[ RadSafe ] Radioactive contamination unearthed at former rocket test site near Los Angeles - U.S. News

Douglas Minnema DouglasM at dnfsb.gov
Mon Jan 7 11:49:30 CST 2013


Thanks for helping straighten out some of the confusion in this thread (sorry I'm late jumping in, just recovering from the flu).

There were multiple space-nuclear programs that DOE and its predecessors  were engaged in over the years.  In this thread we have managed to intermix almost all of them.  Let me try to straighten this out a little more.  Here are the major efforts and players as I know them (probably not perfect but close):

ROVER Program - LASL (now LANL) program to develop a nuclear rocket engine for deep space exploration, late 1950's to early 1970's.  Capable of exceeding chemical rockets' mission capabilities by a few orders of magnitude.  Development led by LANL with joint DOE/NASA funding and leadership; essentially all major testing was conducted at NTS.   ROVER program goal was proof of concept and technical development; the follow-on NERVA program goal was actual engine.  Both programs were successful but engines were never flown.  (John was there at the high times, I have only been able to study it as a history lesson.)

PLUTO Program - LLL (now LLNL) program to develop a ramjet engine for an advanced cruise missile concept, late 1950's to early 1970's.  Test reactors were tested at NTS under "flight-like" conditions, but the system was cancelled prior to progressing into a flyable configuration.  (Basically, at that time, if the AEC gave a major project to one lab they also had to give one to the other lab as compensation.)  Interesting factoid - Coor's fabricated the ceramic fuel for this system, as they had developed extensive ceramics manufacturing capability in order to build their brewery.

Nuclear Aircraft Program - This was a major program, again in the late 1950's to early 1970's, but the work was distributed wider and it is harder to pin down the real champion of the effort.  There have been multiple sites were criticality experiments were conducted (including at aircraft companies); the tower shielding reactor at ORNL tested shield concepts; and major engine testing was conducted at Idaho.  (If you ever make it out to INL, check out the two test reactor stands on display outside of EBR-I. )  Again, this effort was cancelled before it ever flew.

SNAP Program - This was a program to develop small power reactors for satellites and space applications, and is the program that ultimately produced the thermo-electric systems used by the Apollo astronauts on the moon.  These were much smaller than the nuclear rocket engines (~1-100 KW versus 4000 MW).  The Pu-238 powered RTG's used by the Galileo and Cassini missions to Jupiter and Saturn are modern decedents of this program.  MANY OF THE SYSTEMS TESTED AT THE "FORMER ROCKET TEST SITE NEAR LOS ANGELES" WERE FOR THIS PROGRAM (over the years that site has had many names so it can get confusing).  The AEC also did some early development work for sodium-cooled reactors at that site, so there was at least one small sodium reactor there (I suspect that even this work was related to space-power reactors, but am not sure).

The Los Angeles site was originally owned by Rocketdyne and was built for testing chemical rockets, it was not a typical DOE-owned site.  I believe that most of the work DOE/AEC did there was for joint projects with NASA, so they were not weapons-related.  I also believe that there was an intent to keep the level of nuclear activity conducted there to a reasonably low level.  My first experience with that site was when I took a class in sodium-handling in about 1980.  They were testing some large Delta and Space Shuttle engines at that time, as I recall, so it was an exciting experience.

Most of the work described above was over by the mid- to late-1970s; in most cases the efforts were overcome by newer technologies or lack of missions.  A few efforts have occasionally popped up since then (I worked on a critical assembly for a new small rocket engine design in the late 1980's), but most have died on the drawing table.  In my view, until the society commits to a sincere effort to explore deeper space (at or beyond Mars), it is unlikely that any significant funding will be put into such projects.

Doug Minnema, PhD, CHP
US Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

From: radsafe-bounces at health.phys.iit.edu [radsafe-bounces at health.phys.iit.edu] on behalf of John Ahlquist [john.ahlquist at sbcglobal.net]
Sent: Thursday, January 03, 2013 1:21 AM
To: Radsafe
Subject: Re: [ RadSafe ] Radioactive contamination unearthed at former  rocket test site near Los Angeles - U.S. News

Subject: Re: [ RadSafe ]  Radioactive contamination unearthed at former rocket
test site near Los Angeles -  U.S. News

I started my career at LANL working on the Rover Program [Pluto was the ramjet
program] which was intended to use a nuclear reactor to power a second stage
rocket for deep space exploration.   My first test was in 1965 on Phoebus 1A
which was a 1100 MWt reactor that ran at full power for 12 minutes. The later
Phoebus 2A was designed for 5000 MWt but due to problems ran only at 4000 MWt.
The power level was cycled several times during a one hour run.  As Jerry says,
the thrust was provided by liquid hydrogen that, in one pass through the about 4
ft long core, was heated to over 4000 degrees R.  The power was provided by
coated HEU beads in graphite fuel rods.  Each rod had 19 coolant channels.  You
can imagine the materials and thermal problems from something that compact
putting out that much energy.  The mission for such a reactor was never clearly
defined and the program died in the early 1970s.  I remember on one of the test
reactors, when the poison wires were removed, only two people were allowed to
work next to the reactor because neutron reflection from more people might cause
a criticality issue.

John Ahlquist

Subject: Re: [ RadSafe ]  Radioactive contamination unearthed at former rocket
test site near Los Angeles -  U.S. News

I believe you are referring to the "Pluto" program managed by  the Los
Alamos Lab. Pluto was a rocket powered by liquid hydrogen by running   it
through a nuclear reactor expanding its volume to provide the necessary thrust.
It worked, but I assume because it involved nuclear energy,  it was politically
unacceptable to the politicians in Washington. During the same period (the
60's), Livermore Lab was working on a nuclear powered ramjet  engine. Following
its first sucessful test, this project was also killed by  the federal

 Jerry  Cohen
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