Thursday

Thursday 27/02/2003More radioactive peculiarities today. A report from the New Scientist says that the US Department of Defence is considering nuclear powered drones -- unmanned aircraft for surveillance or attack purposes.

Thursday 27/02/2003
More radioactive peculiarities today. A report from the New Scientist says that the US Department of Defence is considering nuclear powered drones -- unmanned aircraft for surveillance or attack purposes. The US is getting increasingly keen on these things, but they have to return to base after a few hours for refuelling. The thinking goes that a small nuclear reactor could keep them aloft for months. This isn't the first time the US (and the Soviets, way back when) thought about nuclear-powered aircraft. The downsides are obvious, even apart from having a large lump of very unpleasant stuff ready to disperse itself around the countryside during a crash: the amount of lead shielding needed to prevent the pilots from getting toasted by the radiation makes the whole thing untenable. But a drone has no pilots. Clever, eh? And the key technology is a new kind of reactor called a quantum nucleonic device. This uses much less nasty stuff, which is persuaded to disgorge much more radiation than it should by zapping it with x-rays much like a glow-in-the-dark star gets all excited if you leave it in the sun for a bit. If you turn off the x-rays, the protagonists say, things are much safer, so in a crash you won't have nearly so much unpleasantness to deal with. This strikes me as most peculiar. Since when has radioactive decay been speeded up by anything? One of the classic bits of physics is that radioactive materials decay at a precise rate and nothing on earth can speed it up or slow it down. Hence half-lives. If this is no longer the case, the implications are enormous: we might be able to sort out radioactive waste material by getting it to decay really quickly, for example, and nuclear power plants can be made much smaller and safer. Never mind the drones -- this is the real news! One of the delights of the Web, as Blair discovered to his displeasure when he tried to palm off someone else's thesis as an Iraqi intelligence report, is that you or I can go and check up on things that would previously need dedicated researchers. So myself and friend Adrian Mars hit Google... and five minutes later, there's the answer. Quantum nucleonics doesn't work: the effect was reported once, in a paper larded about with caveats and get-out clauses, and an effort by Los Alamos to repeat the results was a resounding flop. So: the whole basis of these nuclear drones is dodgy at best, and probably completely nonsensical. But that's enough for people in the States to get government money to investigate a new weapon, and for the gee-whiz reports to get propagated uncritically. Gah!

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