αβγ decay
Decay Series
Chain Reaction
Nuclear Energy
Nuclear reactors

An atomic bomb is an uncontrolled chain reaction releasing nuclear energy.

The first atomic bomb exploded in 1945.

A naturally occurring nuclear reactor existed in Africa 1.8 billion years ago.

Chain Reaction

A single neutron
collides with a Uranium nucleus
The nucleus splits into two major fragments with the release of further neutrons which cause further fission.

If on average one of the several neutrons released in a fission
reaction, induce further fission, the reaction is self-sustaining. If more than one of the fission neutrons induce further fission (on average) then the reaction is escalating (perhaps dangerously). If less than one of the fission neutrons induce further fission (on average) then the chain reaction is fading out. The first "successful" chain reaction was the atomic bomb. Attempts to get a controlled chain reaction involved overcoming a number of difficulties.

Difficulties in obtaining a controlled chain reaction

Natural uranium contains approximately 99% U-238 and 1% U-235. Only fast neutrons (KE> 1 MeV) are capable of causing fission in U-238 and in general only slow neutrons cause fission in U-235.

A chain reaction is not possible in natural uranium in spite of the fact that an average of 2.5 neutrons are released each time. The reason for this is that most of the neutrons released in fission reactions are not fast enough to cause fission in U -238 and are too fast to cause fission in U-235. Because of their neutral charge they cannot be accelerated, so a reduction in speed due to collision is the only viable option.
The scarcity of neutrons with the right speed combined with the scarcity of U-235 atoms with which to collide, result in only about 5% of neutrons released through fission, causing further fission. There are two ways to improve the chances of having a chain reaction.
1. By using enriched uranium, in which the percentage of U-235 is greater than normal.
2. By using moderators, which slow down the neutrons to energies of less than 5eV.

To obtain enriched uranium, the two isotopes U-235 and U-238 would have to be separated. However this is a lengthy and costly process. The second option is much more practical and simply requires that slender rods of natural uranium be separated by moderators rather than left as a solid block of uranium.

How does an atomic bomb work?

Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, during World War II

This is an example of an uncontrolled chain reaction, which is triggered off in either pure 235 U or 239 Pu. If the amount of material present is too small, many of the fission neutrons will escape and so the reaction dies out. There is a critical size below which the reaction won’t be self-sustaining. When the bomb is to be exploded the two sub critical masses are brought together to form a super critical mass within which a single fission will set off a uncontrollable chain reaction.

The chain reaction begins when a single stray neutron causes a single 235 U nucleus to fission. Once begun, the chain reaction builds up to explosive force in a matter of microseconds. The first atomic bomb was exploded in the New Mexico desert in 1945.

A Natural Fission Reactor
For thirty years it was assumed that the first nuclear chain reaction to occur on Earth was that set up by Fermi in Chicago in 1942. However, it has now been established that a natural reactor operated in a natural uranium deposit in west Africa 1.8 billion years ago. Evidence for this came in an interesting way. Natural uranium from Gabon was exported to France; an examination of the isotopic content showed that the proportion of uranium-235 was slightly lower than normally found This small difference was investigated and traces of the fission products of uranium were found in higher proportions than in normal uranium ore. This suggested that at some time in the geological history of the uranium, some of it had undergone a fission reaction. But how could a chain reaction have been established in natural uranium? The seam of ore, which was being extracted, was unusually rich in uranium–235 (up to 10 per cent). Geological conditions were responsible for accumulating large quantities in a small area. The water of crystallisation of the minerals in the ore might have acted as a moderator. It is now believed that a natural fission chain reaction must have taken place in the ore approximately 1800 million years ago. It may have run for just over 100 years, emitting a thermal power of tens of kilowatts (any greater power would have led to the evaporation of the water required as a moderator). In the course of its lifetime, it would have consumed a similar amount of uranium as a present-day power reactor consumes in a year.