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Timber Wind: America’s Return to Nuclear Thermal Rockets

 Hello, and welcome to Beyond NERVA! Today, we’re continuing to look at the pebble bed nuclear thermal rocket (check out the most recent blog post on the origins of the PBR nuclear thermal rocket here)!

Sorry it took so long to get this out… between the huge amount of time it took just to find the minimal references I was able to get my hands on, the ongoing COVID pandemic, and several IRL challenges, this took me far longer than I wanted – but now it’s here!

Today is special because it is covering one of the cult classics of astronuclear engineering, Project Timber Wind, part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (better known colloquially as “Star Wars”). This was the first time since Project Rover that the US put significant resources into developing a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR). For a number of reasons, Timber Wind has a legendary status among people familiar with NTRs, but isn’t well reported on, and a lot of confusion has built up around the project. It’s also interesting in that it was an incredibly (and according to the US Office of the Inspector General, overly) classified program, which means that there’s still a lot we don’t know about this program 30 years later. However, as one of the most requested topics I hear about, I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve discovered with you… and honestly I’m kinda blown away with this concept.

Timber Wind was an effort to build a second stage for a booster rocket, to replace the second (and sometimes third) stage of anything from an MX ballistic missile to an Atlas or Delta booster. This could be used for a couple of different purposes: it could be used similarly to an advanced upper stage, increasing the payload capacity of the rocket and the range of orbits that the payload could be placed in; alternatively it could be used to accelerate a kinetic kill vehicle (basically a self-guided orbital bullet) to intercept an incoming enemy intercontinental ballistic missile before it deploys its warheads. Both options were explored, with much of the initial funding coming from the second concept, before the kill vehicle concept was dropped and the slightly more traditional upper stage took precedence.

Initially, I planned on covering both Timber Wind and the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion program (which it morphed into) in a single post, but the mission requirements, and even architectures, were too different to incorporate into a single blog post. So, this will end up being a two-parter, with this post focusing on the three early mission proposals for the Department of Defense (DOD) and Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO): a second stage of an ICBM to launch an anti-booster kinetic kill vehicle, an orbital transfer vehicle (basically a fancy, restartable second stage for a booster), and a multi-megawatt orbital nuclear power plant. The next post will cover when the program became more open, testing became more prevalent, and grander plans were laid out – and some key restrictions on operating parameters eliminated the first and third missions on this list.

Ah, Nomenclature, Let’s Deal with That

So, there’s a couple things to get out of the way before we begin.

The first is the name. If you do a Google/Yandex/etc search for “Timber Wind,” you aren’t going to find much compared to “Timberwind,” but from what I’ve seen in official reporting it should be the other way around. The official name of this program is Project Timber Wind (two words), which according to the information I’ve been able to find is not unusual. The anecdotal evidence I have (and if you know more, please feel free to leave a comment below!) is that for programs classified Top Secret: Special Access (as this was) had a name assigned based on picking two random words via computer, whereas other Top Secret (or Q, or equivalent) programs didn’t necessarily follow this protocol.

However, when I look for information about this program, I constantly see “Timberwind.” not the original “Timber Wind.” I don’t know when this shift happened – it didn’t ever happen with rare exceptions in official documentation, even in the post-cancellation reporting, but somehow public reporting always uses the single word variation. I kinda attribute it to reading typewritten reports when the reader is used to digitally written documents as personal head-canon, but that’s all that explanation is – my guess which makes sense to me.

So there’s a disconnect between what most easily accessible sources use (single word), and the official reporting (two words). I’m going to use the original, because the only reason I’ve gotten as far as I have by being weird about minor details in esoteric reports, so I’m not planning on stopping now (I will tag the single word in the blog, just so people can find this, but that’s as far as I’m going)!

The second is in nuclear reactor geometry definitions.

Having discrete, generally small fuel elements generally falls into two categories: particle beds and pebble beds. Particles are small, pebbles are big, and where the line falls seems to be fuzzy. In modern contexts, the line seems to fall around the 1 cm diameter mark, although finding a formal definition has so far eluded me. However, pebble beds are also a more colloquial term than particle beds in use: a particle bed is a type of pebble bed in common use, but not vice versa.

In this context, both the RBR and Timber Wind are both particle bed reactors, and I’ll call them such, but if a source calls the reactor a pebble bed (which many do), I may end up slipping up and using the term.

OK, nomenclature lesson done. Back to the reactor!

Project Timber Wind: Back to the Future

For those in the know, Timber Wind is legendary. This was the first time after Project Rover that the US put its economic and industrial might behind an NTR program. While there had been programs in nuclear electric propulsion (poorly funded, admittedly, and mostly carried through creative accounting in NASA and the DOE), nuclear thermal propulsion had taken a back seat since 1972, when Project Rover’s continued funding was canceled, along with plans for a crewed Mars mission, a crewed base on the Moon, and a whole lot of other dreams that the Apollo generation grew up on.

There was another difference, as well. Timber Wind wasn’t a NASA program. Despite all the conspiracy theories, the assumptions based on the number of astronauts with military service records, and the number of classified government payloads that NASA has handled, it remains a civilian organization, with the goal of peacefully exploring the solar system in an open and transparent manner. The Department of Defense, on the other hand, is a much more secretive organization, and as such many of the design details of this reactor were more highly classified than is typical in astronuclear engineering as they deal with military systems. However, in recent years, many details have become available on this system, which we’ll cover in brief today – and I will be linking not only my direct sources but all the other information I’ve found below.

Also unlike NTR designs since the earliest days of Rover, Timber Wind was meant to act as a rocket stage during booster flight. Most NTR designs are in-space only: the reactor is launched into a stable, “nuclear-safe” (i.e. a long-term stable orbit with minimal collision risk with other satellites and debris) orbit, then after being mated to the spacecraft is brought to criticality and used for in-space orbital transfers, interplanetary trajectories, and the like. (Interesting aside, this program’s successor seems to be the first time that now-common term was used in American literature on the subject.)

Timber Wind was meant to support the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars. Started in 1983, this extensive program was meant to provide a ballistic missile shield, among other things, for the US, and was given a high priority and funding level for a number of programs. One of these programs, the Boost Phase Intercept vehicle, meant to destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile during the boost phase of the vehicle using a kinetic impactor which would be launched either from the ground or be pre-deployed in space. A kinetic kill vehicle is basically a set of reaction control thrusters designed to guide a small autonomous spacecraft into its target at high velocity and destroy it. They are typically small, very nimble, and limited only by the sensors and autonomous guidance software available for them.

In order to do this, the NTR would need to function as the second stage of a rocket, meaning that while the engine would be fired only after it had entered the lower reaches of space or the upper reaches of the atmosphere (minimizing the radiation risk from the launch), it would still very much be in a sub-orbital flight path at the time, and would have much higher thrust-to-weight ratio requirements as a result.

The engine that was selected was based on a design by James Powell at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in the late 1970s. He presented the design to Grumman in 1982, and from there it came to the attention of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), the organization responsible for all SDI activities.

Haslett 1994

SDIO proceeded to break the program up into three phases:

  • Phase I (November 1987 to September 1989): verify that the pebblebed reactor concept would meet the requirements of the upper stage of the Boost Phase Intercept vehicle, including the Preliminary Design Review of both the stage and the whole vehicle (an MX first stage, with the PBR second stage /exceeding Earth escape velocity after being ignited outside the atmosphere)
  • Phase II (September 1989-October 1991 under SDIO, October 1991-January 1994 when it was canceled under the US Air Force, scheduled completion 1999): Perform all tests to support the ground test of a full PBR NTR system in preparation for a flight test, including fuel testing, final design of the reactor, design and construction of testing facilities, etc. Phase II would be completed with the successful ground hot fire test of the PBR NTR, however the program was canceled before the ground test could be conducted.
    • Once the program was transferred to the US Air Force (USAF), the mission envelope expanded from an impactor’s upper stage to a more flexible, on-orbit multi-mission purpose, requiring a design optimization redesign. This is also when NASA became involved in the program.
    • Another change was that the program name shifted from Timber Wind to the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion program (SNTP), reflecting both the change in management as well as the change in the mission design requirements.
  • Phase III (never conducted, planned for 2000): Flight test of the SNTP upper stage using an Atlas II launch vehicle to place the NTR into a nuclear-safe orbit. Once on orbit, a number of on-orbit tests would be conducted on the engine, but those were not specified to any degree due to the relatively early cancellation of the program.

While the program offered promise, many factors combined to ensure the program would not be completed. First, the hot fire testing facilities required (two were proposed, one at San Tan and one at the National Nuclear Security Site) would be incredibly expensive to construct, second the Space Exploration Initiative was heavily criticized for reasons of cost (a common problem with early 90’s programs), and third the Clinton administration cut many nuclear research programs in all US federal departments in a very short period of time (the Integral Fast Reactor at Argonne National Laboratory was another program to be cut at about the same time).

The program would be transferred into a combined USAF and NASA program in 1991, and end in 1994 under those auspices, with many successful hurdles overcome, and it remains an attractive design, one which has become a benchmark for pebble bed nuclear thermal rockets, and a favorite of the astronuclear community to speculate what would be possible with this incredible engine.

To understand why it was so attractive, we need to go back to the beginning, in the late 1970s at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the aftermath of the Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor (RBR, covered in our last post here).

The Beginning of Timber Wind

When we last left particle bed NTRs, the Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor program had made a lot of progress on many of the fundamental challenges with the concept of a particle bed reactor, but still faced many challenges. However, the team, including Dr. John Powell, were still very enthusiastic about the promise it offered – and conscious of the limitations of the system.

Dr. Powell continued to search for funding for a particle bed reactor (PBR) NTR program, and interest in NTR was growing again in both industry and government circles, but there were no major programs and funding was scarce. In 1982, eight years after the conclusion of the RBR, he had a meeting with executives in the Grumman Corporation, where he made a pitch for the PBR NTR concept. They were interested in the promise of higher specific impulse and greater thrust to weight ratios compared to what had become the legacy NERVA architecture, but there wasn’t really a currently funded niche for the project. However, they remained interested enough to start building a team of contractors willing to work on the concept, in case the US government revived its NTR program. The companies included other major aerospace companies (such as Garrett Corp and Aerojet) and nuclear contractors (such as Babcock and Wilcox), as well as subcontractors for many components.

At the same time, they tried to sell the concept of astronuclear PBR designs to potentially interested organizations: a 1985 briefing to the Air Force Space Division on the possibility of using the PBR as a boost phase interceptor was an early, but major, presentation that would end up being a major part of the initial Timber Wind architecture, and the next year an Air Force Astronautics Laboratory issues a design study contract for a PBR-based Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV, a kind of advanced upper stage for an already-existing booster). While neither of these contracts was big enough to do a complete development program, they WERE enough money to continue to advance the design of the PBR, which by now was showing two distinct parts: the boost phase interceptor, and the OTV. There was also a brief flirtation with using the PBR architecture from Timber Wind as a nuclear electric power source, which we’ll examine as well, but this was never particularly well focused on or funded, so remains a footnote in the program.

Reactor Geometry

From Atomic Power in Space, INL 2015

Timber Wind was a static particle bed reactor, in the general form of a cylinder 50 cm long by 50 cm in diameter, using 19 fuel elements to heat the propellant in a folded flow path. Each fuel element was roughly cylindrical with a 6.4 cm diameter, consisting of a cold frit (a perforated cylinder) made of stainless steel and a hot frit made out of zirconium carbide (ZrC, although rhenium – Rh – clad would also meet thermal and reactivity requirements) coated carbon-carbon composite, which held a total of 125 kg (15 liters) of 500 micron diameter spheres of uranium/zirconium carbide fueled fuel particles which were clad in two layers of different carbon compositions followed by ZrC cladding. These would be held in place through mechanical means, rather than centrifugal force like in the RBR, reducing the mass of the system at the (quite significant materially) cost of developing a hot frit to mechanically contain the fuel. This is something we’ll cover more in depth in the next post.

From Atomic Power in Space, INL 2015

The propellant would then pass into a central, truncated cone central void, becoming wider from the spacecraft to the nozzle end. This is called orificing. An interesting challenge with nuclear reactors is the fact that the distribution of energy generation changes based on location within the reactor, called radial/axial power peaking (something that occurs in individual fuel elements both in isolation and in terms of their location in a core as well, part of why refueling a nuclear reactor is an incredibly complex process), and in this case it was dealt with in a number of ways, but one of the primary ones was individually changing the orificing of each fuel element to accommodate the power generation and propellant flow rate of each fuel element.

Along these lines, another advantage of this type of core is the ability to precisely control the amount of fissile fuel in each fuel element along the length of the reactor, and along the radius of the fuel element. Since the fuel particles are so small, and the manufacturing of each would be a small-batch process (even fueling a hundred of these things would only take 1500 liters of volume, with the fissile component of that volume being a small percentage of that), a variety of fuel loading options were inherently available, and adjustments to power distribution were reasonably easy to achieve from reactor to reactor. This homogenizes power distribution in some reactors, and increases local power in other, more specialized reactors (like some types of NTRs), but here an even power distribution along the length of the fuel element is desired. This power leveling is done in virtually every fuel element in every reactor, but is a difficult and complex process with large fuel elements due to the need to change how much U is in each portion of the fuel elements. With a particle bed reactor, on the other hand, the U content doesn’t need to vary inside each individual fuel paritcles, and both fueled and unfueled particles can be added in specific regions of the fuel element to achieve the desired power balance within the element. There was actually a region of unfueled particles on the last cm of the particle bed in each fuel element to maximize the efficiency of power distribution into the propellant, and the level of enrichment for the 235U fuel was varied from 70% to 93.5% throughout the fueled portions. This resulted in an incredibly flat power profile, with a ratio of only 1.01:1 from the peak power density to the average power density.

Since the propellant would pass from the outside of each fuel element to the inside, cooling the reactor was far easier, and lower-mass (or higher efficiency) options for things such as moderator were an option. This is a benefit of what’s called a folded-flow­ propellant path, something that we’ve discussed before in some depth in our post on Dumbo, the first folded flow NTR concept [insert link]. In short, instead of heating the propellant as it passes down the length of the reactor such as in Rover, a folded flow injects the cold propellant laterally into the fuel element, heating it in a very short distance, and ejecting it through a central void in the fuel element. This has the advantage of keeping the vast majority of the reactor very cool, eliminating many of the thermal structural problems that Rover experienced, at the cost of a more complex gasdynamic behavior system. This also allowed for lighter-weight materials to be used in the construction, such as aluminum structural members and pressure vessel, to further reduce the mass of the reactor.

Interestingly, many of these lower-mass options, such as Li7H moderator, were never explored, since the mass of the reactor came in at only about 0.6 tons, a very small number compared to the 10 ton payload, so it just wasn’t seen as a big enough issue to continue working on at that point.

Finally, because of the low (~1 hr) operating time of the reactor, radiation problems were minimized. With a reactor only shielded by propellant, tankage, and the structures of the NTR itself, it’s estimated that the NOTV would subject its payload to a total of 100 Gy of gamma radiation and a neutron fluence of less than 10^14 n/cm^2. Obviously, reducing this for a crewed mission would be necessary, but depending on the robotic mission payload, additional shielding may not be necessary. The residual radiation would also be minimal due to the short burn time, although if the reactor was reused this would grow over time.

In 1987, the estimated cost per unit (not including development and testing was about $4 million, a surprisingly low number, due to the ease of construction, low thermal stresses requiring fewer exotic materials and solutions, and low uranium load requirements.

This design would continue to evolve throughout Timber Wind and into SNTP as mission requirements changed (this description is based on a 1987 paper linked below), and we’ll look at the final design in the next post.

For now, let’s move on to how this reactor would be used.

Nuclear Thermal Kinetic Kill Vehicle

The true break for the project came in the same year: 1987. This is when the SDIO picked the Brookhaven (and now Grumman) concept as their best option for a nuclear-enhanced booster for their proposed ground deployed boost phase interceptor.

I don’t do nuclear weapons coverage, in fact that’s a large part of why I’ve never covered systems like Pluto here, but it is something that I’ve gained some knowledge of through osmosis through interactions with many intelligent and well-educated people on social media and in real life… but this time I’m going to make a slight exception for strategic ballistic missile shield technology, because an NTR powered booster is… extremely rare. I can think of four American proposals that continued to be pursued after the 1950s, one early (apocryphal) Soviet design in the early 1950s, one modern Chinese concept, and that’s it! I get asked about it relatively frequently, and my answer is basically always the same: unless something significant changes, it’s not a great idea, but in certain contexts it may work. I leave it up to the reader to decide if this is a good context. (The list I can think of is the Reactor In-Flight Test, or RIFT, which was the first major casualty of Rover/NERVA cutbacks; Timber Wind; and for private proposals the Liberty Ship nuclear lightbulb booster and the Nuclear Thermal Turbo Rocket single stage to orbit concept).

So, the idea behind boost stage interception is that it targets an intercontinental ballistic missile and destroys the vehicle while it’s still gaining velocity – the earlier the interception that can destroy the vehicle, the better. There were many ideas on how to do this, including high powered lasers, but the simplest idea (in theory, not in execution) was the kinetic impactor: basically a self-guided projectile would hit the very thin fuel or oxidizer tanks of the ICBM, and… boom, no more ICBM. This was especially attractive since, by this time, missiles could carry over a dozen warheads, and this would take care of all of them at once, rather than a terminal phase interceptor, which would have to deal with each warhead individually.

The general idea behind Timber Wind was that a three-stage weapon would be used to deliver a boost-phase kinetic kill vehicle. The original first stage was based on the LGM-118 Peacekeeper (“MX,” or Missile – Experimental) first stage, which had just deployed two years earlier. This solid fueled ICBM first stage normally used a 500,000 lbf (2.2 MN) SR118 solid rocket motor, although it’s not clear if this engine was modified in any way for Timber Wind. The second stage would be the PBNTR Timber Wind stage, which would achieve Earth escape velocity to prevent reactor re-entry, and the third stage was the kinetic kill vehicle (which I have not been able to find information about).

Here’s a recent Lockheed Martin KKV undergoing testing, so you can get an idea of what this “bullet” looks and behaves like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBMU6l6GsdM

Needless to say, this would be a very interesting launch profile, and one that I have not seen detailed anywhere online. It would also be incredibly challenging to

  1. detect the launch of an ICBM;
  2. counter-launch even as rapid-fire-capable a missile as a Peacekeeper;
  3. provide sufficient guidance to the missile in real-time to guide the entire stack to interception;
  4. go through three staging events (two of which were greater than Earth escape velocity!);
  5. guide the kinetic kill vehicle to the target with sufficient maneuvering capability to intercept the target;
  6. and finally have a reasonably high chance of mission success, which required both the reactor to go flying off into a heliocentric orbit and have the kinetic kill vehicle impact the target booster

all before the second (or third) staging event for the target ICBM (i.e. before warhead deployment).

This presents a number of challenges to the designers: thrust-to-weight ratio is key to a booster stage, something that to this point (and even today) NTRs struggle with – mostly due to shielding requirements for the payload.

There simply isn’t a way to mitigate gamma radiation in particular without high atomic number nuclei to absorb and re-emit these high energy photons enough times that a lighter shielding material can be used to either stop or deflect the great-great-great-great-…-great grand-daughter photons from sensitive payloads, whether crew or electronics. However, electronics are far less sensitive than humans to this sort of irradiation, so right off the bat this program had an advantage over Rover: there weren’t any people on board, so shielding mass could be minimized.

Ed. Note: figuring out shielded T/W ratio in this field is… interesting to say the least. It’s an open question whether reported T/W includes anything but the thrust structure (i.e. no turbopumps and associated hardware, generally called the “power pack” in rocket engineering), much less whether it includes shielding – and the amount of necessary shielding is another complex question which changes with time. Considering the age of many of these studies, and the advances in computational capability to model not only the radiation being emitted from the reactor vessel but the shielding ability of many different materials, every estimate of required shielding must be taken with 2-3 dump trucks of salt!!! Given that shielding is an integral part of the reactor system, this makes pretty much every T/W estimate questionable.

One of the major challenges of the program, apparently, was to ensure that the reactor would not re-enter the atmosphere, meaning that it had to achieve Earth orbit escape velocity, while still able to deploy the third stage kinetic kill vehicle. I’ve been trying to figure out this staging event for a while now, and have come to the conclusion that my orbital mechanics capabilities simply aren’t good enough to assess how difficult this is beyond “exceptionally difficult.”

However, details of this portion of the program were more highly classified than even the already-highly-classified program, and incredibly few details are available about this portion in specific. We do know that by 1991, the beginning of Phase II of Timber Wind, this portion of the program had been de-emphasized, so apparently the program managers also found it either impractical or no longer necessary, focusing instead on the Nuclear Orbital Transfer Vehicle, or NOTV.

PBR-NOTV: Advanced Upper Stage Flexibility

NOTV Mockup, Powell 1987

At the same time as Timber Wind was gaining steam, the OTV concept was going through a major evolution into the PBR-NOTV (Particle Bed Reactor – Nuclear Orbital Transfer Vehicle). This was another interesting concept, and one which played around with many concepts that are often discussed in the astronuclear field (some related to pebble bed reactors, some related to NTRs), but are almost never realized.

The goals were… modest…

  1. ~1000 s isp
  2. multi-meganewton thrust
  3. ~50% payload mass fraction from LEO to GEO
  4. LEO to GEO transfer time measured in hours, burn time measured in minutes
  5. Customizable propellant usage to change thrust level from same reactor (H2, NH3, and mixtures of the two)

These NOTVs were designed to be the second stage of a booster, similar to the KKV concept we discussed above, but rather than deliver a small kinetic impactor and then leave the cislunar system, these would be designed to place payloads into specific orbits (low Earth orbit, or LEO, mid-Earth orbit, or MEO, and geostationary orbit, GEO, as well as polar and retrograde orbits) using rockets which would normally be far too small to achieve these mission goals. Since the reactor and nozzle were quite small, it was envisioned that a variety of launch vehicles could be used as a first stage, and the tanks for the NTR could be adjusted in size to meet both mission requirements and launch vehicle dimensions. By 1987, there was even discussion of launching it in the Space Shuttle cargo bay, since (until it was taken critical) the level of danger to the crew was negligible due to the lack of oxidizer on board (a major problem facing the Shuttle-launched Centaur with its chemical engine).

There were a variety of missions that the NOTV was designed around, including single-use missions which would go to LEO/MEO/GEO, drop off the payload, and then go into a graveyard orbit for disposal, as well as two way space tug missions. The possibility of on-orbit propellant reloading was also discussed, with propellant being stored in an orbiting depot, for longer term missions. While it wasn’t discussed (since there was no military need) the stage could easily have handled interplanetary missions, but those proposals would come only after NASA got involved.

Multiple Propellants: a Novel Solution to Novel Challenges with Novel Complications

In order to achieve these different orbits, and account for many of the orbital mechanical considerations of launching satellites into particular orbits, a novel scheme for adjusting both thrust and specific impulse was devised: use a more flexible propellant scheme than just cryogenic H2. In this case, the proposal was to use NH3, H2, or a combination of the two. It was observed that the most efficient method of using the two-propellant mode was to use the NH3 first, followed by the H2, since thrust is more important earlier in the booster flight model. One paper observed that in a Hohman transfer orbit, the first part of the perigee burn would use ammonia, followed by the hydrogen to finish the burn (and I presume to circularize the orbit at the end).

When pure ammonia was used, the specific impulse of the stage was reduced to only 500 s isp (compared to the 200-300 s for most second stages), but the thrust would double from 10,000 lbs to 20,000 lbs. By the time the gas had passed into the nozzle, it would have effectively completely dissociated into 3H2 + N2.

One of the main advantages of the composite system is that it significantly reduced the propellant volume needed for the NTR, a key consideration for some of the boosters that were being investigated. In both the Shuttle and Titan rockets, center of gravity and NTR+payload length were a concern, as was volume.

Sadly, there was also a significant (5,000 lb) decrease in payload advantage over the Centaur using NH3 instead of pure H2, but the overall thrust budget could be maintained.

There’s quite a few complications to consider in this design: first, hydrogen behaves very differently than ammonia in a turbopump, not only due to density but also due to compressability: while NH3 is minimally compressible, meaning that it can be considered to have a constant volume for a given pressure and temperature while being accelerated by the turbopump, hydrogen is INCREDIBLY compressible, leading to a lot of the difficulties in designing the power pack (turbopumps, turbines, and supporting hardware of a rocket) for a hydrogen system. It is likely (although not explicitly stated) that at least two turbopumps and two turbines would be needed for this scheme, meaning increased system mass.

Next is chemical sensitivities and complications from the different propellants: while NH3 is far less reactive than H2 at the temperatures an NTR operates at, it nevertheless has its own set of behaviors which have to be accounted for in both chemical reactions and thermal behavior. Ammonia is far more opaque to radiation than hydrogen, for instance, so it’ll pick up a lot more energy from the reactor. This in turn will change the thermal reactivity behavior, which might require the reactor to run at a higher power level with NH3 than it would with H2 to maintain reactor equilibrium.

This leads us neatly into the next behavioral difference: NH3 will expand less than H2 when heated to the same temperature, but at these higher temps the molecule itself may (or will) start to dissociate, as the thermal energy in the molecule exceeds the bonding strength between the covalent bonds in the propellant. This means you’ve now got monatomic hydrogen and various partially-deconstructed nitrogen complexes with different masses and densities to deal with – although this dissociation does decrease propellant mass, increasing specific impulse, and none of the constituent atoms are solids so plating material into your reactor won’t be a concern. These gasdynamic differences have many knock-on effects though, including engine orificing.

See how the top end of the fuel element’s central void is so much narrower than the bottom? One of the reasons for this is that the propellant is hotter – and therefore less dense – at the bottom (it’s also because as you travel down the fuel element more and more propellant is being added). This is something you see in prismatic fuel elements as well, but it’s not something I’ve seen depicted well anywhere so I don’t have as handy a diagram to use.

This taper is called “orificing,” and is used to balance the propellant pressure within an NTR. It depends on the thermal capacity of the propellant, how much it expands, and how much pressure is desired at that particular portion of the reactor – and the result of these calculations is different for NH3 and H2! So some compromises would have to be reached in this cases as well.

Finally, the tankage for the propellant is another complex question. The H2 has to be stored at such a lower temperature compared to the NH3 that a common bulkhead between the tanks simply wouldn’t be possible – the hydrogen would freeze the ammonia. This could lead to a failure mode similar to what happened to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in September 2016, when the helium tanks became super-chilled and then ruptured on the pad leading to the loss of the vehicle. Of course, the details would be different, but the danger is the same. This leads to the necessity for a complex tankage system in addition to the problems with the power pack that we discussed earlier.

All of this leads to a heavier and heavier system, with more compromises overall, and with a variety of reactor architectures being discussed it was time to consolidate the program.

Multi-Megawatt Power: Electricity Generation

While all these studies were going on, other portions of SDIO were also undergoing studies in astronuclear power systems. The primary electric power system was the SP-100, a multi-hundred kilowatt power supply using technology that had evolved out of the SNAP reactor program in the 60s and 70s. While this program was far along in its development, it was over budget, delayed, and simply couldn’t provide enough power for some of the more ambitious projects within SDIO. Because of this, SDIO (briefly) investigated higher power reactors for their more ambitious – and power-hungry – on-orbit systems.

Power generation was something that was often discussed for pebble bed reactors – the same reasons that make the concept phenomenal for nuclear thermal rockets makes a very attractive high temperature gas cooled reactors (HTGR): the high thermal transfer rates reduce the size of the needed reactor, while the pebble bed allows for very high gas flow rates (necessary due to the low thermal capacity of the coolant in an HTGR). To do this, the gas doesn’t go through a nozzle, but instead through a gas turbine – known as the Brayton cycle. This has huge efficiency advantages over thermoelectric generators, the design being used in SP-100, meaning that the same size reactor can generate much more electricity – but this would definitely not be the same size reactor!

The team behind Timber Wind (including the BNL, SNL and B&W teams) started discussing both electric generation and bimodal nuclear thermal and nuclear electric reactor geometry as early as 1986, before SDIO picked up the program. Let’s take a look at the two proposals by the team, starting with the bimodal proposal.

Particle Bed BNTR: A Hybrid of a Hybrid

Powell et al 1987

The bimodal NTR (BNTR) system never gained any traction, despite it being a potentially valuable addition to the NOTV concept. It is likely that the combination of the increased complexity and mass of the BNTR compared to the design that was finally decided on for Timber Wind, but it was interesting to the team, and they figured someone may be interested as well. This design used the same coolant channels for both the propellant and coolant, which in this case was He. This allowed for similar thermal expansion characteristics and ass flow in the coolant compared to the propellant, while minimizing both corrosion and gas escape challenges.

Horn et al 1987

A total of 37 fuel elements, similar to those used on Timber Wind, were placed in a triangular configuration, with zirconium hydride moderator surrounding them, with twelve control rods for reactivity control. Unusually for many power generation systems, this concept used a conbination of low power, closed loop coolant (using He) and a high power open loop system using H2, which would then be vented out into space through a nozzle (this second option was limited to about 30 mins of high power operation before exhausting H2 reserves). A pair of He Brayton turbines and a radiator was integrated into the BNTR structure. The low power system was designed to operate for “years at a time,” producing 555 kWe of power, while the high power system was rated to 100 Mwe in either rapid ramp or burst mode.

Horn et al 1987

However, due to the very preliminary nature of this design very few things are completely fleshed out in the only report on the concept that I’ve been able to find. The images, such as they are, are also disappointingly poor in quality, but provide at least a vague idea of the geometry and layout of the reactor:

Horn et al 1987

Multi-Megawatt Steady State and Burst Reactor Proposal

By 1989, two years into Timber Wind, SDIO wanted a powerful nuclear reactor to provide two different power configurations: a steady state, 10 Mwe reactor with a 1 year full power lifetime, which was also able to provide bursts of up to 500 MW for long enough to power neutral particle beams and free electron lasers. A variety of proposals were made, including an adaptation of Timber Wind’s reactor core, an adaptation of a NERVA A6 type core (the same family of NERVA reactors used in XE-Prime), a Project Pluto-based core, a hybrid NERVA/Pluto core, a larger, pellet fueled reactor, and two rarer types of fuel: a wire core reactor and a foam fueled reactor. This is in addition to both thermionic and metal Rankine power systems.

The designs for a PBR-based reactor, though, were very different than the Timber Wind reactor. While using the same TRISO-type fuel, they bear little resemblance to the initial reactor proposal. Both the open and closed cycle concepts were explored.

However, this concept, while considered promising, was passed over in preference for more mature fuel forms (under different reactor configurations, namely a NERVA-derived gas reactor.

Finding information about this system is… a major challenge, and one that I’m continuing to work on, but considering this is the best summary I’ve been able to find based on over a week’s searching for source material which as far as I can tel is still classified or has never been digitally documented, as unsatisfying a summary as this is I’m going to leave it here for now.

When I come back to nuclear electric concepts. we’ll come back to this study. I’ve got… words… about it, but at the present moment it’s not something I’m comfortable enough to comment on (within my very limited expertise).

Phase I Experiments

The initial portion of Timber Wind, Phase I, wasn’t just a paper study. Due to the lack of experience with PBR reactors, fuel elements, and integrating them into an NTR, a pair of experiments were run to verify that this architecture was actually workable, with more experiments being devised for Phase II.

Sandia NL ACCR, image DOE

The first of these tests was PIPE (Pulse Irradiation of a Particle Bed Fuel Element), a test of the irradiation behavior of the PBR fuel element which was divided into two testing regimes in 1988 and 1989 at Sandia National Laboratory’s Annular Core Research Reactor using fuel elements manufactured by Babcock and Wilcox. While the ACCR prevented the power density of the fuel elements to achieve what was desired for the full PBR, the data indicated that the optimism about the potential power densities was justified. Exhaust temperatures were close to that needed for an NTR, so the program continued to move forward. Sadly, there were some manufacturing and corrosion issues with the fuel elements in PIPE-II, leading to some carbon contamination in the test loop, but this didn’t impact the ability to gather the necessary data or reduce the promise of the system (just created more work for the team at SNL).

A later test, PIPET (Particle Bed Reactor Integral Performance Tester) began undergoing preliminary design reviews at the same time, which would end up consuming a huge amount of time and money while growing more and more important to the later program (more on that in the next post).

The other major test to occur at this time was CX1, or Critical Experiment 1.

Carried out at Sandia National Laboratory, CX1 was a novel configuration of prototypic fuel elements and a non-prototypical moderator to verify the nuclear worth of fuel elements in a reactor environment and then conduct post-irradiation testing. This sort of testing is vitally important to any new fuel element, since the computer modeling used to estimate reactor designs requires experimental data to confirm the required assumptions used in the calculations.

This novel architecture looked nothing like an NTR, since it was a research test-bed. In fact, because it was a low power system there wasn’t much need for many of the support structures a nuclear reactor generally uses. Instead, it used 19 fuel elements placed within polyethylene moderator plugs, which were surrounded by a tank of water for both neutron reflection and moderation. This was used to analyze a host of different characteristics, from prompt neutron production (since the delayed neutron behavior would be dependent on other materials, this wasn’t a major focus of the testing), as well as initial criticality and excess reactivity produced by the fuel elements in this configuration.

CX-1 was the first of two critical experiments carried out using the same facilities in Sandia, and led to further testing configurations, but we’ll discuss those more in the next post.

Phase II: Moving Forward, Moving Up

With the success of the programmatic, computational and basic experiments in Phase I, it was time for the program to focus on a particular mission type, prepare for ground (and eventual flight) testing, and move forward.

This began Phase II of the program, which would continue from the foundation of Phase I until a flight test was able to be flown. By this point, ground testing would be completed, and the program would be in a roughly similar position to NERVA after the XE-Prime test.

Phase II began in 1990 under the SDIO, and would continue under their auspices until October 1991. The design was narrowed further, focusing on the NOTV concept, which was renamed the Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle.

Many decisions were made at this point which I’ll go into more in the next post, but some of the major decisions were:

  1. 40,000 lbf (~175 kN) thrust level
  2. 1000 MWt power level
  3. Hot bleed cycle power pack configuration
  4. T/W of 20:1
  5. Initial isp est of 930 s

While this is a less ambitious reactor, it could be improved as the program matured and certain challenges, especially in materials and reactor dynamics uncertainties, were overcome.

Another critical experiment (CX2) was conducted at Sandia, not only further refining the nuclear properties of the fuel but also demonstrating a unique control system, called a “Peek-A-Boo” scheme. Here, revolving rings made up of aluminum and gadolinium surrounded the central fuel element, and would be rotated to either absorb neutrons or allow them to interact with the other fuel elements. While the test was promising (the worth of the system was $1.81 closed and $5.02 open, both close to calculated values), but this system would not end up being used in the final design.

Changing of the Guard: Timber Wind Falls to Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion

Even as Timber Wind was being proposed, tensions with the USSR had been falling. By the time it got going in 1987, tensions were at an all-time low, reducing the priority of the SDIO mission. Finally, the Soviet Union fell, eliminating the need for the KKV concept.

At the same time, the program was meeting its goals (for the most part), and showed promise not just for SDIO but for the US Air Force (who were responsible for launching satellites for DOD and intelligence agencies) as well as NASA.

1990 was a major threshold year for the program. After a number of Senate-requested assessments by the Defense Science Board, as well as assessment by NASA, the program was looking like it was finding a new home, one with a less (but still significantly) military-oriented focus, and with a civilian component as well.

The end of Timber Wind would come in 1991. Control of the program would transfer from SDIO to the US Air Force, which would locate the programmatic center of the project at the Phillips Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, NM – a logical choice due to the close proximity of Sandia National Lab where much of the nuclear analysis was taking place, as well as being a major hub of astronuclear research (the TOPAZ International program was being conducted there as well). Additional stakes in the program were given to NASA, which saw the potential of the system for both uncrewed and crewed missions from LEO to the Moon and beyond.

With this, Timber Wind stopped being a thing, and the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion program picked up basically exactly where it left off.

The Promise of SNTP

With the demise of Timber Wind, the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion program gained steam. Being a wider collaboration between different portions of the US government, both civil and military, gave a lot of advantages, wider funding, and more mission options, but also brought its’ own problems.

In the next post, we’ll look at this program, what its plans, results, and complications were, and what the legacy of this program was.

References and Further Reading

Timber Wind/SNTP General References

Haslett, E. A. “SPACE NUCLEAR THERMAL PROPULSION
PROGRAM FINAL REPORT
https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a305996.pdf

Orbital Transfer Vehicle

Powell et al, “NUCLEAR PROPULSION SYSTEMS FOR ORBIT TRANSFER BASED ON THE
PARTICLE BED REACTOR” Brookhaven NL 1987 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/6383303

Araj et al, “ULTRA-HIGH TEMPERATURE DIRECT PROPULSION”” Brookhaven NL 1987 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/6430200

Horn et al, “The Use of Nuclear Power for Bimodal Applications in Space,” Brookhaven NL 1987 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/5555461

Multi-Megawatt Power Plant

Powell et al “HIGH POWER DENSITY REACTORS BASED ON
DIRECT COOLED PARTICLE BEDS” Brookhaven NL 1987 https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/17/078/17078909.pdf

Marshall, A.C “A Review of Gas-Cooled Reactor
Concepts for SDI Applications” Sandia NL 1987 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/5619371

“Atomic Power in Space: a History, chapter 15” https://inl.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/AtomicPowerInSpaceII-AHistory_2015_chapters6-10.pdf

Categories
Development and Testing Forgotten Reactors History Non-nuclear Testing Nuclear Thermal Systems Test Stands

Pebblebed NTRs: Solid Fuel, but Different

Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA!

Today, we’re going to take a break from the closed cycle gas core nuclear thermal rocket (which I’ve been working on constantly since mid-January) to look at one of the most popular designs in modern NTR history: the pebblebed reactor!

This I should have covered between solid and liquid fueled NTRs, honestly, and there’s even a couple types of reactor which MAY be able to be used for NTR between as well – the fluidized and shush fuel reactors – but with the lack of information on liquid fueled reactors online I got a bit zealous.

Beads to Explore the Solar System

Most of the solid fueled NTRs we’ve looked at have been either part of, or heavily influenced by, the Rover and NERVA programs in the US. These types of reactors, also called “prismatic fuel reactors,” use a solid block of fuel of some form, usually tileable, with holes drilled through each fuel element.

The other designs we’ve covered fall into one of two categories, either a bundled fuel element, such as the Russian RD-0410, or a folded flow disc design such as the Dumbo or Tricarbide Disc NTRs.

However, there’s another option which is far more popular for modern American high temperature gas cooled reactor designs: the pebblebed reactor. This is a clever design, which increases the surface area of the fuel by using many small, spherical fuel elements held in a (usually) unfueled structure. The coolant/propellant passes between these beads, picking up the heat as it passes between them.

This has a number of fundamental advantages over the prismatic style fuel elements:

  1. The surface area of the fuel is so much greater than with simple holes drilled in the prismatic fuel elements, increasing thermal transfer efficiency.
  2. Since all types of fuel swell when heated, the density of the packed fuel elements could be adjusted to allow for better thermal expansion behavior within the active region of the reactor.
  3. The fuel elements themselves were reasonably loosely contained within separate structures, allowing for higher temperature containment materials to be used.
  4. The individual elements could be made smaller, allowing for a lower temperature gradient from the inside to the outside of a fuel, reducing the overall thermal stress on each fuel pebble.
  5. In a folded flow design, it was possible to not even have a physical structure along the inside of the annulus if centrifugal force was applied to the fuel element structure (as we saw in the fluid fueled reactor designs), eliminating the need for as many super-high temperature materials in the highest temperature region of the reactor.
  6. Because each bead is individually clad, in the case of an accident during launch, even if the reactor core is breached and a fuel release into the environment occurs, the release of either any radiological components or any other fuel materials into the environment is minimized
  7. Because each bead is relatively small, it is less likely that they will sustain sufficient damage either during mechanical failure of the flight vehicle or impact with the ground that would breach the cladding.

However, there is a complication with this design type as well, since there are many (usually hundreds, sometimes thousands) of individual fuel elements:

  1. Large numbers of fuel beads mean large numbers of fuel beads to manufacture and perform quality control checks on.
  2. Each bead will need to be individually clad, sometimes with multiple barriers for fission product release, hydrogen corrosion, and the like.
  3. While each fuel bead will be individually clad, and so the loss of one or all the fuel will not significantly impact the environment from a radiological perspective in the case of an accident, there is potential for significant geographic dispersal of the fuel in the event of a failure-to-orbit or other accident.

There are a number of different possible flow paths through the fuel elements, but the two most common are either an axial flow, where the propellant passes through a tubular structure packed with the fuel elements, and a folded flow design, where the fuel is in a porous annular structure, with the coolant (usually) passing from the outside of the annulus, through the fuel, and the now-heated coolant exiting through the central void of the annulus. We’ll call these direct flow and folded flow pebblebed fuel elements.

In addition, there are many different possible fuel types, which regulars of this blog will be familiar with by now: oxides, carbides, nitrides, and CERMET are all possible in a pebblebed design, and if differential fissile fuel loading is needed, or gradients in fuel composition (such as using tungsten CERMET in higher temperature portions of the reactor, with beryllium or molybdenum CERMET in lower temperature sections), this can be achieved using individual, internally homogeneous fuel types in the beads, which can be loaded into the fuel support structure at the appropriate time to create the desired gradient.

Just like in “regular” fuel elements, these pebbles need to be clad in a protective coating. There have been many proposals over the years, obviously depending on what type of fissile fuel matrix the fuel uses to ensure thermal expansion and chemical compatibility with the fuel and coolant. Often, multiple layers of different materials are used to ensure structural and chemical integrity of the fuel pellets. Perhaps the best known example of this today is the TRISO fuel element, used in the US Advanced Gas Reactor fuel development program. The TRI-Structural ISOtropic fuel element uses either oxide or carbide fuel in the center, followed by a porous carbon layer, a pyrolitic carbon layer (sort of like graphite, but with some covalent bonds between the carbon sheets), followed by a silicon carbide outer shell for mechanical and fission product retention. Some variations include a burnable poison for reactivity control (the QUADRISO at Argonne), or use different outer layer materials for chemical protection. Several types have been suggested for NTR designs, and we’ll see more of them later.

The (sort of) final significant variable is the size of the pebble. As the pebbles go down in size, the available surface area of the fuel-to-coolant interface increases, but also the amount of available space between the pebbles decreases and the path that the coolant flows through becomes more resistant to higher coolant flow rates. Depending on the operating temperature and pressure, the thermal gradient acceptable in the fuel, the amount of decay heat that you want to have to deal with on shutdown (the bigger the fuel pebble, the more time it will take to cool down), fissile fuel density, clad thickness requirements, and other variables, a final size for the fuel pebbles can be calculated, and will vary to a certain degree between different reactor designs.

Not Just for NTRs: The Electricity Generation Potential of Pebblebed Reactors

Obviously, the majority of the designs for pebblebed reactors are not meant to ever fly in space, they’re mostly meant to operate as high temperature gas cooled reactors on Earth. This type of architecture has been proposed for astronuclear designs as well, although that isn’t the focus of this video.

Furthermore, the pebblebed design lends itself to other cooling methods, such as molten salt, liquid metal, and other heat-carrying fluids, which like the gas would flow through the fuel pellets, pick up the heat produced by the fissioning fuel, and carry it into a power conversion system of whatever design the reactor has integrated into its systems.

Finally, while it’s rare, pebblebed designs were popular for a while with radioisotope power systems. There are a number of reasons for this beyond being able to run a liquid coolant through the fuel (which was done on one occasion that I can think of, and we’ll cover in a future post): in an alpha-emitting radioisotope, such as 238Pu, over time the fuel will generate helium gas – the alpha particles will slow, stop, and become doubly ionized helium nuclei, which will then strip electrons off whatever materials are around and become normal 4He. This gas needs SOMEWHERE to go, which is why just like with a fissile fuel structure there are gas management mechanisms used in radioisotope power source fuel assemblies such as areas of vacuum, pressure relief valves, and the like. In some types of RTG, such as the SNAP-27 RTG used by Apollo, as well as the Multi-Hundred Watt RTG used by Voyager, the fuel was made into spheres, with the gaps in between the spheres (normally used to pass coolant through) are used for the gas expansion volume.

We’ll discuss these ideas more in the future, but I figured it was important to point out here. Let’s get back to the NTRs, and the first (and only major) NTR program to focus on the pebblebed concept: the Project Timberwind and the Space Nuclear Propulsion Program in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The Beginnings of Pebblebed NTRs

The first proposals for a gas cooled pebblebed reactor were from 1944/45, although they were never pursued beyond the concept stage, and a proposal for the “Space Vehicle Propulsion Reactor” was made by Levoy and Newgard at Thikol in 1960, with again no further development. If you can get that paper, I’d love to read it, here’s all I’ve got: “Aero/Space Engineering 19, no. 4, pgs 54-58, April 1960” and ‘AAE Journal, 68, no. 6, pgs. 46-50, June 1960,” and “Engineering 189, pg 755, June 3, 1960.” Sounds like they pushed hard, and for good reason, but at the time a pebblebed reactor was a radical concept for a terrestrial reactor, and getting a prismatic fueled reactor, something far more familiar to nuclear engineers, was a challenge that seemed far simpler and more familiar.

Sadly, while this design may end up have informed the design of its contemporary reactor, it seems like this proposal was never pursued.

Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor (“Hatch” Reactor) and the Groundwork for Timberwind

Another proposal was made at the same time at Brookhaven National Laboratory, by L.P. Hatch, W.H. Regan, and a name that will continue to come up for the rest of this series, John R. Powell (sorry, can’t find the given names of the other two, even). This relied on very small (100-500 micrometer) fuel, held in a perforated drum to contain the fuel but also allow propellant to be injected into the fuel particles, which was spun at a high rate to provide centrifugal force to the particles and prevent them from escaping.

Now, fluidized beds need a bit of explanation, which I figured was best to put in here since this is not a generalized property of pebblebed reactors. In this reactor (and some others) the pebbles are quite small, and the coolant flow can be quite high. This means that it’s possible – and sometimes desirable – for the pebbles to move through the active zone of the reactor! This type of mobile fuel is called a “fluidized bed” reactor, and comes in several variants, including pebble (solid spheres), slurry (solid particulate suspended in a liquid), and colloid (solid particulate suspended in a gas). The best way to describe the phenomenon is with what is called the point of minimum fluidization, or when the drag forces on the mass of the solid objects from the fluid flow balances with the weight of the bed (keep in mind that life is a specialized form of drag). There’s a number of reasons to do this – in fact, many chemical reactions using a solid and a fluid component use fluidization to ensure maximum mixing of the components. In the case of an NTR, the concern is more to do with achieving as close to thermal equilibrium between the solid fuel and the gaseous propellant as possible, while minimizing the pressure drop between the cold propellant inlet and the hot propellant outlet. For an NTR, the way that the “weight” is applied is through centrifugal force on the fuel. This is a familiar concept to those that read my liquid fueled NTR series, but actually began with the fluidized bed concept.

This is calculated using two different relations between the same variables: the Reynolds number (Re), which determines how turbulent fluid flow is, and the friction coefficient (CD, or coefficient of drag, which deptermines how much force acts on the fuel particles based on fluid interactions with the particles) which can be found plotted below. The plotted lines represent either the Reynolds number or the void fraction ε, which represents the amount of gas present in the volume defined by the presence of fuel particles.

Hendrie 1970

If you don’t follow the technical details of the relationships depicted, that’s more than OK! Basically, the y axis is proportional to the gas turbulence, while the x axis is proportional to the particle diameter, so you can see that for relatively small increases in particle size you can get larger increases in propellant flow rates.

The next proposal for a pebble bed reactor grew directly out of the Hatch reactor, the Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor for Space Nuclear Propulsion (RBR). From the documentation I’ve been able to find, from the original proposal work continued at a very low level at BNL from the time of the original proposal until 1973, but the only reports I’ve been able to find are from 1971-73 under the RBR name. A rotating fuel structure, with small, 100-500 micrometer spherical particles of uranium-zirconium carbide fuel (the ZrC forming the outer clad and a maximum U content of 10% to maximize thermal limits of the fuel particles), was surrounded by a reflector of either metallic beryllium or BeO (which was preferred as a moderator, but the increased density also increased both reactor mass and manufacturing requirements). Four drums in the reflector would control the reactivity of the engine, and an electric motor would be attached to a porous “squirrel cage” frit, which would rotate to contain the fuel.

Much discussion was had as to the form of uranium used, be it 235U or 233U. In the 235U reactor, the reactor had a cavity length of 25 in (63.5 cm), an inner diameter of 25 in (63.5 cm), and a fuel bed depth when fluidized of 4 in (10.2 cm), with a critical mass of U-ZrC being achieved at 343.5 lbs (155.8 kg) with 9.5% U content. The 233U reactor was smaller, at 23 in (56 cm) cavity length, 20 in (51 cm) bed inner diameter, 3 in (7.62 cm) deep fuel bed with a higher (70%) void fraction, and only 105.6 lbs (47.9 kg) of U-ZrC fuel at a lower (and therefore more temperature-tolerant) 7.5% U loading.

233U was the much preferred fuel in this reactor, with two options being available to the designers: either the decreased fuel loading could be used to form the smaller, higher thrust-to-weight ratio engine described above, or the reactor could remain at the dimensions of the 235U-fueled option, but the temperature could be increased to improve the specific impulse of the engine.

There was als a trade-off between the size of the fuel particles and the thermal efficiency of the reactor,:

  • Smaller particles advantages
    • Higher surface area, and therefore better thermal transfer capabilities,
    • Smaller radius reduces thermal stresses on fuel
  • Smaller particles disadvantages
    • Fluidized particle bed fuel loss would be a more immediate concern
    • More sensitive to fluid dynamic behavior in the bed
    • Bubbles could more easily form in fuel
    • Higher centrifugal force required for fuel containment
  • Larger particle advantages
    • Ease of manufacture
    • Lower centrifugal force requirements for a given propellant flow rate
  • Larger particle disadvantages
    • Higher thermal gradient and stresses in fuel pellets
    • Less surface area, so lower thermal transfer efficiency

It would require testing to determine the best fuel particle size, which could largely be done through cold flow testing.

These studies looked at cold flow testing in depth. While this is something that I’ve usually skipped over in my reporting on NTR development, it’s a crucial type of testing in any gas cooled reactor, and even more so in a fluidized bed NTR, so let’s take a look at what it’s like in a pebblebed reactor: the equipment, the data collection, and how the data modified the reactor design over time.

Cold flow testing is usually the predecessor to electrically heated flow testing in an NTR. These tests determine a number of things, including areas within the reactor that may end up with stagnant propellant (not a good thing), undesired turbulence, and other negative consequences to the flow of gas through the reactor. They are preliminary tests, since as the propellant heats up while going through the reactor, a couple major things will change: first, the density of the gas will decrease and second, as the density changes the Reynolds number (a measure of self-interaction, viscosity, and turbulent vs laminar flow behavior) will change.

In this case, the cold flow tests were especially useful, since one of the biggest considerations in this reactor type is how the gas and fuel interact.

The first consideration that needed to be examined is the pressure drop across the fuel bed – the highest pressure point in the system is always the turbopump, and the pressure will decrease from that point throughout the system due to friction with the pipes carrying propellant, heating effects, and a host of other inefficiencies. One of the biggest questions initially in this design was how much pressure would be lost from the frit (the outer containment structure and propellant injection system into the fuel) to the central void in the body of the fuel, where it exits the nozzle. Happily, this pressure drop is minimal: according to initial testing in the early 1960s (more on that below), the pressure drop was equal to the weight of the fuel bed.

The next consideration was the range between fluidizing the fuel and losing the fuel through literally blowing it out the nozzle – otherwise known as entrainment, a problem we looked at extensively on a per-molecule basis in the liquid fueled NTR posts (since that was the major problem with all those designs). Initial calculations and some basic experiments were able to map the propellant flow rate and centrifugal force required to both get the benefit of a fluidized bed and prevent fuel loss.

Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor testbed test showing bubble formation,

Another concern is the formation of bubbles in the fuel body. As we covered in the bubbler LNTR post (which you can find here), bubbles are a problem in any fuel type, but in a fluid fueled reactor with coolant passing through it there’s special challenges. In this case, the main method of transferring heat from the fuel to the propellant is convection (i.e. contact between the fuel and the propellant causing vortices in the gas which distributes the heat), so an area that doesn’t have any (or minimal) fuel particles in it will not get heated as thoroughly. That’s a headache not only because the overall propellant temperature drops (proportional to the size of the bubbles), but it also changes the power distribution in the reactor (the bubbles are fission blank spots).

Finally, the initial experiment set looked at the particle-to-fluid thermal transfer coefficients. These tests were far from ideal, using a 1 g system rather than the much higher planned centrifugal forces, but they did give some initial numbers.

The first round of tests was done at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) from 1962 to 1966, using a relatively simple test facility. A small, 10” (25.4 cm) length by 1” (2.54 cm) diameter centrifuge was installed, with gas pressure provided by a pressurized liquefied air system. 138 to 3450 grams of glass particles were loaded into the centrifuge, and various rotational velocities and gas pressures were used to test the basic behavior of the particles under both centrifugal force and gas pressure. While some bobbles were observed, the fuel beds remained stable and no fuel particles were lost during testing, a promising beginning.

These tests provided not just initial thermal transfer estimates, pressure drop calculations, and fuel bed behavioral information, but also informed the design of a new, larger test rig, this one 10 in by 10 in (25.4 by 25.4 cm), which was begun in 1966. This system would not only have a larger centrifuge, but would also use liquid nitrogen rather than liquefied air, be able to test different fuel particle simulants rather than just relatively lightweight glass, and provide much more detailed data. Sadly, the program ran out of funding later that year, and the partially completed test rig was mothballed.

Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor (RBR): New Life for the Hatch Reactor

It would take until 1970, when the Space Nuclear Systems office of the Atomic Energy Commission and NASA provided additional funding to complete the test stand and conduct a series of experiments on particle behavior, reactor dynamics and optimization, and other analytical studies of a potential advanced pebblebed NTR.

The First Year: June 1970-June 1971

After completing the test stand, the team at BNL began a series of tests with this larger, more capable equipment in Building 835. The first, most obvious difference is the diameter of the centrifuge, which was upgraded from 1 inch to 10 inches (25.4 cm), allowing for a more prototypical fuel bed depth. This was made out of perforated aluminum, held in a stainless steel pressure housing for feeding the pressurized gas through the fuel bed. In addition, the gas system was changed from the pressurized air system to one designed to operate on nitrogen, which was stored in liquid form in trailers outside the building for ease of refilling (and safety), then pre-vaporized and held in two other, high-pressure trailers.

Photographs were used to record fluidization behavior, taken viewing the bottom of the bed from underneath the apparatus. While initially photos were only able to be taken 5 seconds apart, later upgrades would improve this over the course of the program.

The other major piece of instrumentation surrounded the pressure and flow rate of the nitrogen gas throughout the system. The gas was introduced at a known pressure through two inlets into the primary steel body of the test stand, with measurements of upstream pressure, cylindrical cavity pressure outside the frit, and finally a pitot tube to measure pressure inside the central void of the centrifuge.

Three main areas of pressure drop were of interest: due to the perforated frit itself, the passage of the gas through the fuel bed, and finally from the surface of the bed and into the central void of the centrifuge, all of which needed to be measured accurately, requiring calibration of not only the sensors but also known losses unique to the test stand itself.

The tests themselves were undertaken with a range of glass particle sizes from 100 to 500 micrometers in diameter, similar to the earlier tests, as well as 500 micrometer copper particles to more closely replicate the density of the U-ZrC fuel. Rotation rates of between1,000 and 2,000 rpm, and gas flow rates from 1,340-1,800 scf/m (38-51 m^3/min) were used with the glass beads, and from 700-1,500 rpm with the copper particles (the lower rotation rate was due to gas pressure feed limitations preventing the bed from becoming fully fluidized with the more massive particles).

Finally, there were a series of physics and mechanical engineering design calculations that were carried out to continue to develop the nuclear engineering, mechanical design, and system optimization of the final RBR.

The results from the initial testing were promising: much of the testing was focused on getting the new test stand commissioned and calibrated, with a focus on figuring out how to both use the rig as it was constructed as well as which parts (such as the photography setup) could be improved in the next fiscal year of testing. However, particle dynamics in the fuidized bed were comfortably within stable, expected behavior, and while there were interesting findings as to the variation in pressure drop along the axis of the central void, this was something that could be worked with.

Based on the calculations performed, as well as the experiments carried out in the first year of the program, a range of engines were determined for both 233U and 235U variants:

Work Continues: 1971-1972

This led directly into the 1971-72 series of experiments and calculations. Now that the test stand had been mostly completed (although modifications would continue), and the behavior of the test stand was now well-understood, more focused experimentation could continue, and the calculations of the physics and engineering considerations in the reactor and engine system could be advanced on a more firm footing.

One major change in this year’s design choices was the shift toward a low-thrust, high-isp system, in part due to greater interest at NASA and the AEC in a smaller NTR than the original design envelope. While analyzing the proposed engine size above, though, it was discovered that the smallest two reactors were simply not practical, meaning that the smallest design was over 1 GW power level.

Another thing that was emphasized during this period from the optimization side of the program was the mass of the reflector. Since the low thrust option was now the main thrust of the design, any increase in the mass of the reactor system has a larger impact on the thrust-to-weight ratio, but reducing the reflector thickness also increases the neutron leakage rate. In order to prevent this, a narrower nozzle throat is preferred, but also increases thermal loading across the throat itself, meaning that additional cooling, and probably more mass, is needed – especially in a high-specific-impulse (aka high temperature) system. This also has the effect of needing higher chamber pressures to maintain the desired thrust level (a narrower throat with the same mass flow throughput means that the pressure in the central void has to be higher).

These changes required a redesign of the reactor itself, with a new critical configuration:

Hendrie 1972

One major change is how fluidized the bed actually is during operation. In order to get full fluidization, there needs to be enough inward (“upward” in terms of force vectors) velocity at the inner surface of the fuel body to lift the fuel particles without losing them out the nozzle. During calculations in both the first and second years, two major subsystems contributed hugely to the weight and were very dependent on both the rotational speed and the pellet size/mass: the weight of the frit and motor system, which holds the fuel particles, and the weight of the nozzle, which not only forms the outlet-end containment structure for the fuel but also (through the challenges of rocket motor dynamics) is linked to the chamber pressure of the reactor – oh, and the narrower the nozzle, the less surface area is available to reject the heat from the propellant, so the harder it is to keep cool enough that it doesn’t melt.

Now, fluidization isn’t a binary system: a pebblebed reactor is able to be settled (no fluidization), partially fluidized (usually expressed as a percentage of the pebblebed being fluidized), and fully fluidized to varying degrees (usually expressed as a percentage of the volume occupied by the pebbles being composed of the fluid). So there’s a huge range, from fully settled to >95% fluid in a fully fluidized bed.

The designers of the RBR weren’t going for excess fluidization: at some point, the designer faces diminishing returns on the complications required for increased fluid flow to maintain that level of particulate (I’m sure it’s the same, with different criteria, in the chemical industry, where most fluidized beds actually are used), both due to the complications of having more powerful turbopumps for the hydrogen as well as the loss of thermalization of that hydrogen because there’s simply too much propellant to be heated fully – not to mention fuel loss from the particulate fuel being blown out of the nozzle – so the calculations for the bed dynamics assumed minimal full fluidization (i.e. when all the pebbles are moving in the reactor) as the maximum flow rate – somewhere around 70% gas in the fuel volume (that number was never specifically defined that I found in the source documentation, if it was, please let me know), but is dependent on both the pressure drop in the reactor (which is related to the mass of the particle bed) and the gas flow.

Ludewig 1974

However, the designers at this point decided that full fluidization wasn’t actually necessary – and in fact was detrimental – to this particular NTR design. Because of the dynamics of the design, the first particles to be fluidized were on the inner surface of the fuel bed, and as the fluidization percentage increased, the pebbles further toward the outer circumference became fluidized. Because the temperature difference between the fuel and the propellant is greater as the propellant is being injected through the frit and into the fuel body, more heat is carried away by the propellant per unit mass, and as the propellant warms up, thermal transfer becomes less efficient (the temperature difference between two different objects is one of the major variables in how much energy is transferred for a given surface area), and fluidization increases that efficiency between a solid and a fluid.

Because of this, the engineers re-thought what “minimal fluidization” actually meant. If the bed could be fluidized enough to maximize the benefit of that dynamic, while at a minimum level of fluidization to minimize the volume the pebblebed actually took up in the reactor, there would be a few key benefits:

  1. The fueled volume of the reactor could be smaller, meaning that the nozzle could be wider, so they could have lower chamber pressure and also more surface area for active cooling of the nozzle
  2. The amount of propellant flow could be lower, meaning that turbopump assemblies could be smaller and lighter weight
  3. The frit could be made less robustly, saving on weight and simplifying the challenges of the bearings for the frit assembly
  4. The nozzle, frit, and motor/drive assembly for the frit are all net neutron poisons in the RBR, meaning that minimizing any of these structures’ overall mass improves the neutron economy in the reactor, leading to either a lower mass reactor or a lower U mass fraction in the fuel (as we discussed in the 233U vs. 235U design trade-off)

After going through the various options, the designers decided to go with a partially fluidized bed. At this point in the design evolution, they decided on having about 50% of the bed by mass being fluidized, with the rest being settled (there’s a transition point in the fuel body where partial fluidization is occurring, and they discuss the challenges of modeling that portion in terms of the dynamics of the system briefly). This maximizes the benefit at the circumference, where the thermal difference (and therefore the thermal exchange between the fuel and the propellant) is most efficient, while also thermalizing the propellant as much as possible as the temperature difference decreases from the propellant becoming increasingly hotter. They still managed to reach an impressive 2400 K propellant cavity temperature with this reactor, which makes it one of the hottest (and therefore highest isp) solid core NTR designs proposed at that time.

This has various implications for the reactor, including the density of the fissile component of the fuel (as well as the other solid components that make up the pebbles), the void fraction of the reactor (what part of the reactor is made up of something other than fuel, in this particular instance hydrogen within the fuel), and other components, requiring a reworking of the nuclear modeling for the reactor.

An interesting thing to me in the Annual Progress Report (linked below) is the description of how this new critical configuration was modeled; while this is reasonably common knowledge in nuclear engineers from the days before computational modeling (and even to the present day), I’d never heard someone explain it in the literature before.

Basically, they made a bunch of extremely simplified (in both number of dimensions and fidelity) one-dimensional models of various points in the reactor. They then assumed that they could rotate these around that elevation to make something like an MRI slice of the nuclear behavior in the reactor. Then, they moved far enough away that it was different enough (say, where the frit turns in to the middle of the reactor to hold the fuel, or the nozzle starts, or even the center of the fuel compared to the edge) that the dynamics would change, and did the same sort of one-dimensional model; they would end up doing this 18 times. Then, sort of like an MRI in reverse, they took these models, called “few-group” models, and combined them into a larger group – called a “macro-group” – for calculations that were able to handle the interactions between these different few-group simulations to build up a two-dimensional model of the reactor’s nuclear structure and determine the critical configuration of the reactor. They added a few other ways to subdivide the reactor for modeling, for instance they split the neutron spectrum calculations into fast and thermal, but this is the general shape of how nuclear modeling is done.

Ok, let’s get back to the RBR…

Experimental testing using the rotating pebblebed simulator continued through this fiscal year, with some modifications. A new, seamless frit structure was procured to eliminate some experimental uncertainty, the pressure measuring equipment was used to test more areas of the pressure drop across the system, and a challenge for the experimental team – finding 100 micrometer copper spheres that were regularly enough shaped to provide a useful analogue to the UC-ZrC fuel (Cu specific gravity 8.9, UC-ZrC specific gravity ~6.5) were finally able to be procured.

Additionally, while thermal transfer experiments had been done with the 1-gee small test apparatus which preceded the larger centrifugal setup (with variable gee forces available), the changes were too great to allow for accurate predictions on thermal transfer behavior. Therefore, thermal transfer experiments began to be examined on the new test rig – another expansion of the capabilities of the new system, which was now being used rigorously since its completing and calibration testing of the previous year. While they weren’t conducted that year, setting up an experimental program requires careful analysis of what the test rig is capable of, and how good data accuracy can be achieved given the experimental limitations of the design.

The major achievement for the year’s ex[experimentation was a refining of the relationship between particle size, centrifugal force, and pressure drop of the propellant from the turbopump to the frit inlet to the central cavity, most especially from the frit to the inner cavity through the fuel body, on a wide range of particle sizes, flow rates, and bed fluidization levels, which would be key as the design for the RBR evolved.

The New NTR Design: Mid-Thrust, Small RBR

So, given the priorities at both the AEC and NASA, it was decided that it was best to focus primarily on a given thrust, and try and optimize thrust-to-weight ratios for the reactor around that thrust level, in part because the outlet temperature of the reactor – and therefore the specific impulse – was fixed by the engineering decisions made in regards to the rest of the reactor design. In this case, the target thrust was was 90 kN (20,230 lbf), or about 120% of a Pewee-class engine.

This, of course, constrained the reactor design, which at this point in any reactor’s development is a good thing. Every general concept has a huge variety of options to play with: fuel type (oxide, carbide, nitride, metal, CERMET, etc), fissile component (233U and 235U being the big ones, but 242mAm, 241Cf, and other more exotic options exist), thrust level, physical dimensions, fuel size in the case of a PBR, and more all can be played with to a huge degree, so having a fixed target to work towards in one metric allows a reference point that the rest of the reactor can work around.

Also, having an optimization point to work from is important, in this case thrust-to-weight ratio (T/W). Other options, such as specific impulse, for a target to maximize would lead to a very different reactor design, but at the time T/W was considered the most valuable consideration since one way or another the specific impulse would still be higher than the prismatic core NTRs currently under development as part of the NERVA program (being led by Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and NASA, undergoing regular hot fire testing at the Jackass Flats, NV facility). Those engines, while promising, were limited by poor T/W ratios, so at the time a major goal for NTR improvement was to increase the T/W ratio of whatever came after – which might have been the RBR, if everything went smoothly.

One of the characteristics that has the biggest impact on the T/W ratio in the RBR is the nozzle throat diameter. The smaller the diameter, the higher the chamber pressure, which reduces the T/W ratio while increasing the amount of volume the fuel body can occupy given the same reactor dimensions – meaning that smaller fuel particles could be used, since there’s less chance that they would be lost out of the narrower nozzle throat. However, by increasing the nozzle throat diameter, the T/W ratio improved (up to a point), and the chamber pressure could be decreased, but at the cost of a larger particle size; this increases the thermal stresses in the fuel particles, and makes it more likely that some of them would fail – not as catastrophic as on a prismatic fueled reactor by any means, but still something to be avoided at all costs. Clearly a compromise would need to be reached.

Here are some tables looking at the design options leading up to the 90 kN engine configuration with both the 233U and 235U fueled versions of the RBR:

After analyzing the various options, a number of lessons were learned:

  1. It was preferable to work from a fixed design point (the 90 kN thrust level), because while the reactor design was flexible, operating near an optimized power level was more workable from a reactor physics and thermal engineering point of view
  2. The main stress points on the design were reflector weight (one of the biggest mass components in the system), throat diameter (from both a mass and active cooling point of view as well as fuel containment), and particle size (from a thermal stress and heat transfer point of view)
  3. On these lower-trust engines, 233U was looking far better than 235U for the fissile component, with a T/W ratio (without radiation shielding) of 65.7 N/kg compared to 33.3 N/kg respectively
    1. As reactor size increased, this difference reduced significantly, but with a constrained thrust level – and therefore reactor power – the difference was quite significant.

The End of the Line: RBR Winds Down

1973 was a bad year in the astronuclear engineering community. The flagship program, NERVA, which was approaching flight ready status with preparations for the XE-PRIME test, the successful testing of the flexible, (relatively) inexpensive Nuclear Furnace about to occur to speed not only prismatic fuel element development but also a variety of other reactor architectures (such as the nuclear lightbulb we began looking at last time), and the establishment of a robust hot fire testing structure at Jackass Flats, was fighting for its’ life – and its’ funding – in the halls of Congress. The national attention, after the success of Apollo 11, was turning away from space, and the missions that made NTR technologically relevant – and a good investment – were disappearing from the mission planners’ “to do” lists, and migrating to “if we only had the money” ideas. The Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor would be one of those casualties, and wouldn’t even last through the 1971/72 fiscal year.

This doesn’t mean that more work wasn’t done at Brookhaven, far from it! Both analytical and experimental work would continue on the design, with the new focus on the 90 kN thrust level, T/W optimized design discussed above making the effort more focused on the end goal.

Multi-program computational architecture used in 1972/73 for RBR, Hoffman 1973

On the analytical side, many of the components had reasonably good analytical models independently, but they weren’t well integrated. Additionally, new and improved analytical models for things like the turbopump system, system mass, temp and pressure drop in the reactor, and more were developed over the last year, and these were integrated into a unified modeling structure, involving multiple stacked models. For more information, check out the 1971-72 progress report linked in the references section.

The system developed was on the verge of being able to do dynamics modeling of the proposed reactor designs, and plans were laid out for what this proposed dynamic model system would look like, but sadly by the time this idea was mature enough to implement, funding had run out.

On the experimental side, further refinement of the test apparatus was completed. Most importantly, because of the new design requirements, and the limitations of the experiments that had been conducted so far, the test-bed’s nitrogen supply system had to be modified to handle higher gas throughput to handle a much thicker fuel bed than had been experimentally tested. Because of the limited information about multi-gee centrifugal force behavior in a pebblebed, the current experimental data could only be used to inform the experimental course needed for a much thicker fuel bed, as was required by the new design.

Additionally, as was discussed from the previous year, thermal transfer testing in the multi-gee environment was necessary to properly evaluate thermal transfer in this novel reactor configuration, but the traditional methods of thermal transfer simply weren’t an option. Normally, the procedure would be to subject the bed to alternating temperatures of gas: cold gas would be used to chill the pebbles to gas-ambient temperatures, then hot gas would be used on the chilled pebbles until they achieved thermal equilibrium at the new temperature, and then cold gas would be used instead, etc. The temperature of the exit gas, pebbles, and amount of gas (and time) needed to reach equilibrium states would be analyzed, allowing for accurate heat transfer coefficients at a variety of pebble sizes, centrifugal forces, propellant flow rates, etc. would be able to be obtained, but at the same time this is a very energy-intensive process.

An alternative was proposed, which would basically split the reactor’s propellant inlet into two halves, one hot and one cold. Stationary thermocouples placed through the central void in the centrifuge would record variations in the propellant at various points, and the gradient as the pebbles moved from hot to cold gas and back could get good quality data at a much lower energy cost – at the cost of data fidelity reducing in proportion to bed thickness. However, for a cash-strapped program, this was enough to get the data necessary to proceed with the 90 kN design that the RBR program was focused on.

Looking forward, while the team knew that this was the end of the line as far as current funding was concerned, they looked to how their data could be applied most effectively. The dynamics models were ready to be developed on the analytical side, and thermal cycling capability in the centrifugal test-bed would prepare the design for fission-powered testing. The plan was to address the acknowledged limitations with the largely theoretical dynamic model with hot-fired experimental data, which could be used to refine the analytical capabilities: the more the system was constrained, and the more experimental data that was collected, the less variability the analytical methods had to account for.

NASA had proposed a cavity reactor test-bed, which would serve primarily to test the open and closed cycle gas core NTRs also under development at the time, which could theoretically be used to test the RBR as well in a hot-fore configuration due to its unique gas injection system. Sadly, this test-bed never came to be (it was canceled along with most other astronuclear programs), so the faint hope for fission-powered RBR testing in an existing facility died as well.

The Last Gasp for the RBR

The final paper that I was able to find on the Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor was by Ludewig, Manning, and Raseman of Brookhaven in the Journal of Spacecraft, Vol 11, No 2, in 1974. The work leading up to the Brookhaven program, as well as the Brookhaven program itself, was summarized, and new ideas were thrown out as possibilities as well. It’s evident reading the paper that they still saw the promise in the RBR, and were looking to continue to develop the project under different funding structures.

Other than a brief mention of the possibility of continuous refueling, though, the system largely sits where it was in the middle of 1973, and from what I’ve seen no funding was forthcoming.

While this was undoubtedly a disappointing outcome, as virtually every astronuclear program in history has faced, and the RBR never revived, the concept of a pebblebed NTR would gain new and better-funded interest in the decades to come.

This program, which has its own complex history, will be the subject for our next blog post: Project Timberwind and the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion program.

Conclusion

While the RBR was no more, the idea of a pebblebed NTR would live on, as I mentioned above. With a new, physically demanding job, finishing up moving, and the impacts of everything going on in the world right now, I’m not sure exactly when the next blog post is going to come out, but I have already started it, and it should hopefully be coming in relatively short order! After covering Timberwind, we’ll look at MITEE (the whole reason I’m going down this pebblebed rabbit hole, not that the digging hasn’t been fascinating!), before returning to the closed cycle gas core NTR series (which is already over 50 pages long!).

As ever, I’d like to thank my Patrons on Patreon (www.patreon.com/beyondnerva), especially in these incredibly financially difficult times. I definitely would have far more motivation challenges now than I would have without their support! They get early access to blog posts, 3d modeling work that I’m still moving forward on for an eventual YouTube channel, exclusive content, and more. If you’re financially able, consider becoming a Patron!

You can also follow me at https://twitter.com/BeyondNerva for more regular updates!

References

Rotating Fluidized Bed Reactor

Hendrie et al, “ROTATING FLUIDIZED BED REACTOR FOR SPACE NUCLEAR PROPULSION Annual Report: Design Studies and Experimental Results, June, 1970- June, 1971,” Brookhaven NL, August 1971 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19720017961.pdf

Hendrie et al, “ROTATING FLUIDIZED BED REACTOR FOR SPACE NUCLEAR PROPULSION Annual Report: Design Studies and Experimental Results, June 1971 – June 1972,” Brookhaven NL, Sept. 1972 https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/04/061/4061469.pdf

Hoffman et al, “ROTATING FLUIDIZED BED REACTOR FOR SPACE NUCLEAR PROPULSION Annual Report: Design Studies and Experimental Results, July 1972 – January 1973,” Brookhaven NL, Sept 1973 https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/05/125/5125213.pdf

Cavity Test Reactor

Whitmarsh, Jr, C. “PRELIMINARY NEUTRONIC ANALYSIS OF A CAVITY TEST REACTOR,” NASA Lewis Research Center 1973 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19730009949.pdf

Whitmarsh, Jr, C. “NUCLEAR CHARACTERISTICS OF A FISSIONING URANIUM PLASMA TEST REACTOR WITH LIGHT -WATER COOLING,” NASA Lewis Research Center 1973 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19730019930.pdf

Categories
Development and Testing Forgotten Reactors Nuclear Thermal Systems

The Bubbler: Liquid NTRs Without Barriers

Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA! Today, we continue our look at liquid fueled nuclear thermal rockets (LNTRs), with a deep dive into the first of the two main types: what I call the bubbler LNTR.

This potentially attractive form of advanced NTR is a design that has been largely forgotten in the history of NTR designs outside some minor footnotes. Because of this, I felt that it was a great subject for the blog! All of the sources that I can find on the designs are linked at the end of this post, including a couple that are not available digitally, so if you’re interested in a more technical analysis of the concept please check that out!

What is a Bubbler LNTR?

Every NTR has to heat the (usually hydrogen) propellant in some way, which is usually done through (usually thermal) radiation from the fuel’s surface into the propellant.

Bubbles passing through fuel, Nelson 1963

This design, though, changes that paradigm by passing the propellant through the liquid fuel (usually a mix of uranium carbide (UC2) and some other carbide – either zirconium (ZrC) or niobium (NbC). This is done by having a porous outer wall which the propellant is injected through. This is known as a “folded flow propellant path,” and is seen in other NTRs as well, notably the Dumbo reactor from the early days of Project Rover.

In order to keep the fuel in place, each fuel element is spun at a high enough rate to keep the fuel in place using centrifugal force. The number of fuel elements is one of the design choices that varies from design to design, and the overall diameter, as well as the thickness of the fuel layer, is a matter of some design flexibility as well, but on average the individual fuel elements range from about 2 to about 6 inches in diameter, with the ratio between the thickness of the fuel layer and the thickness of the central void where the now-hot propellant passes through to the nozzle being roughly 1:1.

This was the first type of LNTR to be proposed, and was a subject of study for over a decade, but seems to have fallen out of favor with NTR designers in the late 1960s/early 1970s due to fuel/propellant interaction complications and engineering challenges related to the physical structures for injecting the propellant (more on that later).

Let’s look at the history of bubbler LNTR in more depth, and see how the proposals have evolved over time.

History of the Bubbler-type LNTR: The First of its Kind

McCarthy, 1954

Image from Barrett, Jr 1964

The first proposal for a liquid fueled NTR was in 1954, by J McCarthy in “Nuclear Reactors for Rockets” [ed. Note I have been unable to locate this report in digital form, if anyone is able to help me get ahold of it I would greatly appreciate your assistance; the following summary is based on references to this study in later works]: This design was the first to suggest the centrifugal containment of liquid fuel, and was also the first of the bubbler designs. It used a single fuel element as the entire reactor, with a large central void in the center of the fuel body as the propellant flow channel once it left the fuel itself.

This design was fundamentally limited by three factors:

  1. A torus is a terrible neutronic structure, and while the hydrogen propellant in the central void of the fuel would provide some neutron moderation, McCarthy found upon running the MCNP calculations that the difference was so negligible that it could be assumed to be a vacuum; and
  2. Only a certain amount of heat could be removed from the fuel by the propellant based on assumed fuel element geometry, and that cooling the reactor could pose a major challenge at higher reactor powers; and
  3. The behavior of the hydrogen as it passes through, and also out of, the liquid fuel was not well understood in practice, and
  4. the vapor pressure of the fuel’s constituent components could lead to fuel being absorbed in the gas as vapor in both the bubbles and exhausting propellant flow, causing both a loss of specific impulse and fissile fuel. This process is called “entrainment,” and is a (if not the) major issue for this type of reactor.

However, despite these problems this design jump started the design of LNTRs, defined the beginnings of the design envelope for this type of engine, and introduced the concept of the bubbler LNTR for the first time.

The Princeton LNTR, 1963

Princeton LNTR, Nelson et al 1963

The next major design step was undertaken by Nelson et al at Princeton’s Dept. of Aeronautical Engineering in 1963, under contract by NASA. This was a far more in-depth study than the proposal by McCarthy, and looked to address many of the challenges that the original design faced.

Perhaps the most notable change was the shift from a single large fuel element to multiple smaller ones, arranged in a hexagonal matrix for maximum fuel element packing. This does a couple of things:

  1. It homogenizes the reactor more. While heterogeneous (mixed-region) reactors work well, for a variety of reasons it’s beneficial to have a more consistent distribution of materials through the core – mainly for neutronic properties and ease of modeling (this is 1963, MCNP in a heterogeneous core using a slide rule sounds… agonizing).
  2. Given a materially limited, fixed specific impulse (see the Fuel Materials Constraints section for more in-depth discussion on this) NTR, the thrust is proportional to the total surface area of the fuel/propellant interface. By using multiple fuel elements (which they call vortices), the total available surface area increases in the same volume, increasing the thrust without compromising isp (this also implies a greater specific power, another good thing in an NTR).

This was a thermal (0.37 eV) neutron spectrum reactor, fueled by a mix of UC2 and ZrC, varying the dilution level for greater moderation and increased thermal limits. It was surrounded by a 21 cm reflector of beryllium (a “standard reflector”).

From there, the basic geometry of the reactor, from the number of fuel elements and their fueled thickness, to the core diameter and volume (the length was at a fixed ratio compared to the radius), to the shape, velocity, and number of bubbles (as well as vapor entrainment losses of the fuel material) were studied.

This was a fairly limited study, despite its length, due to the limitations of the resources available. Transients and reactor kinetics were specifically excluded from this study, the hydrogen was again replaced with vacuum in calculations, the temperature was assumed to be higher than possible due to vapor entrainment problems (4300 K, instead of 3600 K at 10 atm, 3800 at 30 atm) the chamber pressure was limited to only >1 atm, and age-diffusion theory calculations only give results within an order of magnitude… but it’s still one of the most thorough study of LNTRs I’ve found, and the most researched bubbler architecture. They pointed out the potential benefits of the use of 233U, or a larger but neutronically equivalent volume of 232Th (turning the reactor into a thermal breeder), in order to improve the overall vaporization characteristics, but this was not included in the study.

Barrett LNTR, 1964

The next year, W. Louis Barrett presented a variation of the Princeton LNTR at the AIAA Conference. The main distinction between the two designs was the addition of zirconium hydride in the areas between the fuel elements and the outer reflector, and presented the first results from a study being conducted on the bubble behavior in the fuel (being conducted at Princeton at the time). The UC2/ZrC fuel was the same, as were the number of fuel elements and reactor dimensions. The author concluded that a specific impulse of 1500-1550 seconds was possible, with a T/W of 1 at 100 atm, with thrust not being limited by heat transfer but by available flow area.

Below are the two relevant graphs from his findings: the first is the point at which the fissile fuel itself would end up becoming captured by the passing gas, and the second looks at the maximum specific impulse any particular fissile fuel could theoretically offer. The image for the McCarthy reactor above was from the same paper.

Final Work: Bubbles are Annoying

For this reactor to work, the heat must be adequately transferred from the fuel element to the propellant as it bubbles through the fuel mass radially. The amount of heat that needs to be removed, and the time and distance that it can be removed in, is a function of both the fuel and the bubbles of H2.

Sadly, the most comprehensive study of this has never been digitized, but for anyone who’s able to get documents digitized at Princeton University and would like to help make the mechanics of bubbler-type LNTRs more accessible, here’s the study: Liebherr, J.F., Williams, P.M., and Grey, J., “Bubble Motion Studies for the Liquid Core Nuclear Rocket,” Princeton University Aeronautical Engineering Report No. 673, December 1963. Apparently you can check it out after you can convince the librarians to excavate it, based on their website: https://catalog.princeton.edu/catalog/1534764.

McGuirk 1972

Here, a clear plastic housing was constructed which consisted of two main layers: an outer, solid casing which formed the outer body of the apparatus, and a perforated, inner cylinder, which simulated the fuel element canister. Water was used as the fuel element analog, and the entire apparatus was spun along its long axis to apply centrifugal acceleration to the water at various rotation rates. Pressurized air (again, at various pressures) was used in place of the hydrogen coolant. Stroboscopic photography was used to document bubble size, shape, and behavior, and these behaviors were then used to calculate the potential thermal exchange, vapor entrainment, and other characteristics of the behavior of this system.

One significant finding, based on Gray’s reporting, though, is that there’s a complex relationship between the dimensions, shape, velocity, and transverse momentum of the bubbles and their thermal uptake capacity, as well as their vapor entrainment of fuel element components. However, without being able to read this work, I can only hope someone can make this work accessible to the world at large (and if you’ve got technical knowledge and interest in the subject, and feel like writing about it, let me know: I’m more than happy to have you write a blog post on here on this INSANELY complex topic).

The last reference to a bubbler LNTR I can find is from AIAA’s Engineering Notes from May 1972 by McGuirk and Park, “Propellant Flow Rate through Simulated Liquid-Core Nuclear Rocket Fuel Bed.” This paper brings up a fundamental problem that heretofore had not been addressed in the literature on bubblers, and quite possibly spelled their death knell.

Every study until this point greatly simplified, or ignored, two phase flow thermodynamic interactions. If you’re familiar with thermodynamics, this is… kinda astounding, to be honest. It also leads me to a diversion that could be far longer than the two pages that this report covers, but I won’t indulge myself. In short, two phase flow is used to model the thermal transfer, hydro/gasdynamic properties, and other interactions between (in this case) a liquid and a gas, or a melting or boiling liquid going through a phase change.

This is… a problem, to say the least. Based on the simplified modeling, the fundamental thermal limitation for this sort of reactor was vapor entrainment of the fuel matrix, reducing the specific impulse and changing he proportions of elements in the matrix, causing potential phase change and neutronics complications.

This remains a problem, but is unfortunately not the main thermal limitation of this reactor, rather it was discovered that the amount of thermal rejection available through the bubbling of the propellant through the fuel is not nearly as high as was expected at lower propellant flow rates, and higher flow rates led to splattering of the bubbles bursting, as well as unstable flow in the system. We’ll look at the consequences of this later, but needless to say this was a major hiccup in the development of the bubbler type LNTR.

While there may be further experimentation on the bubbler type LNTR, this paper came out shortly before the cancellation of the vast majority of astronuclear funding in the US, and when research was restarted it appears that the focus had shifted to radiator-type LNTRs, so let’s move on to looking at them.

Bubbler-Specific Constraints

Fuel Element Thickness and Heat Transfer

One of the biggest considerations in a bubbler LNTR is the thickness of the fuel within each fuel canister. The fundamental trade-off is one of mechanical vs thermodynamic requirements: the smaller the internal radius at the fuel element’s interior surface, the higher the angular velocity has to be to maintain sufficient centrifugal force to contain the fuel, btu also the greater time and distance the bubbles are able to collect heat from the fuel.

In the Princeton study, the total volume within the fuel canister was roughly equally divided between fuel and propellant to achieve a comfortable trade-off between fuel mass, reactor volume, and thermal uptake in the propellant. In this case, they included the volume of the propellant as it passed through the fuel to be part of the central annulus’ volume, which eases the neutronic calculations, but also induces a complication in the actual diameter of the central void: as propellant flow increases, the void diameter decreases, requiring more angular momentum to maintain sufficient centrifugal force.

A thinner fuel element, on the other hand, runs into the challenge of requiring a greater volume of propellant to pass through it to remove the same amount of energy, but an overall lower temperature of the propellant that is used. This, in turn, reduces the propellant’s final velocity, resulting in lower specific impulse but higher thrust. However, another problem is that the fluid mixture of the propellant/fuel can only contain so much gas before major problems develop in the behavior of the mixture. In an unpublished memorandum from 1963 (“Some Considerations on the Liquid Core Reactor Concept,” Mar 23), Bussard speculated that the maximum ratio of gas to fuel would be around 0.3 to 0.4; at this point the walls of the bubbles are likely to merge, converting the fuel into a very liquidy droplet core reactor (a concept that we’ll discuss in a future blog post), as well as leading to excess splattering of the fuel into the central void of the fuel element. While some sort of recapture system may be possible to prevent fuel loss, in a classic bubbler LNTR this is an unacceptable situation, and therefore this type of limitation (which may or may not actually be 0.3-0.4, something for future research to examine) intrinsically ties fuel element thickness to maximum propellant flow rates based on volume.

There are some additional limits here, as well, but we’ll discuss those in the next section. While the propellant will gain some additional power through its passage out of the fuel element and toward the nozzle, as in the radiator type LNTR, this will not be as significant as the propellant is entering along the entire length fuel element.

Bubble Dynamics

This is probably the single largest problem that a bubbler faces: the behavior of the bubbles themselves. As this is the primary means of cooling the fuel, as well as thermalizing the propellant, the behavior of these bubbles, and the ability of the propellant stream to control the entirety of the heat generated in the fuel, is of absolutely critical importance. We looked briefly in the last section at the impacts of the thickness of the fuel, but what occurs within that distance is a far more complex topic than it may appear at first glance. With advances in two phase flow modeling (which I’m unable to accurately assess), this problem may not be nearly as daunting as it was when this reactor was being researched, but in all likelihood this set of challenges is perhaps the single largest reason that the bubbler LNTR disappeared from the design literature when it did.

The other effect that the bubbles have on the fuel is that they are the main source of vapor entrainment of fuel element materials in a bubbler, since they are the liquid/gas interface that occurs for the longest, and have the largest relative surface area. We aren’t going to discuss this particular dynamic to any great degree, but the behavior of this interaction compared to inner surface interactions will potentially be significant, both due to the fact that these bubbles are the longest-lived liquid/gas interaction by surface area and are completely encircled by the fuel itself while undergoing heating (and therefore expansion, exacerbated by the decreasing pressure from the centrifugal acceleration gradient). One final note on this behavior: it may be possible that the bubbles may become saturated with vapor during their thermalization, preventing uptake of more material while also increasing the thermal uptake of energy from the fuel (metal vapors were suggested by Soviet NTR designers, including Li and NaK, to deal with the thermal transparency of H2 in advanced NTR designs).

The behavior of the bubbles depends on a number of characteristics:

  1. Size: The smaller the bubble, the greater the surface area to volume ratio, increasing the amount of heat the can be absorbed in a given time relative to the volume, but also the less thermal energy that can be transported by each bubble. The size of the bubbles will increase as they move through the fuel element, gaining energy though heat, and therefore expanding and becoming less dense.
  2. Shape: Partially a function of size, shape can have several impacts on the behavior and usefulness of the bubbles. Only the smallest bubbles (how “small” depends on the fluids under consideration) can retain a spherical shape. The other two main shape classifications of bubbles in the LNTR literature are oblate spheroid and spherical cap. In practice, the higher propellant flow rates result in the largest, spherical cap-type bubbles in the fuel, which complicate both thermal transfer and motion modeling. One consequence of this is that the bubbles tend to have a high Reynolds number, leading to more turbulent behavior as they move through the fuel mass. Most standard two-phase modeling equations at the time had a difficult time adequately predicting the behavior of these sorts of bubbles. Another important consideration is that the bubbles will change shape to a certain degree as they pass through the fuel element, due to the higher temperature and lower centrifugal force being experienced on them as they move into the central void of the fuel element.
  3. Velocity: A function of centrifugal force, viscosity of the fuel, initial injection pressure of the propellant, density of the constituent gas/vapor mix, and other factors, the velocity of a bubble through the fuel element determines how much heat – and vapor – can be absorbed by a bubble of a given size and shape. An increase in velocity also changes the bubble shape, for instance from an oblate spheroid to a spherical cap. One thing to note is that the bubbles don’t move directly along the radius of the fuel element, both oscillation laterally and radially occur as the shape deforms and as centrifugal, convective, and other forces interact with the bubble; whether this effect is significant enough to change the necessary modeling of the system will depend on a number of factors including fuel element thickness, convective and Coriolis behavior in the fuel mass, bubble Reynolds number, and angular velocity of the fuel element,
  4. Distribution: One concern in a bubbler LNTR is ensuring that the bubbles passing through the fuel mass don’t combine into larger conglomerations, or that the density of bubbles results in a lack of overall cohesion in the fuel mass. This means that the distribution system for the bobbles must balance propellant flow rate, bubble size, velocity, and shape, non-vertical behavior of the bubbles, and the overall gas fraction of the fuel element based on the fuel element design being used.

As mentioned previously, the final paper on the bubbler I was able to find looked at the challenges of bubble dynamics in a simulated LNTR fuel element; in this case using water and compressed air. Several compromises had to be made, leading to unpredictable behavior of the propellant stream and the simulated fuel behavior, which could be due to the challenges of using water to simulate ZrC/UC2, including insufficient propellant pressure, bubble behavior irregularities, and other problems. Perhaps the most major challenge faced in this study is that there were three distinct behavioral regimes in the two phase system: orderly (low prop pressure), disordered (medium prop pressure), and violent (high prop pressure), each of which was a function of the relationship between propellant flow and centrifugal force being applied. As suspected, having too high a void fraction within the fuel mass led to splattering, and therefore fuel mass loss rates that were unacceptably high, but the point that this violent disorder occurred was low enough that it was not assured that the propellant might not be able to completely remove all the thermal energy from the fuel element itself. If the energy level of each fuel element is reduced (by reducing the fissile component of the fuel while maintaining a critical mass, for instance), this can be compensated for, but only by losing power density and engine performance. The alternative, increasing the centrifugal force on the system, leads to greater material and mechanical challenges for the system.

Adequately modeling these characteristics was a major challenge at the time these studies were being conducted, and the number of unique circumstances involved in this type of reactor makes realistic modeling remain non-trivial; advances in both computational and modeling techniques make this set of challenges more accessible than in the 1960s and 70s, though, which may make this sort of LNTR more feasible than it once was, and restarting interest in this unique architecture.

These constraints define many things in a bubbler LNTR, as they form the single largest thermodynamic constraint on the engine. Increasing centrifugal force increases the stringency for both the fuel element canister (with incorporated propellant distribution system), mechanical systems to maintain angular velocity for fuel containment, maximum thrust and isp for a given design, and other considerations.

Suffice to say, until the bubble behavior, and its interactions with the fuel mass, can be adequately modeled and balanced, the bubbler LNTR would require significant basic empirical testing to be able to be developed, and this limitation was probably a significant contributor to the reason that it hasn’t been re-examined since the early-to-mid 1970s.

The “Restart Problem”

The last major issue in a bubbler-type design is the “restart problem”: when the reactor is powered down, there will be a period of time when the fuel is still molten, requiring centrifugal containment, but the reactor being powered down allows for the fuel to be pressed into the pores of the fuel element canister, blocking the propellant passages.

One potential solution for the single fuel element design was proposed by L. Crocco, who suggested that the fuel material is used for the bubbling structure itself. When powered up, the fuel would be completely solid, and would radiate heat in all directions until the fuel becomes molten [ed. Note: according to Crocco, this would occur from the inner surface to the outer one, but I can’t find backup for that assumption of edge power peaking behavior, or how it would translate to a multi-fuel-element design], and propellant would be able to pass through the inner layers of the fuel element once the liquid/solid interface reached the pre-drilled propellant channels in the fuel element.

Another would be to continue to pass the hydrogen propellant through the fuel element until the pressure to continue pumping the H2 reaches a certain threshold pressure, then use a relief valve to vent the system elsewhere while continuing to reject the final waste heat until a suitable wall temperature has been reached. This is going to both make the fuel element less dense, and also result in a lower fuel element density near the wall than at the inner surface of the fuel element. While this could maybe [ed. Note: speculation on my part] make it so that the fuel is more likely to melt from the inner surface to the outer one, the trapped H2 may also be just enough to cause power peaking around the bubbles, allow chemical reactions to occur during startup with unknown consequences, and other complications that I couldn’t even begin to guess at – but the tubes would be kept clear.

Wall Material Constraints

Other than the “restart problem,” additional constraints apply to the wall material. It needs to be able to handle the rotational stresses of the spinning fuel element, be permeable to the propellant, and able to withstand rather extreme thermal gradients: on one side, gaseous hydrogen at near-cryogenic temperatures (the propellant would have already absorbed some heat from the reactor body) to about 6000 K on the inside, where it comes in contact with the molten fuel.

Also, the bearings holding the fuel element will need to be designed with care. Not only do they need to handle the rather large amount of thermal expansion that will occur in all directions during reactor startup, they have to be able to deal with high rotation rates throughout the temperature range.

The Paths Not (Yet?) Taken

Perhaps due to the early time period in which the LNTR was explored, a number of design options don’t seem to have been explored in this sort of reactor.

One option is neutron moderator. Due to the high thermal gradients in this reactor, ZrH and other thermally sensitive moderators could be used to further thermalize the neutron spectrum. While this might not be explicitly required, it may help reduce the fissile requirements of the reactor, and would not be likely to significantly increase reactor mass.

A host of other options are possible as well, if you can think of one, comment below!

Diffuser LNTR

The other option was brought up by Michael Turner at Project Persephone, in regards to the vapor entrainment and restart problem issues: what if you get rid of the holes in the walls of the fuel element, and the bubbles through the fuel element, altogether? As we saw when discussing Project Rover, hydrogen gets through EVERYTHING, especially hot metals. This diffusion process is done through individual molecules, not through bubbles, meaning that the possibility of vapor entrainment is eliminated. The down side is that the propellant mass flow will be extremely reduced, resulting in a higher-isp (due to the ability to increase fuel temp because the vapor losses are minimized), much-lower-thrust reactor than those designed before. As he points out, this may be able to be mixed with bubbles for a high-thrust, lower-isp mode, if “shutters” on the fuel element outer frit were able to be engineered. Another possible requirement would be to reduce the fissile component density of the fuel to match the power output to the hydrogen flow rates, or to create a hybrid diffuser/radiator LNTR to balance the propellant flow and thermal output of the reactor.

I have not been able to calculate if this would be feasible or not, and am reasonably skeptical, but found it an intriguing possibility.

Conclusion

The bubbler liquid nuclear thermal rocket is a fascinating concept which has not been explored nearly as much as many other advanced NTR designs. The advantage of being able to fully thermalize the propellant to the highest fuel element temperature while maintaining cryogenic temperatures outside the fuel element is a rarity in NTR design, and offers many options for structures outside the fuel elements themselves. After over a decade of research at Princeton (and other centers), the basic research on the dynamics of this type of reactor has been established, and with the computational and modeling capabilities that were unavailable at the time of these studies, new and promising versions of this concept may come to light if anyone chooses to study the design.

The problems of vapor entrainment, fissile fuel loss, and restarting the reactor are significant, however, and impact many area of the reactor design which have not been addressed in previous studies. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that this drive may one day indeed make a useful stepping stone from the solid-fueled NTRs of tomorrow to the advanced NTRs of the decades ahead.

References

A Technical Report on the CONCEPTUAL DESIGN – STUDY OF A LIQUID-CORE NUCLEAR ROCKET, Nelson et al 1963 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19650026954.pdf

The Liquid Core Nuclear Rocket, Grey 1965 (pg 92) https://permalink.lanl.gov/object/tr?what=info:lanl-repo/lareport/LA-03229-MS

Specific Impulse of a Liquid Core Nuclear Rocket, Barrett Jr 1963 https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.2141?journalCode=aiaaj

Propellant Flow Rate through Simulated Liquid-Core Nuclear Rocket Fuel Bed, McGuirk and Park 1972 https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.61690?journalCode=jsr

Categories
Development and Testing Forgotten Reactors History Nuclear Thermal Systems

Liquid Fueled NTRs: An Introduction

Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA! Today we continue our look into advanced NTR fuel types, by diving into an extended look at one of the least covered design types in this field: the liquid fueled NTR (LNTR).

This is a complex field, with many challenges unique to the phase state of the fuel, so while I was planning on making this a single-part series, now there’s three posts! This first one is going to discuss LNTRs in general, as well as some common problems and challenges that they face. I’ll include a very brief history of the designs, almost all of them dating from the 1950s and 1960s, which we’ll look at more in depth in the next couple posts.

Unfortunately, a lot of the fundamental problems of an LNTR get deep – fast, for a lot of people, but the fundamental concepts are often not too hard to get in the broad strokes. I’m gonna try my best to explain them the way that I learned them, and if there’s more questions I’ll attempt to point you to the references I’ve used as a layperson, but I honestly believe that this architecture has suffered from a combination of being “not terrible, not great” in terms of engine performance (1300 s isp, 19/1 T/W).

With that, let’s get into liquid fueled NTRs (LNTR), their history, and their design!

Basic Design Options for LNTR

LNTRs are not a very diverse group of reactor concepts, partially due to the nature of the fuel and partially because they haven’t been well-researched overall. All designs I’ve found use centrifugal force to contain molten fuel inside a tube, with the central void in the spinning tube being the outlet point for the propellant. The first design used a single, large fuel mass in a single fuel element, but quickly this was divided into multiple individual fuel elements, which became the norm for LNTR through the latest designs. One consequence of this first design was the calculation of the neutronic moderation capacity of the H2 propellant in this toroidal fuel structure, and the authors of the study determined that it was so close to zero that it was worth it to consider the center of the fuel element to be a vacuum as far as MCNP (the standard neutronic modeling code both at the time, and in updated form now) is concerned. This is something worth noting: any significant neutron moderation for the core must come from the reflectors and moderator either integrated into the fuel structure (complex to do in a liquid in many cases) or the body of the reactor, the propellant flow won’t matter enough to cause a significant decrease in neutron velocities.

They do seem to fall into two broad categories, which I’ll call bubblers and radiators. A bubbler LNTR is one where the fuel is fed from the outside of the fuel element, through the molten fuel, and into the central void of the fuel element; a radiator LNTR passes propellant only through the central void along the long axis of the fuel element.

A bubbler has the advantage that it is able to use an incredible amount of surface area for heat transfer from the fuel to the propellant, with the surface area being inversely proportional to the size of the individual bubbles: smaller bubbles, more surface area, more heat transfer, greater theoretical power density in the active region of the reactor. They also have the advantage of being able to regeneratively cool the entire length of the fuel element’s outside surface as a natural consequence of the way the propellant is fed into the fuel, rather than using specialized regenerative cooling systems in the fuel element canister and reactor body. However, bubblers also have a couple problems: first, the reactor will not be operating continuously, so on shutdown the fuel will solidify, and the bubbling mechnaism will become clogged with frozen nuclear fuel; second, the breaching of the bubbles to the surface can fling molten fuel into the fast-moving propellant stream, causing fuel to be lost; finally, the bubbles increase mixing of the fuel, which is mostly good but can also lead to certain chemical components of the fuel being carried at a greater rate by either vaporizing and being absorbed into the bubbles or becoming entrained in the fuel and outgassing when the bubble breaches the surface. In a way, it’s sort of like boiling pasta sauce: the water boils, and the bubbles mix the sauce while they move up, but some chemical compounds diffuse into the water vapor along the way (which ones depend on what’s in the sauce), and unless there’s a lid on the pot the sauce splatters across the stove, again depending on the other components of the sauce that you’re cooking. (the obvious problem with this metaphor is that, rather than the gaseous component being a part of the initial solution they’re externally introduced)/

Radiators avoid many of the problems of a bubbler, but not all, by treating the fuel almost like a solid mass when its under centrifugal force: the propellant enters from the ship end, through the central void in the fuel element, and then out the aft end to enter the nozzle through an outlet plenum. This makes fuel retention a far simpler problem overall, but fuel will still be lost through vaporization into the propellant stream (more on this later). Another issue with radiators is that without the propellant passing all the way through the fuel from the outer to inner diameter, the thermal emissions will not only go into the propellant, but also into the fuel canister and the reactor itself – more efficiently, actually, since H2 isn’t especially good at capturing heat,k and conduction is more efficient than radiation. This requires regenerative cooling both for the fuel canister and the reactor as well most of the time – which while doable also requires a more complex plumbing setup within the reactor body to maintain material thermal limits on even relatively high temperature materials, much less hydrides (which are good low-volume, low-mass moderators for compact reactors, but incredibly thermally sensitive).

As with any other astronuclear design, there’s a huge design envelope to play with in terms of fuel matrix, even in liquid form (although this is more limited in liquid designs, as we’ll see), as well as moderation level, number and size of fuel elements, moderator type, and other decisions. However, the vast majority of the designs have been iterative concepts on the same basic two ideas, with modifications mostly focusing on fuel element dimensions and number, fuel temperature, propellant flow rates, and individual fuel matrix materials rather than entirely different reactor architectures.

It’s worth noting that there’s another concept, the droplet core NTR, which diffuses the liquid fuel into the propellant, then recaptures it using (usually) centrifugal force before the droplets can leave the nozzle, but this is a concept that will be covered alongside the vapor core reactor, since it’s a hybrid of the two concepts.

A (Very) Brief History of LNTR

Because we’re going to be discussing the design evolution of each type of LNTR in depth in the next two posts, I’m going to be incredibly brief here, giving a general overview of the history of LNTRs. While they’re often mentioned as an intermediate-stage NTR option, there’s been a surprisingly small amount of research done on them, with only two programs of any significant size being conducted in the 1960s.

Single cavity LNTR, Barrett 1963

The first proposal for an LNTR was by J. McCarthy in 1954, in his “Nuclear Reactors for Rockets.” This design used a single, large cylinder, spun around the long axis, as both the reactor and fuel element. The fuel was fed into the void in the cylinder radially, bubbling through the fuel mass, which was made of uranium carbide (UC2). This design, as any first design, had a number of problems, but showed sufficient promise for the design to be re-examined, tweaked, and further researched to make it more practical. While I don’t have access to this paper, a subsequent study of the design placed the maximum specific impulse of this type of NTR in the range of 1200-1400 seconds.

Multiple Fuel Element LNTR, Nelson et al 1963

This led to the first significant research program into the LNTR, carried out by Nelson et al at the Princeton Aeronautical Engineering Laboratory in 1963. This design changed the single large rotating cylinder into several smaller ones, each rotating independently, while keeping the same bubbler architecture of the McCarthy design. This ended up improving the thrust to weight ratio, specific impulse, power density, and other key characteristics. The study also enumerated many of the challenges of both the LNTR in general, and the bubbler in specific, for the first time in a detailed and systematic fashion, but between the lack of information on the materials involved, as well as lack of both computational theory and modeling capability, this study was hampered by many assumptions of convenience. Despite these challenges (which would continue to be addressed over time in smaller studies and other designs), the Princeton LNTR became the benchmark for most LNTR designs of both types that followed. The final design chosen by the team has a vacuum specific impulse of 1250 s, a chamber pressure of 10 atm, and a thrust-to-weight ratio of about 2:1, with a reactor mass of approximately 100 metric tons.

Experimental setup for bublle behavior studies, Barrett Jr 1963

Studies on the technical details of the most challenging aspect of this design, that of bubble motion, would continue at Princeton for a number of years, including experiments to observe the behavior of the particular bubble form needed while under centrifugal acceleration, but challenges in modeling the two-phase (liquid/gas) interactions for thermodynamics and hydrodynamics continued to dog the bubbler design. It is unclear when work stopper on the bubbler design, but the last reference to it that I can find in the literature was from 1972, in a published Engineering Note by W.L. Barrett, who observed that many of the hoped-for goals were overly optimistic, but not by a huge margin. This is during the time that American astronuclear funding was being demolished, and so it would not be surprising that the concept would go into dormancy at that point. Since the restarting of modest astronuclear funding, though, I have been unable to find any reference to a modern bubbler design for either terrestrial or astronuclear use.

Perhaps the main reason for this, which we’ll discuss in the next section, is the inconveniently high vapor pressure of many compounds when operating in the temperature range of an LNTR (about 8800 K). This means that the constituent parts of the fuel body, most notably the uranium, would vaporize into the propellant, not only removing fissile material from the reactor but significantly increasing the mass of the propellant stream, decreasing specific impulse. This, in fact, was the reason the Lewis Research Center focused on a different form of LNTR: the radiator.

Work on the radiator concept began in 1964, and was conducted by a team headed by R Ragsdale, one of the leading NTR designers ar Lewis Research Center. To mitigate the vapor losses of the bubbler type, the question was asked if the propellant actually had to pass through the fuel, or if radiant heating would suffice to thermalize the hydrogen propellant while minimizing the fuel loss from the liquid/gas interaction zone. The answer was a definite yes, although the fuel temperature would have to be higher, and the propellant would likely need to be seeded with some particulate or vapor to increase its thermal absorption. While the overall efficiency would be slightly lower, only a minimal loss of specific impulse would occur, and the thrust to weight ratio could be increased due to higher propellant flow (only so much propellant can pass through a given volume of bubbler-type fuel before unacceptable splattering and other difficulties would arise). This seems to have reached its conclusion in 1967, the last date that any of the papers or reports that I’ve been able to find, with a final compromise design achieving 1400 s of isp, a thrust-to-core-weight-ratio of 4:1, at a core temperature of 5060 K and a reactor pressure of 200 atm (2020 N/m^2).

However, unlike with the bubbler-type LNTR, the radiator would have one last, minor hurrah. In the 1990s, at the beginning of the Space Exploration Initiative, funding became available again for NTR development. A large conference was held in 1991, in Albuquerque, NM, and served as a combination state-of-research and idea presentation for what direction NTR development should go in, as well as determining which concepts should be explored more in depth. As part of this, presentations were made on many different fundamental reactor architectures, and proposals for each type of NTR were made. While the bubbler LNTR was not represented, the radiator was.

LARS cross-section, Powell 1991

This concept, presented by J Powell of Brookhaven National Lab, was the Liquid Annular Reactor System. Compared to the Lewis and Princeton designs, it was a simple reactor, with only seven fuel elements, These would be spaced in a cylinder of Be/H moderator, and would use a twice-through coolant/propellant system: each cylinder was regeneratively cooled from nozzle-end to ship-end, and then the propellant, seeded with W microparticles, would then pass through the central void and out the nozzle. Interestingly enough, this design did not seem to reference the work done by either Princeton or Lewis RC, so there’s a possibility that this was a new design from first principles (other designs presented at the conference made extensive use of legacy data and modeling). This reactor was only conceptually sketched out in the documentation I’ve found, operated at higher temperatures (~6000 K) and lower pressures (~10 atm) than the previous designs to dissociate virtually all of the hydrogen propellant, and no estimated thrust-to-core-weight ratios.

It is unclear how much work was done on this reactor design, and it also remains the last design of any LNTR type that I’ve been able to come across.

Lessons from History: Considerations for LNTR Design

Having looked through the history of LNTR design, it’s worth looking at the lessons that have been learned from these design studies and experiments, as well as the reasons (as far as we can tell) that the designs have evolved the way they did. I just want to say up front that I’m going to be especially careful about when I use my own interpretation, compared to a more qualified someone else’s interpretation, on the constraints and design philosophies here, because this is an area that runs into SO MANY different materials, neutronics, etc constraints that I don’t even know where to begin independently assessing the advantages and disadvantages.

Also, we’re going to be focusing on the lessons that (mostly) apply to both the bubbler and radiator concepts. The following posts, covering the types individually, will address the specific challenges of the two types of LNTR.

Reactor Architecture

The number of fuel elements in an LNTR is a trade-off.

  • Advantages to increasing the number of fuel elements
    • The total surface area available in the fuel/propellant boundary increases, increasing thrust for a given specific impulse
    • The core becomes more homogeneous, making a more idealized neutronic environment (there’s a limit to this, including using interstitial moderating blocks between the fuel elements to further thermalize the reactor, but is a good rule of thumb in most cases)
  • Advantages to minimizing the number of fuel elements
    • The more fuel elements, the more manufacturing headache in making the fuel element canisters and elements themselves, as well as the support equipment for maintaining the rotation of the fuel elements;
      • depending on the complexity of the manufacturing process, this could be a significant hurdle,
      • Electronic motors don’t do well in a high neutron flux, generally requiring driveshaft penetration of at least part of the shadow shield, and turbines to drive the system can be so complex that this is often not considered an option in NTRs (to be fair, it’s rare that they would be needed)
    • The less angular velocity is needed for each fuel element to have the same centrifugal force, due to the larger radius of the fuel element
    • For a variety of reasons the fuel thickness increases to maintain the same critical mass in the reactor – NOTE: this is a benefit for bubbler-type LNTRs, but either neutral or detrimental to streamer-type NTRs.

Another major area of trade-off is propellant mass flow rates. These are fundamentally limited in bubbler LNTRs (something we’ll discuss in the next post), since the bubbles can’t be allowed to combine (or splattering and free droplets will occur), the more bubbles the more the fuel expands (causing headaches for fuel containment), and other issues will present themselves. On the other hand, for radiator – and to a lesser extent the bubbler – type LNTRs, the major limitation is thermal uptake in the propellant (too much mass flow means that the exhaust velocity will drop), which can be somewhat addressed by propellant seeding (something that we’ll discuss in a future webpage).

Fuel Material Constraints

One fundamental question for any LNTR fuel is the maximum theoretical isp of a design, which is a direct function of the critical temperature (when the fuel boils) and at what rate the fuel would vaporize from where the fuel and propellant interact. Pretty much every material has a range of temperature and pressure values where either sublimation (in a solid) or vaporization (in a liquid) will occur, and these characteristics were not well understood at the time.

This is actually one of the major tradeoffs in bubbler vs radiator designs. In a bubbler, you get the propellant and the maximum fuel temperature to be the same, but you also effectively saturate the fuel with any available vapor. The actual vapor concentrations are… well, as far as I can tell, it’s only ever been modeled with 1960s methods, and those interactions are far beyond what I’m either qualified or comfortable to assess, but I suspect that while the problem may be able to be slightly mitigated it won’t be able to be completely avoided.

However, there are general constraints on the fuels available for use, and the choice of every LNTR has been UC2, usually with a majority of the fuel mass being either ZrC or NbC as the dilutent. Other options are available, potentially, such as 184W-U or U-Si metals, but they have not been explored in depth.

Let’s look at the vapor pressure implications more in depth, since it really is the central limitation of LNTR fuels at temperatures that are reasonable for these rockets.

Vapor Pressure Implications

A study on the vapor pressure of uranium was conducted in 1953 by Rauh et al at Argonne NL, which determined an approximate function of the vapor pressure of “pure” uranium metal (some discussion about the inhibiting effects of oxygen, which would not be present in an NTR to any great degree, and also tantalum contamination of the uranium, were needed based on the experimental setup), but this was based on solid U, so was only useful as a starting point.

Barrett Jr 1963

W Louis Barret Jr. conducted another study in 1963 on the implications of fuel composition for a bubbler-type LNTR, and the constraints on the potential specific impulse of this type of reactor. The author examined many different fissile fuel matrices in their paper, including Pu and Th compounds:

From this, and assuming a propellant pressure of 10^3 psi, a maximum theoretical isp was calculated for each type of fuel:

Barrett Jr 1963

Additional studies were carried out on uranium metal and carbon compounds – mostly Zr-C-U, Nb-C-U and 184W-C-U, in various concentrations – in 1965 and 66 by Kaufman and Peters of MANLABS for NASA Lewis Research Center (the center of LNTR development at the time), conducted at 100 atmospheres and ~4500 to ~5500 K. These were low atomic mass fraction systems (0.001-0.02), which may be too low for some designs, but will minimize fissile fuel loss to the propellant flow. Other candidate materials considered were Mo-C-U, B-C-U, and Me-C-U, but not studied at the time.

A summary of the results can be found below:

Perhaps the most significant question is mass loss rates due to hydrogen transport, which can be found in this table:

Kaufman, 1966

These values offer a good starting point for those that want to explore the maximum operating temperature of this type of reactor, but additional options may exist. For instance, a high vapor pressure, high boiling point, low neutron absorption metal which will mix minimally with the uranium-bearing fuel could be used as a liquid fuel clad layer, either in a persistent form (meant to survive the lifetime of the fuel element) or as a sacrificial vaporization layer similar to how ablative coatings are used in some rocket nozzles (one note here: this will increase the atomic mass of the propellant stream, decreasing the specific impulse of such a design). However, other than the use of ZrC in the Princeton design study in the inner region of that fuel element design (which was also considered a sacrificial component of the fuel), I haven’t seen anyone discuss this concept in depth in the literature.

A good place to start investigating this concept, however, would be with a study done by Charles Masser in 1967 entitled “Vapor-Pressure Data Extrapolated to 1000 Atmospheres of 13 Refractory Materials with Low Thermal Absorption Cross Sections.” While this was focused on the seeding of propellant with microparticles to increase thermal absorption in colder H2, the vapor-pressure information can provide a good jumping off point for anyone interested in investigating this subject further. The paper can be found here: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19670030361.pdf.

Author speculation concept:

Another, far more speculative option is available if the LNTR can be designed as a thermal breeder, and dealing with certain challenges in fuel worth fluctuations (and other headaches), especially at startup: thorium. This is because Th has a much lower vapor pressure than U does (although the vapor pressure behavior of carbides in a high temperature, high pressure situation doesn’t seem to have been studied ThO2 and ThO3 outperform UC2 – but oxides are a far worse idea than carbides in this sort of reactor), so it may be possible to make a Th-breeder LNTR to reduce fissile fuel vapor losses – which does nothing for C, or Zr/Nb, but may be worth it.

This requires a couple things to happen: first, the reactor’s available reactivity needs to be able to remain within the control authority of the control systems in a far more complex system, and the breeding ratio of the reactor needs to be carefully managed. There’s a few reasons for this, but let’s look at the general shape of the challenge.

Many LNTR designs are either fast or epithermal designs, with few extending into the thermal neutron spectrum. Thorium breeds into 233U best in the thermal neutron spectrum, so the neutron flux needs to be balanced against the Th present in the reactor in order to make sure that the proper breeding ratio is maintained. This can be adjusted by adding moderator blocks between the fuel elements, using other filler materials, and other options common to NTR neutronics design, but isn’t something that I’ve seen addressed anywhere.

Let’s briefly look at the breeding process: when 232Th is bred into 233U, it goes through a two-week period where the nucleus undergoing the breeding process ends up existing as 233Pa, a strong neutron poison. Unlike the thorium breeding molten salt reactor, these designs don’t have on-board fuel reprocessing, and that’s a very heavy, complex system that is going to kill your engine’s dry mass, so just adding one isn’t a good option from a systems engineering point of view. So, initially, the reactor loses a neutron to the 232Th, which then changes to 233Th before quickly decaying into 233Pa, a strong neutron poison which will stay in the reactor until long after the reactor is shut down (and so waste energy will need to be dealt with, but radiation may/probably is enough to deal with that), and then it’s likely that the next time the engine is started up, that neutron poison has transmuted into an even more fissile material unless you load the fuel with 233U first (233U has a stronger fission capture cross-section than 235U, which in practical effect reduces the fissile requirements by ~33%)!

This means that the reactor has to go through startup, have a reasonably large amount of control authority to continue to add reactivity to the reactor to counterbalance the fission poison buildup of not only 233Pa, but other fission product neutron poisons and fissile fuel worth degradation (if the fuel element has been used before), and then be able to deal with a potentially more reactive reactor (if the breeding ratio has more of a fudge factor due to the fast ramp-up/ramp-down behavior of this reactor, varying power levels, etc, making it higher in effect than ~1.01/4).

The other potential issue is that if you need less fissile material in the core, every atom of fissile is more valuable in the core than a less fissile fuel. If the vapor entrainment ends up being higher than the effective breeding ratio (i.e. the effect of breeding when the reactor’s operating), then the reactor’s going to lose reactivity too fast to maintain. Along these lines, the 233Pa behavior is also going to need to be studied, because that’s not only your future fuel, but also a strong neutron poison, in a not-great neutronic configuration for your fuel element, so there’s a few complications on that intermediate step.

This is an addressable option, potentially, but it’s also a lot of work on a reactor that already has a lot of work needed to make feasible.

Conclusions

Liquid fueled NTRs (LNTRs) show great promise as a stepping stone to advanced NTR development in both their variations, the bubbler and radiator variants. The high specific impulse, as well as potentially high thrust-to-weight ratio, offer benefits for many interplanetary missions, both crewed and uncrewed.

However, there are numerous challenges in the way of developing these systems. Of all the NTR types, they are some of the least researched, with only a handful of studies conducted in the 1960s, and a single project in the 1990s. These projects have focused on a single family of fuels, and those have not been able to be tested under fission power for various neutronic and reactor physics behaviors necessary for the proper modeling of these systems.

Additionally, the interactions between the fuel and propellant in these systems is far more complex than it is in most other fuel types. Only two other types of NTR (the droplet/colloid core and open cycle gas core NTRs) face the same level of challenge in fissile fuel retention and fuel element mass entrainment that the LNTR faces, especially in the bubbler variation.

Finally, they are some of the least well-known variations of NTR in both popular and technical literature, with only a few papers ever being published and only short blurbs on popular websites due to the difficulty in finding the technical source material.

We will continue to look at these systems in the next two blog posts, covering the bubbler-type LNTR in the next one, and the radiator type in the one following that. These blog posts are already in progress, and should be ready for publication in the near term.

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References

General

Specific Impulse of a Liquid Core Nuclear Rocket, Barrett Jr 1963 https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.2141?journalCode=aiaaj

ANALYSES OF VAPORIZATION IN LIQUID URANIUM BEARING SYSTEMS AT VERY HIGH TEMPERATURES Kaufman and Peters 1965 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19660002967.pdf

VAPOR-PRESSURE DATA EXTRAPOLATED TO 1000 ATMOSPHERES (1.01~108 N/m2) FOR 13 REFRACTORY MATERIALS WITH LOW THERMAL ABSORPTION CROSS SECTIONS Masser 1967 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19670030361.pdf

VAPOR-PRESSURE DATA EXTRAPOLATED TO 1000 ATMOSPHERES FOR 10 REFRACTORY ELEMENTS WITH THERMAL ABSORPTION CROSS SECTIONS LESS THAN 5 BARNS Masser 1967 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19680016226.pdf

Bubbler

A Technical Report on the CONCEPTUAL DESIGN – STUDY OF A LIQUID-CORE NUCLEAR ROCKET, Nelson et al 1963 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19650026954.pdf

Radiator

“PERFORMANCE POTENTIAL OF A RADIANT-HEAT-TRANSFER LIQUID-CORE NUCLEAR ROCKET ENGINE,” Ragsdale 1967 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19670030774.pdf

HEAT- AND MASS-TRANSFER CHARACTERISTICS OF AN AXIAL-FLOW LIQUID-CORE NUCLEAR ROCKET EMPLOYING RADIATION HEAT TRANSFER, Ragsdale et al 1967 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19670024548.pdf

“FEASIBILITY OF SUPPORTING LIQUID FUEL ON A SOLID WALL NUCLEAR ROCKET CONCEPT,” Putre and Kasack 1968 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19680007624.pdf

The Liquid Annular Reactor System (LARS) Propulsion, Powell et al 1992 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19910012832.pdf

Categories
Development and Testing Fission Power Systems Forgotten Reactors Nuclear Electric Propulsion Test Stands

Topaz International part II: The Transition to Collaboration


Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA! Before we begin, I would like to announce that our Patreon page, at https://www.patreon.com/beyondnerva, is live! This blog consumes a considerable amount of my time, and being able to pay my bills is of critical importance to me. If you are able to support me, please consider doing so. The reward tiers are still very much up for discussion with my Patrons due to the early stage of this part of the Beyond NERVA ecosystem, but I can only promise that I will do everything I can to make it worth your support! Every dollar counts, both in terms of the financial and motivational support!

Today, we continue our look at the collaboration between the US and the USSR/Russia involving the Enisy reactor: Topaz International. Today, we’ll focus on the transfer from the USSR (which became Russia during this process) to the US, which was far more drama-ridden than I ever realized, as well as the management and bureaucratic challenges and amusements that occurred during the testing. Our next post will look at the testing program that occurred in the US, and the changes to the design once the US got involved. The final post will overview the plans for missions involving the reactors, and the aftermath of the Topaz International Program, as well as the recent history of the Enisy reactor.

For clarification: In this blog post (and the next one), the reactor will mostly be referred to as Topaz-II, however it’s the same as the Enisy (Yenisey is another common spelling) reactor discussed in the last post. Some modifications were made by the Americans over the course of the program, which will be covered in the next post, but the basic reactor architecture is the same.

When we left off, we had looked at the testing history within the USSR. The entry of the US into the list of customers for the Enisy reactor has some conflicting information: according to one document (Topaz-II Design History, Voss, linked in the references), the USSR approached a private (unnamed) US company in 1980, but the company did not purchase the reactor, instead forwarding the offer up the chain in the US, but this account has very few details other than that; according to another paper (US-Russian Cooperation… TIP, Dabrowski 2013, also linked), the exchange built out of frustration within the Department of Defense over the development of the SP-100 reactor for the Strategic Defense Initiative. We’ll look at the second, more fleshed out narrative of the start of the Topaz International Program, as the beginning of the official exchange of technology between the USSR (and soon after, Russia) and the US.

The Topaz International Program (TIP) was the final name for a number of programs that ended up coming under the same umbrella: the Thermionic System Evaluation Test (TSET) program, the Nuclear Electric Propulsion Space Test Program (NEPSTP), and some additional materials testing as part of the Thermionic Fuel Element Verification Program (TFEVP). We’ll look at the beginnings of the overall collaboration in this post, with the details of TSET, NEPSTP, TFEVP, the potential lunar base applications, and the aftermath of the Topaz International Program, in the next post.

Let’s start, though, with the official beginnings of the TIP, and the challenges involved in bringing the test articles, reactors, and test stands to the US in one of the most politically complex times in modern history. One thing to note here: this was most decidedly not the US just buying a set of test beds, reactor prototypes, and flight units (all unfueled), this was a true international technical exchange. Both the American and Soviet (later Russian) organizations involved on all levels were true collaborators in this program, with the Russian head of the program, Academician Nikolay Nikolayvich Ponomarev-Stepnoy, still being highly appreciative of the effort put into the program by his American counterparts as late as this decade, when he was still working to launch the reactor that resulted from the TIP – because it’s still not only an engineering masterpiece, but could perform a very useful role in space exploration even today.

The Beginnings of the Topaz International Program

While the US had invested in the development of thermionic power conversion systems in the 1960s, the funding cuts in the 1970s that affected so many astronuclear programs also bit into the thermionic power conversion programs, leading to their cancellation or diminution to the point of being insignificant. There were several programs run investigating this technology, but we won’t address them in this post, which is already going to run longer than typical even for this blog! An excellent resource for these programs, though, is Thermionics Quo Vadis by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, available in PDF here: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/10254/thermionics-quo-vadis-an-assessment-of-the-dtras-advanced-thermionics (paywall warning).

Our story begins in detail in 1988. The US was at the time heavily invested in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which as its main in-space nuclear power supply was focused on the SP-100 reactor system (another reactor that we’ll be covering in a Forgotten Reactors post or two). However, certain key players in the decision making process, including Richard Verga of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), the organizational lynchpin on the SDI. The SP-100 was growing in both cost and time to develop, leading him to decide to look elsewhere to either meet the specific power needs of SDI, or to find a fission power source that was able to operate as a test-bed for the SDI’s technologies.

Investigations into the technological development of all other nations’ astronuclear capabilities led Dr. Verga to realize that the most advanced designs were those of the USSR, who had just launched the two TOPOL-powered Plasma-A satellites. This led him to invite a team of Soviet space nuclear power program personnel to the Eighth Albuquerque Space Nuclear Power Symposium (the predecessor to today’s Nuclear and Emerging Technologies for Space, or NETS, conference, which just wrapped up recently at the time of this writing) in January of 1991. The invitation was accepted, and they brought a mockup of the TOPAZ. The night after their presentation, Academician Nikolay Nicolayvich Ponomarev-Stepnoy, the Russian head of the Topol program, along with his team of visiting academicians, met with Joe Wetch, the head of Space Power Incorporated (SPI, a company made up mostly of SNAP veterans working to make space fission power plants a reality), and they came to a general understanding: the US should buy this reactor from the USSR – assuming they could get both governments to agree to the sale. The terms of this “sale” would take significant political and bureaucratic wrangling, as we’ll see, and sadly the problems started less than a week later, thanks to their generosity in bringing a mockup of the Topaz reactor with them. While the researchers were warmly welcomed, and they themselves seemed to enjoy their time at the conference, when it came time to leave a significant bureaucratic hurdle was placed in their path.

Soviet researchers at Space Nuclear Power Symposium, 1991, image Dabrowski

This mockup, and the headaches surrounding being able to take it back with the researchers, were a harbinger of things to come. While this mockup was non-functional, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claimed that, since it could theoretically be modified to be functional (a claim which I haven’t found any evidence for, but is theoretically possible), and as such was considered a “nuclear utilization facility” which could not be shipped outside the US. Five months later, and with the direct intervention of numerous elected officials, including US Senator Pete Domenici, the mockup was finally returned to Russia. This decision by the NRC led to a different approach to importing further reactors from the USSR and Russia, when the time came to do this. The mockup was returned, however, and whatever damage the incident caused to the newly-minted (hopeful) partnership was largely weathered thanks to the interpersonal relationships that were developed in Albuquerque.

Teams of US researchers (including Susan Voss, who was the major source for the last post) traveled to the USSR, to inspect the facilities used to build the Enisy (Yenisey is another common spelling, the reactor was named after the river in Siberia). These visits started in Moscow, with Drs Wetch and Britt of SPI, when a revelation came to the American astronuclear establishment: there wasn’t one thermionic reactor in the USSR, but two, and the most promising one was available for potential export and sale!

These visits continued, and personal relationships between the team members from both sides of the Iron Curtain grew. Due to headaches and bureaucratic difficulties in getting technical documentation translated effectively in the timeframe that the program required, often it was these interpersonal relationships that allowed the US team to understand the necessary technical details of the reactor and its components. The US team also visited many of the testing and manufacturing locations used in the production and development of the Enisy reactor (if you haven’t read it yet, check out the first blog post on the Enisy for an overview of how closely these were linked), as well as observing testing in Russia of these systems. This is also the time when the term “Topaz-II” was coined by one of the American team members, to differentiate the reactor from the original Topol (known in the west as Topaz, and covered in our first blog post on Soviet astronuclear history) in the minds of the largely uninformed Western academic circles.

The seeds of the first cross-Iron Curtain technical collaboration on astronuclear systems development, planted in Albuquerque, were germinating in Russian soil.

The Business of Intergovernmental Astronuclear Development

During this time, due to the headaches involved in both the US and the USSR from a bureaucratic point of view (I’ve never found any information that showed that the two teams ever felt that there were problems in the technological exchange, rather they all seem to be political and bureaucratic in nature, and exclusively from outside the framework of what would become known as the Topaz International Program), two companies were founded to provide an administrative touchstone for various points in the technological transfer program.

The first was International Scientific Products, which from the beginning (in 1989) was made specifically to facilitate the purchase of the reactors for the US, and worked closely with the SDIO Dr. Verga was still intimately involved, and briefed after every visit to Russia on progress in the technical exchange and eventual purchase of the reactors. This company was the private lubricant for the US government to be able to purchase these reactor systems (for reasons too complex to get into in this blog post). The two main players in ISP were Drs Wetch and Britt, who also appear to be the main administrative driving force in the visits. The company gave a legal means to transmit non-classified data from the USSR to the US, and vice versa. After each visit, these three would meet, and Dr. Verga kept his management at SDIO consistently briefed on the progress of the program.

The second was the International Nuclear Energy Research and Technology corporation, known as INERTEK. This was a joint US-USSR company, involving the staff of ISP, as well as individuals from all of the Soviet team of design bureaus, manufacturing centers (except possibly in Talinn, but I haven’t been able to confirm this, it’s mainly due to the extreme loss of documentation from that facility following the collapse of the USSR), and research institutions that we saw in the last post. These included the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy (headed by Academician and Director Ponomarev-Stepnoy, the head of the Russian portion of the Topaz International Program), the Scientific Industrial Association “LUCH” (represented by Deputy Director Yuri Nikolayev), the Central Design Bureau for Machine Building (represented by Director Vladmir Nikitin), and the Keldysh Institute of Rocket Research (represented by Director Academician Anatoli Koreteev). INERTEK was the vehicle by which the technology, and more importantly to the bureaucrats the hardware, would be exported from the USSR to the US. Academician Ponomarev-Stepnoy was the director of the company, and Dr Wetch was his deputy. Due to the sensitive nature of the company’s focus, the company required approval from the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) in Moscow, which was finally achieved in December 1990.

In order to gain this approval, the US had to agree to a number of demands from Minatom. This included: the Topaz-II reactors had to be returned to Russia after the testing and that the reactors could not be used for military purposes. Dr. Verga insisted on additional international cooperation, including staff from the UK and France. This not only was a cost-saving measure, but reinforced the international and transparent nature of the program, and made military use more challenging.

While this was occurring, the Americans were insistent that the non-nuclear testing of the reactors had to be duplicated in the US, to ensure they met American safety and design criteria. This was a major sticking point for Minatom, and delayed the approval of the export for months, but the Americans did not slow in their preparations for building a test facility. Due to the concentration of space nuclear power research resources in New Mexico (with Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, the US Air Force Philips Laboratory, and the University of New Mexico’s New Mexico Engineering Research Institute (NMERI), as well as the presence of the powerful Republican senator Pete Domenici to smooth political feathers in Washington, DC (all of the labs were within his Senatorial district in the north of the state), it was decided to test the reactors in Albuquerque, NM. The USAF purchased an empty building from the NMERI, and hired personnel from UNM to handle the human resources side of things. The selection of UNM emphasized the transparent, exploratory nature of the program, an absolute requirement for Minatom, and the university had considerable organizational flexibility when compared to either the USAF or the DOE. According to the contract manager, Tim Stepetic:

The University was very cooperative and accommodating… UNM allowed me to open checking accounts to provide responsive payments for the support requirements of the INTERTEK and LUCH contracts – I don’t think they’ve ever permitted such checkbook arrangements either before or since…”

These freedoms were necessary to work with the Russian team members, who were in culture shock and dealing with very different organizational restrictions than their American counterparts. As has been observed both before and since, the Russian scientists and technicians preferred to save as much of their (generous in their terms) per diem for after the project and the money would go further. They also covered local travel expenses as well. One of the technicians had to leave the US for Russia for his son’s brain tumor operation, and was asked by the surgeon to bring back some Tylenol, a request that was rapidly acquiesced to with bemusement from his American colleagues. In addition, personal calls (of a limited nature due to international calling rates at the time) were allowed for the scientists and technicians to keep in touch with their families and reduce their homesickness.

As should be surprising to no-one, the highly unusual nature of this financial arrangement, as well as the large amount of money involved (which ended up coming out to about $400,000 in 1990s money), a routine audit led to the Government Accounting Office being called in to investigate the arrangement later. Fortunately, no significant irregularities in the financial dealings of the NMERI were found, and the program continued. Additionally, the reuse of over $500,000 in equipment scrounged from SNL and LANL’s junk yards allowed for incredible cost savings in the program.

With the business side of the testing underway, it was time to begin preparations for the testing of the reactors in the US, beginning with the conversion of an empty building into a non-nuclear test facility. The building’s conversion, under the head of Frank Thome on the facilities modification side, and Scott Wold as the TSET training manager, began in April of 1991, only four months after Minatom’s approval of INTERTEK. Over the course of the next year, the facility would be prepared for testing, and would be completed just before the delivery of the first shipment of reactors and equipment from Russia.

By this point, the test program had grown to include two programs. The first was the Thermionic Systems Evaluation Test (TSET), which would study mechanical, thermophysical, and chemical properties of the reactors to verify the data collected in Russia. This was to flight-qualify the reactors for American space mission use, and establish the collaboration of the various international participants in the Topaz International Program.

The second program was the Nuclear Electric Propulsion Space Test Program (NEPSTP); run by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and funded by the SDIP Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, it proposed an experimental spacecraft that would use a set of six different electric thrusters, as well as equipment to monitor the environmental effects of both the thrusters and the reactor during operation. Design work for the spacecraft began almost immediately after the TSET program began, and the program was of interest to both the American and Russian parts of the team.

Later, one final program would be added: the Thermionic Fuel Element Verification Program (TFEVP). This program, which had predated TIP, is where many of the UK and French researchers were involved, and focused of increasing the lifetime of the thermionic fuel elements from one year (the best US estimate before the TSET) to at least three, and preferably seven, years. This would be achieved through better knowledge of materials properties, as well as improved manufacturing methods.

Finally, there were smaller programs that were attached to the big three, looking at materials effets in intense radiation and plasma environments, as well as long-term contact with cesium vapor, chemcal reactions within the hardware itself, and the surface electrical properties of various ceramics. These tests, while not the primary focus of the program, WOULD contribute to the understanding of the environment an astronuclear spacecraft would experience, and would significantly affect future spacecraft designs. These tests would occur in the same building as the TSET testing, and the teams involved would frequently collaborate on all projects, leading to a very well-integrated and collegial atmosphere.

Reactor Shipment: A Funny Little Thing Occurred in Russia

While all of this was going on in the Topaz International Program, major changes were happening thoughout the USSR: it was falling apart. From the uprisings in Latvia and Lithuania (violently put down by the Soviet military), to the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the ultimate lowering of the hammer and sickle from the Kremlin in December 1991 and its replacement with the tricolor of the Russian Federation, the fall of the Iron Curtain was accelerating. The TIP teams were continuing to work at their program, knowing that it offered hope for the Topaz-II project as well as a vehicle to form closer technological collaborations with their former adversaries, but the complications would rear their heads in this small group as well.

The American purchase of the Topaz reactors was approved by President George H.W. Bush on 27 March, 1992 during a meeting with his Secretary of State, James Barker, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. This freed the American side of the collaboration to do what needed to be done to make the program happen, as well as begin bringing in Russian specialists to begin test facility preparations.

Trinity site obelisk

The first group of 14 Russian scientists and technicians to arrive in the US for the TSET program arrived on April 3, 1992, but only got to sleep for a few hours before being woken up by their guests (who also brought their families) for a long van journey. This was something that the Russians greatly appreciated, because April 4 is a special day in one small part of the world: it’s one of only two days of the year that the Trinity Site, the location of the first nuclear explosion in history, is open to the public. According to one of them, Georgiy Kompaniets:

It was like for a picnic! And at the entrance to the site there were souvenir vendors selling t-shirts with bombs and rocks supposedly at the epicenter of the blast…” (note: no trinitite is allowed to be collected at the Trinity site anymore, and according to some interpretations of federal law is considered low-level radioactive waste from weapons production)

The Russians were a hit at the Trinity site, being the center of attention from those there, and were interviewed for television. They even got to tour the McDonald ranch house, where the Gadget was assembled and the blast was initiated. This made a huge impression on the visiting Russians, and did wonders in cementing the team’s culture.

Hot air balloon in New Mexico, open source

Another cultural exchange that occurred later (exactly when I’m not sure) was the chance to ride in a hot air balloon. Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta is the largest hot air ballooning event in the world, and whenever atmospheric conditions are right a half dozen or more balloons can be seen floating over the city. A local ballooning club, having heard about the Russian scientists and technicians (they had become minor local celebrities at this point) offered them a free hot air balloon ride. This is something that the Russians universally accepted, since none of them had ever experienced this.

According to Boris Steppenov:

The greatest difficulty, it seemed, was landing. And it was absolutely forbidden to touch down on the reservations belonging to the Native Americans, as this would be seen as an attack on their land and an affront to their ancestors…

[after the flight] there were speeches, there were oaths, there was baptism with champagne, and many other rituals. A memory for an entire life!”

The balloon that Steppenov flew in did indeed land on the Sandia Pueblo Reservation, but before touchdown the tribal police were notified, and they showed up to the landing site, issued a ticket to the ballooning company, and allowed them to pack up and leave.

These events, as well as other uniquely New Mexican experiences, cemented the TIP team into a group of lifelong friends, and would reinforce the willingness of everyone to work together as much as possible to make TIP as much of a success as it could be.

C-141 taking off, image DOD

In late April, 1992, a team of US military personnel (led by Army Major Fred Tarantino of SDIO, with AF Major Dan Mulder in charge of logistics), including a USAF Airlift Control Element Team, landed in St. Petersburg on a C-141 and C-130, carrying the equipment needed to properly secure the test equipment and reactors that would be flown to the US. Overflight permissions were secured, and special packing cases, especially for the very delicate tungsten TISA heaters, were prepared. These preparations were complicated by the lack of effective packing materials for these heaters, until Dr. Britt of both ISP and INTERTEK had the idea of using foam bedding pads from a furniture store. Due to the large size and weight of the equipment, though, the C-141 and C-130 aircraft were not sufficient for airlifting the equipment, so the teams had to wait on the larger C-5 Galaxy transports intended for this task, which were en route from the US at the time.

Sadly, when the time came for the export licenses to be given to the customs officer, he refused to honor them – because they were Soviet documents, and the Soviet Union no longer existed. This led Academician Ponomarev-Stepnoy and INTERTEK’s director, Benjamin Usov, to travel to Moscow on April 27 to meet with the Chairman of the Government, Alexander Shokhin, to get new export licenses. After consulting with the Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, Sergei Glazev, a one-time, urgent export license was issued for the shipment to the US. This was then sent via fast courier to St. Petersburg on May 1.

C-5 Galaxy, image USAF

The C-5s, though, weren’t in Russia yet. Once they did land, though, a complex paperwork ballet needed to be carried out to get the reactors and test equipment to America. First, the reactors were purchased by INTERTEK from the Russian bureaus responsible for the various components. Then, INTERTEK would sell the reactors and equipment to Dr. Britt of ISP once the equipment was loaded onto the C-5. Dr. Britt then immediately resold the equipment to the US government. This then avoided the import issues that would have occurred on the US side if the equipment had been imported by ISP, a private company, or INTERTEK, a Russian-led international consortium.

One of them landed in St. Petersburg on May 6, was loaded with the two Topaz-II reactors (V-71 and Ya-21U) and as much equipment as could be fit in the aircraft, and left the same day. It would arrive in Albuquerque on May 7. The other developed maintenance problems, and was forced to wait in England for five days, finally arriving on May 8. The rest of the equipment was loaded up (including the Baikal vacuum chamber), and the plane left later that day. Sadly, it ran into difficulties again upon reaching England, as was forced to wait two more days for it to be repaired, arriving in Albuquerque on May 12.

Preparations for Testing: Two Worlds Coming Together

Unpacking and beryllium checks at TSET Facility in Albuquerque, Image DOE/NASA

Once the equipment was in the US, detailed examination of the payload was required due to the beryllium used in the reflectors and control drums of the reactor. Berylliosis, or the breathing in of beryllium dust, is a serious health issue, and one that the DOE takes incredibly seriously (they’ll evacuate an entire building at the slightest possibility that beryllium dust could be present, at the cost of millions of dollars on occasion). Detailed checks, both before the equipment was removed from the aircraft and during the unpackaging of the reactors. However, no detectable levels of beryllium dust were detected, and the program continued with minimal disruption.

Then it came time to unbox the equipment, but another problem arose: this required the approval of the director of the Central Design Bureau of Heavy Machine Building, Vladmir Nikitin, who was in Moscow. Rather than just call him for approval, Dr Britt called and got approval for Valery Sinkevych, the Albuquerque representative for INTERTEK, to have discretional control over these sorts of decisions. The approval was given, greatly smoothing the process of both setup and testing during TIP.

Sinkevych, Scott Wold and Glen Schmidt worked closely together in the management of the project. Both were on hand to answer questions, smooth out difficulties, and other challenges in the testing process, to the point that the Russians began calling Schmidt “The Walking Stick.” His response was classic: that’s my style, “Management by Walking Around.”

Soviet technicians at TSET Test Facility, image Dabrowski

Every day, Schmidt would hold a lab-wide meeting, ensuring everyone was present, before walking everyone through the procedures that needed to be completed for the day, as well as ensuring that everyone had the resources that they needed to complete their tasks. He also made sure that he was aware of any upcoming issues, and worked to resolve them (mostly through Wetch and Britt) before they became an issue for the facility preparations. This was a revelation to the Russian team, who despite working on the program (in Russia) for years, often didn’t know anything other than the component that they worked on. This synthesis of knowledge would continue throughout the program, leading to a far

Initial estimates for the time that it would take to prepare the facility and equipment for testing of the reactors were supposed to be 9 months. Due to both the well-integrated team, as well as the more relaxed management structure of the American effort, this was completed in only 6 ½ months. According to Sinkevych:

The trust that was formed between the Russian and American side allowed us in an unusually short time to complete the assembly of the complex and demonstrate its capabilities.”

This was so incredible to Schmidt that he went to Wetch and Britt, asking for a bonus for the Russians due to their exceptional work. This was approved, and paid proportional to technical assignment, duration, and quality of workmanship. This was yet another culture shock for the Russian team, who had never received a bonus before. The response was twofold: greatly appreciative, and also “if we continue to save time, do we get another bonus?” The answer to this was a qualified “perhaps,” and indeed one more, smaller bonus was paid due to later time savings.

Installation of Topaz-II reactor at TSET Facility, image DOE/NASA

Mid-Testing Drama, and the Second Shipment

Both in the US and Russia, there were many questions about whether this program was even possible. The reason for its success, though, is unequivocally that it was a true partnership between the American and Russian parts of TIP. This was the first Russian-US government-to-government cooperative program after the fall of the USSR. Unlike the Nunn-Lugar agreement afterward, TIP was always intended to be a true technological exchange, not an assistance program, which is one of the main reasons why the participants of TIP still look fondly and respectfully at the project, while most Russian (and other former Soviet states) participants in N-L consider it to be demeaning, condescending, and not something to ever be repeated again. More than this, though, the Russian design philosophy that allowed full-system, non-nuclear testing of the Topaz-II permanently changed American astronuclear design philosophy, and left its mark on every subsequent astronuclear design.

However, not all organizations in the US saw it this way. Drs. Thorne and Mulder provided excellent bureaucratic cover for the testing program, preventing the majority of the politics of government work from trickling down to the management of the test itself. However, as Scott Wold, the TSET training manager pointed out, they would still get letters from outside organizations stating:

[after careful consideration] they had concluded that an experiment we proposed to do wouldn’t be possible and that we should just stop all work on the project as it was obviously a waste of time. Our typical response was to provide them with the results of the experiment we had just wrapped up.”

As mentioned, this was not uncommon, but was also a minor annoyance. In fact, if anything it cemented the practicality of collaborations of this nature, and over time reduced the friction the program faced through proof of capabilities. Other headaches would arise, but overall they were relatively minor.

Sadly, one of the programs, NEPSTP, was canceled out from under the team near the completion of the spacecraft. The new Clinton administration was not nearly as open to the use of nuclear power as the Bush administration had been (to put it mildly), and as such the program ended in 1993.

One type of drama that was avoided was the second shipment of four more Topaz-II reactors from Russia to the US. These were the Eh-40, Eh-41, Eh-43, and Eh-44 reactors. The use of these terms directly contradicts the earlier-specified prefixes for Soviet determinations of capabilities (the systems were built, then assessed for suitability for mechanical, thermal, and nuclear capabilities after construction, for more on this see our first Enisy post here). These units were for: Eh-40 thermal-hydraulic mockup, with a functioning NaK heat rejection system, for “cold-test” testing of thermal covers during integration, launch, and orbital injection; Eh-41 structural mockup for mechanical testing, and demonstration of the mechanical integrity of the anticriticality device (more on that in the next post), modified thermal cover, and American launch vehicle integration; Eh-43 and -44 were potential flight systems, which would undergo modal testing, charging of the NaK coolant system, fuel loading and criticality testing, mechanical vibration, shock, and acoustic tests, 1000 hour thermal vacuum steady-state stability and NaK system integrity tests, and others before launch.

An-124, image Wikimedia

How was drama avoided in this case? The previous shipment was done by the US Air Force, which has many regulations involved in the transport of any cargo, much less flight-capable nuclear reactors containing several toxic substances. This led to delays in approval the first time this shipment method was used. The second time, in 1994, INTERTEK and ISP contracted a private cargo company, Russian Volga Dnepr Airlines, to transport these four reactors. In order to do this, Volga Dnepr Airlines used their An-124 to fly these reactors from St. Petersburg to Albuquerque.

For me personally, this was a very special event, because I was there. My dad got me out of school (I wasn’t even a teenager yet), drove me out to the landing strip fence at Kirtland AFB, and we watched with about 40 other people as this incredible aircraft landed. He told me about the shipment, and why they were bringing it in, and the seed of my astronuclear obsession was planted.

No beryllium dust was found in this shipment, and the reactors were prepared for testing. Additional thermophysical testing, as well as design work for modifications needed to get the reactors flight-qualified and able to be integrated with the American launchers, were conducted on these reactors. These tests and changes will be the subject of the next blog post, as well as the missions that were proposed for the reactors.

These tests would continue until 1995, and the end of testing in Albuquerque. All reactors were packed up, and returned to Russia per the agreement between INTERTEK and Minatom. The Enisy would continue to be developed in Russia until at least 2007.

More Coming Soon!

The story of the Topaz International Program is far from over. The testing in the US, as well as the programs that the US/Russian team had planned have not even been touched on yet besides very cursory mentions. These programs, as well as the end of the Topaz International Program and the possible future of the Enisy reactor, are the focus of our next blog post, the final one in this series.

This program provided a foundation, as well as a harbinger of challenges to come, in international astronuclear collaboration. As such, I feel that it is a very valuable subject to spend a significant amount of time on.

I hope to have the next post out in about a week and a half to two weeks, but the amount of research necessary for this series has definitely surprised me. The few documents available that fill in the gaps are, sadly, behind paywalls that I can’t afford to breach at my current funding availability.

As such, I ask, once again, that you support me on Patreon. You can find my page at https://www.patreon.com/beyondnerva every dollar counts.

References:

US-Russian Cooperation in Science and Technology: A Case Study of the TOPAZ Space-Based Nuclear Reactor International Program, Dabrowski 2013 https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Richard_Dabrowski/publication/266516447_US-Russian_Cooperation_in_Science_and_Technology_A_Case_Study_of_the_TOPAZ_Space-Based_Nuclear_Reactor_International_Program/links/5433d1e80cf2bf1f1f2634b8/US-Russian-Cooperation-in-Science-and-Technology-A-Case-Study-of-the-TOPAZ-Space-Based-Nuclear-Reactor-International-Program.pdf

Topaz-II Design Evolution, Voss 1994 http://gnnallc.com/pdfs/NPP%2014%20Voss%20Topaz%20II%20Design%20Evolution%201994.pdf

Categories
Development and Testing Fission Power Systems Forgotten Reactors History Test Stands

Topaz International part 1: ENISY, the Soviet Years

Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA! Today, we’re going to return to our discussion of fission power plants, and look at a program that was unique in the history of astronuclear engineering: a Soviet-designed and -built reactor design that was purchased and mostly flight-qualified by the US for an American lunar base. This was the Enisy, known in the West as Topaz-II, and the Topaz International program.

This will be a series of three posts on the system: this post focuses on the history of the reactor in the Soviet Union, including the testing history – which as we’ll see, heavily influenced the final design of the reactor. The next will look at the Topaz International program, which began as early as 1980, while the Soviet Union still appeared strong. Finally, we’ll look at two American uses for the reactor: as a test-bed reactor system for a nuclear electric test satellite, and as a power supply for a crewed lunar base. This fascinating system, and the programs associated with it, definitely deserve a deep dive – so let’s jump right in!

We’ve looked at the history of Soviet astronuclear engineering, and their extensive mission history. The last two of these reactors were the Topaz (Topol) reactors, on the Plasma-A satellites. These reactors used a very interesting type of power conversion system: an in-core thermionic system. Thermionic power conversion takes advantage of the fact that certain materials, when heated, eject electrons, gaining a positive static charge as whatever the electrons impact gain a negative charge. Because the materials required for a thermionic system can be made incredibly neutronically robust, they can be placed inside the core of the reactor itself! This is a concept that I’ve loved since I first heard of it, and remains as cool today as it did back then.

Diagram of multi-cell thermionic fuel element concept, Bennett 1989

The original Topaz reactor used a multi-cell thermionic element concept, where fuel elements were stacked in individual thermionic conversion elements, and several of these were placed end-to-end to form the length of the core. While this is a perfectly acceptable way to set up one of these systems, there are also inefficiencies and complexities associated with so many individual fuel elements. An alternative would be to make a single, full-length thermionic cell, and use either one or several fuel rods inside the thermionic element. This is the – wait for it – single cell thermionic element design, and is the one that was chosen for the Enisy/Topaz-II reactor (which we’ll call Enisy in this post, since it’s focusing on the Soviet history of the reactor). While started in 1967, and tested thoroughly in the 70s, it wasn’t flight-qualified until the 80s… and then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the program died.

After the fall of the USSR, there was a concerted effort by the US to keep the specialist engineers and scientists of the former Soviet republics employed (to ensure they didn’t find work for international bad actors such as North Korea), and to see what technology had been developed behind the Iron Curtain that could be purchased for use by the US. This is where the RD-180 rocket engine, still in use by the United Launch Alliance Atlas rockets, came from. Another part of this program, though, focused on the extensive experience that the Soviets had in astronuclear missions, and in paricular the most advanced – but as yet unflown – design of the renowned NPO Luch design bureau, attached to the Ministry of Medium Industry: the Enisy reactor (which had the US designation of Topaz-II due to early confusion about the design by American observers).

Enisy power supply, image Department of Defense

The Enisy, in its final iteration, was designed to have a thermal output of 115 kWt (at the beginning of life), with a mission requirement of at least 6 kWe at the electrical outlet terminals for at least three years. Additional requirements included a ten year shelf life after construction (without fissile fuel, coolant, or other volatiles loaded), a maximum mass of 1061 kg, and prevention of criticality before achieving orbit (which was complicated from an American point of view, more on that below). The coolant for the reactor remained NaK-78, a common coolant in most reactors we’ve looked at so far. Cesium was stored in a reservoir at the “bottom” (away from the spacecraft) end of the reactor vessel, to ensure the proper partial pressure between the cathode and anode of the fuel elements, which would leak out over time (about 0.5 g/day during operation). This was meant to be the next upgrade in the Soviet astronuclear fleet, and as such was definitely a step above the Topaz-I reactor.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the design is that it was designed to be able to be tested as a complete system without the use of fissile fuels in the reactor. Instead, electrical resistance heaters could be inserted in the thermionic fuel elements to simulate the fission process, allowing for far more complete testing of the system in flight configuration before launch. This design decision heavily influenced US nuclear power plant design and testing procedures, and continues to influence designs today (the induction heating testing of the KRUSTY thermal simulator is a good recent example of this concept, even if it’s been heavily modified for the different reactor geometry), however, the fact that the reactor used cylindrical fuel elements made this process much easier.

So what did the Enisy look like? This changed over time, but we will look at the basics of the power plant’s design in its final Soviet iteration in this post, and the examine the changes that the Americans made during the collaboration in the next post. We’ll also look at why the design changed as it did.

First, though, we need to look at how the system worked, since compared to every system that we’ve looked at in depth, the physics behind the power conversion system are quite novel.

Thermionics: How to Keep Your Power Conversion System in the Core

We haven’t looked at power conversion systems much in this blog yet, but this is a good place to discuss the first kind as it’s so integral to this reactor. If the details of how the power conversion system actually worked don’t interest you, feel free to skip to the next section, but for many people interested in astronuclear design this power conversion system offers the promise to potentially be the most efficient and reliable option available for in-space nuclear reactors geared towards electricity production.

In short, thermionic reactions are those that occur when a material is heated and gives off charged particles. This is something that has been known since ancient times, even though the physical mechanism was completely unknown until after the discovery of the electron. The name comes from the term “thermions,” or “thermal ions.” One of the first to describe this effect used a hot anode in a vacuum: the modern incandescent lightbulb: Thomas Edison, who observed a static charge building up on the glass of his bulbs while they were turned on. However, today this has expanded to include the use of anodes, as well as solid-state systems and systems that don’t have a vacuum.

The efficiency of these systems depends on the temperature difference between the anode and cathode, the work function (or minimum thermodynamic work needed to remove an electron from a solid to a vacuum immediately outside the solid surface) of the emitter used, and the Boltzmann Constant (which relates to the average kinetic energy of particles in a gas), as well as a number of other factors. In modern systems, however, the structure of a thermionic convertor which isn’t completely solid state is fairly standard: a hot cathode is separated from a cold anode, with cesium vapor in between. For nuclear systems, the anode is often tungsten, the cathode seems to vary depending on the system, and the gap between – called the inter-electrode gap – is system specific.

The cesium exists in an interesting state of matter. Solid, liquid, gas, and plasma are familiar to pretty much everyone at this point, but other states exist under unusual circumstances; perhaps the best known is a supercritical fluid, which exhibits the properties of both a liquid and a gas (although this is a range of possibilities, with some having more liquid properties and some more gaseous). The one that concerns us today is something called Rydberg matter, one of the more exotic forms of matter – although it has been observed in many places across the universe. In its simplest form, Rydberg matter can be seen as small clusters of interconnected molecules within a gas (the largest number of atoms observed in a laboratory is 91, according to Wikipedia, although there’s evidence for far larger numbers in interstellar gas clouds). These clumps end up affecting the electron clouds of those atoms in the clusters, causing them to orbit across the nuclei of those atoms, causing a new lowest-energy state for the entire cluster to occur. These structures don’t degrade any faster under radioactive bombardment due to a number of quantum mechanical properties, which brought them to the attention of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory staff in the 1950s, and a short time later Soviet nuclear physicists as well.

This sounds complex, and it is, but the key point is this: because the clumps act as a unit within Rydberg matter, their ability to transmit electricity is enhanced compared to other gasses. In particular, cesium seems to be a very good vehicle for creating Rydberg matter, and cesium vapor seems to be the best available for the gap between the cathode and anode of a thermionic convertor. The density of the cesium vapor is variable and dependent on many factors, including the materials properties of the cathode and anode, the temperature of the cathode, the inter-electrode gap distance, and a number of other factors. Tuning the amount of cesium in the inter-electrode gap is something that must occur in any thermionic power conversion system; in fact the original version of the Enisy had the ability to vary the inter-electrode gap pressure (this was later dropped when it was discovered to be superfluous to the efficient function of the reactor).

This type of system comes in two varieties: in-core and out-of-core. The out-of-core variant is very similar to the power conversion systems we saw (briefly) on the SNAP systems: the coolant from the reactor passes around or through the radiation shield of the system, heats the anode, which then emits electrons into the gap, collected by the cathode, and then the electricity goes through the power conditioning unit and into the electrical system of the spacecraft. Because thermionic conversion is theoretically more efficient, and in practice is more flexible in temperature range, than thermoelectric conversion, even keeping the configuration of the power conversion system’s relationship to the rest of the power plant offers some advantages.

The in-core variant, on the other hand, wraps the power conversion system directly around the fissile fuel in the core, with electrical power being conducted out of the core itself and through the shield. The coolant runs across the outside of the thermionic unit, providing the thermal gradient for the system to work, and then exits the reactor. While this increases the volume of the core (admittedly, not by much), it also eliminates the need for more complex plumbing for the primary coolant loop. Additionally, it allows for less heat loss from the coolant having to travel a farther difference. Finally, there’s far less chance of a stray meteor hitting your power conversion system and causing problems – if a thermionic fuel element is damaged by a foreign object, you’re going to have far bigger problems with the system as a whole, since it means that it damaged your control systems and pressure vessel on the way to damaging your power conversion unit!

The in-core thermionic power conversion system, while originally proposed by the US, was seen as a curiosity on their side of the Iron Curtain. Some designs were proposed, but none were significantly researched to the level of being able to be serious contenders in the struggle to gain the significant funding needed to develop as complex a system as an astronuclear fission power plant, and the low conversion efficiency available in practice prevents its application in terrestrial power plants, which to this day continue to use steam turbine generators.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, this was seen as the ideal solution for a power conversion system: the only systems needed for the system to work could be solid-state, with no moving parts: heaters to vaporize the cesium, and electromagnetic pumps to move it through the reactor. Greater radiation resistance and more flexible operating temperatures, as well as greater conversion efficiency, all offered more promise to Soviet astronuclear systems designers than the thermoelectric path that the US ended up following. The first Soviet reactor designed for in-space use, the Romashka, used a thermionic power conversion system, but the challenges involved in the system itself led the Krasnya Zvezda design bureau (who were responsible for the Romasha, Bouk, and Topol reactors) to initially choose to use thermoelectric convertors in their first flight system: the BES-5 Bouk, which we’ve seen before.

Now that we’ve looked at the physics behind how you can place your power conversion system within the reactor vessel of your power plant (and as far as I’ve been able to determine, if you’re looking to generate electricity beyond what a simple sensor needs, this is the only option without going to something very exotic), let’s look at the reactor itself.

Enisy: The Design of the TOPAZ-II Reactor

The Enisy was a uranium oxide fueled, zirconium hydride moderated, sodium-potassium eutectic cooled reactor, which used a single-element thermionic fuel element design for in-core power conversion. The multi-cell version was used in the Topol reactor, where each fuel pellet was wrapped in its own thermionic convertor. This is sometimes called a “flashlight” configuration, since it looks a bit like the batteries in a large flashlight, but this comes at the cost of complexity, mass, and increased inefficiencies. To offset this, many issues are easier to deal with in this configuration, especially as your fuel reaches higher burnup percentages and your fuel swells. The ultimate goal was single-unit thermionic fuel elements, which were realized in the Enisy reactor. While more challenging in terms of materials requirements, the greater simplicity, lower mass, and greater efficiency of the system offered more promise.

The power plant was required to provide 6 kWe of electrical power at the reactor terminals (before the power conditioning unit) at 27 volts. It had to have an operational life of three years, and a storage life if not immediately used in a mission of at least ten years. It also had to have an operational reliability of >95%, and could not under any circumstances achieve criticality before reaching orbit, nor could the coolant freeze at any time during operation. Finally, it had to do all of this in less than 1061 kg (excluding the automatic control system).

TFE Full Length, image DOD

Thirty-seven fuel elements were used in the core, which was contained in a stainless steel reactor vessel. These contained uranium oxide fuel pellets, with a central fission gas void about 22% of the diameter of the fuel pellets to prevent swelling as fission products built up. The emitters were made out of molybdenum, a fairly common choice for in-core applications. Al2O3 (sapphire) insulators were used to electrically isolate the fuel elements from the rest of the core. Three of these would be used to power the cesium heater and pump directly, while another (unknown) number powered the NaK coolant pump (my suspicion is that it’s about the same number). The rest would output power directly from the element into the power conditioning unit on the far side of the power plant.

Enisy Core Cross-section, image DOD

Nine control drums, made mostly out of beryllium but with a neutron poison along one portion of the outer surface (Boron carbide/silicon carbide) surrounded the core. Three of these drums were safety drums, with two positions: in, with the neutron poison facing the center of the core, and out, where the beryllium acted as a neutron reflector. The rest of the drums could be rotated in or out as needed to maintain reactivity at the appropriate level in the core. These had actuators mounted outside the pressure vessel to control the rotation of the drums, and were connected to an automatic control system to ensure autonomous stable function of the reactor within the mission profile that the reactor would be required to support.

Image DOD

The NaK coolant would flow around the fuel elements, driven by an electromagnetic pump, and then pass through a radiator, in an annular flow path immediately surrounding the TFEs. Two inlet and two outlet pipes were used to connect the core to the radiator. In between the radiator and the core was a radiation shield, made up of stainless steel and lithium hydride (more on this seemingly odd choice when we look at the testing history).

The coolant tubes were embedded in a zirconium hydride moderator, which was contained in stainless steel casings.

Finally, a reservoir of cesium was at the opposite end of the reactor from the radiator. This was necessary for the proper functioning of the thermionic fuel elements, and underwent many changes throughout the design history of the reactor, including a significant expansion as the design life requirements increased.

Once the Topaz International program began, additional – and quite significant – changes were made to the reactor’s design, including a new automated control system and an anti-criticality system that actually removed some of the fuel from the core until the start-up commands were sent, but that’s a discussion for the next post.

TISA Heater Installation During Topaz International, image NASA

I saved the coolest part of this system for last: the TISA, or “Thermal Simulators of Apparatus Cores” (the acronym was from the original Russian), heaters. These units were placed in the active section of the thermionic fuel elements to simulate the heat of fission occurring in the thermionic fuel elements, with the rest of the systems and subsystems being in flight configuration. This led to unprecedented levels of testing capability, but at the same time would lead to a couple of problems later in testing – which would be addressed as needed.

How did this design end up this way? In order to understand that, the development and testing process of the Soviet design team must be looked at.

The History of Enisy’s Design

The Enisy reactor started with the development of the thermionic fuel element by the Sukhumi Institute in the early 1960s, which had two options: the single cell and multiple cell variants. In 1967, these two options were split into two different programs: the Topol (Topaz), which we looked at in the Soviet Astronuclear History post, led by the Krasnaya Zvezda design bureau in Moscow, and Enisy, which was headed by the Central Design Bureau of Machine Building in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Aside from the lead bureau, in charge of the overall program and system management, a number of other organizations were involved with the fabrication and testing of the reactor system: the design and modeling team consisted of: the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy was responsible for nuclear design and analytics, the Scientific Industrial Association Lutch was responsible for the thermionic fuel elements, the Sukhumi Institute remained involved in the reactor’s automatic control systems design; fabrication and testing was the responsibility of: the Research Institute of Chemical Machine Building for thermal vacuum testing, the Scientific Institute for Instrument Building’s Turaevo nuclear test facility, Kraznoyarsk Spacecraft Designer for mechanical testing and spacecraft integration, Prometheus Laboratory for materials development (including liquid metal eutectic development for the cooling system and materials testing) and welding, and the Enisy manufacturing facility was located in Talinn, Estonia (a decision that would cause later headaches during the collaboration).

The Enisy originally had three customers (the identities of which I am not aware of, simply that at least one was military), and each had different requirements for the reactor. Originally designed to operate at 6 kWe for one year with a >95% success rate, but customer requirements changed both of these characteristics significantly. As an example, one customer needed a one year system life, with a 6 kWe power output, while another only needed 5 kWe – but needed a three year mission lifetime. This longer lifetime ended up becoming the baseline requirement of the system, although the 6 kWe requirement and >95% mission success rate remained unchanged. This led to numerous changes, especially to the cesium reservoir needed for the thermionic convertors, as well as insulators, sensors, and other key components in the reactor itself. As the cherry on top, the manufacture of the system was moved from Moscow to Talinn, Estonia, resulting in a new set of technicians needing to be trained to the specific requirements of the system, changes in documentation, and at the fall of the Soviet Union loss of significant program documentation which could have assisted the Russia/US collaboration on the system.

The nuclear design side of things changed throughout the design life as well. An increase in the number of thermionic fuel elements (TFEs) occurred in 1974, from 31 to 37 in the reactor core, an increase in the height of the “active” section of the TFE, although whether the overall TFE length (and therefore the core length) changed is information I have not been able to find. Additional space in the TFEs was added to account for greater fuel swelling as fission products built up in the fuel pellets, and the bellows used to ensure proper fitting of the TFEs with reactor components were modified as well. The moderator blocks in the core, made out of zirconium hydride, were modified at least twice, including changing the material that the moderator was kept in. Manufacturing changes in the stainless steel reactor vessel were also required, as were changes to the gamma shielding design for the shadow shield. All in all, the reactor went through significant changes from the first model tested to theend of its design life.

Another area with significantly changing requirements was the systems integration side of things. The reactor was initially meant to be launched in a reactor-up position, but this was changed in 1979 to a reactor-down launch configuration, necessitating changes to several systems in what ended up being a significant effort. Another change in the launch integration requirements was an increase in the acceleration levels required during dynamic testing by a factor of almost two, resulting in failures in testing – and resultant redesigns of many of the structures used in the system. Another thing that changed was the boom that mounted the power plant to the spacecraft – three different designs were used through the lifetime of the system on the Russian side of things, and doubtless another two (at least) were needed for the American spacecraft integration.

Perhaps the most changed design was the coolant loop, due to significant problems during testing and manufacturing of the system.

Design Driven by (Expected) Failure: The USSR Testing Program

Flight qualification for nuclear reactors in the USSR at the time was very different from the way that the US did flight qualification, something that we’ll look at a bit more later in this post. The Soviet method of flight qualification was to heavily test a number of test-beds, using both nuclear and non-nuclear techniques, to validate the design parameters. However, the actual flight articles themselves weren’t subjected to nearly the same level of testing that the American systems would be, instead going through a relatively “basic” (according to US sources) workmanship examination before any theoretical launch.

In the US, extensive systems modeling is a routine part of nuclear design of any sort, as well as astronautical design. Failures are not unexpected, but at the same time the ideal is that the system has been studied and modeled mathematically thoroughly enough that it’s not unreasonable to predict that the system will function correctly the first time… and the second… and so on. This takes not only a large amount of skilled intellectual and manual labor to achieve, but also significant computational capabilities.

In the Soviet Union, however, the preferred method of astronautical – and astronuclear – development was to build what seemed to be a well-designed system and then test it, expecting failure. Once this happened, the causes of the failure were analyzed, the problem corrected, and then the newly upgraded design would be tested again… and again, for as many times as were needed to develop a robust system. Failure was literally built into the development process, and while it could be frustrating to correct the problems that occurred, the design team knew that the way their system could fail had been thoroughly examined, leading to a more reliable end result.

This design philosophy leads to a large number of each system needing to be built. Each reactor that was built underwent a post-manufacturing examination to determine the quality of the fabrication in the system, and from this the appropriate use of the reactor. These systems had four prefixes: SM, V, Ya, and Eh. Each system in this order was able to do everything that the previous reactor would be able to do, in addition to having superior capabilities to the previous type. The SM, or static mockup, articles were never built for anything but mechanical testing, and as such were stripped down, “boilerplate” versions of the system. The V reactors were the next step up, which were used for thermophysical (heat transfer, vibration testing, etc) or mechanical testing, but were not of sufficient quality to undergo nuclear testing. The Ya reactors were suitable for use in nuclear testing as well, and in a pinch would be able to be used in flight. The Eh reactors were the highest quality, and were designated potential flight systems.

In addition to this designation, there were four distinct generations of reactor: the first generation was from V-11 to Ya-22. This core used 31 thermionic fuel elements, with a one year design life. They were intended to be launched upright, and had a lightweight radiation shield. The next generation, V-15 to Ya-26, the operational lifetime was increased to a year and a half.

The third generation, V-71 to Eh-42 had a number of changes. The number of TFEs was increased from 31 to 37, in large part to accommodate another increase in design life, to above 3 years. The emitters on the TFEs were changed to the monocrystaline Mo emitters, and the later ones had Nb added to the Mo (more on this below). The ground testing thermal power level was reduced, to address thermal damage from the heating units in earlier non-nuclear tests. This is also when the launch configuration was changed from upright to inverted, necessitating changes in the freeze-prevention thermal shield, integration boom, and radiator mounting brackets. The last two of this generation, Eh -41 and Eh-42, had the heavier radiation shield installed, while the rest used the earlier, lighter gamma shield.

The final generation, Ya-21u to Eh-44, had the longest core lifetime requirement of three years at 5.5 kWe power output. These included all of the other changes above, as well as many smaller changes to the reactor vessel, mounting brackets, and other mechanical components. Most of these systems ended up becoming either Ya or Eh units due to lessons learned in the previous three generations, and all of the units which would later be purchased by the US as flight units came from this final generation.

A total of 29 articles were built by 1992, when the US became involved in the program. As of 1992, two of the units were not completed, and one was never assembled into its completed configuration.

Sixteen of the 21 units were tested between 1970 and 1989, providing an extensive experimental record of the reactor type. Of these tests, thirteen underwent thermal, mechanical, and integration non-nuclear testing. Nuclear testing occurred six times at the Baikal nuclear facility. As of 1992, there were two built, but untested, flight units available: the E-43 and E-44, with the E-45 still under construction.

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Unit Name

Generation

Series #

Core Life

# of TFEs

TFE Generation

ACS Unit

Launch configuration

Manufacturing location

Test type

Test stand

Testing begin

Testing end

Testing duration

System notes

SM-0

0

Static Model 1

n/a

n/a

n/a

Upright

CDBMB

Static

01/01/76

01/01/76

Original mockup, with three main load bearing systems.

SM-1

0

Static Model 2

n/a

n/a

n/a

Inverted

CDBMB

Static

Krasnoyarsk

01/01/83

01/01/84

Inverted launch configuration static test model.

SM-2

0

Static Model 3

n/a

n/a

n/a

Inverted

CDBMB

Static

Krasnoyarsk

01/01/83

01/01/84

Inverted launch configuration static test model.

V-11

1

Prototype 1

1

1

Upright

CDBMB

Electric heat

Baikal

07/23/71

02/03/72

3200

Development of system test methods and operations. Incomplete set of TFEs

V-12

1

Prototype 2

1

31

1

Upright

CDBMB

Electrical

Baikal

06/21/72

04/18/73

850

Development of technology for prelaunch operations and system testing

V-13

1

Prototype 3

1

31

1

Upright

Talinn

Mechanical

Baikal, Mechanical

08/01/72

05/01/73

?

Transportation, dynamic, shock, cold temperature testing. Reliability at freezing and heating.

Ya(?)-20

1

Specimen 1

1

31

1

Upright

Talinn

Nuclear

Romashka

10/01/72

03/01/74

2500

Zero power testing. Neutron physical characteristics, radiation field characterization. Development of nuclear tests methods.

Ya-21

1

Specimen 2

1

31

1

Upright

Talinn

Nuclear

Baikal, Romashka

?

?

?

Nuclear test methods and test stand trials. Prelaunch operations. Neutron plysical characteristics

Ya-22

1

Specimen 3

1

31

1

Upright

Talinn

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Unfabricated, was intended to use Ya-21 design documents

Unit Name

Generation

Series #

Core Life

# of TFEs

TFE Generation

ACS Unit

Launch configuration

Manufacturing location

Test type

Test stand

Testing begin

Testing end

Testing duration

System notes

V-15

2

Serial 1

1-1.5

31

2

Upright

Talinn

Cold temp

Baikal, Cold Temp Testing

02/12/80

?

Operation and functioning tests at freezing and heating.

V-16

2

Serial 2

1-1.5

31

2

Upright

Talinn

Mechanical, Electrical

Mechanical

08/01/79

12/01/79

2300

Transportation, vibration, shock. Post-mechanical electirc serviceability testing.

Ya-23

2

Serial 3

1-1.5

31

2

SAU-35

Upright

Talinn

Nuclear

Romashka

03/10/75

06/30/76

5000

Nuclear testing revision and development, including fuel loading, radiation and nuclear safety. Studied unstable nuclear conditions and stainless steel material properties, disassembly and inspection. LiH moderator hydrogen loss in test.

Eh-31

2

Serial 4

1-1.5

31

2

SAU-105

Upright

Talinn

Nuclear

Romashka

02/01/76

09/01/78

4600

Nuclear ground test. ACS startup, steady-state functioning, post-operation disassembly and inspection. TFE lifetime limited to ~2 months due to fuel swelling

Ya-24

2

Serial 5

1-1.5

31

2

SAU-105

Upright

Talinn

Nuclear

Tureavo

12/01/78

04/01/81

14000

Steady state nuclear testing. Significant TFE shortening post-irradiation.

(??)-33

2

Serial 6

1-1.5

31

2

Upright

Talinn

Spacecraft integration

Tureavo

n/a

n/a

n/a

TFE needed redesign, no systems testing. Installed at Turaevo as mockup. Used to establish transport and handling procedures

V(?)-25

2

Serial 7

1-1.5

31

2

Upright

Talinn

Spacecraft integration

Krasnoyarsk

n/a

n/a

?

System incomplete. Used as spacecraft mockup, did not undergo physical testing.

(??)-35

2

Serial 8

1-1.5

31

2

Upright

Talinn

Test stand preparation

Baikal

?

?

?

Second fabrication stage not completed. Used for some experiments with Baikal test stand. Disassembled in Sosnovivord.

V(?)-26

2

Serial 9

1-1.5

31

2

Upright

Talinn, CDBMB

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Refabricated at CDBMB. TFE burnt and damaged during second fadrication. Notch between TISA and emitter

Unit Name

Generation

Series #

Core Life

# of TFEs

TFE Generation

ACS Unit

Launch configuration

Manufacturing location

Test type

Test stand

Testing begin

Testing end

Testing duration

System notes

V-71

3

Serial 10

1.5

37

3

Upright, Inverted

Talinn

Mechanical, Electrical, Spacecraft integration

Baikal, Krasnoyarsk, Cold Temp Testing

01/01/81

01/01/87

1300

Converted from upright to inverted launch configuration, spacecraft integration heavily modified. First to use 37 TFE core configuration. Transport testing (railroad vibration and shock), cold temperature testing. Electrical testing post-mechanical. Zero power testing at Krasnoyarsk.

Ya-81

3

Serial 11

1.5

37

3

Ground control (no ACS)

Inverted

Talinn

Nuclear

Romashka

09/01/80

01/01/83

12500

Nuclear ground test, steady state operation. Leaks observed in two cooling pipes 120 hrs into test; leaks plugged and test continued. Disassembly and inspection.

Ya-82

3

Serial 12

1.5

37

3

Prototype Sukhumi ACS

Inverted

Talinn

Nuclear

Tureavo

09/01/83

11/01/84

8300

Nuclear ground test, startup using ACS, steady state. Initial leak in EM pump led to large leak later in test. Test ended in loss of coolant accident. Reactor disassembled and inspected post-test to determine leak cause.

Eh(?)-37

3

Serial 13

1.5

37

3

Inverted

Talinn

Static

?

?

?

?

Quality not sufficient for flight (despite Eh “flight” designation). Static and torsion tests conducted.

Eh-38

3

Serial 14

1.5

37

3

Factory #1

Inverted

Talinn

Nuclear

Romashka

02/01/86

05/01/86

4700

Nuclear ground test, pre-launch simulation. ACS startup and operation. Steady state test. Post-operation disassembly and examination.

(??)-39

3

Serial 15

1.5

37

3

Inverted

Talinn

special

special

special

special

special

Fabrication begin in Estonia, with some changed components. After changes, system name changed to Eh-41, and serial number changed to 17. Significant reactor changes.

Eh-40

3

Serial 16

1.5

37

3

Inverted

Talinn

Cold temp, coolant flow

?

01/03/88

12/31/88

?

Cold temperature testing. No electrical testing. Filled with NaK during second stage of fabrication.

Eh-41

3

Serial 17

1.5

37

3

Inverted

Talinn

Mechanical, Leak

Baikal, Mechanical

01/01/88

?

?

Began life as Eh(?)-39, post-retrofit designation. Transportation (railroad) dynamic, and impact testing. Leak testing done post-mechanical testing. First use of increased shield mass.

Eh-42

3

Serial 18

1.5

37

3

Inverted

Talinn

n/a

n/a

Critical component welding failure during fabrication. Unit never used.

Unit Name

Generation

Series #

Core Life

# of TFEs

TFE Generation

ACS Unit

Launch configuration

Manufacturing location

Test type

Test stand

Testing begin

Testing end

Testing duration

System notes

Ya-21u

4

Serial 19

3

37

4

Inverted

Talinn

Electrical

Baikal

12/01/87

12/01/89

?

First Gen 4 reactor using modified TFEs. Electrical testing on TFEs conducted. New end-cap insulation on TFEs tested.

Eh-43

4

Serial 20

3

37

4

Inverted

Talinn

n/a

6/30/88 (? Unclear what testing is indicated)

n/a

n/a

n/a

Flight unit. First fabrication phase in Talinn completed, second incomplete as of 1994

Eh-44

4

Serial 21

3

37

4

Inverted

Talinn

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Flight unit. First fabrication phase in Talinn completed, second incomplete as of 1994

Eh(?)-45

4

Serial 22

3

37

4

Inverted

Talinn

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Partially fabricated unit with missing components.

Not many fine details are known about the testing of these systems, but we do have some information about the tests that led to significant design changes. These changes are best broken down by power plant subsystem, because while there’s significant interplay between these various subsystems their functionality can change in minor ways quite easily without affecting the plant as a whole. Those systems are: the thermionic fuel elements, the moderator, the pressure vessel, the shield, the coolant loop (which includes the radiator piping), the radiator coatings, the launch configuration, the cesium unit, and the automatic control system (including the sensors for the system and the drum drive units). While this seems like a lot of systems to cover, many of them have very little information about their design history to pass on, so it’s less daunting than it initially appears.

Thermionic Fuel Elements

It should come as no surprise that the thermionic fuel elements (TFEs) were extensively modified throughout the testing program. One of the big problems was short circuiting across the inter-electrode gap due to fuel swelling, although other problems occurred to cause short circuits as well.

Perhaps the biggest change was the change from 31 to 37 TFEs in the core, one of the major changes to minimize fuel swelling. The active core length (where the pellets were) was increased by up to 40 mm (from 335 mm to 375 mm), the inter-electrode gap was widened by 0.05 mm (from 0.45 to 0.5 mm). In addition, the hole through the center of the fuel element was increased in diameter to allow for greater internal swelling, reducing the mechanical stress on the emitter.

The method of attaching the bellows for thermal expansion were modified (the temperature was dropped 10 K) to prevent crystalization of the palladium braze and increase bellows thermal cycling capability after failures on the Ya-24 system (1977-1981).

Perhaps the biggest change was to the materials used in the TFE. The emitter started off as a polycrystaline molybdenum in the first two generations of reactors, but the grain boundaries between the Mo crystals caused brittleness over time. Because of this, they developed the capability to use monocrystalline Mo, which improved performance in the early third generation of reactors – just not enough. In the final version seen in later 3rd generation and fourth generation systems, the Mo was doped with 3% niobium, which created the best available material for the emitter.

There were many other changes during the development of the thermionic fuel elements, including the addition of coatings on some materials for corrosion resistance, changes in electrical insulation type, and others, but these were the most significant in terms of functionality of the TFEs, and their impact on the overall systems design.

ZrH Moderator

The zirconium hydride neutron moderator was placed around the outside of the core. Failures were observed several times in testing, including the Ya-23 test, which resulted in loss of hydrogen in the core and the permanent shutdown of that reactor. Overpower issues, combined with a loss of coolant, led to moderator failure in Ya-82 as well, but in this case the improved H barriers used in the stainless steel “cans” holding the ZrH prevented a loss of hydrogen accident despite the ZrH breaking up (the failure was due to the ZrH being spread more thinly across the reactor, not the loss of H due to ZrH damage).

This development process was one of the least well documented areas of the Soviet program.

Reactor Vessel

Again, this subsystem’s development seems poorly documented. The biggest change, though, seems to be changing the way the triple coating (of chrome, then nickel, then enamel) was applied to the stainless steel of the reactor vessel. This was due to the failure of the Ya-23 unit, which failed at the join between the tube and the end of the tube on one of the TFEs. The crack self-sealed, but for future units the coatings didn’t go all the way to the weld, and the hot CO2 used as a cover gas was allowed to carbonize the steel to prevent fatigue cracking.

Radiation Shield

The LiH component of the radiation shield (for neutron shielding) seems to not have changed much throughout the development of the reactor. The LiH was contained in a 1.5 mm thick stainless steel casing, polished on the ends for reflectivity and coated black on the outside face.

However, the design of the stainless steel casing was changed in the early 1980s to meet more stringent payload gamma radiation doses. Rather than add a new material such as tungsten or depleted uranium as is typical, the designers decided to just thicken the reactor and spacecraft sides of the LiH can to 65 mm and 60 mm respectively. While this was definitely less mass-efficient than using W or U, the manufacturing change was fairly trivial to do with stainless steel, and this was considered the most effective way to ensure the required flux rates with the minimum of engineering challenges.

The first unit to use this was the E-41, fabricated in 1985, which was also the first unit to be tested in the inverted flight configuration. The heavier shield, combined with the new position, led to the failure of one of the shield-to-reactor brackets, as well as the attachment clips for the radiator piping. These components were changed, and no further challenges occurred with the shield in the rest of the test program.

Coolant Loop

The NaK coolant loop was the biggest source of headaches dueing the development of the Enisy. A brief list of failures, and actions taken to correct them, is here:

V-11 (July 1971-February 1972): A weld failed at the join between the radiator tubing and collector during thermophysical testing. The double weld was changed to a triple weld to correct the failure mode.

Ya-21 (1971): This reactor seemed to have everything go wrong with it. Another leak at the same tube-to-collector interface led to the welding on of a small sleeve to repair the crack. This fix seemed to solve the problem of failures in that location.

Ya-23 (March 1975-June 1976): Coolant leak between coolant tube and moderator cavity. Both coating changes and power ramp-up limits eliminated issues.

V-71 (January 1981-1994?): NaK leak in radiator tube after 290 hours of testing. Plugged, testing continued. New leak occurred 210 test hours later, radiator examined under x-ray. Two additional poorly-manufactured tubes replaced with structural supports. One of test reactors sent to US under Topaz International.

Ya-81 (September 1980-January 1983): Two radiator pipe leaks 180 hours into nuclear testing (no pre-nuclear thermophysical testing of unit). Piping determined to be of lower quality after switching manufacturers. Post-repair, the unit ran for 12,500 hours in nuclear power operation.

Ya-82 (September 1983 to November 1984): Slow leak led to coolant pump voiding and oscillations, then one of six pump inlet lines being split. There were two additional contributions to this failure: the square surfaces were pressed into shape from square pipes, which can cause stress microfractures at the corners, and second the inlet pump was forced into place, causing stress fracturing at the joint. This failure led to reactor overheating due to a loss-of-coolant condition, and led to the failure of the ZrH moderator blocks. This led to increased manufacturing controls on the pump assembly, and no further major pump failures were noted in the remainder of the testing.

Eh-38 (February 1986-August 1986): This failure is a source of some debate among the Russian specialists. Some believe it was a slow leak that began shortly after startup, while others believe that it was a larger leak that started at some point toward the end of the 4700 hour nuclear test. The exact location of the leak was never located, however it’s known that it was in the upper collector of the radiator assembly.

Ya-21u (December 1987-December 1989): Caustic stress-corrosion cracking occurred about a month and a half into thermophysical testing in the lower collector assembly, likely caused by a coating flaw growing during thermal cycling. This means that subsurface residual stresses existed within the collector itself. Due to the higher-than-typical (by U.S. standards) carbon content in the stainless steel (the specification allowed for 0.08%-0.12% carbon, rather than the less than 0.8% carbon content in the U.S. SS-321), the steel was less ductile than was ideal, which could have been a source of the flaw growing as it did. Additionally, increased oxygen levels in the NaK coolant could have exacerbated the problem more as well. A combination of ensuring that heat treatments had occurred post-forming, as well as ensuring a more oxygen-poor environment, were essential to reducing the chances of this failure happening again.

Radiator

Pen and ink diagram of radiator, image DOD

The only known data poing on the radiator development was during the Ya-23 test, where the radiator coating changed the nuclear properties of the system at elevated temperature (how is unknown). This was changed to something that would be less affected by the radiation environment. The final radiator configuration was a chrome and polymer substrate with an emissivity of 0.85 at beginning of life.

Launch configuration

As we saw, the orientation that the reactor was to be launched in was changed from upright to inverted, with the boom to connect the reactor to the spacecraft being side by side inside the payload fairing. This required the thermal cover used to prevent the NaK from freezing to be redesigned, and modified after the V-13 test, when it was discovered to not be able to prevent freezing of the coolant. The new cover was verified on the V-15 tests, and remained largely unchanged after this.

Some of the load-bearing brackets needed to be changed or reinforced as well, and the clips used to secure the radiator pipes to the structural components of the radiator.

Cesium Supply Unit

For the TFEs to work properly, it was critical that the Cs vapor pressure was within the right pressure range relative tot he temperature of the reactor core. This system was designed from first physical principles, leading to a novel structure that used temperature and pressure gradients to operate. While initially throttleable, but there were issues with this functionality during the Ya-24 nuclear test. This changed when it was discovered that there was an ideal pressure setting for all power levels, so the feed pressure was fixed. Sadly, on the Ya-81 test the throttle was set too high, leading to the need to cool the Cs as it returned to the reservoir.

Additional issues were found in the startup subsystem (a single-use puncture valve) used to vent the inert He gas from the interelectrode gap (this was used during launch and before startup to prevent Cs from liquefying or freezing in the system), as well as to balance the Cs pressure by venting it into space at a rate of about 0.4 g/day. The Ya-23 test saw a sensor not register the release of the He, leading to an upgraded spring for the valve.

Finally, the mission lifetime extension during the 1985/86 timeframe tripled the required lifetime of the system, necessitating a much larger Cs reservoir to account for Cs venting. This went from having 0.455 g to 1 kg. These were tested on Ya-21u and Eh-44, despite one (military) customer objecting due to insufficient testing of the upgraded system. This system would later be tested and found to be acceptable as part of the Topaz International program.

Automatic Control System

The automatic control system, or ACS, was used for automatic startup and autonomous reactor power management, and went through more significant changes than any other system, save perhaps the thermionic fuel elements. The first ACS, called the SAU-35, was used for the Ya-23 ground test, followed by the SAU-105 for the Eh-31 and Ya-24 tests. Problems arose, however, because these systems were manufactured by the Institute for Instrument Building of the Ministry of Aviation Construction, while the Enisy program was under the purview of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, and bureaucratic problems reared their heads.

This led the Enisy program to look to the Sukhumi Institute (who, if you remember, were the institute that started both the Topol and Enisy programs in the 1960s before control was transferred elsewhere) for the next generation of ACS. During this transition, the Ya-81 ground nuclear test occurred, but due to the bureaucratic wrangling, manufacturer change, and ACS certification tests there was no unit available for the test. This led the Ya-81 reactor to be controlled from the ground station. The Ya-82 test was the first to use a prototype Sukhumi-built ACS, with nine startups being successfully performed by this unit.

The loss-of-cooling accident potentially led to the final major change to the ACS for the Eh-38 test: the establishment of an upper temperature limit. After this, the dead-band was increased to allow greater power drift in the reactor (reducing the necessary control drum movement), as well as some minor modifications rerouting the wires to ensure proper thermocouple sensor readings, were the final significant modifications before Topaz International started.

Sensors

The sensors on the Enisy seem to have been regularly problematic, but rather than replace them, they were either removed or left as instrumentation sensors rather than control sensors. These included the volume accumulator sensors on the stainless steel bellows for the thermionic fuel elements (which were removed), and the set of sensors used to monitor the He gas in the TFE gas gap (for fission product buildup), the volume accumulator (which also contained Ar), and the radiation shield. This second set of sensors was kept in place, but was only able to measure absolute changes, not precise measurements, so was not useful for the ACS.

Control Drive Unit

The control drive unit was responsible for the positioning of the control drums, both on startup as well as throughout the life of the reactor to maintain appropriate reactivity and power levels. Like in the SNAP program, these drive systems were a source of engineering headaches.

Perhaps the most recurring problem during the mid-1970s was the failure of the position sensor for the drive system, which was used to monitor the rotational position of the drum relative to the core. This failed in the Ya-20, Ya-21, and Ya-23, after which it was replaced with a sensor of a new design and the problem isn’t reported again. The Ya-81 test saw the loss of the Ar gas used as the initial lubricant in the drive system, and later seizing of the bearing the drive system connected to, leading to its replacement with a graphite-based lubricant.

The news wasn’t all bad, however. The Eh-40 test demonstrated greater control of drum position by reducing the backlash in the kinematic circuit, for instance, and improvements to the materials and coatings used eliminated problems of coating delamination, improving the system’s resistance to thermal cycling and vibrational stresses, and radiator coating issues.

The Eh-44 drive unit was replaced against the advice of one of the Russian customers due to a lack of mandatory testing on the advanced drive system. This system remained installed at the time of Topaz International, and is something that we’ll look at in the next blog post.

A New Customer Enters the Fold

During this testing, an American company (which is not named) was approached about possibly purchasing nearly complete Enisy reactors: the only thing that the Soviets wouldn’t sell was the fissile fuel itself, and that they would help with the manufacturing on. This was in addition to the three Russian customers (at least one of which was military, but again all remain unnamed). This company did not purchase any units, but did go to the US government with this offer.

This led to the Topaz International program, funded by the US Department of Defense’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The majority of the personnel involved were employees of Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, and the testing occurred at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, NM.

As a personal note, I was just outside the perimeter fence when the aircraft carrying the test stand and reactors landed, and it remains one of the formational events in my childhood, even though I had only the vaguest understanding of what was actually happening, or that some day, more than 20 years, later, I would be writing about this very program, which I saw reach a major inflection point.

The Topaz International program will be the subject of our next blog post. It’s likely to be a longer one (as this was), so it may take me a little longer than a week to get out, but the ability to compare and contrast Soviet and American testing standards on the same system is too golden an opportunity to pass up.

Stay tuned! More is coming soon!

References:

Topaz II Design Evolution, Voss 1994 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234517721_TOPAZ_II_Design_Evolution

Russian Topaz II Test Program, Voss 1993 http://gnnallc.com/pdfs_r/SD%2006%20LA-UR-93-3398.pdf

Overview of the Nuclear Electric Propulsion Space Test Program, Voss 1994 https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/10157573

Thermionic System Evaluation Test: Ya-21U System, Topaz International Program, Schmidt et al 1996 http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/b222940.pdf

Categories
Forgotten Reactors History Nuclear Thermal Systems

Dumbo: America’s First Forgotten NTR

Hello, and welcome back to Beyond NERVA! Today, in our first post in the Forgotten Reactors series, we’re going back to the beginnings of astronuclear engineering, and returning to nuclear thermal propulsion as well, looking at one of the reactors that’s had a cult following since the 1950s: the pachydermal rocket known as DUMBO.

In a nuclear thermal rocket, the path that the propellant takes has a strong impact on how hard it is to predict the way that the propellant will move through the reactor. Anyone who’s dealt with a corroded steam central heating system that won’t quit knocking, no matter how much you try, has dealt with the root of the problem: fluid behavior in a set of tubes only makes sense, and doesn’t cause problems, if you can make sure you know what’s going on, and that’s not only counter-intuitively hard, but it’s one of the subjects that (on the fine scale, in boundary conditions, and in other extremes) tends to lead towards chaos theory more than traditional fluid dynamics of ANY sort, much less adding in the complications of heat transport. However, if you can have gas flow longer through the reactor, you can get greater efficiency, less mass, and many other advantages.

This was first proposed in the Dumbo reactor at the beginning of Project Rover, alongside the far more familiar Kiwi reactors. Rather than have the gas flow from one end of the reactor to the other through straight pipes, like in Kiwi, the propellant in Dumbo would flow part of the way down the reactor core, then move radially (sideways) for a while, and then returns to flowing along the main axis of the reactor before exiting the nozzle. Because of the longer flow path, and a unique fuel element and core geometry, Dumbo seemed to offer the promise of both less volume and less mass for the same amount of thrust due to this difference in flow path. Additionally, this change offered the ability to place thermally sensitive materials more evenly across the reactor, due to the distribution of the cold propellant through the fuel element structure.

Dumbo ended up being canceled, in part, because the equations required to ensure that fatal flow irregularities wouldn’t occur, and the promised advantages didn’t materialize, either. None of this means that Dumbo was a bad idea, just an idea ahead of its time – an idea with inspiration to offer. Dumbo’s progeny live on. In fact, we’ve covered both the fuel element form AND the modern incarnation of the fuel geometry in the blog before!

With today’s knowledge of materials, advanced flow modeling, a cutting edge carbide fuel, and the beginnings of a Renaissance in nuclear design are breathing new life into the program even today, and the fundamental concept remains an attractive (if complex) one.

The First Forgotten Reactor

Early Dumbo cutaway drawing with flow path

In the early days of astronuclear engineering, there was a lot of throwing pasta at the wall, and looking to see what stuck. Many more slide rules than are involved in the average family’s spaghetti dinner preparations, to determine if the pasta was done enough, but a large number of designs were proposed, and eventually settled down into four potentially near-ish term useful: radioisotope power supplies, nuclear thermal propulsion, nuclear electric propulsion, and nuclear explosive propulsion (which we usually call nuclear pulse propulsion). Each of these ended up being explored extensively, and a number of other novel concepts have been proposed over the years as well. In the beginning, however, research tended toward either the NTR or NPP designs, with two major programs: ROVER and ORION. Orion was fairly narrowly focused from the beginning, owing to the problems of making an efficient, low-mass, easily deployable, reliable, and cheap shaped nuclear charge – the physics drove the design. Rover, on the other hand, had many more options available to it, and some competition as to what the best design was. Being the earliest days of the atomic era, which way to go, and the lack of knowledge in both nuclear and materials science often limited Rover as much as lack of fuel for their reactors did! This led to some promising designs being discarded. Some were resurrected, some weren’t, but the longest lived of the less-initially-preferred designs is our subject for today.

Dumbo was initially proposed in the literature in 1955. Two years later, a far more developed report was issued to address many of the challenges with the concept. The idea would continue to bounce around in the background of astronuclear engineering design until 1991, when it was resurrected… but more on that later. The concept was very different from the eventual NERVA concept (based on the Phoebus test reactor during Rover) in a number of ways, but two stand out:

1. Fuel element type and arrangement: The eventual Rover elements used uranium oxide or carbide suspended within graphite flour, which was then solidified, in Dumbo the fissile fuel was “metal.” However, the designers used this term differently than how it would be used today: rather than have the entire fuel element be metal, as we’ve seen in Kilopower, the fuel was uranium oxide pellets suspended in some type of high temperature metal. Today, we call this CERMET, for ceramic metal composite, and is the current favorite

2. Flow pattern: while both the initial Rover concepts (the Kiwi reactors) and the eventual NERVA engines used straight-through, axial propellant flow, which is simple to model mathematically, Dumbo’s flow path started the same (going from the nozzle end to the spacecraft end, cooling the reflectors and control components), but once it reached the top of the reactor and started flowing toward the nozzle, things changed. The flow would start going toward the nozzle through a central column, but be diverted through sets of corrugated fuel “washers” and spacers, making two 90 degree turns as it did so. This was called a “folded flow” system.

A host of other differences were also present throughout the reactor and control systems, but these two differences were the biggest when comparing the two nearly-simultaneously developed systems. The biggest advantages that were offered by the basic concept were the ability to go to higher temperatures in the core, and be able to have a more compact and less massive reactor for the same thrust level. Additionally, at the time it seemed like the testing would be far simpler to do, because it appeared that the number of tests needed, and the requirements of those tests, would make the testing program both simpler and cheaper compared to the competing Kiwi design concept. Sadly, these advantages weren’t sufficient to keep the project alive, and Kiwi ended up winning in the down-selection process.

In 1959, the Dumbo portion of Rover was canceled. There were two stated main reasons: first, there were no weight savings seen between the two systems upon in depth analysis; second, the manufacture of the components for the reactor required high precision out of at-the-time exotic materials. Another concern which was not mentioned at the time of cancellation but is a concern for certain variations on this reactor is the complex flow patterns in the reactor, something we’ll touch on briefly later.

Contrary to popular belief, Dumbo’s design isn’t dead. The fuel type has changed, and many of the nuclear design considerations for the reactor have also changed, but the core concept of a stacked set of fuel discs and a folded flow pattern through the core of the reactor remains. Originally revived as the Advanced Dumbo concept, proposed by Bill Kirk at LANL in 1990, which advocated for the use of carbide fuels to increase the reactor core temperature, as well as moving to a solid disc with grooves cut in it. This was proposed at the same time as many other concepts for nuclear thermal rockets in the bout of optimism in the early 1990s, but funding was given instead to the pebblebed NTR, another concept that we’ll cover. This in itself evolved into the Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR currently under investigation at the Marshall Space Flight Center, under the direction of Brian Taylor and William Emrich, a concept we covered already in the carbide fuel post, but will briefly review again at the end of this post.

Is Dumbo Really a Metal Reactor?

At the time, this was called a metal reactor, but there’s metal and there’s metal. Metal fuels aren’t uncommon in nuclear reactor design. CANDU reactors are one of the most common reactor types in operation today, and use metal fuel. New designs, such as Kilopower in space and the Westinghouse eVinci reactor on Earth, also use metal fuels, alloying the uranium with another metal to improve either the chemical, thermal, or nuclear properties of the fuel itself. However, there are a few general problems (and exceptions to those problems) with metal fuels. In general, metal fuels have a low melting point, which is exactly what is undesirable in a nuclear thermal rocket, where core temperature is the main driving factor to efficiency, even ahead of propellant mass. Additionally, there can be neutronic complications, in that many metals which are useful for the fuel material components are also neutron poisons, reducing the available power of the reactions in the core. On the flip side, metals generally offer the best thermal conductivity of any class of material.

CERMET fuel micrograph, image NASA

Rather than a metal alloy fuel such as CANDU or Kilopower reactors, Dumbo used uranium oxide embedded in a refractory metal matrix. For those that have been following the blog for a while, this isn’t metal, it’s CERMET (ceramic-metal composite), the same type of fuel that NASA is currently exploring with the LEU NTP program. However, the current challenges involved in developing this fuel type are a wonderful illustration as to why it was considered a stretch in the 1950s. For a more in-depth discussion on CERMET fuels, check out our blog post on CERMET fuels in their modern incarnation here: https://beyondnerva.com/2018/01/19/leu-ntp-part-two-cermet-fuel-nasas-path-to-nuclear-thermal-propulsion/

The metal matrix of these fuel elements was meant to be molybdenum initially, with the eventual stretch goal of using tungsten. Tungsten was still brand new, and remains a challenge to manufacture in certain cases. Metallurgists and fabricators are still working on improving our ability to use tungsten, and isotopically enriching it (in order to reduce the number of neutrons lost to the metal) is still beyond the technical capabilities of American metallurgical firms. The Dumbo fuel elements were to be stamped in order to account for the complex geometries involved, although there was a new set of challenges involved with this forming process, including ensuring even distribution of the fissile fuel through the stamped material.

Folded Flow Reactors: Why, and How Hard?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Dumbo wasn’t the material the fuel elements were made of, but the means of transferring the heat into the propellant. This was due to a couple of potential issues: first, the propellant passed through a more convoluted than typical path through the reactor, and second, the reactor was meant to be a laminar flow heat exchanger, the first time that this would have been done.

Dumbo fuel stack flow pattern, original image DOE

Each Dumbo core had a number of sets of fuel washers, moderator spacers, and securing components stacked into cylinders. The propellant would flow through the Be reflector, into the central opening of the fuel elements, and then flow out of the fuel elements, exiting around the perimeter of the cylinder. This would then be directed out the nozzle to provide thrust. By going through so many twists and turns, and having so much surface area available for heat transfer, the propellant could be more thoroughly heated than in a more typical prismatic fuel element, such as we see with the later Kiwi and Phoebus reactors. As with folded optics in telescopes, folded flow paths allow for more linear distance traveled in the same volume. A final advantage is that, because of the shape and arrangement of the washers, only a small amount of material would need to be tested, at a relatively minor 1.2 kW power level, to verify the material requirements of the reactor.

Timber Wind NTR, image DOE
Timber Wind NTR, image DOE

This sort of flow path isn’t unique to Dumbo. TRISO fuel, which use beads of fuel coated in pyrolitic carbon, fission product containment materials, and others have a very complex flow path through the reactor, increasing the linear distance traveled from one end of the core to the other well beyond the linear dimensions of the reactor. The differences mainly arise in the fuel geometry, not the concept of a non-axial flow.

The challenge is modeling the flow of the coolant through the bends in the reactor. It’s relatively easy to have hot spots develop if the fluid has to change directions in the wrong way, and conversely cold spots can develop as well. Ensuring that neither of these happen is a major challenge in heat exchanger design, a subject that I’m far from qualified to comment on.

The unique concept at the time was that this was meant to be a laminar flow heat exchanger (the fuel elements themselves form the heat exchanger). Laminar fluid flow, in broad terms, means that all of the molecules in the fluid are moving together. The opposite of laminar flow is turbulent flow, where eddies form in the fluid that move in directions other than the main direction of fluid flow. While the term may bring up images of white water rapids (and that’s not a bad place to start), the level of turbulence varies depending on the system, and indeed the level of turbulence in a heat exchanger modifies how much heat is transferred from the hot surface to the coolant fluid. Since the molecules are moving together in the same direction during laminar flow, the eddies that are a major component of heat transfer in some designs are no longer present, reducing the efficiency of heat transport through the working fluid. However, in some designs (those with a low Reynolds number, a characteristic of heat transfer capability) laminar flow can be more efficient than turbulent flow. For more discussion on the efficiency of laminar vs turbulent flow in heat exchangers, check out this paper by Patil et al: http://www.ijirset.com/upload/2015/april/76_Comparative-1.pdf .

For a rocket engine, the presence of laminar flow makes the rocket itself more efficient, since all of the molecules are moving in the same direction: straight out of the nozzle. The better collimated, or directional, the propellant flow is, the more thrust efficient the engine will be. Therefore, despite the fact that laminar flow is less efficient at transferring heat, the heat that is transferred can be more efficiently imparted as kinetic energy into the spacecraft.

In the case of Dumbo, the use of a large number of small orifices in the fuel elements allows for the complete transferrance of the heat of the nuclear reaction into the propellant, allowing for the efficient use of laminar flow heat exchange. This also greatly simplifies the basic design calculations of the fluid dynamics of the reactor, since laminar flow is easy to calculate, but turbulence requires complexity theory to fully model, a technique that didn’t exist at the time. However, establishing and maintaining laminar flow in the reactor was rightly seen as a major challenge at the time, and even over three decades later the challenges involved in this part of the design remained a point of contention about the feasibility of the laminar heat exchanger concept in this particular application.

Another distinct advantage to this layout is that the central annulus of each fuel element stack was filled with propellant that, while it had cooled the radial reflector, remained quite cool compared to the rest of the reactor. This meant that materials containing high hydrogen content, in this case a special form of plastic foam, could be distributed throughout the reactor. This meant that the neutron spectrum of the reactor could be more consistent, ensuring more uniform fissioning of the fuel across the active region of the reactor, and a material could be chosen that allows for greater neutron moderation than the graphite fuel element matrix of a Kiwi-type reactor. A variation of this concept can be seen as well with the Russian RD-0140 and -0411, which have all of their fuel around the outer circumference of the reactor’s pressure vessel and a large moderator column running down the center of the core. This allows the center of the core of the reactor to be far cooler, and contain far more themally sensitive materials as a result.

The Death of Dumbo

Sadly, the advantages of this reactor geometry weren’t sufficient to keep the program alive. In 1959, Dumbo gained the dubious distinction of being the first NTR concept that underwent study and development to be canceled in the US (perhaps even worldwide). Kiwi, the father and grandfather of all other Rover flight designs, was the winner, and the prismatic fuel element geometry remains the preferred design even today.

According to the Quarterly Status Report of LASL ROVER Program for Period Ending September 20, 1959, two factors caused the cancellation of the reactor: the first was that, despite early hopes, the reactor’s mass offered no advantages over an equivalent Kiwi reactor; the second was the challenges involved in the fabrication and testing of many of the novel components required, and especially the requirements of manufacturing and working the UO2/Mo CERMET fuel elements to a sufficiently precise degree, promised a long and difficult development process for the reactor to come to fruition.

Dumbo remained an interesting and attractive design to students of astronuclear engineering from that point on. Mentions of the concept occur in most summaries of NTR design history, but sadly, it never attracted funding to be developed. Even the public who are familiar with NTRs have heard of Dumbo, even if they aren’t familiar with any of the details. Just last month, there was a thread started on NASASpaceFlight Forum about Dumbo, and reviving the concept in the public eye once again.

The Rebirth of Dumbo: the Advanced Dumbo Rocket

Advanced Dumbo fuel element stack. Notice the change in fuel shape due to the different material properties. Image NASA

In 1991, there was a major conference attended by NASA, DOE, and DOD personnel on the subject of NTRs, and the development of the next generation NTR system for American use to go to Mars. At this conference, Bill Kirk of Los Alamos National Labs presented a paper on Dumbo, which he was involved in during its first iteration, and called for a revival of what he called a “folded flow washer type” NTR. This proposal, though, discarded the UO2/Mo CERMET fuel type in favor of a UC-ZrC carbide fuel element, to increase the fuel element maximum temperature. For a more in-depth look at carbide fuel elements, and their use in NTRs, check out the carbide fuel element post here. As we discussed in the carbide post, there are problems with thermal stress cracking and complex erosive behaviors in carbide fuel elements, but the unique form factor of the grooved disc allows for better distribution of the stresses, less continuous structural components to the fuel elements themselves, allowing for better thermal behavior and less erosion. Another large change from the classic Dumbo to the Advanced Dumbo was that the fluid flow through the reactor wasn’t meant to be laminar, and turbulent behavior was considered acceptable in this iteration. Other changes, including reflector geometry, were also incorporated, to modernize the concept’s support structures and ancillary equipment.

Timber Wind reactor, image Winchell Chung Atomic Rockets

Once again, though, the Dumbo concept, as well as the other concepts presented that had a folded flow pattern, were not selected. Instead, this conference led to the birth of the Timber Wind program, a pebble bed reactor design that we’ll cover in the future. Again, though, the concept of increasing the surface area compared to the axial length of the reactor was an inherent part of this design, and a TRISO pebble bed reactor shares some of the same advantages as a washer-type reactor would.

The Second Rebirth: the Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR

Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR fuel element stack. Notice the return of more complex geometry as materials design and fabrication of carbides has improved. Image NASA

Washer type reactors live today, and in many ways the current iteration of the design is remarkably similar to the Advanced Dumbo concept. Today, the research is centered in the Marshall Space Flight Center, with both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee being partners in the program. The Tricarbide Grooved Ring NTR (TCGR) was originally proposed in 2017, by Brian Taylor and Bill Emrich. While Bill Kirk is not mentioned in any of the papers on this new iteration of this reactor geometry, the carbide grooved washer architecture is almost identical to the Advanced Dumbo, so it’s reasonable to assume that the TCGR design is at least inspired by the Advanced Dumbo concept of 27 years before (Bill Emrich is a very old hand in NTR design and development, and was active at the time of the conference mentioned above).

The latest iteration, the TCGR, is a design that we covered in the carbide fuel element post, and because of this, as well as the gross similarities between the Advanced Dumbo and TCGR, we won’t go into many details here. If you want to learn more, please check out the TCGR page here: insert link. The biggest differences between the Advanced Dumbo and TCGR were the flow pattern and the fuel element composition.

The flow pattern is a simple change in one way, but in another way there’s a big difference: rather than the cold end of the reactor being the central annular portion of the fuel element stack, the cold end became the exterior of the stack, with the hot propellant/coolant running down the center of the core. This difference is a fairly significant one from a fluid dynamics point of view, where the gas flow from the “hot end” of the reactor itself to the nozzle turns from a more diffuse set of annular shaped gas flows into a series of columns coming out of each fuel element cluster; whether this is easier to work with or not, and what the relative advantages are, is beyond my understanding, but [take this with a grain of salt, this is speculation] it seems like the more collimated gas flows would be able to integrate more easily into a single gaseous flow through the nozzle.

Similarly to the simple but potentially profound change in the propellant flow path, the fuel element composition change is significant as well. Rather than just using the UC-ZrC fuel composition, the TCGR uses a mix of uranium, zirconium, and tantalum carbides, in order to improve both thermal properties as well as reduce stress fractures. For more information on this particular carbide type, check out the carbides post!

Funding is continuing for this concept, and while the focus is primarily on the CERMET LEU NTP engine under development by BWXT, the TCGR is still a viable and attractive concept, and one that balances the advantages and disadvantages of the washer-type, folded flow reactor. As more information on this fascinating reactor becomes available, I’ll post updates on the reactor’s page!

More Coming Soon!

This was the first of a new series, the Forgotten Reactors. Next week will be another post in the series, looking at the SP-100 reactor. We won’t look at the reactor in too much depth, because it shares a lot of similarities with the SNAP-50 reactor’s final iteration; instead we’ll look at the most unique thing about this reactor: it was designed to be both launched and recovered by the Space Shuttle, leading to some unique challenges. While the STS is no longer flying, this doesn’t mean that the lessons learned with this design process are useless, because they will apply to a greater or lesser extent to every reactor recovery operation that will be performed in the future, and well as the challenges of having a previously-turned-on reactor in close proximity to the crew of a spacecraft with minimal shielding between the payload compartment and the crew cabin.

Sources

Dumbo — A Pachydermal Rocket Motor, DOE ID LAMS-1887 McInteer et al, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory 1955

A Metal Dumbo Rocket Reactor, DOE ID LA-2091, Knight et al, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory 1957 https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/07/265/7265972.pdf?r=1&r=1

Quarterly Status Report of LASL Rover Program for Period Ending Sept 20, 1959, LAMS-2363

Dumbo, a Pachydermal Rocket Motor [Advanced Dumbo], Kirk, Los Alamos National Laboratory 1992 https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19920001882.pdf

Investigation of a Tricarbide Grooved Ring Fuel Element for a Nuclear Thermal Rocket, NASA ID 20170008951 Taylor et al NASA MSFC 2017
Conference paper: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20170008951.pdf
Presentation slides: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20170008940.pdf