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Nuclear rocket testing may be revived for NASA

The atomic rocket has again reared its radioactive head. The nuclear-powered rocket seemingly was an idea that had its day in the 1960s, then died.

In the early 1990s, the Deseret Morning News (then named the Deseret News) discovered that in 1965 a nuclear-powered rocket had been tested at the Nevada Test Site. Bolted down, the engine roared for 10 1/2 minutes, "sending skyward a plume of nearly invisible hydrogen exhaust that had just been thrust through a superheated uranium fission reactor," wrote Lee Davidson, the paper's Washington Bureau chief.

"Three days later, the Atomic Energy Commission found radioactive iodine 131 in town water at Caliente, Nev.," about 90 miles west of Cedar City. An AEC report said the fresh fission products probably came from an open-air nuclear bomb test in China.

But it acknowledged some could have come from the atomic rocket or an underground nuclear bomb detonation at the NTS on June 16, 1965.

The nuclear rocket project was abandoned but now may be revived.

The impetus is that NASA is now preparing to send humans to Mars and probes to more distant targets. A fission-powered rocket could reach sites more quickly, planners believe.

"Ground Test Facility for Propulsion and Power Modes of Nuclear Engine Operation" was recently posted on the Web site maintained by the Savannah River National Laboratory, Aiken, S.C. Written by the laboratory's Michael R. Williams, the report was presented at an engineering convention in Tucson, Ariz., in July.

The review was sponsored by the federal government, says the cover page, but its opinions don't necessarily reflect those of the government.

"Existing DOE (Department of Energy) ground test facilities have not been used to support nuclear propulsion testing since the Rover/NERVA programs of the 1960s," says the report. NERVA stands for Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application.

"Unlike the Rover/NERVA programs, DOE ground test facilities for space exploration enabling nuclear technologies can no longer be vented to the open atmosphere."

Savannah River might be a good place to test a prototype fuel element test reactor, referred to as the "nuclear furnace" of the rocket during the earlier program, the report indicates.

The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory's Advanced Test Reactor could be involved in some features of the program, it adds. The location is about 45 miles west of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The Nevada Test Site, however, was not seen as a good place for the testing.

Test facilities at the NTS's Nuclear Research and Development Area consist of three reactor test cells, an engine test stand, two large assembly-disassembly facilities and two remote control facilities that were reassigned to other purposes, it says.

"Furthermore, these facilities no longer comply with current environmental and nuclear safety standards and regulations regarding nuclear propulsion system testing for the reactor concept levels envisioned," the report adds.

Design and operation of the Ground Test Facility is expected to require a major engineering project "to provide a system capable of removing fission products from the engine exhaust. . . .

"The facility had to be capable of handling both normal operating conditions, as well as off-normal conditions that might arise from a catastrophic engine failure."

The report promotes the Savannah River Site as a place to develop fuel for the nuclear rocket. Using it to produce the nuclear fuel "and act as the lead laboratory for excess HEU (highly enriched uranium) deposition . . . will minimize logistic and nuclear proliferation concerns," the report says.

Tunnels at the Nevada Test Site, built for nuclear bomb testing, were considered as a possible location. "Although location of the Ground Test Facility underground might provide an additional margin of safety, there are still a number of questions concerning the use of existing tunnels or new tunnels" at the test site for this purpose, the report says.

Drawbacks cited to using the NTS tunnels include:

The tunnels may be needed in the future as sites for underground nuclear shots.

They are far enough away from existing nuclear rocket test facilities at the NTS to complicate the logistics of their use.

"Given the large volumes of gas that would be released during engine tests, the existing volumes of these tunnels does not appear to be adequate to contain exhaust gases at acceptable pressures." That problem would be magnified if abnormal situations developed during testing.

"During normal operations, the tunnels would be contaminated by fission products."

Another option considered was cleaning up the exhaust gases and then releasing them to the atmosphere "as was done in the Nuclear Furnace program in the 1960s."

Cleansing the exhaust gases could involve spraying them with water to cool them, and use of filters, dryers and hydrogen cooling to condensing water vapor. "Charcoal beds would be used" to remove xenon and krypton gases from the exhaust "which was then flared to the atmosphere."

Contacted by telephone, Williams said the study was preceded by an evaluation by NASA in 1993. The earlier study "included the Nevada Test Site as well as Savannah River Site and a number of other sites."

Since 1993, he said, "some areas have not improved significantly and others have improved," apparently referring to the suitability of testing the nuclear rocket.

"We felt that our (Savannah River's) situation had improved, because indeed some of the facilities we had missions for no longer have missions, making them available for reuse."

The new report was not good news to J Truman, a Malad, Idaho man who grew up in Enterprise, Washington County, and is president of the anti-nuclear testing group Downwinders.

As the nuclear rocket plans mature, other DOE facilities will "want the plum themselves," he said.

"Really, there are only three areas with both limited populations and the wide-open, vast stretches of land under federal control" where tests could be proposed, he said. They are White Sands Missile Base, N.M.; the Nevada Test Site, and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

"I think it will be a fight between New Mexico, Nevada and Idaho." In Truman's opinion, the only place where politicians would welcome such a test facility is Idaho.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com