Salted Nukes: A Very Dangerous Nuclear Thought Experiment

Muzzammil Muhammad Shittu
March 12, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Fig. 1: Leo Szilard, the mind behind the theoretical salted bomb. (Courtesy of the DOE. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear weapons have been imagined as objects of doom ever since they were first tested, and especially since the effects of their deployment on human life were first seen. Though we may understand their potential for destruction, these weapons persist in more military arsenals than many would deem necessary, and are the object of desire of many more, still.

Threatening to humanity as they are, nuclear weapons could, still, be worse. Theorists have speculated many a weapon of mass destruction, and, amongst these, nuclear options stand out, in particular, for their feasibility. One such option, the Salted Nuclear Bomb, was the product of the imagination of Leo Szilard (seen in Fig. 1), a Hungarian-American physicist who was also one of the main architects of the United States' early nuclear weapons programme, and of the Manhattan project. [1] Even before America's deployment of nuclear weapons in its war against Japan, Szilard was an advocate for nuclear non-use and non-proliferation. One such outcome of this advocacy was the Szilard petition, which urged America to refrain from the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in the Second World War. [1]

Another outcome of Szilard's advocacy was, counterintuitively, a nuclear weapon. In an effort to demonstrate the danger to humanity which nuclear weapons constituted, Szilard theorized the "Salted" nuclear bomb. The meaning of the quoted in this was two-fold: a nuclear weapon "salted" with additional elements that would "salt" the earth with radiation. [2] These weapons, Szilard theorized, were conceivable, manufacturable, and absolutely inhumane. Their manufacture would involve encasing a traditional nuclear core, in a traditional nuclear device, in of an element convertible to a highly radioactive isotope upon a nuclear explosion. [2] This radioactive isotope, Szilard contended, could persist in the environment, and render areas uninhabitable, for generations. Co-60, a radioactive isotope of cobalt which features heavily in thought regarding salted bombs, has a half-life of over five years. Its use in a warhead could, five years after initial deployment, create fallout 150 times more intense than that seen for traditional nuclear bombs. [2]

© Muzzammil Muhammad Shittu. 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] W. Lanouette and B. Szilard, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard: The Man Behind The Bomb (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992).

[2] K. Bhushan and G. Katyal, Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare (Ashish, 2002).