Fun With PUREX

Originally wrote this 16 years ago as I was getting my masters degree. As my adviser often asked “Don’t you want to learn normal things?”

While PUREX may save us from being buried in nuclear waste it is not without peril, though it’s more of the did-you-actually-think-this-through-before-you-started-pressing-buttons variety of peril.  It is vitally important to take a moment before you start playing with big machinery full of radioactive materials in the middle of simultaneous inorganic & organic chemistry.

For the record, I have personally performed the uranium half of the PUREX process…in a 20mL test tube.  It was damn impressive to observe this happening in my hands.

So, how it works:

PUREX is an acronym that stands for “Plutonium and Uranium Removal by EXtraction”. First, you bring the uranium up into solution as uranyl nitrate in concentrated nitric acid.  “Concentrated Nitric Acid” is one of those chemical phrases that lets you know that you are about to do something dangerous, just like Darkwing Duck.

Next, mix up the tributyl phosphate (TBP) in kerosene. Hearing that words phosphate and kerosene together make me start to think of Oklahoma City. Add the TBP/kerosene mixture to the uranyl nitrate aqueous solution. Now it really sounds like a truck bomb. However, the organic and aqueous phases are immiscible, with the kerosene floating on top.

What do you do next? That’s right, you shake the thing that sounds like an explosive VIGOROUSLY.

As you do this, greatly increasing the reacting surface area as you mix the bejeezus out of it, some of the uranium will slip out of the nitrate and pop into the middle of the TBP’s handy ring. You then decant the organic layer, add a fresh one, and repeat. Eventually, the vast majority of the uranium will be sucked out of the aqueous phase.

And that’s how PUREX works. You change the organic compounds slightly to grab the specific actinide element you want, but it’s more or less the same. What you do next with the organic phase depends on what you’re after.

Now, this is when it works correctly.

In the course of my research into radiation accidents, I came across one category called “Red Oil Fires” which had occurred at Savannah River, Hanford, and the Tomsk nuclear complex in Russia (a hot part of Siberia if there ever was one).  It was only in reading closely, that I realized that what the accident report was calling “red oil” was the same mix of chemicals used in the PUREX process.

There was a handy safety tip my radiochemistry teacher neglected to share. Below 130C, All Is Well Citizen! Above 130C…remember the Murrah Building? That’s right, if you get it too hot – oh, and the mixture is self-heating – the “red oil” mixture can detonate. Of course, since you are using this to separate plutonium and uranium, it is an explosion full of radioactive delights. I believe this would qualify as a radiologic dispersal device.

One would assume that these accidents could be prevented by keeping a cooling jacket of some sort on the system, or that there was a shut off for the mixers that would stop agitating the chemicals so that it could simmer down, or that there was some kind of ventilation thingee to take away the splody vapors. These would be good assumptions. Such things do exist. They do, however, need to be working and/or actually turned on by personnel. The good news is that there have been precious few of these accidents (4 total that I’ve found so far).  The bad news is that one of them, the one at Tomsk in 1993, gets compared with Chernobyl contamination-wise.

There is another hazard that comes with PUREX that is peculiar to uranium and plutonium: Criticality. The whole point of PUREX is to concentrate uranium and plutonium.  If you get too much fissile material in one place it, duh, achieves critical mass.  There’s some strange things that happen because this is all in a liquid phase (yes, liquids can go critical).  The key question becomes, “How enriched is the stuff in solution?” This was the question they failed to ask at Tokaimura, September 30th, 1999.

You see, they had developed some processes using PUREX to extract uranium to make reactor fuel. The one they used most often was the one for Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) with is less than 5% 235U. They had another one, that was rarely used, to process Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), using the same system, which mainly involved a change in how large a batch they made. Both of these processes had been certified and approved by JAEA, Japan’s equivalent to the Department of Energy.

Over a couple of years operation they gotten a lot more business than they started with. Managers came up with a great idea to bump up the size of the LEU batch process that involved a large tub, a big paddle for stirring, and then climbing up a ladder to pour buckets of this solution into a separator tank. They did not consult with safety personnel or the governing body regarding this change.

Then they got their first order for HEU in years. They moved over to another building with an identical set up and got to work using the unapproved process.  When the worker added the fourth bucket of nitric acid with dissolved HEU to the separator within 90 minutes, there was the lethal blue Cherenkov flash that let everyone know a criticality had occurred.

Two died, one of them over a very long unpleasant month, several hundred were exposed, and roughly 300,000 were in harm’s way and “given instruction”.

There was another PUREX criticality that occurred at Hanford just because they turned the mixer speed up too high. Obviously, the fluid started creeping up the walls the faster it was spun. Not so obvious was the fact that as the shape of the fluid changed, so too did its critical mass. X kilograms of nuclear material in solution resting in a tank was fine; one tenth of that was enough to go critical in that nice spun up shape.

Chemistry and radiation is a sticky wicket. Really gotta think about things before you do things.

A Sweetwater Tale

These events originally happened on November 12th, 2008 in Sweetwater, TX when I went to visit Ludlum Measurements. I add them here for posterity.

SCENE: Our Hero, Phil, is seated at the bar of the closest consumption establishment within walking distance.  He is dressed in shorts, sandals, t-shirt and wearing his long red hair in its typical ponytail.  There is a pint of beer in front of him and he is waiting for his cheeseburger.

Enter Belligerent Drunk in Camo who sits to Phil’s right.  Phil cannot help but notice the enormity of the man’s belt buckle and the cowboy hat with the hatband of a linked chain of silver Texases.

Belligerent Drunk in Camo:  What brings you to Sweetwater, ’cause you certainly ain’t from round here?
Phil:  Here doing a training class for work.
BDC:  Who you work for?
P:  UC Berkeley.
BDC:  BERKELEY!?!?!!  I shoulda known…

BDC launches into a rant about goddamn hippies, fuckin’ queers, and strangely enough, vegans, who he seems to hold a special hate for above the other two, though all three are obviously connected.

BDC:  That’s what I think at least.  Sure as fuck glad I ain’t from there like you.  I’d probably be shooting people in the streets.
P:  Oh good god, no.  I don’t live in Berkeley; I live in Livermore.

The clouds of anger depart BDC’s face.  It seems he’s done some work in Livermore up at the windfarms in Altamont Pass and now works down here on the big wind turbines outside of Abilene.

BDC:  Sorry, buddy.  You shoulda said you were from Livermore off the bat.  That may be one of the few bastions of Real America left in California.
P:  Don’t mention it.
BDC:  I mean, looking like you do…
P:  That’s alright. I just assumed you were gay, looking like you do. You know how many “cowboys” I’ve seen in SF during Pride like you?

BDC turns purple, decides not to deck Our Hero, and storms out of the bar.  Bartender, who has been watching and listening to all this, decides this may be the most hilarious thing he’s seen in months.  He gives Phil a free pint.


Lewis Black 2004 – If It Hadn’t Been For That Horse…

In September 2004, I went to the Lewis Black show at the Improv in San Jose. I was expecting an evening of Lewis detonating at the audience and I wasn’t disappointed. It occurred to me that I’d never seen a Comedy Central presentation of him that was longer than a half hour. I figure this is because cutting the “fuck fuck fuckity fuck fucks” out of his hour and half show makes it about right. It was fun to watch the improv anger section, where he simply takes the local paper and mines it for humor and things to be angry at on stage. He starts vibrating with rage but by the end of the show, he was calm and happy, having let off all that steam.

Before the show, I was at the bar getting a Manhattan. Lewis walked up to the bar to get a bottled water while he was cruising the audience to see what kind of crowd he had for the evening. I’d wore my Antarctica winterover shirt to work that day because, at the time, damn near everything I own had “Antarctica” on it somewhere. More to the point, I’d worn it to the show since I was too lazy to change.

LB: [looks me up and down] Where the fuck do you get a shirt like that?
Me: Well, first you go to the South Pole for a year.
LB: Really?
Me: Yup.
LB: No shit?
Me: Nope.
LB: Fuck. [points at the Manhattan the bartender just placed in front of me] You need another one of those.

And then he went on his merry way.

During the show, as he wound his way through a beautiful rant about Janet Jackson’s exposed breast at the Super Bowl, Gov. Schwarzenegger, the Old Testament, and Georgia, he calmed down slightly for a moment. He took a drink of water and then said, “You know, you people…you’ve been dealing with this shit non-stop, 24 fucking 7, as it happened. You’re numb. But out there in the audience is some poor fuck that just spent a year at the South fucking Pole. Imagine what the fuck this like for him!”

It was like when I was at the Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine show all over again, but the except this time the CD I bought didn’t get autographed to “Pole Boy”, just Phil.

The autographed CD I got in 2004 from Lewis Black. Because of this CD & show, I eternally look for a Starbucks across from Starbucks.

Looking Out For The Babushkas

UPDATE: As of April 2nd, you all have through your purchases and gifts given us enough to send $4400 to our fixer in Kyiv so far. I didn’t expect this much generosity and our fixer certainly didn’t either. You’ve made an old Stalker cry with your kindness.

As you might be aware, Russia invaded Ukraine. I apologize for the rude surprise if this is news to you.

One of the invasion routes that got people in a hell of a lather was the one from Belarus to Kyiv via Chernobyl. My goodness did people get excited about this thanks to radiophobia and the magic word “Chernobyl”. Gotten to spend a fair bit of time untwisting knickers from this in the last two weeks but that’s not the invasion effect I want to discuss.

I want to talk about the resettlers in the Exclusion Zone. Please note, all references to our fixer are being left very intentionally vague just in case.

Resettler Kitty – Most of the babushkas have cute kitties that are in desperate need of scritches. (photo by Phil Broughton, 2016)

When my friend Robyn and I visited in 2016, our fixer made a point to introduce us to some of the resettlers, who are mostly women (AKA the babushkas), that had returned to living in the Exclusion Zone. While arranging things for folks to get out there was their living, I got the distinct impression they were very fond of the resettlers and looked at them as their collective grandmothers. Doing little things like building windmill generators for some battery chargers and making some radio/cell phone relays so they could get help in emergencies. Also, bringing them treats like cigarettes, oranges, aspirin and chocolate. When Robyn went back the following year and spent a while living in the Zone with the babushkas, each of them thought it a crime that Robyn didn’t have any kerchiefs of her own. This is how Robyn ended up with a dozen or so beautiful kerchiefs as each babushka gifted her with one so that she would look proper the next time she visited. That is a kindness that is heartbreaking to even type.

So, when Russian troops decided to take a mosey on into the Zone, we reached out to our fixer to see if, 1) they were okay, and 2) if the babushkas were in any trouble. While, obviously, their business wasn’t happening with a war on and occupation in the Zone, the more important effect of the invasion was that the one and only store was closed. The babushkas are used to not having much of anything in the first place, but this cut them off from the few pleasures they might get and it’s not like they get out of the Zone much. That didn’t sit right with Robyn and I. Luckily, the hard part is already solved: we have a fixer quite willing to smuggle things to the babushkas even during enemy occupation of a nuclear accident area. I believe the quote went something like “Fuck ’em. I’d do it anyway and it’s not like the fucking Russians know where they’re going better than me in the Zone.” Bless their Stalker heart.

And so, like with my trip to Fukushima, I’m declaring the 750ml Coffee Wave and 1000ml Ineffable Mustachio’d Goat of Science to be fundraiser items for the babushkas. You buy either of those items and I will send a quarter of that to Ukraine for our fixer to go look after the resettlers in the Zone. If you just want to hand me cash to pass along, I’ll do that too but I’d feel better if you got some Black Blood of the Earth for your trouble.

Coins of Transition: Revolutions & Civil War

[Editorial Note: This post has sat incomplete for almost three years because I was trying to stitch together some very big and complicated concepts spanning roughly 2600 years. Coming back to this and trying to figure out what I wanted to say, I figured out that the real uniting theme and thesis is {Marge Simpson voice} “I just think they’re neat!”]

A while back I had an idle thought that stuck in my head. In the last several posts, I talked a lot about colonial money systems and, for America, the not-so-great transitional money that we used during the Revolutionary War, the Continental. In February 2019, a weird post-Soviet collapse commodity token came into my possession which led me to ask myself what happened to the money during the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent Russian Civil War? I have post-1940s Soviet currency and coins in my collection, but there had to be a period where the Tsar’s ruble was still common and I assume no Bolshevik worth their red banner was going to use anything with a Romanov crest on it. Did they just stamp a hammer and sickle across the old coins (AKA overstriking)? What did they run their economy with at the dawn of GLORIOUS SOVIET STATE!?!?

What I was asking about a is very particular modern case of one of my favorite arguments in favor of coin collecting: money’s importance to the historical record in telling us stories from the peoples and nations of the past. For some civilizations and eras, their coins may be all we know about them. But like all kinds of intelligence gathering, the absence of a thing or conflicting evidence is almost as telling as a definitive information. Today, I’m going to be talking about Money When Everything Falls Apart.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: since the dawn of money itself until very recently, the economic basis and power of country’s currency was based on the purity of it’s precious metal content, with gold being most valuable, then silver, and then copper/brass/etc. Also, their economies were strictly cash systems without much in the way debt and finance that are so common today until the 1600s (no, I don’t want to talk about the Templars). I am not arguing for or against the gold/silver standard here but I am quite clear that our ancestors believed in it and that influenced their actions with historical consequences.

During periods of turmoil, when there is weak/poor leadership, civil war, or invasion, there is usually a corresponding collapse of the coinage, either in quantity or quality. There may be rapidly changing coin designs, usually because a new leader means a new coin. There may be leaders from whom we never find coins because:

  1. They were all destroyed to damn the memory of that leader.
  2. They were all recollected to melt down and re-mint as either higher bullion content, or the same but debased instead.
  3. The treasury was carted off as booty and the government subsequently fell.

Similarly, we find coins with unknown leaders on them because:

  1. They were a leader who’s memory was damned, striking them from the domestic record, but some coins were buried in hordes or paid to mercenaries during their rule, circulating beyond the borders of the country where they’ve been intentionally forgotten.
  2. In a bid to gain legitimacy, they were coins issued by rebellions that then failed.
Confederate $10 Bill – Is it genuine? Is it a counterfeit? WHO KNOWS! (from the Phil Broughton Collection, 2022)

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the coin you found isn’t legitimate currency. Counterfeits aren’t just a swindle by the unscrupulous, they can also be a weapon of war. From the American experience during the American Civil War, “Honest Sam” Upham made enough counterfeit Confederate currency that a considerable percentage of the circulating bills during the early war were his, destabilizing the Confederate economy.  The Lincoln Administration was very uncomfortable with tacitly supporting this, by which I mean not arresting him, because what would stop Sam from doing the same to the Union? And if the Lincoln Admin was merely uncomfortable, the Davis Administration’s reaction was to instate the death penalty for counterfeiting because he may have “done more damage to the Confederate cause than McClellan and his army”. Please ignore how lackluster McClellan’s performance was in this metaphor, also that Grant & Sherman hadn’t happened to them yet in 1862.

Confederate 1 Cent (Restrike), Reverse – Note the cracked die marks. (from the Phil Broughton Collection, 2022)
Confederate 1 Cent (Restrike) – Note the chips from the cracked die. (from the Phil Broughton Collection, 2022)

You see, the Confederacy was extremely dependent on their paper money. They didn’t have much precious metal to make coins with and the only functional mint in the Confederacy was the small one in New Orleans (Dahlonega and Charlotte mints had been defunct for a couple decades at this point). Louisiana seceded from the United States in January 26, 1861 and by the end of April of that year they were completely out of bullion to work with, having struck all their coins with the old United States of America dies. Which is to say, they ran out before the Confederacy was really born and it never came back. The gold & silver rushes out in the west were on but none of that bullion was going to the Confederacy. And Gen. Winfield Scott’s last military contribution before dying, the Anaconda Plan AKA the Blockade, made certain that that no foreign bullion was ever going to show up. Theoretically, the Confederacy designed new coins out of pride, a penny and a half-dollar, but these never saw circulation. The example to the right is a restrike in my collection, made from the copies of the Confederated original dies that were so shoddily made that they cracked and chipped after just a few test uses. All this is to say future archaeologists will find no coin evidence that the Confederacy’s brief existence ever happened; the Confederate paper money, counterfeit and legitimate, will have all rotted away and the coins say it’s been the United States of America the entire time.

When the Russian Revolution/Civil Wars came, the largest contiguous nation on Earth fragmented in a spectacular and very Russian manner. I find that when the anglophone world thinks of civil wars, we tend to think in terms of a Star Wars-like Empire vs. Rebels dichotomy. That’s so cute and simplistic. Russia is here to teach you that you can not only have multiple sides in your civil war but that any given side can have multiple factions within it that bitterly hate each other. Let me start by trying to describe the factions in very simple terms:

  1. The Whites – The defenders of the Tsarist imperial order. Not necessarily supporters of Tsars, but of the order and privileges of the Ancien Regime.
  2. The Blues – The proponents of a more democratic, representative Russian state. Kinda.
  3. The Reds – The Bolshevik and other communist factions. TL;DR history, the Bolsheviks won.
  4. The Greens – The peasant movement that mostly wanted armies stop wandering all over the place like Trogdor, making life miserable for peasants.
  5. The Blacks – The Ukrainian anarchist movement to make a stateless state.
1918 Armavir 1 Ruble – Obverse (from the Phil Broughton collection, 2019)
1918 Armavir 1 Ruble – Reverse (from the Phil Broughton collection, 2019)

After some very promising victories, The Army of Don/Southern White Russian forces assembled a massive chunk of territory in the Caucasus and steppe lands near Crimea, driving out the soviets in control of the cities there. This is as close as they every got to being a nation of any kind, rather than some armies made mostly of Cossacks with a leadership full of serious reactionary grudges. Feeling proud of their achievements and trying to show some legitimacy, they managed to issue copper coins with a modified Romanov crest from their base of operations in Armavir. Note the double headed eagle without crown. This is supposed to signify a Russia without the Romanovs holding power as Tsars over it (no crown on the Romanov eagle). But this was something of a half-hearted effort, you can tell how rough this design is, as they assumed they’d be back in St. Petersburg in no time, with a proper mint, engravers, and bullion at their disposal.

Meanwhile, out in the Far East, Baron Roman von Ungern-Strernberg was trying to become a newer and whiter khan, paying for his armies in the preferred currency out there. We’ve discussed it before, the trusty ol’ Spanish 8 reales, which was still the most trusted coin in the world. So, yes, pieces of eight for his newly assembled Altai & Mongol horde. The Bloody Baron never minted any coins of his own because why bother with such trivialities when you’re an incarnation of the God of War. If you aren’t already familiar with the Baron, I do recommend reading about one of the more colorful characters in the Russian Civil War, occult studies, and not at all sane archaeology. It’s one of those names you keep tripping across in Weird History of the 20th Century and features in the Charlie Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum in The Laundry Files series.

1921 Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic 1 Ruble – Obverse (from the Phil Broughton collection, 2019)
1921 Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic 1 Ruble – Reverse (from the Phil Broughton collection, 2019)

Meanwhile, how did the Bolsheviks pay for everything? ANSWER: They didn’t. From 1917-1921, the Bolsheviks minted no coinage. What they did have was guns, land reform, and requisitions under the precepts of War Communism, many parts of which never really went away once they started. Except the result of all the requisitions was a certain level of “Why grow anything if the Bolsheviks will just take it?” nihilism. This, in turn, contributed to a series of starvation events throughout the former Russian Empire during the 1920s and 30s, like the Holodomor in Ukraine for the worst example.

Once all the White factions were eliminated, for given values of “crushed” (ahem, Finland), then the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic minted new rubles. But in 1921, it wasn’t the USSR yet, just a federation Russian soviets, but don’t worry, revolution was Russia’s leading export. The RSFSR transitioned into the USSR the following year so this was also a coin that only existed as legal tender for a matter of months. The Armavir & RSFSR rubles are both tangible snapshots of transitory nations, one that never was and one that quickly morphed into another.

1992-1993 Tartarstan 1kg of Bread, 10L & 20L of Petrol Tokens – Reverse (from the Phil Broughton collection, 2019)
1992-1993 Tartarstan 1kg of Bread, 10L & 20L of Petrol Tokens – Obverse…ish (from the Phil Broughton collection, 2019)

Fast forward 70 years to the coins that started my exploration. The collapse of the Soviet Union means NEW COINS FOR EVERYONE! Or at least you better mint some really quickly if you intend to be your own nation again. And, as happens a lot when things fall apart, the economy doesn’t collapse exactly because all the need and means of production were all still there, just missing a means of exchange to facilitate it. A Russian researcher who lived through it all in Leningrad had a joke that goes “No need to worry about not using the old money any more. There wasn’t anything to buy anyway.” [bad Russian accent] Very funny joke, you laugh.

But as previously noted, the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union were the largest contiguous nations on Earth but there’s a whole lot of not near the centers of power. One of the details missed in teaching the history of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union is how many small semi to almost entirely autonomous states were contained inside the giant red blob on the map labeled USSR. Part of this was revolution and civil war leftovers of smaller regions making their own soviets and then later joining the Russians to become the USSR. Part of this was a leftover from the older autonomous regions stitched together to make the fiction of the Russian Empire. Trying to manage anything as large as Russia from St. Petersburg prior to the advent of modern telecommunications was a whole lot of nodding and smiling of “Yes, we serve the Tsar faithfully but he is far away.” If you remember the 1992 Olympics with the Commonwealth of Independent States representing the athletes from the former Soviet Union, that was a bit of the compromise to cover all the not yet resolved borders and and sovereignty arguments from dissolution.

Tartarstan was one of those many regions that tried to go independent during the civil war and then got reeled into the USSR. During the Glasnost era, they were declared an autonomous soviet socialist republic within the greater USSR and then shortly thereafter were on their own with dissolution of the USSR as whole, with no remains of a central bank to call on. Trying to maintain basic support for their citizens, they issued a series of commodity based tokens for rations/some medium of exchange made by the Yugoslavian Mint (by which I mean the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Milošević, as Yugoslavia proper had ceased to exist a few years earlier). They came in the “denominations” of 1 kilo of bread, 10L of petrol, and 20L of petrol coins with helpful iconography to let you know what they were for. For added fun, the 10L copper toned petrol coin got taken out of circulation quickly because enterprising souls had been nickel plating it to look like the 20L version. In 1994, Tartarstan rejoined Russia as an autonomous republic, signing the agreement with Tartarstan’s native son, Russian President Boris Yeltsin. This gave Tartarstan a full set of currency tied to a large economy…such that it was at the time.

The sad coda is that Tartarstan was the last autonomous republic within Russia to lose their autonomous status. The Kremlin under Putin decided to not renew the autonomy agreement, quietly letting it expire in 2017 as both the United Nations and Russia decided to ignore their request for recognition of sovereignty.


THE DECEMBERING 2021: The Holidays Cometh

As we enter our second year of holiday shopping & shipping in a pandemic, with the experience of last year’s complete postal/shipping omnishambles and DeJoy’s continued dedication to EXCELLENCE, I expect that this year is going to be a bit exciting too.

To the people that are very proactive and organized in their holiday shopping, like as the person that I let place a reserve order in August for shipment on December 15th, I’ll answer your question now: yes, you can place an order now in an earlier production window for a holiday shipment. Please leave a note saying “Delay shipment until $DESIRED_DATE” with your order so I know you want it later rather than ASAP.

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

The last pre-Xmas BBotE production window will close on December 18th. All things being equal, everything shipped domestically by the 18th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve. I can’t control weather, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or complete collapse of the world postal system due to pandemic and neglect, but a week and change is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination, even international. I will put another pre-order window up and crank as much out as humanly possible after the 18th. Domestic shipping on Tuesday December 21st has a chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.

International shipments, however, are another matter entirely. As I detail further in #5, international shipping as a whole has gone to hell in a handbasket. Sorry Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

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

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

  1. Steins of Science Availability is Limited: I am maintaining some inventory, but not many. If you really, really want one and the one you want is not available, contact me sooner rather than later so I can do my best to get one for you ASAP. However, with COVID considerations resupply is tricky. I likely will not be getting another shipment between now and the end of the year.
  2. BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three).  If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide to give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special. For shipments going directly to people as gifts, I stick a consumption guide in the box, with a note of who ordered it for them, and stamp the box “REFRIGERATE ON RECEIPT”.
  3. Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. As I said in #2, I also tuck instructions in the box for a gift going directly to the recipient and a note stating who sent it.
  4. The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: But I get your orders out as soon as I can after they come in. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively reserving a spot later in the production queue, you can do that but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
  5. International Shipments Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time. FAIR WARNING, the international postal system, even for express, has been squirrelly this year due to the continued reduced number of flights because of COVID-19. It is bad enough that the USPS has suspended the express mail guarantee to a laundry list of nations and has just flat given up on others. Please check the USPS suspension announcement to see if your country is one of them.
  6. APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive and this has gotten worse in the COVID  times (see #5). Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and on ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE back to me on the basis that it is, and I quote, Morally Questionable Material. Amazingly, my shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast of the US mainland. Go figure. In short, I’ll do my best but you’ve been warned.
  7. Local Pick Up: Resupply shipments will go out to all the BBotE Ambassadors as fast as I can crank them out, so be sure to drop them a line if grabbing a bottle that way is more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
  8. Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes shipments to languish for so long that the BBotE goes off before it arrives, even if shipped express; steins seem to be fine though. Turkey, well, I discussed that problem in #6.
  9. BBotE Production Is First Come, First Served: My maximum daily production output is 12L per day. Thus, people who request 12pk cases will lock up production for an entire day.
  10. BBotE Has No Kosher Or Halal Certification: While Robert Anton Wilson did confer the papacy upon me, and all the other people in the Porter College Dining Hall at UCSC in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. I do have a helpful Dominican priest in Portland who’d probably be willing to bless your BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful for most people. Sorry. 

For those of you who read this far, I congratulate you and game on. Let the holidays begin.

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 an Irish American,
  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.