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Mars Earth Space Science

Rover Fuel Came From Russian Nuke Factory, But Supplies Running Low 139

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the bombs-into-probes dept.
gbrumfiel writes "The Curiosity rover will soon start rolling, and when it does, it will be running on gas from a Russian weapons plant. Slate has the story of how the plutonium-238 that powers the rover came from Mayak, a Soviet-era bomb factory. Mayak made the fuel through reprocessing, a chemical process used to make nuclear warheads that also polluted the surrounding environment. After the cold war ended, the Russians sold the spare Pu-238 to NASA, which put some of it into Curiosity. Now, the Russian supply is running low and NASA hopes to restart Pu-238 production on U.S. soil (They're planning on making less of a mess this time)." One interesting way of dealing with nuclear waste: reprocess fuel a few times, extracting Pu-238 and friends (those pesky "have to keep waste sealed forever to prevent hyper-squirrels in the year 3,001,000 from being irradiated" elements) and launching an army of deep space probes. But then there's the waste stream from reprocessing...
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Rover Fuel Came From Russian Nuke Factory, But Supplies Running Low

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  • by CajunArson (465943) on Monday August 20, 2012 @07:56PM (#41062019) Journal

    As part of the pseudo-environmentalist lead scare campaign against nuclear power you always hear about things that will supposedly be radioactive for ONE MILLION years (thank you Dr. Evil).

    Well, those ONE MILLION year radioactive elements won't power an RTG because they decay so slowly that the rate of heat production would hardly be measurable even with sensitive test equipment. You could use a lump of that stuff as a paper weight and as long as you didn't eat/drink/breath it then you would never have any negative health effects from it.

    The real issue with radioactive material is from materials like cesium and strontium that are pretty radioactive and have mid-range half-lives of ~30 years or so. Not a real issue for long-term storage since they will be pretty much gone in 1000 years, but not something you want spread around the environment ala Chernobyl, which, BTW, is coming up on its first half-life anniversary for the nastier elements.

  • by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:01PM (#41062081)

    What if I used it as a butt-plug?

    You would have a red-hot glowing asshole.

  • by jeffasselin (566598) <cormacolinde@@@gmail...com> on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:05PM (#41062127) Journal

    Pu238 is not Po210

    Although Polonium 210 has also been used in rovers (lunar ones), it's definitely not the same thing as Plutonium 238.

  • by CajunArson (465943) on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:11PM (#41062193) Journal

    RORSAT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kosmos_954 [wikipedia.org]

    Although it was a Uranium reactor and not plutonium.
    Moral of the story: The radioactivity caused mutant Canadians to have one hockey-stick shaped arm and another arm perfectly shaped to hold a beer. It was considered the greatest even in Canadian history.

  • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:57PM (#41062699)

    Idaho National Laboratory actually commented on the Slate piece, saying:

    It was disappointing to read Mr. Brumfiel's article. The Curiosity mission represents everything that is great about American ingenuity and engineering. For months, we've hosted a public website that explains via a virtual tour and factsheets how the nuclear battery was developed, fueled, tested and delivered. The website is available at http://www.inl.gov/marsrover [inl.gov].

  • by tragedy (27079) on Monday August 20, 2012 @10:10PM (#41063383)

    As you mentioned, that was Uranium, not Plutonium. It was also a reactor and not an RTG, which means that it's much harder to lock the fuel up in a safe, shielded container. RTGs use pellets of radioactive material inside a casing that will almost always survive a disastrous re-entry intact. Add to that the fact that Plutonium 238 is very safe relative to Uranium 235. There's no gamma radiation or neutrons and it can be effectively shielded with very thin shielding. The biggest danger it presents is probably that the capsule containing the Plutonium will hit someone on re-entry.

  • by NReitzel (77941) on Monday August 20, 2012 @10:39PM (#41063625) Homepage

    No life can exist for millions of years?

    You do realize you are so full of crap your eyes are brown?

    Nuclear fuel rod storage ponds have to be treated so that they don't grow algae. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is full of mink and fox and birds and mice. They're all radioactive, a little, but then we're all a little radioactive. If no life could live around Fukushima, why are crops from there prohibited from being shipped and sold?

    At least make a token effort to get the actual facts, mmmkay?

    -- Norm

  • Re:Good (Score:5, Informative)

    by serviscope_minor (664417) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @05:00AM (#41065573) Journal

    or something else (nuclear powered drones?)

    Pretty much not. PU238 puts otu a lot of heat and a lot of alpha particles. It's neither fissile nor fissionable. It does produce about 500W/kG of power, in the form of heat, which is not all that much for an aircraft.

    Regular old Uranium or Plutonium is what you want for a nuclear powered drone [wikipedia.org].

  • Re:Good (Score:5, Informative)

    by nojayuk (567177) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @06:51AM (#41066027)

    The US DoD uses Pu238 "batteries" in stealthy spacecraft, spysats without large solar panels that would otherwise be easily tracked using ground-based telescopes and radars. Another use for such power sources is seabed listening stations used to monitor submarine and surface-ship movements in "areas of interest".

    Pu-238 is made in specialised isotope-producing reactors. It's not extracted by reprocessing regular spent nuclear fuel from power-station reactors as it would be impossible to separate the Pu-238 out from the large quantities of other Pu isotopes bred from U-238 during regular operation. Those isotope-production reactors have been getting shut down in the US, Canada and elsewhere over the past couple of decades due to age, more restrictive licencing regulations and occasionally by celebrity-powered publicity campaigns. The ex-Soviet isotope reactor fleet is about the only regular source of such material operational today hence the national-security aspect -- the Russians are not that keen to make it easier for the DoD to spy on them by supplying them with lots of Pu-238.

  • by tp1024 (2409684) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @10:25AM (#41067819)

    Actually, it will be radioactive for millions of years

    Pu-238 decays into U-234, which has a half life of about a quarter million of years (subsequent isotopes are shorter lived). But still, its radioactivity drops by a factor 3000 to one tenth that of pure Pu-239. U-234 is a natural isotope that is the result of the decay of U-238 (to Thorium-234, which decays in two steps to U-234) - there's plenty of that around on earth, it decays (among other isotopes) into each of the well known isotopes Radium-226, Radon-222, Polonium-210 and eventually stable Lead-206 ( Uranium decay is the original source of almost all the lead we have on earth today).

    All of which we deal with on a daily basis without panicking or evacuating huge areas - even though places like Cornwall are sufficiently "contaminated" with all of those by nature, that they would have to have been evacuated, if the criteria of post-Chernobyl evacuations had to be met all over the world. However, increased cancer rates, Mutants, Zombies and Gozilla are noticably absent from over 1000 years of historical records of Cornwall.

  • Re:Good (Score:4, Informative)

    by gl4ss (559668) on Tuesday August 21, 2012 @11:37AM (#41068681) Homepage Journal

    might as well link to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_generator#238Pu.2C_90Sr [wikipedia.org]

    now.. Po-210 sounds like fun on a bun, but the pu really sounds like the best thing for long term electricity generation.

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