The purpose of this post is to conduct a thought experiment to arrive at (I hope) a useful estimate of how much radioactive contamination might occur if North Korea detonates a thermonuclear weapon in the lower atmosphere over the North Pacific Ocean. There are a significant number of unknowns, not the least of which is the fundamental uncertainty as to whether the rogue nation has successfully tested a Teller-Ulam style thermonuclear weapon or not. I explain my assumptions and compare the resulting global release of radioisotopes that represent a radiological health concern from such a test to the amounts recently released from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) disaster, the Chernobyl disaster and aggregate atmospheric weapons testing in the last century. I invite comments and an accounting of the approach used here and how it might be improved. Continue reading North Korean Atmospheric Thermonuclear Test: How much contamination can we expect?→
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
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.
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 = 1012Becquerel) 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. https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FFlightOfApollo%2Fposts%2F1121563224620322%3A0&width=500
The purpose of this post is to provide estimates of the plutonium (Pu) isotopes present at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant (NPP) at the beginning of the disaster in March 2011. The post is part of an ongoing effort to communicate facts about Fukushima obtained through scientific study of the impact of the meltdowns on the environment. Comments on this site and in other public forums highlight the fact that Unit 3 at the NPP was burning mixed oxide (MOX) fuel at the time of the accident which, because it is enriched in Pu, suggests that these releases are potentially more harmful. Here I report estimates of Pu present in the reactors (Units 1, 2 and 3) and spent fuel pools (Units 1-4) at the site based on burnup calculations. Because fission of low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel produces Pu isotopes during operation there was a significant amount of Pu on site in Units 1-4. During extended operation a MOX fuel burning reactor can produce multiple times the Pu of LEU but this was not so at the time of the Fukushima meltdowns. The amount of additional Pu present due to Unit 3’s MOX fuel is small compared to the other reactor cores and the inventory of the spent fuel pools. The differences between environmental impact of MOX versus LEU reactor core meltdown in this case are small. Estimates of the release of Pu isotopes from Fukushima, based on measurements of air, soil and water suggest 100,000 fold less was broadcast to the environment compared to Chernobyl and 5,000,000 fold lower than releases from nuclear weapons testing in the 20th century. Continue reading Plutonium Inventories at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel at Unit 3→