Nuclear Bombs Essay

This essay has a total of 1148 words and 6 pages.


Nuclear Bombs





THE FIRST DESIGN of a nuclear weapon in the United States was a gun-barrel assembly, in
which two sub-critical masses of very highly enriched uranium (HEU), were brought together
by normal artillery propellant in a short gun barrel into a single over-critical
configuration. (Criticality defines the minimum amount of a fissionable material in a
particular configuration and density capable of a self-sustaining chain reaction).



The second type of fission weapon is the implosion assembly, in which a high explosive
(with a much faster detonation speed than the propellant used in a gun-type weapon)
compresses fissile material so that it reaches a super-critical mass. Less fissile
material is required for an implosion assembly because the critical mass varies inversely
as the square of density.



A nuclear explosion requires an exponentially growing fission chain reaction in which a
neutron causes fission, producing energy and liberating two or three neutrons, more than
one of which on average goes on to cause another fission, and so on. This chain breeding
of neutrons and consequent fission is terminated by the disassembly of the system caused
by the rapid energy release resulting from the fission process. In both the gun-barrel and
implosion-type assemblies, neutron sources were devised that would emit neutrons at the
appropriate time, and rapidly enough so that the chain reaction would, with high
probability, be initiated before the material disassembled mechanically at speeds similar
to that with which it was assembled.



In the fissionable materials used in nuclear weapons (U-235 and plutonium-239), the
fission is caused mainly by fast neutrons, which travel only a distance of seven to 10
centimeters before colliding with a nucleus, so that each doubling of the neutron
population occurs in about 0.01 microseconds (one-hundred millionth of a second). The
power of compound interest is such that beginning with a single fission, the time required
at this doubling interval to cause fission of 1 kilogram of fissionable material is the
time required for 80 such doublings, or less than 1 microsecond (one millionth of a
second). This corresponds to an energy release equivalent to about 17 kilotons (17,000
tons) of high explosive. The gun-type weapon used at Hiroshima, which contained
approximately 60 kilograms of HEU, produced an energy release equivalent to about 15
kilotons of high explosive.



The Acquisition of a Weapon


The separation of U-235 from the 140-times-as-abundant isotope uranium-238 (U-238) in
natural uranium is a costly and difficult process, which originally could not be counted
on to provide fissile material as rapidly as was thought to be necessary in the U.S.
weapon program during World War II. Accordingly, with the discovery of the new element
plutonium (in particular, the Pu-239 isotope that is produced in natural-uranium nuclear
reactors by the parasitic capture of neutrons by U-238), production reactors were built at
Hanford, Washington. A reactor with a thermal power of 250 megawatts produces about 250
grams of plutonium per day. Approximately 6 kilograms of plutonium was used in the world's
first nuclear explosion--the “Trinity” test conducted at Alamogordo, New
Mexico, on July 16, 1945--and an identical weapon detonated over Nagasaki three days after
Hiroshima.



Plutonium cannot be used in a gun-assembly weapon because the components are moved too
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