October 08, 2004

St. Petersburg: Report Says Renovation of Chernobyl-Type Reactor Rushed

From the St. Petersburg Times, disturbing news about an aging RBMK-1000 type reactor being renovated for reactivation:
Report Says Renovation of Chernobyl-Type Reactor Rushed
October 8, 2004
By Vladimir Kovalev
A series of mishaps has occurred during the renovation of reactor No.1 at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, or LAES, in Sosnovy Bor outside St. Petersburg because basic safety regulations were ignored, according to a new report.

Reactor No. 1 is the oldest of four reactors at the plant and its official working life has expired, but the Federal Nuclear Power Agency is seeking to extend it. It is an RBMK-1000 reactor, the same type that caused the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and LAES management plan to restart it this fall.

Sergei Kharitonov, a former employee of the plant and now an environmental campaigner, wrote in the report that the safety systems for the reactors were installed in a rush, in some cases by unqualified workers, breaching standards on how the work should be done, the report said.

As a result, two workers died in the spring, including a 32-year-old construction worker who fell from the wall of bloc No.1 in April and a 42-year-old fitter was crushed while working on bloc No.2 in May.

"[The management] paid most of its attention to [staff] training for the launch of bloc No.1," Kharitonov quoted LAES management as saying in a statement on July 16. "The lectures were poorly attended ... Two lectures remain to be conducted. Such a situation is unacceptable, when the bloc [No.1] is about to launched, but employees are not ready for it."

August 18, 2004

Engineer Witnessed Chernobyl From Within - And Lives To Tell

From New Scientist: "Alexander Yuvchenko was on duty at Chernobyl's reactor number 4 the night it exploded on 26 April 1986. He is one of the few working there that night to have survived. He suffered serious burns and went through many operations to save his life, and he is still ill from the radiation. He recently broke his silence for a documentary to be shown on the Discovery Channel. Here he speaks to Michael Bond about what happened that night:"
To get a clearer idea of what had happened we walked outside. What we saw was terrifying. Everything that could be destroyed had been. The entire water coolant system was gone. The right-hand side of the reactor hall had been completely destroyed, and on the left the pipes were just hanging. That was when I realised that Khodemchuk was definitely dead. The place where I was told he'd been standing was in ruins. The huge turbines were still standing, but everything around them was rubble. He must have been buried under that.

From where I stood I could see a huge beam of projected light flooding up into infinity from the reactor. It was like a laser light, caused by the ionisation of the air. It was light-bluish, and it was very beautiful. I watched it for several seconds. If I'd stood there for just a few minutes I would probably have died on the spot because of gamma rays and neutrons and everything else that was spewing out. But Tregub yanked me around the corner to get me out the way. He was older and more experienced.
Zero Hour: Disaster at Chernobyl airs on the Discovery Channel UK.

August 16, 2004

More Nuclear Troubles in the Ukraine

Khmelnitsky nuclear plant in Ukraine. Photo courtesy ITAR TASS news agencyAustralia's Herald Sun reports of serious problems last week at the new Khmelnitsky nuclear power plant at Neteshin:
The reactor at Khmelnitsky power station had to be shut down on Sunday, less than two hours after it went into operation, Interfax news agency reported on yesterday. Further technical failures prevented it operating on Monday and Tuesday.

"These incidents do not represent any threat to the public or to the environment," state nuclear energy company Energoatom said in a statement.

Ukraine was the scene of the world's worst civilian nuclear disaster in 1986, when a reactor at Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, contaminating large areas in Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus and Russia. Energoatom confirmed incidents had occurred at Khmelnitsky but said it "saw no cause for concern".

"Certain media inflated the affair," it said.

The K2 Russian-designed VVER pressurised water reactor at Khmelnitsky, which has a capacity of 1000 megawatts, was brought on stream on Sunday at a ceremony attended by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. But it ground to a halt almost immediately.

An official at Ukraine's governmental commission for atomic energy said that automatic security systems at the power plant had cut off the reactor from the electricity grid. The reactor was reconnected to the grid three hours later but had to be totally shut down later because of a failure in the cooling system caused by a power breakdown, the official added.

The reactor was restarted on Monday, only to be stopped again yesterday, officially to test its shut-down system and cooling units.
Not an auspicious beginning, I'm afraid, despite ITAR-TASS' rather glowing (if spoken-too-soon) praise. I truly hope plant officials don't do something silly...like deciding to bypass safety measures to "get the thing started" - we know where that can lead.

Frighteningly, for many regions of the world like Ukraine, nuclear energy is currently one of the most viable energy options. Having a cold climate with existing high pollution, more use of fuels like coal would cause further damage to air quality and likely increase rainfall pH levels. Additionally, research into developing workable technologies such as geothermal, solar and wind power requires large-scale financial investment that strapped nations like the Ukraine simply can't afford.

From "Non-traditional sources of energy may be key to Ukraine's future," by Roman Woronowycz of Kyiv [Kiev] Press Bureau, in the Ukraine Weekly, April 30, 2000:
Once looked at with keen interest, a Ukrainian government choked by money shortages has cast aside any serious work on the development of non-traditional renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, as an alternative to its primary reliance on atomic energy.

Ukraine has made much of the West's delays in providing financing to complete two traditional and controversial new reactors that Kyiv wants completed to offset the power that will be lost when Chornobyl shuts down at the end of this year. However, there are those here and in ecologically minded countries such as Germany who believe that Ukraine has no recourse but to reconsider non-traditional energy sources as well, which could do the work of the nuclear power plants as efficiently and with none of the risk.

One such person is the institute's director, Viktor Shulha, a gray-haired, 60-something scientist with a strong belief that Ukraine must turn to wind and solar power to meet its energy demands. Mr. Shulha said he has been frustrated in his attempts to turn the government's ear to his cause by the most familiar of laments in Ukraine: there simply is no money for it.

Mr. Shulha became the director of the Institute of Energy Engineering when it was formed 10 years ago by the Ministry of Energy, and at one time had an extensive group of advisors and experts. The team already had developed recommendations and a plan for developing wind energy when it came up against the insurmountable wall of Ukraine's current economic reality.

"We decided that for Ukraine the best potential would be to develop wind and biomass sources, and the government put the accent on wind energy. But, as it turned out, Ukraine had no finances and the experts moved on," said Mr. Shulha.
More than any other nation, the Ukraine should understand the risks of nuclear power and the awesome consequences of "inconsequential" mistakes - but with another bitter winter on the way, time manages to dull the sting of fear almost as smoothly as reassuring official words. "If someone you know was killed in a car crash nearly twenty years ago, would you stop riding in cars for the rest of your life?"

Atomic technology has advanced since the 1986 disaster as wealthier nuclear-dependent nations, like France, Belgium and Italy, have invested considerable sums in developing safer meltdown-resistant reactor designs. Nonetheless, as history has shown, nothing is truly 100% foolproof - and make no mistake, EnergoAtom is a beleaguered interest, by any account [check out news stories linked below]. Let's keep our fingers crossed, and our orbiting Eyes In The Sky watchful.

EnergoAtom's website
EBDR Loan to EnergoAtom Agency of Ukraine [July 21, 2004]
September 13, 2002 Weekly Mirror ["Zerkalo Nedely"]: "COURT RULED: NEDASHKOVSKY MUST RETURN TO HEAD ENERGOATOM"
WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, October 18, 2002, "Scandals and lawsuits face Ukraine's Energoatom"

August 11, 2004

"Night of the Living Dead 4" to be Filmed at Chernobyl

While dozens of documentaries (and at least one computer video game) are set in the ruins of Chernobyl, no one has shot a feature film in the Forbidden Zone near Pripyat - until now, that is. Night of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis begins filming soon:
Ukrainian-born producer Anatoly Fradis is proud -- despite the obstacles and the cost. "Up to a couple of days before we began shooting, it was touch-and-go whether they would let us in, and I had to pay more than I had budgeted to secure the permission," Fradis says, standing inside Chernobyl's first checkpoint inside the zone.

"Chernobyl is very spooky and serves our purpose -- we are shooting in all these abandoned towns and villages, with rusting equipment lying around everywhere," Fradis says. The sense of a post-apocalyptic world dawns as we follow the Chaika around the Chernobyl district.

Grass and shrubs sprout from holes in the sides of crumbling cottages. A graveyard for helicopters, fire trucks and other equipment used in the cleanup operation in 1986 stretches beside a road. In Pripyat, the deserted town that once housed the reactor's work force and their families, children's toys still litter the rubbish-strewn kindergarten, and fading Soviet slogans adorn the sides of gaunt concrete apartment blocks.
[via Greengrl]

July 14, 2004

Missing Yankee Nuclear Fuel Rods Found

From the Champlain Channel WPTZ-TV
Fuel Rods Found In Pool At Plant

POSTED: 8:21 pm EDT July 13, 2004
UPDATED: 9:24 am EDT July 14, 2004

VERNON, Vt. -- Two highly radioactive pieces of spent nuclear fuel reported missing three months ago appear to have been where they were supposed to be all along.

A spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Vermont Yankee has told the NRC it found the fuel rods in the spent fuel pool at the plant. Vermont Yankee officials said last week they had found records at a General Electric laboratory in California that appeared to provide a key clue as to the fuel pieces' whereabouts.

Workers found the spent rods inside a cylinder that was sent to Vermont Yankee by GE specifically to hold the fuel segments. Searchers found the canister at the bottom of the spent rod pool and opened it up, discovering the rods late Tuesday afternoon. Vermont Yankee said it has updated its records to make sure something like that doesn't happen again.

July 08, 2004

Yankee Nuclear Powers Up Once More...Er, Hold That Thought

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- There was another scare Thursday morning at Vermont Yankee. This, after the nuclear power plant had just resumed full power Wednesday night following a fire that forced a 19-day shutdown.

Officials said an excess of oil caused black smoke to blow out of a furnace inside a building on the grounds Thursday morning. An onsite fire brigade shut off the furnace switch a little after 4 a.m. A representative for the plant's parent company said there was no damage or injuries from the incident.
I don't know about you, but I'd feel a little leery of uprating an old plant with repeated "problems" like this...and they still haven't found the missing two pieces of fuel rod.

June 24, 2004

Chernobyl Explorer: Alexander Borovoi

Dr. Alexander Borovoi is one of the people interviewed (his segment starts at 32:40) in this astounding BBC documentary from 1991, "Inside Chernobyl's Sarcophagus." Borovoi and his colleagues Viktor Popov, Yuri Buzulukov, and other "Stalkers" speak with western journalists for the first time since the accident. The scientists and BBC crew enter the Reactor 4 building taking measurements and video footage of its wreckage, in extreme haste (due to the radiation levels) and incredibly dangerous conditions. Footage had to be shot by actual cameramen working quickly, as the searing radiation and rough ground caused robotic camera rigs to mire or fail within minutes. In one segment we see a clever improvisation: the team jerry-rigged a small videocamera onto a wire remote-controlled child's toy tank. The end of the documentary is an interview with Borovoi and Popov five years later, where we revisit their dire predictions, and the surviving members of the "bio-robot" team.

[UPDATE: Borovoi's 2008 presentation detailing the state of the Chernobyl corium, or "melt." (PowerPoint on SarNet.org] 64-year old Alexander Borovoi is a brave man, and a very lucky one; he is one of the "extreme explorers" who periodically examined the inside of the Chernobyl sarcophagus to spot developing problems. From US News and World Report:
The line between hero and victim was thin in the first frantic weeks after the accident. Firemen fought the flames but lacked instruments to tell them they faced lethal doses of radiation. Military helicopter pilots hovered in the radioactive smoke plume to smother the burning reactor with tons of sand and lead, but their bombing runs missed the mark.

Yet the catastrophe–and the chance for heroism–did not end when the fire burned out. In the months and years that followed, a band of scientists led by physicist Alexander Borovoi explored the reactor's corpse to make sure it could not reawaken. Working in a hot, dark labyrinth where lingering radiation could kill within minutes, they mapped and analyzed tons of reactor fuel remaining. It was heroism of a quieter and more effective order than had come before. "Borovoi knew what he was doing," says Harvard University nuclear physicist Richard Wilson, "and he had the imagination and common sense" to succeed.

To find the remnants, Borovoi and his men had to venture into the heart of the destroyed reactor. Robots were not up to the job; they got stuck in debris or ran amok, circuits scrambled by radiation. "We had only one kind of robots [that worked]," says Borovoi. "Biorobots–ourselves." They called themselves "stalkers." Coveralls, gloves, and a respirator were their protection–lead suits were too bulky for dashes through the reactor. A fall or wrong turn could be fatal.

Late in 1986, beyond a gantlet of highly radioactive rooms and narrow passages, the stalkers discovered a glassy, black formation resembling a giant elephant's foot. Getting a piece to analyze was not easy. It was so fiercely radioactive that the scientists could spend only seconds near it, and its surface shrugged off a drilling machine and an ax. Finally a marksman took aim with a Kalashnikov rifle. The shards gave the first clues to what had happened to the nuclear fuel and the chance of a future catastrophe.

[read full article]

Nuclear SciFi: The Prometheus Crisis (1975)

From the frontispiece of this creepy summertime read (out of print, but not too hard to find used):
"...another angel approached me.

This one was quietly but appropriately dressed in cellophane, synthetic rubber and stainless steel, but his mask was the blind mask of Ares, snouted for gasmasks. He was neither soldier, sailor, farmer, dictator or munitions-manufacturer. Nor did he have much conversation except to say,

"You will not be saved by General Motors or the prefabricated house, you will not be saved by dialectic materialism or the Lambeth conference, you will not be saved by Vitamin D or the expanding universe. In fact, you will not be saved."

-- Nightmare with Angels, Stephen Vincent Benét
Eerily similar to another passage, used by John Carpenter in Prince of Darkness ("You will not be saved by the Holy Ghost. You will not be saved by the God Plutonium. In fact... YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!"), the opening sets an ominous tone for this frightening, technically-detailed disaster novel.

Switching dramatically between post-disaster government hearings and the events leading up to it, this fictionalized scenario set at "the world's largest nuclear plant in California" has an exceptional sense of pacing, drawing the reader into a tense technological page-turner not unlike Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1971). The Prometheus Crisis predates Three Mile Island by four years, and Chernobyl by eleven, and presciently foretells the tangled bureaucratic nightmare that occured along with the public panic in the real world of TMI and Chernobyl.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl: Exploitive or Educational?

Kiev, Ukraine-based software developers are releasing a science-fiction PC videogame based on the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl:
This grim environmental disaster was one of the most profound tragedies of the past 20 years. Chernobyl still affects the lives of countless Ukrainians, and most people would deem it unsuitable subject matter for a computer game.

The upcoming PC game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl will certainly raise many eyebrows. Set in 2012, it blends science fiction with the shocking events of the past to present a Chernobyl populated by mutant creatures and bizarre phenomena...

Rejecting the inevitable criticism that the game is insensitive, Kiev-based developers GSC say their proximity to Chernobyl ensures that the tragedy still evokes much emotion among the team. They hope the game encourages more people to reflect on the consequences of the disaster.

It is an argument often used by war-game developers, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is no less offensive than re-creating D-day, Vietnam or the Battle of Stalingrad in the name of entertainment. Games can be used for political purposes, as the controversial Escape from Woomera demonstrates
If you're into video games, the screenshots look fascinating (click on image above to see the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. gallery), especially in regard to atmospherics.

Vermont Yankee Plant to Remain Offline Indefinitely

Following a recent transformer fire at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, officials have decided to keep the facility offline for more thorough investigation.

From the Champlain Channel:
UPDATED: 10:40 am EDT June 24, 2004

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Vermont Yankee remained off-line Thursday after two fires there on Friday, but Entergy now says the plant's safety system didn't respond the way it should have.

Vermont Yankee officials said the accident was far less serious than originally feared, but critics charge it's the pattern they're concerned about. It's just one safety lapse after the next, they said. "A fire at a nuclear plant is a big deal," one customer said. Five days after the fire there, critics call the accident more serious -- and more telling -- than first believed.

"Powerplants have what's called a bathtub curve," said longtime nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen. "They fail a lot when they're new. They fail a lot when they're old. In between though, they don't fail a lot. I have been saying that they're on the upslope of the bathtub curve, and we should see more of these failures as the plant gets older." Gundersen cites three forced shutdowns in nine months due to broken valves and pumps.

Vermont Yankee turns 32 this year, but marks the year with a series of embarrassments: cracks in the steam dryer, a pair of missing fuel rods and, most recently, the transformer fire. Public service commissioner David O'Brien sent the state nuclear engineer to Vernon this week for a closer look. "We've got to find out what caused it," Public Service Commissioner David O'Brien said. "Was it a problem with the equipment? Was it a problem with maintenance? We've got to find that out first."

Officials hope to find out what caused the accident within a week. The plant will remain off-line indefinitely. The NRC, meanwhile, still plans to assess Vermont Yankee for its proposed uprate later this summer.

June 16, 2004

Dirty Bomb? It's "In The Bag"

One of the more feared (but rather misunderstood) new terrorist weapons is the "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive surrounded by pieces of radioactive material such as medical waste or spent nuclear fuel instead of ordinary shrapnel. While fatalities from the actual explosion would be relatively limited, the amount of contamination produced by even a small bomb could be considerable - entire city blocks could be rendered off-limits because of hazardous fallout, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls dirty bombs "weapons of mass disruption" rather than "weapons of mass destruction" - they create more fear and panic than actual damage, although the financial costs of cleaning up after a dirty bomb could be enormous.

A Canadian company, Vanguard Response Systems, has developed a unique containment system that can be deployed in the event a dirty bomb is discovered before it explodes. It uses a patented "tent" made of several layers of bullet-proof-vest type material, and a special shock-absorbing liquid foam that not only damps the blast, but binds the bomb fragments and radioactive fallout dust produced. Discovery Channel Canada [video stream] shows the containment tents in action using real radioactive material.

This sounds like an intriguing invention - but one with some real-life limitations. I'm afraid the caveat is that bomb squads have to locate the dirty bomb, evacuate the area, and assemble and fill the foam tent before the bomb explodes; very likely if and when one does go off somewhere, it may be without any warning at all. Still, it's some small comfort knowing a device like this exists. Vanguard says the tent and foam system can also be deployed using robotic methods. [via Samizdata]

May 13, 2004

Chernobyl 4 "Radioactive Volcano": Images from the Humus Project

My search for information on Chernobyl has taken me to some very strange places.

This morning, I found this image on a fascinating Italian Chernobyl website, The Humus Project, or Progetto Humus, at http://www.progettohumus.it [the page this image appears on is here]. Look closely.

I can't verify its authenticity (unfortunately, many of the images lack captions or explanations) but it appears to be a shot of the glowing core of Chernobyl Reactor 4 shortly after the explosion. The timestamp on the image reads 01:23:59. But is it 1:23:59 AM on April 26th, 1986?

Thinkquest Library states that the containment lid of Reactor 4 blew off at 01:23:44 am, while the German 'Society for Plants and Reactor Safety', GRS (Gesellschaft für Anlagen und Reaktorsicherheit, in their technical report "The Accident and Safety of RBMK Reactors" [5Mb PDF file]) places the time of the explosion at:

Recording of the shift supervisor: "Strong impacts, the shutdown systems stop before reaching the lower end position ..." Reactor excursion with more than 100 times of the nominal power. Explosion and destruction of the reactor core. The upper plate of the reactor is hurled up, all pressure tubes break off. Core material and burninggraphite parts are ejected. The reactor is burning, further fires start in the surrounding. Massive release of radioactive fission products.
If this photo is genuine, then it would be the first time I've been able to track down an image of the reactor in the earliest stages of the accident. I have not yet found an image of this type anywhere in Chernobyl literature, either on video, in books or and other source. Where did this come from, considering that the former Soviet Union did not inform the outside world of the explosion until days later? Was there a camera trained on the reactor? Did the image come from a flight over the reactor later than the timestamp indicates?

Humus Project Chernobyl Video streams
Google Directory page for Science > Technology > Energy > Nuclear > Safety and Accidents > Chernobyl.
Belarus Guide on Chernobyl Information
Humus Project English version (Progetto Humus, Italy)

May 12, 2004

Will A.L.I.C.E. "Swallow Up The Earth"?

[UPDATE: Needless to say, A.L.I.C.E did not, in fact, swallow up the Earth. - LR]

Both the fact and fiction about CERN's soon-to-be-completed Large Ion Collider, or "ALICE," seem as strange as anything Lewis Carroll put to print in a chemical-indiced haze; some are concerned that in theory, our planet may end up literally "falling down the rabbithole."

The "Wonderland" metaphor extends to CERN's own press on the project, where Carroll's young protagonist appears frequently on the site's pages. From the CERN Project site:
The ALICE Collaboration is building a dedicated heavy-ion detector to exploit the unique physics potential of nucleus-nucleus interactions at LHC energies. Our aim is to study the physics of strongly interacting matter at extreme energy densities, where the formation of a new phase of matter, the quark-gluon plasma, is expected.

The existence of such a phase and its properties are key issues in QCD for the understanding of confinement and of chiral-symmetry restoration. For this purpose, we intend to carry out a comprehensive study of the hadrons, electrons, muons and photons produced in the collision of heavy nuclei. Alice will also study proton-proton collisions both as a comparison with lead-lead collisions in physics areas where Alice is competitive with other LHC experiments
A lone voice in the wilderness, James Blodgett of the Albany, NY-based Risk Evaluation Forum, is afraid that ALICE may potentially have a rather nontrivial "Doomsday" flaw:
There is a risk that a physics experiment scheduled for 2007 may destroy the earth.

Recent developments in string theory suggest that mini-black holes may be created in the next generation of particle colliders. The possibility that the upcoming Large Ion Collider at CERN might produce mini-black holes is predicted by several articles cited in our "references" section. Go there. Their idea is that gravity might be much stronger than expected (We calculate up to 10^33 times stronger) at very small scales if the inverse square law becomes an inverse hypercube law at small scales due to extra dimensions.

Extra dimensions at sub-atomic scales are a strong prediction of string theory. String theory is considered fairly plausible by many physicists. The authors who predict mini-black hole production expect these holes to evaporate via Hawking radiation. But Hawking radiation has never been seen nor tested. It is based on a quantum theory which is widely accepted, but also widely regarded as strange. If mini-black holes are created and do not evaporate they could implode the earth.
Understandbly, both sides of the argument qualify as arcane topics - even if the potential consequences could be...how shall I say...spectacular. Very Strange stuff, indeed. J.R. Labbe of the Star-Telegram [registration required to access online articles] says,
Founded 50 years ago, CERN is (in English) the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world's largest particle physics center. This is where really, really smart people study what matter is made of and what holds it together. To do that, you need a really, really huge particle accelerator.

And that is what has Blodgett worried. Because the CERN scientists are getting ready to throw the switch on one honking big collider.

"The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) [a.k.a. the ALICE Project] is a particle accelerator which will probe deeper into matter than ever before," says the CERN Web site. "Due to switch on in 2007, it will ultimately collide beams of protons at an energy of 14 TeV. Beams of lead nuclei will be also accelerated, smashing together with a collision energy of 1150 TeV.

"A TeV is a unit of energy used in particle physics. 1 TeV is about the energy of motion of a flying mosquito. What makes the LHC so extraordinary is that it squeezes energy into a space about a million million times smaller than a mosquito."
More discussion on "ALICE Swallowing the Earth"?

Star-Telegram: "If The Earth Disappears, He Was Right"
Blodgett's own posting on SciScoop
A related Black Holes Forum message on www.astronomy.net
CERN Tutorial: "What Is Quark Matter?"

May 11, 2004

Got MOX?

Shikoku Electric Co.'s Ikata No. 3 reactor is likely to become the third facility in Japan to go "pluthermal" - to use MOX, or mixed-oxide, fuel for power generation. From the Asahi Shimbun:
Shikoku Electric Power Company...Monday informed the Ehime prefectural government of its plans to burn MOX nuclear fuel there by fiscal 2010.

Pluthermal power is controversial because it uses plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, or MOX. Under this method, plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel is burned in reactors originally designed for uranium fuel. Pluthermal power is key to the nation's nuclear-fuel recycling program.

Critics warn the pluthermal method carries more health and safety risks to reactors originally designed to burn only uranium fuel. Shikoku Electric Power's plan follows those of Kansai Electric Power Co. and Kyushu Electric Power Co. Kansai Electric Power got the green light from the Fukui prefectural governor in March for its plan to burn MOX at its Takahama nuclear power plant. Kyushu Electric Power in late April notified the Saga prefectural government and the town of Genkai that it plans to burn MOX as early as 2009 at one of its reactors there.

Under Shikoku Electric Power's plan, no more than 16 of the 157 uranium-fuel elements in what are called fuel bundles-groups of fuel elements burned in a reactor-will initially be replaced with MOX at the No. 3 reactor in Ikata. The number of MOX elements will eventually be increased to about one-fourth of the bundle, with the maximum set at 40.
Greenaction-Japan is a organization which opposes the use of "pluthermal" (a Japanese term combining the words "plutonium" and "thermal") power, citing increased safety concerns:
Over the last several years the government and electric utilities have argued that the pluthermal program is a method of recycling precious resources. They claim that it is in Japan's best interest to extract the uranium and plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel rather than directly disposing of it as some countries do. The argument used is that Japan is an energy poor country which needs to conserve uranium resources and use plutonium for energy security purposes.

Recently promoters of the pluthermal program have begun to argue that the program is also necessary in order to reduce the amount of surplus plutonium accumulated as a result of overseas reprocessing. Since mid- 2001, the Japanese government and electric utilities have put forward yet another argument for the pluthermal program. They claim that without the pluthermal program Japanese nuclear power plants would be unable to continue to produce power...The use of MOX fuel increases the risk and severity of a nuclear accident. When using MOX fuel, the control rods' capacity to function is reduced and power output is less stable and harder to control.
The NRC has a quarterly publication called the MOX: Mixed Oxide Fuels Newsletter, "published quarterly to highlight recent news and events associated with the NRC's licensing of a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility." The lastest March 2004 issue [PDF file] among other things, talks about the
...October 2003...DOE fil[ing of] an application for license to export up to 140 kilograms of plutonium dioxide to the Cadarache and MELOX MOX fuel fabrication facilities in France. The plutonium would be used to fabricate four MOX fuellead test assemblies, which would be returned to the U.S. for proposed MOX fuel qualification tests in the Catawba Nuclear Power Station. [a two-unit power plant located on Lake Wylie in York County, S.C.]
MOX is (pardon the pun) a highly-charged topic in the United States as well, as the anti-mixed-oxide site Nix-MOX clearly demonstrates with its "Top 10 Reasons to Oppose the Use of MOX":
"MOX IS A BAD IDEA!! MOX infrastructure supplies all the pieces needed for making plutonium a desirable commodity, while it claims to dispose of it. MOX legitimizes the production of plutonium by foreign countries, and creates a market for something that could used in a weapon of mass destruction. Plutonium is dangerous and should be kept out of our economy and out of our commercial reactors."

May 10, 2004

Illinois: "Nuclear America"?

With half the state's electricity generated at nuclear power plants, Illinois qualifies as "highly dependent" on this form of energy; and with 11 currently operating commercial reactors, it's tied in first place with Pennsylvania for the "Most Nuclear Plants." Not on the list? The now-decommissioned Zion 1 and 2 Nuclear Plant near Gurnee, IL, or the decommissioned Dresden 1 plant in Morris. from the NRC's Decommissioned Plants Section:
Zion Units 1 and 2 were permanently shut down on February 13, 1998. The fuel was transferred to the spent fuel pool, and the owner submitted the certification of fuel transfer on March 9, 1998. A public meeting was held on June 1, 1998, to inform the public of the shutdown plans. The owner has converted the turbine-generators into synchronous condensers and have isolated the spent fuel pool within a fuel building "nuclear island." The plant has been placed in SAFSTOR, where it will remain until about 2013 when the decommissioning trust fund will be sufficient to conduct DECON activities. The owner will retain the spent fuel until it is accepted by the Department of Energy. The owner submitted the post-shutdown decommissioning activities report (PSDAR), site-specific cost estimate, and fuel management plan on February 14, 2000. A public meeting to discuss the PSDAR was held on April 26, 2000.
Zion may be out of service, but the Village of Gurnee maintains a webpage detailing the emergency evacuation procedure in event of an accident at the plant.

Vermonters Protest Proposed 20% Yankee Nuclear "Uprating"

The NRC Nuclear Mascot - he doesn't have an official name, but 'Nukie' will do!The embattled, aging Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon (which recently made headlines when two highly radioactive pieces of fuel rod were reported missing) is expected to be given a 20% power boost - or "uprating."

This doesn't sit very well with many residents of this characteristically "back-to-nature" region. From today's Brattleboro [VT] Reformer:
BRATTLEBORO -- Flashing placards, more than 125 nuclear power protesters marched downtown on Saturday, calling for a cease to "uprate" proceedings and, moreover, for Vermont Yankee's closing. The group, which made its way from the Brattleboro Food Co-op to the Common, held placards saying, "Stop Vermont Yankee," "Not Another Chernobyl," and "Does Vermont Matter?" A child in a stroller had a sign which said: "Protect My Future."

Doug Wight, of Shutesbury, Mass., yelled, "Not in my backyard, not in country, not in my world," as he walked toward the Common, where demonstrators listened to anti-nuclear speakers.

The event was organized by Citizen's Awareness Network in Shelburne Falls, Mass., an anti-nuclear energy activism group. The demonstration was supposed to protest the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's unwillingness to perform a comprehensive, independent assessment of the Vernon nuclear power plant before its power output is upped 20 percent. But the NRC announced last week that it would conduct an independent engineering assessment.
Another demonstration to shut down Vermont Yankee down is scheduled for May 15 in Greenfield, Mass. Demonstrators are to meet up at Greenfield Common at 11 a.m. and march through the city to Energy Park.
The 33-year-old plant is among the oldest in the United States, which leads nuclear opponents to say it cannot withstand a 20 percent power boost. Vermont Yankee officials maintain that the plant is inspected regularly by the NRC and has not had any significant problems.
The missing fuel rods from Vermont Yankee are still AWOL, and the Providence Journal (registration reguired) reports officials are planning a search of waste sites in South Carolina and Washington State in an effort to track down the pieces.

Entergy Corp. website [VY parent company]
Google News on "Vermont Yankee Nuclear"
Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] and the NRC's Student Resource Pages
Citizen's Awareness Network [CAN]

Nuclear TV: PBS' Look Back at TMI, NOVA's Back to Chernobyl

(UPDATE 6/14/12: While "Meltdown at Three Mile Island" and "Back to Chernobyl" are not to my knowledge available on PBS' website, or through services like Netflix (unlike many other titles in the excellent American Experience series), with a little searching you should have little trouble finding them on YouTube in most countries.)

While you won't find many nuclear-energy related videos at your local video store (documentaries, anyway) there are some noteworthy releases available at libraries and at retail - mostly from transcription dealers and "deep-catalog" mail order outlets like Amazon.com. Being fortunate enough to have access to resources like the University of Chicago and Harold Washington libraries, I tracked down some excellent programs I'd like to recommend: but I should mention that none of the titles here are available in DVD format at this point, only as VHS tapes.

PBS' The American Experience: Meltdown at Three Mile Island (60 min.) replays the events of America's worst nuclear accident in 1979. With vintage news footage and contemporary interviews with key response team players like former Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh and Attorney Governor William Scranton, this documentary is an exceptional inside look back at those panicked days near Harrisburg. This was a personally fascinating retrospective for me; not only for the content, but because I was living in Central New Jersey - less than two hours away by car from Three Mile Island - at the time of the accident.

As you watch the events unfold, what comes to mind is how unnecessary much of the TMI media confusion was in retrospect, although it may have been unavoidable at the time. For hours on end, emergency responders and the PA governor's office were unable to reach the power plant's operators, because the ordinary landlines were jammed tight with reporters' calls from around the country. No "Red Phone" hot-line was active, no two-way radio, and of course, no cell phones: the stricken plant was essentially incommunicado during some of the most crucial hours.

NOVA: Back to Chernobyl (originally aired February 14th, 1989) is an out-of-print title, but well worth tracking down, and you may likely find a copy at a library near you. Correspondent Bill Kurtis travels to the Soviet Union for a visit to the reactor site three years after the incident, and speaks with a number of survivors and eyewitnesses. Darkly humorous are the scenes with Kurtis' chatty ushanka-capped [уша́нка], Geiger counter-toting liason, Dr. Richard Wilson, who tries to reassure the journalist that the rather alarming radiation readings are nothing to worry about:
Kurtis: "Professor, how far do you think we are now from the reactor?"
Wilson: "Oh, about 30 miles."
Kurtis: "Should we check the readings?"
Wilson: "You’ll hear a high-pitched whistle as it checks the battery first. You’ll begin to hear some clicking as the readings start coming in. That’s a pretty good background, about the same as it was in Kiev. Let me just check the instrument. I’ll pull a source out of my case here."
Kurtis: "That level would seem to be the natural background."
Wilson: "That’s the natural background, but now you can test the beta ray [remember these are really particles] source, and you can hear it clicking furiously."
Kurtis: "What will the level be around the reactor itself?"
Wilson: "On this scale, around the reactor itself, we’ll find the reading to be off-scale, and we’ll have to change to the next scale. It’s about 30 times the background level around the reactor itself."
Kurtis: "Will that be any danger to us?"
Wilson: "No, you can be there for a year and get the amount of radiation that a worker is allowed to have in a year."
If you can't locate a copy of the tape, try this 2001 online document by Steve Cooperman containing a partial transcript with detailed notes on the program available from UCLA [http://coke.physics.ucla.edu/laptag/mchs/Nova-Chernobyl-video-notes.doc (Caveat: Microsoft Word™ .doc]

May 04, 2004

Nuclear TV: Atomic Café

Last Friday I located a VHS copy of Atomic Café (1982, directed by Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty) at the Harold Washington library, a feature many call the "atomic version of Reefer Madness". The film compiles a stunning array of archival footage segments - ranging from military training films and Civil Defense tutorials, to 4-H meetings and scenes from atomic bomb testing at the Trinity site, the Bikini Atoll, and Marshall Islands.

Between snippets of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executions, the McCarthy Hearings and hawk Congressmen advocating preemptive military strikes on China during the Korea War, the viewer may come away relieved (and surprised) that the world did in fact manage to survive this utterly hell-bound period of history. In summary, Atomic Café is an engrossing (if somewhat disorganized) depiction of the nature of America's postwar double-edged obsession with the atom, and fortunately it's not out of print, but available for sale in both DVD and VHS formats. Frankly, "surreal" is a bit mild a term to describe views of children riding tricycles in homemade "radiation suits," still-twitching hogs burnt alive to a crisp after being exposed to nuclear blast testing, and Army films designed to reassure servicemembers (and the public) that radiation sickness is a mild, temporary and harmless side effect:
(A young, dark-haired man gazes worriedly into a mirror with a full head of hair, fearful of losing his looks to radiation sickness. As the narrator sanctimoniously reassures him, the man's reflection fades into a healthy example of "horseshoe" male-pattern baldness, supposedly from nuclear fallout)

"they may call you 'baldy' or 'chrome dome' for a while, but in no time you'll be back to your old self again!"

(Bald man dissolves back into his smiling fully-haired self)
No mention of hair falling out by the fistful, vomiting and diarrhea, blistered peeling skin and gangrenous sores anywhere. How did the public swallow all this hook line and sinker? I believe the reason is that the vast majority of audiences didn't know much better back then, and before Watergate and the Kennedy assassination Americans were far more trusting of the government's declarations at face value. Atomic energy promised not only victory over "the Hun," but domestic energy production so cheap it couldn't be metered. One interview with a Cold War-era man shown in Atomic Café underscores the public's general misapprehension of the Nuclear Threat:
Interviewer: "Sir, what do you plan to do, if upon emerging from your family's fallout shelter, you discover that only 5 to 10 percent of the people have survived the attack?"

Man: "Well, I guess that would be fine - with fewer mouths to feed, there would be a lot more to go around for the folks that are left!"
Today, we have easy access to images of the horrific damage radiation can inflict; during wartime, no doubt the government thought better than to alarm a still-innocent populace with the grand scope of the Bomb's potential destruction. "Duck and Cover" made a fine catchy bromide for the masses. Let them build shelters and fishing-sinker-filled "radiation suits"; what they don't know can't hurt them.

Archive.org (part of Wayback Project) has a great collection of downloadable films and videos from our nation's nuclear past, such as Radiation Safety in Nuclear Energy Explorations. You can even download and watch the entire "Duck and Cover" short film from Archive.org's Prelinger Archives Collection; it's one of their most-viewed features.

Atomic Age Artifacts at Oak Ridge's Historical Instrumentation Museum

There's some artifacts from the Atomic Age at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities Historical Instrumentation Museum (http://www.orau.org).

Many of the items on display (part of the Professional Training Program at Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee (865-576-3576)) show just how far we've come from viewing radation simply as a beneficent modern boon...get your "glow" on with these artifacts from the Radiant Era:

The strange origins of the modern trefoil radiation symbol.

Who says radioactivity can't be fun and games? Atomic Toys! Including the Atomic Energy Lab for youngsters, and a the Con-Cor™ toy nuclear power plant for your scale model train layout - based on Three Mile Island!

The Nu-Klear Fallout Detector™ - no Cold War era family should have gone without this device (which operates on the principle that ionizing radiation will discharge static electricity-charged items), used by "leaving the detector just outside the fallout shelter exit for five minutes. If the beads have not all fallen to the bottom during that time, "you may risk exposure for a few minutes if you are faced with an emergency that cannot wait another day."

Homer Simpson would be proud: there once was a time when "Radium" meant quality...these days, good luck trying to sell 1940's-vintage Radium Condoms™, Radium "Male Pouches," or Radium Beer™.

Get really, really clean...with Radioactive Soap.

To commemorate Madame Curie's glowing discovery, Broadway composer Jean Schwartz wrote "The Radium Dance" for the 1904 smash hit, Piff! Paff! Pouf!

Irradiated Golf Balls may not help your handicap, but they'll get lots of curious looks.

18th Anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster

view of the near-vertical reactor head of the Chernobyl 4 RBMK-1000, courtesy INSP.comThey say there are no coincidences in life.

Today - on the precise anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster - I received my first completely trashed Amazon.com shipment (which I returned tout suite). I ordered VHS tapes of two ABC Nightline special reports on the incident: Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster (aired April 28th, 1986, when the West first heard of the reactor accident) and Chernobyl Plant - The Aftermath (aired April 22, 1987). Since I didn't pay Chernobyl much mind in 1986, I thought the archival program footage would be fascinating (seeing a young Ted Koppel is always good for a chuckle).

I'm sure it will be when the replacements arrive. The shipment I received today appeared to have been either run over by a car or stepped on by Ruben Studdard: the box was accordioned into a hourglass shape, and I knew it was bad news when I shook it like a Christmas present. Rattle, rattle, ching. The tapes inside were literally smashed into black plastic shards. Sigh. Neeeeext! We'll see if Amazon holds to their reportedly strong returns policy.

And, the news breaks that the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station in my old neck of the woods "lost" two pieces of highly radioactive spent-fuel rod:
From USA Today:
The operators of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant reported the missing pieces Wednesday, saying they were not where they were supposed to be in the large pool used to store fuel rods. One of the missing pieces is about the size of a pencil. The other is about as thick but is 17 inches long.

The spent fuel rods are highly radioactive and would be fatal to anyone who came in contact with them without being properly shielded, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said. Spent nuclear fuel could be used by terrorists to construct so-called dirty bombs that would spread deadly radiation with conventional explosives.

"We do not think there is a threat to the public at this point. The great probability is this material is still somewhere in the pool," Sheehan said. The pieces could also have been sent years ago to a testing laboratory or a low-level nuclear waste disposal facility. The pieces were part of a fuel rod that was removed in 1979 from the Vermont Yankee reactor, which is currently shut down for refueling and maintenance.
Burlington, VT's WPTZ-TV today reports that the missing pieces are, well, still missing. I don't live near Burlington these days, but that doesn't make me feel much better. It's like hearing that your downstairs neighbor's pet Black Mamba turned up missing.

So, my research into Chernobyl (which includes scouring the Web and government sites, and the University of Chicago and Harold Washington Libraries) has been slightly delayed. However, for the curious, I have a selection of choice hand-picked links that will provide multi-national insights into the incident, and its continuing aftermath.
The German nuclear-safety agency GRS [Gesellschaft für Anlagen und Reaktorsicherheit, mbH] has a well-illustrated, informative 179-page free online technical report called "The Accident and the Safety of RBMK Reactors" [large PDF file, 5Mb].

If you enjoy government reports and "blue books," visit the World Nuclear Association's Chernobyl page, which includes links to UNSCEAR [United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which published several comprehensive reports on the Chernobyl disaster - many which are available here as free PDF downloads.

Watch This: Chernobyl.co.uk, a UK site which features a link to the BBC's recent 30-minute program [streaming RealPlayer video] on Chernobyl, featuring a look at the history of nuclear power in the former Soviet Union as well as a look inside Ukraine's Exclusion Zone towns. Highly recommended: this program illustrates that the deteriorating reactor site is still an issue of pressing concern through Europe, while it has been all but overshadowed here in the U.S.

Watch This: though the bulk of Chernobyl news coverage occurred before the age of streaming video, the post-date digitized BBC retrospective of the Chernobyl disaster [RealPlayer required] is a wistfully immediate - if lo-res - look back at those fateful days in April 1986.

Ukrainian biker gal (and young scientist) Elena is the Kidd [sic] of Speed: her wildly popular site, Ghost Town, features dozens of startling photos and rueful, blustering commentary from her motorcycle tour through the post-apocalyptic Exclusion Zone in Pripyat': part National Geographic expedition, part Jackass-meets-Evel Knievel. Strange thing is, I'd probably do it too, given the opportunity and a lead X-ray apron - but I'd prefer an enclosed vehicle, like a Bradley.

Got Euskadi? The Basque Website of Pripyat.

Have Paris, Rome, and the Caribbean lost their appeal? Been there, done that? How about a guided group tour through Chernobyl? I don't know if it's a legitimate enterprise, but you can apparently book a tour through the Exclusion Zone via Ukrainian Web Chyornobyl' Tour. You get complimentary disposable outerwear and shoes, and a souvenir computerized dosimeter printout that certifies how much radiation you absorbed during your visit.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Pioneer Robot pages, with photos and diagrams of the Red Zone Robotics radiation-hardened explorer robot that will be used to excavate and explore the hot ruin inside the Sarcophagus.

A recent Kazakhstan Kazinform press release from March, 2004, warning that trouble at the Chernobyl Sarcophagus could be imminent.

From a nation that is also highly dependent on nuclear energy, but has thankfully suffered neither a Chernobyl nor a Three Mile Island type incident - the Canadian Nuclear Association's report on Chernobyl.

USGS satellite photos showing changes in the Chernobyl region from 1986 to 1992.

An August, 1986 EPA Bulletin on short-term American response to the Chernobyl disaster.

Gla55pak.com has compiled some unusual Chernobyl images here, and proclaims "I have a sick curiosity - more of an impulse - to be there that night and watch the thing light up. I would gladly take a good dose just to have seen it. It is, after all, like an immense train wreck that I just can't help but see." Also: link to Disenchanted.com's take on the Chernobyl and TMI incidents, called "Fear's just bad for business".

A high-resolution satellite image of the Chernobyl region from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suitable for desktop backgrounds.

Some of the best photos of the site I have seen are on the INSP's [International Nuclear Safety Program] Digital Library Website, where you can view over 800 color and black-and-white images, including the one at the top of this post.

Vaseline Glass: That Warm, Radioactive Glow!

Ever heard of "Vaseline Glass"? It's a type of collectible antique glassware that's usually clear or slightly milky yellow (like the petroleum jelly it's named for) or yellow-green, but its most unusual characteristsic is that it glows brilliantly under ultraviolet light. That's because the distinctive color is produced by the introduction of uranium salts into the glass melt - and yes, it is radioactive...the higher the Geiger counter reading, the more you're guaranteed of its authenticity.

There's apparently a large cult market for uranium glass pieces, which range in age from the 19th century to the 1930's - but none more recent, probably because radioactivity got such a bad reputation following the advent of the Bomb - after World War II, "radiation chic" fell out of vogue. You might be familiar with the story of Fiestaware™ pottery, certain types of which were crafted with a sightly radioactive ceramic glaze - while hard to find, the 'hot' pieces are hot collectibles, fetching high prices.

One UK website that sells Vaseline Glass offers certification of Geiger counter readings, which range from about 300 cps for a small Czech candle-shaped tray, to a blazing 8400 cps for an English 19th Century wine glass. That goblet must have put quite the kick in your nightcap. One piece is listed at a whopping 22,600 counts-per-second, but I hope that's a typo; if it were really that 'hot', you'd probably have to handle it with lead gloves. Still, I'm not too convinced it's a great idea to keep radiant collectibles like this in one's china cupboards, much less actually use them, although some sources say that the actual radiation doses received from these pieces is not harmful.

A Japanese Vaseline Glass collector's site

(The above beautiful image of glowing vaseline glass appears on Webshots.com, photo by tmwalaska.)

Chernobyl Requiem, Part 1

I'm still not certain what triggered it, but this weekend I started thinking about the Chernobyl disaster. True, it's a strange topic to suddenly become interested in, and I can't pinpoint any precipitating cause, such as a news story or random overheard conversation.

Considering that I had a major obsession with nuclear war back in the mid-1980's, I've been rather nuke-phobia-free for the last twenty years or so. The truth is, when Chernobyl's Reactor 4 exploded on April 26th, 1986, I don't remember being horribly concerned or glued to the television for news on the event. This can probably be explained by the fact that I was 18 at the time, and current events were rarely the stuff of daily obsession for me then. I think the zenith of my nuclear paranoia came in 1984 (Coincidence? We think not!), when my high school classes were periodically interrupted with fallout drills and regular lessons on Civil Defense Emergency evacuation procedure.

You see, I lived in Plattsburgh, New York back then - home to Plattsburgh Air Force Base, which was a prominent Northeast strategic ICBM target. What we were all told back then was basically that when the Russkies finally pressed the Big Red Button (of course, it would always be the Russkies pushing the button first), our immediate response should be to duck down under a table or desk, away from glass windows, place our heads protectively between our knees, and kiss our arses goodbye.

Between Ronald Reagan's regularly televised polemics, the "star wars" defense initiative, the Plattsburgh Yellow Pages' obligatory section on Civil Defense evacuation procedures (complete with maps where we should assemble with a change of warm clothing, canned food, jugs of clean water and prescription medications within ten minutes from when we first heard the alarm sirens, preparing to be bussed to safe locations before the Big One hit PAFB in 30 minutes - that's how long it would take the Russkies' ICBM's to strike our little air base) and songs like '99 Red Balloons' by Nena, 'Distant Early Warning' by Rush, 'Dancing With Tears In Our Eyes' by Ultravox (and many others) blaring sweaty repressed fear with a synth-and-guitar backbeat, I had recurring nightmares about nuclear war at least once a week back then.

Every time I heard a fire station call siren, I thought it might be The Big One. It got to the point that when I saw a flash of lightning to the eastern horizon, for a moment my heart skipped and I wondered whether my 30-minute timer had begun.

Sounds crazy, but those were crazy times. Who new that less than two years later, hell would break loose in the Ukraine, with a near-unstoppable radioactive fire spewing toxins into the Northern hemisphere upper atmosphere for nearly two weeks?

Compounding the Chernobyl event's mystery was the Soviet government's complete media silence about the accident for two days, only admitting to the disaster after a Swedish ambassador implored Moscow for answers why incredibly high levels of radiation were being detected in the Scandinavian nation for no apparent reason. Soon images of the reactor inferno reached the outside world, with accounts of brave, desperate virtually unprotected firefighters and helicopter pilots on suicide missions, struggling to put down the graphite moderator fire; the coverage near operatic in its dangerous grandeur and human pathos, a Götterdammerung of man against the mighty Atom unchained.

This past Sunday I heard a dark, minor-key Russian choral hymn on WBEZ, a Chicago classical music station, and in my mind I played over the images of the Chernobyl cataclysm I'd recently seen and read: the juxtaposition made me well up with emotion. Now, for the past few days' I've been researching the entire Chernobyl incident - historical footage and media coverage, and regular updates prepared by regulatory agencies and multinational consortiums, including those who plan to clean up the entombed reactor and rebuild a more permanent protective shield than the hastily-constructed, crumbling Sarcophagus.

I've discovered that the Chernobyl story is far from over: the monster only sleeps. Authorities in the former Soviet Union publicly decried their population's fear of Chernobyl's fallout as "radiophobia," a mass hysteria with no basis in fact. Unfortunately, when authorities are less than candid about the facts, people will try to read between the lines and fill in the blanks, often creating mass panic. Today, a number of nations are scrambling to raise funds to finally contain and clean up the reactor ruin, to dissect its poisonous innards before it wakes, stirred up by seismic activity, weathering, or other events. This project is called the Shelter Implementation Plan, or SIP [PDF file].

Perhaps the recent look back at Chernobyl is no coincidence. Here in Chicago's Hyde Park, just a few yards from where I work, is a large brass Henry Moore sculpture that looks vaguely like a deformed hollow skull, or a mushroom cloud. It stands at the former site of the University of Chicago's Stagg Field, where on December 2, 1942, a researcher named Enrico Fermi created the world's first controlled self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The sculpture is called "Nuclear Energy", and it marks the place where the power of the atom first emerged in the world of man; if not for this event that took place near where I pass every day, there would have been no Hiroshima, no Nagasaki, no Three Mile Island, and no Chernobyl. As Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so Fermi stole the fire of the atomic pile: nuclear energy may certainly have brought some benefits to humankind, but at a rather steep price with compounded interest.

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post is a rare excellent shot of the destroyed reactor after the fire was put out - but before the Sarcophagus was constructed. I found it on the Chernobyl Tour site, where you can apparently book a tour of the area, including stops near the reactor and the neighboring ghost town of Pripyat. Tourists get special disposable clothing and respirators for the trip, and a complimentary computerized souvenir dosimeter reading (unfortunately, I'm not joking). Sorry, no photos allowed by Ukrainian law, which would explain the relative dearth of good images of the accident site available. However, some photos do appear on the Web, mostly from Ukrainian residents who visit the area and some from foreign press visits, which I'll be offering links to in the forthcoming special farkleberries feature on the Chernobyl accident anniversary. April 26th, 1986.

The photoessay site "Ghost Town", created by a young Ukrainian woman named Elena, has received over 2.5 million hits as of this writing; you'll find dozens of startling, one-of-a-kind images of the Chernobyl region accompanied by Elena's account of her visit. While access is strictly limited, Elena states that her father works for the government, and was able to arrange a permit for her motorcycle visit. Thank you, Walt, for this excellent link.

18 years is nothing in the life of a plutonium atom.

Surfing the Nuclear Web: from Australia to Argonne

Looking for more radiation related sites? There's the informative and descriptively-named Radioactive Waste blog from Australia:
Being an environmental scientist of the disorganised type, and also overwhelmed by the quantity of sites of relevance to my interest in safety of radioactive waste, my hope is that this blog will bring some order to my life (this part at least)! All views & irreverent commentary expressed here are entirely my personal opinion, of course. In Australia, after cleaning up the mess at Maralinga (former UK nuclear weapons test site), we are now in process of building a national radwaste repository.
Jef's Web Files has a section focusing on nuclear safety, with recent posts about the development of detectors that can "smell" nukes, and the U.S. government's recent revival of a lost Cold War art - fallout analysis.

Atom Central is an intriguing portal with sections on the atom bomb, the Trinity site and video releases on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American bomb tests and more.

Of special interest is the Argonne National Laboratory's engineering research website:
Argonne's rich heritage in the development of nuclear reactors began with CP-1, the world's first nuclear reactor brought to life by Enrico Fermi and his team on December 2, 1942, under the West stands at Stagg Field on the campus of the University of Chicago.

Dr. Walter H. Zinn, one of Fermi's close colleagues working on CP-1, became Argonne National Laboratory's first director in July 1946. In 1948, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) transferred the major portion of the nation's nuclear reactor development program to Argonne. Under Dr. Zinn's vision and leadership, Argonne established a vigorous and far-reaching program to develop nuclear reactors of virtually all types.
You can see some of Argonne's history in video: Argonne's pioneering nuclear research is prominently featured in the documentary Atoms for Peace (1994, VHS), hosted by Bill Kurtis (whom we met as the host of the program NOVA: Back to Chernobyl). This one-hour feature details the history of the American peacetime nuclear program with its focus on energy production (and the U.S. fast-breeder reactor program, now on indefinite hiatus), as well as its linkage back to the early weapons development initiatives at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Arco, Idaho (the first town to be powered by nuclear energy) and the now-defunct Hanford site power plant in Washington state. While Atoms for Peace is a bit hard to track down, you'll probably be able to find a copy at larger public libraries with video collections.

Old Time Radiation Chic

Radiation became fashionable after Marie Curie's research on the element radium, and one dark night upon returning to her laboratory, she found it filled with an eerie glow. She had discovered that radium-containing compounds glowed brilliantly of their own accord, as the atoms released energy in the visible spectrum in the process of radioactive decay. Although Madame Curie paid for this spectacular discovery with her own early death caused by radiation exposure, the new "miracle substance" made its way into many consumer products, such as watches whose dials glowed in the dark.

One major radium-watch scandal occurred here in Illinois, at the Elgin Watch Company. Remember the fate of the "Radium Girls," the poor souls who used to paint glow-in-the-dark patches on clocks and watches? Luminous paint used back then contained hazardous radium salts instead of today's safer glowing alternatives like zinc compounds or phosphorus, and the radium workers often had a habit of "pointing" the brushes in their lips to obtain finer paint lines.

The results included dreadful skin ulcerations and cancers, corneal cataracts and tumors of the mouth, jaw and neck. Rather than being recognized as radiation sickness, these maladies were often incorrectly diagnosed as advanced syphilis and venereal disease by doctors who felt that these women, who shunned traditional roles by working in factories, must undoubtedly have loose morals. A shameful era, no doubt...but I still think "The Radium Girls" would make a cracking name for a rock band, or a blog.

Better than "Phossy Jaw."

If you're curious, here's the University of Chicago's official training page for radiation safety. So, just how dangerous is radiation exposure? On this page you'll find a small chart that lists some examples of activities that carry a one-in-a-million risk of killing you. They include:
Smoking 1.4 cigarettes (lung cancer)
Eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter
Spending 2 days in New York City (air pollution)
Driving 40 miles in a car (accident)
Flying 2500 miles in a jet (accident)
Receiving 10 mRem of radiation (cancer)
Most of these make sense, like the fact that breathing New York City air for 2 days can possibly kill you - a rather disturbing little statistic. On the other hand, I am thoroughly confused about how eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter carries a 1-in-a-million risk of death. How? By aflatoxin-induced cancer? Allergic reaction? Clogged arteries? Constipation?

Do you have to eat all 40 tablespoons at once?

RadioActive! FAQ's

Q: Why is the site's URL http://corium.blogspot.com? What's "corium"?

A: Corium is the name of the lava-like substance formed in the intense heat of a runaway reactor, composed of molten nuclear core fuel, moderator, fuel rod housings and any other material the molten mass comes in contact with. It's the "melt" in "meltdown."

After the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, researchers around the world (and especially in Europe) have been conducting experiments using extremely high-temperature furnaces to create synthetic "meltdowns" that will help design safer reactors and power plants. Some excellent information on corium research is available at the French Comissariat ál 'Energie Atomique (CEA)'s website. The PLINIUS project includes papers on the VULCANO prototypic corium furnace. For more information, I suggest the CEA paper "Flow and solidification of corium in the VULCANO facility" by Christophe Journeau, et al. [1.5Mb PDF file]

Q: I think nuclear power is inherently dangerous, and your website seems to promote its use. I don't think that's very responsible.

A: While I agree that nuclear energy in many ways is inherently dangerous (as its history has shown), the fact remains there are many power plants currently in operation - and are unlikely to be shut down any time soon. Rising fossil-fuel prices are also likely to result in an increased demand for alternative energy sources for electricity generation - including dependency on our existing nuclear plants. Also, the advent of nuclear power has been one of the shaping forces of the 20th century - and it is still a fascinating topic, despite its checkered history.

Q: What is the significance of the image of the sculpture that appears in the upper right-hand corner of the blog?

A: That's a Henry Moore sculpture entitled "Nuclear Energy" - you can see it at the University of Chicago campus at the former location of Stagg Field (on the east side of Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets), where Enrico Fermi created the first controlled self-sustaining atomic reaction on December 2, 1942. The massive piece rests on a large rectangular concrete platform marked with radiating outward lines, and its caption reads,
"On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy."
It's a rather awe-inspiring sight, and the sculpture itself suggests a variety of shapes: some people think it looks like a human skull, some look at it and see the shape of a mushroom cloud; I think it looks a bit like both. The University of Chicago website listed below says Henry Moore hoped those viewing it would "go around it, looking out through the open spaces, and that they may have a feeling of being in a cathedral."

So, while many other scientists helped create the foundations of nuclear energy as we know it, Chicago can be called the true birthplace of of the Atomic Age! You can read more about it at http://physics.uchicago.edu/moore_sculpture.html.

Q: I have an idea for a post topic that I think you might find interesting. How do I contact you?

A: Just drop us a note via farkleberries feedback. Let us know if you'd like to be credited by name.