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Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Why not suit reactor techs in space suits?

Asked by Hypocrisy_Central (20236 points ) March 15th, 2011

With all that was said about how great the lunar suits were for the astronauts in keeping them safe from radiation and while traveling to the Moon even through the Van Allen belts why not just suit the workers going into the reactors with a scaled down version of them? They would not need to carry their own oxygen if portable air scrubbers can be fitted to use with them. Do you really think the radiation out there with no atmosphere to help protect is less than a energy reactor here?

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4 Answers

PhiNotPi's avatar

There’s a difference between solar radiation and nuclear radiation. Solar radiation is often intense UV and infrared light. These forms of radiation are harmful, but can be blocked. Nuclear radiation, on the other hand, includes gamma rays, beta rays, alpha rays, x-rays, and the neutron. Beta rays and Alpha rays pose no problem. The clothes that I am wearing right now could most likely block them. X-rays are dangerous, and can be stopped by lead. Neutrons are much harder to stop, and are the most dangerous form of radiation. If neutrons are absorbed by atoms in my body, it will turn those atoms radioactive. This can damage my cells from the inside out. Gamma rays (a type of very high frequency light) are the most powerful. A solid wall of cement 100 yards thick will stop only half of them. Any particle that these photons knock into could possibly become highly energized from the event. The only reason that these are not as deadly as neutrons is that there is a large chance that they will fly right through your body without interacting. So no, space suits do not work to shield neutrons and gamma rays.

WasCy's avatar

Well, it’s been a long time since my last Health Physics class (decades, in fact), but I think there are some fallacies in your statement, @PhiNotPi, well meaning as it is.

Alpha and Beta particle radiation in general do not pose a high risk to a moderately protected individual. However, they can become internalized into the body through breathing, eating or drinking, or through breaks in the skin. So complete skin, eye and mucous membrane coverage, air and water filtration and no skin breaks are the important shielding for these forms of radiation. If absorbed into the body these particles can be very dangerous. Fortunately they are low-energy and heavy, so they don’t travel far and are usually only present (to most humans) in the form of radioactive dust.

Neutron radiation is unlikely except during direct exposure to fissioning radiation, and no one is walking into that.

Gamma radiation is a wave form of radiation (similar to X-ray), but “a solid wall of cement 100 yards thick” will stop a lot more than half of the gamma radiation one may be exposed to. If that were the case, Earth’s atmosphere would not be effective at shielding us from cosmic gamma radiation, and it is. The general rule of protection from gamma radiation is Time, Distance and Shielding. Limit the time exposure, increase the distance from the source of the radiation, and increase the shielding. Lead, concrete and earth are effective shields, but not 100%.

I don’t recall the inverse square law (and don’t care to look it up right now), but simply increasing one’s distance from the source of a gamma radiation source reduces the intensity of the exposure by the square of the distance. So a 1000 millirem per hour exposure at 1 foot (a high level of exposure) would be reduced to 10 millirem per hour at a distance of ten feet (1000 รท 10 squared). That’s still not an insignificant exposure, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous. The NRC guidelines are based on an exposure of 2 mr / hr or less as “uncontrolled”, meaning anyone can work or pass through that radiation field without monitoring or controls of any kind.

So your hundred feet of concrete all by itself would reduce an exposure by a factor of 10,000. Still, not “nothing”, but ‘reduced by that much’. (And concrete itself is slightly radioactive in any case.)

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Guess I should have played more attention in science class you have a “China Syndrome” happens what type of ratiation is being thrown out and why can’t a space suit designed to protect against radiation stop it? No lead, too thin, wrong material, etc? And if these rods or fuel source has radiation that can penetrate stuff that much how or what did they used to get them in the reactor in the 1st place? And you’d think somoen would have had a land based drone that could handle stuff like this. We have arial drones no one thought of a “China Syndrome” drone?

WasCy's avatar

Good questions.

Regarding the fuel: When first processed, the uranium isotope and other elements that go into the fuel rods are not highly radioactive. The fuel bundles are manufactured from zirconium tubes stuffed with pellets of uranium, and are assembled in laboratory-type processing / manufacturing facilities by workers wearing nothing more elaborate than lab coats, face masks and latex gloves. However, the fissioning process changes them into new elements that are highly radioactive. The Wikipedia article does a pretty fair introduction to the process.

There is work being done (a lot of work, I understand, but I’m no longer involved with that industry) on developing robots who can go into the containment vessels and do work that so far only humans can handle. But if you know anything about robotics then you’ll understand how huge that undertaking is. I don’t expect functioning robots to handle complex tasks any time soon.

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