Nuclear Deterrence Exhibit

This exhibit covers nuclear weapons creation and testing from the beginning of the Cold War to the 1990s. It explains the advent of super-powerful thermonuclear or “H-bombs” after the period of early atomic bombs, explains fission vs. fusion, and traces US testing in the Pacific and in Nevada. It introduces a group known as “Nuclear Veterans,” military members who participated in tests. An exhibit highlight is the wrecked remains of the XF-90 jet fighter, which was subjected to nuclear test explosions. The exhibit also features a Geiger counter and a short 1951 government information film called “Target Nevada,” plus video of various nuclear explosions. A  tall representation of a mushroom cloud will help explain what these clouds are and why they’re shaped like mushrooms.

During the Cold War, scientists created increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. American test explosions took place mostly in Nevada and in the South Pacific. The end of World War II began the nuclear age with the United States’ invention and use of the first atomic bombs. The US continued developing the bomb because its tremendous power was valuable in the postwar world. The main US political and military rival was the USSR. Nuclear weapons are amazingly complex. They release huge amounts of energy stored in the simplest and smallest particles—atoms—of elements like uranium, plutonium, and hydrogen. The first nuclear weapons, usually called atomic bombs, were “fission” weapons. Fission happens when certain atoms are “split” to release energy. Later, more powerful bombs were called “fusion” weapons because they rammed atoms such as hydrogen together to release even more energy than fission. This is the origin of the term “hydrogen bomb ” or “H-bomb.” Fusion bombs are also called “thermonuclear” weapons due to the great heat and pressure required to trigger the explosion. Fusion is the same process that powers the Sun, and the temperature inside a thermonuclear explosion can be many times greater than the Sun.

Click here to return to the Cold War Gallery