You are here: Home Physics Nuclear Warfare Syllabus


Document Actions
  • Content View
  • Bookmarks
  • LTI Export
Author: Grant Mathews

Course Description

Nuclear Warfare (PHYS20061) is offered by the Physics Department as an introductory course for non-science majors. The course provides an overview of a broad range of topics regarding nuclear weapons. Although the emphasis is on nuclear weapons, we will consider other weapons of mass destruction, particularly in the context of the threat due to terrorism and rogue states.  The goal is to be informed of the background history and technical issues so as to know how best to deal with them in the future.

The course will start with the history and emergence of weapons of mass destruction technologies as a consequence of World War I and World War II, culminating in the development and use of the nuclear bomb. This will be followed by a discussion of the underlying physics principles for a basic understanding of nuclear weapons technology and effects. The effects of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) will be discussed in terms of the atmospheric, biological, and medical effects together with the implications for society. We will include a discussion of the diplomatic, political, and ethical implications of possession and use of nuclear weapons and WMD. We will also take a look at the rise of modern terrorism and the threat posed by the WMD and terrorism now and in the future.

Topics to Be Covered

  1. History of Nuclear Bomb development

    1. History of nuclear physics
    2. Mindset for WMD technology emerging in World Wars I and II.
    3. Technological breakthrough by development of military industrial complex
    4. Building the bomb as a national effort, the US Manhattan project and the Arzamas-16 Russian bomb project
  2. Physics of Nuclear Bombs

    1. Nuclear physics principles
    2. Nuclear energy release
    3. Nuclear decay and radiation
    4. Nuclear fission processes
    5. Nuclear fusion processes
    6. Critical mass
  3. Technology of Nuclear Bombs

    1. Atomic and Fission Bomb Design
    2. Boosted Atomic Bombs
    3. Thermonuclear Bombs
    4. Nuclear Yields
    5. Neutron bomb
    6. Bunker Busters
    7. Dirty Bomb / Radiological Weapons
  4. Stages of a Nuclear Bomb

    1. Fireball
    2. Heat Wave
    3. Shock and blast effects
    4. Fall out effects and radiation level
    5. Atmospheric impact
    6. Nuclear Winter
  5. Nuclear Radiation Effects

    1. Natural radiation
    2. Man-made radiation
    3. Hiroshima and Nagasaki
    4. Biological impact
    5. Medical consequences
  6. The Diplomatic/Political Aspects of Nuclear Weapons

    1. The legality of Nuclear Weapons
    2. Nuclear Arms Control
    3. Nuclear Disarmament
    4. Non-proliferation Policy
    5. The legality of Nuclear Weapon use
    6. Case studies: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, Lybia, South Africa
  7. Moral and Ethical Aspects of Nuclear Weapons

    1. The moral conflict
    2. “Evil” as moral justification
    3. Catholic social traditions and the response of the church
  8. Biological Weapons

    1. Types
    2. Effects
    3. Fabrication/ Deployment
    4. Biological Terrorism
  9. Chemical Weapons

    1. Types
    2. Effects
    3. Fabrication/ Deployment
    4. Chemical Terrorism
  10. Terrorism and WMDs

    1. Threat
    2. Suspects
    3. Counter-terrorism
  11. Prospects for the Future

    1. Nuclear terrorism
    2. Genetic engineering
    3. Biowar against ethnic groups
    4. Cyberterrorism

For more specific description of course activities, please see Calendar.

For more detailed description of course topics, please see Lectures.


The final grade will be determined on the basis of class participation, homework sets on the physics background, in-class exams, and the results of your research work and presentation.

Component Percentage
Homework Sets (4)
Mid-Term Exams (2)
Written Report/Oral Presentation of Project
Final Exam


Research Projects

The goal of the student research project is to demonstrate and highlight the direct implications of nuclear weapons and other WMD development and technology on society. These projects will focus on a variety of economic and civil consequences of nuclear technology development and the development of nuclear weapons industry. These class projects are designed to explore how these developments are visible in the South Bend-Mishawaka community. The projects not only address the narrower realm of nuclear weapon technologies but also the broader aspect of exposure of the average citizen to an increasing man-made nuclear radiation level. The projects require some research within the community. The results should be summarized in a 6 page report and should be presented in a 10 minute power-point talk during the last two class sessions.

Regarding groups: Not more than 4 students per group (though 1, 2, and 3 is fine).  Each student must write their own paper.  However, the research can be gathered collectively.


The following project topics may be used:

Physics Aspects

  1. Identify natural radioactivity sources and exposure to South Bend-Mishawaka population
  2. Medical exposure in the South Bend Community
  3. Identify radioactivity from 1950-1970 nuclear fall-out and check on city distribution through record analysis and measurement

Historical Aspects

  1. Explore the historic involvement of the ND nuclear facilities and the connection with the Manhattan project
  2. Investigate the development and distribution of private and public nuclear shelters within South Bend and Mishawaka communities
  3. Investigate local community information policy and preparation for nuclear emergency case

Ethical and Legal Aspects

  1. Legal and political aspects of nonproliferation in terms of international agreements and treaties
  2. Ethical aspects of present and past proliferation policy

Social and Economic Aspects

  1. Comparative view of WMD distribution and nonproliferation in the local and national press – e.g. Observer, South Bend Tribune, New York Times, The Nation, etc.
  2. View on nuclear warfare and nuclear testing reflected in the South Bend press (1950-1970)
  3. Identify and determine social origins of Local Anti-War movements - church, unions, social movements etc.
  4. The industrial military complex in South Bend – present and past involvement with WMD production
  5. Case study on the possibility of nuclear winter and the potential impact on local economy

Impacts of Terrorism

  1. Legal and political aspects of potential terrorist activities
  2. Ethical aspects of terrorism/counter-terrorism
  3. Community preparedness for potential terrorist WMD event

You may also choose a topic of your own, though it must be approved in advance by the professor.

Course Literature

The basic text for this class is: How to Build a Nuclear Bomb: And Other Weapons of Mass Destruction by Frank Barnaby.  Nation Books. 2004.  ISBN-10: 156256036. (preview)

This will be supplemented with handouts in class.

For more resources, please see our Additional Resources Page.

Reuse Course
Download IMS package