Sometimes I go places and do things. Sometimes I play with radioactive things or radiation producing machines.

Occasionally, I do them at the same time.

Cryogenic Cocktails – An Antarctic Tale

The Geographic South Pole (The Best Picture I've Ever Taken)

The Geographic South Pole, 2003 - The Best Picture I've Ever Taken

In addition to being South Pole Station’s bartender, my actual job (the reason I was sent to the bottom of the Earth) was as the science/cryogenics technician. It was my job to take care of all the liquid helium and liquid nitrogen and make sure all the cryogenic equipment on the telescopes stayed in good repair.

At the second major party of the summer, the disco party, I was the bartending as the construction worker from the Village People because I had flannel shirt and hard hat available to me, which is the only visual cue needed for construction work it seems. My boss’ boss, one of the people who originally interviewed me, was down for a few weeks during the summer and decided to attend the party. He’d already had a couple drinks before showing up and was surprised to see me there. He asked me to make something special. So, I mixed up a vodka with a little bit of dry vermouth and put it on the counter in a clear plastic cup.

As he reached for it, I batted his hand away. “You asked for something special”, I said.

I then reached under the bar for the 10L transport dewar of liquid nitrogen (LN2) and poured a little bit into his cup. He jumped back as the boiling fog came out of the cup’s top and covered the bar as the -170C LN2 hit the room temperature martini. After a couple minutes, and more batting away of his hand as he tried to grab it too early, it had calmed down and there was just thin layer of fog in the cup covering the drink. I picked the rather cold cup up, blew the fog off, and handed it to him.

He looked down into the cup at a strange crusty solid something floating in his drink. With some disgust he asked, “What the hell is that?”

I reached in the drink, pulled it out and threw it on the floor behind me. “That was all the useless water that used to be in your drink, diluting your martini”, I replied.

His eyes went a bit wide at that and he took a sip. He pounded the bar for a few seconds as his martini was now about 150 proof rather than the ~70 normal ones are. He then ran out the door abandoning his drink.

Ten minutes later, he returned with the eight visiting Swedish researchers in tow, almost like the schoolgirls from Madeline. He shoved them all up to the bar and exclaimed, “I want you to make for them what you made for me and don’t skimp on the LN2. Sven…I hired this guy.”

I made some very happy Swedes that night and gave my boss’ boss a hangover he shook his head in memory at for the rest of the summer.

Post-Tsunami Japanese Reactor Problems

While I like to keep my discussions here coffee, beer, and historical science related some things just can’t be ignored especially when people keep poking me for answers. So, I have some thoughts that are quite lacking in insobriety.

First, I am not a nuclear engineer, contrary to how more than a few people have referred to me; I am a health physicist. It is the purpose of my field to keep radiation doses as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA, as the acronym goes) for radiation workers and the public. More often than not, this means protecting the radiation sources from people as humans are rather dangerous when we ignorantly play with fire. So, I cannot definitively speak to the quality of the reactor’s construction or it’s current post-earthquake condition, though I’m pretty sure no one builds reactors with a M9.0 quake in mind (certainly not the outbuildings that held the cooling & filtration systems that have been damaged, never mind the rest of the city infrastructure). The job of a health physicist is now to protect the public from an accident that has gone beyond the confines of the reactor. For that, I can say things:

  1. If you do not live in northern Honshu, you do not have cause for panic. The radiation release from the reactor has been localized to the immediate vicinity. A downwind plume exposure pathway emergency planning zone (~10mi radius) as already been evacuated. A wider 50 mile radius will be drawn for confiscation of foodstuffs to minimize any potential ingestion of radioactive iodine & cesium.
  2. Please be understanding of the fact that thousands are dead from a tsunami and earthquake with associated services badly disrupted. Terrifying as a nuclear reactor having trouble may seem to you via television/internet report, there are much more lethal and immediate problems than the reactor to the people who are still in the middle of this. Just getting there to help is a logistical nightmare. Contamination can be cleaned up, but people can’t be unkilled. Life saving takes precedence over property & environment.
  3. Normal operations of a nuclear reactor involves the operation of air and water monitoring stations in the facility itself and area environmental monitors for many miles around. A tsunami is likely to have broken more than few of those, but many more mobile units were rushed to the scene. This is how we are keeping track of what has been/is being released to the surrounding area from the reactor.
  4. Radioactive materials are being released to the air in the form of radioactive steam and water. Dissolved metals in the water and small particulates are particularly prone to becoming activated and thus radioactive, especially without a functional cooling and filtration loop to clean the water up. The radioactivity is very short lived, in general on the order of minutes to about a week, but rather nasty while it is present.
  5. Reports have indicated the presence of small quantities radioiodine and radiocesium in monitoring. This indicates that some of the nuclear fuel cladding has been damaged due to overheating.
  6. Unless ordered by a medical professional, DO NOT self-administer prophylactic iodine or Prussian blue treatments to protect against radioiodine & radiocesium uptake. These treatments carry some significant metabolic risks at the body saturating doses necessary to offer protection.
  7. Please don’t mob the health professionals. They are badly outnumbered and doing their best. People with burns and crush injuries take precedence over potential radioactive materials uptake every time. Your latency for cancer is 40 years; their latency for a crushed arm may only be minutes. Do not be upset when they press-gang you for assistance at the triage station rather than treat you like victim, because you are still ambulatory and capable.
  8. The symptoms of acute radiation sickness (ARS) begin with vomiting. There’s an awful lot of things that may cause vomiting in a disaster situation like this, not the least of which is stress and psychosomatic response. At this point we will segregate you and watch for further advancement of symptoms. At present, only one person who has presented with symptoms that has had an actual radioactive materials uptake; his dose was less the 1/10th the what is normally associated with associated with ARS.

If you want to help with all of this, please, instead of buying a Stein of Science or Black Blood of the Earth go donate to the Red Cross. You will do far more good than staring at the TV with growing panic. Several colleagues I rather respect are already on their way to Japan to help with the reactor problems and I wish them the best. As endless a supply of caffeine as I can make is going with them.

I also recommend watching for announcements to come through the International Atomic Energy Agency, American Nuclear Society, and World Nuclear News.


Today, we’re going to take a little excursion away from the realm of coffee and cold beer. I’m going to share one of the accidents I’ll be discussing with my students tonight. This is partially a matter of my marshaling my thoughts together for them. Ignoring Chernoybl & Fukushima, this remains the worst accident with radioactive materials in history.

NB: Yes, I am well aware that we killed plenty of people with Fat Man & Little Boy and that we have contaminated vast tracts of land with nuclear weapons testing. But one must remember, those were done intentionally. To a first approximation, we knew what we were doing and had taken appropriate precautions. Or, as one notable former Nevada Test Site employee said, “We never made the same mistake twice. Can’t think of many other institutions that can claim that.”

This story all began when a private cancer clinic with a nuclear medicine center shut down in Goiania, Brazil.  By 1987, much of the clinic was demolished but as derelict buildings in increasingly bad parts of town tend to go, it got a bad case of squatters.  Squatters are poor folk looking for any way to scrape by; one of those more popular ways is scavenging.  And what do most people scavenge: Metal.  Just ask your local homeless person with bags full of cans if you doubt me.  Why everything wasn’t gone when they shut down is a good question, but easy to answer: it wasn’t worth the effort.  What could easily be removed and/or be sold had been, what couldn’t they left, like the radiotherapy unit. Add in a side order of legal dispute about who was responsible for the unit and minimal regulatory oversight authority, and there you go.

Two hearty scavenging lads found this thing with lots of steel and aluminum in the clinic and thought they’d hit the jackpot.  The thought was doubly confirmed as they started tearing it apart and found this heavy metal bar with a goldish black window.  It felt much heavier that steel, and judging by the window, wow, that must mean gold.  So, they broke the window.  Within was a bluish glowing powder.  It wasn’t gold but they figured they could still get a couple bucks at the junkyard and that they did.

The owner of the junkyard thought it was beautiful and strange.  He thought it would make a great ring for his wife, Maria, so he set his workmen to task cracking the bar open and getting the pretty blue stuff out.  It was no easy task.  The found that inside the steel sheath was lead shielding containing an ampule filled with this metallic powder.

One yard worker died, the other lost an arm.  Despite taking what would otherwise be considered a very lethal dose, the owner lived.

After the workers got it free, they brought it back to their boss who then took it home.  His six year old daughter thought it was pretty and asked to play with it.  Being a doting father, how could he deny her?

Of all the people exposed in this incident, the daughter took the highest dose as she tended to eat her sandwiches on the same floor where she’d been playing with the source.  When she finally died a month later, she had to be buried in a lead lined concrete coffin.

Being social people, friends and family came over for a good extended family dinner.  The owner showed the blue powder to his brother who thought it was a miracle.  He asked for some, which his brother gave to him.  The brother went home and painted himself with the powder in the shape of cross, much like at Carnival, and then went out to work with the animals.

Everyone at the dinner party trailed contamination home with them and then to their families.  This is how the count of exposed people needing treatment rose to the hundreds.  Needless to say, the brother lost his arm…and all the contaminated livestock were slaughtered.  Luckily, none had gone to market before discovery of the incident.

When people started getting sick all at the same time, at first Maria started to think that she’d served some bad meat or juice.  She asked a local doctor if that made sense.  He said maybe.  Then she realized people who hadn’t been at the party were getting sick.  It occurred to her that it might be the blue stuff.  After the doctor sent her back home, she got progressively sicker.  Her mother moved in to care for her.

Both Maria and her mother died.

By the time Maria had brought the remains of the radiotherapy source to doctor, contaminating the bus she rode on in the process, 90% of the powdered metal had already been lost, spreading contamination through out the community.  According to Brookhaven National Laboratory, who originally made the Cs-137 cesium chloride source in 1971, it had an activity of approximately 1400 curies. Just for reference, the americium-241 source in your smoke detector contains less than 1 microcurie.  This radiotherapy source was, professionally speaking, motherfucking screaming hot.

This is not to say that comparing Cs-137 to Am-241 is apples to apples when discussing activity. At that point it becomes a matter of chemical characteristics and biological/environmental fate to determine exactly how dangerous a given isotope is for a given activity. However, I’ll have you know that this is a brown trousers time so hard your pants shoot across the room quantity of activity of Cs-137 from the safety point of view when there’s a loss of control. From a medical point of view, it was weak enough they probably couldn’t sell it off as a proper radiotherapy source anymore so they abandoned it.

Authorities learned of the loose source about a month after the scavengers first bust it open.  It took several more days for them to follow the trail back to community in Goiania and start getting people medical treatment; a couple more weeks to discover the full horrible extent of the contamination.  Only four people died, 54 people had exposures serious enough to merit hospitalization out of the 249 people found to be contaminated. This is of the 112,000 people that mobbed the public health officials & hospitals fearing they were going to have a horrible Hiroshima worthy death. It was wisely decided to move triage evaluation to the Olympic Stadium so that they could accommodate everyone, but it was still a nightmare processing everyone that was afraid. Several buildings were demolished and the top several feet of soil were removed as a part of the clean up, with an estimated 3500cu.yd. of contaminated material getting buried in a hole somewhere in Brazil.

As yet another a deeply tarnished silver lining, a lot of good health physics lessons were learned at Chernobyl (once international aid was invited to help with containment and cleanup) which, depending on your point of view, were fortunately/unfortunately put to excellent use at here.

I took a different lesson home when I first learned about this accident in detail several years ago: You Cannot Take ANY Knowledge For Granted. The radioactive source from the radiotherapy machine was prominently marked with the radiation trefoil but in this instance (and many, many others) it didn’t register with the victims in question that this denoted a hazard. This caused the IAEA to create a new ionizing radiation hazard symbol, a mishmash of somewhat familiar international symbols in hopes of scaring people off (skull & crossbones for “poison” and running guy with an arrow for “leave”) that has been called cluttered and confusing. My willfully obtuse reading of the new symbol to my old department chair was “Propeller wind causes pirates, go starboard”.

I think the root cause can be laid at a general lack of awareness/education about ionizing radiation. In First World countries, education has been lax though awareness is quite high, not necessarily in a good way as it is rather paranoid and poorly informed. Hell, I have a hard time getting nuclear engineering students to handle their rather benign sealed check sources. When items made in the First World end up lost downstream in the Third, a heavy price gets paid by the most vulnerable and least knowledgeable when control is weak or non-existent. There are dozens of reports of lost radiography sources at mines in the hinterlands all over the world being picked up because they were shiny and looked like silver (and thus valuable), taken home, and injuring the discoverer and/or their families. There are also far too many incidents of scrap yards like this one in Goiania receiving radioactive materials as metal salvage, reselling them and then tossing them into a smelter for recycling.

If I have any good news to share, it’s that the rate of incidents like this has decreased dramatically despite the increased use of materials worldwide. We’re getting better at playing with this particularly special kind of fire.

The Resurrected “Origins of Funranium”

People ask pretty regularly, “What the hell does Funranium mean, anyway?” Well, here’s your explanation. I don’t promise that it makes good sense however. Need to go find that “Guarantee of Insobriety” statement I wrote again…

Once upon a time, I was driving along Interstate 580 with a friend from college and was talking to her about the recent fun prospecting and camping I’d had with my family at the Lost Dutchman Mining Association claim in Duisenberg (nearest town is Randsburg, CA).  Duisenberg was a gold camp in the middle of the Mojave Desert mining the caliche deposits.  Imagine, if you will, a thin limestone crust of false bedrock at varying depths throughout the Mojave with gold lying on top of it due to erosion of the nearby monazite quartz deposit.

Monazite is a mineral that rang a bell with me as both a frustrated geologist and a radiation safety professional.  I recognized it for two reasons: 1) It’s why the pretty purple quartz that makes the beaches of Kerala, India so beautiful, and 2) It is purple because it a thorium/uranium rich earth that gives Kerala a natural background dose rate roughly two orders of magnitudes higher than average sea level USA.  You see, gold, silver, platinum, thorium, and uranium are alike in that the preferentially taken up by water and deposited as veins in rock.  In the igneous petrology game, they are known as chemical incompatibles when it comes to the magma; if there is an available solvent to take them, the metals will go there rather than form minerals.  It should come as no surprise that during the Uranium Rush of the late 1940s and early 1950s that the Mojave was home to several uranium strikes.

While laying all this out to my friend, I had a revelation:

1) Camping is fun.
2) Properly prepared, the desert is fun.
3) People like booze.
4) People like gold.
5) Small scale prospecting for thorium and uranium should be substantially similar to that used for gold (i.e. panning and dry rocker)
6) Unlike gold, a handheld meter can easily determine if you’ve found something radioactive.

In mathematical form: desert camping + prospecting for thorium/uranium + booze = AWESOME

On reflection, I realized that the combination of hooch with rough camp prospecting is about as traditional a post-1849 California activity as you can get.  All that’s missing from this equation is camp followers and guns.  However, this is how I envision my brand of fun:

The group will set out for the camp in one or two vans (depending on group size) to accommodate people and supplies.  On arrival at camp, tents will be set up and instructions on dry panning will be given with the intention to wash down concentrates accumulated in the field on a water recycling rocker at camp.   The intrepid souls will be issued map, GPS, panning equipment, radio, a bottle of their favorite booze (my personal preference being the creations of St. George Spirits), and 4L of water.  They will then set out looking to make their strike now that they know how to find that sweet spot on the caliche layer.  They could, alternatively, have a nice hike and/or stagger around the claim with a bottle of whiskey in hand.  At night delicious meats will be grilled while what concentrates have been accumulated by the prospectors are further concentrated by the rocker.  Then, before bed, I will take my meter to the concentrate, assay the materials for activity and give everyone their very own vial of the day’s thorium/uranium to cuddle with through the cold desert night.

Folks, that is Funranium.

If you are interested in having me arrange a Funranium Expedition*, it is possible that I could be convinced to take the time off work. (UPDATE: AHAHAHAHA, no, as if I have that much free time ever) Obviously, I’ll have to make all intrepid souls sign a waiver or some such; anything as patently foolish as wandering in the desert with booze in hand is something insurance companies and lawyers want no part of.  It’s quite obvious the rise and dominance of the insurance industry is a recent manifestation, because the Gold Rush and Westward Expansion wouldn’t have worked if liability coverage and deductible had been a part of it.

* You will have to provide your own camp followers and guns if you want a more authentic prospecting experience.

Antarctic Lifestyle Challenge

The questions the first graders at Redwood Elementary School asked me had two major themes:

  1. Tell us about how you can die horribly and not be rescued. Add situational complications to make it harder for me to rescue the poor Antarctican
  2. Do you have/can you take *INSERT ITEM HERE* to Antarctica?

For the latter, I presented them with a challenge. It’s the same challenge every member of the United States Antarctic Program is presented with before they deploy: how can I reduce my life to 150lbs? Not 100 items, not 8cu.ft., but 150lbs. Yes, they do weigh you before you get on the the flight for Antarctica.

I suspect tonight there are 20 first graders that are going to be piling their possessions onto the bathroom scale much to their parents’ confusion. Go ahead and give it a try. Might encourage you to buy a Macbook Air if you really need a computer.

You get 150lbs of Important Things. It would be nice if it all fit in two suitcases and a carry on, but I’m not feeling too picky about that. Alright…GO!

Drinking To Columbia – An Antarctic Tale

EDIT: Today is February 1st, 2013, which makes it the 10th anniversary of this event. Raise a glass, won’t you, to the High Frontier.

This tale is prompted by hearing a familiar voice on the radio speaking to some elementary school students. One I hadn’t heard in eight years since a rather grim alcohol soaked day at McMurdo Station, Ms. Cady Coleman, Astronaut. She is currently serving aboard the International Space Station.

As previously discussed, I spent a year in Antarctica at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. We winterovers were entitled to some R&R during the summer before the full “The Shining”-grade lockdown for 9 months set in at Pole. But did they send us to Tahiti to enjoy warmth, greenery, and mai tais? Noooooo…they used to send folks to New Zealand but there was a bad spate of people skipping on their contracts now that they’d already endured three months of The Ice. By the time my year hit, people at Pole got sent for a week in beautiful, comparatively tropical, McMurdo Base. I got stuck there an additional two weeks waiting for a supply ship to offload.

Too much happened in this total of three weeks and much of it was spent drunk or short of sleep for me to hope to get all in one go.  For the time being, let us discuss Room 129 in Building 155. Eleven of us went on R&R at the same time in mid-January 2003. Six of us were in Room 105, where I was put, and the rest were in 129. Sadly, the occupants of my room were focused on sleeping and reading. The other room had a strict schedule that went something like this:

1100 – Wake up.
1101 – Pour yesterday’s burnt coffee into trash can, or other room occupant’s boots as the muse demands.
1102 – Turn on coffee pot. (coffee pots in rooms are against the McMurdo rules)
1107 – Pour coffee. Add Irish Creme and whiskey to greet the McMurdo morning properly. Repeat as necessary.
1130 – Stack previous night’s beer cans and liquor bottles onto the growing pyramid.
1200 – Lunch. Offend sensitive McMurdans.
1300 – Day Bar at Southern Exposure*.
1730 – Dinner. Offend sensitive McMurdans.
1830 – Night Bar at Southern Exposure*.
0030 – Midrats (“midnight rations”, McMurdo had a specific list of people allowed to eat at this time which we ignored). Assemble bar on the dining room table. Offend sensitive McMurdans
0130 – Room party or lounge shenannigans.
0400 to 0700 – Go to sleep, maybe.

You can take you guess as to which group I spent the most time with.

*: For reference, Southern Exposure is also known as The Smoking Bar. Once upon a time it had been the Chief’s Bar during the Navy days. There were two other outlets for booze, The Coffeehouse (formerly the Officer’s Club, a very old quansit hut), and Gallagher’s, AKA The Non-Smoking Bar (formerly the Erebus Club, the enlisted men’s club, renamed after the death of CPO Gallagher (ret.) who died on Ice in 1997).

I seem to be digressing. Let’s take the story to February 1st, 2003 standing in the main entryway to McMurdo’s primary building, Bldg 155, with NASA astronauts Eileen Collins and Cady Coleman. I’d gotten to help them move their remote campsite a few weeks earlier as they were doing meteorite collection on the ice sheet by the Pecora Hills. I have no problem whatsoever being menial labor on the endless frozen expanse when I get to hangout with astronauts. Hell, I moved their bucket toilet with glee and sat there for three hours in the cold waiting for a plane to take me back to safety.

Both Cady & Eileen had been on previous space shuttle flights. Eileen, in fact, had been the first female pilot the shuttle had ever had. There was some concern of damage to the shuttle for reentry. Thus, they were watching the Armed Forces Television monitors with rapt interest and sharing small tales of the awesome of going to space. Being the science nerd and child of Cape Canaveral I am, I was hanging on every word.

Then Columbia exploded.

There was a a sharp intake of breath from the dozen or so assembled. One of the construction folks screamed “NO!” at the top of her lungs.

I turned to Cady and said, “I have a bar worth of booze in my room if you’d like a drink RIGHT NOW.” She and Eileen slowly nodded, looking rather shellshocked. They’d just watched their co-workers die. No, more than that, these are the people you have been studying with, sweating in the gym with, and trapped in various spam cans with for years. Being an astronaut is somewhere between army platoon and tightly knit doctoral program group. These were more than co-workers or friends; they were fellow explorers on the frontier.

I would like to state for the record that it is rather hard to drink me under the table. I have survived evenings with naval personnel from several countries, a misadventure with a watch worth of Coasties, hard rock miners, gutter punks and emerged staggering tall (albeit holding The Plunger of Honor one time…long story, don’t ask). However, these two women had me holding on to the pool table for support as they kept clearing it with deadeye accuracy and taking more and more shots of gin. Commander Collins is 5’1″ and almost didn’t get to be an astronaut due to a space program worth of suits designed with the six footer John Glenn in mind. I doubt she said “Fuck you very much, NASA” but she did make sure that a suit was available to fit her by becoming part of the suit design project.

At the end of it all, Cady asked if I’d like to see the video she took on the shuttle. Her personal camera. That may have been the high point of my Antarctic experience.

To Cady, Eileen, and all the astro/cosmo/taikonauts, I wish you the very best as you keep humanity’s future in the stars going forward. To the names on the memorial at Kennedy Space Center, and all the others that have lost their lives as we try to escape the gravity well, I raise a glass.

Las Vegas (Part 2): The Atomic Testing Museum, NERVA, and SL-1

Part 1 of the Las Vegas Adventures can be found here.

If you are in Las Vegas, go to the Atomic Testing Museum. As much fun as gambling and debauchery are, make the time to head out to UNLV and visit. Getting a chance to visit the Trinity Test Site or one of the rare tours of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) is once in a lifetime event for most non-weapons complex employees, but this museum is there every day. Give yourself at least three hours if you really want to take the time to read everything they’ve put on display. And if any of the NTS retirees who are now docents are there, sit down and listen. It is as simple as that. Make the time as if you were listening to a WWII vet talking about landing in Normandy or Okinawa.

My apology for this post is that photography is prohibited in the Atomic Testing Museum, so no pictures. However, the Department of Energy Nevada Site Office has released some amazing photo collections from the testing days, along with current operations, and I definitely recommend wandering through them. Hell, we used to have a movie studio/military base in LA devoted to making films and photos from testing. Suffice it to say the picture I am missing for you is a replica of the Whackenhut guard shack that greets you at NTS, where the security guard checks your badge before letting you on site, is the ticket kiosk for the museum. Honestly, entering the Test Site feels a little anticlimactic, like you just passed the mall cop. It feels like not nearly enough security, until you remember that Nellis AFB is less than a minute away on afterburner. Inside the museum, if you pay close attention and look up you will see the US Atomic Energy Commission sign from the former Nevada Site Office hiding over an exhibit.

Reading/listening to the interviews  sends a very clear message that the Nevada desert is where the American front of Cold War was waged, one nuclear blast at a time, in the opinion of the former Test Site workers. To people that haven’t worked in the nuclear weapons complex, this may sound strident and reactionary. I know it felt a bit wrong hearing it and that was me. I was only at Lawrence Livermore National Lab for three years and change, but I spent a lot of time talking with and listening to the older workers and retirees (decontamination of facilities is sometimes like doing an oral history project with people who worked there, starting with “I just need to know what you did so I know what danger I might be in”). The Q cleared workers of the Department of Energy carry a very heavy burden that they can never put down, even the former janitors, because the obligation of the Q clearance doesn’t terminate with employment. In fact, for the rest of their lives they are informed individuals capable of thinking new classified thoughts because nuclear secrets are considered “born secret”. All other classified information is presumed public until reviewed and otherwise classified; nuclear secrets are presumed classified until reviewed and made public. They have been entrusted with the nuclear secrets of the nation and you’d be surprised how informative very peripheral information, like frequency of trash collection, can be. For this reason, they aren’t free to speak…EVER.

They’re used to a sizable population that hates the work they do, but they aren’t allowed to defend their work. On the flip side, they are used to their lives and research being guided by the budgeting whims of elected officials and appointees that, typically, have very little scientific literacy and operate on election timetables. It is funny how the Cold Warriors I used to enjoy talking to felt that while Soviet designers had been their competition, Capitol Hill was the actual enemy of Science. While Reagan called the national labs “The Arsenal of Freedom”, they never felt particularly held in esteem. The budgets and executive actions deeply at odds with the rhetoric in George W. Bush’s administration was a matter of doublethink that alienated the career workers of the complex further. In the middle of budget cuts & layoffs, I remember finding walls of letter with thank yous from the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their commanders, for the development of tools they felt were saving lives and rebuilding countries. With all that in mind, this helps inform the proud siege mentality I find many weapons complex workers to have.

It is also important to remember that weapons work is not the only thing they do. In fact, a majority of the Q cleared workers have nothing to do with weapons whatsoever. Just as it was in my time in Antarctica, for every researcher there are at least eight other people there who make their work possible because you certainly don’t want people like me doing carpentry. Only the most arrogant PhD or callous bureaucrat would fail to acknowledge all the other people working to make the national labs a success. Research grinds to a halt when the toilets don’t work, you know?

Not all of the ideas explored at NTS were particularly good ones. This brings me to the NERVA Program, AKA the nuclear rocket, of which one of the thrusters of which is on display at the museum. It is tagged as activated material as it had been made radioactive by the reactor operation, but it’s had nearly 50 years to  cool down and is kept behind a thick Lexan shield. You are safe to look at it, just don’t try to go lick it. If you want to know why you don’t have moonbases and missions to Mars already, it is because the NERVA program was canceled.

Important note, when America tests rockets we aim them upside down and test the force exerted on a pressure plate below the rocket to see what it yields. We learned, or rather we inherited Nazi rocket scientists that had learned, from the German rocket tests where they aimed them up and tried to tie or bolt them down (sometimes that didn’t work and the misfires were disastrous/amusing). The NERVA test that failed when they let it run dry of hydrogen liquified the nuclear fuel of the reactor, which then turned the upward pointing thruster into a molten uranium fountain. Oops. After letting the short half-life material cool down for a couple weeks, NTS radiation safety workers (my people) got to go in and do clean up, picking up uranium BBs one by one, for months. This is how I got to talking to the docent Layton O’Neill.

Layton is an 82yo former health physicist from NTS, Hanford, and Idaho National Lab. When I said that it must have been a serious pain in the ass doing that NERVA clean up, he said yes, but that it was nothing compared to SL-1 which he’d been a first responder to. My jaw dropped. This is the first time I’d ever met anyone that had been at SL-1.

So, “What is SL-1?” you ask. SL-1, or Stationary Low Power Reactor One, was an Army power project. The idea behind it was that military HQs were increasingly power hungry and that it would be ideal to have a quick field assembly reactor that you could bring in by plane, boat, or rail. You could never depend that you’d have cooling water in any given place (because who knows where a future HQ might be) so it was meant to use river bed gravel as moderator if necessary, but water was preferred. That’s what the reactor was, SL-1 the accident is a different matter.

Honestly, SL-1 is America’s only fatal nuclear accident but it’s one few people know about. To call Three Mile Island (TMI) an accident is a misnomer; something went wrong, but the safety systems operated precisely as intended. It would be more accurate to call TMI an operational success during a systems failure. SL-1 though, we killed the three servicemen operating it and badly contaminated the facility although it was fairly well contained inside the building. Most of the bodies of the three operators were buried in lead lined concrete caskets in Arlington, though some pieces were so radioactive they were buried at the NTS instead. I am extremely happy to say that the 40min long SL-1 abbreviated after action video is available online here. There is a 3hr version that was available in the LLNL training library, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

Your teaser to go read the Wikipedia article and watch the video: Layton is the man who identified that it was a control rod from the reactor, flying out like a spear under steam pressure, that had nailed the corpse of the specialist to the ceiling of the reactor dome.

I kept my fanboy excitement talking to Layton to a minimum. I shook his hand and let him know that it was an honor to get a first hand account, rather than read the reports and do the calculations from textbooks. I learned a few things that weren’t in the reports that will be helpful should the worst ever happen and I get called to respond.

Las Vegas (Part 1): CES 2011 & Good People

You’re gonna have to bear with me, as this is gonna be a long one.

A great confluence of events brought me to Las Vegas with very short notice. First, was a trip to Disneyland over New Year’s which had me in need of retoxicification. Disney tried to leach all of my vital anger, alcohol, sarcasm, and bloodymindedness and replace it with joy, cheer, togetherness, and love for my fellow man. It left my back and shoulders a rock hard knot of stress as I defended myself against the hordes of people and pleasantness. What I needed was a return to good bedrock values of venality to relax. I needed excess and indulgence. Steeping in sin as if it were a hot tub. I needed Vegas.

Second, CES 2011. A chance to see the coming year’s toys in all their splendor. A new friend I hadn’t actually gotten a chance to meet yet, Ed Zitron, was going to be working the show, something he was notified of with short notice. I had been trying to instruct him on the finer points of my favorite game in the casino, craps, and had rapidly run into the the brick wall of “This is much easier to do in person”. I suddenly had a chance, plus convenient craps tables to teach on.  Also, there was a several year old outstanding promise to my Lovely Assistant regarding a Cirque d’Soleil show that had come due.

While mulling all this over, Steinwielder Vegas Prime placed an order for a 1000ml FMJ. That clinched it. I asked if he would be willing to accept hand delivery because, with that, I was going to Las Vegas.

WORDS OF WISDOM: Beware driving under the influence of BBotE with Megadeth blasting on straight desert highways. You will be tempted to drive very fast. Your car doesn’t go faster than the California Highway Patrol and they’ll make you stop in the middle of Bat Country.

We arrived somewhat late in the evening, courtesy of the CHP delay in Barstow, at The California Hotel near Fremont St. I would like to take this moment to marvel not only at the Boyd Gaming market strategy (i.e. the regional targeting of the Hawaiian gambler with daily flights to Kona & Honolulu), but at how happy everyone was there. I’m not just talking about the front desk and dealers, who have strict pleasantness policies imposed on them, but housekeepers and ancillary staff like the shopkeepers in their arcade. People actively seek positions here, and fight to keep them, for the work environment because it is fun and pleasant. The fact that the sister casino across the street by skyway, Main Street Station, has a brew pub and 20x odds craps certainly helps raise it in my esteem.

A few things about CES 2011, for which I must give glorious thanks to the Steinwielder Vegas Prime for providing passes to the Lovely Assistant and I. It was big, very big. I’m to understand it has been larger but I don’t see how that would have been survivable as an attendee. I could go a long time without every seeing another iPhone or iPad case again and after your 10th or so 70″+ flatscreen TV they start to blend together until you stumble upon a 92″ one. Cars at an electronics show were a bit of a surprise, including the electric conversion for the Smart ForTwo for the American market (still a far cry from the European offering). I also got to give Logitech a piece of my mind about their lack of actual ergonomic offerings, so that was a plus.

But there were two things I would have put my ill-gotten gains toward if I could. The first is Sphero, the bluetooth smartphone/computer controlled rolling robotic sphere. If I could have bought one on the spot I would have as it is the best cat toy I have seen since the laser pointer. People, it is a ball your cat can play with…which you can suddenly cause to chase your cat. Comedy gold may not get much better than that.

The second were the Polli-Bricks by Miniwiz. Re-melted and blown office cooler water bottles turned into structural material, power generation and lighting. It is playing with Legos on a monumental scale but the hexagonal groove structure reminds me of a structural pattern I saw in the occassional Roman herringbone brick-courses. In that pattern, there are no clear “lines of sight” from one side of the wall to the other in mortar gaps, adding strength and thus explaining why that wall is still standing 2200 years later despite earthquakes and time.  They have other toys too, but the bricks are what impressed me to the point that I think the boothie was concerned I was going to do something unclean to his display.

Also, I bestowed upon Mr. Zitron a couple bottles of BBotE along with a bag of sample vials, more than he could safely consume himself, and set him loose upon CES. If you were very, very nice to him he might have shared with you. He was still wide awake when I dropped him back at Harrah’s so I have no idea how much he consumed vs. shared. All I know is that it didn’t go home with him on the plane as the silly bugger didn’t bring any checked luggage.

A review of Cirque d’Soleil’s “Zumanity”: Very flexible naked people with good music. Pleasantly bawdy humor, but we’ve got a way to go still to hit the humor of antiquity. That’s traditional values I can get behind.

Next: The Atomic History Museum and the sad tale of SL-1.

The Black Lodge, Antarctica

While I muster together all the Las Vegas, CES, and nuclear accident thoughts, something else popped to the front of the line that demands sharing.  I recently picked up the Twin Peaks gold box, which is what dredges the story up from the depths of memory.  It is worth noting that I was the Science/Cryogenics Technician from Amundsen-South Pole station for 2002-2003.  Yes, I was there for an entire year.  I was also their bartender.

Once upon a time, in the austral summer of 2002, Mark the Science Electrician, Patty the Cargo Mistress, and I tried to organize a David Lynch-A-Thon over the course of several weekends during the summer.  This didn’t work out well since the only day off during the summer is Sunday and people generally decided to devote that to drinking (or the recovery therefrom).  Understandably, it ended up being just the three of us in the Summer Camp Smoking Lounge.

Oh, the poor smokers of Pole.  They only had two indoor places to hide and both of them are gone now.  The new elevated station is decidedly non-smoking.  There had been plans for a smoking lounge but they were changed.  If you want a smoke now, it’s out into the frozen wastes for you.

I really can’t do justice to the windowless, thick point sharpie marker graffiti’d, place where furniture came to die that this was.  Every time you sat down, you were enveloped in a fog of ash and cigaratte funk.  The only thing you could ever find left in the bar was a bottle of Jack Daniels but there were never any shot glasses.  The profane scribbles on the wall spoke to a heritage of five decades of drunken, surly construction workers and Navy enlisted men.  Once upon a time, it had been the Last Chance Saloon, its facade somehow constructed from crates.  Truly, it was heaven second only to Club 90 South.  I long to be seated behind the bar there with my feet propped up on the beer cooler still….

A little after 3am, after the the last of my victims passed out or staggered home, I packed away my portable bar and the three of us went over to the smoking lounge to watch the pilot of Twin Peaks which had just arrived in the mail for Mark.  He had shipped his complete VHS set to himself two months before leaving for Pole, making a total transit time of four months before it came off the plane in Antarctica.  After finishing the pilot, I dug into my portable bar and brought out the bottle of Hapsburg absinthe that had been smuggled to me from New Zealand by the pilots.  I figured that the green fairy was the only way to cope with Senor Lynch after nearly a decade without watching the show.  Mark and Patty agreed.

After a glass each, we figured what the hell, we can watch the next two and it’ll be time for breakfast.

After four episodes and a few more glasses, we decided, drunkenly & erroneously, that alcohol metabolized to sugar just like all other food which meant, basically, that we were having breakfast already.  (I do not claim that this was good reasoning)

Eventually, we had watched it all, including the movie ‘Fire Walk With Me’, had drank an entire bottle of absinthe between the three of us plus many beers, and hadn’t eaten in 24 hours nor slept in 48.  We were, understandably, a little bit loopy when we finally emerged into the never-ending daylight glare of Antarctic summer.  When I turned around to look back at the entrance of the smoking lounge, door still open, it seemed an inviting gateway to infinite darkness.

That was when we decided to rename it The Black Lodge.  Shame they tore it town 6 years ago.  Probably still in trash boxes waiting to be shipped out.

A Field Trip To NASA Ames/Moffett Field

Let me start with this, zeppelin hangars are very large.

Hangars 2 and 3

Hangar One, East from the RunwayThey may look big from the freeway but you need to enter the cavernous space to get the full enormity; only the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center has been comparable. They were also built around the same time as the last proper zeppelins, which is to say prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act and OSHA.  Plummeting to one’s death from the arch while working on an airship was definitely considered bad form, but hardly a thing one would call a stop work order for.  It was a different time.  Americans are now a soft people and I, as a personal representative of Americaness, am hardly fit enough to climb the concerning ladder/staircases of Moffett Field’s Hangar 2.

This trip all began back in May when John, a machinist at Ames, asked if I’d be interested in a tour of the hangars if he could wrangle one.  I said hell yes and asked if my friend Erik could join us.  I got told to hold my horses and to wait and see if he could make the excursion even happen first.  Sadly, Erik died the week after John made the tentative offer and it took four months to wrangle a trip outsiders could go on.  This most definitely was a trip Erik would have enjoyed.  It was dirty, it was normally inaccessible, and it was full of Science and History.

First off, Hangar 2:

Hangar 2 Interior, Facing North

Hangar 2 interior, Facing North

The smallest of the three hangars and occasional former home of the ZR-3 Los Angeles. It is where Airship Ventures, AKA the ad blimps you see cruising the Bay Area, are based. Additionally, this is where the experimental helium turbine that went up over Haiti for emergency generation and comms after the earthquake lives. And that all is in just the rearmost tenth of the hangar in this shot (PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: NASA would be quite happy to lease space for joint ventures). The rest is mostly littered with the detritus of 30 years of projects that seem to come to a resting place here. For example, this was a mirror mount for a telescope, not a Stargate prototype:

Not The Stargate

With no small amount of effort, I scaled the hairy with dry rot wooden structure of the hangar with John and our representative from flight ops. My Lovely Assistant declared the ground to be quite good for her and no way was she going up. I did not die, though a heart attack seemed possible, even likely, from time to time while making the long ascent. It was more comfortable than the gangsta lean ascent I experience scaling the staircase of the dome on St. Peter’s in Rome however. Sadly, by the time I got to the top I was too tired and it was too dark up there to take any pictures competently and the blurry shot below was the best I managed. My legs were wobbling for the rest of the day after getting back down.

Half-way up, looking southHangar 3 is a fair bit wider than Hangar 2, possibly intended as a home for ZRS-4 Akron if it ever showed up at the same time as ZRS-5 Macon. Currently, it’s floor is split about 50/50 between Space Systems Loral satellite projects and NASA/Navy airframe restoration, mainly for museum pieces. I’d had enough climbing, so we contented ourselves with exploring the antiquities. These two, a piece of the Los Angeles‘ airframe and the gas envelope sleeve removal man’s extension ladder were of particular interest:

Piece of Zeppelin Airframe

Piece of Zeppelin Airframe

Zeppelin Servicing Extension Ladder

Hangar 1 was built to house the Macon but barely saw use before the airship crashed off of Big Sur in 1935. Sadly, this building will be gone soon as it gets reduced to a whalebone skeleton for decontamination and hazardous materials disposal. The skin of the building is lead painted asbestos tiles that are cemented together with PCBs. If only we could find a way to make it radioactive too so that it would be a maximally difficult to dispose of as toxic waste. It’s sad because the building is quite beautiful with corrugated glass windows (!), but environmental concerns trump historical site registry for this one. The Navy claims they will treat the skeleton to preserve it so that a new skin could be built if anyone were interested, but good luck to that I say. A new skin needs to be installed as the old is removed if things are to be properly preserved.

Hangar One - South Door

Hangar One, South Door Up Close & Personal

Moving on. Here’s me with my head in the breach of the Supergun:

Lock and Load!

This is a 16″ gun that’s been reamed out to 17″ and then sleeved in a larger barrel is part of the High Pressure Test Facility.   Here they fire small scale models from what are, seriously, modified WWII battleship deck guns re-tasked for SCIENCE! down a Schlieren photography rig at a very, very thick target at Mach Lots.  I got taken for the tour of all the armor plate patches and cement repairs from where models went off axis and went spang.  The thumb sized Apollo capsule went through 2″ of steel and 2′ of reinforced concrete when there was a little bit of a whoopsie.  How do I know this is a WWII battleship deck gun you ask?  Well, how about this:

Once upon a time you might have gotten one of these at the surplus store too...

16″ Mark 6 Model 1, 1942

This means I have now seen two out of the three of the Superguns. I’m going to need a Q clearance again if I want to see JASPER, however.

I also got to go wandering around inside of the Unitary Wind Tunnel but none of those pictures came out.

In summation, it is sad to see many Big Science facilities barely used due to lack of funding and interest.  Of everywhere I went, the Supergun sees the most business.  All the other facilities I visited seem to be largely used as storage for files and equipment from “When We Did Stuff”.  Oh, I’m told the computational areas see a great deal of action but eventually you have to make a model into reality and we don’t seem to be doing that much anymore.

As Warren Ellis says, DO SOMETHING.