Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Radioactive Topic

Burial Site for the SL-1 Reactor in Idaho
The crisis in Japan expanded this weekend from an enormous earthquake, a catastrophically destructive tsunami, and hundreds of aftershocks to now include an ongoing and rapidly evolving crisis with several nuclear power plants in the Fukushima region


The threat posed by the damaged nuclear reactors has raised concern around the world. Some have downplayed these concerns, suggesting that people over-react to anything with the words "nuclear" or "radiation" in it, but I disagree. We should be worried. Very worried.

Many stories have appeared in the US press asking: could something like the situation in Japan happen in our country? In fact, something very similar did happen here, fifty years ago. And although it occurred just a few miles from where I was living at the time, I only learned of this in the last few days.

As I was looking up links to include in this post, I came across a series of articles about an accident that occurred at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site in the Arco Desert outside my hometown on January 3, 1961. The circumstances are eerily similar to what we're hearing about at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. At around 9pm on that January day in 1961, a steam explosion occurred at reactor SL-1, an experimental nuclear reactor at the site. A control rod had been pulled out of the core, causing the reactor to go critical. The explosion was caused by a sudden upsurge in heat that explosively converted liquid water into steam.

Three workers were killed by the physical effects of the explosion but their bodies were so radioactive that they were buried in lead-lined caskets. The radiation exposure was due to the contents of the reactor being sprayed around by the explosion. The entire building and what was left of the reactor are still buried in the desert just outside my hometown. The accompanying image shows the marker sitting next to a pile of rock that looks just like dozens of other piles of rock I have passed by many times on my way to visit my grandparents.

I was five years old at the time so, of course, I remember nothing about this. I've found a newspaper article and a story in Time magazine, both published in 1961, that show the public was aware of what happened. Perhaps this explains my mother's insistence that we never eat the snow; she warned us repeatedly about "nuclear fallout" and how it could be in the snow. I always thought her fear was somewhat irrational, due to Cold War tensions, but now that I've learned about this little-known nuclear accident, I wonder if she had more immediate reasons to be fearful.

Some people are afraid of things they don't understand, and the mere mention of the words "nuclear" or "radiation" can generate irrational fear, or fear based not on facts but wild speculations and misunderstandings. This does not mean that all fear is irrational, however, and sometimes it is an appropriate emotion. I have not yet reached the point where the situation in Japan is making me feel actual fear, but I am concerned--and this concern is based on quite a bit of knowledge about nuclear topics.

I taught introductory college Chemistry for over twenty years and always included an in-depth unit on radioactive decay processes as the basis of nuclear power generation. I was one of only a few professors who covered this topic, but I felt compelled to teach it, and teach it thoroughly. It's possible that experiences in my early childhood had made me especially attuned to the importance of this topic, but I also knew that essentially no attention was paid to it in most science classrooms, and I wanted to do what little I could to remedy this lack.

At the end of each term, I always had a few students who had learned what I was trying to get across: that this topic is very important and whether we are in favor of nuclear power or not, we need people who understand it, since the materials and power plants exist and must be handled properly. These students would want advice about graduate programs, places they could go to pursue further study, but there were very few options available to them.

I have continued to be dismayed by the lack of opportunity to study and learn about nuclear energy in the US--it is as if the very topic is radioactive and people in our country shun it, wanting it to go away because it frightens them. The topic isn't going to go away, though, and sometimes the best defense is education.

It's possible that my passion about this topic was set at an early age. I grew up in Idaho Falls, about forty miles from the AEC site where the SL-1 accident occurred. The site is now known as the Idaho National Lab, and is a Department of Energy (DOE) facility. Many of my friends parents worked at the site, but I didn't understand for a very long time what they were doing out there.

Part of the reason was that I was young and had other concerns, but there was also a great deal of secrecy involved. The facts about the SL-1 accident apparently became more widely known only in the 1980s and later when the Freedom of Information Act was invoked to get at information about it. 

Also, the Cold War was raging at the time of the accident, and much of the activity going on at the site in the Arco Desert involved not just the development of nuclear power generators, but also weapons development and other military operations. We now know, for example, that tons of radioactive waste from the development of atomic weapons at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado were buried throughout the 1950s and 60s in that desert just above the aquifer for the Snake River Plain.

This situation became a huge news story in southeastern Idaho in the 1990s when there were suggestions that the aquifer might be contaminated with radioactive decay components. For more than two decades, DOE has been cleaning up the aquifer, and trying to prevent any additional seepage of buried waste into the groundwaters. There has been a great deal of controversy about cover-ups, mismanagement by government contractors, and on and on. It is all an unfortunately familiar-sounding story.

So, perhaps my readers and followers on Twitter will forgive me if I become a little obsessed with the unfolding events in Japan. There is a lot to keep track of, and a lot to understand. Stay tuned for more.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent post, as always, Raima. This all leaves me conflicted. I too grew up in the shadow of nuclear plants, three of them to be exact, so I'm actually pretty comfortable with them in the abstract, however, I also know that certain risk factors cannot be engineered out of the equation, that human fallibility makes our creations equally fallible.
    Still, I now live in Appalachia, where the coal industry is literally ripping down mountains, poisoning the ground water and many surface steams to nightmare levels, and environmental factors are contributing to a decline in our region in aggregate life expectancy, the only place in the US where that is occurring. But it's poor people we're talking about, so no one really seems to care. Similarly, up in Alexandria, VA, just south of Reagan National, is a coal-fired plant that's among the dirtiest in the country. Studies show that the prevailing winds take its filthy airborne waste across the river to SE DC and the 'bad' parts of PG county, directly contributing to the premature deaths of a sizable number of residents there, especially the young and the old. But again, poor people, so who really cares?
    Same story is unfolding in the hollowed-out remains of central Pennsylvania, where hydro-fracking is getting at the 'clean' energy source - natural gas - that's supposedly going to solve our problems, but in the meanwhile, we're slowly building a situation there where children, at least the ones who survive, will have to be taught that drinking water is something that comes from the grocery store and not the ground, because their wells are just too toxic. But again, poor people...
    What's my point? We've built a civilization of luxury and convenience that our ancestors just a couple of generations back could not possibly imagine. But this way of life comes from the easy energy god, an idol that demands, it seems, sacrifices of human life each and everyday, but where as the pre-moderns had to actually slit throats and burn their brethren to bring their prosperity, we've entered a more detached relationship with this deity, where some folks will bear the wrath and others the fruit, and no one, apparently, seems to notice or mind until this glowing god lashes out, like it did this summer in the gulf, or it is now in Japan. But in time, I predict, we'll go back to giving this god we've created its do. And when that happens, I hope we can have a reasoned conversation on the relative risks to human life that we assume with each energy type. It's that or give up this lifestyle, and in all the hand-wringing we've seen in the past week, no one seems to be crazy enough to accept that.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and impassioned comment, Shank. I couldn't agree more with your statement that our "way of life comes from the easy energy god, an idol that demands, it seems, sacrifices of human life." Very well said...thanks for making the next point in this ongoing conversation. More to come!

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  3. Thank you, Raima. This past weekend I was talkihg to my daughter Emily after the news came from Japan (we were in Florida together)and she asked me if was in favor of nuclear power or opposed. I confessed to conflicted feelings and thoughts. As a child in the fifites I was taught to admire the harnessing of the atom. But I also knew the risks and dangers -including how to dispose safely of th waste. As an adult I am all too painfully aware of he fallibility of human assurances of safety and reliance on tcchnology we created (sometimes on the cheap). I know that some of the environmental groups I support (e.g. Sierra Club)are opposed. Yet I am appalled at mountaintop removal to obtain coal (or the risk to human life in deep mines) and the air pollution of dirty burning coal. Of course we should reduce demand, live more simply, create more efficient machines and equipment and develop alterative sources (but wind turbines kill birds and bats, and dams also destroy ecosystems) So am I for well-regulated,over-engineered nuclear power production? I think so - but I don't know. I'm sorry that you are not still teaching young students about the issue.

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  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mary Martha, and I am about as conflicted as you are, although I personally think the risks with nuclear waste disposal outweigh most of the problems with coal. Any fossil fuels, though, present serious problems that are nearly as big as the nuclear ones, so it's a really tough choice to have to make. This is why I am so much in favor of putting all our efforts into developing wind, solar and other alternative energy sources - the other two choices have proven, over and over, that they are fraught with problems.

    Thanks, also, for your comment about how I should still teach young students about this - I hope my blog posts will partly serve to do this. Also to help teach some old folks like us the same thing!

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