The mushroom cloud from the detonation rose as high as 64 kilometers, and upon later inspection from two Soviet deputies to Congress, it appeared that even from hundreds of kilometers away, wooden and stone homes suffered structural damage from the detonation. [4] Further, it is predicted that a weapon of this power, in clear air, could inflict third degree burns from over 250 kilometers away and destroy all structures within a radius of 25 kilometers. [5] With a weapon this powerful, it is clear why the Soviet Union took precautions in reducing the yield of RDS-220; however, its detonation was not only meant to test the bombs strength. This test also acted as a strategic intimidation tactic towards the United States and its allies.


While the Tsar Bomba was the most powerful man-made explosion in history, it was also, fortunately, the only one of its kind and was never fully weaponized or used in battle. After its detonation in 1961, and later events during the Cuban Missile Crisis, humanity as a whole recognized the truly destructive power of these thermonuclear weapons, and this pushed towards the necessary de-escalation of the arms race for the safety of mankind. While there have been no detonations that come close to the yield of Tsar Bomba, it is still ever important to consider the consequences of weapons like it when discussing and creating nuclear policy.

© Ryan Castandea. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] G. A. Goncharov and L. D. Ryabev, "The Development of the First Soviet Atomic Bomb," Physics-Uspekhi 44, 71 (2001).

[2] M. McCauley, "The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the Cold War," in A Companion to International History 1900-2001, ed by G. Martel (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2008), p. 381.

[3] A. D. Patterson et al., "The Role of Mass Spectrometry-Based Metabolomics in Medical Countermeasures Against Radiation," Mass. Spectrom. Rev. 29, 503 (2010).

[4] V. Adamsky and Y. Smirnov, "Moscow's Biggest Bomb: The 50-Megaton Test of October 1961," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, No. 4, 3 (Fall 1994).

[5] G. J. DeGroot, The Bomb: A Life (Harvard University Press, 2005), pg. 253

[6] S. Narayanan, "Tsar Bomba," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.