Nuclear Weapon Design - Two-stage Thermonuclear Weapons

Two-stage Thermonuclear Weapons

Pure fission or fusion-boosted fission weapons can be made to yield hundreds of kilotons, at great expense in fissile material and tritium, but by far the most efficient way to increase nuclear weapon yield beyond ten or so kilotons is to tack on a second independent stage, called a secondary.

In the 1940s, bomb designers at Los Alamos thought the secondary would be a canister of deuterium in liquified or hydride form. The fusion reaction would be D-D, harder to achieve than D-T, but more affordable. A fission bomb at one end would shock-compress and heat the near end, and fusion would propagate through the canister to the far end. Mathematical simulations showed it wouldn't work, even with large amounts of prohibitively expensive tritium added in.

The entire fusion fuel canister would need to be enveloped by fission energy, to both compress and heat it, as with the booster charge in a boosted primary. The design breakthrough came in January 1951, when Edward Teller and Stanisław Ulam invented radiation implosion—for nearly three decades known publicly only as the Teller-Ulam H-bomb secret.

The concept of radiation implosion was first tested on May 9, 1951, in the George shot of Operation Greenhouse, Eniwetok, yield 225 kilotons. The first full test was on November 1, 1952, the Mike shot of Operation Ivy, Eniwetok, yield 10.4 megatons.

In radiation implosion, the burst of X-ray energy coming from an exploding primary is captured and contained within an opaque-walled radiation channel which surrounds the nuclear energy components of the secondary. The radiation quickly turns the plastic foam that had been filling the channel into a plasma which is mostly transparent to X-rays, and the radiation is absorbed in the outermost layers of the pusher/tamper surrounding the secondary, which ablates and applies a massive force (much like an inside out rocket engine) causing the fusion fuel capsule to implode much like the pit of the primary. As the secondary implodes a fissile "spark plug" at its center ignites and provides heat which enables the fusion fuel to ignite as well. The fission and fusion chain reactions exchange neutrons with each other and boost the efficiency of both reactions. The greater implosive force, enhanced efficiency of the fissile "spark plug" due to boosting via fusion neutrons, and the fusion explosion itself provides significantly greater explosive yield from the secondary despite often not being much larger than the primary.

For example, for the Redwing Mohawk test on July 3, 1956, a secondary called the Flute was attached to the Swan primary. The Flute was 15 inches (38 cm) in diameter and 23.4 inches (59 cm) long, about the size of the Swan. But it weighed ten times as much and yielded 24 times as much energy (355 kilotons, vs 15 kilotons).

Equally important, the active ingredients in the Flute probably cost no more than those in the Swan. Most of the fission came from cheap U-238, and the tritium was manufactured in place during the explosion. Only the spark plug at the axis of the secondary needed to be fissile.

A spherical secondary can achieve higher implosion densities than a cylindrical secondary, because spherical implosion pushes in from all directions toward the same spot. However, in warheads yielding more than one megaton, the diameter of a spherical secondary would be too large for most applications. A cylindrical secondary is necessary in such cases. The small, cone-shaped re-entry vehicles in multiple-warhead ballistic missiles after 1970 tended to have warheads with spherical secondaries, and yields of a few hundred kilotons.

As with boosting, the advantages of the two-stage thermonuclear design are so great that there is little incentive not to use it, once a nation has mastered the technology.

In engineering terms, radiation implosion allows for the exploitation of several known features of nuclear bomb materials which heretofore had eluded practical application. For example:

  • The best way to store deuterium in a reasonably dense state is to chemically bond it with lithium, as lithium deuteride. But the lithium-6 isotope is also the raw material for tritium production, and an exploding bomb is a nuclear reactor. Radiation implosion will hold everything together long enough to permit the complete conversion of lithium-6 into tritium, while the bomb explodes. So the bonding agent for deuterium permits use of the D-T fusion reaction without any pre-manufactured tritium being stored in the secondary. The tritium production constraint disappears.
  • For the secondary to be imploded by the hot, radiation-induced plasma surrounding it, it must remain cool for the first microsecond, i.e., it must be encased in a massive radiation (heat) shield. The shield's massiveness allows it to double as a tamper, adding momentum and duration to the implosion. No material is better suited for both of these jobs than ordinary, cheap uranium-238, which also happens to undergo fission when struck by the neutrons produced by D-T fusion. This casing, called the pusher, thus has three jobs: to keep the secondary cool, to hold it, inertially, in a highly compressed state, and, finally, to serve as the chief energy source for the entire bomb. The consumable pusher makes the bomb more a uranium fission bomb than a hydrogen fusion bomb. It is noteworthy that insiders never used the term hydrogen bomb.
  • Finally, the heat for fusion ignition comes not from the primary but from a second fission bomb called the spark plug, embedded in the heart of the secondary. The implosion of the secondary implodes this spark plug, detonating it and igniting fusion in the material around it, but the spark plug then continues to fission in the neutron-rich environment until it is fully consumed, adding significantly to the yield.

The initial impetus behind the two-stage weapon was President Truman's 1950 promise to build a 10-megaton hydrogen superbomb as the U.S. response to the 1949 test of the first Soviet fission bomb. But the resulting invention turned out to be the cheapest and most compact way to build small nuclear bombs as well as large ones, erasing any meaningful distinction between A-bombs and H-bombs, and between boosters and supers. All the best techniques for fission and fusion explosions are incorporated into one all-encompassing, fully scalable design principle. Even six-inch (152 mm) diameter nuclear artillery shells can be two-stage thermonuclears.

In the ensuing fifty years, nobody has come up with a better way to build a nuclear bomb. It is the design of choice for the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, and France, the five thermonuclear powers. The other nuclear-armed nations, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, probably have single-stage weapons, possibly boosted.

Read more about this topic:  Nuclear Weapon Design

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