What do the terms critical, sub-critical and super-critical mass really mean? — JG, Bateman, Australia
Critical, sub-critical, and super-critical mass all refer to the chain reactions that occur in fissionable material—a material in which nuclei can shatter or “fission” when struck by a passing neutron. When this nuclear fuel is at critical mass, each nucleus that fissions directly induces an average of one subsequent fission. This situation leads to a steady chain reaction in the fuel: the first fission causes a second fission, which causes a third fission, and so on. Steady chain reactions of this sort are used in nuclear reactors.
When the fuel is below critical mass, there aren’t quite enough nuclei around to keep the chain reactions proceeding steadily and each chain gradually dies away. While such a sub-critical mass of fuel continues to experience chain reactions, they aren’t self-sustaining and depend on natural radioactive decay to restart them.
When the fuel is above critical mass, there are more than enough nuclei around to sustain the chain reactions. In fact, each chain reaction grows exponentially in size with the passage of time. Since each fission directly induces more than one subsequent fission, it takes only a few generations of fissions before there are astronomical numbers of nuclei fissioning in the fuel. Explosive chain reactions of this sort occur in nuclear weapons.