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Mars Earth Space Science

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

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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  • Good (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ThePeices ( 635180 ) on Monday August 20, 2012 @07:55PM (#41062013)

    Good. Nice to see plutonium used for more worthwhile endeavours than nuclear weapons.

  • by NReitzel ( 77941 ) on Monday August 20, 2012 @08:28PM (#41062389) Homepage

    Yes, there is a waste stream from reprocessing.

    However, it is informative to look at how and when the mess that is - among others - Hanford, came to be.

    At the time, the Military was building bombs to kill a million people at a shot, and the prevailing attitude was that the Soviet Union was only a month away from launching bombers and submarines and missiles, to kill US citizens by the tens or hundreds of millions. The Russians thought the same thing of the US; I think it perplexed them terribly that we didn't attack. After all, their sworn ally, Adolf Hitler, just changed his mind one day and launched a full scale invasion. So the Russians (and Ukranians, and others) were building bombs to kill people in the US by the tens or hundreds of millions.

    Along with all this paranoia, came a driving requirement to build more and bigger weapons. There was a bomber gap, then a missile gap, and if you watched Dr. Strangelove, a mine shaft gap. No one in the bomb business was worrying about poisoning a few hundred workers, or a few thousand coyotes or fish or prairie dogs. They were building bombs, and it was enough that the waste from their efforts not end up with dead workers before they managed to actually build their bombs.

    They temporized, they were careless (careless enough to skewer a reactor operator to a concrete slab with a control rod), but most of all, they were in a tearing hurry. They had to build those bombs before the Rooskies (or the Amerikans) attacked.

    It's no wonder they did a crap job.

    One would sincerely hope that today, we are a little more rational. We can reprocess fuel - we know the basic processes - and we can do so without making a radioactive dead spot on the prairie, or creating glow-in-the-dark salmon. It's kind of like building airplanes. Mistakes happen, people die. But every time something bad happens, we send in very smart engineers and figure out what happened, and why, and design new and better processes so that the next time, fewer people die.

    Chernobyl happened for exactly the same reasons. The Soviets essentially copied the very first Fermi pile (the one under the squash stadium), added cooling and steam pipes, and scaled it up by a factor of a few thousand. This was poor engineering, but it was quick, and they had to get their reactors online quickly so that they could make the materials to make the bombs that they needed to defend themselves. All delusion (well, mostly delusion) but they had a good reason, as did we. The end result was a whopping big accident, but pay close attention here, there was no nuclear explosion.

    We can reprocess fuel rods - which to me, sounds a whole lot better than leaving thousands of tons of insanely radioactive stuff cooling its heels in ponds all over the world. By reprocessing the fuel, we can make new fuel, we can take that crazy hot stuff and concentrate it into kilograms instead of tonnes, and incidentally, make it radioactive enough that no terrorist could stay alive long enough to steal it. We can separate needed isotopes for space exporation and cancer treatment and food sterilization.

    And what do we have to give up to do this? We have to give up irrational fear. There are lots of things to fear - read Feynman's talk about building Y-12 - but the things to fear are real things, not crazy paranoid fantasies. The Fukushima disaster may have achieved criticality of stored used fuel rods, but there was no nuclear explosion. People died, from the tidal wave. Some people were exposed to low levels of radiation, but as was pointed out earlier in this venue, less exposure than they would have had than had they simply lived in Denver, USA for a year.

    We can do this. We have the technology, we have the scientists, we have the engineers. Like any new thing, there will be mistakes, and perhaps those mistakes will cost lives. The comparison isn't to "will bad things happen if we do this" -- the proper comparison is "what bad things will happen if we don't do this."

    -- Norm Reitzel

  • Re:Good (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwaterNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday August 20, 2012 @11:05PM (#41063825) Homepage

    Good. Nice to see plutonium used for more worthwhile endeavours than nuclear weapons.

    That's like saying "Good. Nice to see aluminum used for more worthwhile endeavours than nuclear weapons". It's not insightful, it's ludicrous - the isotope of Plutonium used in RTG's is useless for bombs, and the isotope used in bombs is useless for RTG's.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.