November 30, 2012

Chernobyl's New Safe Confinement Rises: The First Stage

After nearly two decades of administrative, political, and financial setbacks, major progress is being made now at the New Safe Confinement. Having been previously called "Ukritye" and the "Shelter Implementation Plan" over the years, the secure NSC outer shell being built over the decaying Chernobyl Sarcophagus will allow Reactor 4 to finally be safely dismantled with greatly reduced risk to the environment.

In the clip below, Vince Novak, the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development]'s Director of Nuclear Safety discusses the construction progress and the NSC's benefits.

This video (:35) shows a time-lapse version of the first NSC section's raising.

November 16, 2012

Radioactive Orchestra Turns Atoms Into Music at TEDxGöteborg

I'm a big fan of TEDTalks, and as you can imagine this session holds a special appeal for me. It's a remarkable synthesis of science, art, mathematics, and the mysterious allure of radioactivity as Kollektivet Livet's Radioactive Orchestra turns half-lives into half-notes (among others) live at TEDx in Göteborg, Sweden. Enjoy.

New Mitsubishi Videocamera Can "See" Radioactivity

Mitubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. of Japan announced it will begin marketing early next year the Astrocam 7000 HS, a new type of video camera that can show a superimposed display of radioactivity on its wide-angle 180-degree image, allowing cleanup crews and emergency responders to see "hot spots" in real time. The Asahi Shimbun reports,
"The portable camera, which will apply technology jointly developed with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is designed to allow for more efficient clean-up of radioactive contamination, an issue of great concern in Japan because of the nuclear disaster last year. The camera will use technology now in place on observation equipment aboard the ASTRO-H X-ray astronomy satellite operated by JAXA.

Tadayuki Takahashi, a professor of space physics at JAXA and project manager of the ASTRO-X, said, "The camera can measure radiation in high places, such as on roofs, and will lead to more efficient decontamination of radiation." Using two types of semiconductor sensors, the direction and strength of gamma rays emitted by radioactive materials such as cesium are measured and brought to light as a superimposed image on the visible landscape."
Mitsubishi this week also announced another breakthrough in nuclear cleanup technology, an armored seat that would reduce heavy equipment operators' exposure to radiation by half, and theoretically allow workers to remain twice as long in hazardous areas before receiving maximum permitted radiation doses:
The seat material, including body armor parts (shoulders, arms, chest/abdominal area, thighs, neck), consists mainly of tungsten sheet, which offers excellent radiation shielding capability. Although the seat weighs a considerable 130 kilograms (kg), individual parts weigh less than 20kg and most of their weight is integrally supported by the seat, so the burden on the operator is minimal.

In addition, the operator can put on and remove the armor-like parts easily by opening/closing the front like a vest...these features provide a high rate of radiation shielding while simultaneously minimizing fatigue during continuous work and inconvenience to machine operation from wearing such shielding.
Here, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries demonstrates the Astrocam and explains its technology in this one-hour press conference video (in Japanese, no subtitles).

[Image of demonstration camera view courtesy of Asahi Shimbun Online] More on the Mitsubishi Astrocam 7000HS camera:

October 24, 2012

Self-Powered Sensors Enable Monitoring Reactor Fuel Rod Status During Total Power Failures

Researchers at Penn State and Idaho National Laboratory have announced an important breakthrough in sensor technology that promises to improve operating safety and control of reactors in the event of total power failure:
Penn State researchers [have] teamed with the Idaho National Laboratory to create a self-powered sensor capable of harnessing heat from nuclear reactors' harsh operating environments to transmit data without electronic networks. The team [are presenting] their research at the Acoustical Society of America's...164th Meeting, October 22-26, 2012, in Kansas City, Missouri.

"Thermoacoustics exploits the interaction between heat and sound waves," explains Randall A. Ali, a graduate student studying acoustics at Penn State. "Thermoacoustic sensors can operate without moving parts and don't require external power if a heat source, such as fuel in a nuclear reactor, is available."
In the unlikely (but not unprecedented) event of complete power failure, as occurred when backup generators at Fukushima were flooded with seawater following the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011, these self-powered sensors would allow plant operators to continue monitoring conditions within the reactor in the critical first minutes and hours of an emergency.

September 24, 2012

Uranium Film Festival Coming to Berlin October 4-12, 2012

If I could snap my fingers and be in Berlin this October 4th through the 12th, I'd love to attend this remarkable Brazil-based international event:
The International Uranium Film Festival is dedicated to films about atomic bombs the whole nuclear fuel chain and radioactivity: Uranium mining, nuclear power plants, atomic bombs, nuclear waste, radioactive risks, nuclear medicine. The festival wants to stimulate the production of independent documentaries, movies and animated films about any nuclear or radioactive issue.
Uranium Film Festival is a project of the Yellow Archives, a cultural and educational organization that hopes to increase public information about nuclear power, nuclear waste, uranium mining and radioactivity in general. Yellow Archives is the first-ever film library in Brazil and Latin America dedicated to non-profit, educational and research films about the nuclear fuel chain and radioactivity, and makes its archives open to schools, universities and other non-profit organizations. Among the films to be screened are Roberto Pires' riveting Cesio-137: El Pesadelo de Goiânia (Cesium-137: The Nightmare of Goiânia), the 2011 Audience Award winner for Best Feature Film, and Bill Kiesling's 2012 "Yellow Oscar"-winning documentary, "Not for Public Release: a Nuclear Incident in Lock Haven."

The next Uranium Film Festival is scheduled for May 2013 at Rio de Janeiro's Museum of Modern Art. The Uranium Film Festival and the Yellow Archives depend primarily on private funding for their work; you can get involved by becoming a sponsor, or by making a donation to the film festival. The full program of the upcoming October event in Berlin is available here [PDF], and you can also view the program brochure of the 1st Uranium Film Festival from 2011.

September 19, 2012

Argonne National Laboratory Energy Showcase: Photo Slideshow

As promised, Part Two of our coverage of the Saturday, September 15th Argonne Energy Showcase open house event. Our video highlights can be seen in the first installment of our Energy Showcase posts. Here's our full Flickr slideshow of over 50 photos with captions. Top: "Now, That's Cold!" Argonne researcher explains the technology behind the ATLAS (Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System) facility, the world's first superconducting linear accelerator for heavy ions. The object on the table is a model section of ATLAS' "superconducting split-ring resonator."

Center: "Hot or Not?" This very popular FLIR imaging exhibit in the Nuclear Energy building allowed visitors to see live video of themselves in the room with color-coded temperature gradients. As you can see, some people are literally hotter than others. A similar station set up in the Advanced Photon Source (401) complex let visitors take home a snapshot printout of their FLIR scans.

For even more images, visit Argonne National Lab's official Flickr photostream.
Bottom: "Clean and Green" One of the several advanced hybrid electric vehicles in the Sustainable Energy Tent. Some of the other new technologies on display were demonstrations of biofuel generation using fermented waste, vehicle charging stations, and an area where visitors could ride the "Energy Bike" to see how much pedaling they have to do to light up a conventional incandescent light bulb, versus the effort needed to make LED and compact fluorescent devices glow. As we can vouch, it takes a lot less legwork to make those clean and green LED's shine!

September 18, 2012

Argonne Energy Showcase: The Short Video

Some of the remarkable scientific sights and sounds RadioActive! The Nuclear Blog captured at this weekend's Argonne National Laboratory Energy Showcase 2012.

Video Highlights from Argonne National Lab's Energy Showcase 2012

Didn't get a chance to visit Argonne National Laboratory's 2012 Energy Showcase in the Chicago suburbs this past September 15th? Don't worry: we're very happy to share our video and photo highlights from this rare opportunity to peek inside the birthplace of modern nuclear science, and see first-hand some of the amazing research being done in America's heartland.

According to an on-site event organizer, this year's open house was the first one held in five years, after tighter security restrictions post-9/11 put National Laboratory open houses on hold. This year's Energy Showcase was also the first to require visitors to pre-register online. While past events had as many as 20,000 visitors each, Energy Showcase 2012 hosted a more modest registered attendance of approximately 2,000* - not necessarily a downside if you were seeking a good, close look at the dozens of fascinating exhibits on hand. [*According to another person I spoke to later, the registration attendance was capped at 10,000, so I may have misheard the original attendance estimate. If any readers out there have more solid attendance stats, please let us know in the comments! - LR]

First, let's stop in at the Physics building to have a look at the Gammasphere, the world's most powerful spectrometer for nuclear structure research. If the Gammasphere looks familiar, you may remember that the device had a 'guest starring role' in the 2003 feature film "Hulk," as the contraption that triggered Bruce Banner's verdant transformation - back then, it was physically located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Read more at

Next, let's take a short drive south to the nearby Advanced Photon Source complex, a facility which provides the brightest x-ray beams in the Western Hemisphere to more than 5,000 scientists from around the United States and the world. Here's a panned view from the APS observation gallery, as a researcher gives a basic explanation of its workings in the final 30 seconds or so of the video. In person, the building and equipment are remarkably large; what you see here on the video is only a tiny fraction of the APS accelerator "ring." More at

Here is a live demonstration of a technique called "acoustic levitation" that uses high-frequency (~22kHz) sound waves to suspend small objects like liquid droplets, plastic spheres, and popcorn in mid-air. Bystanders could manipulate and rearrange the plastic beads within the sound column using a metal spoon, creating intriguing patterns. As you can see from the video, the column behaves as though the beads are 'magnetically' attracted along an invisible vertical line running between the upper and lower sound generators. The demonstrators explain that the beads are spaced at wavelength node intervals of about one-third inch, allowing visualization of the standing wave. More at

Down the hall, we stopped by to see an X-ray diffraction demonstration, which provides a simulation of how the APS' powerful X-ray beam can reveal the before-unseen inner structures of nanoparticles, proteins, crystalline structures, organic molecules, and many other materials. More at

In part 2 of our look inside Argonne National Laboratory, we'll visit ANL's Nuclear Museum, home of many historical treasures from the dawn of the Atomic Age.

September 06, 2012

Pentagon Releases Map of Estimated Radiation Doses for Americans in Japan During Peak of Fukushima Crisis

The Pentagon has released data showing radiation dosage estimates for the thousands of American nationals and military personnel in Japan at the time of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Named Operation Tomodachi, the registry seeks to "[provide] interested individuals with location-based radiation dose estimates for adults and children for the period of greatest potential exposure, from March 12, 2011 through May 11, 2011." According to the September 5th news report in Reuters,
"[T]he highest rate of adult exposure [was] at Camp Sendai, just north of Fukushima, where the estimated adult dose of whole body radiation was 0.12 rem and 1.20 for the thyroid - the organ most affected by radiation. By comparison, a full-body CAT scan yields a whole body exposure of 5.0 rem. Those American personnel who were stationed at Camp Sendai who check the website will see a message saying: 'Your whole-body and thyroid radiation dose estimates are well below levels associated with adverse medical conditions.'"
The Google API-based map [accessible here], which shows selected measurement areas with links to dosage estimate reports, is expected to be completed by the end of 2012, and will also incorporate dosage estimates and data for about 8,000 individuals who had direct radiation measurements taken.

[Image screencapture from Operation Tomodachi website, 09/06/12.]

September 05, 2012

Memorial Mass for Victims of the Goiânia Accident, 25 Years On

For our readers in Brasil, on 13 September there will be a 25th Memorial Mass commemorating the victims of the 1987 Goiânia accident held at the Igreja Nossa Senhora de Gloria, Jardim Meriti, São João de Meriti, Rio de Janeiro (via

For more background information on the Goiânia accident that claimed the lives of at least 4 people, sickened dozens with radiation illness, and caused widespread contamination (INES 5) throughout several districts surrounding the accident epicenter, see our April 30, 2012 post:

[Read the post in its original Portuguese.]

August 06, 2012

"Inside Chernobyl (2012)": A Documentary by Adrian Musto

Much has been said here and elsewhere on the longstanding tragedy of Chernobyl, so I'm always pleasantly surprised to find a fresh look at the topic. Today I discovered a documentary by Adrian Musto, a photographer and filmmaker who also posts under the nom de Web Arkitekture. What's he's created here "on no budget" (in his words) using footage from a recent visit to Ukraine and Pripyat, is remarkable. Beginning with some archival videoclips from the first days of the 1986 accident, the film captures the haunting air of present-day Pripyat, the soon-to-be "New Safe Confined" Sarcophagus, interviews with residents, and some on-the-spot radiation meter readings of objects and structures. I'm sure you'll find "Inside Chernobyl" fascinating. [Note: some of the images may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.]

Musto's photos from Chernobyl, viewable in a gallery on his website, are also stunning. You can listen to some of his Chernobyl trip backstory at Deep Inside Podcast from July 10, 2011, which features very nice atmospheric IDM music from Kiev-based producer Queensway.

July 30, 2012

Argonne National Laboratory to Host 2012 Energy Showcase

[UPDATE 8/15/12: Argonne National Laboratory releases more details on the September 15th Energy Showcase program.]

If you (or your children) are science enthusiasts, mark your calendars for Saturday, September 15th: Argonne National Laboratory will open its doors to the public for a special educational event - the 2012 Energy Showcase:
The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory will open its gates to the community on Saturday, September 15, 2012, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. for a day of discovery and fun for the whole family. The event is free and open to the public. Advance registration is required as attendance will be limited.

Argonne's Energy Showcase will be a similar event to the traditional Argonne Open House but will be on a somewhat smaller scale, making it easier to experience all that the laboratory has to offer in a single day. The Energy Showcase will feature interactive demos, exhibits and tours, giving attendees a unique opportunity to mingle with prominent energy researchers and innovators within a hands-on atmosphere. This is a great opportunity to learn more about Argonne's research and talk with leading experts at the laboratory.

The event will be held rain or shine. Free shuttle service will be provided and food and drink will be available for purchase. Advance reservations are required and visitors are welcome to take photos and videos of the event.
Register for the Argonne Energy Showcase at

The Laboratory facility is located on 1,500 wooded acres, about 25 miles southwest of Chicago. Outdoor fans also may wish to take in the DuPage County Forest Preserve District's Waterfall Glen nature area in Darien, which includes a scenic 9-mile hiking/biking loop trail that encircles the Argonne grounds. The Energy Showcase promises to be an unusual, exciting opportunity to get a glimpse inside Argonne, and to meet some of the researchers who are pushing the boundaries of today's knowledge to meet our energy needs for the present and future.

June 11, 2012

"Lessons Learned from 'Lessons Learned': The Evolution of Nuclear Power Safety After Accidents and Near-Accidents" (AAAS monograph, 2012)

Continuing our theme of our evolving understanding of nuclear power safety, I'd like to highlight an excellent - and timely - paper just released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "Lessons Learned from 'Lessons Learned': The Evolution of Nuclear Power Safety after Accidents and Near-Accidents," by Edward D. Blandford and Michael M. May. From the preface:
"As countries struggle to meet the electricity demands of their growing populations while also reducing their carbon footprints, many have turned to nuclear energy. The U.S. nuclear energy program may not increase significantly in the coming decades, but other countries, including many developing countries, have plans for rapid expansion. Even after the recent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the global trend toward expansion of nuclear energy has continued.

While serious accidents like Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl can provide invaluable lessons, the nuclear industry, nuclear regulators, and the research community must study minor incidents and near-accidents as well. These experiences often reveal not only how to decrease the likelihood that the same mistakes will occur, but also how to avoid larger accidents that may be foreshadowed in earlier, smaller incidents.

In this paper, Edward Blandford and Michael May enumerate the lessons from nuclear accidents and incidents, asking whether the nuclear energy community has indeed learned from those lessons. The authors argue that stakeholders must commit to ongoing improvement of their protocols and standards. Each nuclear incident—no matter its size—underlines the importance of pursuing high standards of safety, security, and proliferation resistance."
One standout key finding in "Lessons Learned..." is on page 23, in Table 1, "Main Sources of Electricity in the World and Their Morbidity and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Per Unit of Electricity Produced." The authors find that while nuclear energy is the fourth most prevalent form of electricity generation worldwide (at 14% of global usage), it is associated with the lowest number of deaths per terawatt hour (0.04). The least common form of generation, wind power (< 1% of global usage), somewhat surprisingly has a morbidity rate of 0.15 deaths per terawatt hour, but I suspect many of these might be a result of accidents involving installation or maintenance of the wind turbines, rather than the operating process itself.

If you're pressed for time, the paper's executive summary provides an informative primer on its conclusions and policy recommendations for the industry. The paper is available as a free PDF download as part of the AAAS' Occasional Papers series at, or as hard copy for a nominal fee from the AAAS.

June 08, 2012

RadioActive! Classic: Chernobyl Requiem - May 2004

[Originally published May 4, 2004. I'm working on a follow-up version that will examine how things have changed in the intervening years. - LR]

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.

June 06, 2012

'Meltdowns' Making Safer Reactors: CEA's PLINIUS Platform and Finland's VTT

[See also "Alexander Borovoi: Chernobyl Explorer"]

The mention of the word meltdown conjures our deepest fears about nuclear power: an out-of-control reactor core collapsing into molten radioactive "lava" that consumes metal, reactor housings, concrete foundations - even, as cautionary tales warn, the ground beneath the reactor itself. While the "China Syndrome" is thankfully just a frightening fiction, complete or partial meltdowns have occurred in several severe accidents, notably Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently at three of Fukushima Daiichi's reactors. Recent European studies have even suggested that the likelihood of a severe accident is much higher than previously thought:
"Based on the operating hours of all civil nuclear reactors and the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the Cyprus Institute have calculated that such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years (based on the current number of reactors) - some 200 times more often than estimated in the past."
Clearly, one important goal must be designing reactors that resist losing structural integrity in the event of an accident or meltdown, that can reliably withstand molten corium's extreme temperatures without breaching containment. Our scientific understanding has been limited in the past by the difficulty of studying meltdowns during actual emergencies, and in recreating their volcanic conditions in a controlled environment. This is one of the reasons why the innovative prototypic core melt research being performed at facilities like CEA's PLINIUS Platform, and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, is crucial in developing new building materials for safer nuclear plants, as well as learning to prevent meltdowns and minimizing environmental exposure should one occur.

PLINIUS is an experimental platform for the study of severe accidents using prototypic corium, laboratory-created high-temperature molten mixtures containing depleted uranium oxides that recreate the "melt" of theoretical "meltdowns".

Its four facilities study different aspects of corium formation and behavior: VULCANO is a "50-100 kg corium melting facility," where oxides and metals are combined in a rotating cylindrical furnace and melted using induction heating, transferred plasma arc technology, or through exothermic redox reactions ("uranium thermite"). The "melt" is then poured into a test section of concrete, ceramic, or other material to study flow patterns, chemistry, and resulting material structure. COLIMA is a smaller, enclosed induction-heated unit that allows study of corium/gas interaction and aerosol formation, while KROTOS is used to observe and measure the behavior of small (~5kg) quantities of corium when dropped into water. As PLINIUS' site understatedly describes, "energetic steam explosions can be triggered and studied":
Heat transfer between the hot molten core with the colder volatile water [in KROTOS] is so intense and rapid that the timescale for heat transfer is shorter than the timescale for pressure relief, leading to the formation of a shock wave. This shock wave is intensified as a result of further mixing and energy transfer as it travels through the mixture.
The smallest of PLINIUS' facilities, VITI, (image above is a tiny molten corium droplet in the VITI crucible) specializes in tests using corium samples of less than 100 grams, mainly used for thermophysical/thermochemical property analysis, or controlled-atmosphere material interaction tests.

While Finland's Technical Research Center (VTT) conducts international applied industrial research and analysis in a variety of fields, its nuclear reactor safety program has also developed advanced simulated reactor environmental modeling (APROS) and reactor aging studies, as well as joint corium melt research with CEA's PLINIUS. Ongoing research into the science behind meltdowns, such as the work being done at PLINIUS and VTT, will help create safer, more accident-proof nuclear reactors and containment structures for our world's endlessly growing need for cleaner energy.

CEA PLINUS Platform Research Links: VTT Research Links:

May 24, 2012

Nevada's Historic BREN Atomic Test Tower Demolished

[Image and YouTube video from the NNSA. Thanks to James Stover (tweeting at @JamesStoverAPR) for the story!]

Yesterday, in the Nevada desert, demolition crews from New York and Maryland felled a legendary piece of America's atomic history.

At 1,527 feet tall, the former Nevada Test Site's BREN tower was the "tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi River," and also the "tallest structure of its kind ever demolished," according to the National Nuclear Safety Administration. Originally built in 1962 in Yucca Flats, from fifty-one 30-foot sections of steel and two and a half miles of steel cable, the tower was moved to its latest location in Jackass Flats in 1966 after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty banned open-air nuclear testing.
From CNN: The tower stood taller than the Empire State Building (1,454 feet) and the Eiffel Tower (1,063 feet). It was also taller than the iconic Stratosphere (1,148 feet) on the Las Vegas strip...[T]he BREN Tower took its name from the nuclear radiation experiment for which it was built: Bare Reactor Experiment - Nevada. BREN Tower was designed to provide a way for scientists to accurately estimate radiation doses received by survivors of the atomic bombs detonated over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The tower stood 1,527 feet tall because that was the height at which "Little Boy," the first atomic bomb used in warfare, was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
At one time, a mock Japanese village was built near the tower's base to give researchers better modeling of the effects of a nuclear explosion on inhabited areas. Officials from the NNSA said the tower, which stopped being used in 1999, was too costly to maintain and restore, and posed a hazard to passing aircraft.

May 18, 2012

Radioactive Cesium Found in Rats Near Fukushima

This story from Japan illustrates how radioactive contamination can be dispersed by animal vectors, as well as weather, water, and human intervention: NHK News reports cesium has been found in the brains of wild rats in the forested area about 30km from the beleaguered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Apodemus speciosus is actually a species called the Large Japanese Field Mouse, so I'm uncertain if the article is referring to both rats and mice, or just the Large Japanese Field Mice. The linked NHK News article contains a 1:37 video (in Japanese) which may provide a more detailed explanation. Judging from size alone, the rodents shown captured in the video look to be A. speciosus, not the typical species of domestic rat common in Japan.
[English text via Google Translate]

Highly Radioactive Cesium from Rat Cortex

Radioactive cesium in the 3100 Becquerels [range] was detected in rats in the wild, captured in the forest approximately 30 km from [the] nuclear power plants. An expert at Fukushima Daiichi Tokyo Electric Power Company [said] there is a need to examine continuously the impact on wildlife.

...Apodemus speciosus was captured wild in October and December last year in the forest. As a result of examining the concentration of radioactive cesium accumulated in the body of 12 mice...on average, per kilogram, from rats captured in the village of Kawauchi [measured at] 3,100 becquerels, in Kitaibaraki 790 becquerels has been detected.

Radiation dose in the air of the capture location, Kawauchi village, is in the [range of] 0.2 μSv - 3.11 μSv per hour, and [in] Kitaibaraki, where radiation dose is high, [there was a tendency to find] higher concentrations of radioactive materials in the rat[s]. The results of the survey, Yoshihisa Kubota, Sub-Leader of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, [indicate] "There is a need to examine ... rats to study the effects of radiation to the same extent as human animals, continue to impact on wildlife of radioactive material."
Linked below are a few studies that may give an idea of how radiation spread by animal vectors like rats contributes to environmental contamination: when contaminated vectors are consumed by predators, if vector and subsequent predator wastes contain appreciable radioactive contamination, and also, if vectors die naturally, how much contamination is left in the soil, landfills, etc. According to one of the articles linked below, larger wildlife like deer pose a greater risk due to their larger body size, wider habitat range, and longer lifespan. Rats in particular would be a particularly important vector to study, given their affinity for human dwellings and garbage dumps. Please note that academic or library access may be needed to access the linked journal papers.[Image from video screen capture from the story on NHK news.]

May 14, 2012

Mae Keane: The Last "Radium Girl"

"You'd better find another job," said Mae Keane's boss at the Waterbury Clock Company of Vermont, when her luminous dial-painting productivity flagged. Mae thought the radium paint was too bitter-tasting, so she refused to use her colleagues' "lip-pointing" technique to create a sharp tip on her paintbrush by placing it in her mouth.

This bit of insubordination may have cost her a well-paid (a reported 8 cents per dial; about $1.00 today) summer factory job in 1926, but it probably saved her life. Back then, Mae's workplace friend Elsie gave her some frightening advice: never have a tooth pulled, because the wound would never heal.

"It was kept a secret in my young age and we didn't know what it was all about," Keane said. "People were dying and we didn't know why." Despite a history of health difficulties likely linked to her radiation exposure as a young woman, 105-year old Ms. Keane is the last surviving "Radium Girl."

For years, Middlebury, Vermont high school freshman Tim Cohn had been interested in his aunt Mae's accounts of working at the Waterbury Clock Company. Now Cohn's research on his aunt, her experiences, and the attempt to cover up what happened to the Radium Girls have made him a finalist in the National History Day contest, to be held at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. this June 10-14. Congratulations, Tim - and best wishes to your aunt Mae!

UPDATE: Tim Cohn was awarded the bronze medal in the Senior Individual Exhibit category at National History Day. Our sincere congratulations!

Here is a small sampling of links dedicated to the remarkable Radium Girls story; not just those who worked at the Waterbury plant, but those at locations around the nation in the 1920's and 30's. [Image from Hearst Sunday supplement American Weekly, February 28, 1926]

May 04, 2012

The "Chernobyl Diaries" Movie: Cultural Amnesia?

On May 25th, Warner Brothers will release a science fiction/supernatural horror film set in Pripyat, the abandoned "ghost town" adjacent to the ruins of Chernobyl's reactor complex. The crumbling town, seen for years on sites like "Kidd of Speed," seems a perfect backdrop for fright flicks. Let me say at the outset that I'm a huge movie fan: cheesy, gory horror flicks are some of my favorites. That said, as someone who was profoundly affected as a college freshman by live unfolding news accounts of Chernobyl (in fact, those memories are one of the main reasons I started this blog back in 2004) I have to admit I find the film's concept a bit troubling and distasteful.

I suspect the primary target audience, if not the filmmakers themselves, probably view the Chernobyl tragedy as just another creepy historical footnote, something awful that happened a long time ago in a country far away. With popular video games like "Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl," and the film's central premise of "extreme tourism" into the Exclusion Zone, Chernobyl's legacy has mushroomed (if you'll forgive the expression) into a booming cottage industry of curiosities for the "zombie apocalypse" crowd.

Since the nuclear strikes on Japan in World War II, popular culture from 50's Pulp and Godzilla to the Hulk and Spiderman have conflated nuclear mishaps with Bug Eyed Monsters. But I wonder: would movie executives and audiences respond favorably to a zombie apocalypse tale set in a different contemporary locale - say, the Japanese Tsunami of 2011 and the Fukushima Disaster? The Union Carbide Disaster in Bhopal, India? Hurricane Katrina? The terrorist attacks of 9/11?

The passage of time always seems to be an insulator against troubling memories; the human race couldn't survive otherwise. What's sad is that if nothing else, "Chernobyl Diaries" highlights how a mere two-and-a-half decades can generate cultural amnesia of the immense sacrifice and suffering that occurred in Europe and that continues to this day. Thinking charitably, maybe any kind of attention to the Chernobyl tragedy could generate a resurgence of interest in the continuing human need there; after all, they say there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Perhaps the least the makers of "Chernobyl Diaries" could do is donate a portion of their profits to one of the many charitable organizations that provide ongoing support to Chernobyl's victims, many born decades later. Those who were there and survived live with scarred minds, hearts, and/or bodies: every living being born in the afflicted region since April 26, 1986 will carry Chernobyl's memory into the far distant future.

[UPDATE: At least one other film, "Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis" was purportedly set in the Chernobyl area; but marketing was fairly low-key and the studios seemed to end up downplaying the Chernobyl connection.]

April 30, 2012

RadioActive! Casefiles: The Goiânia Accident (1987)

A little over one year after Chernobyl focused the world's attention on what was then the worst-ever civilian industrial nuclear disaster, the Brazilian city of Goiânia became the scene of another major radiological accident, resulting in several fatalities and widespread contamination. [A definitive 1988 report is available online at See links and videos at the bottom of this post.]

On September 13, 1987, two men broke into the Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), a partially demolished private cancer radiation therapy facility, and carted away a 300kg object in the belief they'd a found a valuable scrap metal item. Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira took the object to Alves' home, about one-half kilometer north of the clinic, and began to dismantle it.

Over the next few days Alves and Pereira cut away at the metal exterior and managed to puncture the casing. Despite the fact both men started to become violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea, they continued their efforts, eventually cracking open the device - inside was a smaller metal canister with a movable "window." When the inner canister's window was pried open, it revealed a mysterious blue glow inside the inner shell. The men scraped away and extracted several small chunks of the glowing blue substance within with a screwdriver to keep as "souvenirs."

On September 18th, Alves sold the object to Devair Alves Ferreira, a nearby scrap dealer. Fascinated by the blue glow, Ferreira invited his family and friends over to see and touch the object. Ferreira's brother Ivo brought some of the powder from the canister home and spread it on his floor; innocently, his 6-year-old daughter Leide played with the powder, rubbed it on her skin, and even ingested a small quantity. Over the next several days, she and others who handled the glowing powder fell ill with vomiting, diarrhea, skin rashes, burns, and blisters.

Now fearing the object was "killing her family," the scrap dealer's wife Gabriela placed it in a plastic bag, boarded a bus, and brought it to the Vigilancia Sanitaria hospital on September 28. One of two doctors who met with Gabriela that day suspected the danger, and placed the bag on a chair in the outer hospital garden, as far away as possible from human contact.

The following morning, a visiting medical physicist with a borrowed radiation detector confirmed the doctor's fears - the hospital now was massively contaminated with radiation. The physicist, identified only as "W.P." in official reports, initially encountered a great deal of resistance alerting authorities to the severity of the emergency. By the end of the following day, W.P. convinced the Secretary for Health of Goias State and the Director of the Department of Nuclear Installations in CNEN to begin a massive search and cleanup operation in the area.

What Alves and Pereira unknowingly brought home from the abandoned clinic was a lead-shielded cancer therapy device containing a lethally radioactive cesium137 chloride (salt) core. All told, 130,000 people were tested for radiation at area hospitals, about 250 were found to be contaminated, and 20 required treatment for radiation sickness. Several houses within the neighborhood had to be demolished, and the rubble buried in a remote waste site. The cleanup effort also was hampered not only by the length of time that passed since the core was exposed and handled, but also by the fact the radioactive powder was water-soluble.

Four deaths are attributed to direct exposure to the cesium core: Leide and Gabriela Ferreira, and two of Devair Ferreira's scrapyard employees succumbed to radiation poisoning about a month after receiving radiation doses of 4.5 to 6.0 Gy (500 to 600 REM). Leide was buried in a lead coffin surrounded by concrete in a Goiânia cemetery, where crowds protested her burial, fearing their relatives' graves would be contaminated. Remarkably, Devair Ferreira survived his massive 7.0 Gy exposure.

The accident - rated 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale [INES] - spread radioactive contamination throughout the Goiânia districts of Aeroporto, Central, and Ferroviários. To this date an estimated 7 of the device's nominal 50 TBq (terabecquerels) of radioactivity remain unaccounted for.

Image at top from the IAEA 1988 report on the Goiânia Accident. Lower image, by Alexander Sassaki/SIPA Press appears in "Radiation Accident Grips Goiania," by Leslie Roberts, Science, 1987 (see link below). *Featuring very effective use of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" as the backing track when one of the scrapyard employees discovers the cesium's blue glow in a dark storeroom, recalling the famous story of when the Curies found their radium-purifying lab apparatus aglow at night

April 28, 2012

Atomic Age II Fukushima Symposium, May 5th, 2012

RadioActive! readers near Chicago: the University of Chicago, the birthplace of the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, hosts Atomic Age Symposium II - Fukushima, this Saturday, May 5th.
[K]eynote speakers are Hiroaki Koide of the Kyoto University Reactor Research Institute, who has been speaking out against nuclear power for over 40 years; and Ruiko Muto, an anti-nuclear activist based in Fukushima and a member of a citizens’ group, Hairo [Reactor Decommission] Action Fukushima. Robert Rosner, Astronomy & Astrophysics & Physics, University of Chicago (former Director of the Argonne National Laboratory) will share his stance on nuclear energy via a videotaped message. Ruiko Muto’s speech will be followed by Bobbie Paul, Executive Director of Georgia WAND—Women’s Action for New Directions, Jeffrey Patterson (MD, Board Member and Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility), and Dean Wilkie, a retired nuclear plant operator and manager who, with Nancy Foust, an online media expert, has collaborated on the Simply Info website to provide detailed information about Fukushima.
This will be an all-day symposium investigating the multiple dimensions of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster through discussion by experts from Japan and the US, Saturday, May 5, 2012: 8:45am–6:00pm. This event is free and open to the public. Continental breakfast and lunch will be provided. For full information and details, visit or call 773-702-8647.

April 27, 2012

Jellyfish-Like Creatures Cause Shutdown of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant

An influx of "thumb-sized" creatures in cooling sea water proved too much for a California nuclear power plant this week, according to NDTV:
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, in San Luis, California, shut down its Unit 2 reactor after sea salp, a planktonic jellyfish-like creature clogged the screens of the plant’s coolant water intake. The influx of the gelatinous animals was discovered Wednesday. Initially, plant operators reduced its functional reactor to 25% capacity. Unit 1 had a scheduled refueling earlier in the week, and had been shut down.
In smaller quantities away from industrial activity, Salps have been known to have a beneficial effect on seawater by consuming bacteria. The San Luis coastal salp invasion may be just a periodic bloom.

Construction Begins on New Chernobyl Containment

[5/11/12 UPDATE: the National Radio Company of Ukraine announces that the Chernobyl shelter will be dismantled before 2022 (via NCRU)]

On the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, construction began on the long-awaited secondary containment shelter - or "Ukritye" - that will surround the site's crumbling concrete "sarcophagus." From AFP on YouTube:

The Shelter Implementation Plan (SIP) proposed over a decade ago by a multinational consortium languished for years due to a lack of funding; recent major donations have prompted ground-breaking on the project that eventually will cost nearly $1B. From Neue Deutsche Welle:
Construction on the so-called New Safe Confinement is slated to finish in 2015 and the new shelter will allow experts to dismantle the reactor and clean up the radioactive waste still present. On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the nuclear reactor spewed radiation that winds carried over much of the northern hemisphere with Belarus, Ukraine and Russia bearing the brunt of the fallout. A so-called "sarcophagus" was built over the reactor, however, it has leaked radiation in recent years. Donors pledged 740 million euros ($980 million) to build the new, permanent containment barrier and a nuclear fuel waste facility.
A new web resource on the Chernobyl disaster that purports to "[Publish] independent scientifically validated information about the consequences of Chernobyl disaster" can be found at the European Center of Technological Safety (TESEC):
This accident has been used, and is still used, as one of the key element of public mistrust "vis a vis" both the political and the scientific communities. The scale of the material losses and the financial cost of mitigating the consequences of the Chernobyl accident provide compelling evidence of the extremely high price of errors and shortcomings when ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants and of the need for strict compliance with international safety requirements during their design, construction and operation. The accident has convincingly demonstrated that the cost of ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities is significantly lower than that of dealing with accident consequences. Large-scale man-made accidents cause great social and economic damage to countries located in their area of influence. In the spirit of UN Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) it has been decided to develop and deploy a international scientific network for dissemination and publishing in web site scientifically validated information about the consequences of Chernobyl disaster. The Aarhus Convention was negotiated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe as part of its pan-European environmental legal framework. It is generally intended to lift the veil of environmental secrecy and strengthen citizens' environmental rights. The Aarhus Convention aims to ensure that the public has access to this type of information and to prevent Governments from covering up environmental disasters. Web site is address to various categories of targets (public of different levels of education, decision-makers, scientists, associations, governmental authorities and concerned international organizations, etc.).