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]