Sunday, February 3, 2008

Nuclear Powered Lighthouse

The events of September 11, 2001 shed a new light on the world as we knew it. Terrorism hit home and became a concern for all of us here in the U.S.
The recent developments in North Korea and Iran, as well as other countries throughout the world, have put nuclear reactors and the threat of nuclear war on the front burner.
Just think what could happen if any of these entities were to get their hands on a nuclear powered lighthouse! Think that's far-fetched? Never heard of a nuclear powered lighthouse? Believe it or not, nuclear powered lighthouses have existed in what is now the former Soviet Union. Even the U. S. had, for a time, a nuclear powered lighthouse, as well as a few buoys.
Surprising? Maybe, but during the mid-1960's, the world was a much different place.
Baltimore Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay was built to mark the entrance to the Baltimore channel at the mouth of the Magothy River. Begun in 1894, the lighthouse wasn't completed and lit until 1908, a full 14 years later!
This became one of the most difficult and challenging aids to navigation the U. S. Government ever undertook. The desired site probes found that there was a full fifty-five feet of soft mud on the floor of the ocean. On top of that, the lighthouse had to be able to withstand 30,000 pounds of ice pressure per square foot during the winter months, 100 MPH winds, and a constant 3MPH current.
The 1894 allotment for this project was for $60,000, and in 1899 tests were conducted to see if a screwpile foundation, common on the Chesepeake with the likes of Thomas Point Shoals, Drum Point, and others, was a feasible option. The test failed miserably and the original allotment was found to be extremely lacking. In 1902, after much haggling and debate, Congress approved an allotment of another $60,000 in order to build a caisson-type "sparkplug" lighthouse.
Bidding for the project was conducted in 1903, and only one bid was received, a full $80,000 more than the budget allowed! The bid was rejected.
The request for more money was sent back to Congress, and another $60,000 was alloted to the project. The original allotment of $60,000 had now tripled to $180,000!
Once again the lighthouse was put out to bid, and once again it received only one bid. This time, the new bid received came in under the alloted budget and was approved.
Construction of the lighthouse was finally begun in 1904. The first section of the 30-foot diameter base was towed to the site from the Lazaretto Lighthouse Depot near Baltimore, MD. Predictions of this being one of the most difficult lighthouse projects to ever be attempted in the country rang true, and very quickly, at that.
Two days after the base piece arrived on scene, high seas filled the inside and tilted it about seven feet. It only had been sunk 8 feet into the ground at that point. Before the base could be righted, a major storm struck the area and caused the base to turn on its side. Exasperated, the contractor abandoned the scene, never to return.
The government sued the contractor, and the insurance company which had bonded him was forced to step in and complete the job. For three years, they attempted to right the base, and finally succeeded in getting it into its proper position and sunk into the shoal the required 82 feet below the high water mark. The remainder of the lighthouse was then built on top of the caisson and completed in 1908.
The lighthouse lived a "normal" life for the next 56 years until 1964, when an experimental nuclear reactor was installed. The strontium-90, (a radioactive isotope), reactor was described as being "smaller than a 55-gallon drum" and was expected to power the lighthouse for ten years without maintenance or refueling. It was activated on May 21, 1964.
Perhaps the reason why the nuclear reactor was installed was the fact that the government was given it, at no cost. A company which was researching and developing nuclear reactors for various applications paid for the reactor and installation, with the stipulation that it could conduct tests on the feasability of its use. The same company also paid for reactors in a number of buoys, oil rigs, and on an Antarctic weather station.
By 1966, the reactor had been removed from the lighthouse. Citing "environmental impact issues", (more likely cost was the major factor for discontinuing the reactor, as the issuing company stipulated that at the end of the test period, the government would have to buy the reactor and assume all costs). The lighthouse then reverted back to a conventional power source.
Can you imagine what the impact would be in today's world if the Baltimore Lighthouse remained nuclear powered? Also, what damage to the environment would have occured? Also noteworthy would be the fact that if the Baltimore Lighthouse was successful as a nuclear powered structure, would that mean that others would also be converted to nuclear power? If lighthouses were successfully powered by nuclear reactors, would that lead to other type structures? (Don't forget, there were a few buoys which were nuclear powered as well at that time. Thankfully, those were only test sites as well and now have more conventional and safer power sources). Makes one wonder what almost was......

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Anonymous Baltimore Harbor Light said...

As the new keepers of Baltimore Harbor Light, we have done some research into the story of the Strontium 90 atomic fuel cell that onboard the light. While still a hazardous device if not handled properly, the atomic fuel cell does differ from a reactor. This device which was about the size of a 55 gallin drum, was to produce 60 watts of continuous power for a minimum of 10 years without re fuelling. Once source has indicated that this fuel cell is still in use today, on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. We are working to verify this information, considering that would that it has lasted over 4 times as long as originally planned.

There are some stories on the web about the numerous Soviet lighthouse and how their fuel cells have been stripped for scrap metal.

February 23, 2008 at 11:10 PM  
Blogger Cape Cod Roland said...

Very interesting! Please keep us updated on your findings.

February 24, 2008 at 8:33 AM  
Blogger Colin Gebhart said...

It's not likely the RTG is still being used on an oil rig. I think the onus should be on your source to provide some evidence. Strontium-90 has a half life of 28.8 years. After 1.5 half lives and the natural degradation of the thermocouples, it would be making less than 20 watts of its original 60 watt output. That is too little power, and the environmental / economic liability would be too great to make it worthwhile.

January 12, 2009 at 5:33 PM  
Blogger Cape Cod Roland said...

Thanks for the comment, Colin.
Yes, it sounds legitimate, but for the record and for the integrity of both yourself and this blog, could you please provide us with your credentials.

January 12, 2009 at 8:45 PM  

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