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Talk to Terrie: What If…?

May 1, 2018

May 1, 2018

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CWP Blog

By Terrie Barrie, CWP Worker Advocate

I’m a huge fan of Star Trek and also a fan of Star Wars and the Star Gate television series.  Dilithium crystals and warp speed for the Enterprise, the ion-drive sublight propulsion system for the Millenium Falcon, and the Ancients’ Zero Point Module (ZPM), a 12” crystal which was capable of powering their  entire city of Atlantis and their space ships.

Like many science fiction ideas, zipping through space propelled by a mysterious power source has its roots in fact.  Since 1961 the Department of Energy (DOE)and its predecessor agencies provided radioactive isotopes to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for deep space exploration.

The Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) reactor was used in many space exploration flights. In simplified terms, SNAP reactors converted heat into electricity.  The reason for the development of this reactor to power space flights was because scientists realized that a solar powered battery would not be adequate when the space craft traveled further and further from the sun.

The two most notable space mission using nuclear-powered reactors are the Apollo missions to the moon and Voyagers I and II.  NASA confirmed last year that Voyager I was still operational after almost 40 years of space travel.

NASA and DOE worked closely together in the “Race for Space”, for instance the Mound plant supplied NASA with Plutonium 238.  As with DOE weapons production, this early research was not without danger.  According to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group, two serious incidents involving damage to the radioactive fuel occurred in 1964 and 1969.

Both agencies are still involved with space exploration.  NASA was running out of their supply of Plutonium 238 to fuel the space crafts.  The Savannah River Plant stopped producing this isotope in the late 1980s.  In 2015 the Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced that it successfully produced the material. Idaho National Laboratory is also involved in this production.

Often, when people think of anything nuclear, the first thing that comes to mind is nuclear weapons.  The collaboration between DOE and NASA shows that this amazing and often frightening power has been used for peaceful intentions.  The risk of a worker or even an astronaut still exists.  However, new discoveries often come about when scientists work together because someone asks “What if we…”

Perhaps in the future they can develop a dependable containment field to protect the workers producing the fuels, the space mission crew from the warp drive or develop a hypo-spray to counteract the effects of the radiation if the containment field is breached.

It is not out of the realm of possibilities.

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