How Everything Works
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Question 487

What would happen if you saturated the uranium side of a fusion bomb with cobalt? I think it would destroy our planet.
A fusion bomb, also known as a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb, releases enormous numbers of fast-moving neutrons. Neutrons are uncharged subatomic particles that are found in the nuclei of all atoms except the normal hydrogen atom. A normal cobalt nucleus contains 32 neutrons and is known as cobalt 59 (for its 59 nuclear particles: 32 neutrons and 27 protons). When a neutron collides with a cobalt 59 nucleus, there is a substantial probability that the cobalt 59 nucleus will capture it and become cobalt 60 (for its 60 nuclear particles: 33 neutrons and 27 protons). Cobalt 60 is radioactive—it falls apart spontaneously with a 50% probability each 5.26 years. When a cobalt 60 nucleus decays, it begins by emitting an electron and an antineutrino to becomes nickel 60 (for its 60 nuclear particles: 32 neutrons and 28 protons). But this nickel 60 has extra energy in it and it soon emits two high-energy gamma rays (electromagnetic particles, with more energy than x-rays) to become normal nickel 60, a common form of the nickel atom. A fusion bomb containing cobalt 59 could be expected to make lots of cobalt 60, which would then undergo this radioactive decay over the next few decades, releasing gamma rays as it does.

So a fusion bomb containing cobalt would release a large amount of cobalt 60 into the environment. This would certainly give the bomb long lasting radioactive fallout that would make it much more damaging to the environment than a pure fusion bomb would be. Whether it would destroy the planet, I can't say. The bomb's explosion wouldn't be any more destructive, but its long-term toxic effect to animals and plants certainly would be.


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