The Teller–Ulam design is the nuclear weapon design concept used in most of the world's nuclear weapons. Colloquially referred to as "the secret of the hydrogen bomb," because it employs hydrogen fusion to generate neutrons, in most applications the bulk of its destructive energy comes from uranium fission, not hydrogen fusion. It is named for its two chief contributors, Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller and Polish-born mathematician Stanisław Ulam, who developed it in 1951, for use by the United States. It was first used in multi-megaton-range thermonuclear weapons. However, it is also the most efficient design concept for small nuclear weapons, and today virtually all the nuclear weapons deployed by the five major nuclear-armed nations use the Teller–Ulam design.
Its essential features, which officially remained secret for nearly three decades, are: 1) separation of stages into a triggering "primary" explosive and a much more powerful "secondary" explosive, 2) compression of the secondary by x-rays coming from nuclear fission in the primary, a process called the "radiation implosion" of the secondary, and 3) heating of the secondary, after cold compression, by a second fission explosion inside the secondary.
The radiation implosion mechanism is a heat engine exploiting the temperature difference between the hot radiation channel, surrounding the secondary, and the relatively cool interior of the secondary. This temperature difference is briefly maintained by a massive heat barrier called the "pusher." The pusher is also an implosion tamper, increasing and prolonging the compression of the secondary, and, if made of uranium, which it usually is, it undergoes fission by capturing the neutrons produced by fusion. In most Teller–Ulam weapons, fission of the pusher dominates the explosion and produces radioactive fission product fallout.
The first test of this principle was the "Ivy Mike" nuclear test in 1952, conducted by the United States. In the Soviet Union, the design was known as Andrei Sakharov's "Third Idea," first tested in 1955. Similar devices were developed by the United Kingdom, China, and France, though no specific code names are known for their designs.
Detailed knowledge of actual fission and fusion weapons is classified to some degree in virtually every industrialized nation. In the United States, such "knowledge" can by default be classified as Restricted Data, even if it is created by persons who are not government employees or associated with weapons programs, in a legal doctrine known as "born secret" (though the constitutional standing of the doctrine has been at times called into question, see United States v. The Progressive). Born secret is rarely invoked for cases of private speculation. The official policy of the United States Department of Energy has been not to acknowledge the leaking of design information, as such acknowledgment would potentially validate the information as accurate. In a small number of prior cases, the U.S. government has attempted to censor weapons information in the public press, with limited success.
Though large quantities of vague data have been officially released, and larger quantities of vague data have been unofficially leaked by former bomb designers, most public descriptions of nuclear weapon design details rely to some degree on speculation, reverse engineering from known information, or comparison with similar fields of physics (inertial confinement fusion is the primary example). Such processes have resulted in a body of unclassified knowledge about nuclear bombs which is generally consistent with official unclassified information releases, related physics, and is thought to be internally consistent, though there are some points of interpretation which are still considered open. The state of public knowledge about the Teller–Ulam design has been mostly shaped from a few specific incidents outlined in a section below.
The basic principle of the Teller–Ulam configuration is the idea that different parts of a thermonuclear weapon can be chained together in "stages", with the detonation of each stage providing the energy to ignite the next stage. At a bare minimum, this implies a primary section which consists of a fission bomb (a "trigger"), and a secondary section which consists of fusion fuel. Because of the staged design, it is thought that a tertiary section, again of fusion fuel, could be added as well, based on the same principle of the secondary. The energy released by the primary compresses the secondary through the concept of "radiation implosion", at which point it is heated and undergoes nuclear fusion.
Surrounding the other components is a hohlraum or radiation case, a container which traps the first stage or primary's energy inside temporarily. The outside of this radiation case, which is also normally the outside casing of the bomb, is the only direct visual evidence publicly available of any thermonuclear bomb component's configuration. Numerous photographs of various thermonuclear bomb exteriors have been declassified.
The primary is thought to be a standard implosion method fission bomb, though likely with a core boosted by small amounts of fusion fuel (usually 50/50% deuterium/tritium gas) for extra efficiency; the fusion fuel releases excess neutrons when heated and compressed, inducing additional fission. Generally, a research program with the capacity to create a thermonuclear bomb has already mastered the ability to engineer boosted fission. When fired, the plutonium-239 (Pu-239) and/or uranium-235 (U-235) core would be compressed to a smaller sphere by special layers of conventional high explosives arranged around it in an explosive lens pattern, initiating the nuclear chain reaction that powers the conventional "atomic bomb".
The secondary is usually shown as a column of fusion fuel and other components wrapped in many layers. Around the column is first a "pusher-tamper", a heavy layer of uranium-238 (U-238) or lead which serves to help compress the fusion fuel (and, in the case of uranium, may eventually undergo fission itself). Inside this is the fusion fuel itself, usually a form of lithium deuteride, which is used because it is easier to weaponize than liquified tritium/deuterium gas (compare the success of the cryogenic deuterium-based Ivy Mike experiment to the (over)success of the lithium deuteride-based Castle Bravo experiment). This dry fuel, when bombarded by neutrons, produces tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen which can undergo nuclear fusion, along with the deuterium present in the mixture. (See the article on nuclear fusion for a more detailed technical discussion of fusion reactions.) Inside the layer of fuel is the "spark plug", a hollow column of fissile material (plutonium-239 or uranium-235) which, when compressed, can itself undergo nuclear fission (because of the shape, it is not a critical mass without compression). The tertiary, if one is present, would be set below the secondary and probably be made up of the same materials.
Separating the secondary from the primary is the interstage. The fissioning primary produces three types of energy: 1) expanding hot gases from high explosive charges which implode the primary, 2) the electromagnetic radiation and 3) the neutrons from the primary's nuclear detonation. The interstage is responsible for accurately modulating the transfer of energy from the primary to the secondary. It must direct the hot gases, electromagnetic radiation and neutrons toward the right place at the right time. Less than optimal interstage designs have resulted in the secondary failing to work entirely on multiple shots, known as a "fissile fizzle". The Koon shot of Operation Castle is a good example; a small flaw allowed the neutron flux from the primary to prematurely begin heating the secondary, weakening the compression enough to prevent any fusion.
There is very little detailed information in the open literature about the mechanism of the interstage. One of the best sources is a simplified diagram of a British thermonuclear weapon similar to the American W76 warhead. It was released by Greenpeace in a report titled "Dual Use Nuclear Technology".  The major components and their arrangement are in the diagram, though details are almost absent; what scattered details it does include are likely have intentional omissions and/or inaccuracies. They are labeled "End-cap and Neutron Focus Lens" and "Reflector Wrap"; the former channels neutrons to the U-235/Pu-239 Spark Plug while the latter refers to an x-ray reflector; typically a cylinder made out of an X-ray opaque material such as uranium with the primary and secondary at either end. It does not reflect like a mirror, instead it gets heated to a high temperature by the x-ray flux from the primary, then it emits more evenly spread x-rays which travel to the secondary, known as radiation implosion. Next, the "Reflector/Neutron Gun Carriage;" the former sealing the gap between the aforementioned 'Lens (in the center) and the outer casing near the primary, separating the primary from the secondary while performing the same function as the previous reflector, and about 6 of the latter (seen here from Sandia National Laboratories ) each poking through the outer edge of the reflector with one end in each section; all are clamped to a carriage and arranged more or less evenly around the casing's circumference. However, each is tilted so one end is higher than the other relative to the bomb if laid on its side – much like the rifling in a gun barrel. A “Polystyrene Polarizer/Plasma Source” is also shown (see below)
The first U.S. government document to mention the interstage was only recently released to the public promoting the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program. A graphic includes blurbs describing the potential advantage of a RRW on a part by part level, with the interstage blurb saying a new design would replace "toxic, brittle material" and "expensive 'special' material... [which require] unique facilities". The "toxic, brittle material" is widely assumed to be beryllium, which fits that description and would also moderate the neutron flux from the primary. Some material to absorb and re-radiate the x-rays in a particular manner may also be used.
The "special material" is called "FOGBANK," an unclassified codename, though it is often referred to as "THE fogbank" (or "A Fogbank") as if it were a subassembly instead of a material. Its composition is classified though aerogel has been suggested as a possibility. Manufacture stopped for many years, however the Life Extension Program required it start up again - Y-12 currently being the sole producer (the "unique facility" referenced). Manufacture involves the moderately toxic, highly volatile solvent called acetonitrile, which presents a hazard for workers (causing three evacuations in March 2006 alone).
A simplified summary of the above explanation would be:
Actual designs of thermonuclear weapons may vary. For example, they may or may not use a boosted primary stage, use different types of fusion fuel, and may surround the fusion fuel with beryllium (or another neutron reflecting material) instead of depleted uranium to prevent further fission from occurring.
The basic idea of the Teller–Ulam configuration is that each "stage" would undergo fission or fusion (or both) and release energy, much of which would be transferred to another stage to trigger it. How exactly the energy is "transported" from the primary to the secondary has been the subject of some disagreement in the open press, but is thought to be transmitted through the x-rays which are emitted from the fissioning primary. This energy is then used to compress the secondary. There are five proposed theories:
The radiation pressure exerted by the large quantity of x-ray photons inside the closed casing might be enough to compress the secondary. For two thermonuclear bombs for which the general size and primary characteristics are well understood, the Ivy Mike test bomb and the modern W-80 cruise missile warhead variant of the W-61 design, the radiation pressure was calculated to be 73 million bar (atmospheres) (7.3 T Pa) for the Ivy Mike design and 1,400 million bar (140 TPa) for the W-80.
Foam plasma pressure is the concept which Chuck Hansen introduced during the Progressive case, based on research which located declassified documents listing special foams as liner components within the radiation case of thermonuclear weapons.
The sequence of firing the weapon (with the foam) would be as follows:
This would complete the fission-fusion-fission sequence. Fusion, unlike fission, is relatively "clean"—it releases energy but no harmful radioactive products or large amounts of nuclear fallout. The fission reactions though, especially the last fission reaction, release a tremendous amount of fission products and fallout. If the last fission stage is omitted, by replacing the uranium tamper with one made of lead, for example, the overall explosive force is reduced by approximately half but the amount of fallout is relatively low.
Current technical criticisms of the idea of "foam plasma pressure" focus on unclassified analysis from similar high energy physics fields which indicate that the pressure produced by such a plasma would only be a small multiplier of the basic photon pressure within the radiation case, and also that the known foam materials intrinsically have a very low absorption efficiency of the gamma ray and X-ray radiation from the primary. Most of the energy produced would be absorbed by either the walls of the radiation case and/or the tamper around the secondary. Analyzing the effects of that absorbed energy led to the third mechanism: ablation.
However, an aerogel-type material impregnated with salts of high-Z elements like thorium or uranium could have higher absorption efficiency of the X-ray flux from the primary, thus making foam plasma pressure a viable secondary mechanism for a radiation implosion.
The third proposed mechanism is that the primary compression mechanism for the thermonuclear secondary is that the outer layers of the tamper-pusher, or heavy metal casing around the thermonuclear fuel, are heated so much by the x-ray flux from the primary that they ablate away, exploding outwards at such high speed that the rest of the tamper recoils inwards at a tremendous velocity, crushing the fusion fuel and the spark plug.
Rough calculations for the basic ablation effect are relatively simple: the energy from the primary is distributed evenly onto all of the surfaces within the outer radiation case, with the components coming to a thermal equilibrium, and the effects of that thermal energy are then analyzed. The energy is mostly deposited within about one x-ray optical thickness of the tamper/pusher outer surface, and the temperature of that layer can then be calculated. The velocity at which the surface then expands outwards is calculated and, from a basic Newtonian momentum balance, the velocity at which the rest of the tamper implodes inwards.
Applying the more detailed form of those calculations to the Ivy Mike device yields vaporized pusher gas expansion velocity of 290 kilometers per second and an implosion velocity of perhaps 400 kilometers per second if 3/4 of the total tamper/pusher mass is ablated off, the most energy efficient proportion. For the W-80 the gas expansion velocity is roughly 410 kilometers per second and the implosion velocity 570 kilometers per second. The pressure due to the ablating material is calculated to be 5.3 billion bar (530 T Pa) in the Ivy Mike device and 64 billion bar (6.4 P Pa) in the W-80 device.
Comparing the three mechanisms proposed, it can be seen that:
The calculated ablation pressure is one order of magnitude greater than the higher proposed plasma pressures and nearly two orders of magnitude greater than calculated radiation pressure. No mechanism to avoid the absorption of energy into the radiation case wall and the secondary tamper has been suggested, making ablation apparently unavoidable. The other mechanisms appear to be unneeded.
United States Department of Defense official declassification reports indicate that foamed plastic materials are or may be used in radiation case liners, and despite the low direct plasma pressure they may be of use in delaying the ablation until energy has distributed evenly and a sufficient fraction has reached the secondary's tamper/pusher.
Richard Rhodes' book Dark Sun stated that a one inch thick layer of plastic foam was fixed to the lead liner of the inside of the Ivy Mike steel casing using copper nails. Rhodes quotes several designers of that bomb explaining that the plastic foam layer inside the outer case is only there to delay ablation and thus recoil of the outer case: if it wasn't there, metal would ablate from the inside of the outer case with a large impulse, causing the casing to rapidly recoil outwards. The whole point of the casing is to contain the explosion for as long as possible, allowing as much X-ray ablation of the metallic surface of the secondary stage as possible, so it compresses the secondary efficiently, maximizing the fusion yield. Plastic foam has a low density so causes a smaller impulse when it ablates than metal does.
A number of possible variations to the weapon design have been proposed:
Two special variations exist which will be discussed in a further section: the cryogenically cooled liquid deuterium device used for the Ivy Mike test, and the putative design of the W88 nuclear warhead — a small, MIRVed version of the Teller–Ulam configuration with a prolate (egg or watermelon shaped) primary and an elliptical secondary. Most bombs do not apparently have tertiary stages — the U.S. is only thought to have produced one such model, the massive 25 Mt B41 nuclear bomb, and the Soviet Union is thought to have used multiple stages in their 50 megaton Tsar Bomba. If any hydrogen bombs have been made from configurations other than those based on the Teller–Ulam design, the fact of it is not publicly known, with the possible exception of the Sloika design discussed below.
In essence, the Teller–Ulam configuration relies on at least two instances of implosion occurring: first, the conventional (chemical) explosives in the primary would compress the fissile core, resulting in a fission explosion many times more powerful than that which chemical explosives could achieve alone. Second, the radiation from the fissioning of the primary would be used to compress and ignite the secondary, resulting in a fusion explosion many times more powerful than the fission explosion alone. This chain of compression could then be continued with an arbitrary number of secondaries, and would end with the fissioning of the natural uranium tamper, something which could not normally be achieved without the neutron flux provided by the fusion reactions in the secondary. Such a design can be scaled up to an arbitrary strength, potentially to the level of a doomsday device, though usually such weapons are not more than a dozen megatons, which is generally considered enough to destroy even the largest practical targets.
The idea of a thermonuclear fusion bomb ignited by a smaller fission bomb was first proposed by Enrico Fermi to his colleague Edward Teller in 1941 at the start of what would become the Manhattan Project. Teller spent most of the Manhattan Project attempting to figure out how to make the design work, to some degree neglecting his assigned work on the Manhattan Project fission bomb program. His difficult and devil's advocate attitude in discussions led Oppenheimer to sidetrack him and other "problem" physicists into the super program to smooth his way.
Stanislaw Ulam, a coworker of Teller's, made the first key conceptual leaps towards a workable fusion design. Ulam's two innovations which rendered the fusion bomb practical were that compression of the thermonuclear fuel before extreme heating was a practical path towards the conditions needed for fusion, and the idea of staging or placing a separate thermonuclear component outside a fission primary component, and somehow using the primary to compress the secondary. Teller then realized that the gamma and X-ray radiation produced in the primary could transfer enough energy into the secondary to create a successful implosion and fusion burn, if the whole assembly was wrapped in a hohlraum or radiation case. Teller and his various proponents and detractors later disputed the degree to which Ulam had contributed to the theories underlying this mechanism.
The "George" shot of Operation Greenhouse in 1951 tested the basic concept for the first time on a very small scale, raising expectations to a near certainty that the concept would work.
On November 1, 1952, the Teller–Ulam configuration was tested at full scale in the "Ivy Mike" shot at an island in the Enewetak Atoll, with a yield of 10.4 megatons (over 450 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II). The device, dubbed the Sausage, used an extra-large fission bomb as a "trigger" and liquid deuterium—kept in its liquid state by 20 short tons (18 metric tons) of cryogenic equipment—as its fusion fuel, and weighed around 80 short tons (70 metric tons) altogether.
The liquid deuterium fuel of Ivy Mike was impractical for a deployable weapon, and the next advance was to use a solid lithium deuteride fusion fuel instead. In 1954 this was tested in the "Castle Bravo" shot (the device was code-named the Shrimp), which had a yield of 15 megatons (2.5 times higher than expected) and is the largest U.S. bomb ever tested.
Efforts in the United States soon shifted towards developing miniaturized Teller–Ulam weapons which could easily outfit intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. By 1960, with the W47 warhead deployed on Polaris ballistic missile submarines, megaton-class warheads were as small as 18 inches (0.5 m) in diameter and 720 pounds (320 kg) in weight. It was later found in live testing that the Polaris warhead did not work reliably and had to be redesigned. Further innovation in miniaturizing warheads was accomplished by the mid-1970s, when versions of the Teller–Ulam design were created which could fit ten or more warheads on the end of a small MIRVed missile (see the section on the W88 below).
The first Soviet fusion design, developed by Andrei Sakharov and Vitaly Ginzburg in 1949 (before the Soviets had a working fission bomb), was dubbed the Sloika, after a Russian layer cake, and was not of the Teller–Ulam configuration. It used alternating layers of fissile material and lithium deuteride fusion fuel spiked with tritium (this was later dubbed Sakharov's "First Idea"). Though nuclear fusion might have been technically achievable, it did not have the scaling property of a "staged" weapon. The fusion layer wrapped around the fission core could only moderately multiply the fission energy (modern Teller–Ulam designs can multiply it 30-fold). Additionally, the whole fusion stage had to be imploded by conventional explosives, along with the fission core, multiplying the bulk of chemical explosives needed substantially.
Their first Sloika design test, Joe 4, was detonated in 1953 with a yield equivalent to 400 kilotons of TNT (only 15%–20% from fusion). Attempts to use a Sloika design to achieve megaton-range results proved unfeasible. After the U.S. tested the "Ivy Mike" bomb in November 1952, proving that a multimegaton bomb could be created, the Soviets searched for an additional design. The "Second Idea", as Sakharov referred to it in his memoirs, was a previous proposal by Ginzburg in November 1948 to use lithium deuteride in the bomb, which would, in the course of being bombarded by neutrons, produce tritium and free deuterium. In late 1953 physicist Viktor Davidenko achieved the first breakthrough, that of keeping the primary and secondary parts of the bombs in separate pieces ("staging"). The next breakthrough was discovered and developed by Sakharov and Yakov Zel'dovich, that of using the X-rays from the fission bomb to compress the secondary before fusion ("radiation implosion"), in the spring of 1954. Sakharov's "Third Idea", as the Teller–Ulam design was known in the USSR, was tested in the shot "RDS-37" in November 1955 with a yield of 1.6 megatons.
The Soviets demonstrated the power of the "staging" concept in October 1961, when they detonated the massive and unwieldy Tsar Bomba, a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb that derived almost 97% of its energy from fusion. It was the largest nuclear weapon developed and tested by any country, but was far too large for military purpose to use as a weapon - even though it was dropped from an airplane in its lone test over Novaya Zemlya.
In 1954 work began at Aldermaston to develop the British fusion bomb, with Sir William Penney in charge of the project. British knowledge on how to make a thermonuclear fusion bomb was rudimentary, and at the time the United States was not exchanging any nuclear knowledge because of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. However, the British were allowed to observe the American Castle tests and used sampling aircraft in the mushroom clouds, providing them with clear, direct evidence of the compression produced in the secondary stages by radiation implosion.
Because of these difficulties, in 1955 British prime minister Anthony Eden agreed to a secret plan, whereby if the Aldermaston scientists failed or were greatly delayed in developing the fusion bomb, it would be replaced by an extremely large fission bomb.
In 1957 the Operation Grapple tests were carried out. The first test, Green Granite was a prototype fusion bomb, but failed to produce equivalent yields compared to the Americans and Soviets, only achieving approximately 300 kilotons. The second test Orange Herald was the modified fission bomb and produced 700 kilotons—making it the largest fission explosion ever. At the time almost everyone (including the pilots of the plane that dropped it) thought that this was a fusion bomb. This bomb was put into service in 1958. A second prototype fusion bomb Purple Granite was used in the third test, but only produced approximately 150 kilotons.
A second set of tests was scheduled, with testing recommencing in September 1957. The first test was based on a "… new simpler design. A two stage thermonuclear bomb which had a much more powerful trigger". This test Grapple X Round C was exploded on November 8 and yielded approximately 1.8 megatons. On April 28, 1958 a bomb was dropped that yielded 3 megatons —Britain's most powerful test. Two final air burst tests on September 2 and September 11, 1958, dropped smaller bombs that yielded around 1 megaton each.
American observers had been invited to these kinds of tests. After their successful detonation of a megaton-range device (and thus demonstrating their practical understanding of the Teller–Ulam design "secret"), the United States agreed to exchange some of their nuclear designs with Great Britain, leading to the 1958 US–UK Mutual Defence Agreement. Instead of continuing with their own design, the British were given access to the design of the smaller American Mk 28 warhead and were able to manufacture copies.
The People's Republic of China detonated its first device using a Teller–Ulam design June 17, 1967 ("Test No. 6"), a mere 32 months after detonating its first fission weapon (the shortest fission-to-fusion development in history), with a yield of 3.31 Mt.
Very little is known about the French development of the Teller–Ulam design beyond the fact that they detonated a 2.6 Mt device in the "Canopus" test in August 1968.
India's first nuclear test occurred on May 18, 1974. On May 11, 1998, India detonated a hydrogen bomb in its Operation Shakti tests ("Shakti 1", specifically). Director for the 1998 test siter preparations, Dr. K Santhanam, reported the yield of thermonuclear explosion was lower than expected, although his statement has been disputed by other Indian scientists involved in the test. Indian sources, using local data and citing a US Geologic Survey report compiling seismic data from 125 IRIS stations across the world, argue that the magnitudes suggested a combined yield of up to 60 kilotonnes, consistent with the Indian announced total yield of 56 kilotonnes  However, several independent and Western experts have reported lower yields for the nuclear test, and have posited that even the 50-odd kilotonne test claimed by India would still have been a very low yield for confirmation of a thermonuclear design.
Israel is alleged to possess thermonuclear weapons of the Teller–Ulam design, but is not known to have tested any, or any other nuclear device for that matter.
Pakistan's nuclear tests were relatively low yield and do not appear to have been of a thermonuclear weapon design.
North Korea's two nuclear tests (2006 and 2009) were relatively low yield and do not appear to have been of a thermonuclear weapon design.
The Teller–Ulam design was for many years considered one of the top nuclear secrets, and even today it is not discussed in any detail by official publications with origins "behind the fence" of classification. United States Department of Energy (DOE) policy has been, and continues to be, that they do not acknowledge when "leaks" occur, because doing so would acknowledge the accuracy of the supposed leaked information.
Aside from images of the warhead casing (but never of the "physics package" itself), most information in the public domain about this design is regulated to a few terse statements by the DOE and the work of a few individual investigators.
Below is a short discussion of the events which lead to the formation of these "public" models of the Teller–Ulam design, with some discussions as to their differences and disagreements with those principles outlined above.
In 1972 the United States government declassified a statement that "The fact that in thermonuclear (TN) weapons, a fission 'primary' is used to trigger a TN reaction in thermonuclear fuel referred to as a 'secondary'", and in 1979 added, "The fact that, in thermonuclear weapons, radiation from a fission explosive can be contained and used to transfer energy to compress and ignite a physically separate component containing thermonuclear fuel." To this latter sentence they specified that "Any elaboration of this statement will be classified." The only statement which may pertain to the spark plug was declassified in 1991: "Fact that fissile and/or fissionable materials are present in some secondaries, material unidentified, location unspecified, use unspecified, and weapons undesignated." In 1998 the DOE declassified the statement that "The fact that materials may be present in channels and the term 'channel filler,' with no elaboration", which may refer to the polystyrene foam (or an analogous substance).
Whether these statements vindicate some or all of the models presented above is up for interpretation, and official U.S. government releases about the technical details of nuclear weapons have been purposely equivocating in the past (see, e.g., Smyth Report). Other information, such as the types of fuel used in some of the early weapons, has been declassified, though of course precise technical information has not been.
Most of the current ideas on the workings of the Teller–Ulam design came into public awareness after the Department of Energy (DOE) attempted to censor a magazine article by U.S. antiweapons activist Howard Morland in 1979 on the "secret of the hydrogen bomb". In 1978, Morland had decided that discovering and exposing this "last remaining secret" would focus attention onto the arms race and allow citizens to feel empowered to question official statements on the importance of nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy. Most of Morland's ideas about how the weapon worked were compiled from highly accessible sources—the drawings which most inspired his approach came from none other than the Encyclopedia Americana. Morland also interviewed (often informally) many former Los Alamos scientists (including Teller and Ulam, though neither gave him any useful information), and used a variety of interpersonal strategies to encourage informational responses from them (i.e., asking questions such as "Do they still use spark plugs?" even if he was not aware what the latter term specifically referred to).
Morland eventually concluded that the "secret" was that the primary and secondary were kept separate and that radiation pressure from the primary compressed the secondary before igniting it. When an early draft of the article, to be published in The Progressive magazine, was sent to the DOE after falling into the hands of a professor who was opposed to Morland's goal, the DOE requested that the article not be published, and pressed for a temporary injunction. The DOE argued that Morland's information was (1) likely derived from classified sources, (2) if not derived from classified sources, itself counted as "secret" information under the "born secret" clause of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, and (3) was dangerous and would encourage nuclear proliferation.
Morland and his lawyers disagreed on all points, but the injunction was granted, as the judge in the case felt that it was safer to grant the injunction and allow Morland, et al., to appeal, which they did in United States v. The Progressive (1979).
Through a variety of more complicated circumstances, the DOE case began to wane as it became clear that some of the data they were attempting to claim as "secret" had been published in a students' encyclopedia a few years earlier. After another H-bomb speculator, Chuck Hansen, had his own ideas about the "secret" (quite different from Morland's) published in a Wisconsin newspaper, the DOE claimed that The Progressive case was moot, dropped its suit, and allowed the magazine to publish its article, which it did in November 1979. Morland had by then, however, changed his opinion of how the bomb worked, suggesting that a foam medium (the polystyrene) rather than radiation pressure was used to compress the secondary, and that in the secondary there was a spark plug of fissile material as well. He published these changes, based in part on the proceedings of the appeals trial, as a short erratum in The Progressive a month later. In 1981, Morland published a book about his experience, describing in detail the train of thought which led him to his conclusions about the "secret".
Morland's work is interpreted as being at least partially correct because the DOE had sought to censor it, one of the few times they violated their usual approach of not acknowledging "secret" material which had been released; however, to what degree it lacks information, or has incorrect information, is not known with any confidence. The difficulty that a number of nations had in developing the Teller–Ulam design (even when they apparently understood the design, such as with the United Kingdom), makes it somewhat unlikely that this simple information alone is what provides the ability to manufacture thermonuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the ideas put forward by Morland in 1979 have been the basis for all the current speculation on the Teller–Ulam design.
There have been a few variations of the Teller–Ulam design suggested by sources claiming to have information from inside of the fence of classification. Whether these are simply different versions of the Teller–Ulam design, or should be understood as contradicting the above descriptions, is up for interpretation.
In his 1995 book Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, author Richard Rhodes describes in detail the internal components of the "Ivy Mike" Sausage device, based on information obtained from extensive interviews with the scientists and engineers who assembled it. According to Rhodes, though there was polystyrene in the "Mike" device, it was not used as a plasma source — the radiation from the primary itself was enough to compress the secondary. Whether or not this would apply only to the "Mike" device, or the Teller–Ulam design in general, is not known, and potentially casts some doubt onto the role of the foam, and to the exact mechanism of radiation "transport".
In 1999 a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News reported that the U.S. W88 nuclear warhead, a small MIRVed warhead used on the Trident II SLBM, had a prolate (egg or watermelon shaped) primary (code-named Komodo) and a spherical secondary (code-named Cursa) inside a specially shaped radiation case (known as the "peanut" for its shape). A story four months later in The New York Times by William Broad reported that in 1995, a supposed double agent from the People's Republic of China delivered information indicating that China knew these details about the W88 warhead, supposedly through espionage. (This line of investigation eventually resulted in the abortive trial of Wen Ho Lee.) If these stories are true, it would explain the reported higher yield of the W88, 475 kilotons, compared with only 300 kilotons for the earlier W87 warhead.
The reentry cones for the two warheads are the same size, 1.75 meters (69 in) long, with a maximum diameter of 55 cm. (22 in). The higher yield of the W88 implies a larger secondary, which produces most of the yield. Putting the secondary, which is heavier than the primary, in the wider part of the cone allows it to be larger, but it also moves the center of mass aft, potentially causing aerodynamic stability problems during reentry. Dead-weight ballast must be added to the nose to move the center of mass forward. The W88 is thus heavier than the W87 in two ways, with a heavier secondary which adds to yield and with ballast which adds nothing to yield.
To make the primary small enough to fit into the narrow part of the cone, its bulky insensitive high explosive charges must be replaced with more compact "non-insensitive" high explosives which are more hazardous to handle. The higher yield of the W88, which is the last new warhead produced by the United States, thus comes at a price of higher warhead weight and higher workplace hazard.