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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Weapon Design

The operation of a nuclear weapon consists of a sequence of precisely timed events. This includes detonation of a high-explosive charge that renders a quantity of fissile material, called the primary (sometimes referred to as a "pit"), into a supercritical state. The "pit" then undergoes nuclear detonation. Present-day nuclear weapons can use tritium and deuterium to intensify or "boost" the energy output of the primary detonation. The energy released by detonation of the primary then contributes to the detonation of another nuclear explosive, referred to as the secondary. Most of the energy output of a nuclear weapon is produced by detonation of the secondary.

American nuclear technology evolved rapidly between 1944 and 1950, moving from the primitive Fat Man and Little Boy to more sophisticated, lighter, more powerful, and more efficient designs. Much design effort shifted from fission to thermonuclear weapons after President Truman decided that the United States should proceed to develop a hydrogen bomb, a task which occupied the Los Alamos Laboratory from 1950 through 1952. The "George" shot of Operation Greenhouse (May 9, 1951) confirmed for the first time that a fission device could produce the conditions needed to ignite a thermonuclear reaction.

From 1952 until the early years of the ICBM era [roughly to the development of the first multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) in the late 1960's], new concepts in both fission primary and fusion secondary design were developed rapidly. However, after the introduction of the principal families of weapons in the modern stockpile (approximately the mid 1970's), the rate of design innovations and truly new concepts slowed as nuclear weapon technology became a mature science. It is believed that other nations' experiences have been roughly similar, although the United States probably has the greatest breadth of experience with innovative designs simply because of the more than 1,100 nuclear detonations it has conducted. The number of useful variations on the themes of primary and secondary design is finite, and designers' final choices are frequently constrained by considerations of weapon size, weight, safety, and the availability of special materials.

Nuclear weaponry has advanced considerably since 1945, as can be seen at an unclassified level by comparing the size and weight of "Fat Man" with the far smaller, lighter, and more powerful weapons carried by modern ballistic missiles. Most nations of the world, including those of proliferation interest, have subscribed to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which requires that nuclear explosions only take place underground. Underground testing can be detected by seismic means and by observing radioactive effluent in the atmosphere. It is probably easier to detect and identify a small nuclear test in the atmosphere than it is to detect and identify a similarly sized underground test. In either case, highly specialized instrumentation is required if a nuclear test explosion is to yield useful data to the nation carrying out the experiment.

US nuclear weapons technology is mature and might not have shown many more qualitative advances over the long haul, even absent a test ban. The same is roughly true for Russia, the UK, and possibly for France. The design of the nuclear device for a specific nuclear weapon is constrained by several factors. The most important of these are the weight the delivery vehicle can carry plus the size of the space available in which to carry the weapon (e.g., the diameter and length of a nosecone or the length and width of a bomb bay). The required yield of the device is established by the target vulnerability. The possible yield is set by the state of nuclear weapon technology and by the availability of special materials. Finally, the choices of specific design details of the device are determined by the taste of its designers, who will be influenced by their experience and the traditions of their organization.

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