Britain to use spent nuclear fuel for batteries to power deep space craft

Sep 14, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Britain to use spent nuclear fuel for batteries to power deep space craft
Sellafield Nuclear Reprocessing Facility

(Phys.org)—To reduce the cost of cleaning up nuclear waste at Britain's Sellafield nuclear reprocessing facility in Cumbria, workers from the British National Nuclear Laboratory have been harvesting americium-241, in hopes of using it as part of nuclear batteries for long range spacecraft built by the European Space Agency (ESA). It's all part of a £1 million pilot program designed to find ways to use existing fissionable materials for use in future space missions.

The idea would follow designs already used by the United States to power its Cassini and Voyager space probes and now in use by the Mars rover, Curiosity. Nuclear material gives off heat for many years, which can be used directly to keep a craft warm, or be converted into electricity for use by electronic components. The team has reportedly already harvested some amount of americium-241 from the plutonium waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons. The Sellafield facility reprocesses or separates plutonium, uranium and other fissionable materials from spent nuclear fuel, some of which is used for other purposes such as creating new fuel for nuclear reactors. It's also the site of what will be a new due to begin operation in 2025.

The ESA is keen to find a suitable replacement for plutonium-238, as it's only currently available from the United States and Russia, and believes americium-241, harvested from already existing plutonium waste would make a good choice. Each nuclear battery would only need about 5 kg of the material, which would mean Britain could supply all that would be needed (the Sellafield facility is believed to house some 100 tonnes of waste plutonium) by the ESA for the foreseeable future. Batteries made using it could be used to support missions to other planets and other exploratory projects.

It's also been noted that such batteries could be used for other purposes as well, such as in long term undersea probes, or in buoys outfitted with sensors to monitor sea conditions and other countries such as China and India have already expressed interest in using them for various projects. Thus, the market for long duration nuclear batteries might be expanding, which would make harvesting americium-241 not only cost efficient but perhaps at some point, profitable.

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User comments : 18

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Wolf358
not rated yet Sep 14, 2012
Can we power locomotives with these, and replace the diesel part of diesel/electric? Or is that too insecure?
Shootist
not rated yet Sep 14, 2012
Hardly a battery.

@wolf, no. energy density is far too low.
nkalanaga
not rated yet Sep 14, 2012
Too low powered. These are ideal for low-power, long-term applications, but a locomotive can easily require several megawatts.

The main security risk for railroad applications would be someone stealing them. Mass isn't a concern, as the locomotive needs that for traction. Thus, the mass of the engine and generator could be replaced with shielding, and the nuclear material would be almost immune to wreck damage. Or theft, for that matter, without a BIG crane...
krundoloss
not rated yet Sep 14, 2012
Not with this type of battery. Its made for low power long duration use, like space probes, sensors, etc. You could use a nuclear reactor on a train, but it would be dangerous and overly powerful. Maglev would be best, just let the track power the train, or how subways work with a power rail. Trains are the least of our worries right now, they seem fairly efficient......
El_Nose
1 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2012
I thought we had issues with this technology -- one of the main reasons that spacecraft such as Voyager have not been recreated was because of putting nuclear material into orbit?
baudrunner
1 / 5 (6) Sep 14, 2012
Where does England get off having 200,000 lbs of waste Plutonium lying around, left over from the production of nuclear bombs? Seems to me that historically they have been breaking all the rules all along. What makes them so special? It's time England was put in its place.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2012
Seems to me that historically they have been breaking all the rules all along.

What rules would those be?

What makes them so special?

What makes any country special? (e.g. yours)?
Neurons_At_Work
5 / 5 (1) Sep 14, 2012
My concern with this is that americium-241 appears to be one material of choice for constructing 'dirty bombs'. Cleanup of such a device is estimated at several to many billions of dollars. I don't think I'd be putting substantial quantities of americium-241 on buoys or anywhere else where it would sit unguarded for long periods of time...

@El Nose--there was a time when the public got a bit uppity over launching nuclear spacecraft, for fear an explosion would dust a large area with fallout, but that seems to have passed. The Curiosity rover uses a plutonium-powered RTG, as do other deep space probes.
nkalanaga
not rated yet Sep 15, 2012
www.world-nuclear...f57.html (from Google Search results - I didn't read the webpage itself)

"Americium-241, with a half-life of 432 years, was the first isotope to be isolated, and is the one used today in most domestic smoke detectors."

If you wanted to build a dirty bomb from it, all you;d need to do is collect enough smoke detectors. Get enough friends to buy them, scattered around the country, and nobody would suspect anything.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2012
hopes of using it as part of nuclear batteries for long range spacecraft built by the European Space Agency
At the case of crash the radioactive material shouldn't be spread into atmosphere from apparent reason. A commonly cited quote by Ralph Nader, states that a pound of plutonium dust spread into the atmosphere would be enough to kill 8 billion people. These plans should come with public protests.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Sep 15, 2012
I don't think I'd be putting substantial quantities of americium-241 on buoys or anywhere else where it would sit unguarded for long periods of time...

Putting this stuff into space seems to be a reasonable safe place for getting it beyond the reach of terrorists (better than keeping it at Sellafield for millennia, certainly)
nkalanaga
not rated yet Sep 15, 2012
ValeriaT: The next paragraphs disprove Ralph Nader, and end with this quote:

"When my paper on plutonium toxicity(26) was first published, including its estimate of 2 million cancers per pound of plutonium inhaled, Ralph Nader asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to evaluate it. Judging from the number of telephone calls I received asking about calculational details, they did a rather thorough job, and in the end they gave it a "clean bill of health." Nevertheless, Nader continued to state, in his speeches and writings, that a pound of plutonium could kill 8 billion people, 4,000 times my estimate. In fact, he accused me(37) of "trying to detoxify plutonium with a pen.""

Workers at Hanford, and probably elsewhere, have inhaled plutonium dust and survived with few long-term health effects. It isn't good for you, but it's far from the bigest danger we face.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Sep 15, 2012
Seems to me that historically they have been breaking all the rules all along.
What rules would those be?
..rules of fair play, antialias_physorg . Every Englishman still thinks that it's okay to be a pirate or a thief, just so long as you do it in the name of the queen. Remember George III, and his attempt at that greedy "tax" grab that he had no right to? Remember the Boston Tea Party? Historically, the ruling families of Britain have been extortionists and murderers. That's how they got rich,by grabbing land and wealth from peaceful people to serve their own agenda.

What makes them so special?
Apparently no-one perceives England to be a threat, like, say Iran is a threat. How naive. One $6 billion nuclear armed submarine and counting, but that's okay, I guess. I thought we were reducing the nuclear threat, but I guess you think it's alright for England to perpetuate it.

What makes any country special? (e.g. yours)?
Nothing, like I've been trying to say.
Hengine
not rated yet Sep 16, 2012
Where does England get off having 200,000 lbs of waste Plutonium lying around, left over from the production of nuclear bombs? Seems to me that historically they have been breaking all the rules all along. What makes them so special? It's time England was put in its place.


What is wrong with you? Why are you being so aggressive?

It's far from just "lying around". It's securely stored in purpose built facilities. They have had this material for years and have shown an excellent safety record in handling it, Britain is not a bad choice for someone who has to take care it.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Sep 16, 2012
..rules of fair play, antialias_physorg .

And which fairy-tale country has ever played by those rules?
Yours? Don't make me laugh.

I thought we were reducing the nuclear threat, but I guess you think it's alright for England to perpetuate it.

No, it's not all right. Nut since there are no rules (and plenty of precedents of other countries doing the same) there is no real way to forbid it, is there?

It's time England was put in its place.

And what place would that be? Ruler of the seas? Owner of India? Owner of the United States (which was ursuped from them by terrorists (or 'rebels' depending on from which side you look at)?
Who came along and set down rules which country had what place while i wasn't looking?
NOM
1 / 5 (2) Sep 16, 2012
"Americium-241, with a half-life of 432 years, was the first isotope to be isolated, and is the one used today in most domestic smoke detectors."

If you wanted to build a dirty bomb from it, all you;d need to do is collect enough smoke detectors. Get enough friends to buy them, scattered around the country, and nobody would suspect anything.

It's been done. Google "Radioactive Boy Scout"
NOM
1 / 5 (2) Sep 16, 2012
Just read in the news:
"Halliburton is offering a reward for a piece of oilfield equipment containing potentially dangerous radioactive material missing somewhere in West Texas.
The small stainless steel cylinder, about 18cm long and 2.5cm wide, contains radioactive Americium-241/Beryllium.
The device is used to evaluate oil and gas wells and is usually stored in a protective shielding."
nkalanaga
not rated yet Sep 16, 2012
NOM: I've read that one, and it was on the radio at the time it happened. That's why I ended with the comment I did...