An Atheist’s Pilgrimage – Bethlehem University

The TL;DR version: I had a great time at Bethlehem University and my friend is trying to fundraise for a scholarship for one student. If you wish, you can donate here.

In October of 2019, I joined a pilgrimage organized by the Archdiocese of Anchorage and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher (EOHS). My friend Fr. Gabriel is a Dominican priest and a Knight Religious in the EOHS. I rules lawyered my way into visiting Israel & Jordan with him to help fulfill his knightly vows. You see, nowhere in his vow “Lead a pilgrimage of non-order members to the Holy Land” is there a specification that you actually need to take Catholics, something I got the archbishop that had just administered that vow to confirm. Suffice it to say, a few years after that vow, I was the atheist with a busload of devout Catholics and priests for two weeks of fun wandering around Israel and Jordan.

I got asked “Why are you here?” more than a few times by my fellow pilgrims, along with their sincere hope that I would have a Road to Damascus conversion moment. That did not happen and the answer I usually gave was a variation on “We are all here looking for something.” It was gratifying that at least a couple of the group starting turning to me for supplementary information like I was an extra guide. Considering our actual guides were archaeology professors, and the leader of the group as a whole was the former Archbishop of Anchorage, that was a hell of a vote of confidence from them. The most important lesson I think I taught, because it was my answer to the casually racist question “What is he/she?”, went like this:

  1. It is possible to be an ethnically Palestinian Arab,
  2. Who is an Israeli citizen,
  3. That follows the Catholic faith.

The fact that it didn’t compute even when I described them in the same terms is disappointing:

  1. It is possible to be of Irish descent,
  2. Who is an American citizen,
  3. That follows the Catholic faith.

The nodding at the latter explanation that this all made sense, whereas the brow was furrowed at the former like I was speaking impossibilities, drove me nuts. This is important point to share because I want you to understand what a special place Bethlehem University (BU) is in light of this.

Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has founded a lot of schools and had various orders who’ve promoted education, but none have been quite as dedicated to this as the De La Salle Christian Brothers. At the turn of the last century, they’d founded a variety of schools all over the Levant and the one in Bethlehem was elevated to being a post-secondary education university after Pope Paul VI promised to bring that support to the Palestinian people in the occupied territories of the West Bank. It took almost a decade to make that transition, but in 1973 Bethlehem University opened with a mission to educate the people of the West Bank to help create the cadre of skilled professionals that would be needed to rebuild, hell, to have a functioning modern society. To teach the teachers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists we collectively need to make tomorrow better than today. You will note that nowhere in there did I say that BU was teaching Catholics to be those professionals. While Bethlehem may still have one of the highest proportionally Christian populations in the West Bank (though a straight numerical minority) and the university was opened by the Catholic Church, Bethlehem University is open to everyone and most of the student body is Muslim. The thing they all have in common is that they are Palestinian.

One of the biggest votes of confidence any institution can get is that when you have people that can’t agree on anything else, that they do agree that you are worth protecting and want you there for their children. The last time I came across something like this I wasn’t expecting was Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC. During riots over the decades which had burned the neighborhood, everyone could agree that You Do Not Fuck With Ben’s. White, black, cop…doesn’t matter, Ben’s is here for the community and it’s hard to imagine a neighborhood without it. In a way, it is the community. I made a point to talk to every student I could and, damn, I wish the average student at UC Berkeley were as proud to be there as they were to be at BU. They know that their university isn’t just a hope for the future but they’re the stewards of what’s here now. As an example, the Palestine Museum of Natural history had opened at BU not long before we got there. As one of the places of longest human occupation, learning how people have endured there for millennia may be essential for continuing to live there as the climate changes.

Another part of here and now is a recognition that what keeps a lot of towns going was tourism, and BU has a program for that as well. We got to the visit was the test restaurant & kitchen of the BU Tourism Institute. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating at the Culinary Institute of America’s test restaurants, you know what we got to enjoy. Students were running the front of the house, cooking in the kitchen, serving tables all as part of their curriculum. A couple of students got very excited to talk to me when I pointed at their bar, which wasn’t open at that time of day, and asked about their experiences with it as I saw an interesting selection of things on their shelves. They were just getting to cocktail making and bar-backing in their course work, so I made sure to teach the fine art of the Manhattan.

For our meal, every table was joined by some students to discuss their experiences at BU and let us ask questions of them. The student that shared our meal was an economics major with plans for an MBA after she graduates, ideally from NYU or Columbia if she can swing it. Unfortunately, also at my table was a less than enlightened American priest who triggered this exchange that I’m obliged to share with you.

Priest: So, when did your family convert?

Student: [very confused, with the worried look that her English might not be good enough to understand a question] What?

Me: [knowing exactly what Priest was assuming] Let’s see, it’s 2019, so I’m going to guess her family converted roughly two thousand years ago. When did your family convert in Scandinavia and Germany? Mid-900s?

Priest: [ignores me, turns to talk to his fishing buddy]

Hearing my response, the student picked up the subtext and thanked me afterward for answering as she would’ve been really uncomfortable yelling at a priest, even if he deserved it. I wish her the best and hope that COVID didn’t derail her plans too badly.

Even without COVID, Bethlehem University’s mission isn’t an easy one in light of the occupation. You think it’s a pain in the ass to place an order for supplies for your lab through your university’s janky procurement system? Try doing anything in the occupied territories through the filter of Israel first. While a previous Pope may have promised a university education to the Palestinian people, Israel made no such promise. One of the international relations students I met told me of the difficulty doing internships and going to meetings outside of the West Bank due to Israel’s travel restrictions. Getting approval to travel from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv, to get to the airport to then fly anywhere else, is not guaranteed which means the odds of missing a very expensive flight are high. If you think showing up to the airport two hours before your flight to deal with TSA is bad, this student would start his trip that should only be a one hour drive to Ben Gurion Airport two days before his flight was supposed to depart. Just to make sure nothing went wrong at the border crossing into Israel proper…again.

But the students and faculty of Bethlehem University are making do every day, navigating these challenges, and still managing make the leaders we need for tomorrow. This is why my friend Fr. Gabriel put together a fundraiser to try to sponsor one student for their full four years at BU. The EOHS as a whole does sponsor quite a few scholarships to the university, but Fr. Gabriel wanted to give his own thanks for the hospitality we received and support the mission of Bethlehem University that we both believe in. Many institutions give lip service to being derived from and supporting their local communities, but in my career I don’t think I’ve come across one as dedicated to it as BU. Their motto is “Enter to learn, leave to serve” and they live up to that.

If you’d like to contribute to this, please do. And thank you.


The first thing to keep in mind with a rocket launch is that you don’t get to do a lot of “aiming” between pressing IGNITION and ABORT. Aiming, AKA mission planning, is what you spent the previous several months/years doing. These seconds/minutes are the shitfuckdammit stage.

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

Part of the mission planning for the safety aspects is thinking the unthinkable and forecasting the debris fallout areas for where things are likely to impact if depending on when you press the big red button. And a lot like hurricane forecasting, you get cones of uncertainty. You get maps of that reduce “At time T, at this altitude and velocity, with X fuel remaining, the centroid of the debris field will be here with this much variation” to something that looks like a storm tracker, with colors mapping out probabilities. We can kinda sorta plan out where things are going to fall./ Of course, we don’t press that button if things are going to according to plan but we do have some idea if we press it quickly. But if you dawdle? Tricky.

The good news for all these scenarios is that I used a bit of hyperbole describing a RTG loaded rocket as a dirty bomb/space probe. This is because the RTGs for our probes are some of the most ridiculously, and necessarily, overengineered sealed sources ever made. They’re designed to survive fully fueled rocket detonation on pad and then burning in the pyre of their would-be-launch vehicle. They’re designed to take re-entry with the entire rest of the probe/spy satellite burning away so we can go reclaim & recycle them as needed.  Now, we aren’t thrilled with the idea of subjecting our radioactive sources to these levels of punishment but they approach Tick-like levels of nigh invulnerability.

The Tick approves of source integrity testing. (image courtesy of Ben Edlund)

Still, we want to get out to find them quick, just in case things went badly. If you wait as long as possible to abort, which theoretically means you’ve gotten as much altitude as possible, you are choosing in the event of losing integrity on the RTG that you would like to disperse it as widely as possible for dilution. That is certainly an option. Even with a large Pu-238 RTG where you get profoundly unlucky and finely distribute all that into the winds of the upper atmosphere, dilution will negate the radiotoxicity hazards. Oh, people WILL notice on their monitoring, but you won’t kill anyone. That’s likely to qualify as a severe public affairs incident with a side order of diplomacy required. And you will be a new footnote in a whole bunch of papers where researchers have a deep sigh and say “Please ignore this particular data point. That was due to The Incident.”

Back to the cones of uncertainty. The longer you wait, especially when things are already moving outside of your mission plan, the more uncertain things get and the faster it’s going. With the high likelihood your RTG survives, the field to find it in is HUGE. “But Phil, it’s a radioactive source” you say. “We have detectors to easily find them. You keep telling me that’s the great thing about health physics; that we have detectors to help find the invisible things.” …yes, I have said that. I’ve also mentioned Earth is big, right? Needle in a haystack doesn’t begin to describe it. Finding the one full can of beer among all the empties on the side of the road in Australia is more like it. And for well-built RTGs, it’s actually hard to detect them because we utilize all that decay. Of course, you may not have the option to wait until max altitude. Things may be going so badly that you want to abort on the pad before the rocket does it for you somewhere close to the pad that you’d really rather not hit with an almost full load of propellent. The RTG on board is very much a secondary thought in this situation where you’re about to lose a launch pad for a while because you’re going your damnedest to not lose the entire facility’s launch capacity.

READ: it would be bad to wherps a Delta into the VAB. 

Among all the other clean up, you get to wander around the pad and look for the missing RTG. Theoretically, your cone of uncertainty should be zero right? You ever go look for the cork from the champagne bottle after the enthusiastic drunk pops it messily? Yeah, it’s like that. The good news here is that it can’t be *too* far from the launch pad, but that radius might still be miles. At Cape Canaveral or Wallops, you’ll likely be swimming. Mind the gators. You have fucked around and are about to find out. 

Of course, you could intentionally drop it in ocean. If you look at America’s launches, our rockets spend very little time over land in those first moments when things tend to go wrong. This is mostly to keep the splody over the water and not the suburbs. This is part of the mission planning with the assumption that the problem that requires abort will happen soon after launch, which means you’re going to drop the RTG in the water. If you thought it as hard to find things on land, hooboy. (SEE ALSO: every lost flight recorder)

And yet, yes, we totally have reclaimed things from the depths. The GLOMAR Explorer did exist for a reason.

But if you can’t or don’t want to, well, the oceans are deep, dark, and huge. Marine life will also kindly encase your lost RTG in marine cement to contain possible leaks. Oh sure, you might end up with some surprises when you do dragnet fishing BUT MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T DO THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE. This is great for America all our launch facilities are more or less coastal. That’s less good for Baikonur or Jiuquan which have an awful lot of Asia (Motto: do not get involved in a land war here) between them and any large body of water to emergency yeet an RTG into. Which means there’s a pretty good chance you are throwing your RTG at somewhere inhabited, even if sparsely. But someone considers it home. It makes those people very upset when you once again treat them and their homes as disposable.

The concept of the National Sacrifice Area was first created to describe the giant open weeping environmental nightmare wounds of huge open pit coal mines in the American West, that cannot be restored, which eventually lead to the creation of CERCLA, AKA Superfund. This term was denounced with a firm “We’re not calling it that” by elected officials; no one wanted to represent the part of America that America had abandoned. Behavior, on the other hand, suggests that the only objection was the term and other countries did much the same.  But do we aim our launches explicitly over these areas on the grounds of “Eh, what’s this compared to what we’ve already done?” No. Also, those are pretty small targets compared to the ocean.


I am happy to say we have no inspiring events of large RTGs lost during launch, but the long thread you’ve just made your way through is part of the thought process long before rocket ever sees the launchpad. RTGs lost on re-entry, however? That’s a different story.

Apollo 13’s RTG for the lunar module is sitting somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific, very intentionally near the Tonga Trench. There was some aiming in making that happen. Admittedly “hit the Pacific Ocean, in a deep part” doesn’t seem like the most precision of aiming but, considering everything else that went wrong, it’s still an achievement. Good enough that they made a movie about it, even if this little detail got left out.


Regarding Freight Forwarders

Hey kids, let’s talk about something important: Freight Forwarding.


I know the postage rates are too damn high, especially on international shipping, ++especially for international express shipping. Not much I can do about that other than vote carefully to try to prevent the destruction of one of Benjamin Franklin’s legitimate children, the United States Postal Service. Unfortunately, Black Blood of the Earth and the Steins of Science must ship international express mail if I want them to not get stuck in customs hell and get to you in a timely manner. Also, international priority mail isn’t much cheaper than express but ends up being is A LOT slower.

The cleverer monkeys in far flung lands, New Zealand comes to mind, might turn to a service known as freight forwarding to try to keep those shipping costs down. If you’re not familiar with it, this is the equivalent of a Canadian having a PO box just over the border in America to ship things to (which I’m pretty sure is why Sumas, WA exists) except that it’s a shipping container which will be loaded onto a boat or plane, consolidated with everyone else’s packages, bound for $INSERT_COUNTRY_HERE. Their business model is built on it being much cheaper for you to ship in one of their one consolidated container of everyone’s stuff with their freight rates, after you to first ship to them at in-country rate, than it is for you to ship directly. Great, right?

Well, no. This comes at the cost of speed, which means using a freight forwarder is a guaranteed Bad Time for shipping BBotE. Unless you’re going directly to pick up from the freight forwarder’s depot in your country, for your package to get to you the forwarder will now need to ship it to you, which is almost always done at the slowest & cheapest rate, burning more time. But that’s BBotE, as long as you’re patient this is fine for the non-perishable Steins of Science right?

Sadness.jpg – The first stein broken in transit in over 7 year. Last one got run over in its box by a tug at a Hawaiian airport.

Ah, no, because this runs face first into the other part of the freight forwarder profit model. They are making money off of you through their flat, very cheap rate for a cargo container, regardless of content, and it is in their interest to stuff it as completely full as possible to maximize the profit per container. This is proper and reasonable, except this often comes at the cost of bulky but necessary packaging the protect fragile things. The results of trying to ship a Stein of Science without all the cushioning and heavy duty cardboard box are shown to the right. But this an insured shipment, you can just file a claim, right?

That’s a question of what your contract with the freight forwarder looks like because as far as the USPS is concerned they successfully delivered a parcel where you told them to send it, the freight forwarder. What happens after delivery is not their concern. My experience of what freight forwarder agreements look like may be summed up as somewhere between “Go fuck yourself, you knew what you were doing” and “Sorry, you’re shit out of luck, buddy”.

In conclusion, I did put some thought into the Funranium Labs store’s shipping module and packaging. If you mess with that by using a freight forwarder you are Fucking Around and very likely to Find Out.


All of these choices technically cause legacy waste to take up less space, even if one is just a bullshit accounting trick. All of them have been tried, all of them have lead to uptakes, but like all of these quizzes my word choice is important. So, let’s define some terms.

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

I specifically asked for “worst rad material uptake”, not dose/exposure. Obviously, if you get a lot of radioactive material into the body there will be some internal dose from that. What I am not worried about in this quiz is external dose from the drums. It means these are the wrong containers for their contents, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility. A while back, I discussed transportation index and how it gets harder to ship the higher the gamma dose rate coming off the package. You don’t want SPICY drums because moving those around sucks. But the drums we’re considering aren’t going anywhere. This brings us to our next term: Legacy Waste

At a basic level, for all fields, legacy waste is the garbage that’s been sitting over there in the corner, that likely predates your predecessor in this job, and almost all documentation & institutional memory about it is gone other than “It’s bad and hard to deal with.” But for DOE, there’s a more specific definition bad enough that Legacy Waste gets capital letters. Legacy Waste is the garbage leftover from the early nuclear weapons program, where choices were made, at speed, with the conscious decision of “We’ll figure out how to deal with it later.” For DOE, Legacy Waste more or less means “Any nuke related waste that pre-dates the 1974 creation of the Energy Research and Development Administration taking over from the Atomic Energy Commission.” So, waste that dates roughly 1938 to 1974. This doesn’t just mean radioactive waste. The majority of the waste generated by the Manhattan Project and subsequent weapons program work wasn’t radioactive, but a lot of it was toxic. SEE ALSO: Basin F at Rocky Flats, formerly known as “The Most Toxic Square Mile On Earth”.

The mid-1970s were very important years in bureaucratic evolution and regulatory development. In the four years from 1974-78, not only did NRC and ERDA (which quickly became DOE) come into existence, but the recently created federal level EPA got most of the responsibilities they have today, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which dictates how hazardous waste is handled and disposed of. Waste generated prior to RCRA might not be packed/stored properly. It might have incompatibles in the drum. It may have no documentation at all. And because those drums aren’t compliant and DOE has been ordered MANY TIMES to take care of all that shit that’s been lingering for decades, Things Must Be Done. Which is how we get to this quiz.

Never underestimate the amount of Slack in both nuclear research and waste management.

The easiest Legacy Waste to take care of is that which you have some idea of what’s in the drums. Enough that you can just slap some new labels on, declare that this is now typified and no longer Legacy Waste. High fives all around, it’s Miller Time! Everything’s cool, right? The level of coolness is a function of how much you trust what information you have. As an example, Glenn Seaborg’s lab notebooks are immaculate, clear and easy to follow. Seriously, I’m jealous of his penmanship. While they are very trustworthy for process, they are absolute pants for trying to figure out his waste. Documentation from ye olden nukes tend to be, to put it kindly, results oriented. The waste was something of an afterthought. Garbage cans were things for janitors to worry about (SEE ALSO: various contaminated landfills). But even the Bob B. Dobbs impersonating BOLD MEN OF ATOMIC SCIENCE recognized that some of the waste they made couldn’t just be thrown away willy nilly and tossed it in drums instead…a minimum of 45 years ago. Drums are not immortal, especially when filled with nasty things. You just kicked the can, uhh, drum down the road.

You aren’t likely to have any materials uptake from just applying a new label. But some unlucky bastard will be the one that has the drum fall apart on them. Or finds a puddle on the floor from the bottom that’s rusted out. Then you get to do a clean up which generates more waste drums than the original drums, but at least you know what it is now and it isn’t Legacy Waste. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

For our next vocabulary word, we have the waste treatment concept of “size reduction”. When wrangling waste, you have some options of how to process it to reduce toxicity and/or costs. Taking up less room in the landfill which charges by the cubic foot is absolutely essential. The people tossing things in drums back in the 1940s did things like throw One [1] Radioactive Tumbleweed in a 55gal drum and then put it behind a building to forget about for the next 60 years. So, yeah, there’s a lot of good and necessary size reduction you can do here.

This brings us to methodology. Most of you decided that an incinerator is a terrible idea likely to lead to radioactive materials uptake by a large downwind population because, well, that’s happened and it’s why we don’t have many of them anymore. Because a waste incinerator with no filters, no scrubbers, NOTHING, is no better than a burn pit that just happens to have a chimney to insure good lofting of materials. Proper waste incinerators let very little out the stack at all and leave you nicely concentrated radioactive ash and scale, which you then have to clean out and drum again, but you might have condensed 12 drums worth of Legacy Waste condensed down to one Ashy Boi. Nice!

For the workers that have to deal with that, the airborne contamination hazard of cleaning the incinerator is serious business. You only reduced the bulk of the drum contents, you didn’t make them any less radioactive. You also made them easily airborne as ash. Also, wouldn’t think I’d have to say this, but no matter how good your stack is, incineration is a terrible idea for tritium contaminated waste. On a positive note, the release limits for tritium are incredibly high, but you won’t make any friends in the neighboring communities.

So, if you can’t burn it, you can compact it. Just like any other trash compactor, we can try to squeeze any extra space out the drum by crushing the contents as small as possible. You could crush the entire drum, contents and all, but I don’t recommend that. You put the drum in the EXTREMELEY WELL VENTILATED compactor, take the lid off, and then let the crushing piston down to do the squishing, and this part is very important, in the drum. Don’t take things out and crush them elsewhere.

This is when you discover if there was anything breakable in the drum that contained nasty things. Or perhaps something pointy that now goes through the side of the drum with a poof of contamination into the air. Hopefully the air handling can cope with that. Drum compaction is a lottery except all the lights and sirens going off aren’t a jackpot, it’s a CAM alarm.

“Now Phil” you say, “Hitting surprises in the drum seems very careless. Didn’t you x-ray this thing first?” Of course we do, but an x-ray can only tell you so much as to what the contents actually are. It should, however, reveal things that should give you pause. A lot of things “should” happen. But what does happen is these compactors get shut down for decon, often for months or years and that the workers operating them usually end up get a snootful of something.

To avoid the problem of such surprises, we get to opening and manually sorting drum contents by hand. Digging through Legacy Waste drums is, hands down, my absolute least favorite thing about my profession and the thing that got me closest to quitting. That preliminary x-ray can only tell you so much about the items in there. Like that there’s a mostly empty can with some liquid in it. It cannot tell you that the drum is slightly pressurized from the volatilized organic compound in there and is going to give you a contamination burp on opening. It usually can’t reveal all the broken glass in there. It doesn’t tell you how everything is mercury contaminated in addition to radioactive, which means GODDAMMIT this is all MIXED Legacy Waste.

Honestly, most of it is mixed waste which is why no one wants to touch it. :(

Short of putting it into a glovebox to work on, no one is happy to crack open a drum and rummaging around in it because the potential for personnel contamination with unknowns is so high. Even in a glovebox, contaminated sharps will get you right through your shielded glove. While incineration and compaction may lead to releases with uptake by workers or the public, their engineering controls make it likely that the uptakes will be comparatively small for any one individual.

Drum sorting has a much higher chance for a significant individual uptake.

In the events the inspired this, there was a Legacy Waste drum that was chosen to be hand processed due to its weird Co-60 gamma spec signature and higher dose rate than the rest of the drums. With a circa 1950 vintage, any appreciable Co-60 made little sense. The drum got cracked open. As per what seemed usual, there was a burp which than caused the Continuous Air Monitor (CAM) alarm to go off. After everyone evacuated, surveyed themselves for contamination, and found themselves to be clean, they got back in there to start unpacking.

What was in the drum is what is in most drums: contaminated PPE, much like the workers were making more of right now. Contaminated PPE is good because it’s compressible & combustible. Easy to size reduce. There were some other fiddly bits in there and an armadillo skeleton. What was not in the drum, however, was anything that which had an appreciable Co-60 signature. PPE was covered in actinide fun, but no Co-60.

That’s when they took a really hard look at the drum itself.

If Co-60 waste had been placed in the drum around 1950, it should have all decayed away by the 2000s. But if the drum itself had somehow been activated, it could have grown it’s own Co-60.

At some point in this Legacy Waste drum’s life, it got put somewhere that it really shouldn’t. Best guess is that at the drum got to live in/near an accelerator facility where the shielding wasn’t quite up to snuff. Or, at the very least, it was there long enough to grow enough Co-60 to notice.

Drum stopped being Legacy Waste and got a new drum of its own.


PS – If you’d like to know more about properly taking care of waste, including your many options to deal with it, allow me to give you the Follow Friday recommendation of @nuclearkatie. She may not make you feel any better about things however.


The Moving Announcement

With this update, all of the BBotE slots for the production window ending March 27th are now up but there is important news to convey. Next week there will be a brief production hiatus as I wind the coffee engines down and move them, us, and the kitties to a new home. Then I have to set everything up again before the coffee engines can once more send dark fluid joy into the world, which may take a day or two. As the moving truck isn’t showing up until next weekend, I have some time to still crank as much BBotE as possible out the door before things must halt, just like the spice harvesters on Arrakis. The number of available order slots have been adjusted accordingly to account for roughly five days of lost production.

More importantly, my repeated calls to drop me a line before sending back refills becomes extra important as you want to make sure you send them to the right address. Otherwise, they will vanish into the ether (AKA dumpster) of where I’m moving away from.

I’m excited. Kitties will be traumatized, but this is a good thing.

The Archetypical Injury – My NYE 2020 Benediction

I thought I would make a new end of year CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE, except I realized I kept running face first into “All Of The Above”. So instead, I want to discuss archetypical accidents to try to encourage you to not be the cause/victim in one. 

As we approach NYE 2020 with restrictions in place and limited staffing, on top of the usual ghost towns that institutions become during the holidays as the older staff members take use-it-or-lose-it vacations, we are particularly vulnerable to the first archetype: Work Alone.

As a general rule, when you are doing particularly nasty things, high power laser alignment, critical lifts, easily dispersible radioactive materials, high voltage, etc. you don’t do it by yourself. The counterpoint is “I always do this by myself to minimize the number of people exposed to $HAZARD” is valid but it’s more that you’re the hands, up close and personal. But you aren’t alone, someone’s in shouting distance. This time of year, you may be the only person in the building. For better or worse, the holidays are when people try to do some of the most hazardous work or long delayed maintenance that makes everything else more dangerous, like repairing fume hood motors, because the number of other people whose work they could impact is reduced. So, those sign in logs you walk past in the lobby? Sign them and sign out when you leave. If you have a status board, update it. Tell the facilities people, WHO YOU REALLY SHOULD BE ON A FIRST NAME BASIS WITH, that you are there. Tell family & friends when you expect to be home. Keep a Zoom meeting open with someone just because.

Because you are there, deciding to do something dangerous without much back up, because of the second archetype: Time Pressure

If things we’re going well, this work would be done already and you’d be one of the people on vacation, right? More likely someone more senior assigned you this work and then they went on vacation. Maybe the most recent results weren’t great and you’ve gotta redo it all again because, fuck, that submission deadline for paper/conference/whatever is coming up. It’s crunch time. It’s perfectly normal to look at the calendar, feel panic at an impending deadline, and decide “Yes, going into the lab at 10pm on Christmas Day is perfectly reasonable. Gotta get that started so I can come back to check on it at 8am.”

I am having minor twinges even typing this.

You can feel the clock ticking, the weight of days falling away as the hours pile up. You need to finish this. Looks like it’s gonna be another 12-18 hour work day. You are a caffeine based lifeform who might have eaten yesterday. YOU MUST BE FASTER & DO MORE!!! This is when you start cutting corners, stop writing things down. When you miss steps because you’re going too fast. Measurements get a little sloppy. Grab the wrong chemical or gear…and likely skip PPE entirely.

Because this is the infuriating part about the third archetype: Correct PPE Readily Available But Unused

Because you’re alone with no one to yell at you. Because you’re speeding and can’t spare the precious seconds to put on those gogs or gloves. Or, in the case of more than few laser injuries, were wearing laser safety eyewear but, buddy c’mon, you stopped working with that wavelength hours ago. DID YOU FORGET WHAT COLORS ARE??!!?

If this all sounds like Hell Work this is, perhaps, because you are a bit older and can’t physically or mentally pull this shit anymore and you know it. Because the fourth archetype no longer applies to you: Early Career, Age 18-25

The people we tend to kill and maim with hazardous work alone are our youth. Part of this is the general sense of immortality but also that they have the resilience to even begin to think this is a good idea. Their elders take advantage of that to work those apprentices HARD. If you asked me to do this at my advanced age of 45, you’re likely to get a response of “Fuck you.” Maybe “Fuck you, pay me” if I remotely entertained your request.

But 25 years ago good chance I would, with some blame going to archetype five: Male

Stupid, suicidal machismo. The arrogance of machismo that says you are *so good* that you don’t need that PPE. That you have all the hazards handled because you are IN CONTROL. You aren’t gonna get hurt because and if you did, pfft, whatever, you can take it. Scars = cool stories, right?

And part of that arrogance comes from archetype six: Approximately One Year of Experience with the Process That Caused the Accident

So, just long enough to start achieving competence so that you think you know what corners you can cut, but a long way from mastery.

There you go. Those are the Six General Accident Archetypes which makes it seem like I’m psychic when I pick up their call for an accident report and people start to worry I have spy cameras watching them. For specific kinds of hazards, like lasers, I can add even more archetypes.

But let’s review:

  1. Working alone
  2. After hours/long hours/around a holiday or weekend, with a looming deadline
  3. PPE available but unused
  4. Age 18-25
  5. Male
  6. With ~1 year of familiarity with the process that caused the injury

If this sounds like you, please make it 2021.


Stupid Traditions – Cold, Naked and Dumb

This post was prompted by @nuclearanthro and @pinkrocktopus leading me to notice that I have never actually written down the tale of The 300 Club before. Certainly told it enough times in bars and pretty sure I did while doing Legos With Friends. But now here it is, committed to posterity for your reading pleasure.

When people think of Antarctica, they normally picture Shackleton and the Brave Gentleman Explorers stage of the continent’s history. However, these poor scurvy ridden men never really stayed and thus never built any continuity of culture on the continent. The whaling stations hung around longer but didn’t last to continue propagating their local All Whale, All The Time culture. An Antarctic culture, such that it is, didn’t happen until after the International Geophysical Year in 1957. That’s when year long habitation on the continent began and all the governing international bodies were established. But the culture on the ground wasn’t established by Antarctic treaty and the program managers heading their respective Antarctic programs, nor the first explorers, not even the transitory researchers. For the American program, the founding culture comes from the 1950-1980s enlistedmen of the Seabees of the US Navy. Please allow your imagination to go wild with the Venn diagram of Navy, very old Navy traditions, inventive construction workers, and all men in their early to mid 20s. Accordingly, the base culture of Antarctica got a firm fraternity-like stamp. As part of the de-Navifying the stations when the NSF took over, the vintage old porn that used to be all over the place got buried in giant tri-wall boxes (note the plural) somewhere in the snow.

But those are mere physical objects. Culture continues. I’m also happy to report that each station regards the other’s traditions as absolutely bonkers, why would you even try to do that?

If you live somewhere cold where lakes and rivers freeze over, you’re probably familiar with some version of the Polar Bear Club. Usually for charity, sometimes for sheer bloody mindedness, people will jump in holes cut in the ice and stay for some amount of time in the freezing water before getting back out again to warm up. Or against all sense and caution, jump in the Hudson River or off Navy Pier in December . If you rub some extra Slav or Scandahoovian on it, your next stop is a sauna/banya and then maybe back into the ice hole again. Accordingly the two coastal stations of the United States Antarctic Program, McMurdo and Palmer Stations, learned from their cold weather home sailors and they have the Polar Plunge. And because Navy, all traditions were levelled up to being done naked. While the name is the same, there are some important differences between the two.

McMurdo’s Polar Plunge is performed by going out onto the ice sheet on McMurdo Sound once it gets thin enough for the auger to bore out a hole in the ice, so 24″ thick or so. You then mount the confined space rescue tripod over the hole, put people into the harness, and then yo-yo them naked into the hole that is now trying to freeze back over. They get a full dunking and then right back up into towels, socks and parkas. Except more often than not the Plunge, which was advertised on bulletin boards all over the station, got cancelled due to “Excessive Fecal Matter” with a helpful pre-printed label (because it had happened so many times) covering the date.

You see, there used to be a design flaw in McMurdo’s infrastructure, one that was a little bit of an ecological disaster. No one regularly builds things to cope with Antarctica, usually going with the approach of “Whatever works in upstate New York, but with more insulation, I guess.” This usually isn’t good enough for places that thaw out never, so you start adopting Alaskan pipeline construction techniques and tricks from cold weather mining towns and it’s still not enough. Also, the Navy never really buys the good and correct things, instead relying on the ingenuity of their sailors to make it work. And so, the unsung heroes of McMurdo did their best to keep the water & sewage treatment plant running and all the pipes flowing. This is a very much a non-trivial task in any normal city and I want you to take a moment to appreciate what these folks did because shitting in a hole isn’t much of an option when the permafrost is right under the volcanic dust at your feet.

Anyway, the important thing to know here is that sewage used to flow untreated into McMurdo Sound. That sounds gross to 2021’s ears but until very recently it was also the norm around the western world. But it had a problem in the winter when there weren’t enough people flushing warm things down the toilets to keep things flowing out into the sound, so the outflow would freeze over. Every winter, McMurdo was effectively constipated but that was okay because there’re weren’t enough people there to make it a problem for those months. Every spring, the outflow would let go, releasing The Great Turd of McMurdo. The critters of the sound loved it as it was a giant warm nutrient input piling up beneath the outflow of the pipe. An ecosystem dependent on that shitpile sprung up, a clear violation of disturbing the wildlife in the Antarctic treaty. The warm part is important because that lets the biology keep going and to keep things warm, also warmer things float on top of colder things. Also, continuing biology leads to the evolution of sewer gas that can’t escape because it’s trapped under ice.

Sometimes when they got out there with the auger to make the hole for the Polar Plunge, they ended up freeing one of those pockets. The term that was shared with me to describe what this was like is “shit geyser”. So, yeah, definitely cancelled due to Excessive Fecal Matter.

NOTE: There’s a reason we made fun of all the low bid contractors for construction in Antarctica being based in Florida, Texas, and in the case of the design of Pole’s current elevated station, Hawaii. At least the operations contract was with folks in Colorado that might encounter snow now and then. For further discussion of pooping at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, please enjoy this essay.

Leopard Seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), AKA pack hunting complete bastards, only orcas who eat them are scarier

At Palmer Station, just north of the Antarctic Circle, on the balmy Antarctic Peninsula things went a bit differently. It was still called the Polar Plunge but there’s no ice you need to punch through. Instead you get to run, naked obviously, down the ice dock, jump into the waters off of Anvers Island, and then swim back to the snow covered rocks of the shore. Easy, right? Assuming your body doesn’t fail you immediately on contact with the cold Southern Ocean water, those muscles have to keep working to get you all the way back. And you will want to get back quickly because unlike the other two stations, Palmer has abundant local wildlife. Local wildlife that has no particular fear of humanity and every reason to believe you might be food. As I’ve said before, Antarctica will absolutely kill you if you don’t respect it and the wildlife on the coasts will happily remind you that you aren’t the apex predator down here, especially in the water. To the right, I’ve helpfully included a picture of a nice bullet-headed leopard seal. Without seeing their cleaned skull, where the size and teeth are on full display, it really doesn’t do justice to the fact that they’re about the same size as African lions, they’re pack hunters, and are aggressive. There is a USAP budget line item for Zodiac repairs as the leopard seals have learned that if you bite and put a hole in the floaty bits you might be able to get to the juicy human center.

So, yeah, the Polar Plunge at Palmer has been known to get called due to Excessive Wildlife. Watching leopard seals play with a penguin while tearing it apart is enough to make me happy I spent most of my year in Antarctica hundreds of miles from shore.

The old weather monitor from South Pole Station, heralding the first running of The 300 Club in 2003.

Which brings us to South Pole Station and The 300 Club. During the winter when the outside temperature finally drops low enough to hit -100F, an all call goes out to the entire station to let everyone know that they should report to the sauna. At which point, the safety in the sauna is disabled and it is cranked up to 200F, thus creating the 300 degree temperature difference that gives The 300 Club its name. You stay in there as long as you possibly can, then run from the sauna and out to the South Pole marker, naked other than shoes of course, and then back to the sauna again. Someone, me the second time I did it, gets to wear gloves to hold the door open as everyone runs past.

This all sounds simple, but as everyone discovers human bodies just aren’t used to that kind of cold. When I say you “run” to the Pole, it’s more of a holy fuck is it cold shuffle. Also, one of your hands should be covering your nose & mouth to help try to pre-warm some of that -100F air. Your nose, sinuses, pharynx, and trachea are all there not just for filtration but also as conditioning to get incoming air to the right temperature & humidity before reaching the lungs. At -100F, it doesn’t work and the cold air hitting your lungs causes the moisture in there to condense, giving you a flash pneumonia. Everyone spent the next couple days with the 300 Club Hack as their bodies reprocessed that condensation in the lungs. We didn’t know this for the first time, but we sure as hell did for the second running of The 300 Club.

It doesn’t hit -100F at Pole until the winds absolutely die down to nothing and the air is even clearer than normal. At 1% relative humidity, it’s an incredibly dry cold which means it feels okay for way longer than you’d expect. Air is an okay insulator and there’s no wind chill to steal your heat. Also, it doesn’t get this cold until the dead of winter, so it’s dark other than the Aurora Australis and whatever moonlight you may be lucky enough to have. A full moon at Pole feels as bright as noon with the moonlight reflecting off of the snow. Of course, you’re also getting a full moon from everyone else during the 300 Club, except you probably can’t see them due to the ice fog. Hot sweaty bodies shuffling in the cold air make a lot of fog, which makes it easy to get lost heading back to the sauna. Remember what I said about one hand to cover your nose & mouth? You may want to use the other one to cover the important extremities of your choice. One woman got off course in the fog and ended up taking the very long way back to the sauna via the Garage Arch, leading to some frostbitten nipples.

Personally, I thought it was neat how ice sheets of sweat formed and then cracked and fell off me as I ran. Also, don’t actually tag the Pole marker. You might stick and that’s embarrassing.


I should preface that my primary vacuum tube experience is related to trying to fix the 1920s built-in wall radio made of redwood in a house my family rented when I was in elementary school.

Readers, I never fixed that radio.

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

I am just old enough to remember asking “What’s that?” when I saw the vacuum tube tester in Thrifty next to the ice cream bar but young enough that there were no tubes for sale and the testing machine hadn’t worked in years. But in this scenario, we’re talking about tubes in something a titch more complex than a custom built radio to listen to Fireside Chats: a reactor control console. The fact that we have reactor control rooms running on vacuum tubes seems to have surprised some people. This points to the core (HA!) issue of Known Reliable Methods & Technologies and License Conditions that discourage you from changing things once you build them. If your license says you will do a thing then you will period, amen, ZERO TOLERANCE FOR DEVIATION, do that thing. This is specific to the United States and our AEC/ERDA/DOE/NRC regulations, as they’ve evolved of course. But it’s not all that much different for other countries. Your regulatory entities want to know what you have, that those things work, and you that haven’t messed with it. American nuclear reactors are OLD, with an average operating age of ~40 years. This isn’t just the vessel we’re talking about either; the license covers all equipment related to operation. 

But wait you say [does math] if the average age is 40 years old, how can there be reactors older than NRC, the agency that licenses them?  (NOTE: the NRC’s birthday is 19 January 1975, so it’s a Capricorn) It’s because the old reactors still have their original licenses from the Atomic Energy Commission. I tell you hwut, those dang ol’ AEC short form licenses are like six pages long for your reactor and reactor accessories. If you change NOTHING, you can keep renewing that original license. When you see a more current NRC license, you understand why people lock in. Preserving the configuration stated on your old AEC license is something that operators fight tooth and nail to retain because losing the grandfathered status is one whole hell of a lot of work. This is why blowing a tube is so critical. The most popular response, which was not one of the four choices, was to go get a spare from the supply cabinet of critical parts. And you can do that…for a while. Your predecessors certainly did that. But then they inconsiderately failed, or were unable, to restock for you. Because your predecessors have failed you, now you have the four choices as presented.

By far, the most popular choice was to pillage another tube from a less critical piece of equipment. If you’re lucky, that’s not a highly specialized tube and there’s one you can “reallocate”.  Of course, you should make sure that yanking the tube from the other location isn’t also failsafe critical system which is why your reactor shut down in the first place. That tube was important enough that your reactor was designed to NOPE if it isn’t there to do its job. If you pillage, I want to make certain that you do what @hawtgluh said to do. Make a note in the operator’s log for what you did so that people know what other thing they also need to repair. Your successors may still curse your name but at least they know WHY.

But maybe the only “spares-in-situ” of that tube are in other critical systems that would also scram your reactor if you yanked them. So, you head to Amazon to buy the replacement your predecessor should have bought for you? No? How about Grainger? Hmm. Ebay? The problem you’re running into is that vacuum tubes aren’t nearly as common as they used to be, used for niche maker projects, are collector items, and you’re also fighting everyone else with venerable equipment that they’re trying to keep operating. Those tubes won’t be cheap. Honestly, the shipping fees to get it AS FAST AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE so that you can fire the reactor up again may be almost as expensive as the tube itself…assuming you can find one.

And if you can’t find it, you can try to make a replacement tube. Making vacuum tubes isn’t as easy as you’d hope. I mean, it’s not terrible, but just like the tubes are rare these days so too are the skills and facilities to make them. So, if you depend on vacuum tubes I recommend you go make friends with glass blowers now. The more reasonable tinkering project is to make an adapter to use a different tube in that socket.

[BUZZER NOISE] Sorry, you just got a NRC violation notice. 

That specific tube is part of your licensed configuration. In fact, making a bespoke replacement you may have to do silly things like handwriting a model number on the tube that matches what your license says it should have. Similarly, you will get asked “How do you know your bespoke tube works? What quality assurance do you have?” Fuck. You’re in trouble again and have blown your license. Mind you, if you want to start a artisanal craft tube making shop now, you’re never gonna be rich but you will be providing a desperately needed service to the world and you’ll thrill hobbyists. Please. Pretty please. The Soviet surpluses won’t last forever. 

Which brings us to Windows.

This is a wholesale replacement of your control systems with something more modern than an Atari 2600 that can run Windows, which means you’re submitting a new license application. It will be years until you turn the reactor back on. While many of you had UNCOMPLIMENTARY THINGS to say about Windows system integration, it has happened. The important thing to know is that critical equipment like this is very, VERY airgapped from the outside world. You can be a bit more confident under those circumstances.

In the inspiring events for this scenario, it wasn’t a reactor but an accelerator built in the 1950s. The control room’s consoles were completely filled with special vacuum tubes, most of which were custom made. Eventually, the tube shop closed and the cabinets of spare parts dwindled away. It took decades, but it happened. Because the licensing is different, they were able to sever different parts of the control systems. Only one panel could not be altered. But the other eight consoles? They salvaged thousands of tubes.

The first time I walked in and asked what that flatscreen TV and single server blade in old, otherwise completely empty equipment rack was?

ANSWER: the replacement for the entire rest of the control room, in addition to all the data capture. 

I said that was a neat upgrade but what redundancy did they have in the event of something like a water leak. There was a pained slow blink.

The next time I went back there were two blades in that rack. You know, for redundancy. [facepalm]



When I put these polls up, one of the most common responses is “Why on Earth would anyone ask *me* to do this?” That’s fair, but this is my game. ;)

But for reactor siting? The number of different fields we talk to is astounding, lest we miss something. You never know when you might get a call.

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

As several locals noted, Indian Point isn’t on Long Island. This also isn’t the first time someone’s tried to put a reactor on Long Island and that Shoreham was such a clusterfuck of the highest caliber that the customers of LILCO are still paying for it. Shoreham might have worked just fine, if it had ever been allowed to run, but the failure to consider how you would swiftly evacuate several million people right on the heels of Three Mile Island accident happening sort of made the plant DOA. But they finished building it, because contracts are contracts. For the record, Brookhaven National Lab, also on Long Island, hasn’t had any reactors for a while now. They do their isotope production with accelerators instead. But for this scenario, we’re going to declare that the issues that doomed Shoreham will not be a problem for us.

In light of the day that this explainer was written, a 747-equivalent plane slamming into your brand spanking new nuclear energy center is extremely credible. So much so, that this is absolutely part of the current design specifications and has been for quite a while. Even old reactors, like SONGS and McClellan, were built to take such impacts because a “whups, eat plane” incident was considered very credible due to their location. But not necessarily the out-buildings of the old power stations. As we learned courtesy of Fukushima Daiichi, those out-buildings are very important to keep the reactors actually running. If you’re gonna build one part of a power station to eat a plane, you should for all of it. 

Believing in the willingness of the military to shoot down passenger planes, of those passengers to happily die, and that a locked door on the cockpit makes everything hunky dory to protect your reactor is trying to work on the cheap. You build for credible threats. This one is.

Also unpleasantly credible, because it’s already happened once in recent memory, is inundation by hurricane. Except Hurricane Sandy was kind. Sandy, huge as it was, was merely a category 2 hurricane when it smacked NYC. That’s not the worst that the Atlantic can throw at a poor barrier island. But the danger of storm surge and wind is that, once again, your vitally important support out-buildings may get swept away or so badly flooded that the equipment in them is inoperable. ~9m storm surges are not out of the realm of possibility. For added Fun Gravy, slap another 1m on top of that for estimated sea level rise over the life of the new power station. So, we’re talking sea walls that may look familiar from episodes of The Expanse when they pan over UN HQ. This is quite credible, but will greatly exceed the budget for your power station. You’ll have to do much more local storm barriers for the site instead. This will contribute to a some what fortress like appearance for the site, including the moat-like drainage system. 

Which brings us to the tradition of strong and vigorous civic debate on Long Island. You’re already building a a nuclear facility that has to be compliant with NRC security requirements and hardened enough for MegaSandy, you’re most of the way there to hold off light irregular infantry. One of the comments yesterday was along the lines of “insurrectionists will leave it alone because they want electricity too.” This is one of those things we like to call a behavioral norm. Norms are only that right up until the moment they aren’t. It was a norm to not attack hospitals or first responders as well. We call those war crimes for a reason, not that we’ve done a great job stopping any of those lately. Seizing a nuclear power station has tremendous strategic value, as does the madman threat to destroy it.

But is a Free Long Island Army likely to stand up and be able to fight off any assisting forces that might want to help protect the power station? Ehhhhh, I’d be more worried about the power station promptly joining them because they hate Manhattan just that much. What you have is already is likely adequate to cover insurrection if you’re ready for what Planet Earth is likely to throw at you any given year.

But how about any given 10,000 years? The Azores and Canary Islands have this very bad habit of dramatically calving into the sea. I want to take moment to reflect that the “NYC Problem” is every disaster planner’s most or least favorite. It is the Kobyashi Maru scenario. You never get to “win”, you can only try make it less bad. Much like the geologic record of Seattle shares the repeated apocalyptic tsunamis from the Cascadia quakes and Mt. Rainer’s lahars scraping Puget Sound clean, the Hudson River Valley bears the scars of tsunamis caused massive underwater landslides. The tsunamis from these landslides are unpleasantly massive. Like, Michael Bay-worthy massive. Generally, when you find a xenolith (literally “alien rock”) in a New England landscape you usually assume it’s a glacial erratic, a rock from somewhere else glacially transported and left behind by the melting ice. But sometimes it’s something ripped off the seafloor and plopped in the middle of a farm.

Half of Isla Flores could fall into the ocean tomorrow but it’s the same long odds as asteroid impact. And this is one of those events where you’d have MUCH bigger problems to worry about.

The inspiration for this scenario comes from the events of the Arab Spring. Once upon a time, there was a young scientist who lived in a country that got overthrown by a dictator. Because he kept his head down, he eventually got put in charge of the reactor. This was a Soviet reactor and, well, the Soviet Union went away. US sanctions made any spare parts you might be able to adapt for use very difficult to get. But he and his crew did his best to keep things running through the decades and continuing to make radiopharmacueticals for the country’s hospitals. 

Eventually, the dictator began to shed some of his pariah status, lifting some sanctions, allowing spare parts start to flow in. The reactor instrumentation could finally be calibrated for the first time in over 15 years. 

Then the Arab Spring began. As one might guess, the dictator was not pleased with this.

Much of his country’s budget was devoted to the military, with base after base after base on a casual drive through the capital. Looking around for VERY defensible locations, the reactor facility was noticed. The reactor director suddenly found himself assigned a brigade and told to turn the nuclear center into a fortress, to protect it at all costs, and that it might be a fall back position for the dictator if needed.

The director cared about the reactor. Not so much the dictator.

The dictator died, the country collapsed. It’s been nine years but I’ve never heard from that director again nor heard the name of that nuclear center mentioned in the news. It’s still there but I couldn’t tell you who is running it these days.


Important Research Wisdom

No BBotE and shipping talk today. When people ask how I got into safety work or how to improve the safety culture in their research labs (industry is much easier to fix), I like to share this wisdom from my undergraduate advisor:

“Working safely is not just something you do in addition to your research to keep the administration off your back; safe research is reproducible, high quality research. It is a mark of professionalism. When you walk into a lab that looks like Frankenstein’s, the quality of the research is likely to be, and certainly will be perceived to be, as erratic and irreproducible as a mad scientist’s. It’s a damn good thing journals don’t inspect labs before accepting submissions because very little would get published.” -Dr. Alfred Hochstaedter, UCSC, 1997

Fred was very famously a bull in the china shop who had a bad habit of destroying apparatus and making messes everywhere he went. He wasn’t a bad man breaking things out of carelessness, rather he’s just built on a large German scale that wasn’t particularly suited to fine and delicate work. He was much more at home out in the field, smashing rocks in a scientific manner, than he was in the lab reducing rocks to their component elements. But he also recognized this in himself and did his best to find people to work with him in the lab that understood the collective effort of science extends down all the way to keeping the floors clean and trash emptied.

A “fuck you, got mine” attitude and putting blinders on to the hazards around you or, worse, inconsiderately not thinking of the people who share your space doesn’t have much of a place in science. Really, it doesn’t have much of place anywhere. Do you want your name to be cursed by the people that come after us for leaving behind a legacy of space and gear that can’t be used? The feeble excuse of “When I got my space, I had to clean it up from my predecessor’s work with my start up money” is just perpetuating abuse and calling it a rite of passage.

So, if you needed a New Year’s resolution may I suggest the Happy Camper Rule: clean as you go, take good notes to tell those who follow where you’ve been, and leave your space better than you found it for others to build on.


To reiterate, the good news here is zero chance of zombies.

The bad news is that you have to cope with the living instead. Unlike the shambling dead, who are fairly goal oriented (re: your brains), the living have Opinions™ and they are often contradictory.

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

The reason I like to ask questions like these is because there’s often not a good answer and we haven’t really had to figure it out. This means this is the best time to do it is now, rather than as a game time decision when the crisis is already in progress. And there is few better places to work on this than the edge cases where Regulation Set 1, inspired by technical & safety concerns, runs face first in to Regulation Set 2, inspired by cultural & religious taboos.

If anyone’s ever said an anthropology degree is useless, they’re dead wrong. 

Failing to appreciate or, often worse, respect what inspires Reg Set 2 is what lands you in deep shit with crying families on the news calling you a cruel and heartless representative of organization that is, clearly, immoral. This looks very bad on your performance appraisal. IN PARTICULAR, people get excited about how you treat the remains of the dead. I want to be very clear that I am, at best, an amateur onlooker at the processes and rules of death work, especially their religious overlap but daaaaang it’s interesting. 

As humorous anecdote, I was once introduced to the head of the back of the house at a funeral home who was shocked I’d shake their hand. Friend then explained to their boss that I handled plutonium for a living. Boss then had to run off and go wash their hands. Rad workers are unclean to death workers, yo. 

But back to handling the dead, depending on religious preferences in question, you may be on a very tight clock. If, for example, you’ve got three days to get that body in the ground that’s not allowing much cool down time for short-lived, particularly nasty radionuclides. As for anointing the body before burial, I had a lot of fun contemplating making lead shielded PPE vestments for my friend @lukei4655 who is a Dominican priest or, in the case of particularly nasty radioactive death, possibly the Blessed Hot Cell for manipulator arm anointing. Other funerary practices, such as unmarked simple burial, would otherwise normally be considered illegal disposal of radioactive waste, kind of like sending the interns/privates to go bury drums “somewhere out on the reservation” without actually noting where you did it. 

Cremation would look a lot like waste incineration, as discussed in a previous CYORA, except cremation retorts don’t have that kind of filtration. However, it certainly does reduce the body to a much more manageable size for high level radioactive waste disposal. Your urn in this case would probably be a small Type B container.

Where the Reg Set 1 vs. 2 fight is really going to come down to it is public dose consideration. If your body, after processing and burial, is still a public dose hazard such that anyone near the remains could receive a dose in excess of .02mSv in an hour from them, Reg Set 1 will win. People operating under Reg Set 1, will want a “burial” that is more in accordance with waste disposal concerns, i.e. a hole in the ground in one of the waste burial areas at NTS (no, I will not use it’s current name). You can offer it, but the family doesn’t have to accept. 

Group Memorial to Space Shuttle Columbia – Arlington National Cemetary, 2011, by me

Which means if you’re going to have a burial somewhere else and The Dose Rate of the Dead is too high, you now have to do some work to insure that the people wandering through the cemetery, especially those that work there, are safe. As these are dead soldiers, in America you have a bonus option: Arlington National Cemetery. If you die in good standing with Department of Defense, you may request burial in Arlington or any open and available military cemetary. Circumstances likely to create several dead very radioactive soldiers might also merit group burial with a handsome memorial, like the USS Thresher, USS Scorpion, and Challenger. While you can request it, DOD can never demand it though they might hint VERY FORCEFULLY that they’d like to do interment at a national cemetery. A group memorial would be very convenient to build a single shielded vault with monitoring to hold the remains of the unlucky crew. 

As a bonus military option, if you were either active duty or closely associated with the Navy you can do burial at sea. There is, however, the minor issue that this *might* constitute a violation of the London Convention of Sea Disposal of Radioactive Waste. Burial at sea regs for various nations already specifies specific locations you can do it and also requires that you make sure that the body sinks promptly. Because no one is happy for a body to float ashore, especially a radioactive one. Also, are human remains waste? Oops, you just ended up on the news again with grieving family members for being a heartless bastard again, because you referred to their loved ones as “waste”. This is very tricky territory. 

A likely exception for burial at sea with respect to the London Convention would be wartime or accident while under way for a naval vessel. Not ideal but also not a lot of room to store very radioactive corpses aboard the ship. Admittedly with the circumstances likely to create such corpses you probably have bigger issues to worry about. 
But in America at least, burial is very likely going to be in a family plot that needs a special casket/vault for the body. We actually maintain a registry of all such burials so that we know to go check on them and make sure that the cemetery hasn’t since been abandoned. Abandonment happens because human/human institution time scales are just out of sync enough relative to the radionuclides of general concern where 10 half-lives is in the 10-10000yr range. As an example, internment done 300 years ago in America is now a full, abandoned, hopefully not built over colonial graveyard. So, project 300 years forward from today and what does the graveyard and surroundings look like? Hell if I know, but based on wandering around in Boston and Cambridge you can only hope they’re that well cared for. But I do know you’ll still be responsible for monitoring. 

But what if the cemetery has to be moved? Now you have all the family issues of disinterment combined with, well, let’s call them legacy waste issues. The only way I can think to make it more ugly is if it was a tribal burial ground too, like in this documentary Poltergiest.

In the inspiring events for this scenario, we kinda sorta killed three people with reactor oops. You may review the SL-1 incident here. There’s a 3hr version somewhere, but I can’t find it:

For the three victims, the answer was everything but burial at sea, despite the fact that one of them was a sailor and their family, theoretically, could have requested it. 

To make the burials in private plots and Arlington work, without great expense, not all of the remains got to in the caskets. Some bits got to be drummed and disposed of as rad waste at the site of SL-1. In this case, families agreed to this but, to be clear, they didn’t have to. You’d hope that the result of this is that people organizing such work would recognize that the ideal way to deal with this is to write contracts where the course of action is set in advance. Except we don’t like to think about death and this is also nightmare lawsuit territory.  Reg Set 1 & 2, with all their attendant issues, will politely ignore the each other exists right up until they once more can’t.

Hopefully that isn’t going to happen again anytime soon.


ADDENDUM: to everyone that thinks the technocratic Reg Set 1 should and will always win in a fight with cultural/religious Reg Set 2, which feel like a “nice to have” in your opinion, I’d just like to remind you that the underpinnings of Reg Set 2 have been around a lot longer. They tend to win.


A good place to start is that counting labs rarely (read: I have never seen one) end up on the top floor with beautiful views of your surroundings. No, you get the dungeon labs where sunlight & windows are a rumor, but the radon down there is quite real.

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

How much radon you have in your subterranean science lair is very much a function of where you are and what your local geology is like. But even in the newest, most freshly heaved from ocean sedimentary formations you’re going to have some. GOOD NEWS! Your building HVAC takes care of this. Well, it should take care of it. If the HVAC is balanced to actually move air through your room. Have you made friends with the Facilities folks yet? You should really do that. 

If you live around some really nice old cracked granite, you’ll have extra fans to blow it clear. In a fine parsing of the language of the scenario and the explainer tweets so far, you’ll notice I just said “radon”. I didn’t give you any specific radionuclides, like Rn-222. This is because for naturally occurring radon, you get all of the them, all the time. But with a half-life of just shy of 4 days, Rn-222 is the only one that really gets a chance to accumulate. The next longest lived is measured in hours. But they’re all there. But assuming your HVAC is working properly, this isn’t a issue. You know the radon evolution rate in your area and you ventilate appropriately. In most places, the typical air changes to blow your human stink out of the building is sufficient. In Wisconsin, you might want extra. 

Also, we don’t *really* detect radon. Radon is an annoying noble gas which means it doesn’t stick to anything, so it’s hard to get enough in any one place to detect. But it’s decay products when it spontaneously stops being radon? Oh yeah, we can work with those.

NOTE: for anyone about to share radon immersion dose stories and calculations, please smugly keep your edge case to yourself.

But what your instrumentation is telling you is that you are experiencing events where you are getting WAY more radon than normal and that’s weird. The question is from where. The game “What the hell is this signal?” is the unofficial hobby of all counting labs. Because you put your sample in the counter, you know what you expect to see and then when you a huge signal of something extra, well, that’s like a big wet fart from the man in front of you playing his Brown Note Solo during the quietest part of a symphony. In the CYORA: Surprise Positrons, an inconsiderate researcher managed to throw off pretty much every counting experiment in the entire building with their insufficiently shielded Na-22 source. Hooboy, those other researchers were hunting for that source.

Counting labs having anomalous signals, even if they’re far away, are how we’ve detected pretty much every incident that has happened in the Soviet Union and its successor states when they don’t feel particularly forthcoming at the time of the incident. If a reactor does the bad burp, you WILL notice it downwind. If it’s particularly bad, that signal will make its way all the way around the planet to show up on your detector from the other direction. Labs in Minsk detected Chernobyl before Sweden did but eventually everyone could.  But what reactor leaks don’t look like is radon. Depending on the particularly kind of leak, you’re going to have fission product signals that show up in your counts. As there’s only so many ways you can get those, you should probably call someone about that. 
If someone was rude enough to set up a SURPRISE ACCELERATOR next to your counting lab without so much as an Employee Right-To-Know chat over coffee, they’re probably using the other side of the wall from your detector as their backstop to be Maximally Inconsiderate Colleague. But again, an accelerator, even one operating in a mode/power that can cause activation, isn’t going to give you a radon signal. It’ll give you a big honking Bremsstrahlung curve to absolutely wipe out your detector, but not radon. Seriously, SURPRISE ACCELERATORS are rude, but they aren’t subtle. You tend to notice when one shows up before they turn it on and can have very productive discussions about shared spaces, resources, and institutional research priorities. It’s also a super great time to make new enemies for the rest of your respective careers.
Which means you’re now looking for the things that are subtle. Changes that might have happened that you can’t see. Perhaps changes that happened to the built environment that no one would think are an issue. Changes like someone getting a fancy new smaller counterweight for the elevator. Elevator counterweights come in a lot of flavors, but the key is that your space is limited in the shaft. Concrete is cheap, but very bulky. Junk steel? It’ll work. Lead? Now we’re talking to get the size down of the counterweight down and you already have a CA Prop 65 warning on the building anyway. Tungsten? You are superfancy and must have a lot of budget to burn because that’s expensive. How about a depleted uranium one?

Oh dear. 

As several of you identified, an elevator shaft is a lovely low space where you could collect radon but the pumping action of the elevator tends to flush it out regularly. Admittedly, you’re flushing it into the rest of the building but that’s what your HVAC is for. Having a DU counterweight means there’s a chance to evolve a teensy extra bit of radon in the elevator shaft from the decay of the U-238 as it heads toward equilibrium with its daughters. Mind you, hitting equilibrium is gonna take about a million years so it’s a teensy amount of radon. There are, however, several amusing gammas coming off the 2000kg+ slab of DU regularly going up and down the shaft. If your counting lab is near the elevator, you’re going to see it every damn time it goes by, but it’s not radon.
To get a radon spike large enough to effect your instruments you are going need, technically speaking, a shit ton of radon, far more than your build HVAC can handle. Where the heck are you gonna to get that? Why, the Earth of course!  But how to get it? Radon is constantly evolving out of the soil but must of it decays away before it ever gets a chance hit the surface. The rate of radon evolution is not only a function of the soil composition but also of weather. Depending on the barometric pressure, radon gets tamped down into the soil during highs and when it’s low, like a thunderstorm or blizzard, that lid comes off.

For very sensitive counting labs, watch the weather closely. 

For the events that inspire the scenario, there was a counting experiment that was getting pronounced Ra-226 lines showing up in their overnight runs at least once a month over the course of a year. There was no rhyme or reason other than “only overnight runs”. I was asked to help find the source of this mysterious source because one researcher had had their experiments ruined three times in a row and it was driving them crazy.

Keeping in mind what they told me, I started by looking at the experimental setup. Experiment looked solid and I found no signs of stray contamination leftover from previous experiments. All sources were accounted for and secure when I performed an inventory. I took a step back, sort of cleared my mind, and took in the whole space. That’s when I figured it out and moved one item. The random radium peaks vanished. 

They were very thankful. Then, six months later, it happened again. I got an angry phone call saying the peaks were back and I hadn’t fixed it after all. 

Me: Did you move your trashcan next to your experiment again?
Them: Uhh [clearly looking to check], yes. What’s that got to do with anything?
Me: As long as it was by the door, the janitor with a SPICY radium watch didn’t have to walk into your lab and near your incredibly sensitive experiment to empty the trashcan.
Me: Why didn’t you leave your trashcans out in the hallway like they were supposed to be in the first place. The janitor was doing you a favor by even entering your space to collect up your trash.

MORAL: Don’t blame the janitor for your fuck up.



When you’re regarded as a teacher/professor’s favorite student over their entire career, it makes it very likely the school administration or alumni association will drop you a line for help, no matter what you went on to do in life.

This may encourage you to move far from home.

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

If you have memories, happy or otherwise, of your teachers having a seemingly endless supply of weird and concerning apparatus for demonstrations, I want to assure you there were SO MANY MORE they didn’t use in the backroom and back at their homes. The things your teacher’d bring out for demos are a function of a few things:
  • Where/how old is your school district?
  • How comfortable are they are using it?
  • How likely is it to break/easy to fix again?
  • Have they been specifically forbidden to use it by administration? 

The collection your teacher has to draw on is made up of the collective things ALL the science teachers that have ever taught there have left behind, everything of their own, and everything donated to the district over the decades. Because if you can give it away, and they accept it, it isn’t waste and you get a tax write off for the donation. You know, for kids! SEE ALSO: Navy base cleanup CYORA 

Sooooo, if you live near a military base, university, or national lab interesting things may sneak into your local high schools. Especially if your former teacher used to work at any of these institutions. They knew exactly what to grab from the surplus sales. 

It’s entirely likely the four items in this quiz are in the demo collection. For example, Luis Alvarez, his students, and Oppenheimer’s sons used to build cloud chambers and hand them out to anyone and everyone that wanted one within a several hundred mile radius of Berkeley, CA. What they didn’t typically give were radioactive sources to go with the cloud chamber. Not because the rules were strict or that the Nobel Prize winner was stingy but rather because a suitable radioactive source was very easy to lay hands on for most anyone those days. If it isn’t already mounted in the cloud chamber, there’s likely a box somewhere near it with a Ra-226 tipped needle or a small piece of pitchblende. Of course, this might be when you find the cabinet with a century worth of collected rad sources, but that’s a different CYORA. Old enough radium needles and crumbly ore will shed material, which is annoying and you have to clean up, but they aren’t a big dose concern. Use your GM to find all the bits and bag them all nicely.

But even in this blighted Year of Nergal 2020, your cloud chamber and the associated bits are probably the newest of the four at ~80 years old. Sears-Roebuck, however, made ABSOLUTE BANK selling medical quackery, pretty much from the first 1894 catalog. I’m not going to link to any of the modern inheritors of the 19th century hair growth stimulation wands, but suffice it to say this product class has never really gone away. Various specific products have been pulled from the market over the decades and dozens of new ones take their place. In summation, yes, I know all about the damn laser hats and have reported several to the FDA. Speaking of the FDA, as many of you noted, the peak of electricity based quack devices matches nicely with the rise of the radiation-based ones. And this all predates the Clean Food & Drug Act. 


There were absolutely manufacturers who reasoned MORE VOLTAGE, MORE RADON, MORE FUN, SIX FLAGS!!! and then they did the Mr. Six dance all the way to the bank. But the wand is more of an electrocution hazard than a radiological one with it’s fraying fabric insulation. The uranium or thorium in the glass of the wand’s discharge tip will glow nicely thanks to the discharge, but the dose rates won’t be much worse than depression glass.

Speaking of electrical fun, this brings us to the Van de Graff generator. A 450kV Van de Graff is about this size and works roughly like so for fun demos.

450kV will do good zaps, raise hair, and stick balloons everywhere. And while you can use a Van de Graff’s as an accelerator, you need to hit about 10MeV before I’m worried about you activating things with electrons. This one’s safe and will make the Halloween party look good. 
Which brings us to the hand-blown Crookes Tube. Hand-blown isn’t particularly concerning as that’s just how most of them were made, especially if you want something inside the tube as a target like a Maltese Cross or phosphor strip. If you aren’t familiar with this bit of apparatus, they look like this. I’m posting this video with a wince and going to have a nice sip of my cocktail. 

A Crooke’s Tube is more generically known as a cathode ray tube (CRT). CRT covers everything from this 19th century delight, to your old tube TV, to your x-ray unit. What they all have in common are electrodes, glass, vacuum, voltage…and the generation of x-rays. Did you notice the sound in that nine second video? That was their rad meter out of the shot reacting to all the x-rays emitted when voltage was applied to the tube. Very old tubes still function, though you may need to bake them out a bit before they’ll work well enough to give you a good glow. But why didn’t you ever hear about x-rays from your old TV’s CRT? Ever notice how heavy those damn things were compared to your flatscreen? Because we learned lessons quickly and added a bunch of lead to the tubes of consumer products. We also made the FDA’s responsible for them after one holiday shopping season production whoopsie.

The Crooke’s Tubes have none of that. Their soft x-ray emission *and how it aims* is a function of applied voltage, target material, how good the vacuum is, and what magnets you add. Some are highly directional. Others spew x-rays EVERYWHERE. Get your meter for this one. And I use the plural “tubes” because no self-respecting teacher has just one, unless that’s the only one left intact after a century of instruction. For public instruction, you want the dose rate <2µSv/hr. You might discover you need to move some desks to use them. 

For the inspiring events for this scenario, while my high school physics/chemistry teacher had all the things listed in the quiz and so much more (especially the Sears medical quackery instruments), P.Q. le Boom’s Collection is not the subject in question here. 

A physics demo group had a remarkable collection of hand-blown Crooke’s Tubes, dozens in all kinds of configurations, with the newest having been made by Zeiss in 1923. The oldest had been made in-house by the demo group’s predecessors over a century earlier. They’d been in continuous use for ~100yrs for classroom demonstration for professors. Nor had the demos changed much in a century. Then SOME COMPLETE BASTARD asked if anyone had ever done a dose rate measurement of them in operation as set up by professors for instruction. And so, one by one, each of the configurations got set up in every single one of the classrooms to assess the setup, tubes, and teaching space.

PROTIP: Do not aim your tube at students. That’s rude. Use a camera if you want them to see the Maltese Cross shadow. 

At a basic level, they needed to determine if there were any dose rates in excess .2µSv/hr in the classroom.

ANSWER: Each and every one of the tubes was in excess of that for the professor at the front of the classroom. But that’s fine, they’re rad workers.

With the worst of the tubes, even in the largest auditorium, you’d have had to evacuate the first six rows. In the smaller class rooms, you wouldn’t have been able to let any students remain physically present at all. Of the dozens of tubes, it was whittled down to five acceptable ones and only allowed to be used in certain spaces. If there’s a positive aspect to remote instruction in the COVID-19 era, you won’t be in the front row of class, looking down the bore of a 120 year old Crooke’s Tube.


The Decembering 2020: Holidays in the Time of COVID-19

First of all, I want to thank everyone that contributed, watched, and bullshitted with us for the Team Sensible Shoes Extra Life campaign, playing Shadows of Brimstone for almost 26 hours spread over two days. It was fun, still challenging to our increasingly old bodies, and we raised almost $2000 for kids. Again, thank you!

Moving on to business, as the BBotE pre-order slots for the window ending November 21st are up that means we’re sneaking up on Thanksgiving and thus it’s time to give my PROTIPS for holiday shopping! To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, such as the gentleman that I let place a reserve order in September for shipment on December 10th, I’ll answer your question now: yes, you can place an order now in an earlier production window for a holiday shipment. Please leave a note saying “Delay shipment until $DESIRED_DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than ASAP.

It was only -38F that day. It's a dry cold.
My Ceremonial South Pole Hero Shot & Xmas Card 2002. I still love that shirt.

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 19th. 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, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or complete collapse of the world postal system due to pandemic and neglect, but a week and change is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination, even international. I will put another pre-order window up and crank as much out as humanly possible after the 17th. Domestic shipping on Monday December 21st has a chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

Worse come to worse, gift certificates are always an option. 

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. Steins of Science Availability is Limited: I am maintaining some inventory, but not many. If you really, really want one and the one you want is not available, contact me sooner rather than later so I can do my best to get one for you ASAP. However, with COVID considerations resupply is tricky. I likely will not be getting another shipment between now and the end of the year.
  2. 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 to give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special. For shipments going directly to people as gifts, I stick a consumption guide in the box, with a note of who ordered it for them, and stamp the box “REFRIGERATE ON RECEIPT”.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 16th for that last order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively 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.
  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. FAIR WARNING, the international postal system, even for express, has been a little squirrelly this year due to the reduced flights because of COVID-19 so you might want to order a little earlier if overseas.
  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 and this has gotten worse in the COVID  times (see #5). Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and on ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE back to me on the basis that it is, and I quote, Morally Questionable Material. Amazingly, my shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast of the US mainland. 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 shipments 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 that problem in #6.
  9. 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.
  10. BBotE Has 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. I do have a helpful Dominican priest in Portland who’d probably be willing to bless your BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful for most people. Sorry. 

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you.


Mooching off of other departments is always a challenge, if for no other reason than they’re gonna mooch right back at you later.

Of course, the things they’re most willing to give you is their garbage. As the saying goes, “It’s not waste if someone else has a use for it.”

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

PROTIP: try not to become someone else’s rad/hazardous waste disposal site because you thought you might be able to eke out some use of someone else’s garbage. Especially if it comes with extra bonus hazards beyond the thing you want it for. For a low background, when also low on cash, you’re looking for things that:
  • Are dense enough to block things from outside your counting experiment
  • You can actually afford/find/work with (sorry tungsten)
  • Do not contain too much rad signal of their own to mess things up 
This is why you probably don’t want to go raid Mechanical Engineering’s machine shop for their stainless steel stash. Odds on favor, everything was made post-1945 which means all that steel is going to have an atmospheric atomic testing signature to it. Also, for a while, one of the approaches to disposing of activated (radioactive) metal was the old “dilution is the solution” approach by recycling it into the smelters. The result was steel that is ever-so-slightly more radioactive than it should be. And that describes pretty much all steel, everywhere, in the world. Because so much metal recycling happens all the time as part of the smelting process, the smelters are also all ever-so-slightly more radioactive than they should be. Enough to notice, especially in a counting experiment.

Getting “quiet” steel is not easy. For a while, there was deep lust in the research community for normalization of relations with Cuba so they could get their hands on all that pre-WWII steel preserved in the old American behemoth cars there. Also WWI & II shipwrecks. The steel you might steal from MechE would be fine for building the outermost layer of your counting experiment, but the Co, Fe, Ni, and V lines (depending on the type of steel) are going to drive you nuts. Also, it’s just not dense enough to shut out enough of the outside world.

A few of you suggested “Why not just use a lot of water?” That is actually an excellent solution, except that we’re talking A LOT of a water. [imagines cooperative lab space inside @MontereyAq‘s Outer Bay tank] Also remember, this is poverty constrained. Building an underwater lab is, well, kind of anomalously wealthy criminal mastermind territory. We can do hydrogenous shielding to block out neutrons with a “brick” of water, which I would normally describe as a fish tank picked up at the thrift store for $2. But that’s not gonna help here. You want gammas and cosmic rays gone and can’t afford a Science Submarine. 

But there is that giant bin of scrap copper…

If there’s away to get the cops called on you as fast than stealing things from a museum collection, it’s trying to grab that. Most institutions jealously guard their scrap copper because it has more value. Also, that bin may not belong to the institution but rather a contractor they hired where “scrap metal reclamation” was part of their contract and is considered part of the compensation. If you mess with someone’s livelihood, they’re gonna come for you, maybe with a hammer. But if you can get it AND you have the tools to make some fresh copper bricks/plates, you’re in business. Well, other than problem that scrap copper is rarely pure copper. You just smelted an alloy and that’s has the same issues as the steel, but not as badly. So, it’ll work, but you need quite a bit of copper to block everything from the outside world. Enough that you’re gonna want a security system to deter other thieves.

Anyway, as long as were thinking about theft, how about that museum? 

When looking for lead to use in shielding, just like all the rest, we want quiet, pre-WWII lead. Because some naturally occurring isotopes of lead are radioactive, the older the better. And when looking for old things, you can’t beat a museum. Unfortunately for you, the things in museums get these fancy labels like “specimen”, “collection”, “cultural heritage item” or “National Treasure On Loan From The Ministry Of Antiquities”. So, they probably aren’t going to let you melt those down to cast new brick with old lead. But sometimes, SOMETIMES, they may be willing to work with you. For example, if the museum itself is quite old and they saved the previous lead roof to show how the museum used to be built but they don’t need all of it. In fact, you’d be doing them a favor to help make room if you took some of the excess roof sheeting off their hands. In this example, you will want to clean that lead first because it was a roof and thus has a small signal of atmospheric testing thanks to fallout. You won’t get it all, but you can make it quieter. Smelt cleanly, don’t accidentally add anything new in and you’re in good shape! 

But maybe there’s nothing available or the Anthropology department won’t play ball with you. With a heavy heart, you go to the place you know has plenty of lead bricks: Chemistry. They don’t use them quite as much any more, so they’re fairly happy to share with you. Chemistry bricks have been loved. Good news is that most of them are pretty old. Might not pre-date the Manhattan Project, but old. Unfortunately they’re also battered, gouged, and oxidized from having been constantly used in different setups for decades. Building your counting cave was probably gonna get you in the lead worker monitoring program anyway, but you definitely will be after handling these manky bricks.

And while they might be fallout and smelter recycling clean, they have been in the presence of Chemistry. They aren’t CLEAN clean. Chemistry is messy. When you get one of these bricks, you hope against hope that the white crusty stuff on them is just lead oxide. The reason chemistry has so many lead bricks is because they’d been doing radiochemistry. So, get the meter and start surveying them for rad contamination. Good news here is that lead is soft. If you find fixed contamination you can’t just wipe off, you can gouge it out to make a much smaller bit of contaminated lead waste to rid off and keep most the brick. Or, maybe, you can give this brick back to them and ask nicely for a less crapped up one. It’s worth a try.

In the events that inspire this scenario, a researcher was indeed building a counting cave and actually needed steel, lead and copper (because Cu is good at blocking the Bremsstrahlung made in the Pb when it does it’s shielding thang) to make it structurally sound and quiet. 

Researcher was rich in available labor pool, resourcefulness, and skills but with a budget that had been entirely blown on the ABSOLUTE BEAST of a detector, leaving roughly $3.50 to build the experiment itself. Ever watch Junkyard Wars? They treated the entire campus this way. The copper was eventually identified as stripped from a now defunct experiment that needed a full room Faraday Cage. The steel was heavy plate stock of a particularly nice alloy which they slipped into framing so they didn’t have to drill any holes. This way it wouldn’t be noticed when they slipped the plates back into the machine shop storage area that they had purloined them from, but with every intention of returning.

For lead, yeah, they had to go with Chemistry lead. Which is where it all went wrong.

Some of the bricks they got didn’t just predate the Manhattan Project; they’d been used as part of the Manhattan Project. Not so long ago, the approach to lead use was along the lines of “Grab some old beat up bricks from the pile, go down to the shop and cast some new ones. Or don’t you know how to do that, scrub?” Or even better, why settle for bricks when you cast the exact shapes you want in lead. Which means there was active recycling of lead throughout the Manhattan Project, by the researchers, while they were working on it. And, as I said, chemistry is messy. 

Now decades later, the researcher’s group surveyed the free Chemistry bricks. They tried to gouge out hot spots. Then they got a plane from the carpentry shop to try to shave the bricks when it seemed like the entire surface was contaminated. This didn’t work because it was bulk contamination of ENTIRE brick.

And so, in trying to work cheap with enthusiasm and creativeness, they managed to make a simultaneous lead and radiological contamination incident. As you might guess, that cost a lot more to clean up than $3.50. Even more than the detector itself.