CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Nuke Crabs

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.

via GIPHY

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.”

~fin~

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Radio Shack

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.

~fin~ 

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE: Radioactive Seagull

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.

~fin~