Retrotechtacular: Breaking Atoms to Break the Ice


This documentary from 1959 gives a satisfyingly thorough look inside a nuclear powered icebreaking ship called Lenin. This actually set a couple of world’s-firsts: it was the first nuclear powered surface vessel and the first civilian vessel to be powered thusly.

The ship was built to clear shipping paths to the northern ports of Russia. Testing of both ice and models of the ship design point to the ability to break ice layers that are two meters thick. This requires a lot of power as ice-breakers generally use their hull shape and gravity to break the ice by driving up onto it to bend the ice to the breaking point. The Lenin achieved this power using its nuclear reactor to heat steam which drove electric generators. The energy produced drove three screws to power the vessel.

Of course this was back in the day when control panels were substantial, which you can get a peek at starting half-way through the twenty-minute film. This includes a demonstration of the ship’s network of radiation sensors which alert the control room, and sound a local alarm when they are triggered. During it’s 30-year operational life the vessel had a couple of accidents stemming from refueling operations. You can find more on that over at the Wikipedia page, but stick with us after the jump to see the vintage reel.

[Thanks CNK via EnglishRussia (possibly NSFW)]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

20 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Breaking Atoms to Break the Ice

        1. I thought while Stalin was in charge, dissenters, or even just those accused, were sent off to Siberian gulags all the time, never to be seen again. You’ve heard the story of the Hotel Moscow, right? AIUI he gets the double-award gold medals for nuttiest AND evilest dictator in history.

      1. MBA programs ought to teach Stalin’s school of motivation and management. Pure and unadulterated fear. (c:

        I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” some time back and after a while it almost read like a comedy because practically every little thing everybody did result in that person being arrested and sent to a gulag. It became difficult to remember that these were real people who suffered and died, and not some made up fictional characters.

        Anyhow, this video and the ship feature dated from 1959 which was a few years after the death of Stalin and the gulags.

  1. Nuclear power’s miraculous, makes coal and oil look like AAA batteries. Nuclear fusion is basically going to solve about half the world’s problems, when they finally crack it.

    I have to wonder what the holdup is. They’ve had Tokamaks and laser-fusion for decades, and fused plenty of atoms using them. It just still needs getting to the point of generating more energy than it uses, and being practical to build. Safety should be no problem, almost no radioisotopes, and the slightest bit of damage stops the reaction cold.

    It’s certainly worth creating a conspiracy over, for the existing owners of all the energy still beneath the ground. But is that it? It’s such a lame, mundane, stupid reason to hold back the progress of mankind into a new age, just for some filthy stupid money. If a non-schizophrenic showed me some consistent evidence for it, I’d probably believe them.

    Cos apart from that, where’s the holdup dammit? Why’s it taking so long? Fission was hardly simple, and they got that done in something like 4 years, from Einstein writing a letter to vapourising Hiroshima. Seems they can do it quick enough when they need to kill a load of people. But if it’s for free, unlimited energy, it becomes really difficult.

    It’d help *avert* war, too, taking away the money and power from some of those irritable people who live in those hot, sandy countries that so much oil sits under. Still that’d be *stopping* wars, not winning them. No sale.

    1. You are very naive if you think that wars are started by ‘those irritable people who live in those hot, sandy countries that so much oil sits under’… and not by ‘those irritable people with huge economy, military and power, who also happen to need oil desperately’.

        1. The US is actually moving towards producing most of its own oil because of shale, but in the meantime, in 2013, we imported 2.8 billion barrels. That’s less than the record 3.7 billion barrels we imported in 2006, but of course that still doesn’t make us a net exporter.

          1. The US has been a net importer of crude oil since the Eisenhower administration. The US became a net importer of LNG during GW Bush’s administation. Neither of these will change unless the price of overseas carbon goes up considerably, or the price of domestic carbon goes down considerably.

    2. look like fusion power is not *that* easy. For tokamaks style, imo will be impossible before discovery of higher-than-ambiant temperature supra-conductor.

      As for laser.. while we seem to have manage pull off something at the National Ignition Facility, yield seem too be way, way too low. Not to mention the use of rare tritium.

      imo, cold fusion a.k.a lenr is a much more realistic option. Do your own research, and make your opinion about this technology.
      Propably deserve more attention that fusion already has.

    3. The answer is ‘gaining power through fusion is really fucking hard.’

      To get fusion you have to have two atoms that are moving really fast smack into each other head on. That is easy. People have done it in pressure cookers, in fact (Look up Fusors). How fast depends on what you’re trying to smack together. The sun uses proton-proton fusion, but that’s actually one of the ones that requires the highest atom velocity. The problem is that since you can’t aim your atoms very well, you need to contain all of this in a chamber and give the fast atoms lots of chances to hit each other. But when a moving atom reaches the end of the chamber, what happens? Either you can contain it with magnetic fields or it smacks into the wall loses all its energy. But trying to contain atoms with magnetic fields isn’t perfect. Magnetic containment only works on charged particles, and trying to keep every atom in your reactor ionized is hard. And then you end up with what they call thermalization – some atoms are moving _really_ fast, but lots are moving pretty slow. Even if you start out with all fast atoms by injecting them, they end up in this distribution over time. If this happens then no matter what you do you’ve got a chunk of your atom population that simply can’t fuse. If the fast ones are fast enough, they could get out of containment and you lose that energy, too. Then there’s problems with how all these fast atoms end up radiating energy via photons, or induced magnetic fields (charged particles in motion, after all.)

      Again: It’s really goddamn hard. And it’s not a conspiracy, you can calculate all this out and see that it’s hard. ITER is supposed to generate net power, but it’s so insanely expensive to build that it’s not moving very fast, and it’s not certain that it’ll be as efficient as expected.

      1. So…. would bigger magnets help?

        From what you’re saying, the big problem is that particles with enough energy, aka velocity, to fuse, have enough energy to escape past the magnetic containment, because they travel too fast for it to stop them? What a pain in the arse! No chance of bouncing them off some heavy atoms?

        I suppose fission is simpler in practice in that you just put enough of the stuff in a pile and BOOM! off it goes. More or less. Mostly a 1940s chemistry problem to purify the Uranium, and then some maths for slowing it down in non-exploding applications.

        It’s just no progress seems to have been reported. It might not make TV Guide but it would make the New Scientist or Sci Am. All these years, apparently Tokamaks are still a good idea and they’re working on improving them, but what improvements? Nothing ever took this long, for so little noticable progress!

        The problems you describe sound fundamental, which is incongruous with having reactors around the world that already work, albeit with low efficiency. Not that I disbelieve you of course. I know established efficiency is low, but not as pathetically low as your description seems to sound.

        I’ve seen Farnsworth fusors btw, unfortunately not in real life. There was a kid of 14 or so on HaD recently who made one in his garage. A student in the UK, just shy of his 14th birthday, recently built one to became the world’s youngest fusioneer. It was only a week or two ago. Apparently there’s an underground network of Deuterium smugglers, if you tip a wink a know who to ask.

        1. There was just an announcement of a large breakthrough about a month ago:

          More breakthroughs are needed before fusion actually happens, but that’s because it’s really hard. Fusion, quantum computers, stem cells, etc. These are all 21 century technologies that present many challenges. They’re not just like fission, classical computers, and penicillin, or else we’d have them already.

    4. Fission is actually a lot easier than fusion, uranium practically wants to fall apart, as a matter of fact it does, that’s radioactive decay, just chuck some neutrons at the nucleus and it goes bang! For fusion you have to get two nuclei to join together, and they hate doing that, so it requires a shitload of energy, it happens in the sun because of the huge amount of gravity but on earth, it’s hard, but one day we’ll crack it.

  2. You know, I as good as never heard about a horrible accident with a nuclear powered vessel, and the 2 or so times an accident was reported the newsitems were 2 line bits that suggested everything was safe and were never expanded upon. It’s quite a marvel how they managed to keep all the leaks and disasters a secret while several countries have many nuclear powered ships/submarines (so you know it happened and it leaked tons of radioactive spillage). By power of the military nature of them I guess.

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