The Apollo 13 Mission and Rescue: How much plutonium was added to the Earth’s environment?

By Jay T. Cullen

The purpose of this short post is to compare the relative amounts of radioactive plutonium released to our environment from the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970 and the

1280px-Apollo_13-insignia.png
Apollo 13 mission patch/emblem with a depiction of the Greek god of the Sun and latin phrase “Ex Luna, Scientia” which means “From the Moon, Knowledge.”

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster that began in March 2011.  Apollo 13 was the third mission planned to bring American astronauts to land on the moon and conduct scientific studies there.  On April 11 1970 the Saturn V rocket carrying astronauts James Lovell (Commander), Fred Haise (Lunar Module Pilot) and Jack Swigert (Command Module Pilot) was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The mission plan was to land Lovell and Haise in the Fra Mauro highland area of the moon but, due to unforeseen circumstances, that never came to pass.  As many of you know as was popularized in the 1995 film directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks (Lovell), the late Bill Paxton (Haise) and Kevin Bacon (Swigert) the lunar landing was aborted after a malfunction in one of the service module oxygen tanks caused an explosion that crippled the spacecraft.

Apollo_13_Service_Module_-_AS13-59-8500.jpeg
Photo of the damaged Service Module taken shortly after it was jettisoned by the Apollo 13 crew.

What followed was a technical problem solving masterpiece to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth with limited power and life support systems. The rescue of Lovell, Haise and Swigert has been characterized as a “successful failure” and NASA’s finest hour.

Plutonium in the Environment from Apollo 13

A consequence of not having landed on the moon was that the descent stage of the Lunar Module (LM; which would normally have brought Lovell and Haise down to the surface and been left behind when they returned) was now being brought back to Earth.  The power and life support afforded by the LM was central to the successful rescue of the crew.  What is significant about this is that the power supply attached to the descent stage of the LM to be left on the lunar surface to provide electric power for the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages (ALSEP) was a SNAP-27 Radioisotope Thermal Generator (RTG) containing 1,650 TBq (TBq = 1012 Becquerel) or roughly 3.9 kilograms of plutonium oxide fuel.  While the RTG was essential to bring astronauts home safely the high velocity reentry of the LM raised the possibility of contaminating the atmosphere and surface Earth with worrying amounts of Pu.  To avoid the possibility of the RTG coming down in a populated area the flight engineers had the LM enter the Earth’s atmosphere such that the RTG would be deposited in the remote Pacific Ocean near the Tonga Trench where water depth is about 6-9 kilometers.  Measurements in the atmosphere and ocean following the reentry of the LM suggested that the RTG had survived intact and little of the Pu was broadcast in the environment.  Tests of the RTG casing suggest that this 3.9 kg of Pu, somewhere on the seafloor of the Pacific, will not be mobilized for another ~800 years.
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Plutonium Released From Fukushima

The triple meltdown and hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) are known to have released some of FDNPP Pu isotope inventory to the environment.  Direct measurements of air, water and soil and modeling of the temperature and pressure in the reactors during the meltdowns by the international scientific community have allowed the total amount of Pu broadcast to the environment during the period of peak releases in the weeks to month following the disaster. These direct measurements made globally, the models and comparisons with isotopes that were released in much greater quantities (e.g. 137-Cesium and 131-Iodine) indicate that about 2.3 x 109 Bq or about 580 milligrams of Pu left the FDNPP in the wake of the disaster.  This is about 700,000 fold less Pu than Apollo 13’s RTG.  While the Apollo 13 Pu is likely to have little environmental impact given that it will be released slowly to the deep ocean over time I think it is interesting to compare the total amounts given the perceived impact of the FDNPP releases.  Both the FDNPP and Apollo 13 Pu are dwarfed by the ~11 PBq (PBq = 1015 Bq) of Pu-239,240 released to the atmosphere as a result of nuclear weapons testing in the 20th century.

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2 thoughts on “The Apollo 13 Mission and Rescue: How much plutonium was added to the Earth’s environment?”

    1. Assuming that the drag coefficient for the RTG is approximated by a sphere (0.5) we can calculate its terminal velocity in the atmosphere according to the following formula (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terminal_velocity) using values for the acceleration due to gravity (9.8 m/s^2), density of air (1.2 kg/m^3), a mass of 20 kg for the RTG and a projected area for the RTG corresponding to a diameter of 40 cm. The value I determine is 72 m/s or 259.2 km/h or 161 MPH. Dimensions of the RTG were found here https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/generator-assembly-rtg-snap-27 but I also find a mass for the RTG of 20 kg which to be conservative I applied.

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