This Is How the US Navy Tried to Heat Wetsuits with Nuclear Power

by Owen James Burke

gizplutonium.jpg This Is How the US Navy Tried to Heat Wetsuits with Nuclear Power

The radioactive wetsuit. Photo: AEC

Nuclear energy was getting a bad rap in the 1960s for obvious reasons, despite the advances it brought to powering NASA’s spaceships and early pacemaker prototypes. In order to prove that it could be used for more than just destruction, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was coming up with just about every imaginable scheme they could conjure to convince the public that the metal — which happens to be fairly benign, as radioactive substances go — held viable and economically efficient applications.

So the AEC approached the US Navy with an idea to heat wetsuits with plutonium-238, a byproduct of nuclear weapons production.

Even though it generates a lot of radiation, plutonium-238 is easier to shield than other forms of nuclear energy, and because it mostly releases alpha particles that don’t penetrate skin (as opposed to beta particles, which do cause significant decay), it’s deemed to be relatively safe. Still, can you help but imagine what your insides might look like after a few years of surfing with this stuff slushing around in your wetsuit?

gizplutonium1.jpg 640x229 This Is How the US Navy Tried to Heat Wetsuits with Nuclear Power

A schematic of the plutonium-238 radioactive isotope heater AEC’s patent

Ultimately deemed inneffective, the wetsuit was hooked up to a canister with almost a whole kilogram of plutonium-238, which radiated heat through a series of bladders, or chambers, within the suit. The problem, apart from the obscene cost of production and, you know, exposure to radiation — little as there may have been — was that the bladders did not evenly distribute heat, and divers were still at risk of becoming hypothermic.

Furthermore, to transfer a concept like this over to surf would have been impossible. First of all, you’d have to fit a miniature scuba tank onto your back, and secondly, if a kilogram of plutonium0-238 wasn’t enough, keeping in mind the added weight of the tank, you’d have a hard time dropping in, let alone duck-diving.

Today, the US no longer produces plutonium-238 (it’s bought from Russia), and there are now wetsuit liners like Thermalution (~$200) which depending on water temperature can last for up to two and a half hours and work in depths of up to 230 feet.

But the navy is still looking for a heat source for their compression divers. Day in, day out they spend several hours at depths reaching 600 feet, wearing nothing more under their suits for insulation than they were fifty years ago: their long johns.

Read more at Gizmodo Australia — OB

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