You are on page 1of 3


The physics of nuclear weapons

A delicate balance

by MiKHaiL KL aSSen

Historical context and motivation

T he basis for the production of energy from atoms for peaceful or destructive purposes

rests first in the possibility of splitting atomic nuclei for the production of energy, and second in the possibility of sustaining such nuclear reactions. It was discovered that certain atomic nuclei could be split by bombarding them with neutrons. If “splitting the atom” produced more neutrons than were required to begin the reac- tion, then an expanding self-sustaining chain reaction could result. Léo Szilárd proposed this in 1933 and after conducting experiments on uranium, he found that the fission of this element did indeed produce two or three neutrons. How- ever, given the political climate in Europe during the 1930s, Szilárd kept his work a secret for fear that it might lead to the development of weapons by fascist governments. Despite the exodus of many talented Jewish physicists, Germany still had many formidable scientists and was feared to be working on con- structing a nuclear weapon. This fear lead a number of scientists to rally around Albert Ein- stein, easily the most famous scientist of the time, who in the summer of 1939, together with Szi- lárd, wrote a letter to President Roosevelt. It took time and further petitioning before the govern- ment began seriously pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. This was largely because the United States was reluctant to involve itself in a European war. However, after Pearl Harbour, scientists were given permission for an “all-out” project to design a nuclear weapon. This crystal- lized in the form of the Manhattan Project, which brought together many of the most brilliant phys- icists of the day with the object of producing “a practical military weapon in the form of a bomb in which the energy is released by a fast neutron chain reaction in one or more of the materials known to show nuclear fission.” 1

basic ideas

A single fission produces energy on the order of 170 MeV. Since roughly 2 neutrons are produced from the fission of uranium, 80 generations would be required for the complete fission of 1 kg


The iconic image of the Nagaski bombing, taken 9 August 1945.

of uranium-235 (2 80 nuclei). About 70 terajoules of energy would be released, comparable to the detonation of 20,000 tons of TNT. This energy causes the tremendous buildup of temperature and pressure requisite for a devastat- ing explosion. The complete fission of the nuclear

fuel is an idealized situation, however. In a finite setup, neutrons will always be lost by diffusion through the surface, so spherical arrangements of the material are most efficient. There exists a critical radius for the nuclear fuel that balances neutron loss through the surface and neutron

Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal

Volume V

Issue 1

September 2006

production within the fuel. This critical radius depends on density, which decreases as the mate- rial expands. Neutron loss then exceeds neutron production and the chain reaction dies out. The question, then, for the physicists of the Manhat- tan Project was whether an appreciable fraction of the uranium could be fissioned before its expan- sion halted the chain reaction. In order to achieve an effective yield, the nuclear fission reaction must proceed incred- ibly quickly; if even 1% of the energy of an atom undergoing fission is released, the mean speed of the nuclear particles would be on the order of 10 6 m/s, and an expansion of just 2 cm will bring the reaction to a halt 2 . This gives about 5 x 10 -8 seconds – a very small window – for a useful reaction to take place. Given the energies of the neutrons produced per fission and their mean free path in this material, the average time between fissions is 10 -8 seconds. This makes it just possible for a significant amount of nuclear material to react, though a considerable amount of material is wasted.

the need for enriched uranium

Fission was observed to occur in natural ura- nium. Its two main isotopes have nearly identical weights, with the lighter U-235 found at a con- centration of 0.7%. The heavier U-238 was found to be unsuitable for the early atomic weapons for several reasons. In such reactions, the nuclear cross-section becomes important. This is related to the probability of a neutron reacting with a nucleus. The cross-section of fission s f is the pro- portionality constant in determining the reaction rate, and its units are measured in square centi- meters. For U-238, there exists a threshold energy of about 1 MeV for neutrons, below which fission will not be induced – s f is zero. This threshold is not observed for U-235 – even slow (thermal) neutrons can cause fission. Also, neutron absorp- tion that breeds plutonium from U-238 acts against a fast neutron chain reaction. It can thus be seen that ordinary uranium is immune to a fast neutron chain reaction. The neutron multiplication number n des- ignates how many neutrons are produced per fission and must be greater than unity. For natu- ral uranium, which is mostly U-238, only ¾ of the neutrons produced have energies above the

threshold and only ¼ escape being slowed down below threshold. Since the average number of neutrons released per fission is 2.2, U-238 has an effective neutron multiplication number n = 3/4 * 1/4 * 2.2 = 0.4 . Obviously the neutron multiplication number needs to be greater than one, so the U-235 con- stituent must have a much higher concentration than in natural uranium. During the Manhattan Project, this enrichment process was carried out in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, then designated Site X and today as Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The most effective means discovered for enriching uranium was by gaseous diffusion. By passing uranium hexafluoride through a battery of semi- permeable membranes, a separation between the two very similar isotopes could be achieved. This process involves compressing and cooling the gas between passes and consumes enormous quanti- ties of electricity. The resulting nuclear fuel is said to be “enriched” or “weapons-grade,” while the remain- ing uranium is said to be “depleted.”

critical mass and weap- ons design

As mentioned earlier, there exists a critical radius for a sphere that balances neutron production and diffusion. It is proportional to the density of uranium. Determining this critical radius was complicated by the fact that ordinary diffusion theory cannot be directly applied because of the small physical dimensions of the material. The situation is also different if a neutron reflector is employed to bounce the particles back into the fuel. Given the density of the material and know- ing the critical radius, we can find the critical mass. We now understand this to be about 50 kg for U-235. The critical mass can be reduced by making use of a neutron reflector. Most, if not all, nuclear weapons make use of a heavy metal plate sur- rounding the reaction mass called a “tamper.” It has the effect of reflecting neutrons back into the mass, but perhaps more importantly of delay- ing the explosion of the bomb by a few instants because of its high inertia. This allows for more of the fuel to be fissioned, and thus a more efficient explosive device. In a weapon, two or more subcritical masses would be kept apart until the instant the weapon

A fireball from a nuclear test explosion at the Nevada test site in April 1953. COURTESY
A fireball from a nuclear test explosion at the
Nevada test site in April 1953.

was to be used. The physicists working on the project at Los Alamos contrived several pos- sible assemblies, including firing two subcritical masses at each other with explosives, bringing two halves of a well-tampered ellipsoidal mass together, and firing a cylindrical plug into a spherical mass with a hole for the plug. This final gun-type assembly was the design used for the Hiroshima “Little Boy” bomb. The scientists at Los Alamos were so confident in the design of the gun-type weapon that none was ever tested before Hiroshima. The famous “Trinity” test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, was of a different design – one considerably more com- plicated. It relied on imploding the nuclear fuel using conventional chemical high explosives. A precise arrangement of explosives detonated simultaneously produced a spherically symmet- ric shock wave that compressed the fuel. In fact, if a solid uranium sphere is imploded in such a manner, its density is increased by a factor of 8 to 27, depending on the types of explosives used and the degree of compression 3 . The subcritical mass is forced to supercriticality. The Nagasaki “Fat Man” bomb used the implosion technique to produce an explosion 17.5 times more efficient than the Hiroshima bomb.

the Post-War era and the development thermo- nuclear weapons

After the Second World War, the United States continued to develop nuclear weapons. It turned out that Germany had been much further behind


feature (cont’d)



The steps of a thermonuclear reaction.

in the development of atomic weap- ons than originally believed. During this post-war era, the US saw its rise to the status of global superpower and sought to secure its position as a nuclear hegemon, and research into exceedingly more powerful weap- ons continued. Earlier during the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller had repeatedly presented Hans Bethe with ideas regarding an even more powerful weapon that made use of nuclear fusion. Fission explo- sives could be used to create the conditions of temperature and pres- sure required to initiate the fusion of light isotopes of hydrogen: deute- rium and lithium. Bethe turned him down repeatedly; a working weapon of simpler design using fission was yet to be constructed! After the war, however, Teller saw his ideas real- ized in the Teller-Ulam design for a thermonuclear weapon. Such a weapon makes use of both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Within the bomb casing is an arrangement of nuclear explo- sives that detonate sequentially and as a result of the preceding explosive device. In such a weapon, the “pri- mary” is a fission explosive detonated like the Nagasaki bomb described

above. The reaction releases a great amount of electromagnetic radiation in the x-ray region, which reflects off the bomb casing and down towards the secondary nuclear explosive. The material used to suspend the secondary stage in the center of the bomb casing is irradiated by the x-rays and turns into a plasma with the density of solid lead. This plasma compresses the secondary stage, which consists of a cylindri- cal sleeve of uranium (used here as the tamper). The cylindrical tamper is hollow and contains lithium deu- teride and lithium hydride on the inside. Meanwhile, neutrons from the primary have caused fission to begin in the “sparkplug.” This device is made of enriched uranium and is part of the secondary stage also being compressed by the tamper. Neutrons from the sparkplug strike the lithium compounds and induce tritium-breeding, while sparkplug- fission also creates the extreme conditions to allow for the fusion of tritium and deuterium within the secondary. Nuclear fusion reactions of this type produce many high- energy neutrons. With a high flux of neutrons above the U-238 energy threshold, the tamper itself begins

to fission. The resulting explosion is far more powerful than any single fission explosion. The most sinister aspect of the Teller-Ulam design is that it can be expanded with further stages. Neu- trons from the secondary stage can “ignite” a tertiary sparkplug, while the x-rays produced in the second- ary stage reaction create the lead- like plasma to compress the tertiary stage in a self-perpetuating pro- cess that allows for the addition of more stages and an arbitrarily large explosion.

current relevance

We should be grateful that nuclear weapons, in particular thermonu- clear weapons, have so far been used sparingly. Whether the military use of nuclear weapons towards the end of the Second World War was even necessary, or if more lives were saved than destroyed, is still highly debat- able. Physicists are still on occasion held in disrepute because of their work in designing such devices, but it must be remembered that many of the initial scientists were acting for fear of a German weapon. “If I had known that the Germans

would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb, I would never have lifted a finger,” said Albert Einstein in 1946. Nuclear weapons have irrevoca- bly changed the political landscape of the globe forever. Even now, Iran is purportedly pursuing its own enrichment scheme, and North Korea keeps rattling a supposed nuclear saber at Western countries and their allies. These weapons are still a great and fearsome part of our existence. By understanding the means by which they work, we can gain an appreciation of their ter- rible power and perhaps avert their destructive use ever again.

references and primary sources

1 R. Serber. The Los Alamos Primer, a publicly released, declassified document based on the original lectures given by Serber during the first two weeks of the proj- ect at Los Alamos. ibid. 3 C. Hansen. U.S. Nuclear Weapons:


The Secret History. Aerofax, Inc.:

Arlington, Texas. 1988, pp.