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.]