March 13, 2014

Indian Tritium Exports to the US?

Tritium is just one of the the essential ingredients of the Swan Device - the Swan acts as the "primary" in a two stage thermonuclear ("H") Bomb (see one below). The vast majority of nuclear weapons these days use Tritium in two stage thermonuclear weapons with very few stand alone one stage fusion boosted fission weapons.

See a Swan style Tritium using"Primary" in the W88 two-stage thermonuclear warhead fitted to US Trident (SLBM) missiles.

Three examples of fusion boosted fission weapons that utilize Tritium. India may use/have used such weapons on the way to developing two stage thermonuclear weapons.

I was thinking about the nuclear weapon benefits of Tritium the other day and was worried that the folks at Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) South Carolina might not be producing enough Tritium for full US nuclear weapon functionality. Put simply Tritium makes nuclear weapons explode better. SRS is the only source of Tritium in the US. Tritium also has more minor medical diagnostic uses.

To elucidate this concern I came upon The US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of the Inspector General Audit Report (OAS-L-14-01) of November 18, 2013 Management of Tritium within the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) which is quite informative. 

The problems is that Tritium decays rapidly in a nuclear warhead threatening the very integrity of nuclear explosions. The problem more technically is that Tritium is an extremely radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of around 12.3 years. 5.5% of Tritium decays into Helium-3 every year. Hence Tritium in one’s fusion boosted fission warhead or two-stage thermonuclear warhead is continually undergoing radioactive decay.

Put more technically Tritium enhances the efficiency and yield of fission bombs and the fission stages of hydrogen bombs in a process known as "boosting" as well as in external neutron initiators (triggers) for such weapons.

Put even more technically boosted fission weapons can be stand alone but more commonly act as "primaries". The high pressure and temperature environment at the center of an exploding fission weapon compresses and heats a mixture of Tritium and Deuterium gas (heavy isotopes of Hydrogen). The Hydrogen fuses to form Helium and free neutrons. The energy release from this fusion reaction is relatively negligible, but each neutron starts a new fission chain reaction, speeding up the fission and greatly reducing the amount of fissile material that would otherwise be wasted when expansion of the fissile material stops the chain reaction. Boosting can more than double the weapon's fission energy release.

A handy Indian reference reveals Tritium's progress in improving India’s fusion capability. India’s heavy water, natural uranium reactors produce more bomb usable Tritium than common garden light-water-moderated reactors (LWRs) 

The US has had Tritium production worries since the 1990s. Hence the 2005 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement was concluded not only to benefit the US in terms of civilian cooperation but also make India a stopgap source of Tritium for nuclear weapons.

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