Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nuclear Leaks 1: Hanford

The GammaMaster: Japanese wristwatch and Geiger counter in one.  Image Source: MedGadgetCurrently sold out, the watch sells for USD $250 and was previously available out of Hong Kong.

Caption for the above photo: Leave it to the Japanese to integrate both a digital timepiece and a fully functional Geiger counter, all of it crammed into into a standard sized wristwatch. ... Feature-wise there are limits to what you can do in a wristwatch format. There's the time display in traditional dial analog format - it is a watch after all. For displaying radiation dosage, in addition to a digital display, the GammaMaster has an LCD analog display, which provides a visual indication of the current dose rate and cumulative dose. Both can be run in dosimeter mode or in survey meter mode.

Warning alarms can be set to indicate when a specified dose rate or cumulative dose is exceeded. Alarm settings are always displayed on the analog scales. Some minor negatives with the GammaMaster. For one, the radiation units of are in metric µSv/h and don't include mRems/hr, more commonly used in the U.S.

This month, I am doing a countdown to the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster by highlighting nuclear accidents, leaks, tests and similar incidents that have occurred elsewhere in the world. If oil is the fuel of our present, nuclear power is - or seemed to be - synonymous with the future. Yet it is a future not of clean burning high-tech scientific efficiency, but one of apocalyptic consequences if mismanaged, damaged or disrupted. The operation systems of nuclear facilities are also vulnerable to computer hacker attacks (which I have blogged about here and here).

In the wake of the Japanese crisis at the Fukushima plants, the internet public is getting very jumpy. One of my friends described the slow burn that is wearing down our sense of well-being as an "apocalyptic pressure on the metaphorical inner ear." (Thanks, J.)  On Twitter, I notice that nerves are raw. On 17 March, @ozcanyuksek tweeted: "travellers from Japan have triggered the radiation detectors at Chicago's airport. Though the report does stress the levels were very low." Amid assurances that Japanese radiation fallout levels were low, @MorrisonMD remarked: "Worried about radiation from Japan coming to US? Vast majority will be dispersed, but take antioxidants & Vit C." On 23 March, Tomoko Hosaka commented: "More on Tokyo tap water. Expert: Stress people get from radioactivity is more dangerous than radioactivity itself." On 28 March, @leashless commented: "Insomnia and flashes of ill temper. I am subtly, but deeply, stressed." On 1 April, after Tokyo Electric had repeatedly made alarming comments about radiation levels, then retracted them, the company announced they were sending in a robot to find out the source of an unknown leak, which they later isolated on 2 April. By 1 April, there were alarms raised by "experts" - despite all previous claims that levels of radiation currently spreading globally from Fukushima were harmless - that the world food supply was threatened by Japanese fallout.  There is a low grade, growing background fear that reflects our helplessness and global connections back at us.

Radiation from radioactive elements - an invisible, little understood force that can kill you at high or prolonged doses - is, like petroleum, one of the millstones hanging around our collective necks from the twentieth century.  Nuclear power may not survive very far into Millennium if public opinion turns sharply against the industry.  Yet it has overcome serious incidents before, so it may continue, no matter how people feel about it.  This is the central, all-consuming problem of our times - how to create enough energy to fuel our global economy without destroying ourselves in the process.

Image Source: Boing Boing.

In economic terms, the Japanese nuclear crisis hit the nuclear sector almost immediately.  In North America and Europe, there has been a run on Geiger counters and radiation detectors (see here, here and here). There's a ranked and reviewed list of portable radiation detectors here; the GammaMaster watch pictured at the top of the post was tested and reviewed here. In the western United States (see also reports herehere and here) and Canada, panicky citizens began buying potassium iodide to protect against radiation risks almost immediately after news of problems with the Japanese Fukushima plant hit. 

It's worth knowing that taking postassium iodide when there is no radioactivity present can seriously damage your health.  The leading guru on thyroid conditions on the Web, Mary Shomon, posted an interview with one of America's leading endochronologists, Theodore Friedman, about this (here) and further explained the dangers of rushing to take potassium iodide (here).  (UPDATE: As of 28 March - in light up news that the Fukushima crisis was more serious than thought - Shomon had added to her comments on taking potassium iodide here.  If you want to try to offset the impact of low-level radiation through diet without resorting to taking these pills, look at this site.)

Potassium Iodide: The so-called 'nuke pill' or 'apocalypse pill.' Image Source: Frank Owen.

Of course, nuclear energy is not the only source of radiation. In the many charts and lists of radiation exposure I saw while doing research for this post, from airplane flights (roughly between 0.2 and 0.9 mrem per hour), to mammograms (4.2 mSv (for three exposures to one breast); Wiki cites 3 mSv), to sleeping next to another person for eight hours (0.0005 mSv), to eating one banana (0.0001 mSv), I notice five sources of radiation that were conspicuously not listed: mobile cell phones, microwave ovens, televisions, and personal computers and Wi-Fi devices. Almost no one talks about the long-term effects of computer screen radiation on our skin (especially our faces and hands) and our eyes.  When desktop computers were first introduced in Canada in the 1980s, my school gave students lead aprons to wear to protect their bodies.  Then the lead aprons mysteriously disappeared.  Lead aprons are still available for workers in the medical profession and are available (if you hunt for them) for pregnant women. One company, Mummy Wraps, makes anti-radiation clothing for pregnant women who sit in front of computers all day. I have no idea how effective this is (or isn't). 

Below is a brief overview of the international nuclear energy industry and the nervousness nuclear plants inspire. Posts on nuclear culture and nuclear weapons tests and leaks in the US, Canada, Europe, the UK, Japan, and finally Chernobyl, are coming throughout this month.

A worker in Kazakhstan checking the radiation level of yellowcake. Image Source: Allianz.com.

Caption for the above photograph: A worker checks the radiation level of uranium oxide, also known as 'yellow cake,' at the East Mynkuduk PV-19 uranium mine in southern Kazakhstan. The mine was constructed in the 1980s as a step in the Soviet Union's secret plan to fuel its Cold War ambitions. The plan was ditched after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. After two decades of neglect, the mine is in the spotlight again, with Kazakhstan—home to a fifth of global uranium reserves—ambitious to become the world's number-one uranium producer. (Source: Reuters)

If you want to get an idea of how messy and complicated nuclear power, incidents and weapons are, just Google a term like yellowcake transport.  Yellowcake is a substance that remains when raw uranium ore goes through a refining process.  According to Wiki, it is mainly composed of different types of uranium oxide: "uranyl hydroxide, uranyl sulfate, sodium para-uranate, and uranyl peroxide, along with various uranium oxides. Modern yellowcake typically contains 70 to 90 percent triuranium octoxide (U3O8) by weight. Other oxides such as uranium dioxide (UO2) and uranium trioxide (UO3) exist. ... Yellowcake is used in the preparation of uranium fuel for nuclear reactors, for which it is smelted into purified UO2 for use in fuel rods for pressurized heavy-water reactors and other systems that use natural unenriched uranium."

I remember local television news reports about nuclear waste from Michigan being transported to southern Ontario in the late 1990s; the waste was buried in a quarry not far from Hamilton. I can't find any follow-up information on the Web about this report. There was, according to the reporter, nothing to stop the waste from seeping into the water table. In 2008, CBS reported that the United States secretly removed 550 metric tons of yellowcake from Iraq and transported it to Canada:
The removal of 550 metric tons of "yellowcake" - the seed material for higher-grade nuclear enrichment - was a significant step toward closing the books on Saddam's nuclear legacy. It also brought relief to U.S. and Iraqi authorities who had worried the cache would reach insurgents or smugglers crossing to Iran to aid its nuclear ambitions.

What is now left is the final and complicated push to clean up the remaining radioactive debris at the former Tuwaitha nuclear complex about 12 miles (19 kilometers) south of Baghdad - using teams that include Iraqi experts recently trained in the Chernobyl fallout zone in Ukraine.

"Everyone is very happy to have this safely out of Iraq," said a senior U.S. official who outlined the nearly three-month operation to The Associated Press. ... The Iraqi government sold the yellowcake to a Canadian uranium producer, Cameco Corp., in a transaction the official described as worth "tens of millions of dollars." A Cameco spokesman, Lyle Krahn, declined to discuss the price, but said the yellowcake will be processed at facilities in Ontario for use in energy-producing reactors.

"We are pleased ... that we have taken (the yellowcake) from a volatile region into a stable area to produce clean electricity," he said.
Summary - Lists on the Web of Nuclear Plants, Incidents and Accidents

World Map of Nuclear Plants (2005). Image Source: International Nuclear Safety Center at Argonne National Laboratory via Nuclear Info.

According to Wiki, thirty-one countries presently have nuclear power plants.  Wiki has a list of nuclear reactors worldwide here.  Another list of nuclear plants is here.  The history of these facilities is speckled with problems.

The International Nuclear Event Scale. Image Source: Wiki.

According to this list, the major high-level historic nuclear events are as follows:

Level 7: Major accident
-Chernobyl disaster, 26 April 1986

Level 6: Serious accident
-Kyshtym disaster at Mayak, Soviet Union, 29 September 1957

Level 5: Accident with wider consequences
-First Chalk River Accident, Chalk River, Ontario (Canada), 12 December 1952
-Windscale fire (United Kingdom), 10 October 1957
-Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, PA (United States), 28 March 1979
-Goiânia accident (Brazil), 13 September 1987
-Fukushima I nuclear accidents (reactors 1, 2 and 3) (Japan), events following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (level may change)

Level 4: Accident with local consequences
-Sellafield (United Kingdom) – 5 incidents 1955 to 1979
-SL-1 Experimental Power Station (United States) – 1961, reactor reached prompt criticality, killing three operators.
-Saint-Laurent Nuclear Power Plant (France) – 1980, partial core meltdown.
-Buenos Aires (Argentina) – 1983, criticality accident during fuel rod rearrangement killed one operator and injured 2 others.
-Jaslovské Bohunice (Czechoslovakia) – 1977, contamination of reactor building.
-Tokaimura nuclear accident (Japan) – 1999, three inexperienced operators at a reprocessing facility caused a criticality accident; two of them died.

Level 3: Serious incident
-THORP plant Sellafield (United Kingdom), 2005.
-Paks Nuclear Power Plant (Hungary), 2003; fuel rod damage in cleaning tank.
-Vandellos Nuclear Power Plant (Spain), 1989; fire destroyed many control systems; the reactor was shut down.

Wiki provides incomplete lists of radiation accidents at power facilities here and here. Civilian nuclear accidents are recorded here. A list of nuclear accidents by country is here; the countries named used nuclear power as part of their bid for advanced development: Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States.

United States

In the early-to-mid 1980s, anti-nuclear sentiment reached a feverish pitch.  Films like Silkwood (1983), based on the story of Karen Gay Silkwood's experiences at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, popularized accounts about nuclear incidents.  This mood grew during the late Cold War, when the nuclear arms race seemed to have the US and the USSR racing toward mutual obliteration.

A rundown on the American nuclear waste policy from 1945 to 1999 is here.  The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's overview on the disposal of high-level waste is here; and the US Environmental Protection Agency has published a list of nuclear incidents up to 2005, including when they stopped testing for the presence of elements such as plutonium and carbon-14 in water, air and milk.

Hanford, Washington State

Spent fuel rods at Hanford.  Image Source: Hanford.gov via YaHind.

Hanford is described by the New Scientist as "one of the most contaminated places on Earth."  Starting in 1943, a huge nuclear facility with nine atomic reactors was built at Hanford on the Columbia River.  The complex contains the world's first plutonium production reactor (now entombed in 'interim safe storage). This was the installation that manufactured the plutonium for the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945; it also provided the plutonium for American nuclear weapons until 1988.  The story of the town was described in a 1993 book by Michael D'Antonio, Atomic Harvest and another book, On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site, by Michele Gerber.  The Spiegel Online International did a report (24 March 2011) on Hanford, calling it "America's Atomic Time Bomb," and "one of the final stubborn relics of the Cold War":
The farmers in the area and people in Richland and the two neighboring towns, Pasco and Kennewick -- known collectively as the Tri-Cities -- are among the most highly radiated humans on earth.

It is a horrifying legacy. Fifty-two buildings at Hanford are contaminated, and 240 square miles are uninhabitable due to the radioactivity that has seeped into the soil and ground water: uranium, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other deadly radionuclides. Altogether, more than 204,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste remain on site -- two-thirds of the total for the entire US.

In one area, discharges of more than 216 million liters of radioactive, liquid waste and cooling water have flowed out of leaky tanks. More than 100,000 spent fuel rods -- 2,300 tons of them -- still sit in leaky basins close to the Columbia River.

The cooling water for the facilities came from that river. Until 1971, it was secretly pumped right back into it after only a minimum amount of treatment. High radiation levels were measured 250 miles (402 kilometers) further west, where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific. ...

The plants also emitted radioactive clouds, which were carried by the wind all the way to Oregon, Idaho and Montana and even up into Canada. The people affected by the fallout, the so-called "downwinders," suffered the most during the initial phase, between 1945 and 1951, when they were irradiated with iodine-131, which slipped into the food chain through livestock, milk and eggs.

In addition, thousands upon thousands of workers, residents and farmers were deliberately contaminated -- for testing purposes.

On December 3, 1949, Hanford physicists released a highly radioactive cloud through the smokestack of the so-called T-Plant, the world's largest plutonium factory at the time. The radiation was almost 1,000 times more than what was released during the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the worst nuclear accident in American history. Fallout from the experiment, which was called "Green Run," drifted all the way to California. People wondered why they suddenly got sick.

When the Hanford site closed in 1988, the government launched a massive decontamination effort. The administration called it the "the largest civil works project in the history of mankind" -- as if that were something to be proud of.

Even today, the project still costs more than $2 billion (€1.4 billion) a year. For the 2013 fiscal year, $2.9 billion will be needed. The work is constantly interrupted by sloppiness, setbacks and accidents. In 2008, after two decades of cleanup, barely half of it had been completed. Only four of the nine reactors have been entombed. The outer zone is expected to be fully decontaminated by 2020, the tanks by the end of 2047.
As if all this weren't bad enough, the area also suffers from regular small earthquakes and the complex still has one active reactor. There is a blog devoted to the Hanford cleanup - Heart of America Northwest.  There are photographs of the Hanford ghost town here.  On 14 May 1997, there was a chemical explosion at the Plutonium Reclamation Facility.  A leak in 2007 prompted an evacuation and in 2010, there were still reports circulating about radioactive leaks. The impact on wildlife is significant, and there are several news stories about the effort to contain radioactive animals and insects. In 2009, officials were locating and disposing of radioactive wasps' nests. In late 2010, they were chasing down radioactive mice and rabbits. The US Government sites with updates on the complex are here and here.

Click here for all my posts on nuclear themes.

1 comment:

  1. What is missing is the report of when all spare cores were needed to control a china-towning of greatest magnitude and all spare cores were used to the exact number needed, not one less or one more did the core have as per the number constructed within, 29? maybe. Hanford 1943.
    Clumsily worded perhaps, but I can find no such report online to substantiate a news report on TV of a year ago or so, so what's with internet censureship governaors?