Thursday, February 11, 2010

Stupid Nuke Tricks

One of the most interesting (and to my mind, hopeful) things about the recent State of the Union address was the support that President Obama gave to an increased role for nuclear power in America. It was even better to see that his proposed FY2011 budget included funding for this initiative. While nuclear power does have its hazards, those hazards are manageable if you give sufficient care to planning beforehand. Plus, if you're truly serious about weaning us off of fossil fuels, there's just no way to make up the energy shortfall without nuclear power. The numbers are inexorable. You just can't get there from here, otherwise.

But not all nuclear power is created equal. While some uses are good and responsible, other uses lie somewhere on the continuum between dumb and stone barking mad. We're going to look at some of the crazier ideas to come from my colleagues over the last sixty years or so.

Project Orion: Imagine, if you will, a spacecraft poised for flight. And not just any spacecraft -- this beast tips the scales at ten thousand tons or so. It's stocked with provisions for an expedition to Saturn, the crew is strapped in and ready for launch, and the countdown nears zero. Then, when the count reaches zero, the mighty engine roars to life. It is more or less at this point that an atomic bomb drops down into the gap under the launch gantry and detonates.

Ummm ... say what?

No, that's not a particularly gruesome form of sabotage. Orion is supposed to work that way. The technical name for this is pulsed nuclear propulsion, and the name almost but not quite makes you forget that you're zooming through space by lighting off nukes under your butt.

It all started with one of the early above-ground nuclear tests. They put all kinds of things in the fireball region, just to see what the blast would do. One of the things they tested was a graphite-covered steel sphere. To everyone's astonishment, the sphere was recovered after the blast more or less unharmed. Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson got to discussing this experiment over hamburgers, and had a splendid idea. If you were to take a graphite-coated steel plate, and mount it to the world's biggest shock absorbers, you'd have a dandy rocket system. You could lift absurd amounts of weight, and take it anywhere in the Solar System. And you don't really need a landing gear as such, since anywhere you land is going to be by-God FLAT by the time you get there...

They got as far as building a small test model that flew using chemical explosives, in 1959. "Hot Rod" flew for 23 seconds, to a height of 56 feet, and proved that the principle was at least possible. Then it came time to develop full-scale vehicles ... at which point the higher-ups took notice, and pronounced the idea nuts. The Test Ban Treaty pretty much put a kibosh on the whole idea, to say nothing of what the launch would do to the host state's property values.

Project Pluto: A nuclear missile, by any meaningful use of the word. Not only would it have carried a nuclear warhead, but it would also have been powered by a nuclear ramjet. And in its later iteration, the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, it would carry multiple warheads that it could distribute to several targets. "A fine idea," the brass said, "now how do you propose to test it?" This is a non-trivial problem. A conventional flight-test program would distribute radioactive exhaust over the American southwest. They hit on the idea of a static test using a railroad car, when the same higher-ups that had pronounced Orion crazy saw this plan, and wondered if American universities had a bumper crop of mad scientists that year. SLAM was cancelled in favor of cheaper, safer ICBMs.

Convair X-6: A nuclear bomber. In the same sense that SLAM was a nuclear missile. In the early days, SAC had a problem, in that their bombers didn't have enough range to reach the Soviet Union from bases in the United States. Several solutions were proposed to this problem, one of which was -- you guessed it -- a bomber powered by a nuclear reactor. On paper it looked like a good idea. Fuel wasn't an issue, so the airplane could stay airborne as long as the crew had food and water. So, they modified a Convair B-36 bomber into the X-6 configuration to see if the idea was in any way practical. The X-6 accumulated 216 hours of flight time, 86 of those with a live reactor, between 1955 and 1957. The test program was scrapped after that. The reason was that aerial refueling technology was cheaper and safer, and besides, no one was really excited about the prospects of cleaning up after one of these things crashed.

Ford Nucleon: Ah, the 1950s. The era of big cars, chrome, fins, nuclear-powered sedans ...

Wait. What?

Yes, you read that right. Ford, not satisfied with the Edsel fiasco, designed a concept car in 1958 powered by a nuclear reactor. No stopping for gas -- the Nucleon could cruise a full 5,000 miles on a single charge, at which point you'd roll up to your dealer and have them install a fresh reactor module. But the car has several obvious flaws. First, given that you're sitting ahead of the front wheels, steering without hitting anything is liable to be a sporting challenge. And second, rear-end collisions ... well, the Pinto had nothing on this baby.

Then again, nothing discourages tailgating quite like the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Now, Ford management never had any serious plans to actually sell this monster. They displayed the mock-up just to prove that their mad scientists were just as crazy as anyone else's. They'd been beaten to the punch with the first jet-powered car, after all, and weren't about to fall behind again.

None of these proposals survived the early 1960s. As scientists began to understand the implications of nuclear technology better, they began to understand that nuclear technology needed a lot of care and tending, lest it become a hazard and a nuisance. The more exuberantly insane proposals died a quiet death ... not that exuberant insanity is a bad thing, mind you, but it requires close supervision by the non-crazy. There's good crazy, and there's bad crazy, and someone's got to be able to tell the difference.

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