Birthday & Extra Life 2021

It’s that time of year again where I celebrate getting older by hanging out in a graveyard and playing games to help sick kids. If you’ve been following a long with my shenanigans for awhile, you know Dia de los Muertos is my birthday and I’m excited to be celebrating it in a new neighborhood that I’m informed enjoys the bejeezus out of that day. This year, as I continue to try to be a responsible adult in the COVID times, my plan is to stay local and hit up Rolling Hills Memorial Park. Last year was good times with the Hells Angels and Jonestown Victims, so we’ll see who I find this year.

But on November 11th & 13th, I will be joining Test Subject Not-A-Whale Biologist (AKA Thomas White), Test Subject THE WORLD, and my Lovely Assistant for a 24 marathon of our favorite board game, Shadows of Brimstone, for Extra Life 2021! Because we’re old, our bodies are weak, and we’ve learned valuable lessons from the last four years (yes, this will be our fifth year), we’ll be splitting this over two days. There will still be a whole lot of BBotE, fine drink and impromptu dance parties to keep us going because that’s a whole lot of gaming. For people that pledge over $50, I will send you 10% off coupon code for the Funranium Labs store that’ll be good until New Year’s Eve (and no, coupon codes don’t stack). Please join us for being very, very silly and help some sick kids because that’s one of the things I want to do with my extended birthday fortnight. And, yes, there will be a Twitch stream and there will be a chat function which I’ll add a link for as soon as we know it. If you feel like it, please go donate to either my personal page or to our group, TEAM SENSIBLE SHOES.

Because it is all, as Norville Barnes says:


The tricky part  is COVID-19. Just like 2020, my Lovely Assistant and I don’t get to go down to play in the Gametarium and instead will be remoting in. For those of you watching us on the stream, this won’t be much different than previous years; we’ve always been disembodied voices to you while the action is on the board. Unfortunately, this also means there will still be no opportunity to yell “PORK DELIVERY!” for when the fresh chicharrones from the Pig Wizard show up this year. This is more of a personal tragedy for me though because I still really want that order from Pig Wizard.

Lastly, THE DECEMBERING (though that’s last year’s page) will soon be at hand again. If you’re planning your holidays that far out, before Halloween even, jeez, I envy your preparedness, but I understand in light of logistics chaos. I’m just mad that there were very few Halloween decorations to buy to deck my home out in fresh skulls; everyone skipped straight to Xmas crap.


With the exception of the old Pu-238 pacemaker, as hospitals & mortuaries prefer FedEx for some reason, all of these things have been sent through the mail by the USPS. Whether they should have is the issue. If the postal inspectors had checked, they’d be cranky.

[The eighteenth 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 underlying rules for what can and cannot be shipped, and by what methodologies, for the United States are all hiding in 49CFR, AKA the Department of Transportation part of the federal code. Additionally, we are beholden to IATA for international air transport rules. While the DOT regs matter and they dictate what shipping entities have to do, the shippers are quite welcome to be more restrictive in how they do this. This usually comes in the form of declaring that rad shipments may only be performed using the most expensive service. Or alternatively, the most popular restriction by far, “DOT marked Rad-I & II packages are forbidden. We only ship UN2910 limited quantities.”

But, honestly, your eBay sellers are just tossing things in a flat rate USPS box and shipping. No stickers. No papers. Nothing. And for a lot of stuff in the collector market, nothing is necessary. As an example, radioactive minerals are NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material) and there’s absolutely no restriction of shipping that. Even if it has a hell of a lot of thoria, it’s still a rock. Depending on the sorting facility, a spicy rock may trigger a detector that will get your package pulled aside and sent to the postal inspectors. When they open it, if they don’t just do a gamma spec, there will be an annoyed but relieved sigh of “Goddammit, it’s a rock.”

There also a specific carve out for items that specifically contain only non-dispersable natural thorium or natural/depleted uranium as a constituent component, like Fiestaware or depression/vaseline glass (AKA uranium crystal). Ship as big a box of that as you like. There is another exemption that lets you ship NRC generally licensed material without any special paperwork because the person who got that general license went through a hell of a lot work to certify the safety and integrity of their product in the first place. 

This brings us to our first item that gets you into trouble: the 12 smoke detector sources. The old smoke detectors with Am-241 sources are generally licensed, which is why you can slap one in a box and mail it back to the manufacturer. In fact, they ask you to do it. If you were being sent 12 smoke detectors, that’s fine, I’d assume you were renovating a large house. But when people crack them open to get at the juicy americium center, WELP, the shield of the general license instantly vanishes. Kinda like this:

Suddenly all the DOT shipping rules come crashing down on you again and gosh are they not generous with transuranics. If the postal inspectors notice you illegally shipping fragile alpha sources, they may very officious at both shipper and intended recipient.

Cheney’s old pacemaker is actually A-OK to ship for exactly the same reason as the whole smoke detector. You cracked open a human to remove it, but not the source itself. Even when no longer attached to Cheney’s skin husk, it’s still under general license. As reminder, general licensure doesn’t mean there’s a miniscule amount radioactive material present. It means that this consumer product has been tested for THIS SPECIFIC USE & CONFIGURATION to be okay for general sale without additional licenses required for possession or use. But, well, we’ve been selling consumer products that contain radioactive materials for longer than the NRC or it’s predecessor the AEC have existed. Your old watch with the the radium painted glow-in-the-dark face doesn’t have a general license because there wasn’t one to have. There’s been some retroactive exemptions given to shipping item like watches as they constitute good encapsulation of the flaking radium paint inside of the watch face. But for the more general radium stuff, it comes back to 49CFR for Tables A1 & 2 for what is an exempt quantity. 

Generally speaking, your small radium containing items are exempt and a low enough dose rate and little enough radium that no one’s going to notice. Except there’s this keyword in the regs that will get you in trouble with these ornaments: Non-Dispersable Solid. Anyone who has had the pleasure of playing with radium painted items has also had the displeasure of discovering how much crap they shed, contaminating they area around them. Your watch can convincingly claim to contain the shed and be non-dispersible. The painted ornaments? No. The poof of crumbling phosphor, radium, and probably old plastic is not a pleasure for anyone opening that box. If that’s a postal worker, you’re going to be having a nice chat with the postal inspectors again.

Which brings us to our 100g of UF4. Uranium tetraflouride, AKA Green Salt, is one of the chemical steps in uranium fuel processing which I, personally, find the most pleasing because it’s pretty. At this point, it’s in an intermediate processing phase of either nat-U or DU. While there is an exception for an item that contains only natural or depleted uranium that will let you freely ship as exempt for radioactive materials, umm, do not get so blinded by the uranium such that you ignore the chemical hazards and get literally blinded by fluorine. While rad exempt, so no DOT 7 sticker, you will have other paperwork to fill out for your DOT 8 (corrosive) sticker.

Stick to shipping RTG pacemakers to each other. But not Cheney’s, because that’s gross and we know exactly where its been.

In the inspiring events for this scenario, there was a shipment of “exempt” tritium luminous tubes in a rainbow of colors from a manufacturer in Russia via a vendor in the UK. Tritium is one of those radionuclides that doesn’t have uniform controls all over the world such that things like this can happen. What is exempt in one country because of low amount of activity may not be in another because of how it is used.

For the US, the NRC is very picky about what you can and can’t use radioactive materials in for general licensing. One of their NOPE points is called “frivolous use”, and the luminous tritium tubes for key fobs and zipper pulls are considered so. Not watches or gun sights, oddly enough. Anyway, a crafty person had ordered a box of these luminous tritiated tubes to make glowing art pieces for sale on $INTERNET_CRAFT_SITE. Each individual tube didn’t have much tritium in it. In aggregate, there was over ~40TBq of activity.

…smashed in the sorting facility.

Now, this sounds bad but that’s only a few old EXIT signs worth of tritium and the tritium release limits are quite high. But when glowing pink, green, and blue liquids start flowing people freak the fuck out. This looked a lot scarier than it was but tritium, as previously discussed, is damn annoying because it is persistent, it migrates, and has juuust a long enough half-life to be an issue for the lifespan of a building. So, decon was done but the tritium wasn’t gone gone. What remaining contamination was left was low enough such that they didn’t have post anything, but not so low that you couldn’t find it if you sampled correctly. And everyone working there knew the event had happened and didn’t trust that it was safe afterward due to radiophobia.

To keep being able to use the facility over worker complaints, everything in the building had to be reconfigured to move all work away from that area and that part of the old sorting line was rotated out to another facility. This was one of dozens of hazmat incidents that had happened to just that one sorting facility, but even minor radiological incidents carry the sort of fear that can bring a regional hub to a screeching halt.

So please, for the sake of the USPS, use FedEx for all of your illegal shipping.



The fun thing about this one is that I know a lot of people out there have treated their cats for hyperthyroidism, but the number of responses from people that’ve experienced radiopharma medical care for humans that I’d call “inadequate, bordering on actionable” is high.

[The seventeenth 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.]

Thyroid ablation is one of those fun treatments where we intentionally do a thyroid destroying uptake of radioiodine, specifically I-131 to limit the body burden, to get rid of diseased thyroid tissue. And it’s one that is comparable between humans and cats. Radioiodines are annoying because they are very preferentially deposited in the thyroid when you have an uptake. This is why your “RadAway” pills for reactor accidents are just regular iodine, so that you absolutely flood your thyroid and there’s no room for more to be absorbed. 

NOTE: You have to take the pills *before* the radioiodine release gets you. Your body can’t tell the difference between the two and will take up one just as happily as the other. Biochemistry ain’t picky. 

But in this case, you’re counting on the diseased tissue already in your thyroid to be much more delicate than the healthy tissue around it. Load it up with some 8 day radioactive half life I-131 and let it kill the hyperactive bits. Afterward, all that’s left is healthy tissue and a normally functioning thyroid. Sometimes, when things were advanced before treatment begins, you can go all the way to hypothyroidism and now need to supplement with drugs. Well, a healthy thyroid and all the residual I-131…

As usual, I chose my words carefully and referred to the 8 day *radioactive* half life of I-131. This is because for anything in the body we also need to consider it’s biological half life, because were constantly cycling through everything we eat, drink, and excrete. For people with normally functioning thyroids, the half life of any given uptake of iodine is ~2 months. It’s only about one month in people with both hyper and hypothyroidism. This means you can’t hope that drinking lots of beer will clear your system faster, like tritium. The effective half life then, combining the rad & bio half lives, is just a hair under 8 days. The radiological half life dominates the calculation. And as we’ve previously discussed, we generally consider something to be “decayed away” after 10 half lives have passed. So, 80 days until all the I-131 is gone? Does the patient need to hide from everyone else? Do they need to poop into a rad waste drum? Burn all their bedding?

Uh, no.

Because American healthcare is deeply broken, thyroid ablations are often outpatient procedures. You’re held for observation to insure uptake and then released on to the street as one of the many surprise radiation sources people swinging meters may find. 31.4μSv/hr per 37MBq at 30cm is the gamma dose rate to others. Depending on how big you are, you may get an administration of 4-10x that activity. This means you become a source emitting a field at arms length of ~.3mSv/hr. OH YES, we can detect you. Which is why you get told to not put any babies in your lap or hug pregnant women and, ideally, go stay in a hotel or sleep in the garage. You are now a source of extraneous dose in the lives of others and need to stay clear of them, at least for a little bit to cool down. Also, after almost any radiopharma, it would be a great time to not do ANY travel. As they’ve gotten cheaper, radiation monitors have been installed all over the place. Your cops have questionable training, if any, of what to do if that alarm goes off. Freak out is normal. Also, no need to poop in buckets. Your radioactive flushes are already baked into the public dose calcs and discharges of your water treatment plants. Once you’ve been given your I-131, you are pissing, shitting, exhaling and sweating radioactive material and all of that needs to be controlled to keep others from taking it up. PROTIP: You shouldn’t be handling food for others at this time.

These are all instructions that I, the health physicist tasked to try to explain things people that nod, smile, and ignore me (SEE ALSO: masking compliance vs. COVID), can give to patients. Okay, now try to tell this to a radioactive cat. More responsibly than our normal dealing with humans in America, radioactive pets are kenneled for the first few *days* for cool down because, nope, not even letting you out. Your cat weighs considerably less than you, so its dose administration will also be smaller. I had the pleasure of meeting the Nuke Med Kitties at UC Davis during my masters course work. There is nothing more pathetic than a cat that desperately wants pets and you aren’t allowed within a meter of them.

This is why they have the ALARA Scritchin’ Stick. As you might imagine, the stick just is not the same. The cat whining was extreme.

You might be tempted to go grab one of the shielded glovebox gloves to pet a radioactive patheticat. This is kind of you, but you really need a full body suit. The cat is a whole body dose concern and it takes some of the beefier lead impregnated gloves to do this. Your dexterity with them is…not great. You end up incompetently and heavily petting a cat. Do not crush your cat with lead. Even then, the shielding isn’t good enough. Your distance with the stick was better.

You could try to accelerate the bio half-life by changing to a VERY protein rich diet to encourage more, volumetrically & speed-wise, pooping to clear the thyroid hormones the I-131 is getting excreted with a bit faster. The obligate carnivore will appreciate this all meat, all the time diet. But it doesn’t really shift the numbers all that much. You might get down to an effective half life of 6.5 days. Maybe. This is still a detectably radioactive kitty for two months. Also that’s gonna make a lot of poop. About that…

First, there is no such thing as anti-rad kitty litter. There is, however, kitty litter that you can flush down the toilet. As far as the water treatment plant is concerned, a radioactive cat turd is about the same as human one. My experience as a pet store employee says “flushable” is more marketing than reality. Keep your plumber’s phone number handy. So, instead, you get a new bucket to collect all the radioactive outputs of your cat and get to do a little thing we like to call “Decay In Storage”. That’s right, you get to stockpile all of your cat’s treasures for two months! Because if you throw it in your normal trash you run a VERY HIGH risk of setting off a radiation portal monitor (remember: they are cheaper and plentiful now) at a landfill and then getting a very hefty bill for illegal dumping of rad waste. You’re already collecting your cat’s carefully buried treasures anyway; to the cat, it just seems like you’re cherishing it for longer.

No, the real crime comes from treating your cat like a highly mobile and unwanted radioactive source for weeks. At a minimum, you are keeping your cat from snuggling with you for two weeks. No sitting in your lap, no jumping up into bed and snuggling with your head. It will seem like you Do Not Love Kitties. This is a crime again felinity and you will be taken to The Kitty Hague. 

This thread is brought to you by Omaha, who will soon be a radioactive kitty. She’s incredibly whiny at the best of times and I fear how much worse it’ll be for those weeks.

Pour one out for Omaha, folks. She is a excellent void and eternally vigilant for eagles.


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.