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The aftermath of the huge, non-nuclear explosion in Beirut. Photo: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

A massive explosion that rocked Beirut on Tuesday was so large that some observers initially wondered if it could be the result of a nuclear bomb.

Why it matters: Experts quickly determined the explosion was non-nuclear, and it appears to be the result of fire reaching a huge cache of ammonium nitrate. But the fact that even this enormous blast was just a fraction of the size of a small atomic bomb gives us some sense of the devastation that would result from a real nuclear detonation.

The Beirut explosion lacked two hallmarks of a nuclear detonation: a blinding white flash and a thermal pulse that would scorch those within the blast radius.

  • Videos showed that the explosion did have the mushroom cloud most commonly associated with a nuclear bomb. But there's nothing specifically nuclear about the effect, known as Wilson clouds, which occur when humid air gets compressed and causes the water in it to condense.

The explosive power of the blast added up to approximately 240 tons of TNT, according to one estimate shared online by a nuclear expert.

  • That is as big as it appeared in online video. The largest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal, the MOAB, has the explosive power of approximately 11 tons of TNT.

Yes, but: As terrible as it was, the Beirut blast was less than 2% the size of the Hiroshima bomb, which had the explosive power of 15,000 tons of TNT.

Of note: Historian Alex Wellerstein's NUKEMAP site allows you to simulate the effects of a nuclear strike anywhere around the world.

  • I dropped the equivalent of a B83 bomb on my head in Brooklyn. The expected fatalities were more than 1.4 million.

Go deeper

Updated Aug 19, 2020 - World

U.S. expected to invoke Iran deal "snapback" on Thursday

Pompeo at the UN. Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

President Trump confirmed on Wednesday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to notify the UN Security Council that the U.S. intends to initiate "snapback" sanctions on Iran. The formal request is expected on Thursday, Israeli officials told Axios.

The backdrop: This move could create a diplomatic and legal crisis unlike any seen before at the Security Council. It comes days after the U.S. failed to mobilize support at the council to extend an international arms embargo on Iran.

Updated 41 mins ago - Health

U.K. first nation to clear Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for mass rollout

A health care worker during the phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial by the Pfizer and BioNTech in Ankara, Turkey, in October. Photo: Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's government announced Wednesday it's approved Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, which "will be made available across the U.K. from next week."

Why it matters: The U.K. has beaten the U.S. to become the first Western country to give emergency approval for a vaccine against a virus that's killed nearly 1.5 million people globally.

3 hours ago - World

NYT: Biden won't immediately remove U.S. tariffs on China

President-elect Joe Biden during an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump's 25% tariffs imposed on China under the phase one trade deal will remain in place at the start of the new administration, President-elect Biden said in an interview with the New York Times published early Wednesday.

Details: "I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs," Biden said. He plans to conduct a full review of the current U.S. policy on China and speak with key allies in Asia and Europe to "develop a coherent strategy," he said.