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Space Science

National Security Cuts Into NASA's Plutonium 76

Posted by michael
from the get-out-the-oars dept.
cleveland61 writes "Space.com is reporting that an "undisclosed national security agency" is being assigned 7 Kg of NASA's 16 Kg supply of Pu 238. With a half life of 90 years Pu 238 is used mainly used in cases where batteries won't do here on earth. (Pacemakers, deep sea diving suits,etc.) It also provided the fuel for the Cassini Probe. My question is; Who is getting it and what are they using it for? Please tell me its Doc Brown looking for his 1.21 jigawatts!"
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National Security Cuts Into NASA's Plutonium

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  • Think small (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    That's quite a bit of energy in that there chunk.

    Think small. This isn't likely being used to make bombs or what have you. Materials with a much shorter half life are used for that.

    This is more likely for spying equipment.

    The question is - where do we suddenly need thousands of covert transmitters?

    • Re:Think small (Score:3, Informative)

      by RNLockwood (224353)
      Pu 238 not likely to be used for a bomb since it won't fission, Pu 239 and U 235 are used for that.
      Might be usefull for tamping though but U 238 is lots cheaper.

      The half life of Pu 239 is 25,000 years and I have heard that it is warm to the touch. Pu 238 would be still warmer yet.

      The half life of U 235 is 730 million years.

      If fissile isotopes had short half lives we wouldn't have bombs or reactors. The fissile material would decay away too fast.

      • The half life of Pu 239 is 25,000 years and I have heard that it is warm to the touch. Pu 238 would be still warmer yet.

        I hear it's even warmer if you hold it to your genitals, but you won't catch me testing any of these claims.

      • The fusion material in most of our nuclear weapons is Hydrogen 3, Tritium, it actually has a half life of 12.32 years. So most warheads get a regular refresh every few years. Don't you remember the big stink people were making a few years back when the US stopped tritium production, the military types were worried the Russians would take advantage of our "Decreased state of readiness" since we were letting the tritium in our warheads degrade. Course they restarted tritium production a few years later.
        • Bzzt--thanks for playing. Tritium is used to boost the initial fission yield; it's not used in the secondary stage.

          A different set of compounds (lithium hydrides?) undergoes fusion, but this isn't the terminal stage of the nuke. The fusion is almost purely an incidental product--they're not looking to liberate energy from the fusion, they're looking to liberate neutrons. Specifically, real freakin' energetic neutrons which can induce fission in the U-238 shell surrounding the nuke. So essentially, there are three stages: a small fissile device at the core, then a small fusion stage, and then a really honkin' huge fissile stage which amounts for >90% of the liberated energy.

          In fact, some of the early H-bombs used no hydrogen at all. If you get U-235 in the same shape as a softball, it'll spontaneously go supercritical; but if you get a cylinder of U-235 with a diameter slightly less than a softball, it can be arbitrarily long without going supercrit. To make it go supercrit, you use explosives to implode its shape, at which point it goes supercrit. The U.S. tested a 500kt "H-bomb" which was one of these purely fissile (i.e., "A-bomb") designs. ... Why do nuke designers prefer fission reactions to fusion ones? When uranium splits, it does so by breaking into big and heavy atomic fragments (+46 charge). These atomic fragments carry away the majority of the reaction energy and dump it almost immediately as heat. By comparison, when hydrogen fuses to helium, the end product is a very light atomic nucleus and the majority of the energy of the reaction is liberated as neutrons, which can travel for quite some distance before giving up their energy.

          Basically, fission has a lot more bang for the buck.

          If you really want to know more of the physical details behind nukes, check out FAS (here [fas.org]) and the Bremsstrahlung Effect.
          • Wow! What an amazingly distorted explanation. So, what you're saying then, is that the only reason that turbojet engines move the plane through the air is the fan blades acting as propellers moving the air from front to back. The only reason the air is mixed with fuel is to power the fan blades. And planes used to go a lot faster back in the days when propellers were bigger and weren't housed inside a jet engine (after all they'd be able to move a lot more air).

            Anyway, I thank you for brightening my day with your humor. :-)

  • Perhaps they are using it to experiment with cold fusion some more. That or they are creating some special bomb... (kill osama bin laden)
    • Re:Perhaps (Score:3, Informative)

      by TamMan2000 (578899)
      Pu 238 is a large molecule, fusion requires small molecues combining into larger ones. The only use for Plutonium in a fusion devise is as a "fuse" used to set of a big hot fusion reaction (H-Bomb).

      Along the bomb line...
      we already have a lot of nuclear material stockpiled in bomb form...
      • And to think, I thought PU 238 was an isotope of an atom this whole time... No wonder I did bad in chemistry.
        • your right, I meant atoms...

          but technically all atoms that are not bonded to other atoms are molecules too.

          and every atom is an isotope.
  • by Wrexen (151642) on Wednesday July 24, 2002 @05:11PM (#3947304) Homepage
    I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the "undisclosed national security agency" is, in fact, the National Security Agency [nsa.gov]
  • Could the "Undisclosed National Security Agency" be the Men in Black? LOL!
    • Are you kidding? These are the guys that gave us velcro! They don't need no stinkin' plutonium. They probably have a Mr. Fusion laying around somewhere.
  • In the meantime, the Department of Energy will continue to buy Plutonium 238 from Russia. Wahlquist said the Department of Energy will buy 1 kilogram of the non-weapons grade Plutonium from the Russian government this year. The U.S. plans to buy another 5 kilograms of the material from Russia in 2003 and additional quantities in 2004 and beyond.

    Sounds like a big nasty drug deal to me. I heard we can get a good deal on the "weapons grade" as opposed to the "non-weapons grade" from China.
    • Is a kilo a lot of plutonium to be purchasing? I don't know how much a "lot" is, I don't know much about it period. Reading it like that, though, it sort of seems like, "I'll be buying 7 fries from McDonald's this year, even though I've got my own potatoes and a deep frier.". *shrug*
  • Well, the TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) program is recruiting meter readers [nationalreview.com], and may recruit postal workers now that the USPS, which initially balked, is considering it [cnn.com]

    Now, I betcha' your meter reader -- or postman -- could be persuaded, in the interests of national security, of course, to lend his uniform and id to a gent who knows how to install a covert sattelite phone with a big sensitive microphone. Who knows how to hide it behind your meter, perhaps.

    Maybe they'll slap a quick metal patch over it, maybe they'll slid it under the siding on your house, but it'll real inaccesable, as they'll know it's gonna be powered for 90 years on that pinch of plutonium.
  • I know why! (Score:2, Funny)

    by SecretFire (578177)
    You see, all of the slightly-moderately paranoid types are already concerned about the government, but the "aliens are here" crowd haven't really been thrown a bone recently by government. Can you name a recent major occurance for this group? I tihnk we just have some sympathetic dude in the NSA who wants all the conspiracy shows to keep their ratings up.
  • two answers (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Apreche (239272) on Wednesday July 24, 2002 @05:43PM (#3947538) Homepage Journal
    the easy answer is they are making a few nukes.

    the answer that took a little thought is that indeed the NSA needs plutonium to make an unbeatable UPS for its large powerful computer systems. This way the will never have a power out, meaning they can spy on everyone 24/7 365.
    • Re:two answers (Score:2, Informative)

      by dramaley (20773)
      Nukes use Pu-239, not Pu-238 as this article was about.
    • Can you give me the physical equation that shows pu-239 is fissionable?
      • Re:two answers (Score:3, Informative)

        by Muad'Dave (255648)
        My chart shows that Pu238 is an alpha emitter, and is subject to spontaneous fission. A I recall, the thermoelectric generators use the heat given off by the Pu238 to generate power with what are essentially thermocouples.


    • Well, nukes or "Dirty Bombs". Dubya's popularity is falling, he needs another "attack" so he can push through a few more anti-terrorist [i.e. privacy/liberty] laws. Maybe I'm just too cynical of human nature but I wouldn't be suprised to see this used against the people of America, or even England, just to drum up more support for the war for oil^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hon terror.

      Don't forget that Dubya wanted to invade Afghanistan long before 9/11, and those attacks were a "Don't fuck with us!" from the middle-eastern oil barons, in bed with Saudi Bin Laden Inc.

      Think about it.

      Ali

  • Same thing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by benh57 (525452) <bhines&alumni,ucsd,edu> on Wednesday July 24, 2002 @05:47PM (#3947556) Homepage
    The undisclosed agency is likely using it for the same thing NASA does - RTGs to power satellites. RTGs could help power secret spy sats just as well as science sats. They provide quite a lot of power and with them you don't need the solar arrays.
    • Re:Same thing (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Henry V .009 (518000) on Wednesday July 24, 2002 @05:56PM (#3947624) Journal
      I agree. And without the solar panels, these satellites will be mostly invisible until they start transmitting. So you have a back-up communications or spy array just in case China starts taking pot-shots at our birds with a laser.
    • I think that you've probably come close to the truth with your answer.
    • And without solar panels, you can make a stealth sat so the baddies on the ground won't know it's overhead.
      • Re:Same thing (Score:5, Interesting)

        by CTalkobt (81900) on Wednesday July 24, 2002 @06:31PM (#3947813) Homepage
        Actually what makes the parent post intriguing is this.

        Currently the US has a set of Satillites that can form a communications relay and then beam messages to the ground.

        Suppose we have some black birds ( Satillites ) that operate solely on Nuclear Power with passive ( eg visual / thermal etc ) pickup of information / images. Now, let's broadcast the data to the communications relay and send it down encrypted.

        Since the birds doing the oberservation are "dark" - there only encryptions being laterally to earth's orbit their flight paths wouldn't be known.

        Hmm..... *looks up in the sky anxiously*
        • But, doesn't the government have to disclose the paths of military and spy satellites to whomever tracks those things to insure that (current and future) commercial and military satellites don't go bump in the night? My understanding was that they did not have to disclose its purpose, just its flight path.

          Then again, if my premise is true, we could always put up a new sattelite in place of an existing one and not tell anybody because that flight path is already known.
    • Oh great, so when an "unspecified" agency launches an "unspecified" payload from an "unspecified" rocket in the middle of an "unspecified" location, we might have an "unspecified" problem aboard the rocket and have"unspecified" consequences that will spew "unspecified" elements in the athmosphere and cause "unspecified" damages to an "unspecified" number of people in "unspecified" countries.

      Dang, talk about precision warfare.
      • The plutonium is larely incased in metal and ceramic that is designed to withstand little things like rentry impact and explosions.
      • Oh, please. Don't start sounding like these [animatedsoftware.com] wackos.

        I believe if you actually run the numbers the amount of plutonium in a satellite RTG spread over the world would give everyone approximately the rad exposure of a day on the beach.

        (I especially love how the stop cassini freaks talk about the "continued (but dimished)" dangers. What, do they think it's going to turn around or something?)

        • What happens if it blew up 20 seconds after takeoff and spreads said "unspecified" stuff over los angeles. Could it damage ground water/the lungs of 1.6 million people?
    • The Soviets used RTG's for their satellites for decades, namely cause they made such crappy solar panels and such. But thanks to them there is a crapload of plutonium orbiting [google.com] the Earth ;)
      • The Soviets made some use of RTGs, but they also used nuclear reactors in some of their spy satellites, as a very heavy duty power source. Way beyond RTGs.

        Cosmos 954 was one such. The normal end-of-life manouever for those things was to eject the reactor core to a much higher orbit while the rest disintegrated on reentry. 954 didn't separate, and pieces of satellite and reactor core were strewn across northwest Canada. The cleanup operation (Operation Morning Light) took a while, and we learned some interesting things about Soviet space reactor design from the pieces.
      • Not just the Soviets, the US did as well.

        Voyager, Cassini, Galileo, numerous spy sats and all Apollo moon missions had RTG reactors. I believe at least one of the Mars missions did as well.

        Do a search for "SNAP 9A reactor" to find out about the failed Transit 5-BN-3 mission that spread P-238 over the entire world in 1964. That one accident is credited as the main source of P-238 in the environment and was still detectable in the upper atmosphere as late as 1995 (The last time anyone checked). One group of researchers reported that contamination from that one accident was spread to every continent and was probably responsible for increased lung cancer rates 20 years later.

        The US currently has 4 abandoned plutonium reactors still in orbit, the Soviets have an unknown number. 8 of the reactors known to be still in orbit are damaged.

        Apollo 13's reactor is on the bottom of the Pacific ocean, hopefully undamaged. The other Apollo reactors are on the moon.

        Both the US ans the Soviets have used these reactors since the 60's to provide power on Earth for weather stations, light houses, marker buoys and monitoring and surveillance stations. It's assumed the Chinese have done the same but there's no information to confirm that.

        There was a reference a few years ago on the web about a CIA spy station in the mountains somewhere in Asia that had one of these reactors buried in a landslide and never recovered. I can't find it on the web anymore so maybe it's been pulled.

        There's no reason to assume that the plutonium in question is going into space. Maybe they're setting up a secret monitoring station in Afghanistan.
  • Undersea Equipment (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Detritus (11846) on Wednesday July 24, 2002 @05:53PM (#3947607) Homepage
    I've read that RTGs have been used for undersea equipment, like the combination line tap/recorder systems that the NSA has been reported to use on undersea communication cables.
  • but then I would have to kill you...
    So please just sign on the line below and we'll be set...

    x___________________
  • They took it so they could plant it on suspects (or plant the radiation on their gear, at least) to prove that they got the "real" terrorists.

    There's going to be a "dirty bomb" conspiracy that gets busted soon, maybe a few.

    • Um, since they can likely trace the mine/reactor it came out of they would also have to arrest some people in livermore or los alamos.
    • Not likely. There are only a few grams of this stuff available in the world. That makes it much easier to figure out where it came from.

      The bigger threat would be from radioactive material gained from the medical comunity or some other industry [csmonitor.com]which uses ratioactive material.

      Take for example the children of a Mexican scrap dealer who opened up a container and found a glowing substance inside. some of them painted their bodies with it, and others went home to eat with residues of it on their hands. It turns out the container was taken from a closed down hospital, and was quite radioactive. Not all the children lived to reach the age where they would have known better.

      Highly radioactive material is available from the crumbling infastructure in the former Soviet Union. Russia has already had an attempt on them, where a radio active dirty bomb was actually planted. Fortunatly for them, they caught it in time.

  • My guess is that this is a security measure to better protect material that may be useful for making a dirty bomb. I also like the satellite theory, though.
  • Secret spy satlites. Moon mining? Nuclear powered aircraft out in Nevada.

    Comedy alien answer: Nuke them from orbit.
  • What about the Stargate or 7 Days Projects... at least those were government agencies.
  • I believe it's Gigawatts, since most North Americans mis-pronounce the Giga prefix as "gigga".

  • Correction.... (Score:4, Informative)

    by jsimon12 (207119) <tzzhc4NO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Thursday July 25, 2002 @12:24AM (#3949410) Homepage
    Please tell me its Doc Brown looking for his 1.21 jigawatts

    Just so you know the accepted pronunciation of giga was actually " JIGA ", hence the usage in Back to the Future, people just stopped using that pronunciation when gigabyte drives became more prevalent in consumer goods cause people saw the G and figured it was said like Go instead of like Giant . So the time machine in the movie was powered by 1,210 megawatts, or 1.21 gigawatts.
  • Let's see... a few days ago an asteroid was discovered that we 'are told' 'may' impact the earth.
    And now plutonium, 7 kilograms (EXACTLY enough to build a nuclear bomb) is being sent for use to an 'undisclosed agency' ?

    Duh, I think we all see what's going on here.

    Someone is trying to make chocolate ice cream taste better by using plutonium.
  • I find the real interesting part to be the plans to buy plutonium from Russia.

    Why, I can remember a time when Russia was ready to GIVE us more plutonium than we needed for free. And with delivery times comparable to that of a pizza. What has the world come to?
  • *melvin the martian*
    Quick somebody stop that bush! He just stole my plutonium 238 Actuator!

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