With the destructive power of nuclear weapons, it's understandable the concerted effort by many world bodies to vigorously regulate and control the ownership of nuclear weapons. The NPT is one of such efforts.

However, I came across this article and accompanying videos: That Time The Navy Blew Up 500 Tons of TNT Because It Wasn't Allowed to Use a Nuke

It seems that nuclear weapons can easily be simulated by detonating large amounts of demolition-strength explosive. I'm sure even the poorest of countries can afford to put together megaton equivalents of nuclear and tactical nuclear weapons.

So why is there so much emphasis and efforts spent on nuclear non-proliferation focused on nation states to prevent them from obtaining nuclear weapons when alternatives exists? Are our efforts misguided?

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    This is not a politics question, but a physics one. Do you know of any rocket/airplane capable of lifting 1.000.000 tons of TNT? Because there are plenty of rockets and airplanes capable of lifting several 1 megaton weapons.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 15:19
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    And cost & efficience do matter. At a logical level there is nothing that your smartphone or computer does that could not be done by enough people if giving enough time. But if you want to play Angry Birds you do not want the people to spend several days to tell the results of your thrown, and you probably do not want to pay several thousands persons to do those calculus (and besides they probably won't fit in your pocket).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 15:22
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    @Nederealm 1 megatons are about 10 of the world's largest container ships filled to the brim. No, you can not smuggle that in parts.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 15:35
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is based on a faulty premise (that nuclear and conventional weapons are equivalents)
    – user1530
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 17:46
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    Large amounts of TNT don't produce radioactive fallout.
    – chepner
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 3:07

5 Answers 5


A single missile delivering a nuclear payload can wipe out a city. Needing to deliver hundreds or thousands of bombs or missiles to "simulate that" is a much more difficult proposition, in terms of delivery.

I could, with fifty cases of aerosol deodorant spray and thousands of matches, replicate a flame thrower's output. That's a lot of work, effort, and any counter-measures that limit or impede that lengthy and large-scale process is going to thwart my ability to simulate it. With an actual flame-thrower, I can deliver that destruction with the simple press of a button, once.

It is the ease of delivery of that scale of destructive capability that leads government to restrict my ability to purchase, own and use a flame-thrower, but not cans of deodorant spray.

Once you add in factors of securing highly enriched/weaponized nuclear fuel from falling into other hands, accidents, what happens if a regime changes, if there is an economic collapse and waste can't be handled, etc etc etc and there is a lengthy list of reasons why one doesn't want just anyone to have that kind of conveniently delivered destructive capability. It's not just about whether, in total, that kind of destruction can be attained.

To further dispute the premise, I'd say there is no nation that can match the destructive potential of the USA's nuclear arsenal with conventional weapons. You might be able to simulate a single bomb's capability, but you can't replicate the destructive potential that having a nuclear stockpile would represent.

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    Not to mention the after-effects of a nuclear weapon, rendering considerable damage above and beyond the mere explosive content
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 23:51
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    I could, with fifty cases of aerosol deodorant spray and thousands of matches, replicate a flame thrower's output. That's a lot of work, effort, and any counter-measures that limit or impede that lengthy and large-scale process is going to thwart my ability to simulate it. -- To be honest, it's probably easier than you think.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 13:38
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    @juhist - no, I'm not saying that, at all. Look at the comments under Philipp's answer, where I'm arguing that exact point you made. Nowhere do I claim you can't "simulate the destruction caused by nuclear explosive with conventional explosives efficiently delivered." I'm saying that the volume and logistics of delivery to match any individual explosion is such that matching the destruction of a nuclear stockpile or volume of nuclear weapons, can't be matched. I specifically state that the main issue "is not just about whether, in total, that kind of destruction can be attained." Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:41
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    A pretty good answer. I would add that you can't fit 500 tons of TNT into a suitcase or a backpack but that something on that order can be done with nuclear weapons. The other main point is that it's a lot easier to detect an defend against a fleet of aircraft than a single missile.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 17:21
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    Flamethrowers are not actually regulated by the federal government in the USA. Propane burners are regularly used to clear out weeds in some areas. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 18:26

Nuclear weapon yields are measured in kilotons. The bomb which destroyed Nagasaki was a 13 kiloton bomb. That was a rather small one. Fission bombs can have several hundred kiloton yields. Fusion bombs can go into megaton range (world record: 50 megatons).

Those tons refer to the equivalent amount of TNT. To substitute a 100 kiloton nuke you would need to transport 100,000 metric tons of TNT to your target. That's in the ballpark of the freight capacity of a New Panamax-class container ship. Smuggling a container ship filled with TNT into an enemy harbor assumes that nobody notices:

  1. that a country produces such an outrageous amount of TNT (which likely requires far more infrastructure and resources than enriching a few kg of uranium)
  2. that a country obtains such a huge container ship for not apparent reason
  3. that they fill the ship to the brim with TNT
  4. that they are entering a harbor which they likely aren't allowed to enter due to a trade embargo.

If any secret service gets the slightest idea what they might be up to, that ship will be intercepted and examined as soon as it enters the 30 mile zone (and likely much earlier if there is substantial proof). And if its blown up at that distance to the shore, there would not be that much damage.

So what other options are there. How about an air strike? A Boeing B52 (largest bomber used by the US Air Force) can transport 32,000 kg of ordnance (ICBMs can usually carry much less). So to emulate a 100kT nuke with an airstrike, you would have to fly 3000 large bombers at once to your target. That's far beyond the capabilities of even the US air force.

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    I'd question how much of that destructive nuclear payload is delivered in an efficient manner, though, in terms of the entire air force not be able to deliver the same impact with conventional weapons. The firebombing of Dresden was accomplished with about 1300 bombers and 3900 tons of bombs, and the destruction was pretty comprehensive, though definitely less than Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but clearly it was on a similar scale, overall. No dispute that one can't replicate bigger nukes or greater numbers of nukes in any practical fashion, though. Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 16:05
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    @PoloHoleSet The Dresden comparison seems to support Philipp's estimates. In order to get comparable destruction to a single bomber armed with a 13kT nuke, they needed 1,300 bombers. So Philipp's conclusion that 3000 bombers would be needed to deliver 100kT seems fairly reasonable, given that today's bombers are larger than they were in WWII. (And that's still a small nuke. A Minuteman III carries 3 warheads in the 300-500 kT range.)
    – Ray
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 17:25
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    Note also that filling a container ship with 100,000 tons of TNT and blowing it up doesn't have a heck of a lot of effect more that a couple of miles/km from the harbor. Which means that you have now massively PO'd the country you've attacked, while leaving 99% of their military and economic base untouched.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 3:22
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    @PoloHoleSet: You seem to be missing an important point WRT Dresden (and Tokyo), which was that most of the damage wasn't the direct result of the bombs' explosive power, but an indirect result of the fires they set.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 3:24
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    @CortAmmon - and the "conventional" explosives a modern air force would be able to deliver, and the payloads a modern air force would be able to deliver would also be improved, so comparing 1945 conventional explosives to "modern standards" for nukes is a less accurate analysis than my comparing 1945 conventional bombings to 1945 nuclear bombings. Keep in mind, also, the claim I am addressing, that replicating the destruction of even small or modest-sized nukes is beyond the ability of a modern air force, with conventional weapons. I'm not challenging the broader point, just one statement. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 12:48

If I use conventional bombs I can destroy a target, requiring many flights. If I use a nuke to do the same job, I only have to fly over one time.

The problem with nukes, I don't only destroy a target but I am going to spread radiation down wind for maybe 200 miles. Possibly onto countries you are not at war with.

I believe the USA always said nukes were a last resort to prevent an opposing country from taking over the USA.

  • That's what dirty bombs are for? Radiation or biological vectors can be added as an extra "ingredient"
    – Nederealm
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 18:21
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    Conventional bombs also have an "after-effect" that can last many years. World War 2 bombs are still being found today in some heavily bombed areas for example. It doesn't cause many casualties any more, but it did back in the day; for example I remember my granddad telling me about some kids who died when playing with some bombs after the war in the late 40's.
    – user11249
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 18:30
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    @Nederealm Military uses nuclear weapons for their explosive power, not for radiation effects. They are detonated as high as possible, so that fallout is minimized. For example, if detonation at 3000 feet guarantees destruction of the target, there is no need to detonate lower than that.
    – user10742
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 11:17
  • During the Cold War, U.S. (and allied) forces faced far-larger Warsaw Pact forces in both Germany and Korea. U.S. military doctrine included deliberately ambiguous policies about what situations might cause the U.S. to launch a "first strike" with tactical nuclear weapons. This doctrine was designed to deter the Soviet Union (and its allies) from attacking on these fronts. Furthermore, President Truman convinced the Soviet Union to remove its troops from Iran by threatening a first strike (with strategic nuclear weapons) against the Soviet Union.
    – Jasper
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 4:20

Another factor to consider.

The estimated cost to produce the W76 ( 100kt ) warhead is about $7.7 million. The cost to purchase 100K tons of TNT would be about 1.09 billion.

The cost for the cruise missiles that carry the W76 warhead is about $1.5 million. The cost to build a standard cargo ship to carry the TNT would be something in the area of $300 million.

But you wouldn't use standard cargo ships for this. These ships would never be allowed to dock at or near any civilian port and they'd have to be constantly moving. So you're looking at nuclear powered cargo ships which is going to bump the cost per ships up a couple hundred million.

The US has THOUSANDS of W76 warheads, so you'd need to build thousands of these ships. You can't bunch these ships up while they're sailing around, and they're completely incapable of protecting themselves. So you'll have to build more regular surface vessels to protect them. So add in a thousand Arleigh Burke destroyers at $2 billion a piece. But in order for these ships to have any value they need to be staged right off the shoreline of your target, which means you are going to have to provide constant air cover.. so add in the cost of a dozen carrier groups.

Even if this concept was viable as a military tactic, which it isn't, the cost for it would be so extreme that nobody would ever be able to do it.


I am afraid to differ from many of the posters here. Nuclear and explosive weapons are two entirely different kettles of fish altogether. Fat Boy and the other bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were explicitly detonated in the air for the expanded blast range. The blast is INTENDED to go DOWNwards. The horror and the after effects of those weapons were only fully realized after that fact.

The destruction, terror, misery, health and socio-economical consequences for hundreds of thousands of people were simply beyond belief and sustainability. Even decades later. Now that would be millions. Please visit your local library to see a full range of photographs of these disasters. That is if you can face all of it. Visit those cities.

The logistics discussed here simply explain why man now has the ultimate means to his own destruction. It was calculated earlier that a nuclear war by intercontinental ballistic missiles would last only 27 minutes. Flight time from both sides (then the USSR and the US) to reach target.

Ballistic missiles are fired in a calculated arc to reach a specific target. They speed up and literally fall down on the target in a ballistic arc. The initial burn simply accelerates it through the atmosphere, like a football. Relatively cheap way to your own destruction. An atomic blast burns a man's shadow into the wall behind him. He disappears.

The kicker is, with that amount of radiation and atmospheric winds you are most likely to be killed by the radiation of your own bombs. The contamination is universal and you cannot clean it up like land mines. You breathe it in and you can't run away. You! are now nuclear.

Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. Does that explain it?

  • Just another note. Rogue states like North Korea now make the entire equation completely unpredictable. The NPT is a mutual agreement by responsible states not to allow their own irrationality or emotion take over in this kind of decision. It is actually an agreement to stand down from the edge of the abyss. This holocaust falls in the realm of total stupefaction.
    – Christo
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 10:47
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    Question: why can't countries without nukes use conventional explosives to the same effect? Your answer doesn't address this at all. Instead, you mischaracterize the NPT as something that prevents use of nukes by countries that already have them. The point of the NPT is to prevent the North Koreas of the world from getting nukes. But even if this were correct, it isn't an answer to this question.
    – Brythan
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 13:40
  • Was it not true of the March 10th 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which killed more people than Nagasaki, that "[t]he destruction, terror, misery, health and socio-economical consequences for hundreds of thousands of people were simply beyond belief and sustainability"?
    – cjs
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 16:41

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