This scenario is much like when the Local Color brings you a dead radioactive seagull, except this time your surprisingly competent coworkers may have captured an actual live, radioactive, and displeased animal to bring to you.

It’s just another day in paradise.
[The seventh in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

When you’re working in a sampling lab, you get used to receiving some odd things but for all of them it means reducing that odd thing to a useful form for your analytical techniques. If presented a shitting, pissing, terrified, & angry feral cat YOU DON’T REDUCE THE CAT ITSELF.  Luckily, the cat is presenting you with plentiful samples for in vitro bioassay. Just see if you can collect it without contaminating it with you own blood. That’s just bad technique. If you wanted to do in vivo counting, that’s another matter. Much like dealing with an uncooperative cat for anything else, it’s CAT BURRITO TIME to stick them in the whole body counter, though for small animal veterinary applications this is more “sit still you sonofabitch while I set the NaI probe next to you GODDAMMIT DON’T PEE AGAIN!” 

PROTIP: Most non-medical/veterinary radiation detection equipment don’t react well to urine.

This applies to all four animals in the poll, but some can be more displeased at you than others. And the questions of “Which derelict building?” & “Suspect why?” become more important. Particularly astute readers noted that all of these animals are primarily carnivores, which means they’re up a trophic level for bioaccumulation of materials. Each of these animals answer different questions because of how they sleep, how far they range and how/what they hunt. This, incidentally, is why large institutions tend to have an ecologist and/or veterinary on staff or on retainer. When what you know is how the detectors work, they can help you understand animal behavior and give context for the readings on your detectors so they make sense. 

Cats, foxes, and raccoons all like to make dens in cramped hard to reach places in your derelict buildings. Coincidentally, these are the same places humans are least likely to have checked or cleaned since…ever. It’s nice of the animals to go sampling with their fur in there. 

Some of you were incredulous that such animals would get into derelict buildings. Folks, this is a sign from an accelerator facility when it was still active. Life finds a way. Especially if they’re assholes like raccoons or cockatoos.


No, I will not tell you where this picture was taken.

The history of that building helps you determine what contamination you expect these animals to have picked up. Of the four, the feral cat is most likely to be living its life *entirely* in the confines of your building, with all water and food sources in there as well. Thus, the feral cat makes a good composite sample of your building.

Raccoons, on the other hand, wander anywhere they can fit for the sheer assholery of it and they do it in groups. On a positive note, they’ll help sample below grade pipes for you. Raccoons are nature’s true urban explorers. However, their range isn’t going to be limited to a single derelict building. Their range is ALL of your buildings. Your raccoon isn’t just sampling past operations, they’re likely sampling current ones as well. In short, respect trash pandas.

But not everyone is lucky enough to have their lands blessed by raccoons (pours one out for the UK). In pinch, foxes will behave much the same way but, generally speaking, the only thing the fox is going to do is sleep in your building. Compared to cats and raccoons, foxes have a much larger hunting range and their primary diet is burrowing animals. So, GOOD NEWS, the fox is a nice composite sample for any soil and groundwater contamination in the vicinity of your building. And while I like to focus on raccoons and cockatoos and the Apex Non-Human Assholes in the animal kingdom, I want to give honorable mention to foxes for things like destroying low voltage wires for monitoring equipment by chewing on them and burrowing under or jumping over ANY fence you erect. If you try to restrict a certain area to people and nature by fencing, by the time you finish putting it up there is probably a fox already on the wrong side of it. They are amazing creatures in this respect. Truly remarkable. [flips off foxes, David Attenboroughly] 

Which brings us to the barn owl. If your coworkers are bringing you a live, radioactive, and angry raptor I assume you have done something to deserve this. They hate you and this is their very pointy and sharp revenge. I want to be very clear here. Unless you very, very much know what you are going DO NOT MESS WITH RAPTORS. Flappy dinosaurs will end you or, at the very least, try to take an eye. Owls are no exception to this. Speaking of flappy birds, some of you noted that owls fly. Good job! Your barn owl has similar hunting preferences to the fox but with a much larger range because flying. You can get a very current composite regional sample by waiting for the owl to hork up a fresh pellet for you. Patience, goggles and leather gloves are key. 

All of these animals become radioactive because of human activity. They either:

  • Rolled around in a contaminated area.
  • Drank contaminated water
  • Ate contaminated food

The animals show not just what is in the ecosystem but how it’s moving and by what pathways. 

The two inspiring events for this scenario come from the same building separated by mere months. When you derelict a building, it’s polite to mark are all the things in the building that are energized so that future people know they need to de-energize things before demolition. So, someone with spray paint has to go tag all the panels, conduits and piping that are still live. Sometimes those conduits are overhead and you need a ladder to get at them. Sometimes they’re outside, there’s a barn owl sleeping on top of the conduits and they don’t appreciate getting nailed with red spray paint 


I understand the owl’s position fully. It had been asleep and then SOME COMPLETE BASTARD (me) woke it up by making its plumage more cardinal-like. I would have discombobulatedly flown at the COMPLETE BASTARD and knocked them off the ladder too. 

Owl did not go far because it was sleepy and freshly painted. After making sure nothing was injured other than pride, I called for an animal rescue team to help clean up the poor owl. In return (revenge?), the ecology team asked me to collect all the pellets I could find. There were a lot. 

On a different day, I got asked to go check the sumps in the high bay to see if rainwater leaking through the roof had managed to pick up anything and take it down to the lowest low point, the sump. A lazy composite sample of sorts in the grossest place. The HUGE sumps had long since had all the equipment taken out of them and been filled with vermiculite to absorb oil and such. Like the biggest kitty litter box you’ve ever seen, which is exactly what I discovered the feral cat colony had treated them as. This is how I got asked to sift the pit for choice cat turds for analytical purposes.

All was well until I hit the Turd of Unusual Size. It was possible there could’ve been a mountain lion that had made it’s lair in this building. Cats are cats after all…

We pretty quickly ruled out the other usual wildlife and came up with the hypothesis of a security guard taking a Sump Dump. This raised questions no one wanted to ask much less get answers to. This part of my poop sampling career came to an end.



The traditional answer to avoiding NIMBY crap, whatever your particular issue may be, is to build your facility three miles down the road from the ass end of nowhere. Unfortunately, the suburbs will follow you and suddenly it’s your fault that you’re in their backyard again. You can’t win.
[The sixth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

GOOD NEWS: when McMansions attack they bring some support networks with them.

BAD NEWS: not *enough* support network, because one of the reasons to move to the sticks is to avoid taxes which would pay for that support, so…bummer. 

But there was a good thing to really help under resourced jurisdiction that grew out of the catastrophe of the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire: the birth of the Mutual Aid System. READ: when you call for help, people will come, and everyone will use the same jargon, clear speech, and radio frequencies (except NYC). This was also the birth of Unified Incident Command. Everyone in America, except NYC, got the message that it’s nice when you can count on your neighboring agencies to help you in a pinch. Outside agencies trying to help NYC with 9/11 had a really hard because they alone hadn’t got with the program, which was one of the many findings of the 9/11 Commission. NYPD could barely talk amongst themselves, much less coordinate with NYFD. Trying to undo NYC’s “The New York way is the best way and fuck you” attitude for just emergency response was one small part of creating the Department of Homeland Security. You know, so we can learn how NYC wants to do things and make sure the rest of the country does that to.

But I digress.

In the American West, one of the most deployed groups under Mutual Aid are the hotshot teams, AKA professional wildland firefighting crews that are usually the very first backup that arrives to a wildfire that’s exceeded the locals’ capacity to fight. What your hotshots can do is very dependent on how fast the wildfire is moving, terrain, and what they have time to set up before it’s too late. Your hotshots see that NFPA diamond and call because they want a little more guidance than “PROTECT BUILDING”. People did a close read of the NFPA diamond primer I shared, but missed some close reading of the listings where those are *examples* of behavior. A Yellow 2 (reactivity) does not guarantee water incompatibility. If that was the case, you’d get this down in the white section.

And while these quizzes seem to prime and attract people who are frightened/intrigued by radiation hazards, let me assure you that there is nothing that a firefighter wants to see less than that W. They don’t like rad, but they HATE “no water”.  To quote my old Santa Clara County Fire instructor, Cap’n Bubba, if you cannot put the wet stuff on the hot stuff until it is cold stuff and this does not compute to the firefighter mind. (Cap’n Bubba was a very bright hazmat guy but liked to play dumb hosedragger.)

But back to the NFPA diamond, of the 3-4-2-rad, the Yellow 2 is the least concerning. The rad trefoil down in Other Information will give most firefighters pause but it’s nowhere near as terrifying as the Blue 4. That tells the team there is either a prompt death or a fast cancer. This is where I get to share one of my favorite acronyms from the field of Industrial Hygiene to describe what a facility with a Blue 4 is when it’s on fire. IDLH: Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health. 


Remember, the NFPA diamond is telling you about the hazards of the contents this building *WHEN IT IS ON FIRE*. For example, the dumpster fires behind Silicon Valley chip fabs in the 1970s where you suddenly have an entire engine crew dead of interesting cancers within 6mo (yes, this happened). Funny enough, things we normally would be day-to-day very worried about working with for their carcinogenicity, like asbestos or beryllium, would hardly count on the NFPA diamond during a fire. For that matter, radioactive materials don’t get more radioactive because you lite them on fire, but you might make a larger mess. This is why they’re down in “Other Information”. You need the other three to know how bad things are as you approach and the white diamond is just Challenge Score Multiplier. 

No one likes to see rad on the sign but the thing we trainers continually drill into firefighters is that they remember the response hierarchy: Life, Property, Environment. We can’t unkill someone. We can’t unburn a building or a forest. But we can clean up afterward. And of course, the First Responder’s First Rule: look out for your safety, because you help no one if you become a victim too. Which brings us back to the hotshots. They are not hazmat responders but they do know all about defensive actions for protecting structures. 

They aren’t gonna set up downwind monitoring because they have much more important things to do with chainsaws. Notify the EPA or local equivalent to get things started on that. For that matter, there may be no wet stuff to put on hot stuff here. Generally speaking, there’s gonna be hookups at somewhere on the site for them to run hoses to but if that’s not in a strategically safe space or the water supply is gone then the hotshots do what they do best: chainsaws, backburns, and trenching. If the circumstances are kind enough to make the protective lines to keep the fire from getting to the building, stay upwind and at good distance following the rule of thumb: stick your arm out, stick up your thumb, and if that covers the entire incident, you are far enough away. 

If they aren’t the kind, you evacuate and you evacuate fast because the Blue 4 with a Red 3 tells you don’t want to be near that building when it goes up. Radioactive things hardly count in this scenario other than to give your hotshots a moment’s pause. 

In the inspiring event for this scenario, unfortunately, rad concerns did give the fire crew pause. Mainly because I had *just* trained them how to use their new radiation detection instrumentation the previous week. New meters and the Very Nice Educational Man who answered any and all questions they had, which apparently previous trainers had not, meant they’d spent the intervening days thinking a lot about radiation hazards.

When the emergency alert went out, I happened to be nearby and went to go see what was up as the call was for a building I kinda took care of when other people went on vacation. Lo and behold, the fire crew I’d recently trained was at the end of the block from the building, standing around the truck in turnouts, as a small plume of smoke rose from the building.

Me: What the fuck are you standing here for?
Captain: The building has rad on the diamond.
Me: So?
Captain: We can’t hose that down.
Me: If you don’t there won’t be a building anymore. The latency of hard body radiogenic cancers are about 40 years. The latency on that fire is minutes.
Captain: But the contamination…
Me: I CAN CLEAN CONTAMINATION! THAT’S MY FUCKING JOB! It’s expensive, it takes a long time, but I can’t unburn a building. Use your fucking meters like I trained you and put the fucking fire out.
[firefighters scurry] 

When I shared this story with Cap’n Bubba later, I thought he was gonna to wet his alligator skin cowboy boots from laughing so hard. He complimented me on my understanding of firefighter mindset and creative use of motivational swearing.

Incidentally, the building was fine.


MORAL: The real lesson of this thread, and that my firefighters need to take to heart, is not getting fixated when assessing the Immediacy of Hazards. In the event of fire, FIRE is the most immediate concern. You can worry about radiation releases/exposures when you aren’t burning.

Birthday and Extra Life 2020

As the denizens of this blog know, Dia de los Muertos is my birthday and, in my family, one’s birthday is a high holy day. It is to be honored and you should enjoy the hell out of that day. This year, because I’m trying to be a responsible adult in the COVID times, my plan is to stay local and hit up Evergreen Cemetery. Gotta go say hi to Huey Newton, the Hells Angels who are a little further down the road, and the unclaimed victims of Jonestown.

But on November 7th & 8th, I will be joining Test Subject Not-A-Whale Biologist (AKA Thomas White), Test Subject THE WORLD, and my Lovely Assistant for a 24 marathon of our favorite board game, Shadows of Brimstone, for Extra Life 2020! Because we’re old, our bodies are weak, and we’ve learned valuable lessons from the last three years (yes, this will be our fourth year), we’ll be splitting this over two days. There will still be a whole lot of BBotE, fine drink and impromptu dance parties to keep us going because that’s a whole lot of gaming. Please join us for being very, very silly and help some sick kids because that’s one of the things I want to do with my extended birthday fortnight. And, yes, there will be a Twitch stream and there will be a chat function. If you feel like it, please go donate to either my personal page or to our group, TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES.

Because it is all, as Norville Barnes says:


The tricky part, much like my birthday fun,  is COVID-19. Unlike the previous years, my Lovely Assistant and I don’t get to go down to play in the Gametarium and instead will be remoting in. For those of you watching us on the stream, this won’t be much different; we’ve always been disembodied voices to you while the action is on the board. Unfortunately, this also means there will be no opportunity to yell “PORK DELIVERY!” for when the fresh chicharrones from the Pig Wizard shows up this year. This is more of a personal tragedy for me though.

Lastly, THE DECEMBERING will soon be at hand again. If you’re planning your holidays that far out, before Halloween even, jeez, I kinda envy your preparedness, but simmer down. One holiday at a time, yo.


It’s clear that folks have some experience clearing out the homes & offices of deceased friends and relatives who were eccentric. From the previous Radioactive Seagull Adventure, perhaps they were the Local Color.

Inherit enough interesting things, you might get known as the Local Color too.

[The fifth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]


It’s clear that many made the inference “Manhattan Project researcher” + “rockhound” + “collector” = ALL THE RADIOACTIVE MINERALS. Having cleared out my fair share of places, this isn’t a bad inference. If you aren’t using Fiestaware as a check source, U/Th minerals work well too. 

But for this scenario, I asked where do you fear to tread the most. This is cruel trickery on my part as it prompts you with “fear” and that prompting causes you to try to think like the deceased through a lens of fear of the objects in their home. A big part of situations like this is sleuthing. The radioactive, toxic, etc. characteristics of your substances are intrinsic. How they got to where they are now and, how bad that might be, is a function of human behavior which is what you’ve got to figure out. The prompt to fear kept most of you from starting at the real motivation point of a collector: love & obsession. That completely shifts where you find things. 

The hard part then is trying to figure out “What where they collecting? What were they trying to complete a set(s) of?” As an example, I am a coin collector but this doesn’t mean I collect ALL coins. I collect mostly American coins. But then you see coins from the Philippines. Wait, how do these and the Kingdom of Hawaii coins fit into an American coin collection? This is because in the larger collection, there is a subset of “This Is ALSO American Money”. And then you see this coin in a different smaller binder. Because I also have the Atomic Coin Collection.

If you didn’t already know the deceased, as you start looking around the place you start forming a picture of the person. You start figuring out what they cared about and the hierarchy of love and pride in their possessions, which is normally expressed by proximity. To a first approximation, the garage, basement and shed contains the things that are either too large, too dangerous, duplicates in the collection, or are outliers that just don’t quite fit a theme in the collection. The desk & shelves will have the most treasured mementos, the best examples of type, the most exotic things, and the most difficult to complete collections. In short, you will find the things they wanted to show off. The prettiest minerals specimens will be here. @mikamckinnon, DO NOT LICK! But as you look around in here you’re going to learn what the collections, note the plural, are. NOTE: just look, do not touch yet.

Personally, I have the utmost terror of offices because a live grenade as been a treasured item more than once. But that’s me. And, JUST BECAUSE, before you start opening drawers in filing cabinets and desks be sure you have gloves, I want you too look very closely for wires connected to things and for something that looks like can on the corner. Thermite document destruction happens. :( 

Some of you already expressed an appropriate terror of accidentally discovering classified materials. Hopefully, you don’t find anything and there’s no document safe. But if you do, DON’T READ THEM ANY FURTHER, stick it in a bag and keep custody of it until you can turn it over. Promptly. Annoyingly, this is a security violation to even have in your possession but you tend to get the benefit of the doubt for turning them over as soon as possible. It probably was for the deceased too but, well, they’re dead and no longer subject to disciplinary action. Also, don’t be surprised to find various loaded firearms in the office. It happens. 

We move on to all the boxes in garage. This represents the second strata of their collections and their most recent/unsorted acquisitions. If there’s a workbench in here, that will have the newest and most interesting items. This will also be where you find the first big item. I can’t begin to tell you what that big item is going to be, but the collection will be an indicator. Maybe it’s a boulder. Maybe it’s restored Sherman tank. Maybe it’s the largest damn vacuum tube you’ve ever seen that is, oddly, radioactive too. The boxes on the shelves here in the garage are going to constitute larger mineral samples and, knowing collectors, they’ve been sorted. Hopefully the heaviest things are on the bottom shelf, but safety isn’t usually the priority of collectors. Most of them won’t be radioactive. The nature of the sorting is going to be hard to tell without some detailed mineralogy knowledge. One hopes it’s been done by mineral groups, like “here’s a big box o’ spinels”, but it’s just as likely that you’ve got “various ores”. Meter survey to separate the rad and try to avoid the arsenic & mercury. 

Moving on to the stuck door to the basement, with a modicum of brute force greater than a nonagenarian can exert or a crowbar, you are now entering a space that the deceased hasn’t touched in years. This is the Realm of Abandoned Projects. Before the door stuck and the stairs down to the basement became too hard to negotiate, the basement is where old researchers go to putter. If you’re lucky, the puttering of choice is a 1500sqft model train layout. If you’re unlucky, that layout is of the Nevada Test Site. One of those things that may let you know if you’re in for Very Interesting Projects is the electrical box. If you see they have more electrical service that you might usually expect you may, for example, discover a synchrotron or fusor cobbled together downstairs. A collection of instrumentation racks still bearing AEC property tags on them from when they were discarded, grabbed from the dump and set back up to make a home counting lab. You know, to see how good their ores are. With a dissolver chemistry set to do that… 

It may, or course, just be even more falling apart boxes of stuff and ALL THE RADON. Hopefully the fan blowing all that clear is still working, but no ones checked in a while and it doesn’t take long for a basement filled with ore to evolve a fair bit of radon and daughters. There are, of course, even more workbenches and the remains of decades of tinkering down here. This is also where you’re likely to find the largest chemical storage, though unlikely with proper storage. If you’re in earthquake country, lucky you got there before the big one. 

And so you step out into the sun again and approach the shed purchased from Sears and put up decades earlier. The memory of David Hahn, the Radioactive Boy Scout, popped into people’s minds. Bless his heart, Hahn was an amateur and fairly incompetent. To do anything scary out in the shed with a head full of Manhattan Project, you’re gonna need to run utilities. You’ll notice if that’s happened and back off appropriately. But from the collector point of view, what you’re going to find out here are the things they cared about least or that are the most dangerous. And that doesn’t mean most dangerous parts of the collection, like the 108mm DU round with live primer which is *obviously* at the side of their desk, but more like the boxes of dynamite, blasting caps and jugs upon jugs upon jugs of gunpowder. The things you want well away from the house because it might cause you to not have a house anymore. For the collector, you may find rusting drums filled with their least appealing specimens of crumbling carnotite. Or possibly jerrycans with waste from basement chemistry that never made it to household waste (or never could). But radiologically speaking, kinda boring. 

In the events that inspire this particular scenario, I was asked to clean out a deceased researcher’s office because, and I quote, “You have the most experience doing this other than me and I don’t have to do it because I’m your boss.” 

A non-exhaustive list of the things I found in this office:

  • A signed, live grenade
  • Oxidized beryllium metal special form parts
  • Various nuclear fuel pellets
  • Xmas lights hung & wrapped around det cord
  • Machined explosive as a paperweight
  • A can of Agent Orange

Also, labeled chunks of fused glass from various nuclear tests. These were treasures they’d collected over a long career in national service, military and otherwise. As far as I know, most of the things in that office vanished into other people’s offices to enhance their collections. The explosives were disposed of…spectacularly.

I can only hope that when I pass my collections similarly leave someone wondering exactly how I accumulated all this and what stories does it all tell. Ideally, you should tell people what your collections mean to you, to educate others, before you die.


P.S. – If you’ve ever wondered where the Coin Rants on the blog come from, that’s me using my coin collection for its real overarching purpose: to tell stories with. Here’s an example. I can tell a slice of history with pretty much every one of my coins. ;)


For this scenario, count your blessings that they bothered to call you at all. SURPRISE ACCELERATOR is the worst kind of accelerator. I wish I could say this has never happened in my career. But you already knew this one existed. It’s the modification that’s the problem.

[The fourth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

At the most basic level, an accelerator is a machine that makes charged particles go much faster. Everything beyond that is just getting fancy and going faster in highly esoteric ways. The machine doesn’t particularly care what particles you put in it; it just makes them go fast. Because your client isn’t technically inept, they were wise enough to make the changes that reversed the polarity to turn an electron accelerating machine into a positron accelerating one. Otherwise, it would’ve just thrown the positrons right back at the ion source. But it VERY MUCH MATTERS what’s at the business end of the accelerator. Because your beam line must come to an end and your fast particles are going to have to smack into something. Hopefully your intended target, but that’s why you build a backstop for the ones that miss. 
And because you’re working with positrons here, that means it’s time to worry about matter-antimatter annihilation radiation reactions. Your positron is going to go away and in its wake it’s going to give you two 511keV gamma photons moving in equal and opposite directions. But unless your research is on accelerator technology development, the whole point of having an accelerator is to make charged particles go fast to get nuclear reactions. The resulting gammas from the VERY short lived things in your target tend to be a lot more energetic than 511keV. If you’ve built your backstop and target cave right, they should take care of all those pesky annihilation gammas. The positron interactions in the ion sources and the accelerator are going to be a pittance of dose contribution compared to the x-rays from the accelerator itself. 
Of course, those are your intended reactions. If your accelerator is operating at a high enough energy, you can start causing incidental activation of materials, like those stainless steel screws slowly growing more and more Co-60 over time. If your accelerator was built with this in mind for the interactions from using electrons and now you’ve swapped to positrons, all your dose and activation calcs that you submitted for registration & permitting of the accelerator go out the window. Luckily, the different activations don’t deviate too badly from a safety point of view, but all the documentation is now wrongwrongWRONG. If your accelerator is licensed for isotope production, say radiopharmaceuticals, you just invalidated your permit to operate. That is, from a business point of view, extremely bad. But an accelerator that’s shut down until they can put it back the way it was so that it matches the paperwork again (they better be able to do that) or you can get new paperwork approved (may take months) is very safe indeed. 

Which brings us to the most important question several of you identified that you’ll be asking. “Where did you get a positron ion source large enough for this? Howwwwww???” If you’re lucky, it’s one you know about that they’ve installed into the accelerator. To have enough positrons to make a decent current ion source, you’re going to need an isotope with a half-life long enough to build with. Because there aren’t all that many positron emitters like that, this means your ion source is probably a big pile of Na-22. While Na-22 is a positron emitter with a ~2.5yr half-life that you can utilize, it is also a VERY potent gamma emitter, especially when you get enough of it together to think of it as a positron source instead. Usually, ion sources for accelerators just make a lot of soft (low energy) x-rays as you generate plasmas to throw down the line. Soft enough that the ion sources are typically self-shielding. This is *NOT* the case for a GBq Na-22 source. You need some lead, stat. Lots of it.

Also, as you may have noted Na-22 is sodium. Working with sodium is *messy*. Once you’ve finished building a lead cave for the ion source, it’s time to survey everything and everyone to determine exactly how much Na-22 they spread all over the place while building this. 
In the events that partially inspired this scenario, a researcher had a large Na-22 source as part of their lab’s inventory. But they were retiring and put out the word that they’d like to give this source and a lot of vacuum system gear away to a good home. This is the classic “If someone wants it, then it isn’t waste” gambit to avoid decon and disposal fees, but that’s a rant for another time. And so, a very large Na-22 source, in NaCl chemical form, showed up and got put in the extra beefy source safe. Even with the tungsten walls, counting experiments everywhere in the entire building began to show the fingerprint Na-22 gamma line. 

I’m happy to say that they called before trying to reconfigure the accelerator. This was because they were stymied trying to figure out a way to build the ion source safely. Their first attempt resulted in a contamination incident and everything got put away with a harrumph. But it’s cool, they’ve got a decade and change to figure it out before that source dies away too much to be useful. Also, they added a lot more lead around the safe to be better neighbors.



Since I used the word earlier today, “extended, unplanned deployment to an uninhabited island” is an excellent euphemismspeak for being marooned.

Luckily, you aren’t marooned. You’ve just been sent in on a zodiac raft to get samples while boss-type sips coffee back on the boat.

[The third in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

In an ideal world with infinite funding & space, you grab all these samples and more. Why limit yourself to mere coconuts when you can take an entire tree? Yes, I have seen a crate labeled “ONE [1] PALM TREE, ENIWETOK” before. Oh, how the money must have flowed in those days. But, no, you’re working as an afterthought in the Twilight of Big Science to do the monitoring of the sins of the past. You’re overhead, likely as part of a regulatory requirement or lawsuit settlement. Congratulations! You are the bare minimum good faith effort. 

Which is why you were sent to go grab a samples really quick. Because every minute you spend on the island is one that the boat is in the water and a crew has to be paid. As discussed earlier in the Navy base decon adventure, any work that is done on water adds a serious cost multiplier. If you’re of the frame of mind “The sooner I do this, the sooner I get to have beers”, then you don’t even need to hit the beach. Break off a piece of coral from the reef like a Kit Kat bar, put it in your cooler, and head back to the boat. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! 

Except you’re gonna want to be careful about that. Coral close enough to smash & grab from your zodiac is water shallow enough for the coral to sink it. So, you might be doing some snorkling to get to the boat-safe coral. Of course, you aren’t alone on the reef.


As a sample, coral is pretty great for sampling and sequestering material as the reef slowly grows if there is persistent material in the lagoon for the polyps. But the reef is also continuously washed by the rest of the ocean, diluting that signal. If there isn’t a persistent, perceptible presence of material in the lagoon, there will be one season (The Event) in the coral skeleton you can detect and then nothing. This makes it look like the island is now clean when really it’s just that the reef is continuously flushed. Corals grow just like trees, marking the seasons with layers, but they’re really, incredibly slow by comparison. Which is one reason a lot of you winced at the idea of doing a smash & grab on the reef. You have good impulses. :) 

So, instead you make it past the reef without sinking or stealing any of it and hit the lovely white coral sand beach. For the next minimum effort sample, you can grab the sand right there by just reaching over the side of the zodiac, right? No, you’re a professional. You want a composite sample from the low to high tide line and above. The littoral zone of sand is constantly washed, just like the reef. You’ll want a sample from somewhat deeper in the sand. But sand sort of isn’t good at holding on to things. Or you might get very unlucky and sample way too thoroughly and get a chunk of the material that started the incident. When my parents had a pet store, we had to be careful about crushed coral/sand for saltwater aquariums lest you get some fish-killing WWII plane parts. SURPRISE! The composite will help average things out, but coral sand isn’t like clay for binding materials up.

So you look further up the beach and see the coconut palms, the dropped coconuts at the high tide line, and some very large shell-less hermit crabs between you and them. As a reminder, coconut crabs are these. They are the largest land arthropod in the world and have claws that *tear coconuts apart*. You can totally outrun one, but can you avoid the minefield of all of them? Do you dare steal their precious coconuts? 

Some of you remembered the bioaccumulation rule that each higher step of trophic layer = 10x concentration of materials of interest. So, while coconuts will be representative of the nutrients the palm is sucking up like a straw, the coconut crabs show the coconuts in aggregate. Most of the longer lived nuclides that would constitute the contamination you’re sampling for chemically behave like nutrients the palms would like and that the sand is very poor in. Palms absolutely soak Cs-137 out the sand to the point it’s almost bioremediation. This will show up in the coconuts and the crabs that eat them. Ideally, you’d get some coconuts directly from the palms as fresh samples, but unless you’re practiced at nutting a tree just grab the ones on the sand for least effort. 
If you are PARTICULARLY BRAVE, grab a smaller crab and hope you can get back to the boat before it destroys the box you put it in. To me, the efficiency of a crab as a environmental sample does not offset the terror of being trapped on a zodiac with an angry coconut crab. 

The events that inspired this scenario involves the Navy of a nation that rhymes with Beknighted Spates deciding that the best way to deal with radioactive waste on their vessels was to throw it overboard when they weren’t near any inhabited islands or fishing grounds. Of course, this didn’t stop things from floating so they did their very best to prevent that by having warrant officer with shotguns shoot at them until they sank. Sometimes that didn’t happen fast enough. It also made sure contamination spread. 
And so, a barrel of something ended up floating into a lagoon before sinking and coming to it’s final rest. The ocean doing as the ocean does, swiftly encased the barrel in marine concrete. But the release had happened, the beach contaminated, and the palms went to work. The sampling in this case was to assess impacts to nesting birds here. Do you know what nesting birds don’t like? People messing with their nests. After a bunch of razor sharp, leather glove destroying beak cuts and surprisingly painful wing slaps, the crabs were deemed safer. 

And this is how the nine-fingered researcher introduced me to the coconut crab that lived in his lab freezer. It cost a finger and a fair bit of blood to get those samples and he was proud of it even 20 years later. I would like to know that the crab took up more than half of his full size freezer.

His advice, “Coconuts only hurt if they fall on you.”



Well folks, you did it. You all have a future as remediation contractors. Go get yourself some licenses, equipment, and hire some workers that you, personally, absolutely never have to suit up do this work.

Oh wait, the money is thin. Welp, looks like you are.

[The second in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]


This is a general case scenario. While many people jumped to the immediate conclusion that we’re discussing Hunter’s Point and Tetratech, I want to make it clear that this applies to pretty much every country with a navy. Some countries have had extra decades to be messy. There’s some qualities that make a given naval base nastier than others from a radiological point of view:

• Length of operation
• Diversity of operation
• Having a nuclear navy
• Onsite reactor
• Naval research lab 

So, you might think that this means that the UK’s yards at Portsmouth are the worst. Nah, they’re merely the UK’s oldest, continuously operating since [checks notes] the Third Crusade. Faslane, on the other hand, is likely more interesting for rad. Then, hooboy, there’s places like Murmansk. Thus, for radiological contamination issues around your naval base, you’re looking for a period of operation that spans roughly 1900-2000 for prime, extensive, and careless use/discarding of radioactive materials by 16-25 year olds wearing funny uniforms… and military contractors. And I only end that year range at 2000 because, GENERALLY SPEAKING, we’ve collectively stopped doing things like throwing waste barrels overboard while at sea and then sending bosuns out with shotguns to shoot them and make sure they sink. 

But back to the scenario.

You’ve been asked to make an important rad contamination find quickly and cheaply. You’ve been hired as a subcontractor because you know something about where to find stuff and the primary PM doesn’t. Hence the choices presented in this poll. You are damn near guaranteed to find rad contamination in ANY of the four choices I gave you. The question is which will give you employer the win they’re looking for, fast, without bankrupting/killing yourself. The easy choice, if you have a nuclear navy, is go check the mud below where you docked the rust buckets. Like looking for leaking fluids under your car in the garage.

The problem is that doing anything on the water add a minimum x5 cost multiplier. For pretty much everything. There’s an old sailor’s joke of :

Q: What’s the difference between that speaker and the marine one?
A: I paid 10x the price for the marine speaker before pouring a glass of saltwater in it.

Except now apply it to all your testing equipment. Oh, you need a boat. Maybe SCUBA gear too. This is also going to be our first encounter with the most serious problem in remediation. You’re looking for rad to clean up, but you’re also likely to find things you weren’t looking for. Things you’d hope weren’t there. Things that aren’t remotely documented. Like mines. That’s an extreme example but timeless terrors lay beneath the waves awaiting the unsuspecting and incautious. Like dioxin slicks, lost mercury ballast slowly turning into methylmercury, etc. You really shouldn’t go fishing here unless you’re doing biological sampling.  Eventually the primary will need to go decon the harbor, but that is a hugely, massively expensive project. That will come much later, if ever. Here, have my cranky thoughts about how we never finish anything.

Instead, rather than hitting the waves, you go for the nice clean munitions warehouses. Well, probably clean. You should ask some questions about them, starting with:

Q: What did you store in here?
A: Stuff. And things.

Yeah, it’s kinda goes like that. This is about as much detail as you’re going to get on your building history research from the navy. Have you ever noticed how large they are? Really, really big. Also, have you noticed that there’s a lot of them? Unless you hire a small army of a sampling and remediation crew, you’re going to spending a long time try to cover all of them. You missed the time milestone and are bankrupt. 

So, paydirt is the way to go and you head for the landfill instead. If there’s one thing you can count on the collective navies of the world to do, it is throw away things they shouldn’t. Because naval bases tend to be on the water, landfills sometimes are replaced by burn pits. Unfortunately, were back to the problem of when you go looking for something you find EVERYTHING. For every radium painted button from the old WWII USO projectionist’s booth burnt in 1950, you find two leaking drums of Agent Orange. So, you win but you really lose too. 

The place to go as a wise subcontractor for the cheap, fast win is to ask where the Radio Shop was. This may sound odd, but the term “Radio Shop” conceals the unbelievable mission creep that these spaces took on through the 20th century. Yes, at first, they took care of radios. This requires having a long historical perspective. The militaries of the world absolutely jumped on radio as the magic technology to clear up the fog of war as soon as they hit the scene. Radio was cutting edge and rapidly advancing technology. Wrangling the constantly changing tech and the ridiculous demands of ignorant superiors to make it all do the impossible…this may sound familiar to any network engineer. The denizens of the Radio Shop were some of the brightest, most technically savvy people on the entire base. 

As you fast forward through the decades, the Radio Shop is where everyone brings the Weird Shit™. Sometimes it’s to fix things because “Hey, you’re smart, nerd. I’ll get you some beer.” Like, you fixed the plane’s radio, can you fix the compass too? By which I mean, the compass that is ABSOLUTELY LOADED with radium. But sometimes it’s a special Secret Squirrel project from someone from a three letter agency. Sometimes it’s parts of a nuclear weapon headed overseas. Like network engineers, the Radio Shop will have a parts pile, their shelves full of “I might use that to fix something, someday.” And their own burn pit/trash hole because the work smarter, not harder maxim means they figured out that it was a easier to dig a hole behind the shop. The walls of the Radio Shop may be long gone but their radiological footprint will still be there. You will make will get the most bang for the buck here, probably a bonus for quick work, and now you can decide if you want to do anything more at this base. 


There is no inspiring specific incident to point to for this scenario I just walked you through other than ALL OF THEM, EVERYWHERE. This is why naval bases rarely get decommissioned, not entirely, usually because the chemical nightmares are so much worse.

I am not picking on navies because they are the worst. No base from any military branch is without sin. Some are cleaner than others but I think that’s probably more due to a lack of opportunity to be worse. Some branches (ahem, USAF) made up for lost time.



The people who work in secured facilities will never know the pleasure of randos walking in off the street to drop things off. Maybe it’s an interesting shaped rock they’re CERTAIN is a dinosaur egg. Maybe it’s a grenade from grandpa’s war chest.

Sometimes it’s a dead bird.

[The first in an ongoing of compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

As the saying goes “Even a broken clock is right twice a day”, but that only applies to analog clocks where they’re broken such that the hands never move. There’s so many different kinds of clocks, and creative ways to be broken, that this saying makes randos look way more reliable than they are.

In general, the goal of interacting with randos is to get them out of your office/museum/library/clinic as fast as humanely possible, ideally taking their Very Important Contribution To Science & Humanity with them so that you don’t have to call the county hazmat people again. But, sometimes, there seems to be something to what they’re saying or the item is sufficiently bizarre that while it might not be what they imagine it to be it’s worth checking out. And then there’s the times they will JUST. NOT. GO. AWAY. 

In an ideal world, your Local Color will still be present when you make the surprising discovery that they aren’t completely full of it. That said, some randos will helpfully drop items & carcasses at your doorstep to enjoy when you first get to work. Hooray. In the latter case, they’ll usually leave a note that includes how to get a hold of them or, more likely, what they’d like the display card in the museum to read to give them thanks for this donation.

Many respondents were worried how Local Color *knew* the seagull was radioactive. What? You haven’t met someone in your town that is your local equivalent of Dr. Jacobi that carries their home built “radiation detector” everywhere they go to check everything they buy or eat? Your town is far too normal or you just haven’t met them yet. 

PLEASE NOTE: when they tell you that something is “radioactive”, you absolutely do not take their word for it. You doubly do not use their meter confirm their readings. I recommend not even touching it. Also, some folks have some interesting opinions of what is “radioactive”.  That meter might actually be for RF or a metal detector. Or both. I have seen some amazing kludged together devices I will describe as INFLUENCE METERS. But rando will claim that anything that makes those needles twitch is radiation. Well, yes, but not in the ionizing sense. So, just because Local Color claims it’s radioactive doesn’t mean they know.

The shocking thing in this scenario is that YOUR meter agrees that there is ionizing radiation present, in a quantity clearly above background. How high above is what helps direct your course of action. If your meter is screaming because of this carcass and going off scale, there’s a damn good chance you have a contamination incident on your hand and it’s time to survey yourself, your desk, and the Local Color for contamination spread and call the EPA while you’re at it. 

But one of the tough things here that you can’t answer at first blush is “How did this seagull die?” A screaming meter suggests acute radiation sickness (ARS) but that may not be true. ARS does take some work to achieve. But if there is no sign of contamination, then what? This would suggest that there is a sealed source inside the seagull. This isn’t a good place for a sealed source but, as several of you have noted, seagulls are somewhat indiscriminate about what they’ll shove down their beaks. DO NOT DISSECT IT ON YOUR DESK. Bag it, go to lab. 

As others have also wisely noted, seagulls fly. The place where Local Color found the dead bird probably isn’t the place where it got contaminated/ate a source. Also, umm, this would involve Quality Time™ w/ Local Color. I recommend bringing a sheriff’s deputy if you do that. 

But if your readings aren’t terribly high, say ~3x times your normal background readings, ARS isn’t the cause of death here unless it was something with a fairly short half-life it rolled around in. So who knows where it even picked up contamination and how long ago before death. But this is still a call because you have an unusual animal death. It might be a first indicator of something weird/bad that’s happened and it just happened to be the least reputable source that brought it to everyone’s attention. Call Fish & Game and they’ll refer you to EPA. 

In the inspiring event for this scenario, an NRC inspector had reason to believe that there had been a release from the site and was looking to do some surreptitious environmental sampling. Except access was difficulty to manage while being sneaky. Then he saw some fishermen. Reasoning that the fish might be good bioaccumulation indicators, he tried to negotiate to buy their catch. There was a bit of a language barrier, that involved the Power of Mime, and his meter. Unfortunately, meter clicking combined with weird man scared them and they ran away. Frustrated, and now fixated on bioaccumulation samples, he looked around for anything else that might work.

Then he saw a seagull.

Fish & Game got called because security guards watching the video were pretty sure they saw a pervert molesting a large bird. A discussion about which agency has primacy for what ensued as the inspector did his best to assert his right to the potentially radioactive seagull wrapped in his coat and stuck in the back seat of the car. Then the seagull got loose, solving the jurisdictional issues.

The moral is that you should promote interagency cooperation in advance, or you will end up cleaning ever-so-slightly radioactive bird shit out of your vehicle as your sample. And you’ll be known as The Seagull Molester for the rest of your career.


Fukushima – I Finally Wrote It

I don’t know how many times I’ve started, stopped, and deleted trying to write something up on my trip to the Fukushima Hard-To-Return-To Area, AKA the Futaba District of the Fukushima Prefecture. Unfortunately, thanks to COVID-19, I have plenty of time to write this up now. I want to give thanks at the outset to my friend Robyn, the Hollywood photographer who I went with to Chernobyl, who came on this trip too and can view her gorgeous work here, some of which I’ve used in this post. I also want to give high fives to Jen Miller for inspiring me to see if I could make this visit even happen when we went to see sumo and to Brian Wanamaker who’s translation skills allowed the serendipitous, sake-filled meeting with Kae to be an inspiration. And, lastly, thanks to everyone who purchased a “Coffee Wave” BBotE bottle for making sure we had the cash on hand to have ADVENTURES!

From the top, I’m not gonna discuss the ongoing work at Fukushima Daiichi. Plenty of ink and electrons already spent on TEPCO and JAEA doing what they can there. We can hope for a TV show that summarizes the events at the power plant as the Tōhoku quake and tsunami struck as well as HBO’s Chernobyl did. My quibbles with that show are minor at best. My favorite thing about it was people coming to me saying “Phil, I think they got something wrong on Chernobyl” and my grin of evil delight when I got to tell them that Craig Mazin lovingly captured period authentic Soviet bullshit and presented it faithfully. But I digress, because what is more interesting to me is the efforts to decontaminate, rehabilitate, and re-inhabit the abandoned area around the power plant. The example of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the “settlers”, who are mostly pensioners left in the lurch by the Soviet collapse, gives one path.

That’s not what Japan did/is doing. But let me say this right now, because belaboring this is what caused me to abort so many previous versions of this post:

These towns aren’t coming back. Not because they’re doing a bad job at cleanup. On the contrary, they’re doing an amazing job and are WAY more thorough than the Soviet Liquidators ever were. That is my professional opinion. Unlike Pripyat, a young nuclear boomtown for high fliers, the rural communities around Fukushima Daiichi were already fading away. The quake and tsunami just accelerated the pace.

There. I said it. Now maybe I can explain why without tripping over myself.

This tale starts eight years ago, on March 11, when my career took a dramatic shift when some tectonic plates moved too. If you search for “UC Berkeley radiation specialist” this is very close to my and a former coworker’s job title. We both lost months of work responding to a fire hose of phone calls, emails, and even faxes as the entire Pacific Rim turned to us as because The Algorithm™ clearly indicated we were the experts on what to do in when a reactor accident happened. More often than not, we had to refer everyone to the public affairs office who promptly turned around and asked us what they should say. This is the price of being professional staff and not tenured faculty; we don’t have the freedom of expression that comes with tenure, we’re just employees. I would like to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean the tenured faculty knew anything about what they were commenting on, but they do have the freedom to spout off to their heart’s content to any microphone and camera that came near. I actually went back to read the post I made two days after the quake and was quite surprised to see how well I covered things.

For everyone that has now seen the Chernobyl miniseries on HBO and has that vision in their head for Fukushima Daiichi, you missed the big differences: there was no graphite fire and, holy crap, that was a hell of a quake and tsunami. For everyone now coming to grips with the idea of a double hit of pandemic and then economic collapse with COVID-19, try the triple disaster of one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, a huge tsunami, and then slap a nuclear reactor accident on top of that. On a positive note, at least this triple disaster was relatively local in scope. The contamination around the Futaba District is due to the fuel rods leaking some fission products and a bunch of contaminated/activated sea water from the tsunami plus the cooling water of last resort pumping into the spent fuel pools without filtration (much less deionization) first. There were thousands of tons of graphite that lit on fire and exploded at Chernobyl, lofting a totally different set of radioactive materials across the world. Don’t get me wrong, we could detect Fukushima drifting on the breeze across the Pacific within 48hrs but the isotopic mix and quantity was very different than Chernobyl’s. And, as always, the drum I beat constantly for public education: there is a world of difference between “detectable” and “dangerous”.

We were met at the train station by Shuzo in a prefectural government van. He made sure that the ID we’d brought with us matched what I’d supplied to him a few months earlier because and, I quote, “It would be very embarrassing if it did not as I wrote the security procedures.” A little later as we drove past a cultural festival and Shuzo gave an embarrassed chuckle as he said he should probably drive a little bit faster in case some of his people working the fairgrounds saw the van. I asked him how many people worked for him in his office. He replied with some uncertainty “”Four…five hundred? Plus contractors, of course.” I slowly turned my head as realized I wasn’t talking to someone in a roughly similar position to me back in the states, but rather an agency head that reported directly to the governor… and he had volunteered himself as a driver and guide because this project is so important to him. Some recalibration of the honor that was being done for us happened in my head then and there.

Shuzo has a dream to get his hometown back. As a “hometown boy done good” he isn’t just any prefectural official, he had to order his own family out of their homes and off their farms. He evacuated the JAEA office during the emergency. What he wants more than anything is for the communities to come back after the quake/tsunami/nuclear accident triple disaster. And, yes, you should always look at this is in that order of severity; the reactors were the least of the three but it has the consequences everyone is afraid of. The people most afraid of the quake and tsunami are, well, dead. As part of the TEPCO/JAEA remediation plan, as the Japanese government made a commitment that Futaba would not be abandoned like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and had learned some lessons from that; all of the local towns and farms were offered a settlement to turn everything over for decontamination and/or demolition. Shuzo’s job is to make that happen. He is quite literally in charge of everything that is outside of the power plant decontamination project. The first place he wanted to take us was to his father’s farm.

I helpfully already did some work of sharing an introduction to my hosts in 2018 when I first started writing this up. From that post:

First off, let me introduce you to Shuzo Sakai, Karin Taira and their project, Real Fukushima. Unlike the Chernobyl tours of varying quality done by various independent operators, this is a Fukushima Prefecture government project to show the work done for decontamination and rehabitation of the towns in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Karin runs the prefecturally sponsored B&B in Odaka called Lantern House which I highly recommend if you have the time to stay overnight (sadly, I did not). Shuzo is a prefectural government official who grew up in a town that is now in the exclusion zone and he’s become head of the redevelopment agency. When you are the boss, you’re allowed to give yourself any extra tasks you want; the one he has chosen for his extracurricular activities is showing people the work done to rebuild and reoccupy. Only foreigners at the moment because, and I quote, “I feel foreigners have less radiophobia than the Japanese.” While I didn’t laugh out loud at this, I did tell him that if this was actually the case that my day job would be much easier. As a local boy done good, Shuzo’s desire is to see the people in the towns he’s always known and loved come home. He would also like people all over the world to see their hometowns in his. That you might remember to give your loved ones a call now and then, maybe go home and visit. They miss you, you know. :)

Shuzo is the person that wrote the procedures for entry into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone. Shuzo is the person who is ultimately responsible for the decon, demolition and reconstruction of all the towns in the Exclusion Zone. This is personal to him. 

forest line

The Treeline At Shuzo’s Dad’s Place – once you hit that forest litter, the background count rate triples

Among the people that had to be evacuated were Shuzo’s parents. Shuzo isn’t the eldest son, so his brother’s family ended up taking them in. And then when the evacuation area was expanded, all of them got evacuated again together. This was a bit too much stress on his mother and she passed away. For the next several years, his father lived with his brother’s family even after dad’s home and farm were decontaminated because they didn’t necessarily trust dad to live on his own. At 82, he’d literally never done laundry or really cooked a meal in his life so they needed to teach him some basic survival skills before they could let him go back home to live alone. His father’s farm is a good demonstration piece to show the success of decon allowing reoccupation, but also it’s limitation. The house, driveway, sheds, and yard had no detectable radiation above background, but you didn’t have to walk far into the trees at the edge of the property for the count rate to rise a bit. This is a reflection of the phased approach to decontamination: homes/cities, then farms, then undeveloped land. Dad wasn’t home, but I am proud to say his dad left signs that he’s like every other farmer I’ve ever met: the there was a can of Asahi beer stuck in the forks of his tractor by the shed.

Intersection Leading to Fukushima Daiichi – We did not go here.

As we approached the turn off for the power plant, Shuzo asked if any of us had seen the Fukushima/Robot Hotel episode of Dark Tourist. He was rather pleased to hear that none of us had and let us know that know that, if/when we did watch that episode, it was filmed without permission. All they did was drive up and down the Route 6 for hours and hours, the highway that runs through the exclusion zone, which is open to public travel but no stopping is permitted. You will note in that episode they stop a couple of times and then are promptly chased back to their vehicle by decon workers and police. To be very clear, this is not like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. No independent operators are doing tours around here and the local government has enough control to make that stick. They don’t want the disaster tourism; they want you to see the work they’re doing to recover, not wallow in the ruins and destruction.

Tomioka – abandoned gas station, clock still works, photo by Robyn von Swank, 2018

Tomioka – Anything left unattended in Japan will be engulfed in green, photo by Robyn von Swank, 2018

To hammer that point home in Tomioka, when we stopped to stretch our legs and let Robyn get some excellent pictures, Shuzo was struggling to find a word in English as we walked around the old downtown where he wanted us to be careful. That while all this was slated for demolition, these were the former homes and business of friends and neighbors. That he was their custodian until the town could be rebuilt and they all could come back. I let him know that the word he was looking for was “respect”, that he wanted us to be respectful of the loss that happened here. That he wanted us to be respectful in a way the Dark Tourist folks weren’t.

View to Fukushima Daiichi from the Sunlight Okuma parking lot, photo by Robyn Von Swank, 2018

Entrance to the Sunlight Okuma senior center, photo by Robyn Von Swank, 2018

Shuzo wanted to share an evacuation success with us for the Sunlight Okuma senior center, which also had an overlook view to the power plant from the edge of their parking lot. When the evacuation went through, they were able to get all of their residents into transport and out of there. The lobby of the place was filled with wheelchairs, abandoned there after the residents were whisked away to safety, for given values of uncertain roads and bridges on the evacuation route at the time. But they got them all out, though some of them needed to be taken to the hospital as they were somewhat fragile.

The Abandoned Hospital

Ah, yes, the hospital that used to here. That was our last stop on the trip with the deepest “Oh” of the hard choices in crisis. This is where an bad situation gets fucking ugly as damaged logistics really reveal themselves. In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, roads are cracked or washed out, train tracks are warped, and bridges over ravines and rivers are gone or structurally suspect. Getting from A to B in this comparatively rural part of Japan is fun at the best of times and the only thing you have going for you is that you aren’t in the mountains. Well, other than that whole tsunami washing up the river mouths and across a nice flat flood plain. This means your transportation network in very limited/damaged and you only have what resources are immediately available to you in this local network or by helicopter, for at least the next 24 hours but probably closer to 96. Now, with all that said, if you think evacuating an old folks home is hard, try ICU patients. How many ambulances are still available in this network? How many of them are currently headed toward the hospital with new patients? How long will the generators at the hospital keep running and is it long enough to get them more fuel? Oops, the reactor is leaking, every one has to go NOW.

The idea of Just In Time inventory management is absolutely toxic to the idea of emergency response. The pursuit of “efficiency” in a for-profit concern is an effort to reduce “waste” in the system to maximize profits. Doing the same in a non-profit setting cannot maximize profits, and the elimination of “waste” often confuses surpluses for contingency and public welfare as corruption & incompetence. The assumption that you only need one specialized response team for a given problem works on paper fine and “saves money”. But if you can’t get what you need to the disaster area that by definition is in the middle of a crisis this is a liability. You have deprived the local crisis area of the support that should tide them over until you can muster external resources. As Lenin said, every society is three meals from chaos. We have seen this in Katrina, Maria, Haiti…and Fukushima is an object lesson.

At least most of the old folks were ambulatory or could be moved by wheelchair. In the hospital, you had people who had to be moved by stretcher. An ambulance can only move one stretcher bound patient at a time, so they put what school buses they could lay hands on into service for evacuation, lining the aisle of the bus with patients, but that’s still only 3-4 in the aisle per bus plus whoever you can put in the seats. Then there were those on life support who couldn’t be moved at all. Please take a moment to imagine you are a doctor who has been ordered to evacuate, because a nuclear accident is in progress and there are other disaster victims elsewhere too, but it is also quite clear if you leave these patients that they will die. That when the power fails and there’s no way to keep the generators going, even if you stay here with them, they will die. And the generators will die because the best hope, reconnecting the national power grid, is a non-starter because the best and least devastated option is the grid on west side of Honshu. Unfortunately, due to post-WWII reconstruction issues, the eastern and western sides of the island are running on different frequencies, 50 & 60Hz, and you can’t just plug one side into the other. And so, knowing what would happen, the medical staff evacuated, leaving 128 people behind in the hospital. They were assured that getting back to this hospital to evacuate those patients would be a high priority for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces who been activated to respond.

When they got there, most of the patients were comatose and 14 died shortly thereafter. When telling the story of responding to the aftermath of the quake, this is the part that makes Shuzo most upset. That they weren’t prepared enough such that this choice had to even been made. Having lived through the Loma Prieta quake in Santa Cruz County and having the earth sciences background to know how much worse this was, I have a hard time imagining how you can be prepared enough. But this choice haunts him, the first responders, and the former staff of that hospital still. It is a source of shame, even in one of the worst natural disasters to strike Japan. I sincerely wish we could borrow some of that shame for America dealing with COVID-19 here in 2020.

The Lawson Market in Namie – last chance for an egg salad sandwich and Civilized Pooping for quite a while.

Let’s step this back a few because I want to discuss some of the problems Shuzo is up against now. Before heading to his dad’s place, we stopped at the Lawson Market in Namie for the final bathroom stop for the rest of the day until we got back to the train station. If you aren’t familiar with the central

importance of Lawson Market in Japan, they are the convenience store. 7-11 exists too, in a quantity you would never imagine in America, but they pale in comparison to Lawson and their most perfect egg salad sandwich. Unlike the Lawsons and 7-11s in Tokyo, which are 24/7/365 affairs, this one has limited hours since the population it serves is limited, mainly the workers at Fukushima Daiichi and the decon workers in the Hard-To-Return-To Area. After just two days in Tokyo, the idea of a Lawson that wasn’t eternally open, not to mention not having one in practically every block, just didn’t compute for me. The fact that it’s the only Lawson within an hour drive in any direction is another part of the difficulty in Shuzo’s mission to reclaim, rebuild and reoccupy. 

The problem is that while people may return to these towns once they are rebuilt, they lack the critical mass to actually justify maintaining services. Repeat this Lawson’s problem of hours and limited population with health services. There was a large hospital here, as tragically mentioned previously, but there’s barely enough people to justify a clinic out in the towns now. Which means for the fairly elderly population that has returned, the trip to visit their doctor is at least a hour and change drive away away. And they better have a car and be able to drive because there’s no train service here yet (NB: as of 2020, train service has been restored to Namie). It’s planned, but it starts a chicken and the egg problem of “Will people come back if the services aren’t here?” vs. “Is it worth building services if there’s no one here to use them?”

The demographic shift to a more elderly population was already killing the small agricultural towns. Without the necessary population, there are modes of farming that just don’t work anymore. For traditional rice farming, farms/families would supply their extra children or workers to do maintenance on the irrigation ponds that would then flood the paddies at the right time of year. If you don’t maintain them, very soon it silts up, gets overgrown, and then you have no water for rice farming. And without continual maintenance of the irrigation to remain viable, many had shifted to more profitable crops, like ornamental flowers. But without enough local people to work the farms even in their new incarnation, most of the workers that had been there before the quake were Vietnamese. Imported produce was cheaper anyway so the local farms weren’t doing that well in the first place. And if you can’t fight the radiophobia, you won’t even get those workers. However, here is a tarnished silver lining.

Former Irrigation Pond, Now a Waste Barrow – Futaba District, Japan

In America, we don’t do a lot of waste incineration anymore in the wake of very dirty burning of uncontrolled wastestreams and the subsequent downwind cancer clusters. Japan doesn’t really have the room to have all the landfills that we do, which means that rather than segregating trash into “garbage, compost, recycle” you get “recycle, combustible, non-combustible”. This principle applies to radioactive waste as well; you can’t make the radioactive component go away, but you can change the physical/chemical form you have to deal with. For low level wastes that will decay away relatively quickly, say less than 300 years for 10 half lives to pass, the preference is to reduce and concentrate so that it takes up as little space as possible while we wait for it all to die away. Part of the remediation project here is collecting contaminated topsoil and plants for incineration, AKA bulk reduction. The ashes are then consolidated into reinforced supersacks for transport and burial. Every one of those bags is tagged and recoverable, just like the Nevada Test Site. Radiologically and chemically, we know what’s in it, when it will cool down, and when it isn’t “waste” anymore. The burial option isn’t ideal as it takes that land out of use for decades to come and Japan doesn’t have a lot of spare land kicking around. But as I mentioned earlier, those old irrigation ponds all over the place that weren’t being used. There are ready made barrows, good to go for waste storage.

To roll this story even further back, the night before we went Fukushima, we had a wonderful dinner and an hell of a lot of sake at a joint near Meguro station (looking at the photo on the front page, we were seated at that first table on the right). We met a pair of ladies from the small town of Yamanashi, small being relative at ~40k residents, who had recently moved to Tokyo to get jobs which were lacking back at home. They were interested in why we were visiting Japan and we told her about our trip the next day. Between all the sake, Kae made the observation that “Most in people in Japan don’t feel a connection to or think about Fukushima much. Not many people call that part of Japan their hometown anymore.” That has tax consequences. I don’t want to go into it here, but I do recommend reading this essay on the Japan’s Hometown Tax.

Kae had a point, so I decided to look up the census info. Not many people were calling the towns of the Fukushima coast their hometown either (Namie, Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba, Hirono, Katsurao, Kawauchi, Naraha). Over a 20 year window, the population of the prefecture as a whole has dropped ~200k. The obliteration of the Futaba District only accounts for ~70k of that. And Fukushima City’s whopping 2k of growth doesn’t really explain that loss in terms of internal migration in the prefecture. Tokyo, however, has grown considerably. The economic machine of Tokyo demands fresh bodies and dang if it doesn’t suck them in from the rest of the country, much like it did Kae. In the United States, if you were a kid who grew up in a tourist town, and you had the realization “Seriously, waxing skis and serving assholes on vacation is all I can do around here for a living?” then it makes a lot of sense.


But I don’t want to leave you in despair for Shuzo and Japan.

And after 4000 words, you could probably use a pick me up. Bravo for making it this far!

I was, and remain, disappointed in myself for thinking the Tōhoku Line wouldn’t be rebuilt because America hasn’t finished the Gulf Coast Amtrak line since Hurricane Katrina. From my pre-trip post, except it’s been 15 years now:

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.

There’s a resettlement town for folks that returned after the quake built near the Hard-To-Return-To Area on the other side of Route 6. Apparently, the kids are the ones who demanded to go back because they missed their friends but they also wanted to consolidate. Their elderly, much like at Chernobyl, want to go back to their old homes. There’s a single school that in 2018 had a total of eight students, K-12, BUT THEY ARE THERE! And if you’ve got kids, your community has a future.

On the marketing side of things, they’re doing their damnedest to make sure that the radiophobia that lead to the hibakusha does not happen again for its residents or produce. Additionally, this area is a breadbasket of Japan full of amazing fruits, vegetables, livestock…it’s a region Japan can’t abandon for long. A “Fukushima Made” campaign to let people know they’re supporting the farmers and fishing boats to get them back on their feet is starting to get some traction. Not gonna call it a success where people pay a premium for Fukushima apples yet, but give it time.

Which is to say, if anyone is gonna pull off the biggest decon project since Chernobyl, my money is on Japan. I’m just not sure who is going to move back.

Pseudoscience Themes – 5G

I got asked “Why do people think 5G is causing coronavirus?” because I am a clearinghouse of pseudoscience bullshit and conspiracy theories. This is, after all, how I earned my role as Weirdness Consultant for the Atomic Robo gang. To be a well-rounded person with a deeper understanding of humanity, you need to not just know how the universe works and why but also know how people believe the universe works, but totally does not, and why. For shorthand, I’ve named some of those themes I’ve identified:

  • Purity – There is an axiomatic Ideal, it can be attained, and you should strive for it
  • Contamination – There is Otherness that taints and corrupts
  • Primal/Vital Energy – There is a deep reservoir of power that can be sensed, used, and manipulated the underlies everything (yes, this does sound a lot like The Force)
  • Wisdom of the Ancients – those who came before us knew more/better/had secrets we don’t (SEE ALSO: every episode of Ancient Aliens)
  • The Elect – Some people are Chosen and inherently Better (HINT: it’s Atlanteans, they’re the best)

Purity and Contamination seem two sides of the same coin. They often go hand-in-hand but they come from a different sources. The difference in impulse that leads to orthorexia vs. mysophobia. One of the disappointing things about “Wisdom of the Ancients” themes is that’s more or less the core of all the mystery cults and a lot of the gnostic teaching. This is danger of hearing stories about the exploits and skills of your great-grandfather that you never met. Multiply this by centuries and millennia. In short, people have always been suckers and believed these. Even the Ancients. The Elect, wellllll, if you want to find the root cause of most every genocide ever, there you go.

The best examples for the Primal/Vital Energy theme are animal magnetism, vril, orgone and auras. The Vital Energies thread has been going strong since Anton Mesmer, continually morphing with the development of technology, and is the literal origin of wearing tin foil hats. The argument has been there that electricity and each and every iteration of wireless communication since radio became a thing is somehow distorting or destroying our connection to Teh Life Force. I have read a lot this bullshit and those flyers on the Whole Foods bulletin board start feeling like form letters where they just swap out what technology is currently 100% absolutely killing you and definitely lowering your sperm count. The funny thing is that it’s usually ionizing radiation that triggers the Contamination themes, but I blame circumstances.

So, to save you a trip down conspiracy theory rabbit holes and all the whiskey required to cushion your soul when on an Internet Helldive, I bring you this terrible firmly held untruth to answer the original question. It isn’t that they believe 5G is causing coronavirus, it’s that they believe 5G IS the coronavirus. Or rather, all the terrible effects we are seeing from COVID-19 are actually what happens when 5G disrupts the human body’s connection to the Primal/Vital Energy. Previous iterations of wifi are never good for you by this strand of thinking, but 5G is where it tripped over to lethal in their reckoning.

Basically, this is my encouragement for everyone to go read Linda Simon’s “Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray“. Also, please enjoy this classic comic from the sadly defunct

WIFI EATS BABIES – by wellingtongrey. I used to have this laminated and on my door at work until I was told to take it down.