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by Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. and John Fuller
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Cite This! Close Please copy/paste the following text to properly cite this HowStuffWorks article: Freudenrich, Ph.D., Craig, and John Fuller. "How Nuclear Bombs Work" 05 October 2000. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-bomb.htm> 14 November 2010.
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1. Introduction to How Nuclear Bombs Work 2. Atomic Structure 3. Nuclear Energy 4. 5. 6. 7. Nuclear Fission Fission Bombs Implosion-Triggered Fission Bomb See more » 7. Fusion Bombs 8. Consequences and Health Risks 9. Lots More Information 10. See all Explosives articles
Physics: Generating Power through Fission and Fusion
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You might wonder why fission bombs use uranium-235 as fuel. Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth, and it has two isotopes - uranium-238 and uranium-235, both of which are barely stable. Both isotopes also have an unusually large number of neutrons. Although ordinary uranium will always have 92 protons, U-238 has 146 neutrons, while U-235 has 143 neutrons. Both isotopes of uranium are radioactive, and they eventually decay over time. U-235, however, has an extra property that makes it useful for both nuclear-power production and nuclear-bomb production -- U-235 is one of the few materials that can undergo induced fission. Instead of waiting more than 700 million years for uranium to naturally decay, the element can be broken down much faster if a neutron runs into a U-235 nucleus. The nucleus will absorb the neutron without hesitation, become unstable and split immediately.
This figure shows a uranium-235 nucleus with a neutron approaching from the top. As soon as the nucleus captures the neutron, it splits into two lighter atoms and throws off two or three new neutrons (the number of ejected neutrons depends on how the U-235 atom happens to split). The two new atoms then emit gamma radiation as they settle into their new states. There are a couple of things about this induced fission process that makes it interesting:
The probability of a U-235 atom capturing a neutron as it passes by is fairly high. In a bomb that is working properly, more than one neutron ejected from each fission causes another fission to occur. It helps to think of a big circle of marbles as the protons and neutrons of an atom. If you shoot one marble -- a single neutron -- in the middle of the big circle, it will hit one marble, which will hit a few more marbles, and so on until a chain reaction continues. The process of capturing the neutron and splitting happens very quickly, on the order of picoseconds (0.000000000001 seconds).
In order for these properties of U-235 to work, a sample of uranium must be enriched . Weapons-grade uranium is composed of at least 90-percent U-235. Critical Mass In a fission bomb, the fuel must be kept in separate subcritical masses, which will not support fission, to prevent premature detonation. Critical mass is the minimum mass of fissionable material required to sustain a nuclear fission reaction. Think about the marble analogy again. If the circle of marbles are spread too far apart -- subcritical mass -- a smaller chain reaction will occur when the "neutron marble" hits the center. If the marbles are placed closer together in the
If you multiplied 7 kilograms of uranium by the speed of light squared. Substances like uranium. Although you may have heard of this equation without knowing what it really means. The speed of light is a huge number -. Because of this additional nuclear material. This separation brings about several problems in the design of a fission bomb that must be solved: The two or more subcritical masses must be brought together to form a supercritical mass. uranium has the power to release a lot of energy. a 60-watt light bulb uses 60 joules of energy per second. m is mass and c is the speed of light (approximately 300.circle -. have a very high atomic number -. and energy can be converted into matter.000 kilometers per second). which are commonly used in nuclear bombs.they don't have a lot of mass -.it takes a vast number of them to make a substance. you get an extreme amount of energy. where E is energy.if you multiply a large amount of mass by the speed of light.there is a higher chance a big chain reaction will take place. you can get an idea of the amount of energy available in just a little bit of U-235.Einstein's famous equation E = MC2 and nuclear radiation. you would get about 2.critical mass -. In the next section we'll look at how a fission bomb actually works. Free neutrons must be introduced into the supercritical mass to start the fission. And even though atoms are small -. When you consider that a pound of uranium is smaller than a baseball and a million gallons of gasoline would fill a cube that is 50 feet per side (50 feet is as tall as a five-story building). Nuclear Energy Two important concepts in physics explain how massive amounts of energy can come from very small particles -. As much of the material as possible must be fissioned before the bomb explodes to prevent fizzle. the concept behind it is pretty simple.matter can be converted into energy. E = mc2 An atom's nucleus and the structure of certain isotopes make it possible to release incredible amounts of energy when the atom splits.1 billion Joules of energy. and the numbers involved are enormous. You can understand how much energy this process releases by looking at Einstein's equation E = mc2. Matter and energy are essentially interchangeable -. which will provide more than enough neutrons to sustain a fission reaction at the time of detonation. By comparison.the atoms themselves are larger and contain more particles than the atoms of other naturally-occurring substances. . The energy found in a pound of highly enriched uranium is equal to something on the order of a million gallons of gasoline.
The nucleus can also emit a burst of electromagnetic energy known as a gamma ray. led by Dr. 1945. Great Britain (1952). N. now Russia). Practical fissionable nuclei for atomic bombs are the isotopes uranium-235 and plutonium-239. army program that was part of the Manhattan Project.weapon deriving its explosive force from the release of atomic energy through the fission (splitting) of heavy nuclei (see nuclear energy). South Africa formerly possessed a small arsenal. an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima with an estimated equivalent explosive force of 12. It began in 1940. and North Korea now have atomic bombs or the capability to produce them. which can become neutron rays.Radioactive decay Radioactive decay involves atoms splitting or shedding their parts. and these parts leave the atom at high speeds.S. France (1960). 1945. and Belarus) relinquished all nuclear warheads. known as an alpha particle. particularly India. an electron and an antineutrino. Gamma rays are the only type of nuclear radiation that comes from energy instead of fast-moving particles. If the mass of the fissionable material exceeds the . Beta decay: A neutron becomes a proton.500 tons of TNT. and China (1964). it can eject neutrons.. laboratory and successfully tested on July 16. Israel. The ejected electron is a beta particle. This was the culmination of a large U. Kazakhstan. On Aug. followed three days later by a second. Atomic bombs have been designed by students. atomic bomb atomic bomb or A-bomb. bomb on Nagasaki. becoming rays. The first atomic bomb was produced at the Los Alamos. Atomic bombs were subsequently developed by the USSR (1949. Pakistan. Robert Oppenheimer. and destruction. but their actual construction is a complex industrial process. which have been removed to Russia. injury. In the process. two years after the German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered nuclear fission. Both bombs caused widespread death.Mex. which are capable of undergoing chain reaction. The three smaller Soviet successor states that inherited nuclear arsenals (Ukraine. more powerful. There are three types of radioactive decay: Alpha decay: A nucleus ejects two protons and two neutrons bound together. A number of other nations. and there is still considerable debate about the need to have used them. 6. Spontaneous fission: A nucleus splits into two pieces.
by means of a chemical explosive) two subcritical masses of fissionable material. An atomic bomb is detonated by bringing together very rapidly (e. hydrogen bomb.critical mass (a few pounds). intense neutron and gamma radiation. See disarmament. see also nuclear energy.com/ce6/history/A0805228. The neighborhood of the explosion becomes contaminated with radioactive fission products. Read more: atomic bomb — Infoplease.g. both of which are very damaging to living tissue..infoplease.html#ixzz15FhLRbgB Nuclear physics Radioactive decay Nuclear fission Nuclear fusion [show]Classical decays [show]Advanced decays . and nuclear weapons. nuclear strategy. nuclear. An atomic bomb explosion produces. the combined mass exceeding the critical mass. in addition to the shock wave accompanying any explosion.com http://www. Some radioactive products are borne into the upper atmosphere as dust or gas and may subsequently be deposited partially decayed as radioactive fallout far from the site of the explosion. the chain reaction multiplies rapidly into an uncontrollable release of energy.
[show]Emission processes [show]Capturing [show]High energy processes [show]Nucleosynthesis [show]Scientists v•d•e .
and give rise to ongoing political debate over nuclear power. giving rise to a nuclear waste problem. This makes possible a self-sustaining chain reaction that releases energy at a controlled rate in a nuclear reactor or at a very rapid uncontrolled rate in a nuclear weapon. as well. Concerns over nuclear waste accumulation and over the destructive potential of nuclear weapons may counterbalance the desirable qualities of fission as an energy source. The amount of free energy contained in nuclear fuel is millions of times the amount of free energy contained in a similar mass of chemical fuel such as gasoline. however. In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry. The products of nuclear fission. Both uses are made possible because certain substances called nuclear fuels undergo fission when struck by free neutrons and in turn generate neutrons when they break apart. Contents [hide] 1 Physical overview Mechanics . A slow-moving neutron is absorbed by the nucleus of a uranium-235 atom. making nuclear fission a very tempting source of energy. and remain so for significant amounts of time. For fission to produce energy.An induced fission reaction. Fission of heavy elements is an exothermic reaction which can release large amounts of energy both as electromagnetic radiation and as kinetic energy of the fragments (heating the bulk material where fission takes place). which in turn splits into fast-moving lighter elements (fission products) and releases three free neutrons. Fission is a form of nuclear transmutation because the resulting fragments are not the same element as the original atom. the total binding energy of the resulting elements has to be lower than that of the starting element. often producing free neutrons and photons (in the form of gamma rays). are on average far more radioactive than the heavy elements which are normally fissioned as fuel. Nuclear fission produces energy for nuclear power and to drive the explosion of nuclear weapons. nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts (lighter nuclei).
Nuclear reactions are thus driven by the mechanics of bombardment. In nuclear reactions. essentially all nuclear fission occurs as a "nuclear reaction" — a bombardmentdriven process that results from the collision of two subatomic particles. free neutrons released by each fission event can trigger yet more events. Many types of nuclear reactions are currently known. These fuels break apart into a bimodal range of chemical elements with atomic masses centering near 95 and 135 u (fission products). a neutron. This type of fission (called spontaneous fission) is rare except in a few heavy isotopes. which fissions into two fast-moving lighter elements (fission products) and additional neutrons. and are said to be fissile.A visual representation of an induced nuclear fission event where a slow-moving neutron is absorbed by the nucleus of a uranium-235 atom. decaying instead mainly via an alpha/beta decay chain over periods of millennia to eons. not by the relatively constant exponential decay and half-life characteristic of spontaneous radioactive processes. the overwhelming majority of fission events are induced by bombardment with another particle. which in turn release more neutrons and cause more fissions. Most nuclear fuels undergo spontaneous fission only very slowly. By contrast. In a nuclear reactor or nuclear weapon.  Energetics Typical fission events release about two hundred million eV (200 MeV) of energy for each fission event. The chemical element isotopes that can sustain a fission chain reaction are called nuclear fuels. In engineered nuclear devices. most chemical oxidation reactions (such as burning coal or TNT) . Nuclear fission differs importantly from other types of nuclear reactions in that it can be amplified and sometimes controlled via a nuclear chain reaction. The most common nuclear fuels are 235U (the isotope of uranium with an atomic mass of 235 and of use in nuclear reactors) and 239Pu (the isotope of plutonium with an atomic mass of 239). Nuclear fission can occur without neutron bombardment. a subatomic particle collides with an atomic nucleus and causes changes to it. as a type of radioactive decay. Most of the energy released is in the form of the kinetic velocities of the fission products and the neutrons. which is itself produced by prior fission events. Also shown is the capture of a neutron by uranium-238 to become uranium-239. In such a reaction.
However. The latter figure means that a nuclear fission explosion or criticality accident emits about 3.8 MeV in antineutrinos (released at the same time as the betas). an additional 6.3% of the energy which is released as antineutrinos is not captured by the reactor material as heat. Thus. in uranium-235 this delayed energy is divided into about 6. and escapes directly through all materials (including the Earth) at nearly the speed of light. less than 2. but begin as a process in the fission products immediately. For uranium-235 (total mean fission energy 202. an energy of ~200 MeV is released. Almost all of the rest of the radiation (beta and gamma radiation) is eventually converted to heat in a reactor core or its shielding.8 MeV/202. The energy dynamics of pure fission bombs always remain at about 6% yield of the total in radiation. The 8.5% of its energy as fast neutrons (total ~ 6%). which convert some of this energy to ionizing radiation. or ~ 89% of the total energy which is eventually released by fission over time. The energy of nuclear fission is released as kinetic energy of the fission products and fragments. Neutrino radiation is ordinarily not classed as ionizing radiation.5 neutrons are emitted with a kinetic energy of ~2 MeV each (total of 4.5 MeV). So-called neutron bombs (enhanced radiation weapons) have been constructed which release a larger fraction of their energy as ionizing radiation (specifically. an additional 6% of the total energy of fission is also released eventually as non-prompt ionizing radiation. so nuclear fuel contains at least ten million times more usable energy per unit mass than does chemical fuel. 8. neutrons). Some processes involving neutrons are notable for absorbing or finally yielding energy — for example neutron kinetic energy does not yield heat immediately if the neutron is captured by a . but these are all thermonuclear devices which rely on the nuclear fusion stage to produce the extra radiation. The remainder is antineutrinos. the energy is converted to heat as the particles and gamma rays collide with the atoms that make up the reactor and its working fluid. and into interplanetary space (the amount absorbed is miniscule). and the rest as kinetic energy of fission fragments ("heat"). which fly apart at about 3% of the speed of light. and as electromagnetic radiation in the form of gamma rays. the fission fragment kinetic energy remains as low-temperature heat which causes little or no ionization. in all). typically ~169 MeV appears as the kinetic energy of the daughter nuclei. because it is not absorbed and therefore does not produce effects. in nuclear generators. In an atomic bomb. The fission reaction also releases ~7 MeV in prompt gamma ray photons. an average of 2. and this is about evenly divided between gamma and beta ray energy. due to Coulomb repulsion. and in delayed gamma emissions associated with these beta decays.5 MeV = 4. this heat may serve to raise the temperature of the bomb core to 100 million kelvin and cause secondary emission of soft X-rays. Also. When a uranium nucleus fissions into two daughter nuclei fragments.5 MeV in betas. and finally. The total prompt fission energy amounts to about 181 MeV.3 MeV in delayed gamma emission from the excited beta-decay products (for a mean total of ~10 gamma ray emissions per fission. usually water or occasionally heavy water. For example.5% of its energy as gamma rays. in a nuclear reactor. as a prompt result of fission.release at most a few eV per event.8 MeV). The remaining ~ 11% is released in beta decays which have various half-lives.
the most common event (depending on isotope and process) is a slightly unequal fission in which one daughter nucleus has a mass of about 90 to 100 u and the other the remaining 130 to 140 u.  Origin of the active energy and the curve of binding energy Nuclear fission of heavy elements produces energy because the specific binding energy (binding energy per mass) of intermediate-mass nuclei with atomic numbers and atomic masses close to 62 Ni and 56Fe is greater than the nucleon-specific binding energy of very heavy nuclei. which is called the odd-even effect on the fragments charge distribution. they produce heat as well. according to the mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc2. Unequal fissions are energetically more favorable because this allows one product to be closer to the energetic minimum near mass 60 u (only a quarter of the average fissionable mass). which could automatically drop into the center of Chicago Pile-1). If these delayed neutrons are captured without producing fissions. if the reaction is run in a "delayed-critical" zone which deliberately relies on these neutrons for a supercritical chain-reaction (one in which each fission cycle yields more neutrons than it absorbs). the first experimental atomic reactors would have run away to a dangerous and messy "prompt critical reaction" before their operators could have manually shut them down (for this reason. which overcomes the electrostatic repulsion between protons. The excess mass Δm = M – Mp is the invariant mass of the energy that is released as photons (gamma rays) and kinetic energy of the fission fragments. suspended by electromagnets. but the most common event is not fission to equal mass nuclei of about mass 120. This result is attributed to nucleon pair breaking. no odd-even effect is observed on fragment mass number distribution. the nuclear chain-reaction would be prompt critical and increase in size faster than it could be controlled by human intervention. In this case. In nuclear fission events the nuclei may break into any combination of lighter nuclei. On the other hand. the nuclear force acts only over relatively short ranges (a few nucleon diameters). designer Enrico Fermi included radiation-counter-triggered control rods. but this energy is emitted if the plutonium-239 is later fissioned. However. The variation in specific binding energy with atomic number is due to the interplay of the two fundamental forces acting on the component nucleons (protons and neutrons) that make up the nucleus. However. so that energy is released when heavy nuclei are broken apart. since it follows an exponentially decaying Yukawa . Nuclei are bound by an attractive nuclear force between nucleons. so called "delayed neutrons" emitted as radioactive decay products with half-lives up to a minute. Without their existence.uranium-238 atom to breed plutonium-239.  Product nuclei and binding energy In fission there is a preference to yield fragments with even proton numbers. from fission-daughters. while the other nucleus with mass 135 u is still not far out of the range of the most tightly bound nuclei (another statement of this. are very important to reactor control because they give a characteristic "reaction" time for the total nuclear reaction to double in size. is that the atomic binding energy curve is slightly steeper to the left of mass 120 u than to the right of it). The total rest masses of the fission products (Mp) from a single reaction is less than the mass of the original fuel nucleus (M).
 Chain reactions . emitting fast-moving electrons to conserve electric charge. larger nuclei (more than about eight nucleons in diameter) are less tightly bound per unit mass than are smaller nuclei. The electrostatic repulsion is of longer range. without adding to proton–proton repulsion.potential which makes it insignificant at longer distances. on average. Nuclei which have more than 20 protons cannot be stable unless they have more than an equal number of neutrons. See Fission products (by element) for a description of fission products sorted by element. breaking a large nucleus into two or more intermediate-sized nuclei. This tendency for fission product nuclei to beta-decay is the fundamental cause of the problem of radioactive high level waste from nuclear reactors. so that nuclei larger than about 12 nucleons in diameter reach a point that the total electrostatic repulsion overcomes the nuclear force and causes them to be spontaneously unstable. Also because of the short range of the strong binding force. about the same ratio of neutrons and protons as their parent nucleus. large stable nuclei must contain proportionally more neutrons than do the lightest elements. which are most stable with a 1 to 1 ratio of protons and neutrons. The origin of this energy is the nuclear force. Extra neutrons stabilize heavy elements because they add to strong-force binding (which acts between all nucleons). which intermediate-sized nuclei allows to act more efficiently. since it decays by an inverse-square rule. releases energy. as excess neutrons convert to protons in the fission-product atoms. For the same reason. Fission products tend to be beta emitters. Fission products have. and are therefore usually unstable to beta decay (which changes neutrons to protons) because they have proportionally too many neutrons compared to stable isotopes of similar mass. because each nucleon has more neighbors which are within the short range attraction of this force.
slow moving neutron are also called . One of those neutrons is absorbed by an atom of uranium-238 and does not continue the reaction. which in turn splits into fast-moving lighter elements (fission products) and releases three free neutrons. also not continuing the reaction. and plutonium. such as uranium. A uranium-235 atom absorbs a neutron and fissions into two new atoms (fission fragments). Main article: Nuclear chain reaction Several heavy elements. isotopes that undergo fission when struck by a thermal.An induced fission reaction. 2. However one neutron does collide with an atom of uranium-235. a form of radioactive decay and induced fission. which can then continue the reaction. 1. 3. undergo both spontaneous fission. Another neutron is simply lost and does not collide with anything. which then fissions and releases two neutrons and some binding energy. Both of those neutrons collide with uranium-235 atoms. a form of nuclear reaction. thorium. releasing three new neutrons and some binding energy. Elemental isotopes that undergo induced fission when struck by a free neutron are called fissionable. A schematic nuclear fission chain reaction. A slow-moving neutron is absorbed by the nucleus of a uranium235 atom. each of which fissions and releases between one and three neutrons.
since plutonium-239 is also a fissile element which serves as fuel. The word "critical" refers to a cusp in the behavior of the differential equation that governs the number of free neutrons present in the fuel: if less than a critical mass is present.fissile. that process is used to manufacture 239Pu in breeder reactors. the most abundant form of uranium. which means that some small part of the 238U is "burned-up" in all nuclear fuels. then the amount of neutrons is determined by radioactive decay. with a mean lifetime of about 15 minutes before decaying to protons and beta particles. releasing energy as long as the external neutron source is present. and even moderated neutrons move at about 8 times the speed of sound). In-situ plutonium production also contributes to the neutron chain reaction in other types of reactors after sufficient plutonium-239 has been produced. 238U. If enough nuclear fuel is assembled in one place. or if the escaping neutrons are sufficiently contained. then these freshly generated neutrons outnumber the neutrons that escape from the assembly. by jacketing the weapon with 238U to react with neutrons released by nuclear fusion at the center of the device. It is estimated that up to half of the power produced by a standard "non-breeder" reactor is produced by the fission of plutonium-239 produced in place. Fissionable. An assembly that supports a sustained nuclear chain reaction is called a critical assembly or. then the amount of neutrons is controlled instead by the physics of the chain reaction. A few particularly fissile and readily obtainable isotopes (notably 235U and 239Pu) are called nuclear fuels because they can sustain a chain reaction and can be obtained in large enough quantities to be useful. Such neutrons would escape rapidly from the fuel and become a free neutron. The actual mass of a critical mass of nuclear fuel depends strongly on the geometry and surrounding materials. However.  Fission reactors . a critical mass. neutrons almost invariably impact and are absorbed by other nuclei in the vicinity long before this happens (newly-created fission neutrons move at about 7% of the speed of light. especially in fast breeder reactors that operate with higher-energy neutrons. Instead. Not all fissionable isotopes can sustain a chain reaction. This is an important effect in all reactors where fast neutrons from the fissile isotope can cause the fission of nearby 238U nuclei. releasing yet more neutrons. bombarding 238U with slow neutrons causes it to absorb them (becoming 239U) and decay by beta emission to 239Np which then decays again by the same process to 239Pu. so no chain reaction is possible with this isotope. Bombarding 238U with fast neutrons induces fissions. but if a critical mass or more is present. non-fissile isotopes can be used as fission energy source even without a chain reaction. over the total life-cycle of a fuel load. That same fast-fission effect is used to augment the energy released by modern thermonuclear weapons. All fissionable and fissile isotopes undergo a small amount of spontaneous fission which releases a few free neutrons into any sample of nuclear fuel. is fissionable but not fissile: it undergoes induced fission when impacted by an energetic neutron with over 1 MeV of kinetic energy. Some neutrons will impact fuel nuclei and induce further fissions. For example. and a sustained nuclear chain reaction will take place. if the assembly is almost entirely made of a nuclear fuel. But too few of the neutrons produced by 238 U fission are energetic enough to induce further fissions in 238U.
such as the Hanford N reactor. In a critical fission reactor. Power reactors generally convert the kinetic energy of fission products into heat.Critical fission reactors are the most common type of nuclear reactor. Such devices use radioactive decay or particle accelerators to trigger fissions. all fission reactors can act in all three capacities. see nuclear reactor physics. The better known fast breeder reactor makes 239Pu (a nuclear fuel) from the naturally very abundant 238U (not a nuclear fuel). in principle. to sustain a controllable amount of energy release. Devices that produce engineered but non-self-sustaining fission reactions are subcritical fission reactors. research reactors are intended to produce neutrons and/or activate radioactive sources for scientific. engineering. Research reactors produce neutrons that are used in various ways. in practice the tasks lead to conflicting engineering goals and most reactors have been built with only one of the above tasks in mind. While.  Fission bombs . breeder reactors are intended to produce nuclear fuels in bulk from more abundant isotopes. (There are several early counter-examples. see nuclear reactor. political. and environmental aspects. or other research purposes. which is used to heat a working fluid and drive a heat engine that generates mechanical or electrical power. neutrons produced by fission of fuel atoms are used to induce yet more fissions. Breeder reactors are a specialized form of research reactor. now decommissioned). The working fluid is usually water with a steam turbine. Thermal breeder reactors previously tested using 232Th to breed the fissile isotope 233U continue to be studied and developed. a mixture of 238U and 235U. For a more detailed description of the physics and operating principles of critical fission reactors. which typically involve different engineering trade-offs to take advantage of either the heat or the neutrons produced by the fission chain reaction: power reactors are intended to produce heat for nuclear power. with the caveat that the sample being irradiated is usually the fuel itself. medical. either as part of a generating station or a local power system such as a nuclear submarine. For a description of their social. but some designs use other materials such as gaseous helium. with the heat of fission being treated as an unavoidable waste product. Critical fission reactors are built for three primary purposes.
is a fission reactor designed to liberate as much energy as possible as rapidly as possible. the two types of device must be engineered quite differently (see nuclear reactor physics).The mushroom cloud of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki. . destroying a large part of the city of Hiroshima. it also yielded an explosion equivalent to about 15 kilotons of TNT. and could bring destruction to 10 times the city area. Development of nuclear weapons was the motivation behind early research into nuclear fission: the Manhattan Project of the U. a fission bomb (not to be confused with the fusion bomb). It is impossible to convert a nuclear reactor to cause a true nuclear explosion. (though partial fuel meltdowns and steam explosions have occurred). Japan in August 1945. so that a modern single missile warhead bomb weighing less than 1/8th as much as Little Boy (see for example W88) has a yield of 475. Project Orion. Modern nuclear weapons (which include a thermonuclear fusion as well as one or more fission stages) are literally hundreds of times more energetic for their weight than the first pure fission atomic bombs. otherwise known as an atomic bomb or atom bomb.000 tons of TNT. although at least one rocket propulsion system. is intended to work by exploding fission bombs behind a massively-padded and shielded vehicle. One class of nuclear weapon.S. before the released energy causes the reactor to explode (and the chain reaction to stop). It is also difficult to extract useful power from a nuclear explosive. Little Boy weighed a total of about four tons (of which 60 kg was nuclear fuel) and was 11 feet (3. culminating in the Trinity test bomb and the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs that were exploded over the cities Hiroshima. For example. While the fundamental physics of the fission chain reaction in a nuclear weapon is similar to the physics of a controlled nuclear reactor. and Nagasaki.4 m) long. military during World War II carried out most of the early scientific work on fission chain reactions. Even the first fission bombs were thousands of times more explosive than a comparable mass of chemical explosive. or for a nuclear reactor to explode the way a nuclear explosive does. Japan in 1945 rose some 18 kilometers (11 miles) above the bomb's hypocenter.
and Rutherford further elaborated that the nucleus. though tightly bound. Fermi concluded that his experiments had created a new element with 94 protons. Enrico Fermi and his colleagues in Rome studied the results of bombarding uranium with neutrons in 1934. Work by Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie. In 1911. that "it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments.The strategic importance of nuclear weapons is a major reason why the technology of nuclear fission is politically sensitive. dense and positively-charged nucleus of protons was surrounded by orbiting. The German chemist Ida Noddack notably suggested in 1934 that instead of creating a new. heavier element.  History  Discovery of fission The discovery of nuclear fission occurred in 1938. The experimental apparatus with which Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission in 1938 . the difficulty of obtaining fissile nuclear material to realize the designs. could undergo different forms of radioactive decay." However. The possibility of combining two light nuclei in nuclear fusion had been studied in connection with the processes which power stars. but this could not be harnessed on a large scale. Albert Einstein's principle of mass–energy equivalence described the amount of energy released in such processes. Pierre Curie. Niels Bohr improved upon this in 1913 by reconciling the quantum behavior of electrons (the Bohr model). following nearly five decades of work on the science of radioactivity and the elaboration of new nuclear physics that described the components of atoms. However. All known radioactive processes before fission changed mass of the atomic nucleus by no more than two protons. Noddack's conclusion was not pursued. negativelycharged electrons (the Rutherford model). which he dubbed Hesperium. However. by losing an alpha particle). within the capabilities of many being relatively simple from an engineering viewpoint. Viable fission bomb designs are. not all were convinced with Fermi's analysis of his results. and thereby transmute into other elements (for example. is the key to the relative unavailability of nuclear weapons to all but modern industrialized governments with special programs to produce fissile materials (see uranium enrichment and nuclear fuel cycle). arguably. After English physicist James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932. Ernest Rutherford proposed a model of the atom in which a very small.
Marie Curie had been separating barium from radium for many years. In Sweden. such as the impact of a single neutron. the two drops would be driven apart by their mutual electric repulsion and would acquire high speed and hence a very large energy. A nucleus was not like a brittle solid that can be cleaved or broken. In December 1938. lost her citizenship with the Anschluss in 1938. so the uranium nucleus might indeed resemble a very wobbly unstable drop. was indeed large enough to overcome the effect of the surface tension almost completely. George Gamow had suggested early on. Nor was it possible that the uranium nucleus could have been cleaved right across. they communicated these results to Lise Meitner. then constricted. After separation. we found. Meitner had correctly interpreted Hahn's results to mean that the nucleus of uranium had split roughly in half. said Lise Meitner.. the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann sent a manuscript to Naturwissenschaften reporting they had detected the element barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons. Hahn was too good a chemist for that. By coincidence her nephew Otto Robert Frisch. According to Frisch: Was it a mistake? No. just as the surface tension of an ordinary liquid drop tends to resist its division into two smaller ones. Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission.. Frisch was skeptical.. Otto Hahn. and to chip off a large number not nearly enough energy was available. Hahn was unsure of what the physical basis for the results were—barium had an atomic mass 40% less than uranium. and finally being torn rather than broken in two? We knew that there were strong forces that would resist such a process. simultaneously. and the techniques were well-known. and one-fifth of a proton mass was just equivalent to 200MeV. But there was another problem. Perhaps a drop could divide itself into two smaller drops in a more gradual manner. In 1944. But how could barium be formed from uranium? No larger fragments than protons or helium nuclei (alpha particles) had ever been chipped away from nuclei. where could that energy come from? . Frisch named the process "fission" as an analogy to binary fission in the biological sciences.Lise Meitner. Meitner. was also in Sweden when Meitner received a letter from Hahn describing his chemical proof that some of the product of the bombardment of uranium with neutrons was barium. by first becoming elongated. also a refugee. but continued to collaborate by mail and through meetings with Hahn in Sweden. worked out that the two nuclei formed by the division of a uranium nucleus together would be lighter than the original uranium nucleus by about one-fifth the mass of a proton. The charge of a uranium nucleus. it all fitted! In short. and no previously known methods of radioactive decay could account for such a radical difference in the size of the nucleus. an Austrian Jew. She fled and wound up in Sweden. about 200 MeV in all. Lise Meitner.After the Fermi publication. but Meitner trusted Hahn's ability as a chemist. ready to divide itself at the slightest provocation. Frisch confirmed this experimentally on 13 January 1939. and Bohr had given good arguments that a nucleus was much more like a liquid drop. So here was the source for that energy.. and that was known to counteract the surface tension. Some historians who have documented . according to Einstein's formula E=mc2. correctly interpreted these results as being nuclear fission. and Fritz Strassmann began performing similar experiments in Berlin. Meitner. Now whenever mass disappears energy is created. But nuclei differed from ordinary drops in one important way: they were electrically charged. and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch.
6 per fission. lest the Nazi government become aware of the possibilities on the eve of World War II. There. then each fission reaction could. Such a system of exponential growth held out the possibility of using uranium fission as a means to generate large amounts of energy. G.C. with some hesitation. Meitner’s and Frisch’s interpretation of the work of Hahn and Strassmann crossed the Atlantic Ocean with Niels Bohr. although Szilárd at that time had no idea with what materials the process might be initiated. had been foreseen as early as 1933 by Szilárd. and Lew Kowarski) reported in Nature that the number of neutrons emitted with nuclear fission of 235U was then reported at 3.  The fission chain reaction "Chain reactions" at that time were a known phenomenon in chemistry. Hans von Halban. Rabi and Willis Lamb. electric) purposes. and Francis G. then in the United States. Anderson.) Simultaneous work by Szilard and Walter Zinn confirmed these results. Anderson. Norris Glasoe. heard the news and carried it back to Columbia. and perhaps nuclear bombs. Slack. Bohr grabbed him by the shoulder and said: ―Young man. . however. The experiment involved placing uranium oxide inside of an ionization chamber and irradiating it with neutrons.the history of the discovery of nuclear fission believe Meitner should have been awarded the Nobel Prize with Hahn. in theory. however. trigger two more reactions. the members of the team were Herbert L. There was still much unknown about fission and chain reacting systems. but the analogous process in nuclear physics. which was correctly seen as an entirely novel physical effect with great scientific—and potentially practical—possibilities. the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilárd. realized that fission could be used to create a nuclear chain reaction. an idea he had first formulated in 1933. under the joint auspices of the George Washington University and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Eugene T. Fermi agreed to self-censor. The next day. and measuring the energy thus released.I. If the number of secondary neutrons produced by each fissioning nucleus was greater than one. Rabi said he told Enrico Fermi. Bohr soon thereafter went from Princeton to Columbia to see Fermi. a Columbia University team conducted the first nuclear fission experiment in the United States. I. who was to lecture at Princeton University. which was done in the basement of Pupin Hall. Not finding Fermi in his office. two Columbia University physicists working at Princeton. let me explain to you about something new and exciting in physics. Booth. the news on nuclear fission was spread even further. the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics began in Washington. using neutrons. This appeared to make the possibility of building nuclear reactors. Szilard urged Fermi (in New York) and Frédéric Joliot-Curie (in Paris) to refrain from publishing on the possibility of a chain reaction. Fermi gave credit to Lamb.e. or even for military purposes—an atomic bomb. John R. D. his team in Paris (Joliot-Curie. During this period. did not. and in April 1939. Bohr went down to the cyclotron area and found Herbert L. But Joliot-Curie. News spread quickly of the new discovery. possible in theory. The results confirmed that fission was occurring and hinted strongly that it was the isotope uranium 235 in particular that was fissioning.5 per fission. On 25 January 1939. either for civilian (i. Enrico Fermi.‖ It was clear to a number of scientists at Columbia that they should try to detect the energy released in the nuclear fission of uranium from neutron bombardment. which fostered many more experimental demonstrations. (They later corrected this to 2. Dunning.
which would destroy "an entire harbor and much of the surrounding countryside. high-energy secondary neutrons would collide. Fermi and Szilard proposed a graphite "moderator. as well as the creation of radioactive fission products. since they lacked an electrostatic charge. they persuaded GermanJewish refugee Albert Einstein to lend his name to a letter directed to President Franklin Roosevelt." The President received the letter on 11 October 1939 — shortly after World War II began in Europe. nuclear energy provides for approximately 16% of the world's electricity. Szilárd immediately understood the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction using uranium. With the news of fission neutrons from uranium fission. In Nuclear Energy The sun and stars are seemingly inexhaustible sources of energy. In England. Szilard and fellow Hungarian refugees physicists Teller and Wigner thought that the Germans might make use of the fission chain reaction and were spurred to attempt to attract the attention of the United States government to the issue. Towards this. Thus to slow down the secondary neutrons released by the fissioning uranium nuclei. and with pure-enough graphite. With enough uranium. In the summer. the nuclear reactors that we have today work on the principle of nuclear fission. effectively slowing them down. based on a paper by Rudolf Peierls with the mass needed for critical state being 30–40 tons.Szilárd considered that neutrons would be ideal for such a situation. Presently. This would result in the production of heat. but two years before U. because for quantum reasons it made the atoms look like much larger targets to the neutrons. Scientists are working like madmen to make fusion reactors which have the potential of providing more energy with fewer disadvantages than fission reactors. In America. Roosevelt ordered that a scientific committee be authorized for overseeing uranium work and allocated a small sum of money for pile research. Unlike the stars. The Einstein–Szilárd letter suggested the possibility of a uranium bomb deliverable by ship. in which matter is converted to energy. entry into it. That energy is the result of nuclear reactions. In August 1939." against which the fast. Fermi and Szilard proposed the idea of a nuclear reactor (pile) to mediate this process. Fermi had shown much earlier that neutrons were far more effectively captured by atoms if they were of low energy (so-called "slow" or "thermal" neutrons)." In this design it was still thought that a moderator would need to be used for nuclear bomb fission (this turned out not to be the case if the fissile isotope was separated). Robert Oppenheimer thought that a cube of uranium deuteride 10 cm on a side (about 11 kg of uranium) might "blow itself to hell. J. their "pile" could theoretically sustain a slow-neutron chain reaction. James Chadwick proposed an atomic bomb utilizing natural uranium. The pile would use natural uranium as fuel. We have been able to harness that mechanism and regularly use it to generate power.S. .
multiple neutrons are released which are used to split other uranium nuclei. Uranium nuclei can be easily split by shooting neutrons at them. parts of nuclear power plants. For example. Nuclear Waste*. Machines called nuclear reactors.Production Changes can occur in the structure of the nuclei of atoms. Man-made nuclear reactions also occur in the explosion of atomic and hydrogen bombs. The element uranium is the main fuel used to undergo nuclear fission to produce energy since it has many favorable properties. Energy created in a nuclear reaction is called nuclear energy. provide electricity for many cities. in one. In the other method. Adapted from Nuclear Energy. . Nuclear energy is produced naturally and in man-made operations under human control. Nuclear Fission: In nuclear fission. Fission of uranium 235 nucleus. Nuclear energy is produced in two different ways. large nuclei are split to release energy. the Sun and other stars make heat and light by nuclear reactions. causing energy to be released. For a more detailed look at nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Naturally: Some nuclear energy is produced naturally. These changes are called nuclear reactions. once a uranium nucleus is split. the nuclei of atoms are split. This phenomenon is known as a chain reaction. Also. or atomic energy. Man-Made: Nuclear energy can be man-made too. small nuclei are combined to release energy. The atomic bomb and nuclear reactors work by fission. consult the nuclear physics page.
000. One ton of uranium produces more energy than is produced by several million tons of coal or several million barrels of oil. In the Sun. 1945: The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. also works by fusion. The Sun. The heat required to start the fusion reaction is so great that an atomic bomb is used to provide it. humanity's most powerful and destructive weapon. . August 6. Japan. like all other stars. Advantages of Nuclear Energy The Earth has limited supplies of coal and oil. Nuclear power plants could still produce electricity after coal and oil become scarce. killing over 100. Milestones in the History of Nuclear Energy Amore in depth and detailed history of nuclear energy is on the nuclear past page. Japan. killing over 40. February 21. The hydrogen bomb.000. hydrogen nuclei fuse to make helium. August 9. 1952: The first large version of the hydrogen bomb (thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bomb) was exploded by the United States for testing purposes. This happens only under very hot conditions. creates heat and light through nuclear fusion. Well-operated nuclear power plants do not release contaminants into the environment. 1945: The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. November 1. Coal and oil burning plants pollute the air. December 2. the nuclei of atoms are joined together. 1942: The Nuclear Age began at the University of Chicago when Enrico Fermi made a chain reaction in a pile of uranium. Hydrogen nuclei fuse to form helium and in the process release huge amounts of energy thus producing a huge explosion. Nuclear power plants need less fuel than ones which burn fossil fuels. 1956: The first major nuclear power plant opened in England. Nuclear Fusion: In nuclear fusion. or fused.
In such an accident.000 nuclear weapons between them. The problem was solved minutes before a total meltdown would have occurred. Pennsylvania. a much worse disaster struck Russia's Chernobyl nuclear power plant. the cooling system failed at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg. Currently.Russia and the United States -. The two most powerful nations -. The United States plans to move its nuclear waste to a remote underground dump by the year 2010. Nuclear reactors also have waste disposal problems. In 1986. there were no deaths. The nuclear radiation harms the cells of the body which can make people sick or even kill them. Several dozen died within a few days. a large amount of radiation escaped from the reactor. killing dozens of people. Radiation leaked. . Reactors produce nuclear waste products which emit dangerous radiation. the fission reaction goes out of control. One possible type of reactor disaster is known as a meltdown. many nuclear wastes are stored in special cooling pools at the nuclear reactors. buried nuclear wastes mysteriously exploded.have about 50. at a dump site in Russia's Ural Mountains. Because they could kill people who touch them.Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy The nations of the world now have more than enough nuclear bombs to kill every person on Earth. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to the radiation. Fortunately. In this incident. What if there were to be a nuclear war? What if terrorists got their hands on nuclear weapons? Or what if nuclear weapons were launched by accident? Nuclear explosions produce radiation. thousands more may die of cancers induced by the radiation. In the years to come. Illness can strike people years after their exposure to nuclear radiation. In 1957. several hundred miles from Moscow. leading to a nuclear explosion and the emission of great amounts of radiation. In 1979. forcing tens of thousands of people to flee. they cannot be thrown away like ordinary garbage.
Both sides have their cases as there are advantages and disadvantages to nuclear energy. or thermonuclear bomb. of a large unstable (radioactive) element like uranium or plutonium. Nuclear reactors only last for about forty to fifty years. it releases great quantities of energy through a process called nuclear fission. What do you think we should do? After reviewing the pros and cons. The purpose of this page is to explain how each type of device works. from a physics perspective. perhaps 50 years old.edu There are two main types of bombs which release energy from the nuclei of atoms. but the physical processes that cause the energy release remain the same in today's bombs and power plants. Read more about the politics of the issues or go to the forum to share your own opinions and see what others think. which releases an even greater quantity of energy through nuclear fusion. Still others have opinions that fall somewhere in between. . tq-nuke@tjhsst. Like a nuclear power plant. it is up to you to formulate your own opinion. The Future of Nuclear Energy Some people think that nuclear energy is here to stay and we must learn to live with it. The devices described here are the original designs. The simplest kind is an atomic bomb. Others say that we should get rid of all nuclear weapons and power plants. A more complicated type is the hydrogen bomb. or 'splitting'. a process which has not yet been put to peaceful uses.
and the escaping neutrons. breaking up into smaller elements that are more stable. or compressed in size. or radioactive. so radioactivity is dangerous. Its atoms are constantly 'falling apart'. This is called its 'critical mass'. but not enough to be considered an explosion. whether it was ready to or not. In the diagram. the process is called 'Nuclear Fission': The plutonium is unstable. This energy and flow of escaping neutrons can damage human cells. Every time one nucleus does this.. That second nucleus releases more energy. and all because . it releases the extra energy it no longer needs to hold it together. the plutonium (B) is given that nudge by the outer casing of TNT (A). Enough atoms in the chunk of plutonium are breaking down at any one time to make the chunk of plutonium warm up. and so on. which in turn go on to hit and break up further nuclei. which explodes all around it. and become very dense. releasing unneeded energy and extra neutrons. however. What happens in the bomb. The decaying nuclei cause more decaying nuclei.The energy source is a mass of radioactive material such as uranium or plutonium. in a rapidly escalating chain reaction . is what we describe as the radiation being emitted from the radioactive plutonium. the plutonium is now so densely packed together that the neutrons escaping from the decaying nuclei of plutonium cannot escape from the plutonium without bumping into another plutonium atom! When they hit another atom. Here's what happens. and more neutrons. changes that! The force of the TNT explosion causes the plutonium to be squashed. as well as a few left-over neutrons. every atom's nucleus is ready to fall apart ('decay') at the slightest nudge. This material is very unstable. This energy.. they cause that nucleus to break down too.
(These are just hydrogen atoms with one or two extra neutrons in each nucleus). which are both isotopes of hydrogen. more peaceful uses for this process have been found. without hitting other nuclei! Within a very tiny fraction of a second. but by an atomic bomb! The central core (B) is a mass made up of trillions of two kinds of atoms. it's been described as trying to squeeze an unopened can of Coke into a little ball without spilling any Coke! But there's more! As the core explodes.the plutonium has been squeezed into such a dense state (by the TNT) that the escaping neutrons that normally would fly out of the material now can't. which is made from uranium. and have broken down. all the nuclei in the chunk of plutonium have been hit by escaping neutrons. resulting in a 'slow burn' instead of an explosion. This is the process that takes place inside a nuclear power plant. which initiates a process called nuclear fusion. which also triggers another atomic bomb! Here are the details of the fusion process: . creating even more energy. (C). In other words. releasing great quantities of energy. the neutrons can't escape without hitting another nucleus. an atomic bomb sets off a fusion bomb. called deuterium and tritium. Small atomic bombs (A) scattered around the outside cause the deuterium and tritium to be squeezed into a very dense mass. This is a much nastier bomb. By inserting special neutron-absorbing material in between portions of the plutonium. it causes the bomb casing. but it is triggered not by TNT. The extra energy in trillions of atomic nuclei is all released at once! This energy is considerable. The heat generated by the nuclear fission is used to heat water into steam that turns a generator. This process is difficult to achieve. the rate at which the chain reaction proceeds can be controlled. to undergo fission. and the chain reaction will start. the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in WWII was an example of this process. if it's thick enough. Thankfully. using a process called 'nuclear fusion'. Critical mass can also be achieved by just collecting together enough plutonium in one place. Not only does it release much more energy.
Nuclei of these two isotopes are squeezed together by the force of the explosion. The escaping neutrons also cause the uranium in the bomb casing to undergo a fission chain reaction. These 'cleaner' bombs are called neutron bombs. and kill living things. in the sun. In order to reproduce this process on earth on a small scale. from a small amount of . Nuclear fusion. Scientists now are trying to salvage some good from the effort that went into making these devices. The amount of escaping energy is huge. helium. would allow massive amounts of energy to be released. Bombs without the uranium casing just release a lot of energy and neutrons. (ie: without using an atomic bomb and creating an explosion).. killing in the immediate vicinity without leaving a lot of radioactive fallout. called 'controlled nuclear fusion'. The force is so great that it causes the nuclei to combine.. A new nucleus is formed .The block of deuterium and tritium atoms are squeezed into a super-dense mass by the exploding atomic triggers.. The immense temperature and pressure needed to cause nuclei to fuse together actually occurs naturally . and releasing the energy as light and heat. is slowly converting the sun's hydrogen into helium. it is necessary to find a way to exert very high pressure on a small sample of deuterium and tritium. We can hope that such devices of mass destruction will never again be used to kill people. escape as radiation. bombs of this type can release energy equivalent to the explosion of many millions of tons of TNT. in a very similar process. But this new nucleus requires less energy to keep it together. and there is one less neutron needed. with very little dangerous radiation. using only a few atoms at a time. This excess energy. which can later descend as 'fallout'.. and the neutron. This process is called nuclear fusion. This process. water! It would solve the earth's energy shortage forever! Interested? Find out more on our Controlled Nuclear Fusion page! You might also like to visit our page that explains E=mc2 .. Knowing how a hydrogen bomb works has led to an effort to recreate the fusion process on a small scale.. It also results in much radioactive material being expelled into the atmosphere. the energy from which is added to the total output of the bomb.
Physics | Science & Math Pages | Worsley School Content & Design by Bill Willis 1999 Wunderland Website Design .
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