funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
Instead of several reactors venting steam/smoke, I would instead like you to imagine this area in Sendai covered with a grove of trees in area comparable to the nuclear power plants.

I would now like you to light it up, all the trees on fire. Look at the smoke. Now, go to your mapping software of choice and look at your position on Planet Earth relative to Sendai.

If you don't think you would see the smoke from a fire of this size (rather small) at your current location, then you no have reason to be concerned about the fallout because the atmospheric transport mechanisms are exactly the same. In fact, fallout of the radioactive materials of concern are a bit less of a worry because the elements and isotopes of highest concern tend to be rather dense and not travel well. To move it around the world by getting material to the high winds of the stratosphere, you have to have a very large and/or very energetic fire.

Of course, moving material to that height in the air column also means global dilution as you spread it everywhere. Other than the immediate reactor vicinity, no one place gets particularly crapped up.
So, think of your last wildfire, think how large it was and how far away, think how the winds blew and what you saw. Now, compare that with the size of the reactor complex.
With that, please go back to contemplating the horror of the two disasters that actually happened to Japan rather than the one people are working hard to prevent. The reason the reactors are such a pain in the butt to get under control right now is because it is taking Japan...JAPAN, people!!!...nearly a week to get emergency power supplied to the pumps for these reactors. That is how badly the earthquake and tsunami have fucked up the basic infrastructure of the area.

I'm pretty tired of explaining things to people that seem to want this to be catastrophic nuclear doom for the world. I do not understand why this narrative is appealing and makes intuitive sense to people. Wait, yes I do; Doom By Man's Hubris is a classical theme. Damn my GM storytelling experience.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
***Cross-posted from Funranium Labs***

While I like to keep my discussions here coffee, beer, and historical science related some things just can’t be ignored especially when people keep poking me for answers. So, I have some thoughts that are quite lacking in insobriety.

First, I am not a nuclear engineer, contrary to how more than a few people have referred to me; I am a health physicist. It is the purpose of my field to keep radiation doses as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA, as the acronym goes) for radiation workers and the public. More often than not, this means protecting the radiation sources from people as humans are rather dangerous when we ignorantly play with fire. So, I cannot definitively speak to the quality of the reactor’s construction or it’s current post-earthquake condition, though I’m pretty sure no one builds reactors with a M9.0 quake in mind (certainly not the outbuildings that held the cooling & filtration systems that have been damaged). The job of a health physicist is now to protect the public from an accident that has gone beyond the confines of the reactor. For that, I can say things:
  1. If you do not live in northern Honshu, you do not have cause for panic. The radiation release from the reactor has been localized to the immediate vicinity. A downwind plume exposure pathway emergency planning zone (~10mi radius) as already been evacuated. A wider 50 mile radius will be drawn for confiscation of foodstuffs to minimize any potential ingestion of radioactive iodine & cesium.
  2. Please be understanding of the fact that thousands are dead from a tsunami and earthquake with associated services badly disrupted. Terrifying as a nuclear reactor having trouble may seem to you via television report, there are much more lethal and immediate problems than the reactor to the people who are still in the middle of this. Just getting there to help is a logistical nightmare. Contamination can be cleaned up, but people can’t be unkilled. Life saving takes precedence over property & environment.
  3. Normal operations of a nuclear reactor involves the operation of air and water monitoring stations in the facility itself and area environmental monitors for many miles around. A tsunami is likely to have broken more than few of those, but many more mobile units were rushed to the scene. This is how we are keeping track of what has been/is being released to the surrounding area from the reactor.
  4. Radioactive materials are being released to the air in the form of radioactive steam and water. Dissolved metals in the water and small particulates are particularly prone to becoming activated and thus radioactive, especially without a functional cooling and filtration loop to clean the water up. The radioactivity is very short lived, in general on the order of minutes to about a week, but rather nasty while it is present.
  5. Reports have indicated the presence of small quantities radioiodine and radiocesium in monitoring. This indicates that some of the nuclear fuel cladding has been damaged due to overheating.
  6. Unless ordered by a medical professional, DO NOT self-administer prophylactic iodine or Prussian blue treatments to protect against radioiodine & radiocesium uptake. These treatments carry some significant metabolic risks at the body saturating doses necessary to offer protection.
  7. Please don’t mob the health professionals. They are badly outnumbered and doing their best. People with burns and crush injuries take precedence over potential radioactive materials uptake every time. Your latency for cancer is 40 years; their latency for a crushed arm may only be minutes. Do not be upset when they press-gang you for assistance at the triage station rather than treat you like victim, because you are still ambulatory and capable.
  8. The symptoms of acute radiation sickness (ARS) begin with vomiting. There’s an awful lot of things that may cause vomiting in a disaster situation like this, not the least of which is stress and psychosomatic response. At this point we will segregate you and watch for further advancement of symptoms. At present, only one person who has presented with symptoms that has had an actual radioactive materials uptake; his dose was less the 1/10th the what is normally associated with associated with ARS.
If you want to help with all of this, please, instead of buying a Stein of Science or Black Blood of the Earth go donate to the Red Cross. You will do far more good than staring at the TV with growing panic. Several colleagues I rather respect are already on their way to Japan to help with the reactor problems and I wish them the best. As endless a supply of caffeine as I can make is going with them.

I also recommend watching for announcements to come through the International Atomic Energy Agency, American Nuclear Society, and World Nuclear News.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)

Orders have come from another hemisphere to provide a story.  I think I can do that.  I ask you to bear with my grammar and spelling as it is not up to my usual brain skipping quality.

What is the most important part of all this?  The Castle Bravo Test was the first in a series of eight detonations known as Operation Ivy.

That's right.  That's where the band's name came from.

funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
Today, I would like to tell you about the first nuclear power plant accident along with a few of my thoughts about it because some mystery remains. The problem is, I don't quite have it straight in my head yet. So let's leave it at this for the moment:

Date: January 3, 1961
Time: 0901 PST
Location: Stationary Low-Level Power Plant #1, AEC Idaho National Engineering Laboratory
Decedants: John Byrne (age 25), Richard McKinley (age 22), and Richard Legg (age 25)
M.O.: Possible Murder/Suicide
Murder Weapon: Argonne Low Power Reactor
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)
Some people take the time to worry about things, bizarre things, things that would "never" happen.

Things like: "If there was a criticality, would I know it and, assuming I live long enough, should I bother to run?"

If it happened in a nuclear reactor, it might look a little bit like this:

What happened there is that a burst of compressed air burped up a fuel rod from the reactor bed below, allowing the energy release of the reactor to jump from 3MW to 30,000MW as it goes, ever so briefly, critical.  On purpose, mind you.  This reactor is designed to do this...with Science.

The infamous "blue flash" you saw after the countdown finished is Cherenkov radiation, the electromagnetic equivalent of a sonic boom since there are particles traveling faster than the speed of light in water.  When shown this as a surprise at pulsing TRIGA reactors, unsuspecting radiation workers experience a highly technical moment of brown trousers time.  It has been drilled into us that seeing this means, "Oh shit, I'm dead."

The answers are yes and yes.  As long as you have eyes, you will see something.  Only the greatest of willpower to overcome your entirely justified sense of self-preservation will prevent you from running.  No matter how bad it is, any distance you can put between you and the bad puts the inverse square law firmly on your side.  In the case of Dr. Slotin and his seven co-workers, it was the difference between life and death.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)

While PUREX may save us from being buried in nuclear waste, it is not without peril though it is more of the did-you-actually-think-this-through-before-you-started-pressing-buttons variety.  It is vitally important to take a moment to think before you start playing with big machinery full of radioactive materials in the middle of simultaneous inorganic & organic chemistry. 

For the record, I have personally performed theuranium half of the PUREX a 20mL test tube.  It was damn impressive to observe this happening in my hands.

So, how it works:

Now, that's when it works correctly.

Chemistry and radiation is a sticky wicket.  Really gotta think about things before you do things.
funranium: (Duck 'n' Cover)

And it is in Colorado, near Denver.

I happy to state for the record that Rocky Flats (AKA The Rocky Mountain Arsenal), now known as the Rock Flats National Wildlife Refuge, no longer exists.  Thinking about Rocky Flats causes an involuntary bit of shuddering in most environmental health & safety folks.  I indirectly credit my present safety career to a pamphlet the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition sent me back in the 10th grade when I wrote to them requesting information about toxic waste.  The pamphlet was a somewhat inflammatory piece about the infamous Basin F, once described without exaggeration as "The Most Toxic Square Mile On Earth".

The Rocky Flats started as an Army chemical weapons plant in 1942.  Parts of its land were then leased to private industry, primarily Shell Chemical, who used to for pesticide and herbicide research and production until 1982.  Basin F is their, and DOD and DOE's, fault...

This is not an auspicious beginning in a story of pollution. 

Especially because that's not what I want to talk about.  I promise you people stories of radioactive horror and I have one.  I want to tell you about Room 171 in Building 771.

funranium: (Fallout Shelter)

Once upon a time, there was a welder in Peru.  He was welding pipes on a major hydroelectric project.  When projects that are that important you spend a few extra bucks to make sure that your pipes are decently manufactured and that you've made good welds.  The way you verify the quality of metal and the welds is with gamma ray spectroscopy.  If its thick metal, you need very high irradiance gamma sources...very radioactive.  

As you might guess, the pipes used in goddamn big dams are rather thick.  They are doubly important to verify the quality of because towns wash away if they fail.

Anyway, this welder finished a days work with the satisfaction of a job well done.  Running behind him was the radiography crew checking his welds giving him the thumbs up.  While walking away he saw something shiny on the ground.  It looked like a silver disc, like a coin that had been worn smooth.  Far be it from anyone to pass up silver.  So he picked it up...

And put it in his back pocket.

He then proceeded to take the long walk back down to town.  After an hour or so, his hip started to hurt like a son of a bitch.  Considering that he wasn't a teenager anymore and had been a laborer most his life, this was wasn't all that strange.  He got home, had dinner and tried to go to sleep but his leg hurt so much he couldn't sleep.

So he was awake when his co-worker the radiographer came to his house panicked asked if he'd seen a source because he couldn't account for one.  He reached in his back pocket and asked if that was the source.  The radiographer recoiled from it, ran out to his truck, and got the shielded case for the iridium-192 source.  He then took his welder friend to the hospital...

Whereupon, they amputated his leg and removed most of the right hip joint as it had been killed DEAD by a calculated 10,000R local exposure.

Thankfully, he didn't die, but he really wishes his co-worker had been a bit more careful with his sources.  His wife and kids were also exposed of course, but received a non-clinical dose.

The radiographer got his license pulled and because they reported promptly, no fines were levvied and no one went to jail.

Could be worse though.  In Iran, there was a welder that got exposed because the radiographer got imaptient and started irradiating the weld while he was still working on it.

funranium: (Fallout Shelter)
So, from those of you who responded, with the exception of one wisenheimer who decided to go for write in on a multiple choice test, you all have decided that glowing blue metal flakes are as scary as ghost pirates and take it to your local Man Wit Da Knowins.

It is perhaps a testament to the quality of first world education and experience that it that it took you minutes to make that decision rather than two weeks.  I am sorry to say that this decision probably still would have cost you your life.  In the real world version, Maria, deciding that the blue powder was cursed after people began falling ill, packed up all of it that she could find in a plastic baggie, took a fifteen minute bus ride with the baggie in her lap to the city and showed it to the "doctor".  The medicine type person, not being entirely dim, told Maria to put it on a chair in his garden, told her to go home, locked up his garden and then began calling authorities.  Two weeks later, Maria, along with several other people, was dead.

Next time...The Man With The Atomic Ass.

December 2012

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