Ounce of Prevention

Radiation, always a hazard

Back when ionizing radiation dose was measured in “Roentgens,” “rads,” and “rem,” (why change such a thing? To confuse us? Has the “yard” gone anywhere? The “meter”) I worked in a nuclear power plant owned by the United States armed forces – a “nuke.” It was rather small, but it was still dangerous. Once while I served as the plant health physicist (radiation safety officer to the non-cognoscenti), three men were working one day in the “spent fuel pit,” moving fuel elements and control rods that had come out of the reactor. These things are much more dangerous than fresh, new elements; those that have never been inside a reactor core could sit at your dinner table with you for weeks and not hurt you at all. You could even safely lick one. But once the thing has been in a core and run in a fission reaction, where nuclei break up to furnish energy, all bets are definitely off. Fission “products” are pervasive – goodies like Cesium 137, Strontium 90, Iodine 129. Take my word, please; you don’t want this stuff anywhere near you or your home in any form.

In order to finish their labor, these three crew members apparently overstayed their, ah, welcome. People who work in this industry are allowed to incur higher radiation exposure than the general public, theoretically because the former understand it better. When I heard about the time these guys had spent in the “pit,” I immediately asked to retrieve their film badges. I know; ancient technology. I was informed by the plant manager (an E-8, if you want to know and care) that these had been “contaminated” and so had to be deposited in low-level waste drums. I next asked for the crew’s portable dosimeters.

Direct-reading dosimeter

If I couldn’t immediately send the badges for an overnight development and reading, at least the dosimeters might provide some idea of the total dose these men had received. Nope; these, too, had apparently become contaminated. Gone. I immediately went to the three and begged them to take two showers. Then I directed them to be sure the so-called “hand and foot” monitors at the plant exit gate read absolutely zero; any reading meant they were not to leave. They could “follow orders,” but they didn’t need “the atom” following them home to their children. I never knew how overexposed these people may have become. The U.S. government didn’t seem to care.

Geiger counter

This incident, which I dared not report because of personal and professional safety concerns, was nearly parallel to another when low-activity waste was being loaded on an eighteen-wheeler (civilian contractor) for shipment to a dump in South Carolina. After only about one-fifth of the trailer was loaded (you know that the part nearest the cab gets loaded first), my calibrated portable sensor – not a dosimeter – told me the radiation flux limit at the driver’s head position had been reached. The same plant manager directed me to fill the trailer up. I told the driver to get out of the cab and to spend as much time away from the rig as possible. I seriously considered reporting the situation to the Atomic Energy Commission, but at the least I would probably still be in “the brig” for insubordination.

I knew a good deal then about nuclear energy and plant operations. Everyone in the crew was extensively cross-trained, and we had to memorize everything — I mean everything – on the whole property. I knew that one cause of the Three-Mile Island problem was that its crew did not know its plant well. Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, was run without much competence and poorly designed. With nuclear reactors in the news now, I wonder how much has changed, from supervision of demanding, dangerous work, to design (spent fuel pits in Fukushima, Japan, are not inside the reactor building; they are on the roof!), to unbelievably ill-informed siting decisions, or worse.

You can’t see, smell, or taste ionizing radiation. You probably noticed that in the dentist’s chair. When your uncle develops pancreatic cancer in the year 2036, can you say it was the Dr. Pepper he drank, or the years spent working at the nuclear power plant?

The problematic Japanese reactors are quite old. Numerous cooling and heating cycles may have meant that the steel in the containment vessels has suffered from a phenomenon known as “neutron embrittlement.” Suffice it to say, this process compromises the intergranular integrity of stainless steel, rendering it prone to cracking.

I also worked a long time in institutional real property market analysis, investment, and appraisal. I still know what makes a site “work” for a use, from a hamburger stand to a prison. There is no more than one reason (a ready source of last-ditch cooling medium if everything goes to the crapper) I can think of to build a cluster of nuclear reactors on a seashore, as at San Onofre, near Camp Pendleton in southern California. And erecting any such plant anywhere near ANY kind of seismic-risk zone is pure madness.

Go ahead; tell me where there is NOT seismic risk. I’ll hold.

Japan has a lot of nukes on the coast

The Wasatch Front in Utah is a high-risk zone. It hasn’t had an earthquake in two centuries, you say? How old is the Earth? Two centuries can’t even be found on a geologic time scale. You might explore the feasibility of placing these things (which will still be built, otherwise where you gonna plug in your electric car and recharge your cell phones?) on the core rock of one continent or another. In North America that core is termed the “Canadian Shield.” So much of Canada might work. Same for Brazil and West Africa. India is okay. Even most of Russia. Sorry; but, hey: we’re blessed with the Rocky Mountains, right? But Japan? Chile? You need to be certifiable. There is no “benefit” to balance the cost, even at an infinitesimally small probability, of even one Chernobyl. By summer we may have had five on the planet.

One nuclear-reaction product that doesn’t even have to be put in the fuel comes out with it: Plutonium 239. Neutron capture creates it. Think nuclear alchemy. This stuff is the stock and trade of Dr. Strangelove. Its half-life? Try 24,000 years. We humans built our first town about 12,000 years ago. It takes about ten “half-lives” for this stuff to “run down” through radioactive decay. Suffice it to say explaining such to your grandkids doesn’t come close.

So when the wizards in their hard hats show up at the hearings seeking to construct one of these things, what are you going to tell them? Does “hell, no” begin to get the discussion started?

  3 comments for “Ounce of Prevention

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *