Critical MassCritical Mass.

The first prerequisite to be met in producing a fission-type nuclear explosion is that there must be enough material present and in the right configuration so that successive generations of neutrons can cause equal or increased numbers of fissions. The amount capable of sustaining a continuous or chain reaction is termed a critical mass.

a. Although fission events release more than 2 million times more energy per event than do chemical reactions, there still must be a tremendous number of fissions to result in the release of a significant amount of energy. To meet this requirement, a mass of fissionable material having specific characteristics must be assembled. Depending on size, and other factors to be discussed, a given mass of fissionable material may support one of three types of chain reactions:

(1) Subcritical Chain Reaction. A reaction in which the number of neutrons decreases in succeeding generations, thus not continuing.

(2) Critical Chain Reaction. A reaction in which the number of neutrons remains constant in succeeding generations.

(3) Supercritical Chain Reaction. A reaction in which the number of neutrons increases in succeeding generations.

b. To produce a nuclear explosion, a weapon must contain an amount of uranium or plutonium that exceeds the mass necessary to support a critical chain reaction, i.e., a supercritical mass of fissionable material is required. Several methods can be used to make a mass of fissionable material supercritical.

(1) The active material can be purified to eliminate unwanted chemical impurities that might otherwise absorb neutrons.

(2) Fissionable material can be enriched, i.e., the amount of 235U as compared to 238U can be increased.

(3) The material can be machined into the most efficient shape. A spherical shape can be employed to provide the greatest volume with the least surface area, thereby reducing the probability of neutron loss.

(4) Moderators can be used to slow down fission neutrons, increasing the probability of their producing fissions.

(5) Finally, neutrons that have escaped the active material can be reflected back by using suitable materials as reflectors. Reflectors, used as tampers, can also physically delay the expansion of the exploding material allowing more fission to occur thereby resulting in an increase in explosive energy.

c. Because of the stray neutrons produced in the environment by spontaneous fission, those present in the atmosphere from cosmic ray interactions as well as others generated in various ways, a critical or supercritical mass would be likely to melt or possibly explode. It is necessary, therefore, that, before detonation, a nuclear weapon contain no piece of fissionable material as large as a critical mass. At the time of the detonation, some method must be employed to make the mass supercritical by changing its configuration. Two general methods have been developed for quickly converting a subcritical mass into a supercritical one.

(1) In the first, two pieces of fissionable material, each less than a critical mass, are brought together very rapidly to forma single supercritical one. This gun-type assembly may be achieved in a tubular device in which a high explosive is used to blow one subcritical piece of fissionable material from one end of the tube into another subcritical piece held at the opposite end of the tube (Figure 2-VII).

Gun Type Assembly

(2) In the second or implosion-type assembly method (see Figure 2-VIII), a subcritical mass of 235U or 239PU is compressed to produce a mass capable of supporting a supercritical chain reaction. This compression is achieved by the detonation of specially designed high explosives surrounding a subcritical sphere of fissionable material. When the high explosive is detonated, an inwardly directed implosion wave is produced. This wave compresses the sphere of fissionable material. The decrease in surface to volume ratio of this compressed mass plus its increased density is then such as to make the mass supercritical. An enhanced radiation (ER) weapon, by special design techniques, has an output in which neutrons and x-rays are made to constitute a substantial portion of the total energy released. For example, a standard fission weapon’s total energy output would be partitioned as follows: 50% as blast; 35% as thermal energy; and 15% as nuclear radiation. An ER weapon’s total energy would be partitioned as follows: 30% as blast; 20% as thermal; and 50% as nuclear radiation. Thus, a 3-kiloton ER weapon will produce the nuclear radiation of a 10-kiloton fission weapon and the blast and thermal radiation of a 1-kiloton fission device (Figure 2-IX). However, the energy distribution percentages of nuclear weapons are a function of yield.

Weapon Energy Distribution

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