The Most Powerful Nuclear Explosions in History, Ranked


With the Christopher Nolan film Oppenheimer earning millions at the box office, Americans are being transported back to the dawn of the atomic age. This was a time when devices of cataclysmic power were being built and tested. The first two finished products ended a world war in horrific fashion and signaled the dawn of the Cold War: of nuclear proliferation and treaties and moments when the world was literally brought to the brink of nonexistence.

When the nuclear bomb known as “Little Boy” detonated 1,500 feet above Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m., Aug. 9, 1945, it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT. The bomb killed an estimated 140,000 people. Since that time, weapons that have been developed dwarf the two bombs thousands of times over.

To determine the most powerful nuclear explosion in history, 24/7 Wall St. consulted various sources, including The Natural Resources Defense Council,, and Wikipedia. We included the 26 tests that yielded at least 4 megatons.

The number of the most powerful nuclear detonations is divided almost equally between the Soviet Union and the United States. One nuclear test by China is on the list. Most of the nuclear explosions occurred either by air drop or on a barge at sea.

All 13 of the Soviet Union’s most powerful nuclear tests took place within the borders of Russia on the two islands of Novaya Zemlya on the Russian Arctic coast. This was designated as a nuclear weapons test site in 1954, and the indigenous Nenets people had to be forcibly relocated.

Nearly all of the American nuclear tests, including most on the list, took place at various atolls in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, dubbed the Pacific Proving Grounds. Bikini Atoll was the site of seven of the largest U.S. nuclear explosions between 1946 and 1958. More than 70 years after the first nuclear weapons were detonated in the atolls, elevated levels of radiation remain there, and the atolls are sparsely inhabited.

Three nuclear tests, including the massive Cannikin shot in 1971, were conducted on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian island group in southwest Alaska. Some people performing work related to the underground nuclear tests at Amchitka before Jan. 1, 1974, were exposed to ionizing radiation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (This is what a nuclear attack would do to America’s 25 largest cities.)

Click here to see the most powerful nuclear explosions in human history

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