In a uranium graphite chain reacting pile, the critical size may be considerably reduced by surrounding the pile with a layer of graphite, since such an envelope reflects many neutrons back into the pile.
To obtain a 30 year life span, the SSTAR nuclear reactor design calls for a moveable neutron reflector to be placed over the column of fuel. The reflector's slow downward travel over the column would cause the fuel to be burned from the top of the column to the bottom.
A similar envelope can be used to reduce the critical size of a nuclear weapon, but here the envelope has an additional role: its very inertia delays the expansion of the reacting material. For this reason such an envelope is often called a tamper. The weapon tends to fly to bits as the reaction proceeds and this tends to stop the reaction, so the use of a tamper makes for a longer lasting, more energetic, and more efficient explosion. The most effective tamper is the one having the highest density; high tensile strength is irrelevant because no material remains intact under the extreme pressures of a nuclear weapon. Coincidentally, high density materials are excellent neutron reflectors. This makes them doubly suitable for nuclear weapons. The first nuclear weapons used heavy uranium or tungsten carbide tamper-reflectors.
On the other hand, a heavy tamper necessitates a larger high explosive implosion system. The primary stage of a modern thermonuclear weapon may use a lightweight beryllium reflector, which is also transparent to X-rays when ionized, allowing the primary's energy output to escape quickly to be used in compressing the secondary stage.
While the effect of a tamper is to increase efficiency, both by reflecting neutrons and by delaying the expansion of the bomb, the effect on the critical mass is not as great. The reason for this is that the process of reflection is time consuming.