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NASA Science

Will NASA Ever Recover Apollo 13's Plutonium From the Ocean 263

Posted by samzenpus
from the clean-up-your-mess dept.
An anonymous reader writes "'Houston, we've had a problem,' said astronaut Jack Swigert on April 13, 1970. But the problem wasn't as simple as three astronauts potentially trapped in the void of space, 200,000 miles from Earth. The catastrophic risk came from the SNAP-27 radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), a small nuclear reactor that was going to be placed on the moon to power experiments, carrying Plutonium 238 in Apollo 13's lunar module. As luck would have it, NASA had experience losing RTGs – a navigation satellite failed to reach orbit in 1964 and scattered small amounts of plutonium over the Indian Ocean. The SNAP-27 had been engineered to make it back to Earth intact in such an incident. The plutonium, like the astronauts, apparently survived reentry and came to rest with what remained of the lunar module in the Tonga Trench south of Fiji, approximately 6-9 kilometers underwater (its exact location is unknown). Extensive monitoring of the atmosphere in the area showed that no radiation escaped."
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Will NASA Ever Recover Apollo 13's Plutonium From the Ocean

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  • Why would they? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Monday November 28, 2011 @11:59AM (#38191846) Homepage Journal
    It would take a lot of effort and money to disturb this sleeping dog. Why go to the trouble?
  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Thud457 (234763) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:02PM (#38191888) Homepage Journal

    6Km under the ocean is probably the safest place for it.

    Putting it on the Moon would probably had been safer.

  • Re:Why would they? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drhemi (414356) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:11PM (#38192006)

    Because people believe the media's saber rattling and they believe Ralph Nader who said that plutonium is “the most toxic substance known to mankind.” Even though it isn't. It's just too bad Ralph didn't accept Dr. Bernard Cohen's challenge to ingest equal amounts of caffeine to plutonium.

    Basically it's a "Won't somebody please think of the children!" kind of response and the government loves to keep idiots happy.

  • wtf? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by iocat (572367) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:18PM (#38192114) Homepage Journal
    Wow, that's a really poorly written article. From TFA:

    The catastrophic risk came from the SNAP-27 radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), a small nuclear reactor that was going to be placed on the moon to power experiments, carrying Plutonium 238 Apollo 13’s lunar module.

    What does that even mean? Anyway, if it was in the LEM, did the LEM even survive rentry? Since it had no heat shield, etc.? Is the LEM still attched to the CM during re-entry even? Pretty sure it's not.

  • by Zorpheus (857617) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:20PM (#38192148)
    Are you worried about 3.8kg of Plutonium dilluted in the ocean?
  • Re:No (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gplus (985592) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:29PM (#38192244)
    From TFA:
    "The plutonium was in an oxide form about one-tenth of a millimeter in diameter contained in fuel capsule, which itself was inside a graphite and ceramic fuel cask." - Leonard Dudzinski, a NASA program executive.

    Is this another example of a NASA guy who doesn't understand metric units, or is the plutonium RTG really just a sphere not much wider than a hair?
  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cruff (171569) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:40PM (#38192376) Homepage
    My guess is that the unit is made up of multiple pellets of that composition from which the heat of decay is used to generate electricity. The Curiosity rover is said to use 4 kg of Pu 238 to power it.
  • by dotancohen (1015143) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:41PM (#38192390) Homepage

    The Plutonium 238 is suitable for RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) but not for bombs.

    Maybe this info will spare us most "nuke" posts (terrorist jokes, etc).

    Furthermore, RTGs are not nuclear reactors as the summary states.

    Furtherfurthermore, why is this news now and not 40 years ago?

  • Re:Why would they? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dotancohen (1015143) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:48PM (#38192456) Homepage

    It would take a lot of effort and money to disturb this sleeping dog. Why go to the trouble?

    Sleeping dog? You mean dead dog. The RTG was out of useful power 5 years after it was made. That was 40 years ago. The thing is now a uranium-contaminated rock that would be harder to purify than the raw materials from the ground.

  • by icebike (68054) on Monday November 28, 2011 @02:20PM (#38193476)

    It's also worth noting that you're talking about nuclear weapons. It can be used to make "dirty" bombs [wikipedia.org], however.

    There are far more readily available sources than dredging up something 6-9 kilometers under the sea.
    Anyone with the resources to reach something that deep could make a dirty bomb without all the drama of launching a deep sea mission to do so.

  • by c6gunner (950153) on Monday November 28, 2011 @02:38PM (#38193684)

    It's also worth noting that you're talking about nuclear weapons. It can be used to make "dirty" bombs, however.

    Only a really stupid terrorist would bother with dirty bombs. The added impact (vs conventional bombs) is negligible, and the risk of detection goes up drastically.

    Dirty bombs are one of those "threats" that some military consultant dreamed up because he was asked to come up with an exhaustive list of possibilities, and the media latched on to it because most people are stupid, uninformed animals who react instinctively at the mention of the word "nuclear". A more real threat is chemical and biological (especially biological) warfare, though even there we've seen no serious attempts by any of the major players. Your standard suicide bombings are a much more likely scenario - personally I expected to see at least a few of those pulled off against targets like trains and busses by now, but the American feds seem to be doing an excellent job at stopping them.

  • by Oswald McWeany (2428506) on Monday November 28, 2011 @03:59PM (#38194610)

    All that is true. However the amount of terror it would cause with the general population is quite significant when compared to a dirty bomb (whole purpose of terrorism).

    If you think about the fukushima incident where people in the US were needlessly buying iodine pills.

    A dirty bomb would cause a much bigger panic amongst people- it wouldn't just be a few overly paranoid individuals. It would be a lot of overly paranoid individuals.

    The average terror plot doesn't really affect that many people physically- it is about the mental impact on the population as a whole. A dirty bomb would give a nation a big mental black eye.

  • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday November 28, 2011 @04:12PM (#38194762)

    There are far more readily available sources than dredging up something 6-9 kilometers under the sea.

    Not for the mermen we were talking about initially!

The meta-Turing test counts a thing as intelligent if it seeks to devise and apply Turing tests to objects of its own creation. -- Lew Mammel, Jr.

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