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Atomic Bombs and Neutron Bombs

Nuclear weapons come in two basic forms. The first kind is a weapon that produces its explosive energy solely through nuclear fission reactions. These are known as fission bombs. At one time, these weapons were called atom bombs or A-bombs, which is a misnomer, since the energy for the reaction comes from the nucleus alone.

In fission weapons, a mass of enriched uranium or plutonium is assembled in such a way that an exponentially growing nuclear chain reaction can occur. The amount of energy released by fission bombs can range between the equivalent of less than a ton of TNT upwards to around 500,000 tons (500 kilotons) of TNT.

The second basic type of nuclear weapon produces most of its energy through nuclear fusion reactions. These are known as thermonuclear bombs. In early accounts, weapons involving fusion were called hydrogen bombs or H-bombs, which is another misnomer since their destructive energy comes mostly from fission. Because fusion material cannot go overcritical no matter the amount used, and because fusion weapons can be staged, these kind of weapons may be made significantly more powerful than fission bombs. Only six countriesUnited States, United Kingdom, Russia, People’s Republic of China, France and Indiahave detonated hydrogen bombs. (This Indian claim remains controversial.)

Thermonuclear bombs work by using the energy of a fission bomb in order to compress and heat fusion fuel. In the Teller-Ulam design, which accounts for all multi-megaton yield hydrogen bombs, this is accomplished by placing a fission bomb and fusion fuel (tritium, deuterium, or lithium deuteride) in proximity within a special, radiation-reflecting container. When the fission bomb is detonated, gamma and X-rays emitted at the speed of light first compress the fusion fuel, then heat it to thermonuclear temperatures. The ensuing fusion reaction creates enormous numbers of high-speed neutrons, which then can induce fission in materials which normally are not prone to it, such as depleted uranium. Each of these components is known as a “stage,” with the fission bomb as the “primary” and the fusion capsule as the “secondary.” In large hydrogen bombs, about half of the yield, and much of the resulting nuclear fallout, comes from the final fissioning of depleted uranium. By chaining together numerous stages with increasing amounts of fusion fuel, thermonuclear weapons can be made to an almost arbitrary yield; the largest ever detonated (the Tsar Bomba of the USSR) released an energy equivalent to over 50 million tons (50 megatons) of TNT. Most thermonuclear weapons are considerably smaller than this, due for instance to practical constraints in fitting them into the space and weight requirements of missile warheads.

There are many other types of nuclear weapons as well. For example, a boosted fission weapon is a fission bomb which increases its explosive yield through a small amount of fusion reactions, but it is not a fusion bomb. In the boosted bomb, the neutrons produced by the fusion reactions serve primarily to increase the efficiency of the fission bomb. Some weapons are designed for special purposes; a neutron bomb is a thermonuclear weapon that yields a relatively small explosion but a relatively large amount of neutron radiation; such a device could theoretically be used to cause massive casualties while leaving infrastructure mostly intact and creating a minimal amount of fallout. The detonation of a nuclear weapon is accompanied by a blast of neutron radiation. Surrounding a nuclear weapon with suitable materials (such as cobalt or gold) creates a weapon known as a salted bomb. This device can produce exceptionally large quantities of radioactive contamination. Most variety in nuclear weapon design is in different yields of nuclear weapons for different types of purposes, and in manipulating design elements to attempt to make weapons extremely small.