Monthly Archives: February 2013

Nuclear mines in the Bay of Naples

During the Cold War the USSR considered the Bay of Naples, off the south-west coast of Italy, to be an important strategic location. They considered it so important that K-8, a November-class submarine, was tasked with mining the area with nuclear torpedo mines.

The Bay of Naples


Project 627A November-class submarine

A torpedo mine is laid anchored to the sea floor and waits patiently to be activated. Once activated, the mine uses passive sonar to listen for an approaching submarine. Once an enemy submarine is detected and within range, the mine’s torpedo is automatically launched. It then tracks and destroys its target as a normal torpedo would.

K-8, the submarine said to have carried out the operation on 10th January 1970, originally carried a complement of twenty-four mines. Three months later, during a large-scale naval exercise two fires occurred simultaneously in two different compartments aboard K-8, causing all hands to abandon the boat. As it was being towed for repairs through the Bay of Biscay it sank in rough seas – allegedly with only four mines still aboard – killing fifty-two members of the crew.

It is alleged that the nuclear mines are still in place, but after more than forty years they are very unlikely to still be functioning. Still, they may pose a serious contamination risk as they rust and degrade.

Disclaimer: It’s worth noting that this information comes from Mario Scaramella, who has been the subject of some controversy. The IAEA lists the event as “not confirmed” in a report entitled Inventory of Accidents and Losses at Sea Involving Radioactive Material.


A bhangmeter is a radiometer, a device that measures the power of electromagnetic radiation. Most people are already familiar with one type of radiometer, the Crooke’s radiometer, which detects infrared radiation.


A Crooke’s radiometer. The higher the flux of infrared radiation the faster it spins.

Bhangmeters are placed on reconnaissance satellites* in order to detect nuclear weapon detonations and to measure their yield. Bhangmeters are designed to look for the characteristic “double flash” created when nuclear weapons detonate: the first initial bright flash being caused by the actual detonation of the weapon and the second being caused when the ionised gas shock wave cools enough to allow light from the fireball to escape.

The name “bhangmeter” was created by Frederick Reines (who later won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on detecting neutrinos), who suggested that one would have to be on bhang (an Indian drink made from marijuana) to believe that the detector would work.

* The US Department of Defense’s GPS satellites also carry bhangmeters.

Halley VI Research Station

brunt-ice-shelfThe Brunt Ice Shelf, with the Brunt Ice Falls behind it.

One of the problems with building a research station located* on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica is that the Brunt Ice Shelf is floating on the Weddell Sea. Not only do you have to keep jacking-up the base of the station to prevent it from being buried by accumulating snow, but you also run the risk of the entire ice shelf calving away as an iceberg.

The UK’s Halley VI Research Station, which was officially opened on 5th February, has been designed to combat both of these issues. The base sits on legs that can be hydraulically raised to prevent it from being submerged by snow, and at the end of each leg are skis that allow the entire base to be moved to a new location if and when it becomes necessary.



Close-up view of Halley VI’s legs.


The station is designed to be modular, making construction and maintenance easier. The blue modules are science modules, and the central red module is the main space for eating, drinking and recreation.


Halley’s primary purpose is atmospheric research. It was at Halley in 1985 that the hole in the ozone layer was discovered.

* The Brunt Ice Shelf is in the north-west quadrant of Antarctica, in an area claimed by the UK but also by Argentina and Chile.

Standby power

We are constantly being bombarded with messages to turn devices off at the mains, rather than leaving them on standby. But is it worth it? How much energy does this actually save?


According to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory a television left on standby uses about one-and-a-half watts. For comparison purposes, a power shower uses between 7500 and 10800 watts. That means that for one fewer ten-minute (9 kW) shower you can leave your TV on standby for another forty-one days and still have used less electricity than you would have.

A study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that people were far more likely to select curtailment activities (turning things off) rather than efficiency savings (like cutting a minute off your shower), despite efficiency savings being more likely to reduce energy consumption. Turning devices off at the mains, rather than making choices that would save far more energy, is another example of this.



The first firearms (e.g. muzzleloaders and muskets) were smoothbored, with barrels that were essentially smooth metal tubes. Towards the end of the fifteenth century rifling was invented, creating spiralled grooves in the barrels that caused the projectile being fired to spin along its axis.


A cutaway cross-section through a 105-millimetre tank gun, showing the barrel’s rifling.

A projectile that spins along its axis is gyroscopically stabilised and therefore more aerodynamic and accurate; for example, the stabilising effect of the spin prevents the projectile from “tumbling” in flight. Short, large-diameter projectiles (e.g. lead shot) require only low twist rates, whereas longer and thinner projectiles (e.g. rifle rounds) require faster twist rates, one turn per twenty centimetres or more.


In some cases the twist rate will increase down the length of the barrel, this is known as gain twist and helps reduce wear and tear on the barrel.