The 2017 Atomic Heritage Roadtrip, Part 1: ABQ & the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Well, I’ve now stood on my second nuclear weapon ground zero. (the first I did on this trip)

April 1st was the Trinity Test Site open house, one of the two times a year that the White Sands Missile Range opens up to allow the public to visit. They used to open it up on the test anniversary date as well but, funny thing, people seem to have a hard time in the middle of the desert in mid-July.  Heatstroke used to be part of the Trinity experience, which is why they have since moved the open house dates to the first Saturday in April and October. It also happened to be close enough to My Lovely Assistant’s birthday that we decided to make a roadtrip of it and collect a few more locations on the way. This first means flying to Albuquerque and, luckily, I already have operatives in place there.

In the long long ago, in the beforetime, Albuquerque was the administrative center for the nuclear weapons program. It’s where the Atomic Energy Commission sited their main office for the western half of the country; close enough to run up the hill to Los Alamos as needed, but a more transportation friendly place to, for example, bring personnel in for polygraph tests. The office is still there, but is now held by the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA, not to be confused with NSA or NASA) and associated with Kirtland Air Force Base. Like any place that is important for long enough, they accumulate crap. Did I say crap? I meant to say “Smithsonian-grade museum archival materials”. And much like the old office and it’s archives in Las Vegas gave rise to the National Atomic Testing Museum (NATM), the Albuquerque office and Kirtland AFB spawned that National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. We decided to go hit this on the day before visiting Trinity.

Martin Pfieffer, guest starring the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. For the record it was very windy and I made him laugh before this picture.

It is always worth having a docent with you in these museums to point out the things you might have missed and give you the extra details that the placards are missing. In this case, we had University of New Mexico anthropology grad student, Martin Pfeiffer as our guest docent for the day. Martin’s research, among many things, involves how the nuclear weapons complex sold itself as safe and necessary to the public, to recruit prospective employees, and most importantly, to appropriators and procurement people with the purse strings. This means he spends A LOT of time going through magazine archives for advertisements from the 1950s & 1960s that are Jet Age/Mad Men masterpieces at their weirdest. Because take a moment, lean back in your chair, take a contemplative sip from your beverage of choice, and ask yourself “How would I sell nukes?” It’s a non-trivial one and that’s why he’s getting a anthropology PhD. I recommend any number of market research firms hire him promptly. Hell, hire him now and supplement the embarrassingly low grad student stipends that UNM pays.

Big Bada Boom

Mk17/24, the second highest yield nuclear weapon the US ever made, with Martin for scale.

Now you might ask how is NMNS&H different than the NATM. I can sum that up easily in two words: Delivery Systems. Where Vegas focuses on the work that happened at the Nevada Test Site, AKA blowin’ shit up real good, Albuquerque would like to tell you about all the weapons systems that Sandia built and Kirtland maintained. This means that it is bigger, because you need room for all that stuff and a lot of it isn’t small fiddly bits. We’re talking missiles and bombs of various size, and when you get to the big stuff, like planes, you have to go outside which is when I got incredibly giddy because they have a rocket garden. You see, I’m originally from Cocoa Beach, FL which means Kennedy Space Center was very easy to go visit on a whim. In particular, when I was little, before they fenced them all off and demanded you pay first, I constantly demanded that my parents take me to the KSC Rocket Garden to have a picnic under the X-15.

NUKES!!!

Titan II, on it’s side, and stage separated. If you’ve played the Lonesome Rode DLC for Fallout New Vegas, that is a very familiar nosecone.

NMNS&H’s rocket garden, however, is all about delivery systems and I’ve never seen a collection like this before. Thor, Mace, Polaris, BOMARC, Titan, Snark…so many missiles. Looking at a Titan II on its side and getting close to the nose cone where the warhead would have gone, all you have to do is change the payload from military to civilian and you’ve got NASA’s Gemini program instead. Then there’s the bombs too large to fit in the building like the Mk17.

I want to pay special attention this bomb in the wake of the recent use of a MOAB in Afghanistan and the reporting that accompanied it that has some semantic problems around the phraseology “biggest bomb we’ve got”. “Big” can refer to physical size, or weight, or explosive yield (which is often related to but not on a 1:1 basis to weight and size). The 11 ton MOAB has greater explosive yield, but the MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator) is more massive at 15 tons, using that weight to sink through dirt, rock, cement before exploding with it’s smaller yield, but in the place you need it. As one weapons engineer once described it to me, “It’s puttin’ ass behind that blast.” The Mk17/24 bomb is the most massive bomb, nuclear or otherwise, that America ever made though only the second largest yield. The Mk41 holds that record at a 25MT yield, with it’s intended mission of obliterating hardened underground facilities by collapsing them with force from above, but only weighed a quarter as much as this 20 ton monster. Per pilot anecdote, when you dropped a Mk17/24 it wasn’t so much that that you’d released a bomb as the bomb had released you, with the plane rapidly jumping up in altitude.

big bada boom

Bomb fragments from the May 27, 1957 Mk17 broken arrow incident in Albuquerque, with poker chip for size reference.

Albuquerque was also home to a broken arrow incident with one of the Mk17s, as one accidentally got dropped from a bomber near Kirtland AFB when someone leaned against the wrong button on their B-36 as they headed back to base. Luckily, it wasn’t properly armed so just the conventional explosives went off on impact, terminally inconveniencing one cow rather than removing New Mexico’s largest city. The Army cleaned up the wreckage and decon’d the radiological contamination but, well, the Army is the Army, which is mostly made up of surly teenagers and twentysomethings that don’t really want to be there. If you look hard enough while hiking around in the hills you can find bits of the bomb they missed, which is something Martin did and is why my curio cabinet now contains a few fragments. To be fair, they are small fragments because it blowed up real good and even the Army can manage to notice and clean up large chunks.

We then got the pleasure of beers and fine New Mexican cuisine afterward. Courtesy of my other New Mexicans I had already learned the joys of what I refer to as New Mexican Background Chile Levels; there will always be some, the question is how much spicier would you like it above and beyond that. My personal spicy preference tends toward hot mustards and horseradish, not capsaicin, as my recent experiments with “chemical weapon bagels” will attest to. That said, New Mexico has made a convert of me with pork adovada. That was heavenly, I was lusting for more of it while at the Trinity Test Site, and as I’m sure friends will attest to, I have been whining about it’s absence from my life here in California ever since.

Next time: Trinity Test Site, Titan Missile Museum, and… umm… a discussion of the Jefferson Davis Highway.

 

More Atomic Fun Times!

The new BBotE production slots are now up, though this window will be a little longer than normal, ending on April 15th, because in the middle of it I will be taking a bit of a road trip. I will attempt to crank as much out before I depart on March 30th, but while I’m on the road the coffee engines will briefly wind down.

Why is there going to be a road trip? Because on April 1st the Trinity Test Site is opening up for it’s twice a year open house and there’s birthday fun for my Lovely Assistant to be celebrated around that time too. My nuclear/atomic trips have taken me some interesting places, not all of which where I can take photos, to share what I can with you, like the Nevada Test Site and Chernobyl. I suspect Trinity will give me a thing or two to pass along.

For your Two Minutes Hate, Andrew Jackson.
(By Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl, 1838)

So, order away to your hearts content, while I do more reading for my next reference rant for Lesson Four from this old post. I discovered there was much more to dislike about Andrew Jackson, just related to money, nevermind the rest of the shit he pulled. One of my favorite things about dark corners of history is finding that that dark corner is deeper and uglier than you thought. Sharing it with everyone else is the history equivalent of The Courtesy Sniff.

So, You Want To Test A Nuclear Weapon?

I dedicate the following rant to my Lovely Assistant, who can probably recite this by heart now, and Meredith Yayanos who hit boggleface about halfway through an in person version and asked “PLEASE, WRITE THIS SHIT DOWN.” Now I have.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you have a brand new nuclear weapon. Let’s not quibble for the moment over how it came to be. Perhaps you decided the Reliable Replacement Warhead program was a good idea after all and grabbed one of the designs that were put forward in the twilight of Bush/dawn of Obama and built it. Perhaps you had a brand new one whipped up and it’s gonna be great! All that matters is that you have it.

But does it actually work? The computer models say it’s A+, hunky dory, best nuke ever. Except now it’s a physical object, not a simulation. Were the engineering tolerances right? Did we get the metallurgy down? WILL IT ACTUALLY WORK?!?! Unless you can convince the brass that it’s does, they won’t order this new design, much less deploy it. And you won’t know unless you set it off, as a representative of a new fleet of nuclear weapons. And so begins the Choose Your Own Nuclear Adventure!

Question 1: Do you want to test it above ground (AKA atmospheric) or underground?

Atmospheric testing does have its benefits, namely that it’s comparatively easy to do and, by jingo, people will know that you set off a nuclear device. Very showy and attention getting, great media coverage I bet. Here’s a few demonstration videos. There is this one slight drawback in that Kennedy kinda, sorta signed a treaty and Congress ratified it 54 years ago that we said we wouldn’t do atmospheric testing anymore. That will make some people very unhappy. But you do you. Please enjoy this instructional video.

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

Underground testing then? Well, that’s a little more tricky but luckily we used to have a place where we did a lot of this. Assuming you’d like to go back to the former Nevada Test Site to start “stomping our feet” again rather than create a brand new national sacrifice area, I’ve got some great news! When we temporarily stopped underground testing (I say “temporarily” because you’re about to test again) in 1992 under the limited nine month moratorium that got extended into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), we had another hole ready to go for the ICECAP test which never happened. You may remember this from my previous post about the Nevada Test Site. All we have to do is put our new device down that hole, connect it up to the diagnostic equipment, backfill and good to go, right?

Well, as a reminder, you will make some people upset with that whole violating the CTBT. On a positive note, you won’t actually be in violation of US law because, while the Clinton administration signed off on it, Congress never ratified the treaty like they did thirty years earlier with the atmospheric testing ban. If you look at the map under the CTBT link, you’ll notice that of the nuclear powers signed off on this, the United States and China are two that conspicuously did not ratify. The more recent additions to the Nukehaver Club (India, North Korea, and Pakistan) you’ll note are non-signatories. You can’t quite yell at them for violating a treaty they didn’t even sign, other than as a neighbor who is rather cranky.

But maybe the ICECAP setup isn’t right for our new device to test. Maybe you just feel a brand new nuke needs a brand new tunnel and shaft. Can’t use another bride’s wedding dress after all. Which brings us to the next question.

Question 2: Do you have the equipment to build this?

If you visit the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, NV you will get a chance to see the amazing mining technologies developed to build these tunnels and shafts. To run thousands of miles of cables, which you can see some of in the ICECAP picture, to collect all the test data and run them from the device back to “Mission Control” where the shot director is running the show with all the computers. I regret to inform you that the tunneling equipment is likely either gone, probably sold as gov’t surplus/scrap metal long ago, or it is in the condition that most things are when you abandon them in desert with no maintenance for 25 years. For example, that crane-like thing in the background of the ICECAP picture. I strongly recommend getting a tetanus booster before getting within 100′ of that much rust. Also, you need a new one of whatever that is if you want to pull those cables. Oh, and FYI, you need to replace all those cables as the insulation on wires reacts even worse to 25 years of open air exposure in the baking Nevada desert than the crane-thing did. Even if you wanted to recycle the ICECAP hole, assuming it was adequate for your test, you have to replace absolutely everything you see in this picture.

Actually, there’s a good chance the digging equipment, the moles, are still around, as they are incredibly expensive, but they may not be anywhere convenient and probably are in active use. If you want to call it back to cut some new shot tunnels, you’ve got to make some hard choices as to which other critical infrastructure project around the country you’d like to give up on. I suppose you could order a new one, though people do tend to ask what multi-billion dollar infrastructure project you’re going to be doing with it.

fuck you, USAF for your connector standards

Okay, You’re Shitting Me Right? What Is This Even For? At least I know what right-side up is…

Okay, let’s say you’ve appropriated, and not ask too hard about how you did it, all the requisite equipment. That probably cost a few billion bucks. You’ve went out to the cable spools you saw sitting in the desert, ordered more and are ready to hook it all together. Then you see a connector that looks like this at the end of the cable.

Umm, uh oh. Your new nuclear device doesn’t have such a connector as it was designed and built in the 21st century. Neither, for that matter, does any of the diagnostic equipment you bought off the shelf from a variety of suppliers to save on procurement costs.

You see, you don’t just need to replace all the equipment that was once there. You need to either completely reconstitute the state of technology as it was in 1992, which was probably something close to early 1980s state of the art as we tend to be rather picky about choosing very reliable and tested equipment with lots of spare parts, or you need to update Every. Last. Goddamn. Thing. involved in a nuclear test to the current state of the art. The latter course requires you to qualify all these technologies as “nuclear test worthy” reliable and that’s gonna take a while and quite a lot of money too. Doing the former, partying like it’s 1992, probably isn’t any cheaper and it may just flat not be possible. All the old suppliers have moved on to making other things and there may be no parts left.

This includes all the computers. I really can’t do justice to how non-trivial that upgrade is and the QA the software will require. The Computer History Museum will get stripped bare if you choose the time capsule method of restarting operations. Either way, I figure we’re getting into the hundreds of billions of dollars and several years of effort territory here.

Which brings us to a tiny, minor problem. Hardly worth mentioning, really.

Question 3: Do you have the people to run any of the equipment, or the test itself?

Much like pulling a mole off an infrastructure project has an opportunity cost of not doing that project, you’re going to need to pull that work crew too. Can you convince them to, for example, move from Seattle where they’re working on replacing WA-99 Alaskan Way Viaduct and move to North Las Vegas? Or Pahrump, NV of Art Bell fame? Maybe, but I suspect you’ll be paying a hefty premium for them. This isn’t the Medieval Europe with the corvée to compel public service, so you have to pay for these skilled workers. Oh, and you’re gonna have to get them all clearance.

Repeat with each and every one of the trades you’re going to need. Especially IT support. Hooboy, this is getting incredibly expensive now.

But wait, what about all the workers who are already there, can’t we just use them? Well, no. The people who once worked the nuclear tests have either:

  1. Retired at some point in the last 25 years.
  2. Long since moved on/been laid off since testing stopped 25 years ago.
  3. Died at some point in the last 25 years.

Precious few people who worked in the nuclear weapons program, involved with actual tests, are left in government employment. More than you might expect, as they tend to hang around longer than others out of a sense of mission, but less every year. I suppose you could call up folks and see if they’d like to leave retirement to add some knowledge base to your project, but you’re looking at folks with decades rusty skills who you’re asking to either do a technological leapfrog OR download their complete career knowledge into newbies in short order. One of the many arguments for not continuing the moratorium through the end of the 1990s was precisely to keep this expertise available and sharp, but such is life and we did not.

People are gonna screw up developing these skills. They’re going to be slow at first as they learn. If you try to rush this, bad things happen. There is a saying from the American testing program, a point of pride, “We never screwed up the same thing twice. Can’t think of a lot of government agencies that can claim that.” I’d like them to keep that streak going, but I’d prefer they not screw something up in a new and instructive way.

MORAL OF THE STORY

If you have a nuclear device you want to test RIGHT NOW, you might as well give it to North Korea. They’ve got fresh and sharp skills. It’ll take us, and Russia for that matter, several years and a hell of a lot money to stand up a functional and ongoing nuclear testing program again.

This is the primary reason why the United States built the National Ignition Facility (NIF). If I can’t go set off the old nuclear weapons in Nevada to see if they’re working properly, can I take tiny pieces of those weapons and simulate blast conditions on them with a laser-based artificial star to see how they behave? Oh sure, we’ve found a lot of other pretty neat science the NIF can contribute to as the years have gone on, but this is it’s original purpose: stockpile verification. Russia, on the other hand, never built an equivalent of NIF. Other than setting them off, they don’t have a method to test their stockpile. Unlike the United States, the Yeltsin administration not only signed the CTBT but the Duma ratified it. It would be tacky for Russia to unilaterally resume testing.

Of course, if we resumed testing on our own and tossed the CTBT in the trash can, then it would just be sensible policy on their part.

Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 3 – Kiev, Hero City

STRATEGIC RESERVE IN UKRAINE: In addition to infinite pierogis, FINE RESTAURANTS will offer you a selection of lard (really, it’s just hog belly). “Lard In The Acute Paprika” is a reason to return to Kiev alone.

Let me get this out of the way upfront. I didn’t even spend long enough in Kiev and I want to go back before it’s too late. My time in the city was all too brief and all too enjoyable, among people who are putting on a brave face over deep insecurity and fear. Get in the habit of saying “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine”. The latter version implies that they are just a region rather than a country, which is very much how Russia regards them. Also, my pierogi lust has no end. I already knew this, but Kiev catered to it.

As a reminder, I left San Francisco the day after the presidential election and arrived in Kiev a day after that. As the only American I met until I got to Chernobyl (even my compatriot was Canadian), the conversations I had with Ukrainians who spoke at least some English generally went like this:

  1. You’re American?
  2. Did you vote for Trump?
  3. How did ANYONE vote for Trump?
  4. What happens next?

Because I’m me with funny answers to questions and a decent knowledge of recent events, Ukranian companions were happy to offer PROTIPS. And I quote from the woman running the front desk at 3am and I had terrible instant coffee with because I couldn’t sleep, “You can get rid of Putin’s puppets. If you paid attention, we showed you how. Just…don’t wait until winter. Maidan was cold.” The assumption from the Ukrainian point of view is that within a year or so, they won’t have an independent country anymore. That with Trump in office there isn’t an America to act as backstop for NATO (read: the Europeans won’t actually do something without America jabbing them in the back with a stick) if Russia decides to “assert territorial rights”. I can’t fault this fear for a second, since they have recent events in Crimea and Donetsk to point to. Some parts of the city haven’t quite recovered from the Orange Revolution, much less Euromaidan, but they put up a nice facade, literally. The empty or damaged buildings around Andriyivskyy Descent have been covered with cloth that have pictures printed/painted on them showing what the buildings looked like when they were occupied or new.

An Iron Cross made entirely of Iron Crosses taken from dead Nazis at the 2nd Battle of Kiev.

Which is part of why I decided to devote what meager Kiev tourist time I had not to staggeringly gorgeous Eastern Orthodox churches, not to the treasures and art that date back to when the the Kievan Rus were Vikings that had neat found a way to trade with/raid Constantinople, not to the many sex clubs that Kiev is quite certain western tourists want…no, I went to the Motherland Memorial, the Rodina Mat, and the Museum of  the Great Patriotic War that rests beneath her feet. To be fair, under de-Sovietification it was renamed the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War which doesn’t quite pop the same way. I could see places where one or two exhibits had been removed or maybe an informational plaque had been changed, but generally it didn’t look like much had been altered from when the place was dedicated in 1981. Based on the exhibits inside, I think it would be entirely fair to call it the Ukrainian Museum of Art Made with Stuff We Took from Dead Nazis Because We Killed A LOT of Them.

And so I set out into Kiev as the snow started coming down. Normally, I would have happily walked across the city from our hotel to the Rodina Mat. That was not a normal day, which is why I summoned my first Uber* ever.

I also have to give the sad report that a lie told enough times becoming accepted fact got proven for me with the driver who was impressed that we had elected Obama, a Kenyan, as president of the US. On a positive note, he didn’t think it was bad that America had elected a non-citizen as president, just odd. We corrected him and also pointed out that Hawaii is one of the states of the United States of America, even if the islands are far away from the continent. The Birther Movement lie is alive and well overseas but with less information about how America is supposed to work, garbling the disinformation campaign. I want to give my driver full honors and accolades for braving the first major snowstorm of the year, driving on slick cobblestone streets, among the other drivers who appeared determined to die. It was a beautiful moment where one remembers humans are the same everywhere: for the first major storm of the year, rain or snow, everyone forgets how to drive in it and hilarity ensues. Doesn’t matter if its San Francisco, Denver, Sydney or Kiev, just listen for the sounds of brakes, squealing tires and crunching fenders.

Rodina Mat (Motherland) Monument- I’m not sure this photo does justice to how large this statue is. Below her feet is the four story Great Patriotic War Museum of Ukraine. Big. Please note the complete lack of other people dumb enough to go out as a snowstorm starts.

For the benefit of folks who don’t know what the Great Patriotic War was, why it deserves a museum, and why the heck does Kiev has this giant statue, here’s a quick review. The Great Patriotic War was the USSR’s term for WWII because, relative to the Soviet Republics, this was a war fought on their soil for their very survival. WWI, for which most of Europe still uses the old term “The Great War” with the assumption there wouldn’t be another war ever, wasn’t something the Soviet authorities were terribly proud of. It was the war that belonged to the Tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution happened at least in part to get the hell out of said war, and to then promptly begin the civil war for control of the former Russian Empire which also wasn’t something to be particularly proud of. Relative to the start of the Soviet Union, this was the big one, the GLORIOUS MOMENT FOR GLORIOUS STATE, and hence the name Great Patriotic War. That demands museums, monuments, and parades to put America to shame; we merely had the Greatest Generation in WWII, they have the Hero Generation of the Great Patriotic War.

The Flame of Glory, Unlit, On a Cold Day

For the cities that fought the longest, that had the roughest battles, the Politburo had a special designation: Hero City. While the casualties were higher and battle of longer duration in Leningrad and Stalingrad, Kiev had the “pleasure” of being a major battlefield against the Nazis twice and a long, lethal Nazi occupation. This monument and museum were part of a larger patriotic park to tell the story of the Battles of Kiev in sculpture and architecture. In a subtle manner, it tells newer stories too; the Flame of Glory, which is a giant Olympic Games-like cauldron that was meant to be an eternal burning flame of memory, is now only lit for major events like Victory Day because natural gas supplies from Russia aren’t to be counted on.

DER FLAMMENWURFER – It wurfs flammens. With great effectiveness, as one of the Nazi terror weapons the helped them win Kiev in the first battle.

Other than the docents who worked there, I more or less had the park and the museum to myself other than the British dad who seemed just a little bit too excited about all the Nazi gear on display to show his son. I was offered an English audio tour of the museum but declined it. I wanted to see how much of the story I could figure out with the limited postings in English, my almost non-existent skill at reading the Cyrillic alphabet, and my compendious knowledge of the horrors of war.

In light of the recent Holocaust Remembrance Day and how badly our administration flubbed it, I want to share with you that the Great Patriotic War Museum very much remembers with a point of view that is powerful. You’ve been repeatedly told “6 million people were systematically murdered by the Nazis” your whole life, the Ukrainians add this addendum: “…and a 1.5 million of that number was from here.” Remember the term “Final Solution” which came out of the Wannsee Conference in 1942?  This was a response to the Nazi death squads wandering around the recently conquered Ukraine in Operation Barbarossa, putting hands on hips, shaking their heads and saying “There’s gotta be a better way” after perpetrating horrors like Babyn Yar. It is hard for Kiev to forget things like Babyn Yar since it happened in a ravine in the northern part of the city, rather than just far enough away from a town for things to be out of sight, out of mind like most of the concentration camps. This also made it really easy for Soviet authorities to go collect artifacts from the killing grounds and the Nazi attempt to hide the evidence of it.

The Babyn Yar Bone Mill, side view

The Babyn Yar Bone Mill, with Fertilizer Sacks.

And, oh that evidence. In this museum, you had to ask if you could do photography first but it was permitted. Every other Holocaust exhibit I have ever been to around the world has strictly forbidden photography. In the Holocaust Room at the Great Patriotic War Museum, I was encouraged to take pictures, of the things even *I* was uneasy with. To remember. To remember the bone grinder used in Babyn Yar to mulch the bodies victims into fertilizer and the Nazi eagle stamped sacks the bone meal went into. To remember the soap made from rendered human fat. To remember and take a REAL CLOSE LOOK at the human skin driving gloves for the commandant’s wife. To remember that all of these “consumer products” were once Ukrainians. That they will never let this happen again because they can’t afford it, the loss was too cruel and dire. I’ve shared the pictures of the bone mill but I can’t quite bring myself to put the human-based products up.

The small exhibit that got my attention after the Holocaust Room was the one dedicated to the Hero Mothers. Nazi Germany gave medals to the women who had six our more good, racially fit Aryan children for the Reich. The Soviet Union gave medals to the women who had five our more children die in service trying to defend the country from invasion, as opposed to those whose families had been lost to wholesale slaughter. The museum put some of them with their pictures up on display. I’m sure a medal next to her face wasn’t quite enough for the lady with the pictures of nine sons below her, each of them with a red line across his face, crossed with a bullet casing.

But all that is the past Kiev is trying to move on from, to find prosperity and, honestly, the place looks pretty good all things considered. The repeated efforts by Russia, and Ukraine’s own problematic oligarchs, to stifle their modernization are frustrating but haven’t stopped the process, just slowed it down. I’m to understand some of the smaller places away from the capital still have some timewarp/neglect issues, but I can’t speak to what I didn’t really see, other than on the drive to Chernobyl. Having done my fair share of traveling, no city has quite sunk it’s claws into my heart as fast as Kiev did, which is why I also picked up their fear. All the precarious hope for the future, teetering on an uncertain war in the east and a West that wants to ignore what’s going on. This is why I want to go back again, because one day and change wasn’t remotely enough time. I encourage everyone to give Kiev a go while it’s still a free and independent Ukraine. If that dark day comes when they aren’t anymore, I don’t expect them to give up without a fight. I expect nothing less from a Hero City, but I also know it would’ve happened because Putin got a tacit green light from America. I can’t express how disgusted I am by the very thought.

And as long as you don’t travel on the weekends, the roundtrip flights remain surprisingly cheap. After all, that was the first condition I had to fulfill when this trip started back in Part 1. So go, before you can’t anymore.

Folks, they sat me amongst a collection of their finest tubas and fed me “Horseradish Tincture”. I love this place.

 

 


*: Okay, now for the part where I swear I am not sponsored by Uber. Prior to visiting Ukraine, I had never had the Uber app before and only ever rode in Uber vehicles as a passenger. In light of the many people who had warned me about the “mid-trip fare renegotiation” of cabs in Eastern Europe, but particularly Kiev, I decided an alternative was a good idea, just in case. It’d be expensive I reckoned, but always good to have contingency, right? Right. So, let me set the scene.

I had just left the Great Patriotic War Museum. The snow, which was respectable when I’d gone in several hours earlier, had picked up by the time I exited. I slogged through the completely empty park, past the patriotic statuary and frozen friezes, and up the steps to the road to get out to the main streets. Normally, I would be happy take the several mile walk across a new city just for the chance to soak it and have great times in places where people later tell me I certainly should have died (i.e. wandering into communist neighborhoods in Rome). Unfortunately, my nice windstopper fleece & gloves were getting increasingly useless against the accumulating snow, which was melting and wicking through. And so, standing outside Cafe Kupol, a converted sacristy to restaurant, I took off my glove, pulled out my phone, mumbled “Fuck it” to myself, and turned on international roaming so I could summon an Uber to get me back to my hotel. My after action report:

1) It was remarkably cheap. While more expensive than a normal taxi would have been in Kiev, it was a fuckton cheaper than comparable rides I’ve seen in SF & NYC. A ride that typically goes for $50 in those cities, with congestion charges that never ever go away, only hit a whopping $3.05 in Kiev, in the middle of a serious snowstorm and wrecks everywhere.
2) It was a fixed rate, which preempts the “Mid-Ride Fare Renegotiation”. Again, while more expensive than Kiev’s normal cabs, it removes the pain of haggling, which most Americans hate anyway.
3) It got around the language barrier. I requested my ride in my language on a map I could read and it communicated that information to the driver in his language. No pointing and grunting at Google maps which only one of the parties can read.
Uber is, and this feels weird to type, a superior product which also fulfills a need when overseas in unregulated markets. Uber-level self-regulation is a step up when the local flavor of regulation is None. To a stable, regulated market they are cancer. While points #1 & #2 are nice, to the usual monolingual American with travel hesitancy because of that, #3 opens up the world. The fact that Uber doesn’t tout this as a major selling point in astounding because it’s an actual problem they solve, rather than create for a change, is telling.

Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 2 – Chernobyl, the Town & the Reactors

Chernobyl City Limits – Yes, I am wearing one Fallout shirt or another under my frock coat everywhere I went. (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

When you have the incredibly photogenic and not bulldozed ghost city of Pripyat to take pictures of, it’s easy to forget the other towns and villages that were once there, or still are in the case of the city of Chernobyl. Generally the name “Chernobyl” is associated in everyone’s head with the the reactor that went up in smoke, Chernobyl-4, rather than the seat of the old administrative district. I can understand forgetting it. It wasn’t a sexy place with fascinating architecture like Pripyat, just solid utilitarian construction like the buildings of a county corporation yard. Except, to paraphrase Harry Potter, Chernobyl is the city that lived. While everyone in the exclusion zone got evacuated, Chernobyl has since repopulated with a few hundred resettlers. Also, on a transitory basis, all the Ukrainian State Emergency Service workers (the agency that administers the exclusion zone among other things) stay there a few days to two weeks, rotating to their posting outside the zone for an equivalent amount of “cool off” time before coming back. It even has operating markets and the church that serves the resettlers in town, those that come in from more distant farms, the workers, and tourists. It is the hub for life in the exclusion zone. Above all, if you’re a visitor to the exclusion zone and stay there, unless you have friends that are resettlers you’ll be sleeping at the Desyatka Hotel. That said, it’s comparatively a ghost town when you realize that with all those folks added together it has less than a tenth of it’s previous population.

But what Chernobyl mainly struck me as, other than a diminished but still active regional center, was a memorial. Dozens of small towns and villages vanished from the map after the accident as the bulldozers knocked all the buildings down and then buried them like latter day kurgans. No, not The Kurgan but I know you probably thought it. But “Why?” you ask. “If the Liquidators could decon the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl, why couldn’t they clean all those towns?” And there is answer to that which comes down to one word: wood. If your construction is primarily wood, we can’t decon it and there’s nothing to be done other than dispose of it as waste. Entire buildings and whole villages, crushed and buried under a layer of dirt and then a stake with a little radiation trefoil on it to warn people “DO NOT DIG! HERE BE RADIATION, NOT TREASURE, ME MATEYS!”

(As an aside, the complicated question of how to communicate STAY AWAY to our descendants for the next 10,000 years regarding nuclear waste is part of the genesis of my beloved Long Now Foundation. Humans, being the people we are, which is remarkably consistent across time and space, tend to see dire warnings of danger and curses as instead invitation to come [Terrence & Phillip voice] Look For Treasure!)

I am to understand that the Japanese authorities have figured out a methodology to decon wood for the Sendai Prefecture to allow reoccupation of the towns. I am VERY interested to learn more about how they do this because this would be a game changer for what can and can’t be saved in an accident/contamination incident. Needless to say, the Soviet Liquidators didn’t have this at their disposal. They did have spray glue, bulldozers, and dirt which are all very economical, which is why there are several memorials to the missing communities in Chernobyl. I am particularly fond of this one which I called the Graveyard of Villages. Our minder thought it was an apt name.

The Graveyard of Villages – Each of those signs stretching off into the distance is a town that is gone.

This, incidentally, is all that’s left of a building when a team of Liquidators are done with it and fast forward with 30 years of plant growth.

Radioactive Barrows – DIG YE NOT HERE!

We got truly lucky with our trip out to Reactor 4 because they were closing the zone the next day to begin moving the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old Sarcophagus at 2 meters per hour. By comparison, the old Kennedy Space Center crawler-transporter for the Space Shuttle rolled from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Lauchpad 39A/B at the comparatively breakneck drag racing speed of 1.5mph (I wish I still had a picture of that speed limit sign on the crawlerway from my last visit to KSC). So, we were the lucky last people who weren’t actually working on the NSC to get to see the two as separate structures. Behold!

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus – on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we’ll ever have.

New Safe Containement – Those flaps on the left are the “mouth” to close over the structure of the Sarcophagus as it rolls over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not going to tell the tale of the loss of life, the danger emergency responders braved knowingly and unknowingly to try to get some kind of control over the situation, the difficulty figuring out how to build the Sarcophagus structure in short order, much less doing it, again. The internet is full of accounts of the Battle of Chernobyl and the mobilization of the resources and technical/scientific acumen of the entire Soviet Union to get ahead of this disaster. The effort involved absolutely deserves to be compared to the Battle of Stalingrad; it was a win at all costs or the nation will perish situation. And, if you ask Gorbachev, he was quite certain that they won AND the nation perished because of it; that the staggering cost of bringing the meltdown and fire to a stable and contained state may have bankrupted the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet command economy doesn’t quite map to a market economy for equivalence in expenditures, suffice it to say that the official estimate of costs was 18 billion rubles. While officially the pre-1988 exchange rate had been .9USD to the ruble, there was no actual exchange rate, as it was illegal for citizens to exchange currency. Technically, the only reason the Soviet bicyclists I met in 7th grade didn’t get in trouble with their KGB minders for giving a coin collecting nerd a 1 kopek coin when they visited my school was that I gave them nothing in exchange. He was quite clear that I shouldn’t, in fact. That said, the amount of time, effort and resources that 18 billion rubles represented in the command economy was staggering. Literally, as the economy couldn’t take that hit, keep trying to keep everything else like they had, and the Soviet Union became unstable in its wake.

At least, that’s Gorbachev’s take on the matter. I’m inclined to believe the last premier on this matter at least.

Of course 18 billion is merely the cost of the materiel and labor to bring the disaster under control. This doesn’t count the cost of losing THE ENTIRE EXCLUSION ZONE’s economic productivity, much less the value of all the things in it. One reason Chernobyl Reactors 1-3 kept running until the year 2000 was that the region needed them to keep remaining industry and modern living in cities running and absolutely could not afford to replace them. When the deal to was made to shut them all down, Ukraine got a nice replacement oil burning power plant which was sufficient for need by then. The reactors had been expensive to build and abandoning them was a heck of a loss, especially considering the Soviets had been following the proper model of reactor construction/rotation here: one old one you’d be decommissioning soon, one half way through operational life, one that just came online, and one you were still building. This is sort of like fallowing fields, but to allow succession of designs to allow engineering improvements to propagate and to keep any reactor from being run well into decrepitude (SEE ALSO: the United States nuclear power stations).

But Chernobyl was special. This region was booming, a showcase for the future so they weren’t just following the reactor succession model. They were planning to expand capacity by making a complete second reactor complex containing Chernobyl 5-8. They never got beyond building the cooling towers for #5 and #6 before the accident happened.

Chernobyl-5 Cooling Tower Sunset (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Chernobyl-6 Cooling Tower – rising incomplete in the distance over the cooling channel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wandering through the acoustically perfect hyperbola of a cooling tower is an echo chamber like I’ve never experienced before. Every footstep came back to me from every direction. As a piece of health and safety advice, they never quite finished the Chernobyl-5 cooling tower, even though it looks much more complete than Chernobyl-6’s, and the rebar exposed to the elements up above is slowly tearing the concrete apart. When a chunk falls to the ground below inside the cooling tower, of which there is plenty of evidence, try to act surprised.

Now, the reactors weren’t the only very expensive thing named Chernobyl in the exclusion zone. The Army, being the Red Army with all attendant powers, couldn’t resist taking advantage of all this plentiful power for a little pet project that they kept secret and didn’t put on the maps. As an early warning system, they’d been working on an Over-The-Horizon radar system known as Duga-3 for skipping a signal off the ionosphere to look thousands of miles away for missile or bomber launches. The receiver part of the array was located near the power plant, taking up a decent percentage of the power station’s output and was designated Chernobyl-2, obviously to maximize confusion in people writing and reading about the topic. This antenna array was about the size of two football fields, tipped up on their side and pointed due north to listen over the pole to North Dakota.

Chernobyl-2 OTH Antenna Array (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

While this is an impressive antenna, I would like you to take a moment to think about the signal processing for a device like this. The amount of computing power and electronics, and what they looked like with a late 1970s/early 1980s design. This secret installation that had its own population of a few thousand needed to operate it. Now think about the power and cooling needs for that kind of hardware.

HINT: Like a old Volkswagen, they decided to go with air cooling. Fans are easy, right? And Ukraine’s pretty cool the rest of the time.

I’ll wait a moment for you to envision where this all goes wrong. [sips beer]

Okay, now light Reactor 4 light on fire, spewing radioactive fallout into the air. You know, the air which you use to cool your computers and electronics…

[sips beer again, waits for the screaming from the IT folks thinking about their server rooms to die down]

By the end of day on April 26th, 1986, the receiver for one of the Soviet Union’s pet projects to watch Strategic Air Command from the comfort of their homes in Ukraine was completely fried. Costing somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 billion rubles to build, keeping in mind that the Battle for Chernobyl cost an estimated 18 billion, the system had been commissioned the day before the accident and would never work again.

So, yes, I’m seeing how one localized disaster can shatter a nation with the compounded costs. I assume that’s why it easier to look away from recognized risks and, very wishfully, assume they’ll never happen. Much easier to just ignore problems rather than do the hard work of mitigating them.

Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 1 – Pripyat

The very short version, to paraphrase Ghostbusters: if someone asks if you’d like to go to Chernobyl, you say YES!

Fair warning, there are going to be units related to radiation dose discussed in this post. For an idea of what they mean and to put them in perspective, I recommend this excellent infographic by Randall Munroe from XKCD.

Last year, a photographer friend was directed my way for helpful radiation safety things to know when visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Intending on just a few protips, I instead gave her many thousands of words of advice, but she didn’t end up going. This year, in mid-September, she dropped me a line again about going but, to paraphrase, “Rather than find and read all that stuff you sent me, and forget most of it, how about you come with me?” I told her that if she had things arranged already and was willing to just add my name to the permits, I’d be happy to go assuming flights weren’t too expensive. My flight from SFO to Kiev, with a few connections, round trip, ran $708. I have had flights that stayed in the US that were more expensive than that. Apparently, the demand to go to Kiev in early November is kinda low for some reason. Perhaps it’s the whole approaching winter thing or simmering conflict in near Donetsk scaring people away. Either way, I was happy and swooped on that deal for my Long Weekend in Chernobyl.

I’m gonna start with a thought that struck me on the long drive back to Kiev from the exclusion zone. About half way back, tired and wanting dinner, I thought “Fuck, we’ve been in the middle of nowhere forever.” Then I stopped and reconsidered, “Where we are right now is the middle of nowhere between Pripyat and Kiev. Pripyat used to be somewhere, the last stop before Belarus, rather than more nowhere.” Of all the villages, towns and cities evacuated when the 30km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was established, the most prominent one to empty and stay empty was Pripyat. Pripyat was a GLORIOUS NEW CITY OF SOVIET FUTURE!!! and you can see it in the propaganda-as-architecture everywhere you look.

Standing in front of the Pripyat city limits sign. That one button is hard to get in the cold, don't hassle me. (Photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Standing in front of the Pripyat city limits sign. That one button is hard to do in the cold, don’t hassle me. (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Pripyat was a planned town, built out of whole cloth in 1970. When you look around there is no organic feel to the growth of the city, other than the trees and weeds that have conquered it in the 30 years since. Perhaps this look of unitary construction to an entire city is more common in the rebuilt environment of postwar-Europe or a Chinese “Instant Metropolis, Just Add Water”, but the only place I can really remember encountering this feeling in America is Disneyland. Disneyland creeps me out badly for reasons that are hard to explain, but this felt right. Maybe it’s a matter of purpose to the construction and Disney’s purpose rubs me deeply the wrong way. Pripyat, on the other hand, was intended to be a showcase of what the peaceful use of atomic energy could do. In fact, on top of one of the buildings, across the entire length, there used to be a giant lit up sign that said something like “Let Atom Be A Worker, Not A Soldier” which sure sounds like something from the Children of Atom in Fallout. And because the authorities felt pretty confident in the safety of the RBMK reactor design, it’s the first of the Soviet atomic cities that wasn’t closed, and didn’t require papers to come and go (Russia still has some closed cities and technically America still has one).

In short, Pripyat was a place for up and comers. The reactor staff of thousands was well educated, perhaps not the cream of the Academy but some of the best scientific and technical minds around. The military associated around here were people working on new and interesting projects, one of which I’ll get to in a future post, and were just generally not the Red Army’s grunts. But what the city was above all else was young. I’m informed that the average age of the population of Pripyat when the accident happened was ~25, which means if you’ve wandered around the usual watering holes of recent college grads and postdocs you probably have a feel for what Pripyat was like. And if you want those young up and comers to be happy, stay, and want to do their best for you, you’re gonna have to give them incentives, luxuries, such that the Soviet Union could provide.

Pripyat River view from the cafe

Pripyat River view from the cafe

The American vision of life in the latter days of the Soviet Union is dark, grim, and filled with lines to buy nothing from empty stores. Perhaps that was life in Moscow, but that’s not the impression I got of the the last days of Pripyat just looking around. In a setting that wouldn’t look out of place on the promenade and marina of any prosperous city, there was a cafe on the Pripyat River where you had the choice of sitting on the patio and watching the boats go by or you could go sit in the beautiful, though mostly destroyed now, stained glass window seating area.

Pripyat Cafe Stained Glass Window

What remains of the Pripyat cafe’s stained glass window

Or perhaps you’d like to go to the cinema? Or the music school/symphony? Don’t worry, Pripyat has you covered there with it’s own independent ones from the central Palace of Culture. And, oh my god, the Palace of Culture was a sight to behold. The more I walked through that place and realized how much had been in that building, how much was going on, the more and more angry I got that America doesn’t have anything that even comes close to what the Pripyat’s Palace of Culture was once like. The closest equivalent is like a grange or community hall, but that’s kinda like comparing the crappy rides in front of a supermarket to Six Flags. The Palace of Culture had multiple large theaters, libraries, a possible wine bar and cafe, shooting ranges, a gymnasium, lecture halls, an electronics workshop, dance studios, etc. And Pripyat wasn’t even a particularly large city.

But, well, we know how this story ends. Glorious City of the Soviet Future is abandoned 48hrs after the fire at Chernobyl-4 begins. Children are allowed to bring one toy with them, most of which are confiscated due to contamination, and are told they’ll be allowed to come back in a couple weeks. Instead, the poor residents of Pripyat got an entirely new town, 50km due east of the power plant. You see, they were mostly power plant workers and we still needed the power from the other three operating reactors, which didn’t actually shut down until 2001, and a place to house all the people working on the emergency response. Today, without a particular reason to exist 15 years after shutting down Chernobyl-1 through 3, Pripyat’s replacement is heading towards becoming a ghost town too.

Phil & the not quite AEC building of Pripyat (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Phil & the not quite NRC building of Pripyat (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

During the Battle of Chernobyl, as Gorbachev termed it to get the Soviet people motivated like it was the Battle of Leningrad, Pripyat was the staging ground for the work to put out the fire and build the eventual Sarcophagus that would contain the destroyed reactor. The old city hall, for lack of a better term, got turned into an ersatz atomic emergency incident command center. Unfortunately, at the time of the accident, the Soviet Union didn’t quite have a civilian agency like America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or even the old Atomic Energy Commission, so they were kind of making it up as they went along with Valery Legasov tagged by Gorbachev to lead the way. In light of that, their success in a failure is not an option situation is to be commended. At an admittedly high human price among the Liquidators, but still a successful emergency response.

Beyond the fight to get control of the reactor, there was a totally separate effort to control the spreading contamination from fallout. As I helped explain with Maki Naro in his “Fallout Guy” comic series earlier this year, fallout rains out in a predictable manner based on wind speed and direction, temperature (the fire unfortunately lofted things high), and particle size. Pripyat was downwind from the accident and took the brunt of it, though the Red Forest (so named because of the color all the pine trees turned when they died) between the reactor and the city got the worst. They made a commitment that they’d clean up all the contamination in Pripyat and save what they could. The first step in contamination control was to stop it blowing around and washing off as much as possible by trying to fix it into place. Think of the fire tanker planes. Now think of them dousing the city and countryside with something like glue instead. All the contamination was all still there, but at least they weren’t going to be surprised by it moving every day and made it easier to map so you could go back and scrape, power wash, or whatever to clean it off later. And honestly, as someone who used to do a lot of decon for a living, they did a great job. The general dose rates around town are only a couple times background. Inside buildings, as long as you stay away from the broken windows where stuff has since blown or dripped in, dose rates are pretty much background. After all, fallout lands on the building, not in the building. Any contamination you find inside is something that has either been tracked, say by looters or early tourists who didn’t do a great job with contamination control (such as the Pripyat hospital), or more likely water infiltration.

Speaking of the hospital, chucklefucks playing in the basement of the without actually knowing how to do contamination control have tracked shit back upstairs and left their contaminated coveralls scattered around the place. The very first safety thing I got to do for Robyn, which was grab her by the back of her jacket and say “Don’t step on that”, then use my meter to demonstrate why, as she was about to  stand on someone’s discarded Tyvek to get a picture. I then pointed out all the other crap that had been left around by urban explorers who didn’t get the memo about leaving things like you found them.

This isn’t to say that I found no elevated dose rates in Pripyat. Goodness me, no. Because I can’t turn off that part of my brain for very long, as we were wandering through the city I started looking around and trying to figure out:

  1. Where would low level contamination that was “clean enough” and left behind have concentrated over 30 years?
  2. Where would the Liquidators have missed something and left a hot spot behind?

Thanks to the nice folks at Thermo Scientific, I’d brought my personal RadEye B-20 to go surveying with. For the first question, at the riverfront cafe, I reasoned that this was a low lying area and that rain run off would have generally run toward the waterfront. So slowly started at where the downspouts once were (identified them by the rusty brackets from where they’d been stolen from) and traced my way along the path down to the quay. Sure enough, at the seam in the concrete where the slope down from the cafe hit the flat of the quay, the dose rates jumped up from 30μSv/hr just walking around the area to 10mSv/hr from everything that had gotten caught in that crack.

"Manhole Covers Aren't Suppose To Do That"

Pripyat Amusement Park – “Manhole Covers Aren’t Suppose To Do That”

Perhaps the most iconic part of the Pripyat that everyone knows from pictures is the rusted Ferris wheel from amusement park. Like a lot of things in the Exclusion Zone, the amusement park has the sad quality of having just been built but never used when the accident happened. It was intended to open for the May Day celebration in a mere six days when Chernobyl-4 went up. While my compatriot was off trying to get excellent shots of the bumper cars, I started wandering around toward the trees on the edges of the amusement park looking for elevated dose rates. My reasoning of basic human laziness was that you clean the easy open ground of asphalt in the park, but probably get a little slack near the edges. Before I even got there, my meter alarmed, making the nearby ravens rather upset. I was standing next to a manhole cover and had a dose rate of .12mSv/hr roughly foot above it.

So, I stepped away from that and walked toward another bit of woods nearer to the Ferris wheel. Meter alarm went off again as I approached a pile of litter I soon figured out was an open manhole. I stuck my hand and meter down there and hit 1.5Sv/hr, which officially exceeded the amount of fun I was willing to have with recreational dose rather than occupational. PROTIP: don’t play in the sewers of Pripyat. I then walked from the open manhole back to the covered one, meter clicking away quite happily all the way, and realized I was tracing the storm drain line with my meter. You see, the Liquidators cleaned a lot of surfaces and the results of their efforts are frankly remarkable, but they also committed the failure of every rad decon and demolition project I’ve ever worked on: not going below grade (i.e. contamination in pipes underground, like sewer lines). That’s expensive and hard work, so they left it. Considering that there was still a reactor that needed buttoning up a few miles away, I can understand choosing your battles.

The Pripyat Amusement Park Ferris Wheel - Never Used, Fixed Radioactive Contamination, CHEAP, MAKE OFFER

The Pripyat Amusement Park Ferris Wheel – Never Used, Only Mild Fixed Radioactive Contamination, CHEAP, MAKE OFFER!

The main thing I took away from Pripyat is that I want to go back. The urban explorer desire screams at me that I barely scratched the surface of all the buildings there. At the very least, I want to get into the “Politburo hotel”. I want to know what the interiors of hotel built with visiting senior Communist party officials in mind looks like. And I want a damn clear shot of the Cyrillic sign for “LET ATOM BE A WORKER, NOT A SOLDIER”, I never found a good line of sight for it. I also want to know who is living in that ghost city because right after leaving the amusement park I met the most friendly cat who was well fed and happy. Feral cats don’t come near you, so that was clearly someone’s pet.

And since you made it this far, I’ll end this with a the traditional picture of the Ferris wheel and remind you that there’s only 9 days left to order in the current BBotE & Stein production window. After that, if you’re hoping to get something in time for Xmas, there’s no guarantees I can get things out to you in time.

NEXT TIME: Let’s talk reactors, sarcophagi, New Safe Confinement, and what the hell is that thing over there?

 

Chernobyl Teaser Pictures

I am freshly returned from Ukraine suffering the worst case of jetlag I have ever had. Needless to say, I am a moderately functional human only by the grace of Black Blood of the Earth. Speaking of which, you’ve still got one more week of production left in this window before American Thanksgiving.  After that, we move into HOLIDAY MADNESS.

That said, my brain isn’t working enough to expound upon all I saw in the last weekend. I’m still thinking about it all and the primary things I keep thinking are “That wasn’t nearly enough time there” and “I wish I spoke Ukrainian”.

In the meantime, here’s a few teaser pictures for a future post.

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus - on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we'll ever have.

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus – on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we’ll ever have.

 

Comrade Lenin & Commodore Funranium - Statue in the town of Chernobyl.

Comrade Lenin & Commodore Funranium – Statue in the town of Chernobyl.

 

Pripyat Music School - perhaps it's the Palace of Musics. Soviet Union sure did have a lot of places called "palaces".

Pripyat Music School – perhaps it’s the Palace of Musics. Soviet Union sure did have a lot of places referred to as “palaces”.

 

Rodina Mat Monument- I'm not sure this photo does justice to how large this statue is.  Below her feet is the four story Great Patriotic War Museum of Ukraine. Big.

Rodina Mat Monument- I’m not sure this photo does justice to how large this statue is. Below her feet is the four story Great Patriotic War Museum of Ukraine. Big.

Phil’s Trip To Nowhere: A Mileage Run Tale

This is a story of desire for recognition in a cold world governed by arcane calculations and the eldritch math of the airlines. One man’s fight to have a more comfortable seat. I am, of course, speaking of the classic folly of doing a mileage run. TL;DR version: I’m not doing that again, or at least not like I did it this time.

At the end of September, when I figured out that I was going to be taking a surprise trip to Chernobyl, I realized “Hey, that’s a lot of miles round trip for San Francisco to Kiev. I wonder if that’s enough to get me any kind of medalliony, statusy type things…” I did the math and then gently placed my head on the desk because, dammit, I was within ~2000mi of Gold.

I have friends and colleagues that travel a lot. A LOT. I appreciate their advice and wisdom on how to build the most efficient travel kit and how to make the most of the trip itself. They’re eternally hunting the finest $/mi deals and are active on FlyerTalk. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “On the plane and in the airport, this is some of the most productive/creative time I ever get.” Above all, they have taught me that some medallion status, any status, as a frequent flyer is the difference between misery and, in our TSA blighted world, less misery.

So, I thought I’d give it a go. I would do a mileage run, AKA a trip taken purely for the purposes of accumulating flight miles toward medallion status. The thing you want is a calculator which will find the optimized $/mi round trip route from a designated location for a certain distance. Since you don’t particularly care where you go, that’s all you need. Funny enough, the airlines don’t really like these tools and do their best to thwart them. They tend to appear and then vanish again within the span of days.

With the help of Google Flights, I was able to build an itinerary from San Francisco to Minneapolis-St.Paul to Chicago to Detroit and back home to SF again in the span of 18hrs. Does this seem very dumb, at the very least incredibly silly, to you? Well, you’re not alone. My Lovely Assistant made it quite clear that she intended to enjoy the entirety of the bed and all the kitties while I was on my Idiot Holiday. It went wrong pretty much right away.

On a positive note, to diffuse that tension right away, every single leg of the flight arrived on time or a little early and I got home safe and sound.

My first error was my departure time, 12:15am from SFO after a full work day and no naps beforehand. That bit about “most productive & creative time” really, really doesn’t work when you promptly shoot your sleep schedule in the foot. Error number two was that I was flying, for the midpoint of my trip, to Chicago and this was going to be Game 3 of the World Series. When I bought my tickets a couple weeks earlier, this wasn’t in my calculations. To be fair, I don’t think about baseball much at all other than traffic avoidance for A’s and Giants games. I couldn’t help but notice a lot of Chicago sportswear at the gate…

After a fitful doze in my seat from SFO to MSP, we arrived and I got the good news that my gate for the Chicago flight was right next to my arrival gate. As this was an actual flight to Chicago, for the day of World Series Game 3, the sports fan gear intensified. I was particularly impressed with the man wearing Bulls shoes, Bears sweatpants, several layers of Cubs shirts and jackets, and a hat that had been sectioned like a pie into Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and White Sox zones. Because it was 5am, the shouts of CUBBEEZ were muted, but still happened.

I think I fell asleep taxiing for takeoff for the 50min trip from MSP to ORD. It wasn’t even remotely enough sleep. I arrived into O’Hare (which autocorrect kept wanting to change to O’Hate) in a blur of blue jackets and hats. Ate some deep dish pizza for breakfast, I know that. Tried to find the Field Museum annex in the airport, but was confused enough that it didn’t work out. I managed to get back to my gate for my flight to Detroit in a timely manner and, again, passed out on the plane.

RENEW!

The Art Tunnel Between the Detroit Int” Concourses – you’ll have to take my word that it was playing some Vangelis-esque music.

DTW is an interesting airport, which I felt well enough rested to wander around and enjoy. It is, above all, new. I can understand the critique that it feels sterile because of it’s open and austere steel & glass design, which puts it in the same boat as the Virgin/Southwest terminal at Las Vegas McCarran. What was weird to me was that I had a very hard time finding the bones of the old airport terminal this one clearly replaced. One of my hobbies is wandering around buildings and rooms to find the vestiges of construction and uses gone by (this is a good demonstration of how it works in this post). I eventually figured out that mezzanine level of Concourse C is part of the footprint of the old terminal, but all the structure is gone. This gives everything a very Delta City feel. It is impossible for nerds of a certain age to go to Detroit and not make Robocop jokes.

The crime DTW is most guilty of is putting Tim Horton’s on their map and then only having a Timmies coffee dispenser station and pre-packaged pastry rack inside the MSNBC store. That is a LIE you have printed on an airport directory which I assume has been disappointing travelers for as long as it’s been up. I’m surprised Canada hasn’t declared war because of this.

On the flight home to SFO, because I’d stuck my brain in the no sleep blender, I was useless for any task more complicated that watching movies and TV shows. I wish to report that, in this state, Star Trek: Beyond was a very enjoyable. Would’ve made a great two-parter TV episode.

In conclusion, this wasn’t the worst idea but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right. Getting to see several different airports in quick succession in a day isn’t something I normally get to do, so it’s gave some weird perspectives. IF I ever do this again, I’m starting this party with a 10am flight, not a midnight one.

And because I can, let’s hear from the nice folks at OCP.

The Decembering 2016 Edition

Normally, I wait until late November to post this but since three people asked last weekend of all things I reckon I should put it up now. You people are making the rest of us look bad by having your shit together for the holidays in October. We, the rest of humanity, aspire to your levels of planning and organization. To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, I’ll just answer question now: yes, you can place an order now in earlier production windows for a holiday shipment. Just leave a note saying “Delay shipment until $DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than nownowNOW (which is what most people want).

It was only -38F that day. It's a dry cold.

My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 17th. All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 17th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather doom that may or may not happen since no one has given me control of the Illuminati Weather Satellite Network, but a week is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination. I will put another pre-order window up after the 17th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving before Xmas. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

At some point in the next couple of weeks I intend to do my own version of my friend Benjamin sTone’s holiday tradition, “The Big Shill”, wherein I will point at things I think you should buy which I don’t make. The Drinktanks Juggernaut, which I previously endorsed here, is the first thing that comes to mind.

To reiterate shopping advice from the previous years, here’s a few things you should probably think about if you decide to place an order for a holiday gift from Funranium Labs:

  1. BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three).  If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide that give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special.
  2. Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. I will also tuck handling instructions in the box for a gift and a note stating who sent it if you ask me to.
  3. The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: I get your orders out as soon as I can, but even in the furthest flung corner of the US with the slowest mail carrier, this means you should have your order in hand by December 18th for that last set of late order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, in effect reserving a spot in a later order queue, you can do so but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
  4. Yes, I will probably add a extra more slots as I get a handle on how much I can make at the last minute but shipping gets dicey in those last days before Christmas.
  5. International Shipments Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time.
  6. APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive. Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE on the basis that it is, and I quote, “Morally Questionable Material” because, obviously, any liquid from the West must be alcoholic in nature. Amazingly, shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast. Go figure. In short, I’ll do my best but you’ve been warned.
  7. Local Pick Up: Resupply shipments will go out to all the BBotE Ambassadors as fast as I can crank them out, so be sure to drop them a line if grabbing a bottle that way is more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
  8. Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes shipment to languish for so long that the BBotE goes off before it arrives, even if shipped express; steins seem to be fine though. Turkey, well, I discussed those problems in #6.
  9. Steins of Science Have Lead Time Too: The steins are built to order and it sometimes takes a while to get parts in.  Generally, things move much faster and ship within a week but you have now been warned of the possibility of delays.  For some insight into which stein is the best fit for you, I rambled on that a while back. Dewars that are on hand for me to build steins with RIGHT NOW can be found here.
  10. BBotE Production Is First Come, First Served: My maximum daily production output is 12L per day. Thus, people who request 12pk cases will lock up production for an entire day.
  11. There’s No Kosher Or Halal Certification: While Robert Anton Wilson did confer the papacy upon me, and all the other people in the Porter College Dining Hall at UCSC in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. While I do have a helpful Dominican priest who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE, that’s still not helpful. Sorry.
  12. REALLY, I’m not kidding and never have been, the 4300mL Stein of Science is Ridiculously Large: Seriously, BIG.  It will should take an entire pre-game, Super Bowl, and wrap up to go through this much beer.  Or one cricket match. You may think you are a super drankin’ badass, but consider that you may want to drink more often than once a year, so think about a smaller size. Far be it from me to dissuade you from giving me money, but I’m just saying, dude, it’s big.

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you. In the very near future, it is also my intention to share a brief travelogue of “The Day Phil Went Nowhere: A Mileage Run Tale” before I fly to Chernobyl next Wednesday but we’ll see how things go. In the meantime, I have a birthday to celebrate for the next several days.

Phil vs. the Russian Language

Here is your advance warning of my next, entirely too brief, trip: from November 9-14th, I will be going to visit Kiev, Pripyat and Chernobyl. This is a somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a very long time so I’m treating this as a slightly belated birthday present to myself as I collect one of the crown jewels of atomic tourism. Oh yes, there will be pictures.

However this is decidedly out of my comfort zone and let me tell you why. Most of my survival skills are related to my ability to speak to people and read postings. I am seriously more comfortable with the idea of wandering around a nuclear accident site than trying to get from the airport to my hostel in Kiev with my complete lack of Ukranian language. Like most Americans, I’m only fluent in one language, English. Because I’m me and I love linguistics and history I have fragmentary knowledge a dozen or so others, mostly at the word root levels, because this is the kind of thing that makes me a Cliff Clavin-grade trivia monster. English, being the Jello fruit medley of languages, gives you the benefit of some familiarity with Greek, Latin, German, and French even if you don’t really know where a given word came from.

Where it gets ugly for me is no longer having the Roman alphabet to work with anymore. I have a physics degree which means I learned the Greek alphabet one ugly equation at a time and how to transliterate from the Greek letters to Roman. When you realize you actually know a lot of Greek word roots and can combine it with the Greek alphabet, you suddenly realize you can kind of read some Greek words. Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t for a minute try to pretend I actually understand Greek but I can sorta figure things out. This brings us to Cyrillic.

St. Cyril slapped something similar to the Greek alphabet, with some important additions, on top of a Slavic language. The phonemes between Greek and Russian didn’t quite match so some extra letters were necessary to cover the missing sounds and give pronounciation aids. The important thing to remember is that despite using a kind of, ish, Greek alphabet that Russian is decidedly Not Greek.

With all that established, let’s go through “Phil’s Extremely Back Assward Way To Read Russian Words in Cyrillic!”

STEP 1: Change all the Cyrillic letters to the Greek alphabet.

STEP 2: Change all the Greek letters to the Roman alphabet.

STEP 3: Now that the word is in Roman letters, see if you recognize any word roots, usually German.

STEP 4: Translate to English if possible as best as you can.

Now that we enjoyed that little excursion into how Phil’s brain works, I want to note how this method to translate Russian is ENTIRELY NOT HELPFUL IN KIEV. Ukrainian is not Russian. It’s in the same linguistic neighborhood but I hope you now understand my hesitation.

Let’s work an example problem! Starting word: шпильхалле

Step 1: Hmm, that looks weird, don’t quite recognize Greek equivalents to all those letters. The first one kinda looks like a sigma that fell over, so let’s go with ΣΠΝΛΧΑΛΛΕ

Step 2: I hope those missing letters don’t matter too much. SPILCHALLE

Step 3: Okay, “halle” I recognize, though the “h” I have identified came from a chi, which is a ch sound. “Spil”? That kinda looks like a word I remember from my game collection, speil.

Step 4: Game place? Did I find a game store, a stadium, or what? Only one way to find out…

(The actual answer is “casino”. This word is from the 1990s German/Russian hybrid times. These are the kinds of misunderstanding that lead to ADVENTURE!)

[EDIT: I’ve been told I got lucky with my transliteration, because I screwed up in a way that still worked. See? ADVENTURE!]

With that, I’m going to go back to the current cross-country train adventure while preparing for this next adventure.