Retrotechtacular: Head Start On Tomorrow

In the 1950s and 1960s, the prospects for a future powered by nuclear energy were bright. There had been accidents at nuclear reactors, but they had not penetrated the public consciousness, or had conveniently happened far away. This was the age of “Too cheap to meter“, and The Jetsons, in which a future driven by technologies as yet undreamed of would free mankind from its problems. Names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were unheard of, and it seemed that nuclear reactors would become the miracle power source for the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The first generation of nuclear power stations were thus accompanied by extremely optimistic public relations and news coverage. At the opening of the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall, UK in 1956, the [Queen] gave a speech in which she praised it as for the common good of the community, and on the other side of the Atlantic the American nuclear industry commissioned slick public relations films to promote their work. Such a film is the subject of this piece, and though unlike the British they could not muster a monarch, had they but known it at the time they did employ the services of a President.

The Big Rock Point nuclear power plant was completed in 1962 on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its owners, Consumers Power Company, were proud of their new facility, and commissioned a short film about it. The reactor had been supplied by General Electric, and fronting the film was General Electric’s established spokesman and host of their General Electric Theater TV show, the Hollywood actor and future President [Ronald Reagan].

The film below the break starts by explaining nuclear power as a new heat source powering a conventional steam-driven generator, and stresses the safety aspect of reactor control rods. We are then treated to a fascinating view of the assembly of an early-1960s nuclear reactor, starting with the arrival of the pressure vessel and showing the assemblies within it that held the fuel and control rods. Fuel rods are shown at their factory in California, and being loaded onto a truck to be shipped across the continent, seemingly without the massive security that would nowadays accompany such an undertaking. The rods are loaded and the reactor is started, as [Reagan] puts it: “The atom has been put to work, on schedule”.

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Lego Nuclear Reactor Uses Arduino

Before the NSA deletes this post, we’ll be clear: We’re talking about a model of a nuclear reactor, not the real thing. Using Legos, [wgurecky] built a point kinetic reactor model that interfaces with the reactor simulator, pyReactor.

Even without the Lego, the Python code demonstrates reactor control in several modes. In power control mode, the user sets a power output, and the reactor attempts to maintain it. In control rod mode, the user can adjust the position of the control rods and see the results.

If things get out of hand, there’s a SCRAM button to shut the reactor down in a hurry. The Lego model uses an Arduino to move the rods up and down (using a servo) and controls the simulated Cherenkov radiation (courtesy of blue LEDs).

We’ve been excited to see more high schools with significant engineering programs. This would be a good project for kids interested in nuclear engineering. It certainly is a lot safer than one of our previous reactor projects.

Lise Meitner: A Physicist who Never Lost her Humanity

It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth, and few wars have demonstrated that more than World War II. One scientist, whose insights would make the atomic age possible, would learn a harsh lesson at the outset of the war about how scientific truth can easily be trumped by politics and bigotry.

Lise Meitner was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna in 1878. Her father, a lawyer and chess master, took the unusual step of encouraging his daughter’s education. In a time when women were not allowed to attend institutions of higher learning, Lise was able to pursue her interest in physics with a private education funded by her father. His continued support, both emotional and financial, would prove important throughout Lise’s early career. Continue reading “Lise Meitner: A Physicist who Never Lost her Humanity”

Making the Case For Nuclear Aircraft

At any given moment, several of the US Navy’s Nimitz class aircraft carriers are sailing the world’s oceans. Weighing in at 90 thousand tons, these massive vessels need a lot of power to get moving. One would think this power requires a lot of fuel which would limit their range, but this is not the case. Their range is virtually unlimited, and they only need refueling every 25 years. What kind of technology allows for this? The answer is miniaturized nuclear power plants. Nimitz class carriers have two of them, and they are pretty much identical to the much larger power plants that make electricity. If we can make them small enough for ships, can we make them small enough for other things, like airplanes?

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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.

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The Fukushima Robot Diaries

After the terrible tragedy in Fukushima, the cleanup and damage assessment has begun. A robot operator, known only as [S.H.] has decided to write a blog about their efforts.  As pictured above, they are using [iRobot] models, including the [510 Packbot], and the [710 Warrior].

Since cleanup efforts started, [S.H.] was posting on his or her blog daily.  After word of this blog started getting out via various social media outlets, the blog was mysteriously taken down. The blog was at times critical of elements of the cleanup effort, but it’s unknown why the disappearance happened. Efforts to reach [S.H.] were unsuccessfull according to [IEEE].

Fortunately, before the takedown, [IEEE]’s [Erico Guizzo] decided to make a copy of the posts. These have been translated into English and portions are now available at the link listed above. Be sure to check out robot training video after the break. Continue reading “The Fukushima Robot Diaries”

The DIY Nuclear Reactor

“Wednesday, I was arrested and sent to jail,” is what your blog might say if you decide to try and duplicate this project.  You may, however, be fortunate to be still writing your blog, as ATTEMPTING TO BUILD YOUR OWN REACTOR can be quite dangerous. That’s what [Richard] did using household items such as clock fingers for Radium, and smoke detectors for Americium. After the radioactive elements were separated from their household “containers” and melted down, they created a small explosion on his stove.

This attempted experiment is based on one that was done by [David Hahn], AKA, “The Nuclear Boyscout”, in order to obtain his nuclear energy badge.  For what it’s worth, [David] did attain the rank of Eagle Scout, however, he turned his parent’s house into a Superfund EPA cleanup site in the process.

The video after the break describes the process of making a reactor from household materials. This video may be entertaining, but duplicating it is not recommended (and would be somewhat expensive). Continue reading “The DIY Nuclear Reactor”