An ordinary "atomic" bomb of the kinds used in World War II uses the process of nuclear fission to release the binding energy in certain nuclei. The energy release is rapid and, because of the large amounts of energy locked in nuclei, violent. The principal materials used for fission weapons are U-235 and Pu-239, which are termed fissile because they can be split into two roughly equal-mass fragments when struck by a neutron of even low energies. When a large enough mass of either material is assembled, a self-sustaining chain reaction results after the first fission is produced.
The minimum mass of fissile material that can sustain a nuclear chain reaction is called a critical mass and depends on the density, shape, and type of fissile material, as well as the effectiveness of any surrounding material (called a reflector or tamper) at reflecting neutrons back into the fissioning mass. Critical masses in spherical geometry for weapon-grade materials are as follows:
Bare sphere: 56 kg 11 kg
Thick Tamper: 15 kg 5 kg
The critical mass of compressed fissile material decreases as the inverse square of the density achieved. Since critical mass decreases rapidly as density increases, the implosion technique can make do with substantially less nuclear material than the gun-assembly method. The "Fat Man" atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945 used 6.2 kilograms of plutonium and produced an explosive yield of 21-23 kilotons [a 1987 reassessment of the Japanese bombings placed the yield at 21 Kt]. Until January 1994, the Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that 8 kilograms would typically be needed to make a small nuclear weapon. Subsequently, however, DOE reduced the estimate of the amount of plutonium needed to 4 kilograms. Some US scientists believe that 1 kilogram of weapon-grade plutonium would, in the hands of a good designer, provide an explosive power equivalent to that of about 1,000 tons of TNT.
If any more material is added to a critical mass a condition of supercriticality results. The chain reaction in a supercritical mass increases rapidly in intensity until the heat generated by the nuclear reactions causes the mass to expand so greatly that the assembly is no longer critical.
Fission weapons require a system to assemble a supercritical mass from a sub-critical mass in a very short time. Two classic assembly systems have been used, gun and implosion. In the simpler gun-type device, two subcritical masses are brought together by using a mechanism similar to an artillery gun to shoot one mass (the projectile) at the other mass (the target). The Hiroshima weapon was gun-assembled and used 235 U as a fuel. Gun-assembled weapons using highly enriched uranium are considered the easiest of all nuclear devices to construct and the most foolproof.
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