clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Heat Me Up

At left, the now shutdown Omega West reactor. This beast was a specially built research reactor at Los Alamos. A great deal of critical materials science research was performed using the neutron tube structure this particular device included.

The glow is really special. It's Cherenkov radiation that normally should be shielded from view. This is a special low-power design with a lead-glass window allowing such a special picture.

Project Iceworm came to light in the late 1990's as a plan to base nuclear missiles under the ice sheet in Greenland. No, you probably have never heard of this before. You wouldn't have unless you read the International Herald Tribune in the late 1990's.

Now, the Greenland endeavor failed because the ice flows selected move much quicker than anticipated. Turns out, nobody really pays for much ice research until you want to put nuclear missiles in the stuff.

Camp Century - the C3 facility for the effort - was powered by a small nearly-portable nuclear reactor. The modular reactors ran their course through the 1970's when the military stopped running them of their own accord. So the story goes.

Camp Century does not seem to be the last time something was buried in the ice.There is a problem with ice, though. It's full of hydrogen and as such is an odd moderator. Subcritical nuclear assemblies are delicate things. Extremely delicate. Running your hand over a subcritical highly-enriched sphere  of U235 provides a enough moderation to push it to criticality ... that's how tightly bound these beasts are to criticality. It has to do with the efficiency of the material and ease at which a push to a prompt super-critical state can be achieved with practical equipment. [ super-critical means a radioactive pile makes more neutrons than its own process can absorb => you need this state to ignite ANOTHER reaction chain which in a nuclear weapon precisely what you do, bomb one ignites bomb two - and if you are Soviet, bomb three].

A bullet is reliable because it is an extremely simple machine. You really want your warheads to be simple like bullets. Safe and inert, but simple to activate.

Now, without neutron absorbing shielding, putting an air-burst warhead in a trench surrounded by ice is entirely different than storing one in a cement bunker. Odd things can happen.

Sometimes when odd things happen, neutron-induced radioactive products emerge. Clean-up in remote areas previous included "abandon the site."

Looking for a good secret lair for your mad scientist? These sites make ready homes.

Now, who do you call for real estate if you are a mad scientist needing a fortress of solitude hopefully far enough away from a population center where a bit of escaped gamma radiation doesn't cook chickens in the coops?

Have I got a realtor for you.

I love it when a plan comes together. I've toyed with this idea for a couple of decades and over a nice pot of tea and a ham-and-cheese (late start this morning) I rationalized that the unusual twist on the commonplace does make a fun story to write. Add the elements of actual human conditions within and there is a setting that can delight.

I'm off to work on story A so I can get to story B. Are you ever like that? Are you faced with "idea that is attractive" while you work on "idea that is near production ready?"

I can't be the only one whom inspiration strikes at all the wrong moments. Notebook to the rescue! Save that idea for later.

I hope you're writing. I know you are scheming.

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