The Nuclear Powered Car From Ford

We think of electric cars as a new invention, but even Thomas Edison had one. It isn’t so much that the idea is new, but the practical realization for normal consumer vehicles is pretty recent. Even in 1958, Ford wanted an electric car. But not just a regular electric car. The Ford Nucleon would carry a small nuclear reactor and get 5,000 miles without a fillup.

Of course, the car was never actually built. Making a reactor small and safe enough to power a passenger car is something we can’t do even today. The real problem, according to experts, is not building a reactor small enough but in dealing with all the heat produced.

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Nuclear Reactors Get Small

Steve Martin was ahead of his time when he told us “Let’s get small!” While you usually think of a nuclear reactor as a big affair, there’s a new trend towards making small microreactors to produce power where needed instead of large centralized generation facilities. The U.S. Department of Energy has a video about the topic, you can watch below.

You probably learned in science class how a basic nuclear fission reactor works. Nuclear fuel produces heat from fission while a moderator like water prevents it from melting down both by cooling the reactor and slowing down neutrons. Control rods further slow down the reaction or — if you pull them out — speed it up. Heat creates steam (either directly or indirectly) and the steam turns a conventional electric generator that is no more high tech than it ever has been.

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No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds

A nuclear power plant is large and complex, and one of the biggest reasons is safety. Splitting radioactive atoms is inherently dangerous, but the energy unleashed by the chain reaction that ensues is the entire point. It’s a delicate balance to stay in the sweet spot, and it requires constant attention to the core temperature, or else the reactor could go into meltdown.

Today, nuclear fission is largely produced with fuel rods, which are skinny zirconium tubes packed with uranium pellets. The fission rate is kept in check with control rods, which are made of various elements like boron and cadmium that can absorb a lot of excess neutrons. Control rods calm the furious fission boil down to a sensible simmer, and can be recycled until they either wear out mechanically or become saturated with neutrons.

Nuclear power plants tend to have large footprints because of all the safety measures that are designed to prevent meltdowns. If there was a fuel that could withstand enough heat to make meltdowns physically impossible, then there would be no need for reactors to be buffered by millions of dollars in containment equipment. Stripped of these redundant, space-hogging safety measures, the nuclear process could be shrunk down quite a bit. Continue reading “No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds”

The Oldest Nuclear Reactor? Nature’s 2 Billion Year Old Experiment

When was the first nuclear reactor created? You probably think it was Enrico Fermi’s CP-1 pile built under the bleachers at the University of Chicago in 1942. However, you’d be off by — oh — about 2 billion years.

The first reactors formed naturally about 2 billion years ago in what is now Gabon in West Africa. This required several things coming together: natural uranium deposits, just the right geology in the area, and a certain time in the life of the uranium. This happened 17 different times, and the average output of these natural reactors is estimated at about 100 kilowatts — a far cry from a modern human-created reactor that can reach hundreds or thousands of megawatts.

The reactors operated for about a million years before they spent their fuel. Nuclear waste? Yep, but it is safely contained underground and has been for 2 billion years.

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Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor

Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.

But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.

The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.

Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.

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Echos Of The Cold War: Nuclear-Powered Missiles Have Been Tried Before

On August 8th, an experimental nuclear device exploded at a military test facility in Nyonoksa, Russia. Thirty kilometers away, radiation levels in the city of Severodvinsk reportedly peaked at twenty times normal levels for the span of a few hours. Rumors began circulating about the severity of the event, and conflicting reports regarding forced evacuations of residents from nearby villages had some media outlets drawing comparisons with the Soviet Union’s handling of the Chernobyl disaster.

Today, there remain more questions than answers surrounding what happened at the Nyonoksa facility. It’s still unclear how many people were killed or injured in the explosion, or what the next steps are for the Russian government in terms of environmental cleanup at the coastal site. The exceptionally vague explanation given by state nuclear agency Rosatom saying that the explosion “occurred during the period of work related to the engineering and technical support of isotopic power sources in a liquid propulsion system”, has done little to assuage concerns.

The consensus of global intelligence agencies is that the test was likely part of Russia’s program to develop the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. Better known by its NATO designation SSC-X-9 Skyfall, the missile is said to offer virtually unlimited flight range and endurance. In theory the missile could remain airborne indefinitely, ready to divert to its intended target at a moment’s notice. An effectively unlimited range also means it could take whatever unpredictable or circuitous route necessary to best avoid the air defenses of the target nation. All while traveling at near-hypersonic speeds that make interception exceptionally difficult.

Such incredible claims might sound like saber rattling, or perhaps even something out of science fiction. But in reality, the basic technology for a nuclear-powered missile was developed and successfully tested nearly sixty years ago. Let’s take a look at this relic of the Cold War, and find out how Russia may be working to resolve some of the issues that lead to it being abandoned. Continue reading “Echos Of The Cold War: Nuclear-Powered Missiles Have Been Tried Before”

Nuclear Reactor Simulator Is The Project Of A Lifetime

Have you been watching Chernobyl? Well, so has everyone else. Right now it seems the whole Internet is comprised of armchair dosimetrists counting roentgens in their sleep, but [Mark Wright] doesn’t need a high-budget TV show to tell him about the challenges of wrangling the atom with 1980s technology. He’s done it for real. His memories of working at a Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor over 30 years ago are so sharp that he’s been building a nuclear reactor “simulator” running on the Raspberry Pi that looks nearly as stressful as sitting in control room of the real thing.

The simulator software is written in Python, and is responsible for displaying a simplified overview of the reactor and ancillary systems on the screen. Here all the information required to operate the “nuclear plant” can be seen at a glance, from the utilization of individual pumps to the position of the control rods.

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