Much has always been made about using the moon to further manís exploration of the solar system, or of exploiting its vast mineral wealth. However, the moon can be used to perform one other very vital function that may be essential to the future of humanity--as a dumping ground for elements, both natural and human, that are undesirable here on Earth. A quarter million miles away, with no air and no native ecology, the moon seems like the perfect place for things like performing dangerous superscience experiments, dumping radioactive waste, or exiling hardened criminals.
Hot labs would most likely not be part of any mainstream moonbase or colony, and would be located far from them. The founding government and/or organization would have invested far too much in establishing and building a moonbase to risk its possible destruction or contamination by a hot lab experiment gone wrong. Therefore, lunar hot labs would be their own independent outposts, with their own life support, power supply, habitat facilities, and so on. Depending on the nature of the experiments and/or their secrecy, a hot lab may or may not interact with a mainstream moonbase.
It would very difficult to hide the existence of a hot lab, for at least the first few decades of a permanent manned presence on the Moon. Lunar Rover and Hopper activity that would be needed to construct, supply, and maintain the base could be easily spotted from lunar orbit as well as Earth.
The exact configuration and resources available at a hot lab facility would depend greatly on the types of experiments that are designed to be conducted there. Like most manned facilities on the moon, however, most if not all of it would be located underground. One radical feature a lunar hot lab may have that a mainstream moonbase would lack would be a self-destruct mechanism, most likely an array of powerful explosives, perhaps even nuclear in nature.
The kinds of experiments a lunar hot lab may engage in include viral and microbial genetic engineering, advanced nanotechnology, advanced nuclear research, biohazard containment, weapons technology, advanced particle research, quantum engineering, and so on. Basically anything that could be considered too hazardous, either locally or globally, to conduct on Earth. A number of pundits, among them science fiction writer Larry Niven, assert that establishment of hot labs on the moon may be essential to the future of human survival, as some technologies may lead to global catastrophe if unleashed on Earth.
Where to dump radioactive and other hazardous waste has been a quandary since the first nuclear power plants went into operation. Many of the waste byproducts of nuclear fission will remain toxic for tens of thousands of years. There are very few places on the surface of the Earth where they can be stored with no danger of these radioactive toxins leaking into the surrounding ecology.
But the Moon, of course, has no ecology one has to worry about. A cold, dead, lifeless rock, the moon would seem like a perfect place to dump all the radioactive waste we could ever produce. Indeed, this idea has been taken up by a number of science fiction sources, including the 1970s sci-fi series Space: 1999 and the short story "The Girl In Del Rey Crater" by Larry Niven.
However, there are a number of problems, both physical and political, with this solution.
First and foremost would be economic. The US currently has 77,000 tons of radioactive waste waiting for permanent disposal. At current launch costs of thousands of dollars per pound, the cost of lifting all that mass into a lunar trajectory, even using off-the-shelf, reliable vehicles like Delta or Energia rockets, would be immensely prohibitive.
Second, the outcry against such a scheme in todayís political climate would be enormous. Even the most reliable space vehicles tend to have launch failures, and even very occasionally they explode upon lift-off. A single launch explosion could potentially spread extremely toxic radioactive material over hundreds of kilometers. Legal challenges were raised against the Galileo and Cassini interplanetary probes because they contained several kilos of radioactive material as power sources. Imagine the kind of uproar that would result from the public sector if space agencies began launching dozens of tons of even more toxic material with every launch.
Finally, there would be the question of how exactly the radioactive material will be delivered to the Moon. Just smashing it onto the surface, or even into a deep crater, may not be a desirable act. Because the moonís gravity is so much lighter, a high-speed impact would likely spread radioactive debris over a much larger area on the moon than on Earth. Since a manned presence on he Moon is now deemed inevitable, radioactive particulate from these impacts may present an untenable hazard to human crews, and could even shut the Moon down permanently as a venue for manned exploration.
Engineers have developed hard, near-impenetrable casings for radioactive the material used on the Galileo and Cassini probes, but those were small, compact modules each containing only a small amount of the material. Whether anyone could do the same economically with multi-ton payloads of radioactive waste remains to be seen.
If a nuclear waste dump on the moon were ever to become a reality, the waste would have to be soft-landed on the surface, adding even more to what would already be a very costly venture. The waste would mostly be stored in a steep-walled crater or buried. Lava tubes would perhaps also seem like a good spot for such a repository, but on the moon large lava tubes near the surface would also be premium colony real estate and more than likely they would be preserved for future habitats.
For many decades after the first permanent manned presence is established on the Moon, it will likely be home to the best that humanity has to offer, people to whom we can trust to properly develop such a new frontier.
However, as lunar habitation wears on decade after decade and the costs of sending personnel the quarter million miles to the moon diminish, the moon will begin to look like a very desirable place to hold undesirables and criminals.
A prison on the moon would have many advantages, at least as far as deterring escape attempts and riot outbreaks. Its immensely far from Earth and the prison would be surrounded by hard vacuum. No chance digging a tunnel anywhere would do a prisoner any good, and a hop over the wall, as it were, would mean instant death. Also, like with any lunar colony or base, it would take a great many sophisticated systems to keep a prison just life-supporting, much less comfortable. Any violence or riots could threaten to destroy vital equipment, endangering everyone. That is not to say escapes and riots and such would not happen, but they would be much more complicated and harder to engineer successfully on the Moon than on Earth.
This is in addition to the hurdle presented by gravity adaptation--after a few months, the prisoners would adapt to the lunar gravity, so much so that even if they somehow found the means to escape back to Earth, Earthís gravity would render them near-helpless for days until they began to re-adapt. Of course, by the time lunar prisons are probably built there may likely be a large habitable infrastructure on the Moon that the prisoner can hide in instead.
Like all lunar habitats big and small, a lunar prison would either have to be located underground or buried under lunar dust and rock for radiation protection. Much has been made in sci-fi sources of prisoners on alien planets being used as slave labor, but as teleoperated rovers would probably be much cheaper and more efficient than what it would cost to keep a prisoner alive on the moon, this would make little economic sense. If used as a labor at all, it would probably be small, make-work jobs, such as tending to lunar gardens and parks, vacuuming habitats of lunar dust, and so on.
In the Media
Space: 1999, et al
"The Girl in Del Rey Crater" by Larry Niven, collected in the Scatterbrain short story anthology.
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