Thursday, April 3, 2014

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

In a different reality, on or around this date, April 3rd, 2014, 8 million tons of a city-sized Super Orion ship would have reached Alpha Centauri.

That's leaving Earth in 1961, accelerating to 10% of the speed of light, with turnaround and deceleration occurring about a tenth of a light year out from Alpha C, is pretty close to an arrival in 2014. What they find is dead rock and gas giants, but then, with 1960s life-support technology, the chance of anyone arriving alive is pretty slim, so a ghost ship traveling to a dead world sounds appropriate.

And, if we launch the sucker from Earth's surface, we've added only about the fallout of a 40 megaton bomb to the ecosphere's burden. But keep in mind, 1961 was kind of a banner year for nuclear fallout. The US of A conducted (officially) 1,054 nuclear bomb tests that year. That's the equivalent of 3 per day. Not to be outdone the Sovietski Soyuz set off the Tsar Bomb, all 50 megatons worth.

The next year, 1962, the US of A tried out a little canal digging with the 104 kiloton Sedan test.

The test was a success in digging out a crater, which I guess they had doubts about, but the resulting fallout, some 880,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131, rained down particularly heavily on three counties in Iowa. The fact that we have no reliable data on the effects has a lot to do with the annoying habit of Americans not to stick in one place. On the other hand, Sedan, and Dirty Harry got nothing on Chernobyl, with some 3 billion curies of iodine-131 released over the ten days it burned.

Chernobyl could not have been more poorly thought out. You've got the worst of two behaviors involved, a material that loves to burn used as the neutron moderator (graphite), and a material that loves to explode (as steam) as the coolant (pressurized water). As an added bonus, a large swimming pool of water was placed underneath the reactor core, so that large chunks of red hot graphite and radionuclides could fall into it and flash steam the water into 1603 times it's original volume in milliseconds.  The bioshield that separated the naked reactor core from the sky was an 8 foot thick piece of concrete. When the core blew, the explosion flipped that giant concrete plug like a coin, and it didn't come down heads.

In a different reality, we probably could have had a Chernobyl as early as the Napoleonic era. Ever heard of plumbago? Being a metals guy, I was first made aware of the term in the 7th grade, when I first sand cast pot metal in shop class.

The term comes from the Plumbago mine in Seathwaite, Borrowdale, Lake District of the UK. Good solid British graphite was used to produce plutonium in the Windscale site.

The really amazing thing is just how frigging primitive an atomic pile is. Pure graphite surrounding natural uranium ore straight out of the ground gets you an atomic pile. (Why, natural reactors existed before humans). Given that natural uranium ore exists in Cornwall, and was in fact mined in the South Terras Mine, one can imagine a set of circumstances that resulted in a British atomic pile as early as 1789, when uranium was discovered.

Could a fission bomb haver been produced before 1944? Well, if you know what your about, a gun type uranium bomb could be produced from one of those old gunpowder Turkish cannons, circa 1465. All of the required technologies existed as early as 1870, but, no probably not. After all, the atomic theory wasn't really taken seriously until 1905, and I sincerely doubt raw empiricism itself could have gotten to an a-bomb.

Just as well, don't you think?

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