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Unmaking the BombA Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation$
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Harold A. Feiveson, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, and Frank N. von Hippel

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780262027748

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262027748.001.0001

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Production, Uses, and Stocks of Fissile Materials

Production, Uses, and Stocks of Fissile Materials

(p.21) 2 Production, Uses, and Stocks of Fissile Materials
Unmaking the Bomb

Harold A. Feiveson

The MIT Press

Fissile materials can sustain a nuclear chain reaction and are used in weapons and as reactor fuels. This chapter explains the production and use of the most common fissile materials, highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The highly enriched uranium typically used in weapons is enriched to 90 percent or higher in the isotope uranium-235. Gaseous diffusion was used to produce most of the highly enriched uranium in the world, but has been replaced by gas centrifuge technology. Plutonium is produced from uranium in reactors and separated from spent nuclear fuel in a reprocessing plant. Plutonium of almost any isotopic composition, including that produced in civilian power reactors, is weapons usable. In the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, a gun-type assembly was used to create a supercritical mass of highly enriched uranium able to sustain an explosive chain reaction, while the Nagasaki weapon used a plutonium implosion compression assembly. In modern thermonuclear weapons, an implosion fission “primary” ignites a fusion-fission “secondary.” Such weapons generally typically contain about 3?4 kilograms of plutonium and 15?25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium.

Keywords:   Fissile material, Highly enriched uranium, Uranium enrichment, Plutonium, Reprocessing, Gun-type weapon, Implosion weapon, Thermonuclear weapon

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