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Neutron Bomb

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"Efficiency and progress is ours once more,
Now that we have the Neutron Bomb,
It's nice and quick and clean and gets things done."

Ah, the neutron bomb; that miracle of modern science and engineering. Supposedly, a detonated neutron bomb has negligible if any explosive force but instead emits a pulse of deadly, somewhat non-specific radiation, that leaves things like buildings alone but kills everyone dead. That way, one can rid an area of some inconvenient group while still maintaining high property values. No issues with radioactive contamination/cleanup, either.

The truth is very different. The Neutron Bomb is unique, and controversial, in that while other nuclear weapons indirectly generated radioactive fallout that could cause negative health effects, the Neutron Bomb was the first weapon to be specifically designed to use radiation to kill people. Although it differed from inventor Samuel Cohen's original conception, the neutron bomb as designed and built was just a fancy tactical thermonuclear warhead. That's right, thermonuclear. It was a very small fusion bomb. However, while more conventional thermonuclear bombs have radiation casings which reflect neutrons back and increase the explosive yield, a neutron bomb lacks this radiation casing; the neutrons are just allowed to escape. They don't contribute to increasing the explosive yield, which is thus relatively small; a neutron bomb will have an explosive yield of a few kilotons at most, although that still exceeds most conventional bombs by several orders of magnitude and is quite devastating. However, it means a particularly intense and deadly pulse of highly-penetrating immediate neutron radiation. Why would someone be interested in such a thing? It turns out that main battle tanks are surprisingly resistant to the blast and heat effects from a nuclear explosion, especially from a small tactical device. Both sides would probably limit themselves to relatively small devices for tactical use, mainly because they'd want to avoid collateral damage to their own forces, who'd be present in close proximity. However, with the neutron radiation increased (the technical term for a neutron bomb is "enhanced-radiation warhead") they can penetrate MBT armor and kill the crews inside.

The Cold War applications are obvious: nuking population centers is not such a great land-grab method, but deploying tanks is, and Russia had plenty of tanks.

Now, Cohen's original vision was for a similar device; presumably it would be somewhat larger and emit more neutron radiation. The burst parameters (yield, height of burst, etc.) would be carefully managed to minimize damage on the surface; however, the neutron bomb would emit enough of a pulse of radiation that it would kill everything on the ground in a substantial radius from the hypocenter. Cohen intended this to be a humanitarian weapon; civilians could retreat into underground shelters and be protected and when they emerged, although they'd find a lot of dead plants and animals, they wouldn't have to cope with as much in the way of devastation. The soldiers, though, wouldn't have that option, and would be killed; so, this was supposed to be a discriminate, humanitarian weapon. There are some doubts about its effectiveness, though; it would have to be detonated at high altitude to minimize explosive damage effects, but at such a high altitude the atmosphere might absorb most of the neutrons before they could reach the surface and do their work. Cohen made some claims to the contrary, but he's a little, well...credibility-wise, he could use some work in some respects. In addition, Soviet tanks were up-armoured to counter the potential threat of such a weapon before any neutron bomb was ever tested, let alone fielded. Then again, much of the armor for American tanks is depleted uranium, which is great for stopping incoming AP or HEAT rounds but worse than useless at stopping fusion neutrons. It'll absorb the neutrons, all right, but in doing so, the U-238 nuclei will fast fission, which will actually increase the dose received by the crew. The reasoning behind putting fuel tanks in the sides and doors of certain Soviet APC and AFV designs was supposedly neutron protection. Armor is bad at stopping neutrons, but hydrogen-heavy diesel fuel excels at it.

The other potential use of neutron bombs is knocking down enemy nuclear warheads and spacecraft. Above the atmosphere, where there isn't much medium to create a shockwave, neutrons and X-rays became a nuclear weapon's main effects. Neutrons, hitting electronics, could quite easily fry it completely, making it useless. And in case of enemy warhead, neutrons from outside blast "heat up" the warhead nuclear fuel, making it too active to detonate properly (it would fizzle, pre-detonating before enough fuel would be drawn into a chain reaction, producing only a weak sub-kiloton explosion). Due to that, neutron warheads remained main weapon of anti-missile defense during Cold War, albeit later (1980s) nuclear warheads started to receive anti-radiation hardening specifically against neutron attacks.

There was also the concern that given the nature of radiation poisoning there would have been a significant amount of 'walking ghost' cases who would remain functional for a few days but whose eventual death was certain. Studies showed such troops would most likely react by attacking ferociously, attempting to do as much damage to the enemy as possible before they succumbed to their fate.

The Soviet Union described the Neutron Bomb as "a capitalist weapon" because it was designed to destroy people while preserving their property. (And mostly because they didn't have one of their own.)note  They even called it the "landlord bomb". It should be really evident by this point that any landlord who used a neutron bomb to free up a building would be left with a building too radioactive to rent to anyone, if it wasn't blown up. Not to mention the stupidity of killing people who are paying rent.

Compare and contrast with the Depopulation Bomb trope, which the Neutron Bomb is frequently mistaken for an example of. See also: Biological Weapons Solve Everything.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Cioccolata's Stand, Green Day, emits mold that infects all living things in the area below it in altitude. If that living thing moves downward, such as falling, going downstairs, or traveling down a hill, the mold will germinate and quickly melt the living matter, eventually turning the organism into a green blob that eventually disintegrates away in the wind as dust. Said dust contains spores that can spread and infect other living things beyond Green Day's normal range. Cioccolata happens to have a helicopter he can pilot and decides to take a joyride above Rome...
  • In the Trigun anime, Knives' weapon is apparently one (or at least its fictional version), making the whole population of a town disappear without trace but everything else is intact. Vash's one is the opposite, destroying everything when activated but living things, but Vash himself doesn't know it (not like people usually survive much there after the town is hit with it anyway).

  • The Beastmaster: The "neutron detonator" which Arklon plans to seize from Earth in Beastmaster 2.
  • District 13 has one stolen by criminals and kept in the slums of future Paris. The bomb has a fail-deadly feature of detonating after 24 hours unless the heroes storm the castle and disarm it. Some politicians let the bomb get stolen so that when it blew up, it would take out the slums and most of the criminals in Paris. The disarm code given to the heroes actually arms it. They figure it out in time.
  • Halo: Nightfall opens with a variant used by a Covenant remnant group on a human colony. The bomb uses a fictional transuranic element that causes a lethal illness in many humans while leaving infrastructure and Covenant races totally unscathed. The rest of the story deals with Locke and his team trying to destroy the source of said element so no more bombs like this can be made.
  • Repo Man revolves around a car with one of these in the trunk... or maybe shrimp-aliens who vaporize people... or David Bowman... or some combination of the three.
  • One of the news stories in the first "Media Break" segment of RoboCop (1987) is about how tensions in South Africa, reduced to the status of a besieged city state, have increased after the government reveals that they have acquired a French made neutron bomb, and demonstrated their intent to use it as a weapon of last resort.
  • This is one reason why the Genesis Device is considered so dangerous in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: it not only has the ability to create a completely livable ecosystem, but it does so by eradicating everything on the surface of the planet it's dropped on. Imagine if some genius admiral decided to drop one on the Klingon homeworld...

  • In Artemis Fowl, the incredibly technologically advanced fairies have a neutron bomb known as a "blue rinse". It can destroy all life in an area and leave every non-biological thing intact. It's also remarkable in that it can be tuned to a blast range of centimeters, if not millimeters. This is partially due to the fictional element solinium not to mention the fairies' time-stop capabilities. Essentially, because the blue-rinse detonated in an isolated area of time-space, everything outside it remained unharmed while everything inside died horribly.
  • In the foreword of a later edition of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley mentioned that he had thought about such a weapon that'd kill all the people but leave the great artworks of mankind intact.
  • In the Dale Brown novel Chains of Command, Russia's campaign to reconquer the Ukraine begins with a bombardment of neutron bombs against the main Ukrainian Air Force bases, killing three-quarters of the pilots, thousands of civilians, and destroying the bulk of the aircraft. In this case, the weapon was selected to take out an air base with one shot (impossible with conventional weapons) while leaving the cities a couple of miles away mostly unscathed (impossible with a full-scale nuclear bomb). The bases themselves were leveled.
  • The Kurt Vonnegut novel Deadeye Dick revisits "Midland City", the terminally dull town from Breakfast of Champions, and destroys it with a neutron bomb. (Vonnegut admits in his introduction that the way he wrote it isn't the way that a neutron bomb would actually work, but is based instead on pipe-dreams of Cold War strategists.)
  • Parodied in Discworld with one line of crossbows marketed as "kills people but leaves buildings standing".
  • In Down to a Sunless Sea, in addition to several countries throwing nuclear weapons at each other, a major military base on an island is apparently the target of a neutron bomb. Some people show up and supposedly all the buildings, equipment and structures are intact, it's just that everything living is dead. Apparently nothing is alive above ground, not even worms, because the pulse killed everything, to a distance of ten feet below ground. The only survivor was a man who was in the vault of the military base, 60 feet underground, at the instant of the blast.
  • The Four Horsemen Universe: Banshee bombs in Asbaran Solutions. Built by Besquith mercs, they're illegal due to being designed to be detonated at high altitude, as in above the legal 10-mile limit for air attacks. When detonated, they kill every living thing across a wide area; the Besquith themselves are more resistant than other species to the radioactive contamination they leave behind. The Blood Drinkers used them to take the planet Moorhouse, and a lucrative garrison contract, from Asbaran Solutions, but Nigel Asbaran can't prove it and so goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • The very first mention of a Neutron Bomb in a work of fiction was in The Ipcress File by Len Deighton; the Nameless Agent/Narrator (he was only Harry Palmer in the films) is an observer at the test of such a weapon on Tokwe Atoll when he gets "snatched".
  • In the Red Dwarf novel Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, the radiation leak that kills the crew is described as being equivalent to a neutron bomb.
    The ship remained structurally undamaged, but in 0.08 seconds, everyone on the engineering levels was dead.
  • In The Survivalist series by Jerry Ahern, the Soviets use a neutron bomb on Chicago so that they'll have an intact city from which they can direct the occupation of America.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Used rather inaccurately in an episode of Alias, in which one only kills people in its immediate area, but leaves everything else unharmed.
  • One of the communist feminists in Episode 4 of Ashes to Ashes (2008) repeats the "capitalist weapon" line.
  • Implicitly used in Battlestar Galactica (2003), as part of the Cylon plan to preserve cities such as Delphi for re-settlement. That said, the level of damage varies. Over the course of the series, we see cities that are completely destroyed, cities that are damaged and cities where not even the windows are cracked.
  • The Blake's 7 episode "Countdown" involves the race to defuse a "solium radiation device" before it kills everyone on the planet. The description of the device fits the propaganda view of the neutron bomb exactly. The evil Federation threatens to detonate the device if there's a major insurrection. They'll then simply repopulate the planet with more settlers using the still intact infrastructure.
  • Used twice in Dans Une Galaxie Près De Chez Vous. The T-bomb is specifically, a bomb that damage no building but kill all lifeforms. The first movie has the Roberto-Menard crew contemplating using a similar clean bomb that does this to a planetary scale and shorten pants.
  • A similar device is mentioned in Firefly. An antique-loving warlord uses them to kill people and leave their property.
  • A stand-in of one in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Chain of Command"; Captain Picard is sent to investigate suspicions that the Cardassians are developing a metagenic weapon, which is a virus capable of destroying all life on a planet within days, dissipates in less than a month leaving all the planet's technology intact. This turns out to be a hoax by the Cardassians themselves, in a Batman Gambit to get Picard to investigate so that they can capture him.

  • Short-lived and terminally weird '77 punk band Art Attacks had a song called "Neutron Bomb", the b-side to their single "I am a Dalek":
    Gonna drive up to your place baby,
    Gonna park in your driveway baby,
    Gonna wipe out your neighbourhood baby,
    Gonna wipe out your parents baby,
    With a neutron bomb, a neutron bomb.
  • Used in "Kill the Poor" by Dead Kennedys, in which the rich get together and do just as suggested by the song title.
  • Another punk band, the Weirdos, did a song called "We Got the Neutron Bomb".

    Newspaper Columns 
  • Dave Barry discussed the neutron bomb in one of his Reagan-era columns. After noting that many people were protesting it because they "much prefer the old-fashioned humane-type nuclear devices that kill people and destroy buildings", and that in Western Europe, where it was to be deployed, "most buildings are for it, and most people are against it, on the grounds that it might kill them", he offered as his own view that America ought to develop the weapon to deploy on its own territory using a modified design that leaves both buildings and people intact but obliterates third-class mail instead.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Imperial Inquisition of Warhammer 40,000 has many means with which to perform Exterminatus, but the problem with most is that the planet targeted is unusable by friend or foe (even the atmosphere is destroyed). Virus bombs help by leaving infrastructure alone (and thus of some use to the Adeptus Mechanicus, who worship giant machines and factories), but then it was discovered their use strengthened the Chaos god of disease.

    Video Games 
  • The DNA Bomb from Bulletstorm effectively functions this way, being designed to kill all life on a given planet while leaving man-made structures intact. Sarrano was delivering it to Stygia when his ship was attacked by Grayson Hunt's ship. It creates a Race Against the Clock scenario halfway through the game, as Grayson, Ishi, and Sarrano must stop it from detonating before their evac comes. However, that turns out to a ruse by Sarrano to trick Grayson and Ishi into arming it. It goes off at the end, and works as advertised.
  • Command & Conquer: Generals gives the Chinese faction the option to use neutron warheads with their Nuke Cannon artillery pieces, which kill the crew of enemy vehicles, allowing infantry to take them over. The Neutron Mines building upgrade creates a minefield around structures with a similar effect. Neutron bombs explode into an eldritch-looking, purple Swirly Energy Thingy in mid-air, whereas the mine variant explodes in a flash of white light.
  • Mass Effect:
    • The first game has a lab on Noveria equipped with a neutron purge for dealing with any biological experiments that break out.
    • The Prothean VI in the Mass Effect 3 "From Ashes" DLC authorizes a neutron bombardment against Reaper forces to cover his creators' retreat into stasis pods inside a bunker.
  • The plot of Metal Gear Ac!d 2 revolves around a terrorist who wants to detonate a neutron bomb, so as to wipe out civilians, but leave the infrastructure of the world's technology (such as the Internet) intact.
  • Perfect Dark has the N-Bomb, a grenade designed to explode in a sphere of darkness rather than fire so that it kills anyone in the blast zone and leaves their supplies behind.
  • The Stellaris: Apocalypse expansion allows empires to build a Colossus Kill Sat, which can be equipped with one of several Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Neutron Sweeper option kills all intelligent life on a targeted world and similarly fries any robots' circuitry, but leaves the planet's infrastructure intact for later resettlement. That said, it does apply a negative habitability modifier to the planet for a few years, representing the effects of lingering radiation and damage to the biosphere.

    Western Animation