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Critical Subcriticals

Nuclear weapons testing with real plutonium and real experiments—but no yield
April 1, 2014
Critical Subcriticals

Specialized laser instrumentation allows sophisticated nuke tests and experiments to take place without a critical mass of plutonium.

“You can study surrogate materials such as uranium, and from that try to make an educated guess about how the plutonium will behave,” says Mike Furlanetto, the Experiment Program director for the most recent test, “but you won’t know until you actually make measurements on plutonium. Nothing behaves like plutonium except plutonium.”

It’s been nearly twenty-two years since the United States began its self-imposed moratorium on full-scale nuclear weapon tests, with the last one occurring on September 23, 1992. While the moratorium has been strictly adhered to, the nation continues to conduct so-called subcritical tests, during which a plutonium-containing device is detonated, and the response of the plutonium measured and recorded as it is shocked, compressed, and imploded by a blast of energy. Yet the test ends without producing a nuclear explosion.

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