Everything has a price. And the price of powerful rockets with nuclear propulsion is of course the dread horror of deadly atomic radiation. But the danger can be brought under control with appropriate counter-measures, and by treating the power plant with the respect it deserves. And the same measures will come in handy if your ship is an interplanetary warship that may be facing hostile nuclear warheads.
But it is important not to over-react. There is a lot of silly media hype about plutonium being "the most toxic substance known to man", there is a general agreement among experts in the field that this is false.
The characteristic blue glow you've seen in photographs of "swimming pool" reactors is called Cherenkov Radiation. If you the blue Cherenkov glow around an object IN THE AIR (not at the bottom of a swimming pool reactor), you'd better be viewing it through several inches of lead glass or you have already taken a lethal dose, it is far too late to do anything about it, you are already dead. This comes under the heading of "not treating radiation with the respect it deserves."
As a side note, Cherenkov Radiation is caused by radioactive particles exceeding the speed of light in the medium. The term "c" is not "the speed of light", it is the speed of light in a vacuum. The maximum speed of light is much slower in air and even slower in water. The practical upshot of this is that there is no Cherenkov Radiation in the vacuum of space, and to get the same level of glow seen in a swimming pool a radiation source in air will have to be much more radioactive.
The general term for dangerous unhealthy everybody-panic-now kind of radiation is "ionizing radiation." This is because the radiation is capable of ionizing atoms which compose the material being irradiated. Materials such as the poor crew's tender vulnerable pink bodies and internal organs. Non-ionizing radiation such as visible light and radio waves can be safely ignored (by which I mean a laser beam can chop you into bits but it won't give you cancer).
Ionizing the atoms composing the proteins of a living thing is much like using a machine gun to fill a running automobile engine full of bullets. Proteins are the tiny molecular machines that make cells work. If you ionize an atom of a given protein it either splits or crumples up into a tangled wad, rendering it useless. Destroy enough of the proteins and the cell dies. Destroy enough cells and you die.
Radiation also smashes DNA molecules like a jackhammer. This can kill the cell or turn it cancerous. No, it won't turn you into a mutant, but any future childen you have will be another matter.
The sun's ultraviolet light is a form of radiation that can give your skin a sunburn. Ionizing radiation is more penetrating, so it is capable of giving you a lethal "sunburn" on your internal organs.
Ionizing radiation comes in two types:
- electromagnetic radiation like gamma rays and x-rays
- particulate radiation like protons ("proton storm"), neutrons ("neutron radiation"), electrons ("beta particles"), alpha particles ("alpha particles"), and heavy primary nuclei ("HZE ions").
In the context of this website, you will be dealing with radiation in several areas.
- Radiation from the space environment
- Radiation from spacecraft nuclear propulsion and nuclear power plants
- Radiation from space combat weapons
Finally it is important to understand the subtle distinction between radiation and radioactivity. Radiation are the deadly rays and particles that kill you. An element is radioactive if that element emits the deadly rays and particles that kill you.
What's the practical difference?
If you say that the nuclear rocket engine is emitting radiation, this means it is emitting deady rays, which all nuclear rockets tend to do.
But if you say that the nuclear rocket engine is emitting radioactivity, this means that the reactor core has been breached, and it is spewing powdered nuclear reactor rods in the form of a lethal cloud of atomic fallout.
Astronauts traveling from planet to planet are exposed to the natural radiation of space. This is generally always particle radiation (but little or no neutrons), and the exposure time is "chronic" (see below). This radiation comes from galactic cosmic rays, solar storms, and spending to much time in the Van Allen radiation belts. NASA engineers fret about this because the transit time for a Mars mission with the currently available pathetically weak propulsion systems will expose the crew to more space radiation than is allowed.
NASA's Curiosity space probe measured the radiation dosage inflicted by traveling through space to Mars, specifically from Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs) and Solar Energetic Particles (SEPs). The dosage was 1.84 millisieverts per day (0.00184 sieverts). However, keep in mind this was measured during the peak of Sol's 11-year activity cycle, when GCR flux is relatively low due to shielding from solar plasma. And keep in mind this is with zero radiation shielding. But also keep in mind that it is incredibly difficult to shield against GCRs.
From NASA-STD-3000 Man-Systems Integration Standards. (ed note: for the most part, almost all naturaly occuring ionizing radiation is particle radiation. One generally only encounters gamma rays and x-rays from artificial sources, such as nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Naturally any NASA document will be silent on weapons.)
The ionizing radiation in space is comprised of charged particles, uncharged particles, and high-energy electromagnetic radiation. The particles vary in size from electrons (beta rays) through protons (hydrogen nuclei) and helium atoms (alpha particles) to the heavier nuclei encountered in cosmic rays, e.g., HZE particles (High Z and Energy, where Z is the charge). They may have single charges, either positive (protons, p) or negative (electrons, e), multiple charges (alpha or HZE particles); or no charge, such as neutrons. The atomic nuclei of cosmic rays, HZE particles, are usually completely stripped of electrons and thus have a positive charge equal to their atomic number.
The ionizing electromagnetic radiation consists of x-rays and gamma-rays which differ from each other in their energy. By convention X-rays have a lower energy than the gamma-rays with the dividing line being at about 1Merv. In general, x-rays are produced either by the interaction of energetic electrons with inner shell electrons of heavier elements or through the bremsstrahlung or braking radiation mechanism when deflected by the Coulomb field of the atomic nuclei of the target material. Gamma-rays are usually products of the de-excitation of excited heavier elements.
Ionizing radiations vary greatly in energy. Electromagnetic radiations have energy quanta determined by their wavelength or frequency. The energy of particulate radiation depends on the mass and velocity of the particles. Figure 22.214.171.124.1-1 summarizes the main types of ionizing radiation including their charge, mass, and source.
Figure 126.96.36.199.1-1 Sources and Characteristics of Electromagnetic and Particulate Ionizing Radiations in Space. Name Nature of radiation Charge Mass Sources X-ray Electromagnetic 0 0
Primary: Solar corona, stars, galaxies, terrestrial atmosphere in auroral zone.
Secondary: Spacecraft structure in some parts of the radiation belts, in the auroral zone, and in interplanetary space following some solar flares
Gamma ray Electromagnetic 0 0 Stars, galaxies, unknown sporadic sources, and spacecraft atmosphere. Electron Particle -e 1me Radiation belts and auroral regions. Proton Particle +e 1840 me or 1 amu Galaxy cosmic rays, radiation belts, and solar flares. Neutron Particle 0 1841 me
Primary: Galactic cosmic ray atmosphere albedo neutrons.
Secondary: Galactic cosmic ray interaction with spacecraft structure.
Alpha particle (helium nucleus) Particle +2e 4 amu Galactic and solar. HZE particle (heavy primary nuclei) Particle => +3e => 6 amu Galactic and solar.
Here is a good overivew of naturally occuring sources of space radiation.
If the spacecraft uses a nuclear propulsion system, or has a nuclear power reactor, these are also sources of both electromagnetic and particle radiation. The exposure time is "chronic." Typically the crew is protected by use of shadow shields.
In some propulsion systems, such as open-cycle gas core nuclear thermal rockets and Orion nuclear pulse rockets, the exhaust is radioactive. This means the shadow shield has to cover a broader arc.
There is a first order approximation here to calculate the radiation flux from a fission reactor or fission nuclear thermal propulsion system.
Fission fuel is radioactive. If the reactor core is breached the fuel can spread radioactive contamination. Also the neutron radiation emitted by the reactor in normal operation can cause neutron activation.
If the spacecraft is in a combat situation, it will be targeted by nuclear warheads and particle beam weapons. In these cases the exposure time is "acute."
Nuclear warheads emit both electromagnetic and particle radiation
Obviously particle beam weapons only emit particles. Having said that, if the particle beam hits a metal hull bremsstrahlung will create a flood of x-rays. This only happens if the particle in the beam are charged, it doesn't work with neutron beams.
The effect of radiation upon the crew is rather complicated (translation: I don't understand it) so take the following explanation under advisement.
Radiation is meaured with lots of different confusing units. To make it worse, each measurement has both a traditional obsolete deprecated unit and a new modern scientific metric unit. There are units for the amount of radiation emitted, units for the amount of radiation absorbed by an inert object, and units for the amount of radiation absorbed by a living being. And on top of that, metric units often have prefixes for various powers of 10: milli-, micro-, etc. There is a table of prefixes here.
Naturally, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires the use of the non-metric obsolete deprecated units curie, rad and rem as part of the Code of Federal Regulations 10CFR20. The United States hangs on like grim death to its stupid ramshackle non-decimal system of units, instead of adopting the metric system like the rest of the scientific and civilized world.
The amount of radiation emitted by a chunk of radioactive material is measured by the traditional obsolete unit the Curie or the new metric unit the Becquerel (Bq). One Curie is equal to the amount of radiation emitted by one gram of radium. One Becquerel is equal to one decay per second. 1 Curie equals 3.7 × 1010 Becquerels.
The amount of radiation absorbed by an inert object is measured by the traditional obsolete unit the Rad or the new metric unit the Gray (Gy). One Rad is a dose of radiation causing 100 ergs of energy to be absorbed by one gram of matter. One Gray is 1 joule of radiation absorbed by one kilogram of matter. 1 Rad equals 0.01 Gray. An even more obsolete term is the Roentgen, currently it is defined as 1 Roentgen equals 0.0096 Gray.
Sieverts are determined from Grays. The effects of Acute radiation exposure are figured by the exposure in Grays. The effects of Chronic radiation exposure are figured by the exposure in Sieverts. Radiation quality factors seem to mostly matter for chronic doses.
You see, as far as an inert lump of matter is concerned, all forms of radiation are pretty much the same. But when you get to living beings, different kinds of radiation do different levels of long-term chronic internal organ damage per joule. Some types of radiation are better at killing people than other. For example, if 1 Gray of gamma radiation does 1 unit of damage to a stricken crewperson, 1 Gray of alpha particles will do 20 units of damage to the crewperson.
What this boils down to is that each type of radiation has a quality factor Q. You look up the Q factor for the radiation in question, take the radiation dose in Rads, multiply by Q, and you will have the "dose equivalent" in Rems. Or take the dose in Grays, multiply by Q and you will have the dose equivalent in Sieverts. There is a list of Q factors here.
You will sometimes see radiation exposure expressed in units of mGy/a. This stands for milliGrays per annum, where 1 milliGray = 0.001 Gray and 1 annum is 8760 hours = 365 days = 1 year. This appears when talking about the radiation exposure suffered by an astronaut on an extraterrestrial planet. For instance an astronaut on Mars will suffer 73 mGy/a from cosmic rays and proton storms, while somebody living on Terra is typically only exposed to 0.4 mGy/a from cosmic rays.
The size of the dose depends on two things: the intensity of the radiation, and the duration of exposure. Crewpersons who do not want to die a hideous radioactive death will do well to reduce the size of the dose. You reduce the intensity by getting as far away from the source of radiation that you can (allowing the inverse-square law to reduce the intensity) and trying to get some radiation shielding between you and the source of the radiation. You reduce the duration by performing the first two techniques as quickly as possible (i.e., don't just stand there with a stupid expression on your face, run for your life!). There is also a difference between "acute" and "chronic" exposure. An example of an acute exposure is being in the general neighborhood of a nuclear weapon when it goes boom: the exposure duration is measured in fractions of a second. An example of chronic exposure is the day-to-day job of a nuclear rocket engineer: exposure duration is measured in months. Obviously the only things you can do to reduce an acute dose is to always be inside plenty of shielding and only fight enemies who use tiny nuclear weapons.
To figure the dose in Grays, take the radiation from the "event." Calculate how many radiation joules managed to penetrate the shielding and intersect the cross section of a person and divide by the body mass of the unlucky crewperson.
Since I know you are impatient, I'm first going to give you the quick-and-dirty equations. I'll then give you how I derived them, to allow you to skip over it if you are not interested. The equations have build-in assumptions. Assume this is radiation from an exploding nuclear warhead. 80% of the energy is in the form of x-rays with an average energy of 10 keV. Each fissioning nuclei will produce 2 or 3 neutrons and about half will escape to become radiation. The neutrons will have an average Sievert quality factor of 10. The crewmember will have an average cross-section of 0.445 m2 and a mass of 68 kilograms. Finally assume no radiation shielding.
Gx = 1.78e9 * (Y / R2)
Gn = 7.2e8 * (Y / R2)
- Gx = person's acute radiation dosage from x-rays (Grays)
- Gn = person's acute radiation dosage from neutrons (Grays)
- Y = weapon yield (kiloton TNT)
- R = person's distance from weapon's detonation center (meters)
How was this derived? In a round about fashion. First you figure out the radiation flux in joules of radiation per square meter. You take the amount of joules in the detonation and divide them by the surface area of a sphere with radius R.
ssphere = 4 * π * R2
There are about 4.19e12 joules per kiloton of nuclear detonation, and 80% of that is x-rays. Putting it all together:
- Fx = joules / surfaceArea
- Fx = (Y * 4.19e12 * 0.8) / (4 * π * R2)
- Fx = 2.67e11 * (Y / R2)
As a rule of thumb, figure an average person has a cross section of about 0.445 m2 and a mass of 68 kilos. How was the cross section calculated? Given a mass of 68 kilos (150 pounds), and a height of 168 centimeters (5 feet, 6 inches) the Body Surface Area Calculator says the surface area is 1.78 square meters. The average cross section will be approximately one quarter of the surface area, or 0.445 m2.
To obtain Grays, we take the radiation flux, multiply it by the cross section of the person (0.445), and divide by their mass (68).
- Gx = ((2.67e11 * 0.445) / 68) * (Y / R2)
- Gx = 1.78e9 * (Y / R2)
Figuring neutron radiation is a bit more involved. Each kiloton requires the fissioning of approximately 1.45e23 nuclei. Each fission produces 2 or 3 neutrons, with an average production of 2.5. About half (0.5) will escape the nuclear reaction to become radiation. The neutron flux is therefore:
- Fn = (Y * 1.45e23 * 2.5 * 0.5) / (4 * π * R2)
- Fn = 1.8e23 * (Y / R2)
Neutrons have a Sievert quality factor ranging from 2 to 20 for neutrons of energies 0.01 MeV to 2.0 MeV, with an average quality factor of 10. So according to the references I've found, in the absence of specific data, you can assume that a neutron flux of 2.5e11 neutrons per square meter is about 0.01 Sievert or 0.001 Grays. This means 1 Gray equals a neutron flux of 2.5e14 neutrons per square meter. So simply divide Fn by 2.5e14 to get Grays:
- Fn = (1.8e23 * (Y / R2)) / 2.5e14
- Fn = 7.2e8 * (Y / R2)
|Type of radiation||Quality|
|Gamma rays and bremsstrahlung||1|
|Beta particles, electrons, 1.0 MeV||1|
|Beta particles, 1.0 MeV||1|
|Neutrons, thermal energy||2.8|
|Neutrons, 0.0001 MeV||2.2|
|Neutrons, 0.005 MeV||2.4|
|Neutrons, 0.02 MeV||5|
|Neutrons, 0.5 MeV||10.2|
|Neutrons, 1.0 MeV||10.5|
|Neutrons, 10.0 MeV||6.4|
|Protons, greater than 100 MeV||1-2|
|Protons, 1.0 MeV||8.5|
|Protons, 0.1 MeV||10|
|Alpha particles (helium nuclei), 5 MeV||15|
|Alpha particles, 1 MeV||20|
The important point is that acute radiation damage will heal. Chronic damage does not. Acute damage goes away with time, chronic damage gradually accumulates over a lifetime.
Acute is a sudden dose that occurs over a few seconds to minutes. Chronic is a dose that occurs over a few days to years. Acute radiation syndrome is damage due to raw energy which burns internal organs (the technical term for such direct tissue damage is "nonstochastic effects" or "deterministic effects"). Chronic radiation syndrome is damage to the cellular DNA, leading to cancer and genetic defects in the victims future offspring (the technical is, surprise-surprise, "stochastic effects"). Chronic doses also cause skin ulceration and blindness due to cataracts scarring. For our purposes, acute doses happen due to reactor accidents, solar storms, nearby nuclear explosions, and hits by particle beam weapons. Chronic doses are due to the unavoidable radiation filtering through the reactor shielding, the normal background radiation in space, and prolonged stays in regions like the Van Allen radiation belts.
Deterministic effects mean that X amount of acute radiation exposure will cause Y amount of tissue damage. Stochastic effects mean that X amount of chronic radiation exposure will raise your chance of getting cancer by Y percent.
The point is, if an unfortunate person received a radiation dose of 1 Sievert over the course of 20 years, they will NOT suffer from radiation poisoning. But an unfortunate person who received a radiation dose of 1 Sievert over the course of five minutes certainly will.
Remember acute exposure is measured in Grays, chronic exposure is measured in Sieverts.
For acute doses, simply figure the exposure in Grays suffered by the crewperson, and refer to the Acute radiation syndrome chart below. When a person receives an acute dose, they suffer what is listed under "Immediate symptoms." Then they appear to get better, but this is only temporary. After the Latent phase time passes, the person will start to suffer what is listed under "Post-latent symptoms".
As a side note, when NASA is sterilizing containers of meat for astronaut supplies, the recommended dosage is 44,000 Grays to kill off all the bacteria. You can find dosages for other food sterilization here.
To figure chronic doses, one has to calculate the Dose Equivalent. Split the radiation into the x-ray/gamma-ray Grays and the neutron Grays. Multiply the Grays by the radiation type's Quality Factor to get the Equivalent Dose (in units called "Sieverts"). Gamma-rays have a quality factor of 1.0, neutrons have a quality factor ranging from 2 to 20 for neutrons of energies 0.01 MeV to 2.0 MeV (just use the average of 10). Add the two Sievert doses together and look it up in the Chronic radiation syndrome chart.
Doctors go further, calculating the Effective dose, which is a weighted average of the equivalent dose to each organ depending upon its radiosensitivity. But that's probably a bit too much detail for our purposes. Rocketeers will always keep close watch on their radiation dosimeters that measures their current chronic dose. There will also be a crewperson or officer who is assigned the job of logging and monitoring the chronic dose of every person on board. If a crewperson gets close to their maximum allowable dose, they may be restricted to the more shielded sections of the ship, or even grounded from shipboard duty until they recover.
Atomic rocketeers will also without fail have a package of potassium iodide tablets on their persons at all times. Why? If the reactor core is breached, the mildly radioactive fuel and the intensely radioactive fission fragments will be released into the atmosphere. While none of the fission fragment elements are particularly healthy, Iodine-131 is particularly nasty. This is because one's thyroid gland does its level best to soak up iodine, radioactive or not. Thyroid cancer or a hoarse voice from thyroid surgery might be common among atomic rocket old-timers. The tablets prevent this by filling up the thyroid first, before the Iodine-131 arrives. The instant the reactor breach alarm sounds, whip out your potassium iodide tablets and swallow one.
Radioactive contamination of an area is measured by a "swipe" or "smear" survey. A small piece of absorbent paper is rubbed over a 100 square centimeter area in a S-shaped pattern. A radiation detector then is used on the paper to measure the disintegrations per minute (dpm). Depending on the standard used, an area is considered "contaminated" if the dpm is above 100 - 500.
Note, in your research you may run across the terms "rem" and "rad." These are sort of obsolete terms. One Sievert equals 100 rems. One Gray equals 100 rads. LD50 is the radiation dose that is expected to kill 50% of an exposed population.
|Dose (Grays)||Immediate symptoms||Latent phase||Post-latent symptoms||Prognosis|
|0 - 0.5||No obvious effect||None||No obvious effect, except, possibly, minor blood changes and anorexia.||Certain survival|
|0.5 - 1.0||Vomiting and nausea for about 1 day in 10 to 20% of exposed personnel. Fatigue, but no serious disability.||days to weeks||In this dose range no obvious sickness occurs. Detectable changes in blood cells begin to occur at 0.25 Gy, but occur consistently only above 0.50 Gy. These changes involve fluctuations in the overall white blood cell count (with drops in lymphocytes), drops in platelet counts, and less severe drops in red blood cell counts. These changes set in over a period of days and may require months to disappear. They are detectable only by lab tests. At 0.50 Gy atrophy of lymph glands becomes noticeable. Impairment to the immune system could increase the susceptibility to disease. Depression of sperm production becomes noticeable at 0.20 Gy, an exposure of 0.80 Gy has a 50% chance of causing temporary sterility in males. At 0.75 Gy there is a 10% chance of nausea.||Almost certain survival|
|1.0 - 2.0||Mild acute symptoms occur in this range. Symptoms begin to appear at 1 Gy, and become common at 2 Gy. Typical effects are mild to moderate nausea (50% probability at 2 Gy) , with occasional vomiting, setting in within 3-6 hours after exposure, and lasting several hours to a day. This will be followed by other symptoms of radiation sickness in up to 50% of personnel.||10 - 14 days||Tissues primarily affected are the hematopoietic (blood forming) tissues, sperm forming tissues are also vulnerable. Blood changes set in and increase steadily during the latency period as blood cells die naturally and are not replaced. A reduction of approximately 50% in lymphocytes and neutrophils will occur. There is a 10% chance of temporary hair loss. Mild clinical symptoms return in 10-14 days. These symptoms include loss of appetite (50% probability at 1.5 Gy), malaise, and fatigue (50% probability at 2 Gy), and last up to 4 weeks. Recovery from other injuries is impaired and there is enhanced risk of infection. Temporary male sterility is universal. The higher the dosage in this range, the more likely the effects, the faster symptoms appear, the shorter the latency period, and the longer the duration of illness.||Fatality rate is about 10%|
|2.0 - 3.5||Nausea becomes universal, the incidence of vomiting reaches 50% at 2.8 Gy and 100% at 3 Gy. Nausea and possible vomiting starting 1 to 6 hours after irradiation and lasting up to 2 days. This will be followed by other symptoms of radiation sickness, e.g., loss of appetite, diarrhea, minor hemorrhage||7 - 14 days||Illness becomes increasingly severe, and significant mortality sets in. Hematopoietic tissues are still the major affected organ system. When symptoms recur, the may include epilation (hair loss, 50% probability at 3 Gy), malaise, fatigue, diarrhea (50% prob. at 3.5 Gy), and hemorrhage (uncontrolled bleeding) of the mouth, subcutaneous tissue and kidney (50% prob. at 4 Gy). Suppression of white blood cells is severe, susceptibility to infection becomes serious. At 3 Gy the mortality rate without medical treatment becomes substantial (about 10%). The possibility of permanent sterility in females begins to appear. Recovery takes 1 to 3 months.||Fatality rate 35% to 40%|
|3.5 - 5.5||Nausea and vomiting within half an hour, lasting up to 2 days. This will be followed by other symptoms of radiation sickness, e.g., fever, hemorrhage, diarrhea, emaciation.||7 - 14 days||Hair loss, internal bleeding, severe bone marrow damage with high risk of bleeding and infection. Hemopoietic Syndrome. Mortality rises steeply in this dose range, from around 50% at 4.5 Gy (LD50) to 90% at 6 Gy (unless heroic medical intervention takes place). Hematopoietic tissues remain the major affected organ system. The symptoms listed for 2.0-3.5 Gy increase in prevalence and severity, reaching 100% occurrence at 6 Gy. When death occurs, it is usually 2-12 weeks after exposure and results from infection and hemorrhage. Recovery takes several months to a year, blood cell counts may take even longer to return to normal. Female sterility becomes probable. Survivors convalescent for about 6 months.||Fatality rate 50% within 6 weeks|
|5.5 - 7.5||Severe nausea and vomiting within 15 - 30 minutes, lasting up to 2 days, followed by severe symptoms of radiation sickness, as above.||5 - 10 days||Hair loss, internal bleeding, severe bone marrow damage leading to complete failure of blood system, high risk of infection, moderate gastrointestinal damage. Gastrointestinal Syndrome. Survival depends on stringent medical intervention. Bone marrow is nearly or completely destroyed, requiring marrow transfusions. Gastrointestinal tissues are increasingly affected. The final phase lasts 1 to 4 weeks, ending in death from infection and internal bleeding. Recovery, if it occurs, takes years and may never be complete. Survivors convalescent for about 6 months.||Death probable within 3 weeks|
|7.5 - 10||Excruciating nausea and vomiting within 5 - 15 minutes, lasting for several days||5 - 7 days||Hair loss, internal bleeding, severe bone marrow damage leading to complete failure of blood system, high risk of infection, severe gastrointestinal damage.||Death almost certain within 3 weeks. Complete recovery impossible.|
|10 - 20||Immediate nausea occurs due to direct activation of the chemoreceptive nausea center in the brain. The onset time 5 minutes.||5 - 7 days||Very high exposures can sufficient metabolic disruption to cause immediate symptoms. Above 10 Gy rapid cell death in the gastrointestinal system causes severe diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, and loss of fluids, and disturbance of electrolyte balance. These effects can cause death within hours of onset from circulatory collapse. Following an initial bout of severe nausea and weakness, a period of apparent well-being lasting a few hours to a few days may follow (called the "walking ghost" phase). This is followed by the terminal phase which lasts 5 - 12 days. In rapid succession prostration, diarrhea, anorexia, and fever follow. Death is certain, often preceded by delirium and coma. Therapy is only to relieve suffering.||Certain death in one week or less.|
|20 - 80||Immediate disorientation and coma will result, onset is within seconds to minutes.||None||CNS Syndrome. Metabolic disruption is severe enough to interfere with the nervous system. Convulsions occur which may be controlled with sedation. Victim may linger for up to 48 hours before dying.||Certain death|
|> 80||Coma||None||The U.S. military assumes that 80 Gy of fast neutron radiation (from a neutron bomb) will immediately and permanently incapacitate a soldier. Lethal within 24 hours due to damage to central nervous system.||Certain death|
|Criteria||General Public||Occupational Workers||Astronauts|
|30-day limit||0.0004 Sieverts (0.4 milli-Sieverts)||0.004 Sieverts||1.5 Sieverts|
|annual limit||Adult: 0.05, minor: 0.005 Sieverts||0.05 Sieverts||3 Sieverts|
|Male career limit||N/A||2 + 0.075 x (age - 30) Sieverts||4 Sieverts|
|Female career limit||N/A||2 + 0.075 x (age - 38) Sieverts||4 Sieverts|
|accident limit||0.25 Sieverts||1 Sievert||N/A|
|acute limit||N/A||N/A||0.1 Sieverts|
For a pregnant woman it is 0.005 Sievert total for the duration of the pregnancy.
Writer Allen Steele uses the following terms:
- Singed: receiving a radiation dose that put one close to a chronic limit
- Cooked: receiving a radiation dose that put one over a chronic limit, could be career-ending
- Fried: receiving a radiation dose that put over the lethal LD50 limit, could be life-ending
An amusing unit of radiation exposure is the Banana equivalent dose. It provides some perspective, and can be used to calm down scientifically illiterate people who go hysterical when they hear the "R" word.
As it turns out, ordinary bananas are very slightly radioactive due to their potassium-40 content. Under this scale eating one banana exposes you to 0.1 μSv or 0.0000001 Sievert.
Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for one year will give you a dose of half a banana. Living within 50 miles of a coal power plant for one year will give you a dose of three bananas (a pound of coal contains only small traces of radioactive elements, but such plants typically burn 4 million tons of coal every year).
Living in a stone, brick, or concrete building for a year will expose you to a dose of 700 bananas. The average dose from the Three Mile Island accident to someone living within 10 miles is 800 bananas. One mammogram is 30,000 bananas. A chest CT scan is 58,000 bananas.
If you spend one hour at the site of Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the year 2010 you will receive a dose of 60,000 bananas.
Half-life applies to many things, but in our area of interest, it determines how long it takes hideously radioactive elements to decay into safe non-radioactive elements. Scientists use half-life instead of full-life because  we want to know the rate and  full-life is typically freaking huge.
Half-life is also useful for figuring out how long you'll get useful power out of an RTG.
So, say there is a slug of Strontium-90 that is emitting about 10 sieverts of radiation. We will say that "safe" means radiation at a level about equal to background radiation emitted by the ground, about 0.21 millisieverts (0.00021 sieverts). How long will it take to for the strontium-90 to decay to a safe level?
Assume that strontium-90 decays directly into a non-radioactive isotope (it doesn't, but let's not complicate things). Assume that if the amount of strontium-90 is reduced by half due to decay, the amount of radiation will also be reduced by half. The fraction of an element undecayed after n half-lives is 1/2n.
After playing around with numbers, I found that 16 half lives will have an undecayed fraction of 1/216 = 1/65,536 = 0.000015. This means 10 sieverts will become 0.00015 sieverts (below 0.00021 sv background) after 16 half lives.
Strontium-90 has a half life of 28.8 years. Sixteen half-lives is 16 * 28.8 = 460.8 years.
Now, in reality you'd have to figure the radioactive decay products, figure their radiation level, and figure their decay time.
An atom of a radioactive element decays by emitting radiation. So as a rule of thumb, the shorter an isotope's half-life, the more intensely radioactive it is. Specifically, the activity of a lump of isotope (in Becquerels) is:
Abq = N * (ln / t½)
Abq = (radio)activity (Becquerels)
N = number of atoms in the lump of isotope
ln = Natural logarithm of 2, about 0.69315...
t½ = half-life of the isotope (seconds)
|Uranium 235||7.13×108 years|
|Uranium 233||160,000 years|
|Plutonium 239||24,100 years|
|Curium 245||8,500 years|
|Plutonium 238||87.7 years|
|Polonium 210||138.376 days|
The question arises "how many atoms are in a gram?" The answer was told to you in chemistry class, when your eyes glazed over as the professor talked about "molar mass" and the "Avogadro constant". Avogadro constant is about 6.02214179×1023 mol-1. This means if you made a pile of 6.02214179×1023 Uranium-235 atoms it would weigh exactly 235 grams. A pile of that number (one "mole") of Plutonium-239 would weigh exactly 239 grams.
The point is, you can use this to convert between atomic mass units and grams. Basically you divide Avogadro constant by the atomic mass of the element to find the number of atoms of that element in one gram. So Strontium-90 contains 6.02214179×1023 / 90 = about 6.69126865×1021 atoms per gram.
The radiation flux depends upon the energy per atomic decay. These are generally listed in terms of MeV or megaelectron volts. 1 MeV = 1.6021773×10-13 joules. For instance, strontium-90 undergoes beta-decay, at 0.546 MeV per decay. Multiply this by the Becquerels to get the total radiation flux in joules.
The total flux can then be used to calculate the dosage inflicted on anybody unfortunately enough to be exposed to the lump.
Note that Doc Smith to the contrary, chelating decontamination doesn't quite work this way.
While human beings and other living things suffer harm from nuclear radiation, inanimate objects are not fond of it either. Neutron Activation happens when an ordinary harmless atomic nucleus swallows a neutron from the radiation flux of, say, a nuclear thermal propulsion system. This changes the nucleus from a stable isotope into an unstable isotope, and all unstable isotopes are radioactive. Or the neutron can actually split the atom, with much the same results but now including bonus fission fragments and neutrons in the induced radioactivity.
Translation: the steel girders and everything else too close to the reactor will eventually become radioactive in and of themselves. Your nuclear engine will gradually turn into low-level radioactive waste. This makes it treacherous for the crew to leave the spacecraft, and drastically lowers the re-sale value. This is a good reason to make your spacecraft modular, so you can detach the nuclear engine and swap it for one that doesn't glow in the dark.
There is a nice list of common elements that can be transmuted into radioactive isotopes here, along with the half-life of said radionuclides.
Neutron activation is a good thing in a breeder reactor or a medical isotope generator, but very bad anywhere else. Heavy neutron radiation is usually never found naturally, it is found unnaturally in nuclear reactors, nuclear explosions and other artificial things made by intelligent creatures.
Some materials are less subject to neutron activation than others, these are good to use in reactors and nuclear propulsion systems.
Neutron activation is used in nasty salted bombs. The bomb is intentionally cased in cobalt or other element that is particularly good at being neutron activated into a hideously radioactive isotope. This provides enhanced quantities of radioactive fallout. "Salted", as in "sowing the earth with salt so nothing ever grows there again."
And let's not forget the "enhanced radiation bomb" aka "Neutron bomb". This is a nuclear warhead specially constructed so that less of the bomb energy goes into x-rays and more goes into neutrons. It was designed to do less blast damage but do more radiation damage to people. But of course the extra neutron flux will naturally do more neutron activation to any material object near ground zero. I found mention that a main battle tank close to the detonation point would suffer enough neutron activation to render it lethally radioactive for about 48 hours.
Neutron activation analysis can be used to determine how much neutron radiation a hapless victim was exposed to. The doctor can examine the victim to determine how much of the body's sodium was neutron activated into sodium-24 and how much phosphorus was activated into phosphorus-31. This will provide an estimate of the acute radiation dosage.
Neutron radiation can make some materials become brittle by neutron-induced swelling and buildup of Wigner energy. Neutrons striking metal gradually damage the metal's crystal lattice. This makes the metal more brittle and can eventually lead to failure. Steel has a so-called "ductile-to-brittle transition temperature", a temperature below which it becomes brittle. Neutron bombardment raises this temperature.
The brittleness can be healed by heating the material, this is called annealing. It might be possible to construct a reactor capable of annealing its structural members in place instead of removing it first. But of course you have to be very careful. You will be in for some real excitement if you accidentally catch the nuclear engine on fire.
Electronics are also vulnerable to radiation (including particle beam weapons) due to mechanical disruption, as you can see from Christopher Thrash's notes. Anthony Jackson says:
Subject: Re: radiation and computers From: email@example.com (Christopher Thrash) Date: 19 Nov 2000 14:06:00 GMT Message-ID: 6507 Newsgroups: sjgames.gurps.traveller On 16 Nov 2000 08:15:36 GMT, firstname.lastname@example.org (Anthony Jackson) wrote: > Realistically, what level of ionizing radiation will cause significant > software errors (and possible a soft reboot) in hardened electronics? > For that matter, what level of radiation will cause permanent damage, > I know that some of the jupiter probes were fried by multiple passes > through the jovian radiation belts. From _The Effects of Nuclear Weapons_, Glasstone and Dolan, 1977, Sec. 8.73-8.88: "The name commonly applied to the class of effects under consideration is "transient-radiation effects on electronics," commonly appreviated to the acronym TREE. In general, TREE means those effects occurring in an electronics system as a result of exposure to the initial radiation from an nuclear weapon explosion. The adjective "transient" applies to the radiation since it persists for a short time, i.e. less than 1 minute. The response, however, is not necessarily transient... "Radiation effects on electronics may be temporary or more-or-less permanent... The component responses of short duration are usually the result of ionization caused by gamma radiation and are dependent on the dose rate, e.g., in rads per second, rather than the dose. The more permanent effects are generally -- but not always -- due to the displacement of atoms in a crystal lattice by high-energy (fast) neutrons. In such cases the extent of the damage is determined by the neutron fluence, expressed in neutrons/cm2. When a permanent effect is produced in an electronic component by gamma radiation, the important quantity is usually the dose in rads." Neutron fluence (Fn) at a distance R from a nuclear detonation is approximately given by:
Fn = 1.4 × 1012 Y/R2where Y is in kilotons, R is in km, and Fn is in neutron/cm^2. Dose (Dg) from prompt radiation of an explosion is approximately:
Dg = 4 x 105 Y(2/3)/R2where Y is in kilotons, R is in km, and Dg is in rads (Si). Damage Thresholds (gleaned from the text):
Transistors 1011—1015 neutron/cm2 MOS Transisitors 104 rads (silicon) Capacitors 1015 neutrons/cm2 Precision Resistors 107 rads (carbon)/s 1014 neutron/cm2 NiCd Batteries 107 rads (air)/s 1013 neutron/cm2 Hg Batteries 10^16 neutron/cm2 Wiring Insulation: Silicon Rubber 2x1015 neutron/cm2 Polyethylene 107 rads (carbon) Teflon TFE 104 rads (carbon) Teflon FEB 2×106 rads (carbon) Polyolefins 5×109 rads (carbon)From _Space Mission Analysis and Design_, 3d Ed. (SMAD III), Wetz and Larson, 1999, pp. 214-240: Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) and Rad Hard Parts Comparison:
Characteristics COTS Rad Hard Total Dose 103—104 rads 105—106 Dose-Rate Upset 106—108 rads(Si)/s >109 rads(Si)/s Dose-Rate Induced Latchup 107—109 rads(Si)/s >1012 rads(Si)/s Neutrons 1011—1013 n/cm2 1014—1015 n/cm2 Single-Event Upset 10-3—10-7 error/bit-day 10-8—10-10 error/bit-day Single-Event Latchup Single-Event Burnout <20 MeV-cm2/mg (LET) 37-80 MeV-cm2/mg (LET)LET is "linear energy transfer".
The three anti-radiation protection methods are Time, Distance, and Shielding. Time means minimize the duration of exposure, Distance means get as far away from the radiation source as you can, and Shielding means get some radiation armor between you and the radiation source.
Remember, outside the engine room hatch will be a decontamination booth. And I'm sure over the hatch will be mounted an alarm with a red rotating light, so you don't have to put your ear on the bulkhead to hear Astro say "Oh SH*****T!!!". Past the hatch will be a short corridor, with a dog-leg bend in it, so you can get in but radiation cannot get out (radiation has to travel in straight lines, but crewmen can zig-zag). Be sure you are wearing your dosimeter.
Shortening the duration of exposure is difficult to do. A nuclear engine burn for a specific amount of delta V takes as long as it does, it cannot be shortened. You cannot stop a solar proton storm in progress to shorten exposure.
However, NASA scientists were looking into something along these lines for a proposed Mars mission. Using a minimum delta V / maximum duration Hohmann trajectory the trip from Terra to Mars will take the better part of eight months. The Mars Science Laboratory actually traveled the route and measured the cosmic ray radiation exposure with the RAD. The scientists were aghast when they found that the round trip dose was much higher than they estimated, about 0.66 sieverts round trip (about 1.8 milliSieverts per day). Which is bad news if the career radiation limit for astronauts is 1.0 sieverts.
They tried to design radiation shielding that would reduce the cosmic ray exposure to something reasonable. Unfortunately this cut so deeply into the payload mass that there basically wasn't a mission any more.
But now the are focusing on reducing the time of radiation exposure. How? By developing more powerful propulsion systems like VASIMR. If such propulsion can increase the spacecraft's delta V capacity enough, it can afford a trajectory with trip duration reduced. Which would shorten the duration of cosmic ray radiation exposure.
There was some 1950's era spacecraft designs that attempted to substitute distance for lead shielding (since distance weighs nothing) thus utilizing the inverse-square law. They were practical designs for exploration craft but pretty silly for warships. Crew cabins on the end of hundred meter booms, or dangling at the end of kilometer long cables, that sort of thing. While you wouldn't want to use the designs, you understand the motivation. When every gram is limited, you don't want to waste it on a shield made out of one of the heaviest elements in existence. The break-even point is where the mass of the boom or cable is equal to the mass of the shadow shield. One source suggested that occurred at a cable length of one kilometer with a one megawatt reactor.
Remember the basic strategy. Use dense elements like lead, tungsten, and beryllium for x-ray and gamma-ray shielding. Use low-density elements like liquid hydrogen, dehydrated astronaut poo, lithium hydride, paraffin, hydrogenated polyethylene composite, or other hydrogen-rich compounds for particle radiation shielding.
Why? X-rays and gamma-rays are stopped by electrons, and high density elements have more electrons per cubic centimeter. Particle radiation is stopped by atomic nuclei and low density elements have more atomic nuclei per cubic centimeter than metals.
When shielding against neutron particle radiation, instead of using hydrogen compounds it is better to use neutron reflectors such as graphite, beryllium, steel, and tungsten carbide.
Beware of bremsstrahlung. If you place your shielding improperly you'll convert the inside of the spacecraft into a giant x-ray machine and fry your astronauts to death. To avoid this make sure the outermost shield layer (next to deep space or other radiation source) is particle shielding and the innermost shield layer (next to the astronauts) is the x-ray/gamma-ray shield layer. As a side note, only charged particles like protons and electrons cause bremsstrahlung, neutrons do not.
Why? Gamma-ray shielding is worse than useless against particle radiation. Charged particles hitting dense elements is the same operating mechanism used inside a dentist's x-ray machine. So if you have the gamma-ray shielding outermost, this is what happens:
- A charged particle from deep space slams into the x-ray/gamma-ray shielding
- This generates deadly x-rays which are emitted by the x-ray shielding
- The new x-rays find there is no x-ray shielding in front of them, only pathetic particle shielding
- The x-rays sail unharmed through the particle shielding, and kill the astronauts
When you place your shielding the right way, the particle shielding soaks up the particle radiation before it can hit the gamma-ray shielding.
Radiation shielding is rated in "Tenth Value Thickness" or TVT. One TVT is the depth of shielding required to reduce the radiation to one tenth of its initial value (i.e., it stops 90% of the radiation). Twice the TVT will reduce the radiation to one one-hundredth of its initial value (stops 99%), and so on.
Sometimes one will encounter "Half Value Thickness" and "1/e". HVT is the depth required to reduce the radiation by one-half, and 1/e is the depth required to reduce the radiation to approximately 37% (specifically to 1/e where e is approximately 2.718).
Water has a TVT of 25.4 centimeters vs particle radiation (including neutrons), but only 61 centimeters vs gamma rays. Lead has a TVT of 5 cm vs gamma, and basically doesn't do diddly-squat vs particle radiation. Steel has a TVT of 11 cm vs gamma and also does poorly vs particle radiation. By my calculations carbon should have a TVT of 22.5 cm vs gamma rays, but I have no idea what its TVT is vs neutrons.
X-ray and gamma-ray shielding boils down to how much mass is between the radiation source and the crew. 45 g/cm2 is a TVT (meaning that behind each square centimeter of shield surface area is 45 grams worth of shield material of a thickness determined by the material's density). As a wild guess, the interior of the spacecraft has a density of about 0.25 grams per cubic centimeter. This means a crew member would get a "free" 1 TVT from X and gamma-rays if they were 1.8 meters from the hull, from the shielding provided by the bulkheads, machinery, pipes, and structural materials (45 g/cm2 / 0.25 g/cm3 = 180 cm). Keep in mind that 1 TVT isn't all that much, and the free shielding obviously goes up the further from the hull the crew is. This is an argument for putting the control room of a combat spacecraft near the center.
Cosmic rays will need a TVT of about 450 g/cm2. You will need 450 g/cm2 to get OSHA-legal exposure limits on a timescale of years, say for a space colony or long duration space mission.
Extremely high energy particle beam weapons act like cosmic rays, with a TVT peaking at a whopping 100 to 300 g/cm2.
If you have a thickness which stops a known amount of radiation of a known and constant type, then if you have a new thickness, you can calculate how much it stops by:
Stoppage = 1 - ((1 - AmountStoppedByKnownThickness)^(NewThickness/KnownThickness))
Example: if six centimeters of polka-dotted Kryptonite will stop 90% of x-rays, then eighteen centimeters of polka-dotted Kryptonite will stop:
Stoppage = 1 - ((1 - AmountStoppedByKnownThickness)^(NewThickness/KnownThickness))
Stoppage = 1 - ((1 - 0.9)^(18 / 6))
Stoppage = 1 - (0.1^3)
Stoppage = 1 - 0.001
Stoppage = 0.999 = 99.9%
Just to make our lives more difficult, mixed radiation such as is found in space has verying penetration. So if shield material X stops 90% of the quote "radiation" unqote, this will mean something like stopping 99% of the low-penetrating radiation and 50% of the high-penetrating radiation. And doubling the thickness of the shielding might only bring the radiation stoppage up to aroung 96%.
For comparison purposes, a typical NASA space suit has 0.25 g/cm3, the hull of an Apollo command module is rated at 7 to 8 g/cm3, the Space Shuttle is rated at 10 to 11 g/cm3, the storm cellar of the International Space Station is rated at 15 g/cm3, and future lunar bases are planned to exceed 20 g/cm3.
Now to calculate the radiation that penetrates a shield:
Rd = Rh * Vf(Ad / Vd)
- xy = raise x to the power of y
- Rd = Radiation dose that penetrates the armor (grays or whatever)
- Rh = Radiation strength hitting the armor (grays or whatever)
- Vf = Value Factor (0.1 for TVT, 0.5 for HVT, 0.37 for 1/e)
- Ad = Armor depth (centimeters or whatever)
- Vd = Value depth (e.g., 61 cm if armor is water and radiation is gamma rays)
Philip Eklund points out that an Orion drive rocket has built-in radiation armor. But it only works if you can keep the pusher plate aimed at the nuclear warhead. If you can manage that, you can laugh at most nuclear detonations.
On the other hand, there are certain propulsion systems that undergo catastrophic failure (i.e., they blow up) if minor damage happens to the fuel tanks. These include antimatter rockets, Zubrin's NSWR, and any form of metastable fuel.
Shadow shields are specifically to protect the crew from radiation emitted by the spacecraft's nuclear engines and nuclear power plants.
The safe design would be to totally encase the engine and reactors in radiation shielding. But this sharply reduces the ship's payload since radiation shields literally weigh tons, and Every Gram Counts. Shadow shields are the bare minimum of shielding: it only stops the radiation heading for the habitat module and other vital parts of the spacecraft. The radiation freely sprays in all other directions, which makes it dangerous to approach an atomic rocket outside of the safe shadow cast by the shield.
Note that the larger the distance between the crew and the atomic engine, the narrower the angle the shadow has to be, thus the smaller the shadow shield. Since the shadow shield is several tons of rocket mass that is not payload, the smaller it is, the better. Also note that radiation weakens with distance due to the inverse-square law, which is another argument in favor of plenty of distance. As previously mentioned, if the rocket has multiple atomic engines one wants them clustered closely or they will require a larger shadow shield, or even one shield for each engine. (for "cluster closely" read: "have the radioactive components as close to the axis of the spacecraft as possible")
When the reactor is idling, the shadow shield does not have to be as thick. In order to widen the area of shadow (for adding side tanks or whatever), the secondary shadow shield could extrude segments as extendable side shields.
Another implication is that the ship's docking port is probably best placed on the ship's nose. This will allow two ships to dock nose-to-nose, while keeping each other in the shadow of their shadow shields.
As a rough guess, for atomic engines with a thermal power level of one megawatt to one gigawatt, the shadow shield will be from 1.0 to 0.1 kilograms per kilowatt. This assumes that the spacecraft is long and skinny, which reduces the angular size of the shield. The shield will be a composite of gamma ray shielding materials and neutron shielding materials.
In Space Propulsion Analysis and Design they give the specs on a typical shadow shield. Starting at the atomic engine, the gamma rays and neutrons first encounter 18 centimeters of beryllium (which acts as a neutron reflector), followed by 2 centimeters of tungsten (mainly a gamma-ray shield but also does a good job on neutrons), and finally 5 centimeters of lithium hydroxide (To stop the remaining neutrons. Hydrogen slows down the neutrons and lithium absorbs them.). This attenuates the gamma flux to a value of 0.00105, and neutron flux to 4.0e-9. This has a mass of 3,500 kilograms per square meter of shadow shield (ouch!). For a rough estimate it should be a disk with a radius equal to the radius of the reactor core. To estimate the size of the core is over my head but it is covered in SPAD.
If an attenuation factor of 0.00105 for gamma and 4.0e-9 for neutrons is not enough, the factors can of course be increased by adding more thickness to the layers in the shadow shield. The SPAD has a handy table:
|Reduction Factor||Additional cm of Lithium Hydroxide for Neutron Attenuation, (+kg/m2)||Additional cm of Tungsten for Gamma Attenuation (+kg/m2)|
|x0.5||+0.205 cm (+2.99 kg/m2)||+0.564 cm (+109 kg/m2)|
|x0.2||+0.477 cm (+6.96 kg/m2)||+1.308 cm (+252 kg/m2)|
|x0.1||+0.683 cm (+9.97 kg/m2)||+1.872 cm (+361 kg/m2)|
|x0.01||+1.365 cm (+19.92 kg/m2)||+3.744 cm (+722 kg/m2)|
|x0.001||+2.048 cm (+29.90 kg/m2)||+5.616 cm (+1084 kg/m2)|
So the theory is you calculate radiation flux from the atomic engine, multiply it by the appropriate attentuation factors of the shadow shield, and see of the resulting dose is within acceptable limts.
Which brings us to the problem of calculating the radiation flux from the atomic engine. This is a bit complicated, but there is a first order approximation here.
As an example, NASA's Reusable Nuclear Shuttle concept used a NERVA NTR engine with 334 kiloNewtons of thrust with a shadow shield massing 1360 kilograms which protected a 10 degree half-angle area. The distance between the habitat module and engine (a bit less than 49 meters) provided extra protection, as did the mass of the propellant.
The crew protected by the shadow shield, distance, and propellant would still suffer a radiation dose of 0.1 sieverts every time the shuttle did a standard burn. Anybody outside of the shadow cast by the shield and closer to the engine than 16 kilometers would suffer a whopping 0.25 to 0.3 sieverts per hour. The safe distance outside of the shadow is no close than 160 kilometers.
A standard burn was a delta V between 1 and 2 kilometers per second.
NASA has a career limit of 4 sieverts for astronauts, so an astronaut exposed to 40 standard burns would be permanently grounded.
I have found minimal references to low mass shields for space nuclear reactors that were layered tungsten-lithium hydride, layered boron carbide-beryllium, and layered lithium hydride-beryllium. The lowest mass one is the tungsten-lithium hydride shield.
In Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth", atomic spacecraft designers are guilty of scrimping on shadow shields in order to save mass. The designers were under pressure to maximize payload mass without worrying about trivial incidentals like the health of the engine crew. This is why the jetmen working next to the atomic engines find it so hard to get insurance, and seldom have children. At least ones that are not mutants.
Keep in mind that these are called "shadow" shields because it is too expensive to put radiation shielding all around the hot stuff ("expensive" in terms of reduction of payload mass). This means that if one ventures outside of the spacecraft, you run the danger of moving out of the shadow and into the deadly glow of the unshielded engine. When the spacecraft is designed, it is also important to ensure that no part of the ship scatters the lethal radiation around the shadow shield and into the crew. The heat radiators, for instance. If lifting off from a planet with an atmosphere, said atmosphere can also create pesky neutron backscatter.
This does make exiting a landed ship somewhat challenging, and makes an argument for a ground crew wearing lead suits. In the Tom Corbett books, any ship that was to be on the ground for more than three days would have its liquid fissionable fuel removed by the "hot soup" wagon. Keep in mind that the neutron flux from the engine would transmute the elements composing the rocket's structure, making the aft end of the spacecraft radioactive even if all the fissionables are removed. Spaceship designers should also construct the aft end of the spacecraft out of materials that are not only strong, but that will transmute into materials of still acceptable strength.
You will find more discussion on embarking/debarking from a radioactive rocket here.
In the interest of radiation safety, the corridor to the atomic engine room is going to have dogleg bends in it. Radiation travels in straight lines but people don't have to. This allows the crew to quickly move out of direct line of sight with the reactor. The corridor exit will have an adjacent decontamination booth.
"But," I hear you say "surely you only need to have the crew habitat module inside the shadow cast by the radiation shield? It's not like the ship's girders can get cancer from radiation, right?"
Nope, nice try, but you'd do best to keep every single part of the ship inside the radiation shadow. Especially the heat radiators, which are huge extended structures that want lots of room. There are three reasons why:
- Neutron radiation can cause Neutron Embrittlement. Becoming brittle is not healthy for struture in general and load-bearing members in particular. Unless you have a perverse reason to want your spacecraft to snap like a twig when you goose the rockets.
- Neutron radiation can cause Neutron Activation. Having components of the spacecraft transmuted into radioactive isotopes is a health hazard. Especially since the isotopes will not be behind a radiation shield. They will be free to spray the habitat module with deadly radiation.
- Spacecraft strutures protruding outside of the radiation shadow can cause "backscatter", bouncing deadly radiation around the shadow shield and irradiating the habitat module. This is one reason why nuclear powered aircraft never caught on, the very atmosphere itself would cause backscatter.
In the first diagram below, note how the lower part of the external propellant tanks are cut at an angle so they do not stick outside of the shadow (the "half-cone sections"). In the other diagrams, note how the square heat radiators are trimmed to a triangular profile when they are near the shadow shield. This also gives the viewer an indication of the outline of the (otherwise invisible) radiation shadow.
Hull armor is specifically to protect the ship and crew from the natural radiation from space, and from hostile weapons fire.
Different kinds of armor are required for different kinds of ionizing radiation: particle radiation or electromagnetic radiation. Neutron, cosmic rays, solar protons and the like are particle radiation (because they are subatomic particles). X-rays and gamma-rays are electromagnetic radiation. Particle shielding is generally something with lots of hydrogen in it, like water, liquid hydrogen propellant tanks, lithium hydride, paraffin or a hydrogenated polyethylene composite. X-ray/gamma-ray shielding is generally something very very dense, like lead, tungsten, or an alloy with a lot of heavy elements in it.
The hull armor will be arranged differently than than shadow shield.
First off, the armor is probably only going to be on the habitat module, and any radiation-sensitive equipment. It is not going to be over the entire spacecraft.
Secondly, unlike a reactor, cosmic rays and solar storms contain charged particles, mostly protons. Charged particles can create "Bremsstrahlung" or braking radiation. (Keep in mind that the hull of the spacecraft will probably never encounter natural gamma rays in the space environment. Gamma rays will probably only come from artificial sources, such as nuclear weapons.)
You see, gamma shielding is worse than useless against charged particle radiation. Such particles striking lead actually creates deadly x-rays, making the radiation problem much worse (the same principle is used in a doctor's x-ray machine). Please note that this only applies to charged particles, neutrons from the reactor do not generate Bremsstrahlung.
And please do not confuse "neutral particle beams" with "neutron particle beams." The former will produced Bremsstrahlung, the latter will not. Neutral particle beams are beams of protons and electrons (which are charged) in a neutral electrical balance. Neutron particle beams are beams of neutrons (which are uncharged).
So for the hull shielding it is best to arrange things so that the incoming radiation first encounters the paraffin to soak up all the particle radiation, then have a layer of tungsten to stop the gamma rays.
Anthony Jackson on the topic of Carbon as radiation shielding says:
Anti-weapon armor (lasers and kinetic energy weapons) is discussed here.
Storm cellars are specifically to protect the ship and crew from the natural radiation from space, specifically when the radiation suddenly increases. Much like people take shelter in a conventional storm cellar when a tornado suddenly appears. "Sudden increases" in radiation usually means a Solar Particle Event (SPE) aka "proton storm". There are also storm cellars in Orion nuclear pulse driven spacecraft, since detonating hundreds of nuclear devices for propulsion will also cause a sudden increase in enviromental radioactivity. In NASA-speak a storm cellar is called a "biowell".
A storm cellar is a radiation-shielded room near the ship's center, barely large enough for the entire crew. If it can be located in the middle of dense things, like fuel tanks or cargo, so much the better. The shielding is generally a material that contains lots of hydrogen, or it can be an as yet un-invented magnetic anti-radiation field. Such fields are currently science fiction, and in any event will only provide protection against charged particle radiation, not x or gamma rays (for that you'll need an honest-to-Doc-Smith force field or ray screen). Keep in mind that almost all natural radiation hazards are charged particle, x and gamma rays generally come from human sources (such as poorly shielded fission reactors and nuclear weapons). NASA is currently working on a new shielding material, a hydrogenated polyethylene composite. Not only is it a better shield than aluminum, it has less mass as well.
To protect against a significant solar storm, the shielding on the biowell should be at least 500 grams per square centimeter. This will give good protection against neutrons as well.
A storm cellar surrounded by water tanks can be found in John Campbell's THE ULTIMATE WEAPON, Robert Heinlein's PODKAYNE OF MARS and Lee Correy's (AKA G. Harry Stine) SPACE DOCTOR. Both Heinlein and Stine call the cellar a "caisson" or "cofferdam". A caisson is actually a pressurized working area surrounded by water that is used when building the submerged pylons of a bridge, but I suppose the description is whimsically close enough to a spacecraft storm cellar.
The crew will occupy the cellar when the sun kicks up a solar storm of radiation. As these can last for days, one had better include a few crew-days worth of food, water, and tranquilizers. And a porta-potty. If you are relying upon algae for your oxygen, it deserves space in the storm cellar as well. This probably also applies to stored food too. I have heard that particle radiation can destroy a lot of the vitamins in food, especially pyridoxine and thiamine. Alas, computers and other digital electronics are also vulnerable to radiation. Don't forget repeaters for the gauges on the major ship systems, and one monitoring radiation levels outside the cellar. The latter tells you when it is safe to come out. The former tells you if there is a critical failure outside, meaning it is time to start drawing straws to decide who gets to heroically commit suicide by saving the ship.
After the storm the crew can emerge and go check the dosimeters they thoughtfully left in the modules of the spacecraft vulnerable to radiation.
To protect against galactic cosmic radiation and solar proton storms, lots of mass is required. A spacecraft has to carry its own shielding. But a planetary base can use regolith as shielding, i.e., bury the base by shoveling tons of the readily available local dirt over it. Alternatively the base can be located in artificial or naturally occurring caves and tunnels deep underground. This explains NASA's interest in Lunar and Martian lava tubes.
It is estimated that Lunar lava tubes can have a diameter of up to 300 meters and lying under 40 meters or more of basalt. In addition to protecting from galactic cosmic radiation, lava tubes will also protect against meteorites, micrometeorites, and ejecta from impacts. They will also provide a stable temperature of about -20 °C (instead of varying from -173 °C to +100 °C) and access to underground resources.
Martian lava tubes are estimated to have a roof thickness of around 30 meters. In 2010 a "skylight" (lava tube with hole in the roof) was observed in the Pavonis Mons region of Mars. The skylight was estimated to be about 190×160 meters wide and at least 115 meters deep.
Using regolith is more work, but you cannot always count on a convenient lava tube near the proposed base site.
The table below assumes that regolith has a bulk density of 1.3 grams per cubic centimeter.
to Terra Sea Level
|1,000 g/cm2||7.7 m|
|700 g/cm2||5.4 m|
In the Lunar base design below, regolith is stuffed into long bags and coiled around the dome.
Radiation shields composed of matter are quite massive, and Every Gram Counts. Researchers have been looking into using magnetic and electrostatic fields to protect against particle radiation, since such fields have no mass. Unfortunately the generators of such fields do have mass. And the field strength will have to be strong enough that the word "superconductor" will soon be mentioned. In addition, such powerful fields might be health hazards to the astronauts. It is worthless if the field simultaneously protects the astronaut from particle radiation, but also instantly kills them by being strong enough to straighten out all their DNA molecules.
There are some medications that can offset the harmful effects of acute radiation exposure, but there is a limit to the protection they can offer.
If there is nuclear fallout or a release of radioisotopes/fission fragments into the air, people in the area should immediately take a potassium iodide tablet. While none of the fission fragment elements are particularly healthy, Iodine-131 is particularly nasty. This is because ones thyroid gland does its level best to soak up iodine, radioactive or not. Your thyroid will quickly become saturated with deadly iodine-131 and thyroid cancer will ensue. Potassium iodide pills load one's thyroid with safe iodine, so it be sated and thus ignore any deadly iodine-131 that passes by.
Obviously potassium iodide tablets provide zero protection against any of the many other radioisotopes.
The body's hematopoietic (blood forming) tissues are seriously damaged with exposures of 1 gray or more. This is mainly the bone marrow, causing damage to blood-cell production and the immune system.
The standard treatment is Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (kicks the surviving bone marrow into overdrive), but G-CSF must be administered as soon as possible or it does not help. A new treatment combines thrombomodulin with activated protein C, this will help if administered within 24 hours of exposure.
The gastrointestinal tract is increasingly damage with exposures above 5.5 grays. The regenerative peptide TP508 (rousalatide acetate) will significantly increase survival and delay mortality by activating stem cells (though I am curious as to the exact definition of "significantly"). TP508 may also activate stem cells in other organs besides the GI tract, helping them recover from radiation exposure as well.
The drug dimethyloxalylglycine helps protect the GI tract from radiation damage by blocking PHD proteins. It should be administered within 24 hours of exposure.
Radiation damages a cell's DNA. If a cell discovers too much DNA damage, it commits suicide (to avoid the risk of becoming cancerous). If too many cells suicide, the person dies. Unfortunately the mechanism is set too conservatively, it will kill the cell even if the damage is slight enough to be repairable.
The drug 2-[4-(1,3-dioxo-1H,3H-benzoisoquinolin-2-yl)butylsulfamoyl]benzoic acid (mercifully abbreviated to DBIBB) delays cell suicide and speeds up DNA repair, giving the cells a fighting chance to heal themselves.
The various controls, tongs, and remote control "waldoes" will reach around or penetrate the anti-radiation shadow shield, and there may be auxiliary lead baffles. Peeking around the baffles is how Rhysling lost his sight in Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth".
Remember that the shadow shield will be in the floor, with the engine below that. Closed-circuit TV monitor will help Astro see what he is doing, but if they are damaged, he'll have to make do with mirrors and/or doing it by touch. What he really needs is one of Tom Swift Jr.'s Giant Robots, which were designed to do maintenance inside nuclear power plants. There is more about robots here.
For external repairs, the chief engineer might use something similar to the amazing Canadarm 2, which is currently on active duty on the International Space Station. Unlike the first Canadarm, this one is not attached at either end. Instead, either end can plug into special sockets ("power data grapple fixtures") built at strategic spots on the surface of the station. Canadarm 2 can literally walk on the surface of the station to where it is needed, moving end-over-end like a giant metal inch worm. The main limitation is that each "step" must end at a socket, but this is due to power and control signal issues. A more advanced version might be self contained enough to not require sockets, just hand-holds or other protrusions that it could grab.
Canadarm 2 is quite large, 17.6 meters (57.7 feet) long when fully extended. On your atomic rocket, one would use arm(s) long enough to reach any spot on the radioactive engine.
Refueling and maintenance on radioactive spacecraft out on a landing pad will need something with lots of waldoes and probably treads. In olden days (the 1950's) they figured these things would be controlled by men inside lead-lined control cabs, using TV cameras. Nowadays it would make more sense for the vehicles to be remotely controlled drones.
In the old Tom Corbett Space Caded novels, such vehicles were called "hot soup wagons", because the spacecraft in the novels used liquid core nuclear thermal rocket propulsion. Though in reality I doubt that a landed rocket would keep the plutonium fuel molten just for ease of pumping it into the wagon.
One of the more interesting examples of a hot soup wagon is the Beetle. It was built in 1961 by Jered Industries on contract for General Electric's Nuclear Materials and Propulsion Operation division. It was going to be used in the US Air Force Special Weapons Center to service and maintain a planned fleet of nuclear powered Air Force bombers. The bombers were never constructed and Beetle was scrapped.
You can find all the details in the report AD0402748 USAF Shielded Cab Vehicles Test And Evaluation. This includes the layout of all 120-odd buttons on the control panels, which I didn't bother to include.
On the Beetle, the engine and transmission are located in the front of the chassis, while the operator cab and manipulators are mounted on the rear. The cab walls are solid lead 12 inches thick, clad with a one inch steel shell on the outside and a 0.5 inch steel shell on the inside. The five operator windows are 23.25 inches thick made out of seven panes of leaded glass (same radiation shielding level as 12 inches of solid lead). The cab can lift up to a height of 26 feet off the ground since nuclear bombers are quite tall. Each arm can lift 2,000 pounds yet are delicate enough to pick up an egg without breaking it.
|Height - cab down||11' 7"|
|Height - cab up||26' 7"|
|Ground Pressure||35 lbs/in2|
|Rotates||360° at 0.8 rpm|
|Lead wall thickness||12"|
|Hatch opens||1 minute|
|0% grade forward||8 mph|
|0% grade reverse||5 mph|
|10% grade both||5 mph|
|Max weight lift|
|Max weight lift|
|Flood light||250 foot-candles at 15'|
|-30°F to 130°F|
|Drawbar pull||85,000 lbs|