Due to a miscalculation, the largest nuclear bomb ever tested by the United States was accidentally three times stronger than expected. This resulted in most of the test equipment being destroyed or vaporized rendering the experiment a failure.
The yield of 15 megatons was 3 times that of the 5 Mt predicted by its designers. The cause of the higher yield was an error made by designers of the device at Los Alamos National Laboratory. They considered only the lithium-6 isotope in the lithium-deuteride secondary to be reactive; the lithium-7 isotope, accounting for 60% of the lithium content, was assumed to be inert.:541 It was expected that the lithium-6 isotope would absorb a neutron from the fissioning plutonium and emit an alpha particle and tritium in the process, of which the latter would then fuse with the deuterium and increase the yield in a predicted manner. Lithium-6 indeed reacted in this manner.
It was assumed that the lithium-7 would absorb one neutron, producing lithium-8, which decays (through beryllium-8) to a pair of alpha particles on a timescale of seconds, vastly longer than the timescale of nuclear detonation. However, when lithium-7 is bombarded with energetic neutrons, rather than simply absorbing a neutron, it captures the neutron and decays almost instantly into an alpha particle, a tritium nucleus, and another neutron. As a result, much more tritium was produced than expected, the extra tritium fusing with deuterium and producing an extra neutron. The extra neutron produced by fusion and the extra neutron released directly by lithium-7 decay produced a much larger neutron flux. The result was greatly increased fissioning of the uranium tamper and increased yield.
This resultant extra fuel (both lithium-6 and lithium-7) contributed greatly to the fusion reactions and neutron production and in this manner greatly increased the device’s explosive output. The test used lithium with a high percentage of lithium-7 only because lithium-6 was then scarce and expensive; the later Castle Union test used almost pure lithium-6. Had sufficient lithium-6 been available, the usability of the common lithium-7 might not have been discovered.
The unexpectedly high yield of the device severely damaged many of the permanent buildings on the control site island on the far side of the atoll. Little of the desired diagnostic data on the shot was collected; many instruments designed to transmit their data back before being destroyed by the blast were instead vaporized instantly, while most of the instruments that were expected to be recovered for data retrieval were destroyed by the blast.