Nuclear weapons

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Fission cross-sections vs neutron energies
The curve of binding energy
B/Po Munroe initiator schematic
Disassembled B-61 (DOE)
B-61 physics package (DOE)
Speculative W-88 schematic
Plutonium ingot (LANL). Avoid crushing or melting; geometric reconfiguration would ruin your day.

(12:08:06 PM) elizabeth warren: that'll get you on a list or three

Don't blame me, man. I didn't do it.


The following textbooks range from introductory to advanced material, and all require some basic physics and associated mathematical sophistication. For obvious reasons, textbooks on actual weapon design, testing, engineering and maintenance are difficult to come across. There's a wide variety of excellent books on political theory of nuclear weapons, which I'm unqualified to rate (update: Kahn's On Thermonuclear War is absolutely required reading); see blogs like Arms Control Wonk and Total WonKerr for more information, or your local university's political science department.

There's pretty much an endless line of popular-audience books about nuclear weapons, especially their early design and the characters behind them (I've got about a dozen biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer alone). These require no particular scientific or mathematic background. Of them, the best include:

Basic Physics

  • Energy-mass equivalence - electron-volts - curve of binding energy - energy scales (chemical vs nuclear vs annihilative)
  • Pressure - temperature - ideal gases - brownian motion - radiative ablation - ionization - plasmas
  • The atom - the nucleus - periodic table - size scales (electron vs proton vs neutron vs alpha particle vs large nucleus vs atomic radius vs molecular size)
  • Electodynamics - strong nuclear force - weak nuclear force - quantum tunneling - radiations (alpha, beta, gamma) - transmutations (there are many!)
  • Liquid drop model - superdeformation - hyperdeformation

Reactor Physics/Fuel Cycle

  • Neutron moderators - fueling - MOX - breeders - feedbacks - inherently safe designs
  • Four-factor formula - criticality control - fuel burnup - fission products - fission poisons
  • Intertial confinement fusion - hydromagnetic confinement fusion - cold fusion - bubble fusion
  • Etienne Parent (2003). "Nuclear Fuel Cycles for Mid-Century Deployment".
  • W. G. Sutcliffe and T.J. Trapp. eds. "Extraction and Utility of Reactor-Grade Plutonium for Weapons", Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. UCRL-LR-I 15542, 1994 (S/RD).
  • US DOE "Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives", 1997.

Fission Weapons

  • Criticality - subcritical - supercritical - prompt criticality - critical insertion time - insertion (gun-type) method - spontaneous fission - implosion method - levitated pits
  • Th232 - U233 - U235 - U238 - Pu249 - Pu240 - minor actinides - transuranics - fissile, fissionable, fertile
  • Enrichment levels - enrichment methods - degradation - downblending
    • Observable properties of processing tech (plutonium's more intensely thermal)
    • Robustness of methodologies/materials/geometries (eg easiest to make a big, wasteful, HEU gun bomb)
    • Safety/reliability of materials/assemblies (Decay of Pu, tritium, polonium, neutron moderation by seawater, fire hazards)
  • Neutron sources - prompt neutrons - delayed neutrons - fast neutrons - slow neutrons - initiator design - neutron reflectors
  • High explosives, Taylor-Rayleigh instabilities - assembly geometry - neutron multiplications
  • Hydrides (see the Ruth section from Upshot-Knothole)

Fusion Weapons and Boosting

  • Hollow pit - DT infusion - dial-a-yield - lithium-deuteride - Li6 - Li7
  • Layer-cake model - sparkplugs - Teller-Ulam design - stage chaining
  • Core boosting - enhanced radiation weapons (neutron bombs) - fissionable jacketing
  • Pure fusion weapons, clean weapons (non-fissionable jacket)

Delivery Systems, Effects, and Defense

  • Blast theory - shock front - double flash - optimum delivery altitudes
  • Miniaturization - MIRV's - penetration aids - neutron fluxes
  • Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (2004, MIT Press) is awesome

Missile Defense


  • Project Plowshare - Project Orion - Atoms for Peace - Project Rover
  • Testing - test detection - treaties

See Also