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Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Part I: B Reactor

June 29, 2016

In November 2015, the US National Park Service and Department of Energy came to an agreement outlining a new national park, one that would focus on the history of the American effort in World War II to develop nuclear energy for warfare (the “Manhattan Project”).  B Reactor at Hanford is already open with scheduled tours managed under this arrangement.  It was the world’s first plutonium production reactor, designed and built under truly remarkable wartime circumstances, and it operated from 1943 to 1968.

By special arrangement with Colleen French, the DOE’s park coordinator at B Reactor, I was able to visit the reactor at my own pace with a small group of nuclear enthusiasts in March.  Geiger counters, scintillators, and gamma spectrometers also came along, although there was some official resistance to their presence.  And this brings me to the two questions I hoped to answer in visiting this place: firstly, how are the NPS and DOE handling the interpretive challenges inherent in opening a radiation facility to the general public of all ages; and secondly, will hardcore “nukeheads” like me find a sufficiently authentic and engaging experience given the constraints imposed by preparing the site for the public.  My experience at B Reactor was heartening.  The reactor remains an interesting radiation environment (see photo galleries below), and its staff have made rational choices in seeking balance between public safety and respect for the authentic realities of the place.  For nerds with the right instrumentation, the radiation signatures in various parts of the building tell little stories about what happened there.  Reactor equipment has been lovingly left intact throughout–down to the decommissioning tags from 1968.

The radiation signatures at B Reactor were thrilling to me, like little ghosts of the past jumping out to whisper their secrets, but of course, radiation is sometimes feared and loathed.  I empathize with administrators who worry that the crackle of a Geiger counter might repulse or anger some visitors.  My own view is that all kinds of genuine reactions, ranging from enthusiasm to fear, are valid, and all should be tolerated.  Scientifically-informed judgement should guide how safety is established at such sites, but it is still possible to be welcoming and accommodating toward visitors expressing a broad spectrum of reactions, including both the occasional phobia and the occasional super-demanding “nukehead” (e.g., me).  The sites in the nascent Manhattan Project National Historical Park belong to all of us–the enthusiastic and the timid, the plant operators and the “downwinders,” the bombers and the bombed.  Uniting us all is interest in the history, and I am encouraged by the respect for history I witnessed at B Reactor this year.  Best wishes to the other Manhattan Project park sites as they open doors to the public.

Now what you probably came here for: captioned photo galleries!

Reactor operating position and safety systems

B Reactor offers a window into the minds of reactor designers who had never before worked at the power scale envisioned for plutonium production, but who still thought of a surprisingly comprehensive suite of instrumentation, controls, and safety systems, many of which have analogous descendants in modern reactors.  Notable are multiple ranges of power measurement instruments, flux profiling and distribution control in the core, gravity-dropped safety rods, a backup gravity-operated shutdown system in case the core sustained mechanical damage, emergency core cooling tanks in case of a water delivery failure, electrical and hydraulic redundancy in the horizontal control rod system, seismometer SCRAM in case of earthquake or war; and individual fuel channel pressure measurements.

Horizontal control rods

Horizontal control rods were used to regulate the reactor power and adjust the flux distribution in the core.  Some of the rods were hydraulically driven, others electrically driven.  The “inner rod room” lies directly above the control room and is still quite radioactive and off limits (even to me).  This is where withdrawn rods would actually reside after exiting the core.  Their drive mechanisms are on the other side of a heavily-shielded wall, the “outer rod room” (shown in most of these photos).  Radiation is detectable in the outer rod room, and particularly in a floor drain under it.  The radiation here mostly comes from cobalt-60, a product of neutron activation of steel.

Reactor discharge face

Irradiated nuclear fuel slugs would be pushed out the back of B Reactor into a water-filled trough.  This is a truly exciting part of B Reactor, since the radiation levels are bordering on high even today.  The gamma spectra reveal the activation nuclide europium-152, which we know accumulated in the cooling water system (see below) but could also be formed in the pile graphite and shielding concrete; and long-lived fission product cesium-137.  The Cs-137 was formed in fuel and subsequently escaped through ruptures and leaks in the fuel cladding.

Irradiated fuel storage pool

After being irradiated, short-lived radioactivity in the fuel was allowed to decay for several months before chemical processing to recover the plutonium was undertaken (typically, unless one was doing a “green run,” in which case you would process it right away).  In common with the reactor discharge face area, radiation levels in the fuel storage pool at B Reactor remain a little too high for public access.  However, the wooden decking over the pool can be viewed through a window.  The cause for the high residual radioactivity is none other than our old friend, cesium-137, which escaped from damaged fuel.

Above and below the reactor

At the “pile top” we find the gravity-aided vertical safety rod (VSR) mechanisms, as well as hoppers full of boron carbide balls–a last-ditch shutdown feature in case the VSR guide tubes warped from thermal-mechanical damage in the core.  Below the reactor is a small basement (the “Beckman room”) where reactor flux measuring instruments were located.  Today, the basement contains an impressive stash of radioactive tools and fuel handling equipment, probably left in position from shutdown in 1968.

Cooling water systems

B Reactor employed a once-through cooling circuit: water was drawn from the Columbia River, treated, pumped through the reactor’s process tubes, allowed to “cool down,” both thermally and radiologically, in an outdoor basin, and then discharged back into the river.  The discharge water sampling station in B Reactor allowed chemists to monitor their effluent, alerting them to damaged fuel or water treatment problems.  Today, the sampling station remains a bit radioactive, with the rare-earth activation nuclide europium-152 being wholly responsible for the measured gamma radiation there.

Reactor grounds

The back yard of B Reactor has some interesting stuff, like pallets full of channelized reactor graphite and drums full of unused boron carbide shutdown balls.  Several railroad cars used to transport irradiated fuel are now permanently displayed on the grounds, and these are sizzlin’, producing peak gamma exposure readings in excess of 5 mR/h, all due to residual Cs-137.

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2015 Photos from Chernobyl

June 11, 2016

I have been extremely slothful in attending to my blog, and if anyone still reads it, I apologize and thank you for your patience!  I’m attempting to catch up for the last few years in my spare time, posting the content and photos I’ve intended to publish more punctually but somehow haven’t found the time to do yet.  The following images were taken at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in September of 2015 (with a couple from 2013, another trip I somehow managed not to document on my blog).  Amazing progress has been made on the New Safe Confinement.

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Herb Anderson’s “Live Block” of the Chicago Pile

June 4, 2016

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They don’t give out spent nuclear fuel as a memento anymore.  But on the tenth anniversary of the first nuclear reactor (the Chicago Pile) going critical, pile physicist Herbert L. Anderson was presented with this handsome “live block” of graphite and uranium metal fuel, piping hot and right out of the reactor core.  With an estimated two millicuries of Cs-137 then distinguishing it from the natural uranium whence it was made, the unique artifact spent the next sixty years as part of Anderson’s home decor, a reminder of his pivotal role in one of the 20th century’s greatest triumphs in physics.  Herb’s wife Betsy kindly gave it to me in 2014 with the hope that new understanding and appreciation would follow.

Now, having had nearly two years to get to know this artifact, I can share some preliminary findings about it–and a few lingering questions as well.  I am grateful for ongoing partnerships with the University of Missouri and the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences that are bringing new details to light about its metallurgy and history, and I am grateful for past assistance from the University of New Mexico here in Albuquerque.  I am actively searching for ways to bring this piece of the first reactor to an appreciative public audience.  So, dear reader, if you have suggestions or information that will help with either the technical understanding of the artifact, or its accommodation in a museum for the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Manhattan Project, please get in touch.

Part I: Basic physical description

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This is a “live block” (meaning a piece of graphite with nuclear fuel installed in it), distinguished from the “dead blocks” of pure graphite that were interspersed or used as reflectors in the Chicago Pile.  Several museums possess “dead blocks”; to my knowledge, these include the American Museum of Science and Energy (Oak Ridge), the Bradbury Science Museum (Los Alamos), the National Atomic Testing Museum (Las Vegas), and the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (Albuquerque).  My friend Kelly Michaels has an excellent photo set of these artifacts.  Pieces of Chicago Pile fuel also survive independently;  most notably, this piece once belonging to Alvin Weinberg.  However, the Herb Anderson “live block” is unique, to my knowledge, in that it contains fuel and moderator together.  The block’s measured dimensions, including fuel dimensions and those of the decorative housing, are available in a SolidWorks model to interested parties (please contact me).

The “T01” lot stamp appearing on the right face of the graphite block indicates that the graphite is AGOT made by the National Carbon Company, one of at least six types of graphite used to build the Pile.  AGOT had the lowest neutron absorption of all of these types, so was preferred for the pile’s core region.  About 2/3 of the CP-1 pile consisted of AGOT.  This grade of nuclear graphite went on to be used in the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge and the plutonium production reactors at Hanford.

The fuel is unclad uranium metal in cylindrical elements that bear identifying stamp marks on the front faces.  When I replaced the original cracked acrylic housing around the artifact, I was able to weigh the fuel elements directly.  The left element weighed 2.564 kg, and the right one, 2.553 kg.  The left element stamp reads “M230/L101/P2” while the right one reads “M170/L79/P1”.  The significance of these marks remains unknown to me.  I believe that if someone is able to assist in their interpretation, we might learn which of the three recorded contributing manufacturers of U metal produced this fuel.  It should be noted that metal fuel was a small minority of the Chicago Pile fuel, amounting to just 5.4 metric tons; the vast majority of the fuel was pressed-oxide “pseudosphere” elements.  Metal was made variously by Westinghouse, Metal Hydrides Corp., or the Ames Process.

Another question raised by this artifact is that it contains cylindrical metal fuel placed into chamfered recesses in the graphite designed for receiving “pseudosphere” oxide fuel.  As such, the cylinders cannot remain centered or upright in the recesses without the assistance of some acrylic supports that may be seen in the x-ray image.  I am quite sure that acrylic was not part of the original pile construction!  One is tempted to question, then, whether this fuel-and-stringer combination is original.  It could be that most graphite live blocks were machined for pseudosphere fuel, but when metal became available, the pseudosphere live blocks were used anyway (perhaps with graphite inserts serving the mechanical function of the acrylic supports, which begs the question of why the artifact contains acrylic instead; or perhaps without any supports, the fuel cylinders simply being dropped awkwardly into the recesses).  A lack of detailed photos from the construction of CP-1 makes the question hard to answer.

Part II: Gamma spectrometric estimate of fuel burnup

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Mentioned earlier is the fact that this fuel contains cesium-137.  In fact, the external radiation signatures are dominated by this long-lived fission product.  Without a doubt, then, the fuel has been significantly exposed to reactor operation.  By comparing count rates in the Pa-234m gamma peaks to that in the Cs-137 peak at 662 keV, we can determine the quantity of Cs-137 remaining in the fuel under the assumption that the Pa-234m is in equilibrium with its U-238 parent.  This will motivate the estimation of fuel burnup range under various assumptions about the artifact’s history.  I performed the requisite experiments with my PGT germanium detector and obtained the spectrum shown above, leading to an estimated activity of 540 microcuries of Cs-137 distributed throughout the total fuel at the time of measurement.  Here are a few historical scenarios and the fuel burnup roughly corresponding to them:

  • The fuel operates in CP-1 only (December 1942-February 1943):  163 kWd/MTU
  • The fuel operates in CP-1 and its reconstruction in the Red Gate Woods (CP-2), and is removed from the operating reactor before being presented to Herb Anderson in November 1952 at the Tenth Anniversary celebration in Chicago: 132 kWd/MTU
  • The fuel was removed from the pile (CP-2) when it was decommissioned in 1954, and somehow was then integrated into the artifact: 127 kWd/MTU

There are challenges with all three potential histories.  The first is very unrealistic, given the known operating conditions of CP-1 in the brief months it was in use.  Intermittently critical, with a peak power of ~200 W achieved on one day only, the burnup in the fuel attested by these calculations is many thousands of times greater than what is possible according to the conventional history of that Pile.  The second scenario is supported by both the burnup calculation (even though I am aware of no formal operating records from CP-2) and the description given by Mrs. Anderson of how Herb got the item, but it leads to two big puzzles, firstly concerning how the fuel was removed from the reactor while the reactor was still in service, as the pile was not designed to be easily disassembled in the CP-2 instantiation; and secondly concerning the high activity levels of the discharged fuel when it must have been released from government custody to Anderson.  The third explanation avoids the issue of taking apart the reactor just to obtain a souvenir as the reactor was disassembled during decommissioning; however, it is historically inconsistent with the story told by Mrs. Anderson.  So what this gamma spectrometry measurement allows us to say with certainty is that the fuel was used in CP-2 (as well as the original pile, presumably).  Beyond that, plenty of thought-provoking questions remain.

Part III: Neutron multiplication properties

It would seem there is no greater aspiration for a piece of the world’s first nuclear reactor than to return, momentarily, to the task originally undertaken with so much fanfare: multiplying neutrons in fission chain reactions.  These three photos above show some multichannel-scaling apparatus to look at fission in the CP-1 block (set up in my kitchen, because this is a “cooking” project of sorts).  We are going to examine the time correlation between neutron counts in a bank of two He-3 proportional counters next to our specimen.  Both counter tubes and the specimen are reflected by polyethylene blocks to trap neutrons in the system as best we can.  Highly-correlated counts point to fission “chains”, in which a fission event causatively leads to successive ones on a time scale controlled by the neutron transport properties of the specimen and surroundings.  I’ll measure correlation by way of excess variance, or the Feynman Y-statistic: the difference between the measured variance-to-mean ratio of counts accumulated in a certain time window interval and unity (which corresponds to idealized, uncorrelated, Poisson-distributed counts).  We’ll look at the CP-1 live block by itself and with a small additional neutron source present.  We will also look at the neutron source alone, a lead brick, and the empty polyethylene cavity.  Results and commentary below.

So what the fuck does this mean?  Firstly, the CP-1 block by itself produces strongly time-correlated neutrons (purple data) on a measurement scale of about a millisecond or greater, while the little homemade AmBe neutron source is pretty much stochastic (red data).  (Note, though, that the AmBe source is about five times stronger a neutron source than the block.)  Putting the block in with the AmBe source slightly reduces the neutron count (~12%) versus the source alone, but produces excess correlation of nearly 30% of the block by itself, indicating the presence of induced fission.  The high correlation in the block itself may be attributed to spontaneous fission (SF) as a minor decay mode of U-238, as well as a smaller contribution of spallation and fission induced by secondary cosmic rays.  These neutron sources each produce a burst of neutrons, and are also closely coupled to successive induced fissions.  The AmBe source, by contrast, is driven by radioactive decay: alpha particles slam into beryllium.  Notice the curvature of the data in all cases: it rises as we lengthen the counting window.  That is to say, there is more neutron correlation as the window gets longer.  Neutrons take their time moving through materials, scattering, slowing down, and finally reaching the detector, and neutrons produced in coincidence will not register as such unless the window is long enough to account for their random meanderings through material.  Finally, just to illustrate fission and other fission-like reactions in something other than uranium, I put a 20-pound lead brick in the counter.  Now you may believe that lead is not a fissionable material, but under the right conditions–such as when a 500-MeV electron in the secondary cosmic ray spectrum hits it–the lead nucleus can split up by fission or by a somewhat similar process called spallation, cooking off a distribution of neutrons.  And that is why we see highly-correlated neutrons (green data) being emitted by lead.  Again note the upper right graph, though: lead is a very weak source of neutrons even though the ones that are emitted are highly time-correlated.

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Gamma Analysis of Chagan “Atomsite”

August 19, 2012

Lake Chagan (“Atomic Lake”) was formed in 1965 following a thermonuclear cratering explosion on the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan.  More photos from my recent trip to the site are here.  Merely visiting the site does not answer some of the most interesting questions about its current state, such as the isotopic origin of the significant (1-2 mR/hr) gamma radiation.

I decided to take a more scientific look at the gamma rays emitted from Chagan’s fused rock—the glassy, vesiculated slag (“atomsite” or “kharitonchiki”) that covers the ground near the shore of the lake.  A grab sample was acquired, and transported home by means other than my own return flight from Almaty (this airport’s departure lounge is guarded by a notoriously-sensitive portal scintillator made by Aspect).  I filled a 3-ounce plastic jar with the material for counting.

My method of analyzing this unique “soil sample” is HPGe gamma-ray spectrometry.  I followed the same approach discussed in my earlier analysis of Japanese soils, involving comparison of the test specimen with an identically-shaped Cs-137 sand standard.  My germanium detector is operated via a homebrew LabVIEW program built around Mark Rivers’ EPICS interface for the Canberra 556 AIM MCA and Carsten Winkler’s CA Lab; I subsequently analyze the spectra (peak fitting, background subtraction, energy calibration) with FitzPeaks.  In this experiment I collected an 8000-second count of the slag sample and a 2000-second count of the Cs-137 sand standard.  An appropriate long-duration background was subtracted from each.  The quantitative calculation of activities relies on a single major line from each nuclide, chosen (to the extent possible) to be close to 662 keV.  Corrections for detector energy response were made by calibrating the energy-dependent photopeak efficiency in FitzPeaks to a point Ra-226 source, covering the range of roughly 200-1600 keV with a power-law model.  Corrections for material attenuation, including density variations from the standard, are NOT made from a calibration but are calculated based on an exponential attenuation model that assumes the sample has the elemental composition of concrete.  It’s probably not a bad comparison, and typically results in a correction of under 20%.  However, I expect better accuracy in the quantitative analysis for peaks that are closer to 662 keV.  Finally, no corrections are made for count losses to coincidence summing.  An Excel spreadsheet of this data and analysis may be downloaded here.

Referring to the 0-1600 keV gamma spectrum below, the first major observation is that most of the lines belong to europium isotopes, Eu-154 and Eu-152.  These isotopes were produced when neutrons from the “device” were captured by the ~1ppm naturally-abundant Eu-153 and Eu-151, respectively, which have remarkably high capture cross-sections.  These activation products are also long-lived enough to persist in significant quantity to the present day.  The other major long-lived gamma-emitting activation nuclide is Co-60.  Some of this cobalt could be from metal in the bomb’s well casing, but it could also be from activation of crustal mineralization.  The remaining major activity, Cs-137, is a product of fission in the bomb’s fissionable components.

Gamma spectrum of Lake Chagan atomsite

If we examine the smaller peaks in detail (click on below thumbnails), long-lived isotopes of holmium (Ho-166m), silver (Ag-108m), and barium (Ba-133) are in evidence.  Am-241 is present at a low concentration; on the basis of its 59-keV gamma line I cannot confidently estimate its concentration using the Cs-137 reference source technique.  Am-241 is the daughter of Pu-241 produced by neutron capture on plutonium in the bomb, and thus is a reliable proxy for the presence of plutonium in the sample.  The gamma radiations from plutonium itself are too weak and swamped by the spectrum’s low-energy continuum to be observed.

The chart below presents the results of the quantitative analysis.  Gamma-emitting radionuclide activity in “Chaganite” exceeds 375 Bq / g, with Eu-152 being the most concentrated.

Nuclide concentrations, July 30 2012

Chaganite versus Trinitite: when the activities are normalized to their initial values at the time of the respective explosions (1965 and 1945), a direct comparison can be made that illustrates just how much more radioactive the Chagan slag is (see beow).  The data for Trinitite is taken from Pittauerova, Kolb, et al., “Radioactivity in Trinitite: a review and new measurements,” Proc. 3rd Eur. IRPA Conference, Helsinki, 14-16 June 2010.

Comparison of “Chaganite” with Trinitite

The Chagan slag contained almost an order of magnitude more Cs-137 at the time of formation, but it is the rather staggering ratios of the activation nuclides that surprises me the most: 400 times as much Eu-154 in Chaganite versus Trinitite.  70 times as much Eu-152.  And 370 times as much Co-60.  Why?  One fairly obvious explanation is found in the facts that Chagan was a more powerful bomb, detonated in closer proximity to the crustal rock that its neutrons activated since it was underground.  Some further considerations may also be relevant.  According to Carey Sublette’s Nuclear Weapons Archive, Chagan “was reported to be a low-fission design, which had a pure thermonuclear secondary driven by a fission primary with a yield of about 5-7 kt.”  In contrast, the Trinity bomb was a pure fission core surrounded by a uranium tamper.  Thus, escaping neutrons with a hard DT fusion spectrum probably carried a significantly higher fraction of Chagan’s energy yield relative to Trinity’s.

There is not a statistically-different concentration of Ba-133 between the two slags.  I think most of Trinity’s Ba-133 came from the bomb’s explosives, while Chagan’s probably came from crustal concentrations of barium.

Finally, if the Trinity bomb had a fission yield more than three times larger than Chagan, why is the latter’s concentration of Cs-137 higher?  The best reason I can suggest is Chagan’s better underground containment of volatile fission products.  In a surface explosion, volatile Cs and its beta-decaying precursors exist as gases for a long time, enabling atmospheric dispersal.  In an underground explosion, volatiles are condensed rapidly near where they were formed.

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Visit to the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site

August 13, 2012

Soviet Ground Zero

At 7:00 on the morning of August 29, 1949, a nuclear fireball lit up the skies over a desolate expanse of steppe about 100 km from Semipalatinsk in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.  This explosion—the culmination of a research effort personally supervised by fearsome NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria—earned the Soviet Union status as a nuclear-armed superpower to rival the United States.  Over the course of the next 50 years, 615 more nuclear explosions, as well as numerous subcritical, radiological, and reactor-based experiments, occurred on the same New-Jersey-sized reservation—the Semipalatinsk Test Site.  The STS was largely abandoned in 1991 in the turbulent prelude to Kazakhstan’s independence.

This July I had the good fortune to visit the STS and its formerly-secret support city, Kurchatov.  Physical access to the STS is minimally controlled, but given the Kazakhstani police behaviors we observed, foreigners would arouse decidedly too much suspicion traveling to the area without official sanction for their trip.  Some reactors remain operational and some testing grounds (particularly Degelen) contain proliferation-sensitive debris.  I recommend contracting with a registered adventure tour company (I hired Nomadic Travel) to handle permissions, lodging, and appropriate transportation.  Roads on the Test Site are impassible in wet weather, merely brutal when dry, and I don’t exaggerate in the judgment that some of them would be faster on horseback!

Photo selections below include Kurchatov; Soviet “Ground Zero;” the aerial bombing target for the first Soviet staged thermonuclear bomb; the Degelen Mountain underground test site; a borehole on the Balapan underground site which experienced an “emergency situation;” and finally, the radioactive crater known as Lake Chagan.  The photos provided below are all captioned with additional detail.

Links to photo galleries (or scroll down):

  1. Kurchatov, the Secret City
  2. Soviet “Ground Zero”
  3. The RDS-37 Site
  4. The Degelen Mountains
  5. Borehole 1007: “Emergency Situation”
  6. Lake Chagan, the “Atomic Lake”
  7. Reactor Facilities at STS

Kurchatov, the Secret City

Kurchatov appeared on no maps and had no name (except for a cryptic post office number) for most of its existence. It was built hastily by GULAG labor and hosted many famous (and infamous) people of importance to the Soviet nuclear weapons project. Now it has a new life as a peaceful nuclear city, with a satellite campus of Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center occupying new buildings in town. Meanwhile, historic structures are crumbling and the town is clearly a shadow of its former self.

Soviet Ground Zero

60 kilometers southwest of Kurchatov is the 20-km-diameter “Experimental Field” (Опытное Поле), dotted with strange and dilapidated structures, radioactive slag, and swampy craters.  Its P-1 site, shown in all the photos below, was Ground Zero for “Joe-1″, RDS-6S (the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb, named for a delightful Russian pastry), and two other successful bombs.  All bombs tested at this spot were positioned on 15-30m towers.  At least two dozen more surface tests took place elsewhere on the Experimental Field.  To watch a video of “Joe-1,” click here.  To watch a video of the “sloika,” click here.

The RDS-37 Site

On Nov. 22 1955, the Soviet Union’s first multi-stage hydrogen bomb (embodying what is known as the “Teller-Ulam” configuration in the US, credited as Andrei Sakharov’s “Third Idea” in the Soviet Union) was dropped from an airplane toward a target designated by an 800-meter-diameter chalk circle on the Experimental Field about 3 km southwest of the P-1 site.  The bomb detonated at an altitude of 1.6 km with an unexpectedly-high yield of 1.5 megatons, killing a number of people in the region (including a 3-year-old girl). What remains today are faint traces of the target markings. Like the Nazca Lines, these are easier seen from space (see the Google satellite pic). Radiation levels at the site are modest, no more than about twice regional background.  There is no notable “atomsite” slag on the surface of this site.  Watch video of the RDS-37 blast here, which shows some footage of the event as seen from Kurchatov at the end.

The Degelen Mountains

“There’s plutonium in them thar hills!”  The Degelen Mountains were used for hundreds of underground nuclear tests carried out in horizontal adits in the rock. These adits are now “prohibited areas” because many tests were subcritical and chunks of plutonium remain in the residues that the Soviet Union neglected to clean up.  According to William Tobey’s sources, “hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade fissile material was ‘readily recoverable’ in the tunnels” at Degelen, enough to make quite a number of bombs.  The mountains themselves are hauntingly beautiful, and the surrounding foothills dotted with military ruins.

Borehole 1007: “Emergency Situation”

Borehole 1007 at the Balapan site was supposed to contain a routine underground nuclear test in February of 1972. But the bomb was a little too feisty, and ended up blowing the top off the well. A piece of the well casing (quite radioactive, I should mention) is now displayed in the STS Museum in Kurchatov. The rest of the well, and all its radioactive ejecta, is right here where we found it on the steppe.

Lake Chagan, the “Atomic Lake”

An idyllic and suspiciously-round lake of some 10 million cubic meters capacity graces the left bank of the Chagan River. It owes its existence to a 140-kiloton “peaceful” nuclear explosion carried out on January 15, 1965. The stated objective was to experiment with changing the course of rivers. Chagan was a filthy test, heavily contaminating the surroundings with radioactive byproducts. Like the American Operation Plowshare, bomb developers found that these peaceful uses worked after a fashion, but resulted in contamination that tended to preclude practical use. Lake Chagan would make a great picnic spot, but we were not able to enjoy some nourishment here ourselves because we were required to wear respirators over our pie-holes. The banks of Lake Chagan are strewn with this bomb’s unique slag, a sort of foamy, pumice-like rock.  Hottest spots on the bank now seem to be about 2 mrem / hour.  Click here to watch a video of Lake Chagan’s creation, including footage of swimmers in the water.

Reactor facilities

The Semipalatinsk Test Site contains more than just old nuclear weapons tests; it is also home to some working nuclear facilities that are quite fascinating. We didn’t make it inside the Baikal and IGR complexes, but I grabbed some photos in their general direction.

For more photos, including photos from the Tien Shan Mountains, Astana, Almaty, and other cities in Kazakhstan, please see my Facebook page.

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A Little Bit of Fission

June 3, 2012

One of the fun things you can do with uranium is to turn big atoms into little atoms.  All natural heavy nuclei will undergo fission after a hard enough kick (for instance, protons accelerated to around 50 MeV will fission gold or bismuth), but to split uranium, all you need are some household-variety neutrons.  Offering a neutron to a U-235 or U-238 nucleus is like giving Mr. Creosote his “wafer-thin mint” in the infamous Monty Python sketch: the recipient is violently blown to chunks and the surroundings drenched in postprandial gibbage!  Maybe I’ve gone overboard with that metaphor.  Anyhow, uranium fission residues include a long list of mostly-radioactive lighter nuclei, additional prompt and delayed neutrons, and some gamma rays.

25 grams of uranyl peroxide in a Nalgene bottle, ready to be irradiated with neutrons.

The 2-4 Ci PuBe source used to irradiate the uranium sample.  A string is provided for safe handling.

The experiment described here relates to the question of what specific fission product gamma signatures a nuclear hobbyist, equipped with typically limited resources, is likely to observe pursuant to neutron irradiation of some natural uranium.  Preliminary considerations suggest we’ll only notice products that emit strong gamma radiation, have a half-life comparable to or shorter than the irradiation period, and have high fission yields.  Uranium’s natural radioactivity causes additional complication, probably blinding us to fission products that emit at energies near the major features of the Pa-234 spectrum.  Beyond these generalities, predicting what we might see is a nontrivial task, so the question can really only be addressed convincingly by experiment.

Neutron source and uranium are lowered into a wax moderator.

_ at the University of _ kindly offered his HPGe detector for use in this experiment.

I irradiated 25 grams of natural uranyl peroxide, freshly prepared from Utah pitchblende ore, overnight with a ~5E+06 n/s PuBe neutron source.  This source intensity is comparable to contemporary hobby fusion neutron sources, like well-constructed Farnsworth fusors.  After irradiation, a 2.5-hour gamma spectrum of the sample was collected with an HPGe detector.  25g of non-irradiated uranyl peroxide in an identical container served as a control, the spectrum of the control being subtracted from the spectrum of the irradiated sample to eliminate most features belonging to uranium or its own decay daughters.  What we’re left with is a difference spectrum containing features attributable to the nuclear transmutations in the irradiated sample.  Here’s that gamma spectrum, in three graphs, encompassing the range of 200-1500 keV.  I have labelled the identified peaks.

So what did we make?  Here’s a summary of the nuclides contributing peaks found in the gamma spectrum, with my comments on a few.  All are short-lived, having half-lives between 30 minutes and 2.4 days.

  • Np-239: The largest new peaks in the above spectra are the ones at 229 and 278 keV belonging to Np-239, which is formed not by fission but by (n,g) neutron capture on U-238 followed by beta decay of U-239.  Np-239 is the parent of the important fissile isotope, Pu-239.
  • Sr-92: Although not the largest new activity, Sr-92’s peak at 1384 keV is the most prominent above background.
  • I-135 and Xe-135: These are high-yield fission products, Xe-135 being the daughter of I-135, having huge neutron cross-sections, responsible for effects known variously as “xenon poisoning” and the “iodine well” in nuclear reactor behavior.
  • Sr-91 and Y-91m: Sr-91 is a high-yield fission product; Y-91m is not, but grows in as Sr-91 decays.
  • Zr-97, Nb-97, and Nb-97m
  • I-133
  • I-134
  • Cs-138
  • La-142

If you’re doing a fission experiment with a very weak source of neutrons, and your irradiation time is on the order of at least a few hours, I recommend you first set your sights on Sr-92’s whopping peak out at 1384 keV.  If you can’t see that one, you probably won’t see anything else.  Xe-135 and the iodine isotopes might be easy to separate from an aqueous uranium solution by solvent extraction with corn oil or some similar nonpolar medium, improving their visibility against background.

More writeup on this experiment here.

Many thanks to _ at the University of _ for the use of some of his resources.

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Inside Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station

May 26, 2012

The two boiling water reactors at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station are of the BWR/4 product line from General Electric and are housed in Mark I (“lightbulb”) containments.  They share a common turbine building and a common control room.  Electrical output is about 1200 MW each, leaving the station at a respectable 500 kV to feed the power-hungry metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States.  Condenser waste heat is rejected to the Susquehanna River, supplemented during particularly hot weather by some small forced-draft cooling towers.  Peach Bottom’s official name harkens back to 1958, when “atomic power” was a celebrated novelty, and construction began on a unique gas-cooled reactor at the Peach Bottom site.  The GCR operated until 1974.  Units 2 and 3 came on line that same year on a site on the right bank of the Susquehanna River just north of Unit 1.

Nuclear power plants have understandably committed unprecedented attention to safety and security in the last decade or so.  An unfortunate side effect has been that those of us who don’t work in these facilities have scant resources to help wrap our heads around their scale, layout, equipment, and operations.  With that in mind, I’m profoundly grateful to Exelon Corporation’s Peach Bottom staff, and in particular Jim Kovalchick, director of security, for allowing the comprehensive tour on which these photos were taken in April 2012.

To see pics with my descriptive captions, you must click “permalink” in the slideshow view after clicking the thumbnails below.  Sorry that’s not obvious, but WordPress.com has gone all knuckle-head in the tech department this year.  If you want to see the FULL SIZED photo: (1) click the thumbnail; (2) select “permalink”; (3) click the larger photo.  Whew!

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