One of the reasons I work as a safety person at a research university is the variety. On any given day, I have no idea what it is I am going to be asked to do and I like it that way. While this may sound like hell to people who like well-defined duties and schedules, please keep in mind that a safety person’s day is supposed to be dull. If our day is exciting, that means someone else is having a Very Bad Time™. This means we spend a lot of time trying to think through work before it’s done, to keep it compliant and within the boundaries of the regulations, and do our damnedest to make sure that Very Bad Time™ never happens.
That’s fine at a typical workplace. Research universities are not typical workplaces. When a group of physics students present you with an aluminum block, some scotch tape, a roach clip, a servo motor, and a bell jar coating chamber and smugly ask how to register all the scotch tape on the campus as radiation producing machines, you’re waaaaay out in the weeds, far away from typical*. At typical workplaces, this means locking things down and regimenting them such that you don’t ever end up in off-normal situations. That doesn’t work with research.
So, my favorite thing is being presented with a problem where it is beyond the imagination of the current regs. Usually when I tell researchers they’re off the regulatory map, they get a little despondent as they’ve been acculturated that this means “No, you can’t do this.” I then get to brighten their day and tell them they’re looking at this all wrong. In America, research is part of the freedom of expression under the first amendment, you have a right to think and explore. I generally look for something in the regs close to what they’ve proposed to do and the work out a way to let them feel comfortable enough with their work that they’d be happy to let a regulator look at it. When you do this right, you become the “Do it like THIS” example that is used for new regulations.
But when you get out to those fringes of the regs, you start running into weird interactions and overlaps. Your formerly strict, ironclad rules start getting a whoooole lot of *¹†‡₂ attached to them to let you know “This is the rule 99.995% of the time except for all these times.” Where this is particularly exciting is when two regulatory bodies disagree on what is supposed to be done for the same special case. And when is it most exciting? Why, it’s when you hit law enforcement and add guns to regulatory conflict!
STORY TIME BEGINS! (please note, vagueness in details is intentional)
Once upon a time, there was a new worker that applied to work at the nuclear facility. Because it is a nuclear facility, there are some places you aren’t allowed to go to until your background check is completed and you have clearance. This is a thing management knows and understands, but they certainly don’t want to be paying you to do nothing. And so, they have created an uncleared area where these new workers can be escorted to and do all of their training while waiting for the background check to come back. It is called the Green Room. Because there tends to be A LOT of training and certifications involved with working at nuclear facilities and background checks are slow, workers could end up in the Green Room for months.
This worker had a problem. It seems that he had some outstanding warrants. Normally, this would be a call to the local police to pick him up and present the worker to the court. Or maybe you’d call the sheriff or state troopers if those warrants were for another part of the state. But no, this particular worker’s warrants were federal with interstate pursuit. There was no need to call anyone to come pick this guy up; the flag came up with a notification “A US Marshal is on the way to apprehend the fugitive.”
And that’s fine. If there’s one thing a nuclear facility is, it’s secure, he isn’t going anywhere. Nuclear facilities also have their own quasi-law enforcement called Protective Force Officers of Special Protection Officers. I have previously referred to the Big Guys With Guns. This is them. When you enter a nuclear facility, there is going a sign that may be somewhat short and terse or have a whole lot of verbiage explaining Do’s and Don’ts. The signs all end with the same phrase: DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED. These officers are some of the best shots America has. They would like you to be clear that you won’t even know where the bullet that kills you comes from when you try to do something shady at a nuclear facility, just that you will be very dead. It is the PFO’s job to make sure no threats enter a DOE or NRC licensed nuclear facility and protect special nuclear material from theft. Here’s their enabling language in the regs.
The US Marshals have a very special power that is reserved to them that almost no other law enforcement entity has: interstate fugitive pursuit. A US Marshal’s jurisdiction is quite literally anywhere they might have to go to pursue a fugitive. This includes Antarctica and orbit as some special cases.
And so, the marshal showed up at the badge office for the facility. While the marshal is a law enforcement officer and thus someone who has clearly passed a background check, the marshal isn’t cleared to enter all the places and see all the things at the nuclear facility. The marshal will need an authorized escort from the cleared staff of the facility. One of the health physicists gets tagged to greet the marshal. The events that followed went something like this.
Health Physicist: Welcome to $FACILITY. Your guy is the Green Room right now. We’ll go get him and bring him to you.
Marshal: No. You will take me to him so I can arrest him.
HP: Okay, well let’s get you badged in.
[annoying visitor badge issuance process ensues]
HP: Alright let’s head in. [approaches metal detector at the entry portal]
PFO: Please empty your pockets, take off your belt and surrender your firearm before going through the metal detector…
M: I am not surrendering my firearm in pursuit of a fugitive.
PFO: You will if you want to enter this facility
M: [takes a step forward] Are you impeding a marshal in the execution of his duties?
PFO: [raises rifle] Step away from the portal.
M: [hand on pistol] I am a US Marshal!
PFO: [says nothing, aim does not waver]
HP: WHOA! How about we all call our supervisors and straighten this out?
After a few phone calls, the guy was brought out to the very huffy, but still alive, marshal.
You see, a US Marshal’s authority while in pursuit extends almost anywhere. There are a whole lot of regulations that are universal, riiiiight up to the point they hit the fence line of a nuclear facility. At that point, NRC or DOE regulations have supremacy, including shooting an arrogant US Marshal through the heart if necessary to prevent an unauthorized firearm from entering the facility. If he had been less of a wannabe Wyatt Earp ass, everything would have been fine. Big Guys With Guns would have accompanied him to make the arrest if the marshal really, really felt the need to have armed men present.
The moral of the story is that thing you are utterly sure of probably has an exception to the rule.
*: Yes, this actually happened. As a physicist myself, I am well-prepared for the assholery of my people. They didn’t like my very reasonable answer and went away less smug. It went something like this. You want to play games with the rules? I love games.
First, the business matters. Because DEFCON makes things tricky, production of this window is now closed and the production slots for the window ending August 18th are now up for order on the website. At DEFCON proper, the BBotE Ambassador of Flagstaff (Dan Nowak) and the former ambassador of Chicago (Bill Weiss) will be there and equipped with cases. I’ll be there with some too if you want to hit me up in advance to save on shipping. Considering the conference we are attending and where, the acceptable forms of payment are cash, precious metals, and valid casino gaming chips.
A couple months ago, I floated an idea on Twitter and Facebook where asked “If I were to offer to play informal docent for a trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum while at DEFCON, would anybody be interested?” The response was surprisingly positive and large. So…it’s on.
And it won’t be just me! While I know a thing or two, my Lovely Assistant will also be there and she’s the one with a PhD in Chemistry, specializing in nuclear forensics. My faithful Las Vegas consiglieri, Doctor What, will also be in attendance, probably looking a bit like Max from Fury Road.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHEN: Saturday August 11th, at 10:15am. The Atomic Testing Museum opens at 10am and that’s when we’ll be there, but I want to give 15min for people to make their way over before heading in. If you’re late, the museum isn’t too big and we won’t be hard to find. Probably wrap up around noon so everyone can get back to the convention.
WHERE: The National Atomic Testing Museum (NATM) is located at 755 East Flamingo Rd. It’s close to UNLV’s Desert Research Institute and there’s plenty of parking if you’re driving.
COST: Admission to the museum is $22. The $16 discounted price is if we had a large enough group and had arranged in advance. They also have a gift shop you may want some extra cash on hand for. Nuke swag is the best swag.
WHAT: NATM can be charitably described as the overflow of the DOE/NNSA Nevada Site Office Archives into a Smithsonian grade presentation format. The Archives are upstairs so it’s pretty easy for them to rotate exhibits in and out.
See you there!
In late September, I will be continuing my long standing tradition of visiting new continents by going to their islands first. I went to Britain before I made it to Italy, New Zealand before Australia (don’t start your sunken continent in the Tasman Sea crap), Ross Island before South Pole Station, and now Japan before the rest of Asia. I assume when I eventually get around to Africa I’ll start with Madgascar and, for South America, Easter Island before Peru. I’ve set some precedents.
Let’s get to the shill bit right away, this won’t be a cheap trip and I have a cunning plan. As she lived there once upon a time Test Subject SumoYokai, AKA Jen Miller, will be joining me as translator, sumo nerd, and general knower of Japan things to prevent me from dying in a humorous smartToilet incident. More importantly, Jen is an excellent artist who has unleashed many fine things on the world that have made me giggle, like this, various Lil Bub related arts, the SUX 6000 stickers I’ve stuck into some BBotE shipments and, for cannibalism joy, the WWII/WPA spoof zine “Recoverable Meats”. I will also send you to her Deviant Art with the fair warning of naughtiness. She is a dear friend I’m extremely happy that I finally got her to make some art for Black Blood of the Earth which you can now have as either a single bottle or part of the a special label three pack!
Due to the minimal amount of vacation time that Americans have (and I know I have more than most) this will be something of a whirlwind trip, similar to my Long Weekend in Chernobyl. Three non-travel days in which I will attend Harumafuji’s yokozuna retirement, something rarer and more exciting than a Triple Crown winner to me, and visit the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. As I said after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck, that was the actual disaster; the destruction of the Daiichi power station complex was a sideshow but one that triggered a DEADLY RADIATIONS terror response that overwhelmed the sympathy for people that just endured a major natural disaster. I spent most of the year after the quake fielding phone calls, emails, and tweets from worried people who wanted to know what they should do about Fukushima. The vast majority didn’t want to be told that, unless they lived in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi power station, what they should do is donate money to relief charities trying to help people put their lives back together. I managed to be diplomatic enough to not tell scared Americans looking for advice that they were ignorant and being selfish, but I sure did think it at them hard.
While I am excited to tick another exclusion zone off my nuclear tourism checklist, what I’m really looking forward to is getting to speak with some local officials who have been overseeing the zone because I have some questions. I don’t need to ask questions about the engineering and remediation at the Daiichi reactors because this isn’t Chernobyl and the clean up is more straightforward and easier, though dealing with that activated/contaminated seawater is gonna be a sonofabitch for a long time to come. What I want to know about are the outreach & communication efforts I never heard about because they stayed in Japan. TEPCO has been very justifiably raked over the coals for their actions in the immediate wake of the quake but, at some point, the local and national governments have a responsibility to tell their populace what needs to/can be done. They go like this:
- While I had to deal with people forgetting that a quake and tsunami happened, I don’t think the local authorities would have had much trouble with that in the immediate vicinity. But with time, I assume the further you people were from Fukushima the more the focus would have turned to the reactors rather than reconstruction. What did you do to keep people remembering the scope and size of the disaster? How did that message change with time?
- Japan doesn’t have a lot of spare real estate so abandoning huge tracts of land was never in the cards. Once decon was done, how did you get people to return or even new people to come?
- What have you done to reassure the public about the safety of local products to restore the old economy? Is it working?
- In the wake of the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the survivors of these cities and their descendants, the hibakusha, suffered from discrimination and were treated as unclean and unmarriageable in the subsequent years. What education have you done to try to prevent that from happening to residents again?
I will say that in planning this I ran face first into some Very American Assumptions. As a train nerd, I am excited about the prospect of riding the shinkansen, even if it isn’t this one, but then I immediately said to myself “Oh wait, it might be hard getting out there with the amount of damage the quake and tsunami did. The shinkansen might not be up and running to Sendai yet.” After all, it’s been over a decade since Hurricanes Katrina & Ike and we haven’t gotten the Gulf Coast Amtrak routes repaired yet, which are comparatively primitive trains, and this was a much worse disaster. So, when I looked it up and saw that it was repaired and running, I was impressed. Then I got curious as to how long it took Japan to restore shinkansen service to the hardest hit area.
ANSWER: 43 days
It has been 13 goddamn years since Katrina and we can’t get Amtrak running, much less a bullet train. Amtrak’s trains are slower than what used to run on our rails 60 years ago. Not gonna lie, I was shook. As someone who complains regularly about terrible infrastructure and disaster response, I didn’t realize how acclimated to it I had become. I am disappointed in myself and, by extension, America because of this.
I will not be going to Hiroshima & Nagasaki on this trip because I am explicitly forbidden from going there without My Lovely Assistant. That will have to wait for the next trip to Japan, whenever that’ll be.
So, head over to the store side of the Funranium Labs and make sure that Jen & I can eat food when we’re in Tokyo with a side order of getting up to shenanigans. Going to Ukraine generated nearly 9000 words of history, health physics and general bullshitting for you. Let’s see what Japan yields!