The US Navy Once Tried Using Nuclear-Powered Wetsuits To Keep Divers Warm

The Navy once tried using nuclear-powered wetsuits to keep divers warm

The ocean is an inhospitable place for soft, land-based human bodies. It's dark, oxygenless, and, perhaps most intractable of all, really cold. At the pressure of certain depths, neoprene suits will compress and lose their insulating power. The air in tanks also gets cold, so divers become chillier with each breath. But in the '60s the US Navy thought it had an ingenious solution to it all: nuclear power.

In a blog post on Medium, Steven Meintz, lays out the long, fraught history of the cold wetsuit, in which the most fascinating development is the radioisotope swimsuit heater. In the '60s, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was trying very hard to prove that nuclear energy was good for more than killing people. It ended up helping the Navy create a wetsuit powered by plutonium-238.

Plutonium-238 is a byproduct of nuclear weapons production, but it also happens to be the ideal nuclear fuel for wetsuits — once you accept a nuclear-powered wetsuit is a good idea in the first place. It emits a lot of radiation, but only the kind that is easy to shield from. In this wetsuit design, almost a kilogram of plutonium-238 is placed inside a canister, where it radiates heat to a series of fluid-filled tubes lining the suit.

The Navy once tried using nuclear-powered wetsuits to keep divers warm

A schematic of the radioisotope heater from the AEC's patent via Atomic Skies

When the Navy actually tested the suit, it did not... work so well. "It is concluded that the system in its present state is incapable of maintaining thermal balance in a diver at depth, and its use under SEALAB III conditions would entail a grave risk of hypothermia," Navy researchers wrote. As the Atomic Skies blog points out, this may be because the Navy couldn't get enough plutonium-238.

Indeed, the radioactive isotope is hard to come by — and even harder to come by now that the US is no longer making nuclear weapons. Today, plutonium-238 is still used to power space probes like Voyager and Curiosity travelling in the cold, dark parts of our solar system (and beyond). Even NASA's stockpile is rapidly running out, and they have just restarted a $US50 million program to make 1.5kg of plutonium-238 year. It would have been one expensive, warm wetsuit.

Pictures: Atomic Energy Commission Report via Atomic Skies

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    It's worth mentioning that Pu-238 cannot sustain a chain reaction and therefore can't be used to create a nuclear weapon.

    Apparently it's not even as toxic as its reputation suggests (not that eating the stuff is a good idea).

      That is true, Pu-238 emits largely Alpha particles, which can't penetrate the skin.

    Aye, the idea of a 'plutonium economy' in the US was viable. All sorts of applications, the most obvious of which is grabbing some plutonium from the grocery store to use for home heating. Probably not such a great idea though, plutonium is insidious if you metabolize it, and it can be inhaled if machined or absorbed if you fondle it too much, so it would suck if people didn't dispose of it intelligently.

    I remember a chemist describing a visit to a foreign plant which claimed to refine plutonium, so he asked to hold a piece. It was the right weight, and gave off the right amount of heat, so he concluded it was probably plutonium.

    The same chemist ended up a nuclear arms inspector, and whenever he was shown rotors which he thought might be for nuclear centrifuges, he always asked to touch them, because apparently the oils on your hands are enough to permanently and irrecoverably screw the balance!

    Speaking of inspectors, anyone who thinks Iraq never intended to make nukes should google 'Iraq's Calutrons'.

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