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Nuclear Booster Rockets 377

Posted by michael
from the warp-factor-six dept.
Logic Bomb writes: "According to the New Scientist, NASA would like to explore replacing its chemical-based booster rockets with nuclear versions. Engineers think it could be the first step towards major reductions in launch costs that would eventually lead to widespread public access to space. NASA is aware that such a project faces massive PR difficulties. As a non-expert member of the public, I can verify that. :-)"
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Nuclear Booster Rockets

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Not all nuclear power is bad or evil. If people really thought that global warming was that bad then we should be building nuclear power plants. I'm sick and tired of every and any proposal to use nuclear energy is greated by howls of protest from the green-freaks.
  • Good post.

    The US RTGs are pretty stout, (Radioisotope Thermal Generators), if I remeber right, the Apollo 13 LM that went down in the Pacific went down in a very deep trench.

    Here's a link from NASA about the RTGs on Galileo s/ RTGs.html s/ RTGs1.html

    As for all the Pu from says on NASA here that "Plutonium-238 decays primarily by emitting alpha particles." I know that Pu is very poisonous...but if it's just casting alpha particles...the radiation danger from it isn't that it? It's been 12 years since HS physics...correct me if I am wrong.
  • I didn't say it was OK.

    Although in some instances it's better for all involved to use an atomic weapon than to use conventional weapons. Like the Invasion of the Japanese Home Islands...more lives would have been lost on both sides than were lost by the atomic bombing.

    I'd wager that a small tactical nuke from a Minuteman III or Trident C4 on the command and control center south of Bagdad in Jan of 1991 would have been a much smaller loss of life than Operation Desert Storm. And it would have achived the same ends. Elimination of the Iraqi command and control system, and surrender of the Iraqi Army in the field.

    Yes...most "modern" atomic weapons are larger than the bombs used in the Second World War. The B-57 and B-61 bombs in US service can have thier yield changed to fit thier role, the yield can be dialed down to a point lower than Fat Man or Little Boy. Modern Atomic weapons are "cleaner" than those used in the Second World War, and in the case of the Enhanced Radiation bomb, much cleaner and less destructive to local infrasturcture.

    War is bad, no doubts about that. But the goal of war fighters is to achive an end with the smallest loss of life. In *some* cases an atomic weapon could be better than conventional weapons.
  • I'd argue that the detonation of an atomic weapon that removes the centralized Command structure of a Soviet-doctrine army, coupled with the fact that the SCUDs did not have chemical or bio weapons fitted during the war, a single strke with an Enhanced Radiation weapon would have saved lives in the South West Asia theatre of operations.

    But due to politcal and religous reasons it wasn't an option unless Iraq had initiated chemical warfare against Israel, US, French or British forces.

    MAD only works if both sides know that they will totally be eliminated, in a tactical situation like the Gulf War, there was no MAD.

    The First World War involved the use of weapons of mass distruction and it did not turn into a Pandora's Box.
  • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:53AM (#101678)
    A similar plan bounced around in the US Air Force in the 1950s for both a manned and unmanned nuclear bomber.

    The bomber in the 50s, had the reactor core dropped into the exhaust of the jet engines. It looks alot like the picture from the article.

    There was a B-36H test bed that had a reactor in it as well. m

    The B-36H didn't use the reactor for power but to test the effects of a reactor on an airframe. Flying alongside the NB-36H on every one of its flights was a C-97 transport carrying a platoon of armed Marines ready to parachute down and surround the test aircraft in case it crashed.

    "One idea for an operational nuclear-powered aircraft involved detachable reactor modules that could be replaced as needed. In this artist's conception, the pilots were in the section forming part of the tail, which could be detached in cases of emergency."

    Theres more on the percived atomic powered bomber programs of the US and USSR over on the Federation of American Scientists website. Not much but some.

    There was a big writeup on it in the Air and Space magazine in the early 90s...I have the issue somewhere.
  • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @09:05AM (#101679)
    Where are the Thalidomide kids from the Japanese bombings?

    There arn't any. k/ risks90.html

    "Much of our information about the effects of radiation comes from studies of atomic bomb survivors in Japan, among whom have been found increased rates of leukemia and cancers of the breast, thyroid, lung, stomach, and other organs (NAS, 1990). Female survivors who received a single dose of radiation from the blast were found to be at the same risk for breast cancer as women with tuberculosis who had repeated fluoroscopy exposures over a 3- to 5-year period. This suggests that in the case of breast cancer--but not necessarily other cancers--repeated small doses over the years may be as hazardous as a single, large dose. The risk, however, seemed to be inversely correlated to the age at exposure to the blast, with no apparent increased risk in women over the age of 40."

    "While exposure to low levels of radiation before birth is associated with the development of cancer during childhood, especially leukemia (Bithell and Stewart, 1975), not all researchers are convinced that prenatal irradiation is the cause of childhood cancer. Individuals exposed prenatally during the atomic bomb blasts in Japan do not have higher cancer rates. The current practice is to use ultrasound, rather than X-rays, during pregnancy whenever possible."

    "Scientists agree that exposures to sufficiently high levels of radiation increase cancer risk -- slightly. Among the more than 86,000 survivors of the atomic bomb blasts, "only" about 420 "extra" cancers occurred between 1950-1990. "

    I think that Oil gives you Los Angeles, but Anti-Nuclear propoganda gives you bad information.
  • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @01:37PM (#101680)
    I'm sorry. But the idea that dropping the bombs wasn't right because the Japanese would have rolled over and surrendered without invastion or bombing is "Revisionist Propaganda".

    And while we are far, far off topic from NASA using nuclear power for rockets...I'm going to respond.

    Based on the experiances of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Allies (United States, UK, Commonwealth, Royal Dutch forces) knew that the two phase invasion of Japan would cause hundreds of thousands of Allied and perhaps a million Japanese casualties. With a combined American air bombardment and naval blockade, Japan had been defeated by the summer of 1945, if not earlier. But even in defeat the Japanese Army intended to fight in defense of the homeland. The Japanese Army was stockpilling weapons, aircraft and ships to oppose the fall invasion of the South. The Allies had about 1.4 million troops in the Pacific to oppose 5-6 million Imperial Japanese Army forces in the Japanese home islands.

    US Army estimates for the invasion of Kynushu that of 767,000 allied troops...268,000 would be killed or wounded. Olympic, the invasion of Kynushu was going to be in the Fall of '45 with operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu in March of '46. The conventional bombing of Japan had not weakened Japan's will to wage war.

    "We must be prepared to accept heavy casualties whenever we invade Japan. Our previous success against ill-fed and poorly supplied units, cut down by our overpowering naval and air action, should not be used as the sole basis of estimating the type of resistance we will meet in the Japanese homeland where the enemy lines of communication will be short and the enemy supplies more adequate."

    Although the damage inflicted by the Kamikaze planes at Okinawa was superficial, they managed to kill 12,300 American servicemen and wound 36,400. For the defense of Kyushu the Japanese were to employ upwards of 10,000 kamikaze planes.

    I stand by my claim that the use of nuclear weapons in *SOME* situtations will cause less military and civilian casualties that conventional weapons used in the same theatre or operation.
  • also, i think sending nuclear waste into the sun would cause some problems, wouldn't it? raising the temp and whatnot? not sure, just seems like it would. maybe we could store the stuff on the moon or something though.

    You're joking, right? The surface of the sun (photosphere) is 6000 degrees K. That's goddamn hot. The core is estimated to be 15,000,000 degrees K. That, my friend, is a metric shitload of hot. Bottom line is, the sun wouldn't give two shits about anything we drop on it.

    The problem you have with getting nuclear waste to the sun is that you can have an accident during launch/accent, possibly spewing lots of really nasty radioactive crap over a wide area.

  • by Mike Greaves (1236) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @10:43AM (#101682) Homepage
    > they need a powerful reactor. They energy
    > density must be far higher than the reactors
    > currently in use. There was a project in the
    > 1960'ies, and they came to the conclusion that
    > they need a 2000-3000 times higher energy
    > density.

    THIS IS COMPLETELY FALSE. I am shouting because you are absolutely nuts. The power densities (energy density is *not* the right term) of NERVA reactors that were actually built and tested in the '60s are *multiple* orders of magnitude higher than power reactors used for electricity production. Ballpark: 1000 times higher! They have existing designs which are powerful enough to be useful for upper stages right now. Primary booster designs are about one more order of magnitude larger and perfectly feasible.

    > they need a conventional booster for
    > the first 30000 feet...

    Not if they simply provide the ram rocket (that's the correct term for the design which the article describes) with oxidizer and integral combustors for early acceleration. Then the hybrid design would be chemically powered at lift off, but nuclear powered the rest of the way. It need not use a separate booster, but could be a an SSTO (single-stage-

    > the reactor must
    > withstand an explosion of the conventional
    > booster

    This isn't very difficult for the designs which are likely to be tried. Early graphite designs would break up and release radioactivity easily, but it sounds (from the uranium dioxide reference) like they will be making the fuel elements from a tungsten-UO2 cermet. This stuff is *really* hard, dense and tough. You would be surprised at how little a chemical explosion might do to it.

    Furthermore, it is important to understand that nuclear fuel is only *very slightly* radioactive until the reactor is powered up and fission products are produced. A wrecked *fresh* core below 30 000 feet represents a near-zero hazard.

    > they must convince the public that
    > the radioactive traces that are released in
    > the upper atmosphere are negligable.

    This is going to be a political problem, not a scientific problem. It is important to understand that the thickness of the atmosphere makes a *really* good radiation shield. Radionuclides in the stratosphere may be released and emit gamma rays, but almost *none* of the gammas will reach the ground. You should realize that there are something like 7 (metric) tons of air over every square meter between you and the stratosphere!

    Stratospheric fallout is perhaps hundreds of times less threatening to the environment than tropospheric fallout. There's no rain up there. In the troposphere, rainout is the primary means that radioactivity will reach the ground - in a few days. But with no rainout, finely-divided stratospheric fallout remains aloft - and on the preferable side of that 7t/sq.m shield - for months. Fission products are mostly short lived, and a tremendous amount of decay occurs before they will reach the ground.

    Furthermore, the amounts normally released are likely to be very small - because of that tungsten-UO2 cermet again. The UO2 particles in the cermet will do a tremendous job of retaining fission products, and the fuel elements should be cladded with plain tungsten or a similar metal or alloy.
  • by Amphigory (2375) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @09:02AM (#101684) Homepage
    I see a lot of posts here from people who clearly don't understand the dangers of Nuclear power.

    I'm scared of radiation because it does horrible things. It caused Braniac's head to grow and he couldn't even find a toupee after all his hair fell out. It made Dr. Octopus turn evil. It ruined Mr. Fantastic's sex life and made the Thing the fondest desire of all women everywhere. It was even responsible for the spider that bit Peter Parker and ruined his self-centered little life. Worst of all, it created the incredible Hulk, who is still roaming around the southwest wreaking havoc at great expense to the taxpayers.

    Given this history, I think its perfectly reasonable to be scared of Nuclear anything, and especially of what will happen when a Nuclear Reactor is exposed to cosmic rays above the stratosphere. We JUST DON'T KNOW what will happen under these conditions!


  • The US estimated 100,000 Iraqi casualties, mostly due to feul-air bombs dropped on the fix fortifications along the Saudi border and systematic destruction of the Iraqis fleeing Kuwait along the "Highway of Death".

    A pro-arab journelist in Turkey thought the US was grossly underestimating the casualties. He did a fairly professional investigation. He was suprised by his own findings. The US grossly over-estimated the casualties. His conclusions were that the true number of casualties we around 20,000 Iraqi deaths. The reason was that the US pamphleted the the fixed fortifications and the big traffic jam on the highway out of Kuwait. Then they would bomb. Analysis showed that people took the pamphlets seriously and got the hell out of there.

    Any use of a nuclear device on Iraqi command and control would have automatically set off Iraqi Chemical and Biological warhead SCUD missles. Those missles were targeted at Rhiad and Israel. There are terribly inaccurate, but with Chemical and Biological warheads they don't need to be accurate.

    The US had tactical nuclear missles pointed at Sadam's head and the Iraqis had weapons of mass distruction pointed at civilians. Yet another game of MAD (mutually assured distructions. I actually think MAD is just a gamble that we've won sofar, but you only have to fail once.

    The "Gulf War", aka "Sadam's Ass-Kickin'", would have gone out of Bush Sr. control, if the US had used Nuclear wepons, because of the default response by the Iraqis (C&C is not needed for this response).

    So basically, I am saying you are full of shit. Nuclear wepons are weapons of mass distruction even small ones (that is why they are so usefull). Once you open war up to weapons of mass distruction, you open Pandora's Box.
  • If we are to seriously get into space, we need something better than current chemical rocket technology.

    No, we don't. The chemical fuel required to put a pound of payload into orbit costs a few dollars. The rocket launch to put that pound into orbit costs a few thousand dollars. We're not being limited by chemical fuels here. Wanna take a quick guess as to what is being paid for?

    The answer is so obvious I'm almost embarrassed to be typing it: STOP THROWING AWAY THE ROCKETS! Would you ever leave your house, if every drive to the convenience store required you to buy a new car afterwards? And your car is mass-produced and cheap; space launches routinely throws away multimillion dollar rocket engines, not the piddling multithousand dollar thing under your hood.

    Being able to put 45% mass into orbit instead of 10% is a vast improvement.

    Not when the remaining 35% is all reactor and shielding. Nuclear engines are heavy. What's more, you've already lost sight of the goal. We don't have a space program hampered by the need to limit mass expenditure; it's cash expenditure that is keeping the human race grounded. And the cash cost of a rocket does not scale anywhere near linearly with it's gross liftoff weight.
  • by Glytch (4881) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:47AM (#101693)
    (Disclaimer: this comes from an advocate of nuclear power. Add the appropriate block of salt.)

    I've often wondered if your average anti-nuclear activist actually understands the physics involved. I'm not flaming, I'm genuinely curious. Through the media, I've seen many protests over the most trivial and safe use of nuclear technology (the Cassini launch comes to mind) but in all those news reports I've never seen an activist give a solid technical reason why they oppose nuclear power. Is that subtle filtering on the part of the media, or are these people genuinely clueless?
  • by Glytch (4881) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @02:23PM (#101694)

    That's absurd! Thousands of people die every year from toxic coal waste (a good amount of which is released into the air, despite a complex filtering system).

    Very, very true, and I thank you for bringing it up. In fact, less than a thousand kilometers from where I live, there's one of the world's worst coal-related toxin sites. Do a search for "Cape Breton tar ponds" in any search engine and you'll find tons of news reports on this problem.

    The Sierra Club [] has put together a horrifying report on this site. By an astonishing coincedence, this place also has the highest cancer rate in Canada. Hmm.

    And this is Canada, supposedly a bastion of environmental friendliness. Can any of you imagine what the situation might be like in countries where the local government doesn't care at all about the environment and doesn't have to be accountable to citizen's health concerns?

    I'll be the first to admit that nuclear isn't a perfect solution, but stories like the Sydney tar ponds are what make me realize just how much more horrible fossil fuels can be. Nuclear waste may be more dangerous per mass unit, but at least there's a lot less of it.

  • Remember SkyLab falling? Yea, imagine that, but radioactive...

    Skylab had a reactor aboard. It was eventually picked up in the desert some distance east of here. (-: <whine>Why are us Aussies always picking up after you Yanks?</whine> :-)
  • OK, so the main opposition would be to radioactive materials potentially being released into the atmosphere...

    At one stage, the US military designed a dirty no-holds-barred nuclear-propelled missile named (IIRC) Pluton. The main objection to that one was that the shockwave and radiation effects killed everything within a large number of kilometers of the flight path.

    I imagine NASA have something a little cleaner in mind. It is relatively simple to produce a nuclear rocket which simply heats a non-radioactive propellant to extraordinary temperatures, and (again, IIRC) the expelled propellant isn't significantly radioactive.

  • Check it out:

    Jon Acheson
  • Billions of pounds on space travel (which i do admit, does accelerate research in other fields) or billions of pounds on _existing_ drugs to 3rd world countries.
    Uh huh... setting aside how the rulers of those 3rd world countries will just turn around and resell those drugs on the black market rather than give them to their citizens, what happens when those existing drugs stop working? And when the next as yet unknown big epidemic materializes?

    In the long run, it pays off to be forward-looking. And I can think of a lot of money our governments spend on a lot less forward-looking programs than space exploration.

  • by KyleCordes (10679) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @10:39AM (#101712) Homepage
    What really matters, in terms of reducing costs to orbit?

    I think you have correctly identified that it is *not* necessarily ISP or payload ratio.

    One answer is that the thing that needs to be minimized, is *complexity*. Sometimes it is stated with pride that the Space Shuttle is the most complex machine ever built. To me, that is a statement of utter failure. To be inexpensive and reliable, a spacecraft should *not* be the most complex machine every built. Duh.

  • Although in some instances it's better for all involved to use an atomic weapon than to use conventional weapons. Like the Invasion of the Japanese Home Islands...more lives would have been lost on both sides than were lost by the atomic bombing.

    Your statment is fuddle. Dropping an atomic bomb on a civilian target causes loss of life.

  • Gregory Benford had a couple of interesting thoughts on this in his "Scientist's Notebook" column in F&SF Magazine. He posits that older technologies, to which we are long-accustomed, seem more "natural" to us, and that newer technology seems somehow "unnatural". (Remember the people a century back who thought that going over 60 miles per hour would cause irreparable physiological harm, or who thought if man was meant to fly God would have provided him wings?) If someone dies in an auto accident, or because a steam turbine blows up, it seems almost like an act of God--a storm or an earthquake. We don't blame humanity for it, we blame nature, fate, or whatever.

    But because nuclear power is so new, it has this feeling of unnaturalness about it, and that if people die from it, we have to blame ourselves. And there's also the fear of contamination, which is in most cases blown way out of proportion.

    I'm doing a lousy job paraphrasing it, of course. Go to your library and find the article for yourself.


  • by sharkey (16670)
    "Noo-que-ler", it's pronounced "Noo-que-ler."
    --Homer Simpson

  • I've never seen an activist give a solid technical reason why they oppose nuclear power.

    How about this:

    The nuclear power industry failed (miserably) to hit its own engineering targets for cost & safety. They were hoist on their own pitard.

  • In the US, there is some law (or something like that) that prevents any commercial power generating reactor from generating (or at least, providing) any material for the weapons programs.
    THe end result? You have to build extra reactors.

    What a waste.
  • Of course there's the possibility of mistakes. That's why you make the operational procedures of the plant as strict and simple as possible, and make sure there is (preferably both human and automated) oversight at all saftey-critical points. And of course equipment gets old. That's why you have routine maintenance and upgrades.

    How can we hope to progress if we don't at least try? Do you shun airplanes because sometimes they crash and kill people?

  • by JatTDB (29747) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @11:05AM (#101739)
    Chernobyl was poorly built, unsafe procedures, other words, a bad example of how to build a nuclear power plant. There's plenty of other nuclear plants in the world that don't make these mistakes. Don't blame the concept of nuclear power for wasn't the atoms' fault.

  • by JatTDB (29747) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:41AM (#101740)
    Because stupid people can't get the images of mushroom clouds and Chernobyl stuff out of their heads. Just like when someone hears you work with computers, they think you're an expert with anything that contains wires.

  • It's a bit like saying "If an oil tanker spills, the amount of oil sitting on the world's oceans will still be only 0.000...1% of the total mass of the oceans, therefore there's no problem."

    Which is, incidentally, true. Given a few years, the oil spill's effect is roughly nill. Go up to Alaska and take a look at where the Valdez spilled. I understand that the only damaged sections are those which were cleaned--those which were left to their own devices were cleansed soon enough. Of course, even the damaged sections are probably doing much better, as it's been many years since that spill.

    Our planet is amazingly resilient.

  • No, their `mascot' (really, something they have on display for the public to see) is a blue lobster. It's a natural genetic mutation, and is well-known. What sort of mindless lie were you attempting to propagate?

    Although, personally, ran I a nuke plant Blinky probably would be my mascot. I'd think it funny. Probably most other folks wouldn't, though...

  • Yeah, you could do some neat things if you made a rocket that used fissionable materials as a fuel. But if you're going to go that far and invest that sort of engineering resources, why not get to the heart of the problem?

    Rockets are the only to get around in deep space, without an atmosphere. And perhaps the energy/weight ratio of a fission rocket is very useful once you've gotten into orbit--it would allow interplanetary travel at higher speeds, for instance. However, it sounds like the problem they're talking about here is going from ground to orbit.

    Frankly, rockets are a horrible way to go from ground to orbit. They require you to carry all your reaction mass with you when you have a ready source of both reaction mass and oxygen--that being the air around you.

    When the shuttle takes off from the launch pad, it uses solid fuel boosters and main engines, powered by liquid fuel from the Big Honkin' Tank. Liquid fuel is nothing more than hydrogen and oxygen. And to burn a pound of hydrogen, you need about eight pounds of oxygen. Since the system is built as a rocket, it never takes in an ounce of oxygen from the atmosphere--it schlepps all that oxygen around with it.

    One simple way to reduce launch weight is simply to burn atmospheric oxygen until your altitude is too high. We call this an [em]airplane[/em].

    IMHO, building a hybrid airplane/spaceship is a lot simpler than putting a reactor on a rocket.

  • Fuel is not a limiting factor. There have been "30 years proven reserves" since forever. That is based on the current insanely wasteful "once-through" fuel cycle, in which most of the uranium and fissionable plutonium is thrown away as "waste". Simple reprocessing, to separate out the unburned uranium and plutonium to burn in new fuel elements, extends that a lot. (A reactor, at the end of its fuel cycle, is producing a significant percentage of its power from fissioning the plutonium bred in its fuel rods.) And I'm not talking specialized breeder reactors, here. If you do build breeder reactors, you're talking about 1000 years of proven reserves. And when uranium starts getting low, you can breed fissionable U233 from thorium. According to the CRC Handbook, thorium is "about as common as lead", and "there's probably more energy available from thorium in the Earth's crust than from uranium and all fossil fuels put together."

    Beyond that, there's a Japanese ion-exchange process for extracting uranium from sea water at a cost of about $200/pound. That's too expensive to be economical now, but if fissionables are not available from other sources, it's not too expensive to rule it out for power generation.
  • Nuclear waste falls into two categories: Transuranics (including plutonium) which have very long half-lives, but are weakly radioactive, and fission products, which are intensely radioactive, but have short half-lives.

    Plutonium, actually, is kind of intermediate - radioactive enough to be a serious problem, but not so radioactive that it's all gone quickly.

    However, plutonium is not waste, not in any sane fuel cycle. Plutonium is fissionable, and works just fine in a power reactor. By the time a fuel rod is so full of neutron-absorbing fission products that it can't produce power any more, a significant percentage of its power output is due to plutonium fission. I'm talking about ordinary reactors here, not breeders.

    Reprocess the spent fuel rods and put the plutonium into new fuel rods, and all the scaremongering about the unspeakable evils of plutonium is irrelevant. It's getting burned up.

    Current thinking is that the other transuranics can also be put into new fuel rods. They'll alternately absorb neutrons and decay into other things until they hit a fissionable isotope of something, at which time they cease to be transuranics, and become fission products.

    Fission products are the really nasty stuff. You can't run fast enough to reach the unshielded spent fuel rod alive nasty. But that's only true of freshly-removed spent fuel rods. That stuff decays fast. In 300 years (not 3 thousand, much less 30 or 300 thousand years) there is less total radioactity in the fission products than there was in the uranium ore that was originally mined to make the fuel rods.

    The "thousands and thousands of years" scaremongering is entirely based on the half-lives of the transuranics.
  • by sbeitzel (33479) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:49AM (#101746) Homepage Journal
    No. Remember: when you spray a little oil over a town, the dirt gets sticky, everything gets kinda blackened, and maybe you get a few random fires, but that's about it. When you spray radioactive material all over a town, not even that much happenes -- that you can tell right away. Then, a generation later, everybody starts looking like Thalidomide kids, and all the people who've lived there for 30 years have leukemia or tumors, and all the plants and animals start looking really twisted.

    Oil gives you Los Angeles. Radiation gives you Lovecraft.
  • I would like to point out that the tendency of rockets to explode is in most cases related to the chemical fuel itself. Remove that (by replacing it with a nuclear booster) and you remove the majority of the explosions.

    However, there is still the problem of rockets veering off course and being remotely detonated over the South Atlantic.
    Charles E. Hill
  • It's not the radiation most people are worried about. When you vaporize (like in a big rocket explosion) a whole bunch of Plutonium or Uranium it turns to dust -- and is one of the most toxic substances known to man!

    A cloud of that dust wafting over Disney from an explosion over Cape Canaveral is the bigger worry.
    Charles E. Hill
  • Correct -- or even on the pad.

    It might be worth considering going 100% nuclear booster, but I don't think the American public is ready to deal with that.
    Charles E. Hill
  • I'm aware that it is very very difficult to vaporize Pu and U -- witness the mostly intact crew cabin in the Challenger disaster.

    The PERCEPTION that a big explosion could vaporize it is the problem.

    As far as eating a gram of it -- the problem isn't eating it but inhaling the dust into your lungs. The Sarin would kill me quick -- but you'd wish you were me after a short while.

    There are things a lot worse than a quick death.
    Charles E. Hill
  • In other words, some accident that didn't happen might be really dangerous, according to someone I never heard of.

    I'm positively terrified.
  • Americans understand what the effects of Chyrnoble were, and what 3 mile island could have been.

    No they don't. Media are still spreading the myth that thousands have died du to chernobyl. This is simply false:

    AFAIK there are documented 8 cases of death due to cancer caused by fallout in the local affected area (That is there have not been found any increased likelyhood of cancer except for one form which have claimed 8 lives).

    There have not been found any adverse effect on plant and animal life in the restricted area (except that they seem to thrive du to no humans in the area)

    Except for the initial 240 or so diagnosed cases of acute radiation syndrome of which 28 died immidiatly and 14 in the later years ( there doesen't seem to be any major loss of life.
  • by Weezul (52464)
    Personally, I'd feal safer with NASA fling nuke powered rockets over my house then with commercial nukes up the river. The commercial nukes have considerably more reason to cut corners.

    Still, NASA nukes have the following property: First people protest NASA's use of nukes and NASA becomes unpopular. Second representatives looking for a place to cut spending figure that NASA's popularity is down. Third NASA can not afford to properly maintain it's nukes.. oops.
  • What I found very amusing about all the doom and gloom stories is that they neglect to mention several Pu thermoelectric generators have already dropped out of the sky.

    Apollo 13 is the first one that comes to mind, I think that one is still sitting at the bottom of the ocean. NASA lost at least two more to reentry although they recovered a few from the ocean floor. One of them they used in a later mission since it was essentially undamaged from reentry.
  • by MobiusKlein (58188) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @10:39AM (#101788)
    I'm sure 98% of the anti-nuke activists are not nuclear physicists. (sp?) And many are more phobic than rational about the whole subject, true.

    Part of the problem as you suspect is the media, and the sound-bite culture. If you have to take more than 60 seconds to explain your position, they show someone else.

    So, let me explan my problems with Fission Power.
    1) Govt & industry have been irresponsible, and I don't trust them. Dumping nuke waste just off the SF Bay, near the Farallon islands, in prime fishing areas, and covering it up, hiding the records, etc.

    2) Chernoble (sp). Sure, US plants are better, but see #1, and I don't like the tiny risk of poisoning large tracts of land.

    3) Subsidies. When the plants pay their own storage costs, insurance, and all, not having it paid for by taxpayers, I'll listen. But note #1. I would not trust industry studies much.

    4) Weapon proliferation. The more Plutonium and U235 there is, the harder it is to control it all.

    Those are my reasons.
  • Well I am against it because they want to store those spent nuclear rods in my backyard. 90 miles from about 1.5 million people (las vegas) is Yucca mountain which is the prime site of a nuclear waste repository. =^/ I on the other hand, want to use the serveral mile long tunnel dug into the mountian to launch items into space (electromagnetic cannon).
  • The drive in Footfall was what's known as an Orion type drive. Basically, putttering into space standing on a series of small nuclear explosions. I understand there were actually experiments done using conventional explosives.

    Put the crew and cargo on top of a tower of big shock absorbers, on top of a big solid plate, and set of a bomb underneath it.

    The problem with Orion drives is they toss a ton of detonation byproducts into the atmosphere, space, whatever, and contaminate everything in the area. Never mind that your "fuel" is a bunch of nuclear (or thermonuclear) weapons.

    The engine in the article seems to be a relative of the Kiwi class engines from the same vintage. Basically a small reactor into which is pumped H2 or He which is heated and vented as reaction mass. This new drive adds an air intake which (it would seem) increase the thrust and reduce the weight of reaction mass needed. The problem with all of them has been contamination.

    Nuclear power isn't bad. Venting large quantities of radioactive wastes into the environment IS bad.

  • by WombatControl (74685) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:46AM (#101806)

    It's sad that even the term nuclear had been so villified in the United States. Environmentalist groups did their best to kill American nuclear power in the 70's and 80's - unwittingly allowing for more and more pollution from smog-emitting coal plants and inefficient natural gas plants. Good luck on NASA pushing nuclear rockets through - look at the trouble they had with the Cassini probe.

    Considering that in 1993 then Vice President Al Gore killed both the lithium breeder and fuel pellet nuclear designs after tests showed them to be excellent energy producers and perfectly safe against radiation release, it's clear that the American attitude to anything with "nuclear" in the title is based off irrational fears and half-truths.

    Breaking through this ignorance barrier is going to harder for NASA than sending a man to the Moon...

  • There was a study in the 50's called Project Pluto that was an air-breathing ram jet fueled by a nuclear reactor. Kinda cool, and some of the events around it were pretty nutso.

    Richard Feynmen (sp? you know, the famous funny nuclear dude), while working on the really big bombs, had an idea that you could power a jet engine with a reactor. So he patented it. At that time the scientists were allowed to patent their ideas they came up with on the project. As a side note, they also got a dollar for each patent, but no one really bothered. Until Feynman found out, and demanded his dollar. Anyways, more funny mayhem ensued, which he talks about in his books.

    He never really thought about the idea until Project Pluto came along independently. The scientists there found out there was a patent on the idea, much to their surprise. To they contacted who they thought was the expert, Feynman. He was surprised they contacted him and just said it was a back of the napkin patent, and he really wasn't the expert.

    There's some info on Project Pluto here: ryreports/news&views/pluto.htm [] l [] []

    Kooky stuff...

  • "We've taken chemical rockets pretty close to as far as we can," says Robert Adams of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

    John Walker, founder of AutoDesk, put the lie to the above quote in his paper "A Rocket a Day Keeps the High Costs Away []".

    Basically, the problem is operationalizing launches so you can walk down the learning curve the way you do with other industries -- and that means launch frequently. The closest anyone ever came to this was the USSR when it had those big bulky film camera spy satellites that had to be launched once a week. They got the actual operational costs of launch far lower than NASA has achieved, despite all their promises.

  • "I'm aware of no technology that is capable of preventing breakup of an object that reenters into the atmosphere unexpectedly, or, alternatively, that guarantees that such an object burns up reliably in the upper atmosphere. The worst case scenario, as far as I can tell, is that the reactor breaks up partially and finally disintegrates completely at low altitude over some densely populated area."

    Tell that to an ICBM warhead designer. True, they don't enter "unexpectedly" but they certainly come in at high velocity, are quite small, and protect their radioactive contents.

    I am sure one can protect these devices. The question is whether one can build adequate protections within the weight budget and form factor requirements.

  • Plutonium is like any other toxin, except eventually it decays. The basic rule of toxicology is "the dose makes the poison." The relevance here is that an occasional burnup of one of these things would release nowhere near the plutonium and other rad waste that was put into the environment by the cold war.

    Too many people seem to believe that *any* radioactivity is too much. That is a naive viewpoint - you can't escape radiation. Fly in a commercial airliner - you get plenty of ionizing radiation compared to sitting on the ground.

    So the issue, *assuming accident*, is how bad would it be, and how does it compare to other technologies and activities.

    As far as nuclear testing in the atmosphere.. you are dead wrong about your parenthetical comment. The most dirty test is one on or near the ground. Air bursts release less radioactivity and distribute it much better.

  • If we are to seriously get into space, we need something better than current chemical rocket technology. Being able to put 45% mass into orbit instead of 10% is a vast improvement.

    The biggest real issue is whether the reactor contents could be adequately contained during a worst case accident. If this is possible, and I suspect it is, there is no real danger associated with this technology.

    OTOH, the biggest practical issue is whether anti-nuclear hysteria will stop this thing because of the neglible amount of radiation produced at high altitudes when it fires. I am sure that too many people are happier with the amounts of CO2, toxic gases and (at higher altitudes) ozone depletion that is caused by current rocketry than they would be with the pospect of any tiny amount of the dreaded r a d i a t i o n products released into the stratosphere. Perhaps they fear mutation in the UFO's ;-)

    Certainly in the US, where most people are innumerate and don't know physics, and Europe, where too many people are ecophobes, this will be the biggest problem.

  • "It really requires an education of the public," he says. "If there's an enhancement of understanding about what nuclear is about, we can benefit from that." [George Schmidt, deputy manager of the Propulsion Research Center at Marshall]

    I really wonder what NASA thinks the public needs to learn to think this is a good idea. "Radiation is good for you?" "Rockets don't explode?" Maybe he's referring to the immense environmental damage caused by existing launches, which depending on your death model, may in the long run be worse than a few nuclear reactors exploding over the ocean. But I doubt that's what he means by "what nuclear is about."
  • I've always been a fan of the rocket in Niven/Pournelle's Footfall []. They just build a big shield and then throw nuclear bombs beneath it for propulsion. Of course, they're a little more desperate than the US (should) be, as it was the only way to quickly get a whole lot of guns into space quickly at the time.


  • Here's a technical reason: Murphy's law.

    I assume You dont drive a car then? Youve got a greater chance of dying from an auto accident than from a meltdown. People should be all in favor of nukes in space, the chances of dying from a nuclear accident in space are outweighed by the lives saved by using nuclear power to stop an asteroid the would wipe out the human race. And due to murphys law, there is a 'stroid out there with our name on it

  • The big concern with nuclear rockets is that they still must use chemical boosters until they reach about 30000 feet. Chemical rockets blow up. The line from NASA will be that all nuclear material is in a container that is impervious to explosions, but that's still a big risk. I don't know about you, but I think that fallout is way worse than hydrocarbons in terms of pollution.

    Besides that, a lot of rockets are hydrogen powered, and those only produce water vapor.

  • IMHO, building a hybrid airplane/spaceship is a lot simpler than putting a reactor on a rocket.

    Ben Rich, head of the Lockheed Skunk Works and power plant designer for the SR-71, disagreed. During the Reagan years, there was much talk of a "National Aerospace Plane". He made the decision that Lockheed would no-bid that proposal. He discusses why in his book "Skunk Works".

  • My final option, which is purely a guess, I dunno if this would work or not, is to do it on the water. I'm talking in the middle of the ocean.

    SeaLaunch [] does that. Works fine.

    There are places isolated enough for nuclear rocket launch. In 1979, Israel and South Africa tested an atomic bomb [] in the isolated area between Africa and Antarctica. The only reason anybody found out was that one of the old Vela nuclear test ban treaty satellites picked it up.

  • This will probably get everybody all up in arms, but Nuclear Weapons are probably even more misunderstood than nuclear power. You say nuke and everyone thinks about those Japanese cities that we completely leveled (we didn't) with those two bombs and mushroom clouds and one bomb will wipe out an entire city and the radiation will contaminate the whole earth for 500 years. None of that is true. The deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki comprised somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the total Japanese deaths from American bombing raids. Hiroshima was hammered, but certainly not leveled (the firestorm did much more damage than the actual blast). For Nagasaki, which got hit in a hilly area, the area of really heavy destruction was somewhere around a mile and a half, and most of the people that were killed were not killed by the initial blast.

    It is true that the nuclear testing done in the 50's and 60's was careless by modern standards, but that was mostly because we had a beast on our hands that we did not completely understand, but that we had to keep developing for the sake of our survival. The defense nuclear weapons industry of the 21st century is not the industry of the mid 20th century. The sad truth is that since nuclear weapons have been invented, people have them, and that means we have to have them. Even at that, the trend of recent history has been towards smaller and fewer. Our total number of warheads is a small fraction of what it used to be in the heyday of the 60's. Our big, scary Peacekeeper ICBM's carry smaller warheads (about 300 kT) than the Titans of yesteryear and are much more accurate (we can basically hit a football field with them). They are optimized for hard target kills (taking out the enemies weapons), not for wiping out whole cities. They are terribly destructive, but not the way people envision them. We really are not out to depopulate the whole earth, and I would tell any green freak to his face two things. One, that the only reason he is able to stand around protesting things he doesn't understand is because we have these weapons, and two, the people who work with those weapons and actually understand them are a lot less anxious to see them fired than he is.

    Today's Sesame Street was brought to you by the number e
  • by Lord Omlette (124579) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:56AM (#101843) Homepage
    concerning the PR aspect. Let's tell NASA to shut everything down for a year, put the money from their budget into a trust fund, then bring them back online, and then force the entire motherfucking population to go through engineering school. Once the stupid is beaten out of them, they'll be less likely to argue about nukyooler things being bad and more likely to support silly things like, I dunno, making sure people have a way off the planet in case everything shits the bed. Anyone? Agree/disagree?

    ICQ 77863057
  • I have to agree with the person you were replying to. This material is designed to be able to blow up without presenting a major safety risk. Everything has a danger associated with it. The danger of these nuclear pellets is quite low. I'd imagine you have better odds of being damaged by falling booster rocket debris than having your health harmed by those pellets. Its just not a significant risk.

    Now, when we're not talking about space probes, and are instead talking about actually powering boosters, requiring many orders of magnitude higher energy levels, well, that is another case. If the EPA approves it, I'll trust that its been taken care of, and the risk is measurably low. It is not our job, the Uninformed, those who have not conducted studies, to determine relative safeties. Because, well, all safety is relative.

    -= rei =-
  • stupid people can't get the images of mushroom clouds and Chernobyl stuff out of their heads

    There are plenty of unlucky Russians who can't get the Chernobyl stuff out of their heads. Literally.

  • Right. Their nuclear reactor was an antiquated piece of crap, and their workers were took unecessary risks. Our reactors are shiny and new, and will stay that way forever. Our workers never make mistakes or run risky experiments. Right.

  • by pigeonhed (137303) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:41AM (#101856) Journal
    if the first use of Oil was as a weapon, would we have the same sort of public fear over the resource?
  • by (142825) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:46AM (#101858) Homepage
    How does Bush getting into office change the public opions of nuclear energy?

    The talk about nuclear energy is due to the rise in oil prices and skyrocketing prices of power in California. According to Bush, all we need are more electric wires.

  • Nice post.

    I think it is really funny how so many folks on this board characterize others concerned about the abuses (not uses, abuses) of nuclear energy technology universally as lobotomized hippies.

    My sincerest apologies to any lobotomized hippies out there offended by this statement.

    Anyways. I lived in a community situated near an active nuclear facility for several years. In that time, we learned A LOT about the people who run the plants and deal with the waste (and the waste IS dangerous folks). None of us were what you would call "environmentalists" "elitists" or "granola eating tree huggers". It was a farming community, and that is about as conservative as it gets. And, before you get your knickers in a bunch over how farmers aren't engineers, please understand that you actually need more than half a brain to be a successful farmer or rancher, and I have met plenty of engineers who could be called half-wits (and so have you, probably).

    My apologies to any wholly-witted engineers out there. You know who you are, and wouldn't be offended by what I said. You know the guy in the cube next to you is a moron anyways.

    First thing we learned is that the waste gets everywhere, at least in small doses. We found that the frogs near the plant were mutated after about 5 years of operation. Most of them ended up looking like giant tadpoles when fully grown. This is the same water that some of the local ranchers used on occasion for watering their herds, and the same water that was used for a recreational boating area. yech.

    Second thing is, we found out that the people who run these operations LIE. They lie all the time. Never had an "incident" they said, never once had an accident. An independent investigation (independent of the NRC, too) found that there was at least one occasion where the reactor pools had cracked and leaked into the water table, as well as other incidents of spillage outside of that event. See frogs above. However, this was never classified as an "incident".

    The third thing is that the numbers for the profit of producing power never matched up to the anticipated output. Yeah, if it runs at full burn for a year, it could pay itself off we were told. Riiight. Any farmer can tell you about supply and demand. Supply too much power, it becomes too cheap to sell. So our community had subsidized this leaking boondoggle that only ran something like 2 weeks out of the year. The rest of the time, we were buying expensive power from elsewhere, and still paying out taxes on the bonds that never got paid off from "all that cheapo power".

    So lets review here, folks. One, dangerous waste. Two, an industry run by lying snakes (apologies to all honest snakes, snake dealers, and snake oil salespeople out there). Three, under less than perfect or ideal situations, a power source that is more expensive and destructive to maintain than to run under real world situations (ok, real world- most folks are average...they want to go home at 5pm, and bounce their kids around, and have a beer. They are concerned about having a good track record and paying their mortgage more than something amorphous as concern for their community or their fellow man- er, humans. This affects quality of labor and output of goods and services. Nothing ideal works well under those situations, and mistakes and problems always occur.).

    Don't know about most of the folks here, but after first hand experience of having lived near one of those damned silos, the community in general decided we were better off shutting it down. It is not that it COULD work, because we knew it could, given the right care and effort. It is that the people who are the ones that need to care and put out effort aren't the ones running it. They rarely will be - that is just the nature of people, most of whom rarely if ever try to succeed beyond the average of the norm.

    So while many folks here will sit back and quote neatly packaged facts and figures, please remember that it is a messy and disorganized world out there...and that maybe sometimes there are good reasons why people oppose "logical and rational" choices, such as the widespread use of nuclear power.

  • by HenryC (147782) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:37AM (#101861) Homepage
    Why is everybody in this country (USA) so against
    nuclear power? We insist on using fossil fuels, then complain that we are producing 2 much pollution. But heaven forbid we allow for nuclear energy! Its cleaner than fossil fuel, safer, lasts longer... So honestly, why does the public of our country dislike the idea of a nuclear powerplant so much?
  • by brucehoult (148138) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @09:04AM (#101862)
    It's entirely likely that nuclear-powered rockets are the way to go sometime in the future, but trust me on this: NASA has no intention of ever actually putting this into operation. All they want is to get lots of money to study the idea to death and employ engineers to create PowerPoint presentations.

    Let's look at some of the claims in the article:

    "Nuclear systems give you a chance to reduce your mass and so your overall costs to orbit," Adams says.

    This is a missile-builder talking. He's clearly obsessed with one particular engineering measure of "goodness", which is called "ISP". There has been any amount of research in the last twenty to thirty years that shows that maximizing ISP does not necessarily reduce costs. If NASA's current rockets were operating at the lower end of what you can do with chemical engines then he might be correct, but they are in fact several orders of magnitude off.

    Nuclear propulsion could allow single-stage rockets to reach orbit - cutting the need for expendable boosters and allowing what he calls "airline-like" access to space.

    Chemical propulsion allows single-stage to orbit, if you do it correctly. In fact, NASA has already built several rockets capable of single-stage to orbit operation, but they just haven't used them that way. The second stage of the Saturn V was one of them. Launched by itself, it would have been capable of making orbit with a small payload. It had the necessary ratio of fuel to total mass.

    It would also be lighter and be able to lift a bigger fraction of its starting mass into orbit - perhaps as much as 45 per cent. "With existing systems, it's more like 10 per cent," he says.

    This is true, but it DOES NOT MATTER. The 90% of the mass that doesn't make it to orbit is fuel. Fuel is very cheap. The current Space Shuttle uses something like $20 million dollars of fuel to get to orbit (and the vast majority of that is the solid rockets, not the hydrogen). The total cost of a Shuttle mission is more like $1000 million. Even if you could make the fuel free it wouldn't make the shuttle any cheaper.

    What is important to cheap access to space is to make the vehicles *totally* reusable, like an airliner, not throw-away like a missile. The Shuttle is partially reusable, but it still throws away a huge amount of itself each flight, and has to be totally refurbished -- a process that takes months. Space flight won't be cheap until you can fly, come back down, fill-her-up, and fly again the next day.

    Even if that means that 98% of what you leave the ground with is fuel it doesn't matter until you've got total costs down to well under a tenth of what they are today, and maybe closer to a hundredth.

    If you're interested in this then I highly recommend that you go and read what the Space Access Society [] has been writing about this stuff for more than five years now.

  • by Pxtl (151020)
    Um, yes, they use chemical rockets up to 30 000 feet. And besides, the nuclear rocket is still blasting several tons of hot air out its ass, so the effect on the animals will be the same.
  • Personally, I'm pro nuclear power... despite some opinions, its safe and clean. The only real concern I have is disposal of nuclear waste, but most modern reactors have been taking good approaches to that (burying miles deep in tectonically stable areas where a bucketful of waste is in a barrelfull of shielding)... all the nuclear waste messes came from the defense industry, who decided that money wasted on cleanup should be better spent on more nukes.

    The real concern is a legitamite one - its naive to assume that rockets will be successful, especially since this design does include a chemical base which could explode. Such a system would launch radioactive fuel over a very wide area if it exploded.

    Still, this research is important and quite viable - they need to do some serious engineering - only a small amount of radioactive matter is needed for this thruster, so it could be possible to protect it enough that - if an accident occured, a protective casing could keep the fuels from spraying into the air as an aerosol. Still, rocket explosions and crashes are a powerful kind of nasty, so this would be a tough system to design.
  • Wel, they've got reason to be scared, after the past the nuclear weapons industry had. While the power industry had waste being stored hundreds of feet underground where one barrel-size shielding system contained a bucketfull of waste, the weapons industry was a little more relaxed. The American Nuclear weapons industry had lower standards for storing radioactive waste then the average gas station had for the gas tank.

    The army did a lot of bad, bad things to a lot of people to make those bombs. It won't be forgotten quickly. Unfortunately, it gave the whole world a mad fear of nuclear waste, which the power industry handles amicably in my opinion.
  • by Pxtl (151020) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:59AM (#101866) Homepage
    While I agree with you on nuclear power (here in Ontario they closed down the fission plants and switched back to fossil fuels, the psycho bastards) I have to point out that this is a different issue. The risk with nuclear power is the radioactive waste, the high cost of running a plant, and the risk of accident. Here, the issues are different. Here, the only issue is safety, as this promises to be cheaper, and waste can be jettisoned on an outward decaying orbit.

    The risk with Cassini is that an accident on the launch could result in widespread nuclear fallout - the technology their talking about here has the same risk, plus that its less tested and therefore people don't trust its ability not to blow up. And call me paranoid eco-psycho, but widespread fallout sucks bigtime.

    Of course, then there were those complete morons who were worried that Cassini would crash land on its Earth slingshot flyby that it makes later on. Umm, earth is a goddamn small target, and its not coming within a million miles of the surface.
  • by Pxtl (151020) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @09:02AM (#101867) Homepage
    Read the article - its not actually nuclear propulsion - its not spraying radioactive material into space, its just using a reactor to superheat normal gasses and use the pressure for thrust.
  • by Pxtl (151020) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @09:07AM (#101868) Homepage
    THis is different from the Footfall thruster though. Footfall was just nukes going off under the ship's ass. This rocket is just using a reactor to superheat gas and release use the superhot gas for thrust - no radioactive material is released. I think.
  • by Pxtl (151020) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:53AM (#101869) Homepage
    Okay, lets assume you didn't say Africa and actually picked a place with low (or zero) population, rather then people you just didn't care about - its still risky. First, if it explodes on take off, we're probably not too bad off, but its no fun - remember that volcano a bit back, that resulted in a cold summer? That spread ash over the sky world wide. This explosion wouldn't even be close, but it could still spread the nuclear fuel over a fairly wide area, and some of it could reach the first world (especially if we made our launch site the middle of the Nevada desert or something).

    Second is the nastier possibility - high atmosphere fuck-up. These are more rare, like the Ariane 5 prototype and, to a lesser extent, the Challenger (the challenger didn't get that high). There, the ship has made it a long distance and is no longer near the launch site, and could be over civilization. Also, the high atmosphere explosion means that it will take much longer to land, giving the fallout time to spread worldwide. In that case, it doesn't matter where on earth you are, you're still gene-fucked.

    Of course, I don't know how much they're using, how risky it is, how bad things could be if it went up exactly. This is simply explaining people's fears. Personally, I'm all for this tech, I think its important to the future of humanity, and could finally get us into orbit. Still, the enviro's are right, this is risky as hell, and even the best rockets have been known to blow up, so I'm not sure if I want this going on.
  • by fm6 (162816) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @08:58AM (#101877) Homepage Journal
    Deja vu all over again!

    This all boils down to the usual arguments for and against fission as a power source, weighed on one side by the tendency of rockets to explode on the lanch pad. I would argue against on the grounds of contamination risks, waste storage issues, proliferation (hard to control access to weapons material when you're creating so much of the precusors), and hidden costs.

    That last one is the killer. If nuclear power had ever been nearly as cost effective as it was supposed to be, people would have dealt with or lived with the health and safety problems. But controlled fission is just one of those things that looks a lot simpler on paper than it does in practice. That's what killed it, despite the convenience of blaming everything on kneejerk treehuggers who arrive at the anti-nuke rally in smog-belching busses.

    Hey, there's plenty of kneejerking on both sides. If I hear that stupid -- and simply untrue -- cliche about Ted Kennedy's car [] one more time...


  • Deliberate nuclear explosions are illegal in space. However most rocket engines are not supposed to explode, strangely enough.

    However, there have been designs (e.g. Orion) which rely on throwing nuclear warheads out the back, and then catching the blast- they're not allowed under the law.
  • Good points and I would add this: The United States has detonated about a hundred atomic weapons above ground in Nevada. Back in "the day" you could see the tests from Vegas -- I once saw an amazing photo of a glowing mushroom cloud above the Fremont Street skyline. I can't find it now, but here is a similar image []. Mind-blowing.

    I'm not saying all these atmospheric tests were GREAT but we're still here, with the equivalent of over 100 Hiroshimas in our back yard. (and I know about the fallout/health/cancer studies and all that, like I said it wasn't a great idea, but it also didn't destroy the country or even just Nevada.)
  • The only real concern I have is disposal of nuclear waste, but most modern reactors have been taking good approaches to that...

    Problem: those plans, while neat, aren't in effect yet. Name one such high-level waste disposal site in the US. There aren't any.

    Power plants have been keeping their worst waste on site, in temporary holding areas that were never designed to be long-term solutions. We need a national solution and we need it fast.

    It could be worse: in Russia there has been at least one incident of poorly-stored waste going critical and poof! Spontaneous explosion. Something about spent rods in a plastic-lined ditch, and rainwater leached uranium out where it collected underneath... Spooky.

    But hey, I'd want cheaper access to space if the rocket had to run on the blood of orphans. On with the nuke!
  • Sign me up too! I'd take 2 if they would give me one of those creepy experimental scultures they may use to mark waste sites. Check this link [] for a neat discussion of that.

  • In our nuclear adolescence we can barely handle plutonium... total conversion of matter to energy is something I wouldn't want us to play with for a long, long time!

    If you do the math (E=MC^2) the results are pretty scary. Drop a half-kilo of antimatter and you convert 1 kilo of matter to energy, resulting in a 25 megaton explosion, if I remember right.

    Luckily antimatter is hard to make in large quantities (like, over a few hundred antiprotons). Even luckier, no one has invented a magic field or ray that lets matter convert itself into energy.

    Antimatter would be great fuel if we had the technology to create and handle large quantities of it... but man, I wouldn't want THAT factory in my back yard!

  • Good point. That tour (been twice) is the most amazing thing I have ever seen, period. Any geek who lives within driving distance of Nevada needs to go.
  • by IronChef (164482) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @11:12AM (#101885) Homepage

    The radioisotope thermal generators used in Cassini and other missions are AMAZINGLY tough. They are designed to survive a re-entry. Mostly, anyway... the re-entry scenario is the RTG landing almost intact, with the radioactive material spread out over a very small area near the impact site. Like, meters, not miles. (When I worked at JPL I got to look at a lot of the documentation, even though I worked in a different section. Neat stuff.)

    An explosion on the pad, or in boost, would be a lot less stress on the RTG than re-entry. Think about the Challenger explosion: the crew were thought to be alive in the nose section until impact with the ocean. If there was an RTG in that area of the ship, it would have easily survived.
  • Nuclear waste isn't even as bad as most think. Most nuclear waste is actually gloves, test tubes, coats, etc. that have been only potentially exposed. Actual nuclear material in waste is only a small fraction of the overall mass. Also, radiation can't be both high energy and long lasting. Materials that are radioactive for thousands of years are usually almost edible. The biggest annoyance I see with nuclear power is just how it's converted to electricity. A nuclear power plant, with all that tech, simply heats water to steam and moves a turbine. The nuclear part is just a better heater. This strikes me as silly.
  • As an example, let's look at the massive NIMBY effect, as it pertains to nuclear storage in Nevada. The near-violent opposition to building Yucca Mountain [] is a result of how the public perceives risk. A few factors play into risk. Whether or not the individual has control over risk is an important factor - e.g., cigarettes and driving are dangerous but we can elect to do them or not, but air pollution is out of our control and therefore more scary. How well the mechanism is understood, how simple the danger is can change our perception. The toxic effects of nuclear materials are exotic and subtle, while, say, getting hit by a foul ball at a baseball game is fairly straightforward.

    The problem with anything nuclear is that it is exotic and high-tech, not wholly under control, the effects are unknown, and the public must place most of its trust in officials who have been duplicitous in the past.

    Now my point: nuclear storage must be accomplished. I suggest that, before you condemn the 'green freaks' for lowering the profit margins of a few energy companies, you consider what it is they were 'howling' about. Lobbyists who were salivating over the prospect of a country run on 'clean' nuclear fuel all these years never revealed the massive challenges of waste storage, and this generation must live with their legacy: hundreds of temporary storage pools dotting the countryside, each nearing the end of their design life.

    Now, even though NASA has much more credibility (even though it's eroding) with the public, the public is not about to take the risk of launching nuclear payloads and/or stages.

    Besides, even if the probability of nuclear debris being scattered over the Eastern seaboard is e-6, isn't that sufficient to not embark on such a foolhardy venture, which in fact it would be under that statistical estimate, due to the fact that the dangers are so great?

    Ya know, it kind of irks me when people trash environmentally-sensitive citizens. We are not all Druids, but we expect to be able to put our trust in our leaders that such matters will be managed with some of the same concerns for the country and our health that we have. We generally have no position of advocacy (i.e., we don't profit directly from these projects), and I doubt that the threat of rolling blackouts is enough to make us roll over and cry 'Uncle'. It's just more important than that. I would rather freeze in the dark than glow in it (both analogies are extreme, heh).

    Likewise (to stay On-Topic), taking the risk of sending nuclear materials [] on a trajectory whose Instantaneous Impact Point (IPP) crosses the entire right coast, or even anywhere on this planet does not seem to weigh in enough to tip the scales. Now if we needed nuclear rockets to save some of the inhabitants of the planet due to the fact that this planet is so crapped up that it can no longer sustain life, then sure, do whatever it takes to send the telephone sanitizers skyward.
  • Well, name-calling indicates a weak argument. I think you made my point about how duped we were by power companies. While nuclear waste storage containers can be made such that the possibilities of accidental release are fairly remote (they do tests on the containers like simulate locomotive ramming and rolling down a hillside to spec requirements), it has been estimated that about 6% of all containers, whether delivered over road or rail, will exhibit 'weeping', or a detectable radioactive emission on the exterior of the package through diffusion. That was the main concern, last time I worked on it.

    Another point you make for me: how hysteria can be transmitted from one impassioned but relatively uninformed citizen to another.
  • Not only that, but in the geological time scales under consideration (100kiloyrs) one must also consider that large-scale climate changes may occur. The state of Nevada could become much, much wetter (20 inches h2o/yr easily), and this could have drastic consequences.

    Another big issue in the design of the plant is retreivability for that reason.

    If we had only considered all these questions fifty years ago, we would have at least known the total cost of all this 'clean' power. But I'm afraid these problems were all dismissed as solvable. While they may be solvable technically, they are apparently not solvable politically, since each and every leader has found it expedient to ultimately sit on his hands and do nothing to break the logjam. Remember "Don't Mess with Texas"? If I were a Texan, I wouldn't be proud of that too, too much. Another act of cowardice is when govt officials foisted it on Nevada. Wait, relative to all the other behaviors in this mess, that might be a relative act of courage! At least they made a decision to drill a 5-mile main access tunnel there, even if it's called the "Exploratory Studies Facility". It's like saying, "Well, if we were - and I'm not saying we are! - going to dig an underground facility - not that that would happen here! - wellll, it might look something like this which this isn't so don't think we're actually going to really build anything here we're just exploring (paynoattention totheman behindthecurtain)... that sort of thing...
  • The Soviet Union (or any communist country for that matter) brings the concept of bureaucratic hostility and apathy to a new level.

    Try to navigate the interior of China, that will make an HMO middle manager look like the proprietor of a small-town hardware store.
  • Depends what's in the oil...

    Thirty years ago, GE Power Systems graciously offered rural towns in Upstate NY waste oil for free! They even transported it to the local highway department at no charge...

    In those days, most county and some state roads were paved by pouring oil and tar on the roadbed, then dumping gravel on it and brushing off the excess gravel.

    GE failed to mention that this oil was saturated with PCB and other cancer-causing material. People who were employees of the highway dept had increased rates of lung cancer, as did many people whose homes were less than 20 feet from the road. (Very common on farms)

  • Michio Kaku, you mean the guy who talks about little green men on overnight radio with Art Bell??

    Also, the figures you cite are very misleading... Any estimate that can be off by a factor of 100 is not an estimate, but a blind guess.

    According to your quote, between 23 and 230,000 people could die if (something bad that you didn't mention) happened.

    If the property damage quote is subject to the same accuracy, then over 19 trillion dollars of damage could be done. This is a sum of money larger than the economies of the US, EU, and China combined.

    Sounds like a credible source. What does Howard Stern think about it?
  • "I don't see the relevance of this statement. He is still a physics professor. Even if he has a crazy belief about one thing - let's say, for the sake of argument - that doesn't mean that when he wrote that paper his arguments weren't sound."

    It's quite relevant. Negative things tend to taint your reputation.

    "According to your logic, if a corporation posts a bogus, made-up environmental impact assessment, and then an environmental group says that their estimates are off by a factor of 1000, the environmental group are automatically offering a "blind guess". You don't even have to look at the evidence. Very convenient."

    The environmental group is whoring itself to the press for attention with outrageous statements like that. That's one good reason why the environmental movement today is a monumental failure.

    "Maybe, just maybe, NASA's estimate is too low (for political reasons) and Kaku is nearer the truth?"

    Why would NASA offer an unreasonable estimate of risk? The political fallout of a large nuclear accident would be quite severe -- NASA would cease to exist as a entity if Cassini irradiated the entire US or world.

    In this case NASA has everything to lose and nothing to gain by lying. Some random scientist, on the other hand, stands to gain alot by being right about such an accident and loses nothing by being wrong.
  • Uraninum and Thorium are the most common radioactive materials present in coal ash. Thorium has been linked to higher occurences of various diseases and cancers.

    People living near a coal-fired powerplant are subjected to over 250% more radiation than those living near operating nuclear reactors.

    Here is a link to an article discussing this issue. ma in.html

    Unfortunately I cannot find the refrence to the study I quoted before. I believe it was published in the late 70's or early 80's and refrenced coal-fired generation plants built in the 1930's and 40's without scrubbers. (These plants still operate, particulary in the east)

    If you read French, there is alot of information about the French Nuclear program that may be of interest. France gets over 70% of it's energy by nuclear breeder reactors, which operate at higher temperatures & pressures than any other reactor in the West. (and are thus subject to greater risk) The French have had no signifigant accidents.

  • by duffbeer703 (177751) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @01:21PM (#101899)
    Hahaha... You are the typical ignorant "activist" aren't you? Why don't you go pass out some PETA leaflets?

    Do you have any idea how much radioactive material is released from coal burners? The number I have seen quoted is that an older coal plant releases over 500x more radioactivty than 3-mile island...

    "Chemical waste is alot easy [sic] to dispose of."

    That that to the EPA and NYS DEC... GE dumped several million tons of PCB waste in the Hudson River a few years back, leaving all marine life in the river contaminated and unsafe to eat. It is estimated that if it ever gets cleaned up, it will cost between $800 million and $5 billion to complete, and whether or not the river can be cleaned is open to debate.

    Also, all power plants by their nature take time to cool down... Steam turbines require steam, which is hot and pressurized and requires time to cool safely. About 20 sailors were killed aboard a US warship during the Gulf War when an oil-fired steam turbine exploded while they tried to shut it down.
  • by duffbeer703 (177751) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @04:44PM (#101900)
    Take a Valium and chill.

    A bunch of maniacs like yourself went on the warpath when spent fuel & rods from a decommisioned reactor passed through a town.

    People kept their kids home from school (school is 5000 feet from tracks) others picketed, still others tried to barricade the tracks.

    A local "news" station conducted a test where it smashed a locomotive into a brick wall at 80mph...

    Guess what happened?

    A freight train with specialized boxcars with 4 foot thick lead walls passed through the town. It arrived at it's destination 2 days later.

    There are alot of things that pose a real risk to you and your precious children.

    -The corner gas station spewing gasoline into the water table.

    -Insecticide sprayed by your town to combat mosquitoes. (Your kids play on the lawn the next day without even knowing)

    -Highly toxic solvents dumped into your watertable by commerical & industrial enterprises.

    -Deadly chemical & biological agents transported by rail on a daily basis.

    You don't give a shit about this stuff though. You'd rather harp on about the remote risks associated with transporting nuclear waste, because the image of nuclear destruction in burned into your mind.

    -- I hope you enjoy breathing the soot and smoke from "safe" energy generation methods, btw.

  • The near-violent opposition to building Yucca Mountain is a result of how the public perceives risk

    I hope you read the entire paper that you linked to, because there is an interesting tidbit that I caught immediately.

    In the paper, there was a discussion about the seismic activity in Nevada. Now, Californians may scoff at us Neighbors to the East when we talk about earthquakes, but we have 'em. I live at Lake Tahoe, and felt two good-size jolts Saturday just after midnight. The epicenter was less than 15 miles away. That was an interesting wake-up call in and of itself, even though there was no damage.

    What caught my eye, though, was that we have a number of active faults in the State of Nevada. Both North and South. So the NIMBY isn't all based on irrational fears.

    The paper you linked to pointed this out.

    Now, that said, I would be willing as a citizen of the State of Nevada to vote to have the Yucca Mountain storage site long as the entire Department of Energy, from the top boss to the janitors, were willing to relocate on top of the waste dump site and form a new town. I figure if the watchdogs has a pony in the race they would do a better job than if they stayed put in WashDC.

  • It's not an either/or necessarily. We should be looking to use less power and looking into renewable energy.
  • I agree with you on the whole. I'm not 100% anti-nuclear energy.

    The original poster implied there were no downsides to nuclear.

    As you pointed out all forms of energy have a downside.
  • You use "we" like everyone but you should be setting up and maintaining your infrastructure for you.

    I said 'we' and I meant 'we' I didn't mean 'everyone but me'.

  • by Marcus Brody (320463) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @09:16AM (#101983) Homepage
    I partially agree with you: Alot of people fear nuclear power because they dont understand it. Most of the protestors give absolutely no technically valid reason why they oppose nuclear power. However, there are a few who do understand the issues. Unfortunately, they get lost in all the noise....

    Lets face it, Radioactive material, when not handled properly, is very dangerous. I work with some radioactive compounds (biological research), and I have a healthy respect for it.

    However, some notable people do not. I dont know what the situation is in the states, but BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd) have been involved in numerous [] scandals [] over [] the last []few years []. This has not just affected the UK [] either []. And that scares the shit out of me. And some anti-nuclear campagners.

  • by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @02:32PM (#102015)
    Actaull, Chernobyl and Windscale point out the folly of using graphite moderates (the burn) and no containment (stuff gets into the environment without much trouble.) Windscale, btw, was not a power reactor but was part of Britian's nuclear weapons development program. Thre Mile Island (TMI), surprising, points out how well safety systems and containments protect the public. Despite multiple operator errors, the reactor vessel contained the fuel material and the concrete containment was not breached despite hydrogen explosions in the containment.

    As for cost competitiveness, a well run nuke plant is competitive with fossil, even when you include decommissioning costs. In fact, it can be cheaper than building a new combined cycle gas fired plant (the current plant of choice for new production - and that doesn't emissions credits that the nuke can sell since it doesn't emit things like NOX). With plants getting their licenses extended for 20 years, the total production costs will be even more competitive.

    Finally, any form of energy production has its negative side effects, but unfortunately our society depends on cheap energy to function. Hydro is great, unless you are a fish or they create a lake where your house stands. Not to mention the hegative impact of a dam breaking on the downstream populace. Solar - very nice, but what about the toxic byproducts used in production? Or the impact of covering large tracts of land to generate enough electricity to repalce even a small fossil plant? Wind energy is neat - after all, wind (like /. posts) is cheap. Unless, of course, you are a bird that flies into the blades or someone who values the view over the mountains.

    Do we need to keep looking for ways to generate power that have less environmental impact? Sure. We could also do a lot more to reduce our use. But the reality is that we have no good alternatives to nuclear and fossil plants, and we will have to begin repalcing the older (mostly fossil) plants that are reaching and of their usefullife. To blindly rule out a proven energy technology based on fear, misunderstanding and clever PR is about as smart as letting MS guide your decison on using Linux.

  • by No Tears In The End (452319) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @10:40AM (#102025)
    As a layman++, I don't see why there would be such a problem with this. The amount of fissionable material needed would be minimal.

    Since there are no chemical propellants involved the risk of a Challenger-type accident would be eliminated.

    As of right now, the link seems to be slashdotted, but I assume that water vapor would be a source of propulsion. Safe, clean, easy. We just need some R&D to make a rocket engine that can safely harness that power.

  • by Thomas M Hughes (463951) on Saturday July 07, 2001 @09:49AM (#102040)
    Based on the limited and informal associations I have with nuclear engineers, most US citizens became afraid of Nuclear power right around the time of the Three Mile Island accident. The feeling I generally get is that the majority of Slashdot doesn't remember three mile island.

    Back in the 70's and 80's, Nuclear power was considered the clean solution to all of our energy problems. And they were considered increadibly safe. Until one melted down. Most Americans seem to remember Murphy's Law ("Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong"), and as such, prefer to err on the side of safety. Furthermore, there _is_ a problem with disposing of Nuclear waste. That stuff doesn't just disappear.

    In response to a comment I saw earlier about how the first use for nuclear power being a weapon. That really doesn't apply. We detonated the first atomic weapons back in the 1940's. Our Nuclear Power industry was booming in the 60's and 70's. It died in the 80's. People didn't just wake up and realize that this same technology had intentionally killed thousands. No, they were more afraid that it might _unintentionally_ kill thousands more.

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