Nuclear dampers are also called nuclear suppressors or neutralizers. They are used in the Traveller RPG universe and have also been seen Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series.
Because of their use in preventing nuclear explosions, dampers are usually referred to as a defensive technology. However, they could have a number of other useful applications, including being possible precursor technology to disintegrator weapons and large-scale matter transmutation.
The workings of the Foundation nuclear damper was left conveniently obscure, by the Traveller version postulates creating quantum-effect fields that can manipulate the Strong nuclear force.
The Strong force is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, along with gravity, electromagnetism, and the Weak nuclear force. It is responsible for holding atomic nuclei together, and is on the order of 50,000 times the strength of the electromagnetic force. It has to be, in order to overcome the mutual repulsion of positively-charged protons at the center of an atom. However, it is also active over the shortest distance—particles have to be literally the distance of an atomic nucleus away in order to feel its influence.
The electromagnetic force and the Weak nuclear force have already been positively linked together in particle experiments, indicating that they both fractured away from the same superforce, sometimes called the electro-weak force, shortly after the Big Bang. Some very tenuous evidence has emerged that the electro-weak force and the Strong force could also be similarly linked. With sophisticated enough technology, it is therefore theoretically possible that the electromagnetic and Weak forces can serve as bridges to access aspects of the Strong force.
Whether this can lead to technology such as nuclear dampers in the real world is unknown. If they do prove possible, however, their impact on human technical potential could be profound.
The most straight-forward application is to use the damper field to weaken the Strong nuclear force within its area of effect. While for most matter there won’t be any noticeable change, for radioactive material such as enriched uranium and plutonium it would allow atomic nuclei to shed neutrons at much lower energy levels, in effect allowing the Weak nuclear force to become more dominant. So instead of a massively energetic chain reaction that could lead to a city-flattening mushroom cloud, the nuclear core quickly decays into inert non-radioactive elements. This affects hydrogen bombs as well as atomic bombs, as the former uses a fission explosion to propagate its fusion chain reaction.
Dampers can also be used to neutralize dangerous low-level radioactive material and contaminated areas as well as prevent the operation of nuclear fission reactors. Each application will also result in the brief release of neutronic radiation as the radioactive material is rendered inert.
Extremely powerful dampers could possibly suppress the Strong force altogether, resulting in the complete breakdown of all atomic nuclei in the area of effect. This disintegration effect would lead to a completely new class of devastating weapons.
If it proves possible to suppress the Strong nuclear force, it should also be possible to enhance it as well, slowing down or stopping atomic nuclei from shedding neutrons altogether. This would stop all fission reactions within the area of effect, and may enhance some types of fusion.
A nuclear enhancer would also help to keep radioactive material from decaying, rendering nuclear power plants useless. Many higher transuranic elements are notoriously unstable and short-lived, but under the influence of a nuclear enhancer they could go from being laboratory curiosities to materials with actual practical applications. Their integration into different devices could lead to a number of revolutionary breakthroughs in chemistry, materials science, and a host of other disciplines.
Its assumed that stronger enhancement fields will be necessary to hold larger and more unstable nuclei together. For example, an enhancer designed to hold together californium (which is highly unstable and sheds toxic amounts of neutron radiation) is generally assumed to require more power and put out a more potent field than one designed to keep uranium, which is stable and long-lived, from decaying.
Dampers and enhancers are commonly envisioned as separate machines, but their functions could be combined into a single device. In fact, in the Traveller universe, its impossible to have one without the other, as nuclear manipulators are dictated by the laws of physics there to be bipolar devices. The device creates both a field that weakens the Strong force at one point and a field that enhances it at another. The distance between the poles could be merely a few meters or many kilometers, depending on the size and power of the device. The desired effect is achieved by directing the correct pole at the target.
One of the anticipated uses for nuclear enhancers is in the creation and operation of so-called nuclear mortars. Basically, normally highly unstable elements with a low critical mass, such as californium, are integrated into artillery shells under the influence of an enhancer field. Because the elements’ nuclei are artificially stabilized, they can be transported, handled, and even fired much like conventional artillery with little worry.
However, once the launched shell leaves the enhancement field, the instability of its nuclei re-establishes itself. The impact of the shell on its target is enough force to send it critical, resulting in a miniature nuclear explosion.
These are usually called ‘mortars’ in order to reflect how small the shells can be made, but can really be used with almost any size or type of artillery.
Traveller RPG, et al
The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
On The Web:
The Strong Nuclear Force
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