Friday, December 21, 2012

APEX-910 (Part 2)

Sorry for how long it took to get to this - grad school is like that.   But, here we go with the rest of the material from GE-ANP APEX-910: Application Studies.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

APEX-910 (Part 1)

So, last time I talked about some of the stuff from APEX-901.   I didn't get through APEX-901 last time, but the remaining stuff to talk about also appears in APEX-910: Application Studies, which is what I'm going to talk about today.   Before I do, though, four more APEX reports have popped up on Information Bridge:

APEX-908C: XNJ140E Nuclear Turbojet Part C
APEX-910: Application Studies
APEX-918: Reactor Shield Physics
APEX-919: Aerothermodynamics

Thursday, August 23, 2012


I have recently acquired a collection of documents on the General Electric Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (GE-ANP) program, an ill-fated 1950s effort to build a nuclear-powered airplane.   Someday I'm going to write an entire TMMAM - or a book - about the project, but here's the short version: the project was initiated in 1946 as NEPA, Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft, a feasibility study run by Fairchild.   Despite the skepticism of many in the atomic science community, NEPA, along with an independent review board called the Lexington Project, concluded an A-plane was feasible.   In the early 50s NEPA was phased out and replaced by ANP, a joint USAF-AEC effort to develop such a plane.

There were two main contractors, GE and Pratt & Whitney, each with a different approach.   GE focused on developing a direct-cycle engine in which air from the turbojet would pass directly through a reactor to produce thrust.   Pratt & Whitney aimed to develop an indirect-cycle engine, in which a liquid-metal coolant would carry heat from the reactor to a heat exchanger in the turbojet.   Most of the information I've found so far relates to the GE effort, which got quite a bit further, including running several atomic-powered turbojets in static tests.   Pratt & Whitney, among other things, developed a reactor design that would eventually evolve into the Molten Salt Reactor, better known today as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor.

The project, after many ups and downs, was eventually shuttered in 1961 for a variety of reasons.   When the program was shut down GE produced a series of 21 comprehensive technical reports, detailing every phase of the project, as a sort of cheat sheet in case the government ever decided to reactivate the project.   What I've acquired is two of those reports and two-thirds of a third: APEX-901, Project Summary; APEX-910, Application Studies; and Parts B & C of APEX-908, the XNJ140E nuclear turbojet, the final incarnation of the system.   I've gotten these through the "adopt-a-doc" system, so two of them are already available on the Department of Energy's Information Bridge server (APEX-901, APEX-908C), and the other two should show up tomorrow.   Be warned: these are big pdfs!

So what's in these documents?   Let's take a look!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Congratulations to Curiosity

Congratulations to Curiosity and the team at NASA for a successful landing on the Red Planet!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Nation's Cockpit

Those Magnificent Men and their Atomic Machines

The Nation's Cockpit: The DUCC and Decision-Making Under Nuclear Attack

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and the world changed forever.

Sputnik was not just a technological and political triumph; it was a military threat. A rocket that can carry a satellite into orbit can also carry a nuclear weapon to the United States. The American military and public had known of the theoretical possibility of a nuclear-armed intercontinental rocket since 1945, but the threat had been abstract, unreal, until the Soviet's bleeping aluminum ball passed overhead.

Before the ICBM, the United States could rely on the Distant Early Warning RADAR line to provide at least two hours of warning time of an attack. There would be enough time for the president to be woken from sleep, briefed, and evacuated. More importantly, there would be enough time for the president to decide – to decide if the US was going to war. In two hours, equipment can be checked and errors corrected; explanations can be demanded of the Soviet embassy. Even if a mistake was made, the Strategic Air Command B-52s took hours to reach its targets and could be recalled.

An ICBM would arrive 15 to 25 minutes after being spotted on RADAR. Fifteen minutes to decide the fate of millions. And ICBMs cannot be called back – once the president ordered a counterstrike, it could not be rescinded.

This was wholly unacceptable. What if there was a mistake? What if the launch was accidental, or a rogue general, or even a third party trying to provoke a war? The president had to survive long enough to reach a measured decision. The issue was not the personal survival of the president. The issue was the continuity of the national decision-making system, ensuring that SAC would be neither paralyzed nor forced into automatic retaliation.

Two solutions were considered: mobility and hardness. Mobility meant keeping the president on the move, on plane or train or ship, so that the Soviets could not find and kill him. Hardness meant burying the president, deep under ground, deeper than even a nuclear weapon could reach.

The ultimate “hard” proposal was the Deep Underground Command Center, or DUCC. Buried a full 3,500 feet under Washington, D.C., the DUCC was designed to survive multiple direct hits from 300 megaton nuclear weapons. Deep under the charred remains of the nation's capitol, the president and his advisors could assess the situation, communicate with our allies, and direct our military forces to an appropriate response.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Happy Moonwalk Day

43 years ago today, a human being stood for the first time on the Moon.

This should really be a national holiday, so I've decided to treat it as one.   Didn't think of it until too late to do anything fancy, but we went out for ice cream, and I'm watching the Japanese rocket launch of the HTV-3 cargo vehicle on NASA TV.   And I'm having fun thinking about what to do next year.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Atomic Subterrene

Those Magnificent Men and Their Atomic Machines

The Atomic Subterrene

The Atomic Subterrene is a very atompunkish name. It sounds like a gadget Tom Swift might invent, and which would then be stolen by vaguely Slavic communists. It doesn't help that, if you google it, you'll find several hundred webpages of nonsense using pictures of the New York subway to explain how the elites are building secret underground clubhouses to ride out 2012.

But, for all the silliness that seems to attach to the name, the atomic subterrene was a very real, very serious idea, developed by Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) in the 1970s. It was a startlingly simple proposition: rather than drill through rock, the atomic subterrene would use heat from a nuclear reactor to melt through it, digging wider tunnels faster and more efficiently than a conventional Tunnel-Boring Machine.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Nukes on Ice

Those Magnificent Men and Their Atomic Machines

Nukes on Ice: ICEWORM and the Army's Quest for Strategic Nuclear Weapons

In the late 50s and early 60s, the US military faced a major problem. The Soviet Union had begun to deploy nuclear-armed ballistic missiles with intercontinental range. The ICBM was the dreadnought of the early Cold War: a radically new technology that made the previous methods of delivering hellfire, via cruise missiles and manned bombers, obsolete.

The US built its own ICBMs in response, Atlas and Titan, and eventually Minuteman. But, in the eyes of the US Army, these missiles had two major failings. First, they were deployed in relatively “soft” shelters that were vulnerable to a near-miss from a nuclear warhead, and only protected by the enemy's inaccuracy. Missile accuracy was only going to improve, and it was clear that, if the missiles remained as they were, the USSR would eventually be able to target and destroy them in a first strike. Second, and even more worryingly, Atlas and Titan were marked with a blue SAC stripe, which struck the US Army as completely unacceptable.

This question of ownership may strike the modern reader as a petty complaint, but it was a matter of the utmost importance to the Army. The 50s were the years of Massive Retaliation and nuclear everything, when the US built an atomic arsenal so we wouldn't need a conventional one. The Army's missile programs, like the Jupiter Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBMs), were being taken away and given to the Air Force and NASA. The Army's budget had fallen to less than a quarter of total defense spending, and the service feared being reduced to security guards for missile bases. Or worse: according to some analysts, the Army's only real purpose was to be killed in a Soviet invasion of Europe, thereby ensuring the Soviets wouldn't be able to use nuclear blackmail to keep the US from intervening. Dying ingloriously did not appeal to the Army leadership as a military strategy.

Therefore, if the Army aspired to be more than a speedbump, they needed their own strategic nuclear weapons. The Army had tactical nukes in plenty, but it needed a way back in to the field of long-range, strategic missiles. Enter ICEWORM.

ICEWORM was proposed by the Army Engineer Studies Center in 1960. ICEWORM would consist of 600 “ICEMAN” Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) stationed in thousands of miles of tunnels to be dug under the Greenland ice cap. The ice would both keep the Soviets from locating the missiles, and act as armor even if they did. ICEWORM would, according to the Army, be less vulnerable than the Air Force's missile silos, have more secure communications than the Navy's Polaris submarines, and be more accurate and have greater yield than any of its service competitors.

Monday, July 2, 2012

To Peoria by Atom

Those Magnificent Men and their Atomic Machines

To Peoria by Atom: Atomic-Powered Locomotives

It was 1954, nine years since the birth of the Atomic Age, three years since the first electricity was generated by atomic energy. The US Navy would launch the world's first atomic submarine next year, and the US Air Force would soon test the first atomic turbojet for aircraft propulsion. Other programs aimed to build atomic-powered aircraft carrierscargo shipsrockets – and trains.

In the early years of the atomic age, atomic energy was seen as a technology analogous to the steam engine or the internal combustion engine, a new source of power that would naturally make its predecessors obsolete. Shielding requirements might make atomic-powered cars or kitchen appliances impractical, but it undoubtedly could and would be used for propulsion. First there would be ships and submarines, where size and weight was less of an issue. Then there would be planes and trains. This was simply the natural progression of technological development. Safety was a solvable problem, and cost would go down as more experience was gained and atomic reactors began to be mass-produced. The future was bright, lit by the atom's friendly glow.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Welcome to Atomic Skies

Hello, internet.

My name is Mark.   I'm a Ph.D. student in theoretical mathematics, but that's not what this blog is about.   I'm also, by hobby, an amateur historian of the history of atomic energy, which is what this blog is about.

I started researching this purely to amuse myself.   But, after a while, when I found myself cold-calling strangers to ask them to reminisce about 60-year-old atomic energy projects, I decided it was time to share what I'd found with anyone else who might be interested.   That became a series of articles posted on the message boards, and now I'm continuing it here.   I'm going to begin by reposting some of the old articles, updated where possible with new material I've found since writing the originals.

I don't have any actual experience or training in this field - I just read a lot - so I'm sure I'll make mistakes.   If you spot one, please let me know and I'll correct it.   This blog is aimed primarily at fellow "armchair experts" level, i.e., people like myself, who are interested and moderately well-read but don't have professional knowledge.

One final note: I welcome comments, but please keep them civil.   Nuclear energy is a field where everything is political and rouses strong passions, both for and against.   In the interests of complete honesty, let me share my own biases: I am strongly pro-nuclear, but not blindly.   I think it's our best bet, by a very large margin, to deal with the issues that face us in terms of climate change and resource exhaustion.   However, I recognize that there are legitimate reasons to disagree with that view.   So I'm not going to delete your comments for being anti-nuclear.   But I will delete comments calling people industry pawns - or calling people antiscientific luddites.