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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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  • by trout007 (975317) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:07PM (#38191938)

    You mean radiation can't penetrate 6,000 meters of water? If you look at the decay chain of PU 238 they are all solid until you get to radon. And at 6000 m of water the pressure is enough to keep it a liquid and too dense to bubble up.That means all of the decay products will sit there in the water and decay protected by an equivalent shielding of 1000 ft of lead.

  • by stox (131684) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:14PM (#38192056) Homepage

    find that Mark 15 H-Bomb they misplaced somewhere near the coast of Georgia?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958_Tybee_Island_mid-air_collision [wikipedia.org]

  • by Gavin Scott (15916) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:28PM (#38192234)

    We used to just set off fission and fusion bombs in the air and on the ground, so I would kinda think the long term risk from a small amount of PU238 at the bottom of the ocean is not all that much in the grand scheme of things, especially since it may be completely contained.

    Oh, and there may be a few people still walking around with similarly plutonium-powered pacemakers in their chests...

    http://www.theodoregray.com/periodictable/Samples/094.3/index.s12.html [theodoregray.com]
    http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/miscellaneous/pacemaker.htm [orau.org]

    G.

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Monday November 28, 2011 @12:29PM (#38192240) Journal

    I always wondered whether or not recovering this would be viable, but I wasn't sure since I know next to nothing about nuclear physics if this plutonium (Pu) could be used to make a bomb. Still, I guess it could be used for a dirty bomb.

    When Cassini was launched I figured that (if the plutonium was the right kind), Saddam Hussein (remember him?) might be very interested in getting a hold of the 70(!) lbs. of Pu on board. Cassini was scheduled to do a flyby (gravitational assist) using the earth, passing overhead at an altitude of 800 miles I think, and it would be easy to redirect it so that it would instead impact the earth almost anywhere, say for example the Iraqi desert. Since the RTGs carrying the plutonium were specifically designed to handle the most horrific accidents like an explosion on launch or reentry, I figured that all Saddam had to do was get control of Cassini.

    He (or rather his minions) wouldn't need to control Cassini for a long period of time. All that would have to be done would be to make the appropriate course correction WHILE USING UP ALL THE FUEL. Then even if NASA (or most likely by then the CIA) wrested control back of Cassini, they could only watch helplessly while Cassini plummeted back to earth into Saddams greedy little hands (and into a James Bond like action movie as MI-6 tried to recover it).

    I actually knew the senior flight control engineer on Cassini at the time and asked him if anyone had offered him a couple of million dollars to make this happen. He laughed and said of course not and there were safeguards to prevent this from happening but then told me not to tell anyone about this idea. (Maybe he was afraid of someone making him an offer he couldn't refuse). Now that Cassini is safe orbiting Saturn, New Horizons is out of the inner solar system and MSL is on its way to Mars I guess it's okay to talk about it now! (All these probes have plutonium filled RTGs).

    Anyway, the other point that the summary makes is that with undersea technology now getting robust and cheap enough for non-governments to afford it, there are other nuclear prizes in the deep sea. Like what about the Thresher which even if it wasn't carrying nuclear warheads, certainly had a huge amount of nuclear fuel in its reactor? Or even more to the point how bout the nuclear sub the CIA tried to lift in the 70s using Howard Hughes and the Glomar Challenger as a cover? That sub WAS carrying nuclear warheads and that was the part of the sub they were unable to recover. (There are lots of other nukes lost at sea, I'm sure Google or Wikipedia can enlighten you).

    So if Al-Qaeeda starts developing undersea technology, you know what they're after. Or maybe they'll just use it to smuggle drugs like the south american drug cartels are doing.

  • by Squidlips (1206004) on Monday November 28, 2011 @01:00PM (#38192618)
    The Russian Mars-96 probe never left orbit and dumped 200 grams of Plutonium 238 over Bolivia, none of which has been recovered...at least no one is talking about it. Some of this Plutonium 238 was in ground penetrators that were designed to survive atmospheric entry and impact so it is probably still out there unless someone has quietly snatched it up. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_96#Fate_of_the_plutonium_fuel [wikipedia.org]
  • by residieu (577863) on Monday November 28, 2011 @01:41PM (#38193076)
    By that logic do you even need anything radioactive in your dirty bomb? Just CLAIM it contained plutonium and you'll generate the necessary paranoia. Anyone trying to tell people that there was nothing there is just trying to cover it all up.
  • by nojayuk (567177) on Monday November 28, 2011 @06:41PM (#38196354)

    Seawater is already radioactive, reading about 10-11 Bequerels/litre in a scintillometer. The isotope responsible is potassium-40, the same stuff that makes sea salt trigger a Geiger counter. A BOTE calculation suggests the oceans contain about 50 million tonnes of this radioactive isotope, half-life about a billion years.

    There's also three tonnes of uranium dissolved in each cubic kilometre of seawater. At a ratio of 0.6% U-235 (the fissile stuff) that's about 20kg or enough for a simple nuke of the Hiroshima type in each cubic kilometre and there are 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of seawater.

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