Early Ideas for and Tests of the Use of Nuclear Explosions in Space

       I have made it clear in many posts that I do not think that nuclear power is appropriate for massive generation of commercial electricity. There are many reasons for my opinion that I have detailed over the past two years. That is not to say that there are not appropriate uses for nuclear materials. A large number of medical diagnostic and therapy procedures depend on radioactive isotopes. There are many industrial applications as well. However, even these uses have problems from production to disposal that can be problematic.

          One use for radioactive materials that does not have disposal problems are energy sources for space probes although there is a danger of pollution if a launch vehicle with radioactive materials on board explodes on launch or crashes back to Earth. While current use of nuclear materials on spacecraft is in the form of nuclear batteries that supply electricity for equipment and ionic engines, there is a history of projects aimed at the explosion of nuclear bombs in space for propulsion and research.

       The early history of nuclear devices and space began at the dawn of the Atomic Age in the 1950s. In 1957, there was a series of nuclear tests called Operation Plumbbob at the U.S. Nevada nuclear test site. There were twenty nine explosions that were used for a series of experiments on the effects of nuclear explosions on materials, humans, structures and equipment. During an underground test known as Pascal-B, in August of 1957, a four inch thick steel cap weighing hundreds of pounds was blown off and may have been launched into solar orbit. Although unintended, nonetheless, this may have been a successful launch of a payload from the surface of the Earth via nuclear explosion.

           Project A119 was a plan developed in 1958 to send a nuclear bomb to the Moon and detonated it on the surface. Apart from the scientific knowledge that might have been gained, there was also the idea that a nuclear detonation on the Moon that would be visible from the Earth would be a warning to the enemies of the United States. The project as never carried out and its existence was only revealed in 2000.

       The idea of using nuclear bombs for propulsion of interplanetary spacecraft was first proposed by Stanislaw Ulam, a mathematician working on nuclear weapons development in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1947. A formal project development was undertaken in 1958 under the name of Project Orion. First proposals for launching a spacecraft with nuclear bombs were scrapped because of the fallout that would result. Later proposals were to launch with conventional rockets or to assemble in space. Nuclear propulsion would only be used in space. The project was cancelled following the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. However, the development of designs for using nuclear explosions to propel spacecraft have continued to be developed with more recent systems using explosive pellets instead of large nuclear bombs. Both fission and fusion systems have been considered.

Project Orion Concept Art:

Geiger Readings for June 29, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 116 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 80  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 79 nanosieverts per hour
Crimini mushroom from Central Market = 140 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 123 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 116 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for June 28, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 86 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 102  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 81 nanosieverts per hour
Crimini mushroom from Central Market = 86 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 107 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 100 nanosieverts per hour

Geiger Readings for June 27, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 110 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 90  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 100 nanosieverts per hour
Mexican avacado from Central Market = 57 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 106 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 99 nanosieverts per hour
Dover sole - Caught in USA = 130 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 262 - MIT is Working On Offshore Floating Nuclear Plant Designs

        I recently posted a blog article about how the Russians were working on floating nuclear reactors on a barge. They are going to use them in ports, remote areas near a coast and in the Arctic to supply power to oil drilling rigs. I was skeptical about the wisdom of putting reactors out to sea but it turns out that not only the Russians are working on the idea. Nuclear engineers at MIT in the U.S. are going beyond the Russians in suggesting that a floating nuclear reactor be combined with an oil drilling rig.

        The MIT research team points out that although nuclear plants are attractive because they reduce carbon emissions, the process of licensing and constructing a nuclear power reactor is long and often runs overtime and budget. Siting a plant is difficult because there must be a body of water nearby to cool the reactor and there is often local opposition to any particular location being considered. Since Fukushima, public support for nuclear power has declined and investors eager to fund new reactors are harder to find. Building floating nuclear power reactors and anchoring them offshore can solve these problems because siting ceases to be a contentious issue, there is plenty of sea water for cooling and the danger to people and the environment on land is reduced.

        The MIT concept calls for an Offshore Floating Nuclear Plant that would be about forty five feet in diameter, mounted on an deep sea oil drilling platform. It would be able to generate about 300 megawatts. A one gigawatt OFNP would be about seventy five feet in diameter. Both models would include a helipad and living quarter for the crew. The reactor is in a pressure vessel low in the structure for stability. There is an empty chamber around the pressure vessel called the "containment" and then a hull around the containment separated by a gap. Beyond the hull is an area that is open to the seawater  

        The technology for oil rigs is well developed and a thriving industry to build them exists. There is also well developed technology and existing industry for seagoing nuclear reactors which power many naval vessels. The MIT design is thus combining two mature technologies with existing supply chains and construction expertise. The OFNPs would be constructed in existing shipyards so it would not be necessary to transport personnel, equipment and materials to a new site to construct each new reactor. The OFNPs are constructed mainly of steel so there is no need to pour huge amounts of concrete which emit significant quantities of carbon dioxide when nuclear power reactors and containment vessels are constructed on land.

       Following construction, the OFNP will be towed out to sea about ten miles. This is far enough away from coastlines to pose no threat to civilian populations. The water will be at least one hundred meters deep which will protect the OFNP from tsunamis and earthquakes. If there is an accident, seawater can be used to cool the reactor hull without contaminating the seawater. This is a passive system with no pumps. The design even prevents "thermal" pollution that might threaten the ocean ecosystem. There is sufficient spent fuel storage space onboard to take all the spent fuel created during the operational lifetime of the OFNP. When a OFNP is decommissioned, it would be towed back to shipyards that already do such decommissioning work today.

       While the MIT design is an interesting concept, there may still be problems with hurricanes. There will be danger to coastal areas when the OFNP is constructed but has not yet been towed out to sea or when it is towed in for service or decommission. And, the spent nuclear fuel will still have to be dealt with which is currently an unsolved problem. I think that offshore wind farms or floating solar power arrays would be a much better choice.

Artist's concept of MIT Offshore Floating Nuclear Plant:

Geiger Readings for June 26, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 94 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 87  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 89 nanosieverts per hour
California avacado from Central Market = 101 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 94 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 81 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 261 - Austria Is Going To Challenge The U.K. Hinkley Point C Nuclear Project in Court

         I have blogged recently about problems with the U.K. Hinkley Point C project to build two nuclear reactors. The French utility EDF is involved and the new reactors will be European Pressurized Reactors  constructed by the French company, AREVA. There are questions about the integrity of the reactor design. Chinese companies have offered to invest but they want to have permission to build, own and operate a power reactor in Bradwell, England based on their Chinese design. This has upset unions in England. A plan to guarantee a price for the electricity has raised challenges from other European Union countries over subsidizing nuclear projects.

       Austria is preparing to lodge a formal complaint in the European Court of Justice next week against the decision of the European Commission to allow the U.K. to proceed with the Hinkley Point C project. Austria is backed by Luxembourg, some cities and some private companies. Austria has decided that it will no longer accept nuclear power as a source for electricity because of its cost and environmental threat. Austria had been importing electricity generated by nuclear power plants in Germany and the Czech Republic but concluded in 2013 that it was going to ban all foreign electricity provided by nuclear power.

      Austria stated that it was not trying to interfere with another E.U. member's choice of sources for electricity. What they say they object to is the intention of the U.K. to use a "strike price" which would mean that if wholesale prices for electricity in the U.K. fell below a certain level, the government would step in and make up the difference so that the Hinkley Point power plant would not become unprofitable. The use of strike prices had been confined to renewable energy projects such as wind and solar in the past.

       A member of the Austria Parliament complains that the nuclear "technology gives reason for security concerns, and cannot be considered environmentally nor socially sustainable, nor is it an economically competitive technology. It is therefore not qualified to support the energy and climate goals the EU has set.” “In the EU treaty, it says state aid should only be granted in exceptional cases, and Hinkley does not provide these exceptional security of supply issues, because the U.K. has other ways of ensuring its security of supply,” he said. “It has cheap alternatives, notably renewables like offshore wind, and also more interconnections. Technically, there is no emergency situation.”

       The European Commission approved the Hinkley Point C plan in late 2014 after assurances from the U.K. that the changes they had made to the plan would protect ratepayers if it turned out that the reactor design had problems that would cause cancellation of the project. It is unlikely that the Commission will remove its support for Hinkley Point C plan because of the Austrian challenge but there will be an impact on the project nonetheless. Any changes that are made to the project plan could cause problems with financing and scheduling that could slow progress and upset investors.

       U.K. critics of the Hinkley Point C project point out that the price of electricity has fallen to the point where may soon be below the strike price agreed to before the reactors are even built. Some critics call for the U.K. to abandon nuclear power completely because of cost overruns, scheduling delays and design problems with other EPR projects currently under construction.

Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station:

Geiger Readings for June 25, 2015

Latitude 47.704656 Longitude -122.318745
Ambient office = 90 nanosieverts per hour
Ambient outside = 62  nanosieverts per hour
Soil exposed to rain water = 50 nanosieverts per hour
Danjou pear from Central Market = 116 nanosieverts per hour
Tap water = 86 nanosieverts per hour
Filtered water = 76 nanosieverts per hour

Nuclear Reactors 260 - Ukraine is Cancelling Contract with Russia for Completion of Two Nuclear Power Reactors

         Ukraine seems to be a place where many of the issues of nuclear power and nuclear weapons converge. Since Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, they have been ratcheting up the rhetoric about a possible military confrontation with NATO. Russian officials have commented that Russia could overcome NATO conventional forces with superior tactical nuclear weapons. They have also threatened to move nuclear weapons into the Crimea. Ukrainian officials are afraid that their existing nuclear reactors might  be intentional targets or accidental collateral damage in the ongoing civil war. There are concerns about how to fuel Ukrainian nuclear power plants now that Ukraine and Russia, their current source of nuclear fuel, are no longer on friendly terms. And, finally, there is a dispute over the completion of two nuclear power reactors in Ukraine that were being built by Russia.

       The Khmelnitski Nuclear Power Plant is located in Netishyn, Khmelnitski, Ukraine. There are two operational VVER-1000 nuclear power reactors generating a gigawatt each. Construction of the first reactor began in 1981 and it became operational in 1987. Construction of the second reactor began in 1983 with a projected completion date of 1991. A moratorium on nuclear plant construction halted work on the reactor in 1990. The reactor was completed and brought online in 2004 after the moratorium was lifted. Construction of a third VVER-1000 reactor was begun in 1985 and a fourth reactor in 1986. Work on both of these reactors was halted in 1990 because of the moratorium. The third reactor was about three quarters complete in 1990 and about a quarter of the work on the fourth reactor was done by 1990.

         An intergovernmental agreement was signed between Ukraine and Russia in 2010 for the completion of the third and fourth reactors. Late in 2010, Russia's Sberbank said that it would loan Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear plant operator, a billion dollars for the project while Energoatom supplied fifteen percent of the project costs.

       In early 2011, a contract for the construction was signed between Energoatom and Atomstroyexport which is the Russian general contractor for construction of Russian reactors in other countries. However, in mid-2011, Energoatom said that it was not satisfied with the interest rate that the Sberbank was offering. Following the annexation of the Crimea by Russia in 2014, the president of Energoatom announced that Ukraine would not cooperate with Russia in the completion of the two reactors at Khmelnitski.

      The deputy director of the Ukrainian Ministry of Energy and Coal just announced yesterday that Ukraine is preparing the legal documents necessary to cancel its contract with Russia for the completion of the third and fourth reactors at Khmelnitski. The deputy director said "Measures are being taken to cancel the agreement signed in 2010 with Russia. Today, an instruction was received from the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, which gives the Foreign Ministry and other relevant bodies the authority to resolve this matter as soon as possible. The document will soon be prepared and sent to Russia." The reason given for cancelling the contract was that "Russia failed to meet its obligations."

      The Ukrainian government is drafting legal documents to permit the alteration of the specifications for the two incomplete reactors so that they do not have to be Russian VVER-1000 models. The Czech company, Skoda JS, has been working with the VVER type reactors for forty years and has built three VVER-1000 reactors. The Ukrainian government wants to have Skoda JS complete the third and fourth reactors at Khmelnitski.

Khmelnitski Nuclear Power Station: