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Using a Toy Train To Calibrate a Reactor 120

alfredos writes "Physicists and engineers at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory built tracks inside a fusion reactor and ran a toy train for three days to help them with their calibrations. From the article: 'The modified model of a diesel train engine was carrying a small chunk of californium-252, a radioactive element that spews neutrons as it falls apart. “We needed to refine the calibration technique to make sure we are measuring our neutrons as accurately as possible,” said Masa Ono, the project head of the National Spherical Torus Experiment.'"


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Using a Toy Train To Calibrate a Reactor

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  • by srothroc ( 733160 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:25PM (#30689124) Homepage
    Nuclear reactor training?
    • by Monkeedude1212 ( 1560403 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:32PM (#30689168) Journal

      One of these days I'm going to have to set up my laptop right beside the drumset and read slashdot.

      Gotta practice those rimshots.

      (who knows, maybe one day I'll be a great sidekick on a late night talk show!)

    • by Renraku ( 518261 )

      Yeah. Then you can start researching 'reactor coolant' and 'reactor control systems' so that someday, in a few weeks, you'll be qualified to build your own nuclear reactor. Then you just need a ship for it to go in, but don't worry, after all that, it'll be destroyed by someone waiting outside of a jump gate.

      • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

        Ha, that reminds me that I need to take them up on their 5 free days offer just so I can switch my character to the next skill that will take a month to train to L5. EVE is almost as bad as Mafia Wars, I swear :P

        • Ha, that reminds me that I need to take them up on their 5 free days offer just so I can switch my character to the next skill that will take a month to train to L5.

          Unless they changed it back, CCP changed character training a while ago so that it stopped when the account expired.

          • Dammit. I guess I better get my account reactivated tomorrow sometime.
          • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

            Doh! Grr, just as well. It's not like I haven't been this disappointed since... well, since Vendetta Online adopted the same licensing system from EVE :P

            It used to be really neat to be able to jump into the game as a new character and run a few obscure and risky trade runs to upgrade to the biggest ship within a few hours. Lousy games that substitute stat grinding for skillz :P

    • Nuclear reactor training?

      Haha, that joke will have them all laughing at the Pwinceton Pwecious Wittle Pwasma Physics Wabowatowy, right before their milk and nappy time.

    • by Eberlin ( 570874 )

      More One liners...

      * They need to make sure that the project is on track
      * Wait, this isn't the land of make believe!
      * And there they are, just chugging along...
      * Is this a hold up? No, it's a science experiment!
      * On that note, shouldn't it be pushing a DeLorean around?
      * I'm surprised I hadn't heard anyone rail against this.
      * all their findings have to start with "If the californium-252 train leaves the station at 5 o'clock..."

  • Aha! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Monkeedude1212 ( 1560403 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:27PM (#30689138) Journal

    You can use this just about anywhere. Now I have an excuse to bring the train into the office!

    Boss: What's this?

    Me: I'm calibrating the security cameras motion detection system. We need to know at what speeds the motion detection fails, lest the server room be broken into by someone with alot of patience.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by type40 ( 310531 )

      That how I use to sneak into the house back in high-school. I'd coast my car into the driveway and slow walk across the lawn. A five count per step was slow enough to keep the motion light (that was aimed at my light sleeping parents bedroom) from going off.

    • by DeadSea ( 69598 )
      The IT department here used on of those "perpetual motion" drinking birds to test the video conference system. A week before the big meeting, they set up the link between our Boston office and our London office, put a drinking bird in front of the camera, and made sure that the connection remained stable enough that it wasn't going to drop during the three hours that we really needed it.
    • by kwerle ( 39371 )

      ... We need to know at what speeds the motion detection fails, lest the server room be broken into by someone with alot of patience.

      But not if they have just alittle patience? Wait, that doesn't look right...

      http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/alot [wiktionary.org]

  • by Wonko the Sane ( 25252 ) * on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:29PM (#30689154) Journal

    I did this plenty of times in the Navy, except that they have a tube installed that circled the reactor between it and the detectors.

    The tube contained the source and you moved it from detector to detector by pulling on a cable that was attached to both ends.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yes, during the precritical checkoff. I've done WAY to many of those. It was also required as part of the testing after replacing the source range detectors which I did as well.
      Our source used to get stuck and it took a repeated action of a small push and then a hard pull to get it past some areas. The yellow water on the cable was not a good sign either :(

      • The yellow water on the cable was not a good sign either :(

        So that's why they always insisted of getting ELTs involved... I always thought that those type of leaks were just a myth.

    • Yeah, except you did for periodic maintenance to calibrate a piece of equipment older than yourself, not set up cutting edge equipment. That, and I don't think the equipment was sensitive to measure the difference of a few feet AND still work over twelve or thirteen decades. But that;s why they get the big grant bucks.

      • That's all true, but on the other hand I bet they don't trust their reactor enough to build berthing areas 50' away from it either.

    • The second hardest part of doing the source pull was trying to read the silly little numbered beads on the cable.

      The hardest part was unbolting and rebolting the freakin' coverplate over the sourcebox. Stupid stupid design. And of course the silly gasket material that was just glued to the back of the coverplate... and never stayed glued. I always wished I could meet the guy who designed that torture box, and make him do a few pulls.

      Here's to never having to do another precritical checkoff!
    • I was about to mention the very same thing before I scrolled down and saw your reply. (Though I was an FTB, not a nuke.)

    • gah. you navy nukes just never give it up, do you? lol. class 9001. em. uss miami ssn 755. fair winds, guys.
  • by Jon.Laslow ( 809215 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:41PM (#30689224) Homepage Journal
    Makes more sense than using random passengers to test your airport bomb-detecting technology.

    Oh. Right.
  • Spherical Torus? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tunabomber ( 259585 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:42PM (#30689230) Homepage

    Those two surfaces are fundamentally different, topologically speaking. Would a spherical torus would look something like a 4-sided triangle? Or sound like one hand clapping?


  • ... did something like this in one story, I'm fairly sure.

    Those toy trains are very versatile.

  • Casey Jones (Score:4, Funny)

    by Dupple ( 1016592 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:50PM (#30689286)
    Casey Jones, streaming and decaying
    Casey on the Californium Express

    • I've got a whole shelf in my garage full of Americium, I just don't know where to get rid of it.

      • by Sanat ( 702 )

        Dump it in Canberra... they would never even notice.

        Use to spend a lot of time in Lower Templestowe.

        • The proper response from a Lower Templestowe person would be to say "Dump it in Bulleen".

          • by Sanat ( 702 )

            You are right... especially if the wind is blowing westward... might get Heidelberg too!

            I loved my years in Australia, but alas I am back in the ole USA once again.

    • Casey Jones, streaming and decaying
      Casey on the Californium Express

      All aboard for the Little Lego Moderators.

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Thursday January 07, 2010 @07:53PM (#30689332) Journal

    I know the physicists mean well, and it probably gets the job done, but for some reason the notion that they use a toy train to calibrate a nuclear reactor would not make me feel more secure about living near a nuclear reactor.

    Maybe if they'd used slot cars.

    Hey, now there's a generational reference. Who among us remembers slot cars? And who among us is willing to admit it?

    • I remember slot cars as if it were just last week [nomadslotracing.com]. Any "obsolete" passtime you can think of, their is probably somebody out there doing it at this very minute.
      • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

        Can't be *that* obsolete if you can still buy them in hobby stores. Best set I had when I was a kid had jumps and loops. Always found them rather boring compared to R/C cars, though, which you can get in the same scale now.

        My grandmother had a set of mechanical slot tracks, that actually had a long chain that ran through a gully... you could stick pins in just about any matchbox car and race them around that track. Also pretty boring, but *there's* something so obsolete that would be a challenge to find

    • Still some interest in them here [pacific.net.au]. My nephew lives near this one and had had his birthday there a few times.

    • by vxice ( 1690200 )
      I find it much like while at the dentist and they are passing all sorts of sharp objects drills and such that they are forcing into my mouth they are engaging in completely casual conversation like it is nothing unusual. While I'm sure that for them it is unusual and as boring as my job once it has been repeated many times it makes it no less stressful for me.
    • So... You are saying that you were a kid sometime between 1912 [wikipedia.org] and now?

      Or are you trying to say that you are Scottish? [imdb.com]

    • Nothing wrong with that... How about real trains. Have CSX carrying nuclear fuel bundles down track about 1/4 mile from where I'm sitting right now, on a fairly regular basis.
    • by wb5bbw ( 143967 )

      I remember slot cars with great fondness... I think there might be a slot car track still in town.
      I still have my Revell set in the garage, but the controllers are MIA.

      That being said, how about using a Cadillac power antenna to move the neutron source in/out of a 5W teaching reactor? We had to do that when the safety office wouldn't let us use underclassmen to do it.

    • > Who among us remembers slot cars? And who among us is willing to admit it?

      Who said they ever went away? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nc39leiusGY [youtube.com]

      Hmmm... I think I just decided what my nephew is getting for Christmas when he's at least 4 or 5 :)

    • by delt0r ( 999393 )
      I brought a slot car set for my wife for Christmas.
      • I brought a slot car set for my wife for Christmas.

        If she actually wanted the slot car set, your wife must be really awesome.

        I tried to give my wife a PS3 and a copy of Red Faction Guerilla, but she was having none of it. I even tried the "but it's a Blu-Ray player, too!" approach, but she's too smart for that one.

  • by e_armadillo ( 14304 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @08:03PM (#30689418) Journal

    "So you want to put a toy train in my reactor?" Condescending glare and awkward silence . . .

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by shabtai87 ( 1715592 )
      I wonder if it started as a joke: Admin: and how do you propose we sprinkle the neutrons around our reactor? Physicist(sarcastically): I dunno, we put it in a toy train and run it in circles. Admin: OK, get me the results by Fri.
    • As someone with with years of experience in model railroading, that story is "real scary."

      You mean to tell me you are going to count on a model train going around its tracks for 3 days straight without someone, at some time during the 3 days, to either have to give the train a nudge when it gets stuck, or put it back on the track?

      • I remember reading that shortly after the Hornby Dublo model of a BR Standard 4 tank engine came out (in the 50s), one was used to take samples into an irradiation chamber. Unfortuantely I can't find it onlline, but I believe it was mentioned in an editorial of /Railway Modeller/ about 10 years ago. I believe in that case, they actually had a train, rather than a single unit, and the system remained in use for many years.

  • From the first line of TFA:

    During the holiday season, many people place toy trains on circular tracks beneath their Christmas trees.

    I've never heard of that before.

  • I didn't have time to read the article but I must say I love the new look of the TARDIS.
  • So, that is what is the real Atomic Train [imdb.com]!
  • All I can picture is the tiny conductor from shining time station driving around the toy train as the thermal reaction is occurring.
  • Could we start using more stuff off the shelves of Toys'R'Us for our high energy physics devices?

    Component Construction Models. Extension sets. Made of hardened plastic. Safe for kids.

    A paper about this would make a brilliant entry for an Ig Nobel.

    C'mon physicists! Let's set that K'nex plastic ball accelerator!

  • Running dope to the US using a model train set up running across the border. Looks like they used the same gauge too.
    • Funny I just sent a link to this page to a friend and titled the email "Patrick Swayze Express"
  • I believe Doc Brown used a toy train to test his hypothesis and timing of sending the car into the crosswire from the lightning bolt, thereby providing the 1.21 gigawatts necessary to run the flux capacitor and sending Marty McFly back to the future,... ;-)
  • I'm really not a fan of this sort of reactor design because it greatly reduces one of my favorite features of toroidal plasma devices- kink (aka sausage) instability. It's just not proper science without a little kinky sausage.
  • by woboyle ( 1044168 ) on Thursday January 07, 2010 @09:36PM (#30690010)
    I can just see the adv. on eBay now: Slightly used, somewhat radioactive train set. Glows in the dark! Minimum bid $50.00
    • by alc6379 ( 832389 )
      I dunno man... Al Qaeda might be all over it...
      • Heck, I got my grandkids the Lionel Area 51 train set for xmas a few years ago. It had a glow-in-the-dark UFO following it!
      • NSA agent 1: They have what?
        NSA agent 2: A radioactive toy train.
        NSA agent 1: That's... hardly scary. How radioactive is it?
        NSA agent 2: I guass if you licked it for a few days straight you might get a measurable dose.
        NSA agent 1: What are they going to do wth it, run it into a squirrel?
        NSA agent 2: *sigh* That's what they're going to do: Tell us about it.

        Meanwhile in a ca
    • Slightly used, somewhat radioactive train set. Glows in the dark! Minimum bid $50.00

      I'd bid for that. Unfortunately, I fear that it would probably cost a good deal more than 50 of any common currency unit. (I spent 30 "pint vouchers" on 2 copies of the Hornby [note] catalogue last year ... and decided that while a trip back to childhood pleasures would be fun, I really couldn't justify it. Well, I couldn't justify it while sober.

      Also unfortunately, and prosaically, I would be surprised if the lab didn't hav

      • Children are generally referred to as he or she, hence in the possessive "his" or "hers". "It's" is the contraction of "it is". "Its" is the possessive of a thing eg. "its hard drive".
  • Am I the only one who looked at the that lab and rails and thought of Gordon Freeman "On a Rail"?

    I thought so.

  • The CS department in University of Waterloo has a train set in their real-time computing lab, not sure if it is still there now since it has been a good 5 years since I was last there.
  • Californium is only slightly radioactive, so the toy train did not glow green after its ride in the fusion reactor.

    Gaah! Why does this misunderstanding persist? Generally, things which are exposed to radioactivity do not themselves become radioactive (and radioactive things do not glow green, for that matter).

    • Yes, they do, or the shielding on reactors would not become contaminated over time, and a lot of secondary nuclear waste wouldn't be such an issue, and NASA would have an easier time shielding astronauts from solar radiation. It's not an instantaneous transformation: it's not like a flu virus or cooties, it takes significant exposure to high energy radiation.

      Whether they glow is relative to the type and *amount* of radiation. I take it that you don't remember radium watch dials?

      • Whether they glow is relative to the type and *amount* of radiation. I take it that you don't remember radium watch dials?

        No argument about secondary radiation, but I think you'll find the green glow is a myth. Blue glow, yes - see Cerenkov radiation. I think you'll find that the radium watches work by energizing phosphor or some similar fluorescent material. In other words, it is the phosphor which is glowing green, not the radium itself.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Generally, things which are exposed to radioactivity do not themselves become radioactive

      It depends on what form it is exposed to. If it is exposed to radioactivity in the form of a solid or dust or particulate material suspended in the air then it is quite possible for it to become contaminated.

      If an object is exposed to radiation then it depends on the type. Neutron radiation is known for activating stable materials and making them radioactive while alpha, beta and gamma radiation generally does not.

    • by mspohr ( 589790 )
      We know that but it's much more fun to imagine glowing green globs of ginormous grilled gunk.
  • It's amusing. I work at a British research establishment that used to do work for the Royal Navy. We had a little set of toy train tracks set up in the garden to help with our work on missile targeting systems.
  • I knew those engineers were hired for a reason

  • Toys are used quite often in research. Who do you think buy the most Mindstorm Lego? We use Lego in vacuum systems on occasion. If Lego came in 316L stainless steel, they'd take a big chunk out of Varian's business.
  • I spent a summer working at the DIII-D tokamak in La Jolla, CA back in 2001, and this system was already in use. It had clearly been around for years, and the train (and track) had been packed & unpacked for the n-th time during a long period of scheduled downtime. Things were starting up again, and the neutron detectors had to be calibrated. It was my job to get the train working, making sure the connections were good by assembling the train outside of the chamber & sanding the aluminum (some of

I've noticed several design suggestions in your code.