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lithium 6 deuteride is a fundamental component of thermonuclear weapons. It fuses with tritium to produce neutrons that can cause the fission of weapon-grade uranium or plutonium in a nuclear device’s secondary stage. Technicians at the Department of Energy’s Y-12 National Security Complex process lithium compounds to produce it.
To make this fuel, workers pack lithium-6 and deuterium ions into the metallic lattices of an accumulator structure made of palladium. A source of energetic alpha particles—helium nuclei with a high kinetic energy—is brought into scattering proximity with the Li6 and D ions, bombarding them with enough kinetic momentum that some of the recoiling nuclei fuse together. The fusion generates more alpha particles, and so on.
The fusion also produces some high-energy helium nuclei that can be used to bombard the surface of the accumulator structure and trigger additional fusion reactions. This cycle continues, generating nuclear power for a limited amount of time.
Open-source research shows that North Korea has been experimenting with various ways to produce lithium 6 since the 1990s, including a mercury-dependent process that involves immersing a lithium-mercury amalgam in a solution of lithium hydroxide. Procurement documents uncovered by a recent UN report indicate that North Korea recently ordered metric tonnes of mercury and tens of kilograms of lithium hydroxide from China. The purchase of these materials, combined with a patent application for a torus-shaped reactor design described below, suggests that the chemicals are for a mercury-dependent lithium-6 production plant to be used in an experimental nuclear weapon.