Tales from the Nuclear Age:

© 2009 by Charles Glassmire

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Aug. 8, 2009

A Wayward Traveler

The Nevada Nuclear Test Site (NTS) lies ninety miles northwest of Las Vegas, nestled in 1300 square miles of burnt sand and cactus, suitable only to the rattlesnakes, scorpions and cockroaches who love its flavors.  Add in a certain incestuous group of scientists and engineers who had gathered there in the 1960’s, to build several strange kinds of devices, which were to change all of our lives forever.

 To get to the “site”, one boarded a bus from the motel parking lot in Las Vegas at the ungodly hour of 5:45 a.m., and stumbled aboard to fall quickly back to sleep. There was no speed limit in Nevada, so, over the next 1.5 hours, the bus maneuvered into a long line of traffic which sped at ninety miles per hour northward along the two-lane asphalt of U.S. 95. It was a non-stop, bumper to bumper suicide train of racing vehicles, hell bent on getting to work on time at the Site.  The locals joked that the highway was nicknamed “the Widow Maker” by the newspapers. It was said that once a driver drifted off to sleep along the way, his car would slowly veer off the berm of the road into the sand and cactus, and all one saw from a distance was the vehicle disappearing in a great cloud of 90 mph dust as it was slowly ground to pieces by the desert sand.

 Looking out the bus window that day, I was a young nuclear engineer, working for the Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory in Pittsburgh, on a project with the code name of NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications). Basically, you built a high powered nuclear reactor and stuffed it into a rocket engine. You blew cryogenic liquid Hydrogen through the reactor operating at 2500° Centigrade (4530° F), and the gas expanded out the rear-end rocket nozzle, giving you enough thrust to ride it to Mars (and back). The trick was to get the whole thing to hang together long enough to get the burn you needed to kick out of earth orbit. Ordinary metals would simply liquefy or melt in such a white hot temperature environment. Another trick was protecting the human passengers from the intense radiation field once the reactor was turned on.

 We had brought our baby out into the Nevada nuclear testing range, because the rocket engine exhaust gas was highly radioactive. So we had come to the land of atomic weapons to add our radioisotope collection to what had been deposited since 1951 by a long series of Atomic Bomb tests. To perform our experiment, you stood the engine upside down in a monster test stand out in the desert, and turned it on from a remote control point, hoping for the best. The previous engine test was named NRX-A5 (NERVA Reactor Experiment A5). There had been a bizarre problem on that one. After the reactor had tested successfully and met its test design goals, the engine was highly radioactive and flush with fission products. So it was customary to wheel it out into the desert a half mile or so away from the test stand on a flatbed railroad car, and let it sit there for several weeks to “cool” and let some of the active nuclides decay away. Then, in a second phase of the test, the reactor was supposed to be restarted after cooling. Once you got to Mars, you had to be able to restart the engine for the ride back home.

 While sitting calmly out there in the sand, it seems a desert bird came nonchalantly flying along in the middle of the day, looking for dinner. It flew towards the cooling reactor, later estimated at a height of about thirty to fifty feet above ground. Now birds, it turns out, have highly sensitive nervous systems. You recall the old coal miner’s trick of using canaries in cages to detect traces of methane in the mines, at levels far lower than humans could detect. If the canary died, you got out of the mine “real quick like”.  Bird nervous systems are delicate and especially sensitive to radiation. So along came our winged traveler, and sadly, the intense radiation field killed this bird in flight, before it even got near the reactor engine, and it performed an amazing graceful arc through the air to its last ill-fated landing, and, fell directly into the rocket nozzle of the hot rocket engine! It was likely the most unusual demise in avian history.

 Now there was a real dilemma. The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on this test, and the post test examination were at risk being destroyed by melted bird. Because of the radiation field, no human could go within a half mile of the engine to retrieve the unfortunate visitor. This was critical. Should we scrub the restart and lose priceless data? This would set back the entire project six months to a year in time and budget. If we went ahead to restart, there was a chance that melted bird had plugged up some of the cooling channels through the reactor. This could cause the fuel rods to overheat, possibly shatter and cause terrible damage to the reactor, to the test results, and to the reputation of the designers of the whole project.

 Exercising his leadership role, the Test Director called a meeting and decided… to do nothing. He would not make the decision. There was too much at stake. What to do? …

(to be continued)

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One Response to “”

  1. Kathy Taylor Miller Says:

    Hi Chuck,

    This is Kathy Taylor from CHS

    Very interesting – you must have lived a very interesting life. I’ll be watching for more.

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