Written by Vincent Reillon,
Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles need to be understood if the risks and challenges they entail are to be grasped. This understanding starts with two processes discovered in the last century – nuclear fission and nuclear fusion – that have the ability to release a significant quantity of energy from a very limited amount of matter.
On the one hand, these reactions can be used to produce energy. Controlled nuclear fission is the process on which nuclear power plants are based. Nuclear fusion, meanwhile, requires the ability to control a reaction that occurs at temperatures of millions of degrees. The control of nuclear fusion for energy production is the objective of the ITER project.
On the other hand, uncontrolled nuclear fission and fusion reactions can be used to design nuclear weapons whose destructive power is far greater than traditional weapons. The first atomic bombs were produced and used during World War Two and based on nuclear fission. Since then, the design of nuclear weapons has been modified to include nuclear fusion reactions, leading to a sharp increase in the yield of nuclear bombs. The development of nuclear weapons requires mastery of technologies for the production of nuclear fuels (enriched uranium and plutonium), making access to these weapons limited.
Advances in the production and design of nuclear weapons have made them smaller and suitable for mounting in the warheads of ballistic missiles. These missiles, whose functioning is similar to space rockets, can deliver their charge at a very long range (up to 15 000 km for intercontinental ballistic missiles).
Read the complete briefing on ‘Understanding nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.