Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wait, FEMA Got to Edit the Script of The Day After?

I apologize that I haven't been posting much lately, as I've been very busy researching the American aspect of my dissertation. I'm currently living in College Park, Maryland and working through civil defense records in the National Archives annex here. It's fairly exciting as a great deal of this material is unexamined--I'm the first person to look at it since it was packed away decades ago. The documents I've looked at date from the Truman to the Reagan administrations.

So far the material from the 40s and 50s hasn't been all that ground-breaking; a lot of it is neat but it hasn't really challenged my longstanding thesis about the Federal Civil Defense Administration and its many problems. The stuff from the 80s is quite another matter. Only a very limited amount of documents from FEMA are available in the National Archives, and half of the boxes I've ordered so far were withheld and I was told that I would need to file a FOIA request to look at them. Those I've been able to access so far, however, have forced me to seriously reconsider some of my assumptions about civil defense in the Reagan era.

FEMA Public Affairs Memorandum About The Day After, August 13, 1982

One of the big surprises so far was this August 13, 1982 memorandum from FEMA Public Affairs chief Jim Holton about The Day After. One would hardly suspect that this 1983 ABC television movie had been edited at the request of FEMA to be more flattering to civil defense, but it was. As Holton noted,
The attached script for the forthcoming ABC-TV prime time movie was given to us last week and, as you'll notice on the cover sheet, it is the latest in a series of revisions. This version reflects a number of changes which DoD insisted on before agreeing to support in the making of the film, support such as the use of National Guard troops, certain unclassified facilities, military vehicles and aircraft, etc. Unfortunately, our only contribution to the production is some dosimeters, the withdrawal of which would not bother ABC films.

It should be noted, however, that the revised script has been changed to reflect suggestions we made to the producers several months ago and which had not been included in the draft before this one. DoD, in using their clout to get the changes they wanted also leaned on ABC to make the FEMA-requested amendments, nearly all of which they responded to. They are on pages 30, 31, 176, 177, and 178.

What precisely were these changes? Unfortunately, I do not have my DVD of the film here in College Park, so I am forced to rely on memory. The problem is complicated by the fact that The Day After, as originally filmed, was intended to to be a four-hour film aired in two parts, and a great deal of it ended up on the cutting room floor. As a result I'm not sure how much FEMA impacted the film as aired, but its impact on the shooting script appears undeniable. From the the revision of the script in FEMA's records, I suspect the changes were that skeptical references to Crisis Relocation Planning--the evacuation scheme being pushed by FEMA in the early 1980s--were toned down, as was the post-attack scene where an agronomist is attempting to convince skeptical farmers to scrape off their topsoil and one of them makes an angry outburst.

FEMA got to edit the script of The Day After? Who would've thought?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Basics of Soviet Civil Defense-1980

1980 Soviet civil defense propaganda film "Основы Гражданской обороны"--"Civil Defense Basics."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

RBMK Control Room

Control room of Chernobyl NPP Unit 1

These gauges indicate position of control rods in the active zone. Black boxes are neutron flux indicators.

These are the controls for some of the many control rods in the RBMK. You hold down the appropriate button and use the joystick on the left to move them in or out of the active zone.

Six emergency shutdown switches. "АЗ5" switch (top row, center) initiated rapid emergency shutdown.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Can You Spot the Math Error?

Trawling around the interwebs, I encountered the following critique of vertical farm concepts at TreeHugger:
This led us to wonder, "What would be the consequences of a vertical-farming effort large enough to allow us to remove from the landscape, say, the United States' 53 million acres of wheat?"...Our calculations, based on the efficiency of converting sunlight to plant matter, show that just to meet a year's U.S. wheat production with vertical farming would, for lighting alone, require eight times as much electricity as all U.S. utilities generate in an entire year [see calculations here].
This evoked a raised eyebrow from me, given the widespread claim that American agriculture uses vastly more fossil fuel energy than it delivers in terms of total food calories. Something doesn't add up here--clearly, someone is very, very wrong about the amount of energy embodied in our foodstuffs.

Fortunately, the included "calculations" reveal the source of the problem:
The following is a very rough estimate of the amount of power needed just for lighting vertical farms to grow the U.S. wheat crop. Note this is under ideal conditions for nutrients, temperature, and other productivity factors. Under excellent conditions, wheat has radiation use efficiency of 2.8 grams of biomass produced per 106 joule of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR). So to produce one metric ton (106 g) of wheat biomass requires [106 g / (2.8 g/106 J)] = 3.6 × 1011 joules of PAR over a season under ideal conditions.
Oops. >BANGS HEAD ON DESK< (3.6 x 1011 joules is the amount of energy in 10,526 liters of gasoline. That's a lot of energy for just one metric ton of wheat... )

To be fair I've seen equivalent mathematical goofs from the proponents of these fanciful vertical farm concepts. A lot of people aren't dotting their Is and crossing their Ts, so to speak. I actually like the concept, but it needs ample cheap energy to work--basically, it would have to be coupled with nuclear reactors. I have no problem with that myself. But I don't think it will be a near-term development in any case.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

In the post I wrote before I left for Ukraine, I wrote:

Will it be an unparalleled ecological disaster zone? A latter-day Eden enabled by the lack of human inhabitation? The world's biggest time capsule? A toybox of wonderful Soviet things?

Now that I'm back in Moscow and have had some time to digest, I think I can issue some kind of statement on these questions.

Was Chernobyl an unprecedented ecological disaster zone? Definitely not. The radiation levels in the vast majority of the exclusion zone are now quite low--so much so, that our guide, Maxim, told us that he expects that the 30km zone will be opened up within another few years and that only the 10km zone will remain. There are, however, some significant hot spots in the 10km zone. The hottest place we ever got to in Pripiat was .25 rem/hr; but that was highly unusual. I think the usual level is a millirem/hr or less. Even in places near the sarcophagus it's many orders of magnitude lower than that. For instance, at the place I'm standing in this picture the ambient exposure is 2 millirem/hr:

However, according to a map we saw in the plant, the roof and part of the grounds on one side of the sarcophagus have exposure levels of up to 1.5 rem/hr. While that would take quite awhile to kill you outright, it's a serious workplace hazard and must make the life of the Novarka employees who are building the new sarcophagus very interesting...

Despite these isolated locations, the overall radiation hazard in the vast majority of the zone is nothing to get worked up about, in my view.

Was the zone a latter-day Eden enabled by the lack of human inhabitation? This I don't feel I can answer definitively. During my time in the zone I spent most of my time either in Pripiat or at the plant itself. Maxim told us that they had started shooting the wild boars once they began infringing on Chernobyl too much (the town the plant was named after and where the hotel is). Flies, midges, and mosquitoes were certainly in evidence; I'd have to spend time in other parts of the zone to determine if the wildlife lives up to the stories about it. Pripiat sees a lot of traffic, considering; there is a lost of post-1986 litter lying around, and at least several busloads of people come through every day.

Was it the world's biggest time capsule? Certainly less so than I would've liked. Thieves and scavengers (and I imagine simple vandals) have stolen or wrecked more or less everything that was worth taking. For instance, they stole the refrigerators from the top floor of a 16-story apartment block we visited--WITHOUT power to operate the elevators. It's astonishing how picked-over the apartments were, especially compared to places like the hospital and schools that see much more tourist traffic.

But was the zone still a toybox of wonderful Soviet things? Certainly. It was fascinating to see the remnants of aspects of Soviet life that I had read about but never seen--bottles and jars collected for reuse, basement vegetable cellars in the kindergarten, communal kitchens, and especially bomb shelters.

Wait--they had Diet Pepsi in the Soviet Union?!!? From the Pripiat Bus Garage

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Can't Believe They Let Me Take This Picture

Inside the Control Room of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Off to Chernobyl

I apologize for my utter lack of blog posts lately. I've been extremely busy with my dissertation research--I'm really starting to feel the pressure to get my research done here in the limited time I have left. I've been working in the archives every weekday from opening until closing, and then in the libraries on Saturday. But in part that's because I knew that I was going to lose the next week and a half to an excursion I had planned from before I got to Moscow. That is, I'm leaving for Kiev tomorrow and next week I'm going to spend a few days at Chernobyl.

Now, in a sense this is still "research" since one of the chapters of my dissertation is about the role Soviet civil defense played at Chernobyl, but it's also the fulfillment of a longstanding desire to see the place for myself and cut through the myths. Will it be an unparalleled ecological disaster zone? A latter-day Eden enabled by the lack of human inhabitation? The world's biggest time capsule? A toybox of wonderful Soviet things? Only one way to find out...

This trip has been organized by a friend who's a fellow Oak Ridger--indeed, we've got something of a pilgrimage of us Oak Ridgers headed off for Chernobyl like some sort of nuclear Canterbury. I'll be back sometime around the 15th to let you know how it went.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

SVBR in New York Times; Bellona Unimpressed

The SVBR, which I first blogged about last year, is continuing to gain increasing attention in the American media. On March 18th the New York Times published an article about the reactor, titled "Safety Issues Linger as Nuclear Reactors Shrink in Size."

According to the article:
Environmentalists say the technology is outdated and potentially dangerous, and marketing it as green energy is an abuse of nuclear power’s good green name.
. . . .

The kinds of marine reactors the Russians are promoting, though, also happen to create a byproduct — used fuel — that no one knows how to handle. Right now, that spent fuel is being stored at naval yards in the Russian Arctic.

In most nuclear facilities, the used fuel, which is highly radioactive, is removed from the reactor and stored in a pool of water. But in the Soviet submarine model currently advanced by a Moscow company, the spent fuel ends up frozen along with the reactor and stored away. No engineering solution has been devised yet to decontaminate the fuel.

I'm fairly sure that the authors are confused here, and are conflating the problem of spent nuclear fuel with those posed by the lead-bismuth coolant. According to Gidropress, the SVBR is planned to use uranium oxide fuel enriched to 16.5% U-235. There is considerable practical and experimental experience reprocessing oxide fuel, so it's hard to understand why SVBR fuel assemblies would supposedly be impossible to reprocess. Indeed, the Russians specifically tout "Возможность работы в замкнутом ядерном топливном цикле"--the possibility of operating on a closed fuel cycle.

I think that the problem that the authors really mean to be addressing is not that posed by the spent fuel itself, but rather the hazards posed by the lead-bismuth coolant. When irradiated by neutrons, some of the lead coolant is transmuted into Polonium-210. And while lead-bismuth has a substantially lower melting point than lead, it still poses serious challenges if it freezes. This was the Achilles' heel of the reactors used in the Soviet Alfa submarine--when the coolant froze, there was no way to either restart the reactor or "defrost" it to extract the spent fuel, and the coolant itself posed significant radiation hazards. This was due to limitations of the early lead-bismuth reactor designs. The SVBR is specifically designed to avoid this problem--indeed, the reactor is supposed to be shipped from the factory pre-loaded with frozen lead-bismuth coolant. As Gail the Actuary stated on the Oil Drum last year: "The SVBR-100 is cooled by a lead-bismuth eutectic alloy which is loaded into the reactor at the factory. After testing, the heavy metal coolant is allowed to “freeze”, and the modular SVBR-100 reactor is transported to its power plant destination via railroad flat car for installation."

Presuming that the SVBR actually achieves this, Bellona's concerns about the design are moot. Disappointingly, the NYT echoes the Norwegian-Russian antinuclear group in implying that the SVBR is somehow "unsafe." This is in fact the opposite of reality--the SVBR should be considerably safer than existing LWR designs thanks to the high boiling point of the lead-bismuth coolant, low operating pressure, passive heat removal, and other advanced safety features. The coolant freezing issue would never be a hazard to the public in any case--even if it did render a reactor inoperable, it does not follow that it would result in an accident resulting in a major radiation release. Indeed, as the Russians' spokeswoman Anna Kudryavtseva stated, the liquid-metal reactor would be “maximally safe even in not very capable hands.”

On the whole it's good to see the SVBR receiving more attention, but it's disappointing that the article gives such a misleading impression of the technology. Only time will tell if the Russians overcome the engineering challenge to make the lead-bismuth reactor a commercial practicality, but that doesn't excuse this kind of sloppy reporting.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How Many Bomb Shelters Were There in the USSR?

I've been collecting data on the number of bomb shelters in various Russian cities. This was a topic of major debate decades ago, when some analysts argued that the Soviet Union pursued a "war survival" capability in order to undermine America's nuclear deterrent. I'm getting some really interesting stuff out of the archives here, which I'm going to use to craft an article about the USSR's shelter system. Here are some figures that have come out in recent years:

Moscow: 7,000+
St. Petersburg: 4003, 2873 in housing sector
Tula: ~300, approximately 100,000 spaces
Tver: ~200

The CIA estimated in 1986 that the USSR had shelter space for 11.2% of its urban population. Between these figures and what I've seen in the archives, I believe that this estimate was approximately correct.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"Clean," "Safe" Natural Gas-Now With Deadly Explosions!

Just a few days ago Joe Romm plugged natural gas as an alternative to new nuclear builds:
"And the relatively low price of natural gas is leading to increased power generation of that relatively clean fuel. . . .You can’t push on a string, not even a nuclear-powered one."
Romm, Robert Kennedy Jr., and others have been pushing for more gas as an alternative to nuclear, despite the fact that its environmental benefits are grossly overrated and it isn't likely to keep its "relatively low price" for long.

And now look what's happened:
At least two people were killed Sunday in an explosion at a Connecticut power plant, police said.

Two people have been confirmed dead, said Middletown, Connecticut, police Sgt. Chuck Jacobucci, but authorities expect the number to rise since they are still searching for people.
. . . .

The plant's general manager, Gordon Holk, confirmed the blast caused casualties, but wasn't sure how many. Fire and police officials in Middletown said there were "mass casualties," but no other details were immediately available.

The site is a 620-megawatt gas-fired power plant, according to Holk.
Puts the ridiculous fear-mongering about picocuries of tritium in drinking water into perspective, doesn't it? My sympathies go out to all the victims of this explosion, as well as all the others around the world whose lives are cut short by our disastrous and unnecessary dependence on dangerous fossil fuels, be it in accident, war, or otherwise.

UPDATE 2/8/2010: Speak of the devil--guess who just wrote a post buying into the tritium paranoia? Joe, I'm waiting for the post where you renounce your apologia for natural gas since it obviously kills a lot more people than tritium leaks, which you seem to think are some kind of REALLY BIG DEAL. And furthermore, (and much more importantly) it is a core climate "anti-solution," given its significant carbon intensity.

Friday, January 22, 2010

How Gary Powers Could Have Started an Atomic War

From the State Archive of the Russian Federation:
Документальные кадры судебного заседания в Колонном зале Дома Союзов по уголовному делу американского летчика-шпиона Ф. Пауэрса. На столе вещественных доказательств демонстрируют предметы, обнаруженные на сбитом самолете У-2.

Судебный процесс над американским летчиком-шпионам Пауэрсом с очевидностью показал, что империалисты усиленно готовятся к нападению на Советский Союз. Допрос обвиняемого Генеральным прокуром тов. Руденко выяснил, как может вспыхнуть атомная война.
Допрос Пауэрса Генеральным прокурором СССР тов. Руденко.
РУДЕНКО: Вы заявили здесь и на следствии, что выключали рычаги аппаратуры над определeнными пунктами?
ПАУЭРС: Я делал то, что мне было указано.
РУДЕНКО: Не зная о специальной аппаратуре?
ПАУЭРС: Нет, я никогда не видел этой специальной аппаратуры.
РУДЕНКО: Вы с таким же успехом могли бы нажать рычаг и сбросить атомную бомбу?
ПАУЭРС: Это могло бы быть сделано...
Мультипликационный рисунок атомного взрыва. Ослепительно яркая вспышка образует огненный шар, постепенно превращающийся к клубящееся облако. К нему, с поверхности земли, поднимается столб пыли, вследствие чего атомный взрыв приобретает специфично грибовидную форму.

Так одно движение руки подлого диверсанта может повергнуть человечество в неслыханные бедствия и страдания. Мы должны помнить об этой угрозе и быть готовы к защиты от оружия массового поражения.

Врыв атомной бомбы поражает не только силой ударной волны и светового излучения, но и радиоактивными веществами, которые переносятся потоками воздуха на значительные расстояния. Как от них защищаться?
In English:
Documentary footage of the ongoing trial of American spyplane pilot F. Powers in the Column Hall of the House of Soviets. On the table is displayed physical evidence--devices found aboard the downed U-2.

The trial of Powers has demonstrated unequivocally that the imperialists are intensively preparing for an attack on the Soviet Union. Interrogation of the accused by Public Prosecutor Comrade Rudenko demonstrated how a nuclear war might break out.

Examination of Powers by Attorny General of the USSR Comrade Rudenko:
RUDENKO: You reported here in the inquiry, that you turned down the levers of the apparatus above the indicated points?
POWERS: I did what I was ordered.
RUDENKO: While unaware of the special apparatus?
POWERS: No, I never saw this special apparatus.
RUDENKO: You might as well have depressed the lever and dropped an atomic bomb?
POWERS: Could have...

Animated image of an atomic explosion. A dazzlingly bright flash forms a fireball, then gradually evolves into a billowing cloud. Towards it rises a column of dust from the earth's surface, consequently giving the atomic cloud its characteristic mushroom shape.

With one small hand movement a dastardly saboteur could plunge mankind into untold hardships and suffering. We should be aware of this threat and be prepared to defend against weapons of mass destruction.

The explosion of an atomic bomb destroys not only via the effects of blast and flash, but also with radioactive substances, which are carried by air currents over considerable distances. How are they to be defended against?
This is from a late 1960 script for a civil defense film titled "Защита населения по следу радиоактивного облака" (Protection of the Population Along the Path of the Radioactive Cloud). I'm going to try and track down the finished version of the film, which may have been different.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

World Nuclear News on SVBR

World Nuclear News has a new piece about the SVBR, which I blogged about awhile ago: "Initiative for Small Fast Reactors."

The takeaway:
The companies' statement said their initial estimates show that large-scale production of SVBR-100s could bring down costs to the same level as for coal-fired generation. En+ Group CEO Vladislav Soloviev said "We believe that the development of the nuclear power industry is one of the most promising ways to meet the rising demand for energy with the lowest environmental impact."

Deputy director of Rosatom Petr Schedrovitsky said, "We expect the government to provide strong support... It will be put on the list of projects under the aegis of the President's Commission for Long-Term Development."

I.E., the SVBR is now the small modular reactor with the best chance of making it to market... because the Russian government is making it a priority project and funding its development. Compared to similar US projects from NuScale and B&W, which are hobbled by the uncertainty of whether the NRC will change its regulatory framework to enable these small reactor projects, Rosatom is full speed ahead.

If the SVBR turns out as advertised it may end up dominating the world reactor market once it's available for export. Do we really want to let the Russians have this field to themselves?

ScienceBlogs Death Spiral Watch

I've been growing increasingly dismayed in recent months by the decreasing quality of ScienceBlogs. More and more it seems that Sb is less about science than partisan bloviating. Now, it's true that PZ Meyers devotes most of his blog to criticizing organized religion--but he's a very talented science popularizer when he wants to be. But many of the more recent additions to ScienceBlogs have very little to do with any kind of "science."

Take, for instance, Casaubon's Book. This recent addition to Sb is written by Sharon Astyk, who is pretty well-known in the Oil Drum/Energy Bulletin resource pessimist mileau, as well as among boutique farming enthusiasts. Astyk is absolutely convinced that technological solutions to problems like climate change are simply unfeasible, and constantly churns out posts about how we will soon run out of energy to run farm machinery and tens of millions of people will have to become agricultural laborers, how genetic modification is supposedly useless to address the world's agricultural challenges, or endorsing the latest Peak Oil screed on The Oil Drum. The thing is, most of this has very little to do with science and everything to do with reinforcing Astyk's pessimistic attitude towards technological civilization. Furthermore, she has attracted a sizable number of like-minded commenters who attempt to shout down those who point this out.

What I find so infuriating about Astyk is her faux reasonableness, which serves to obscure what is in fact an anti-scientific mentality. A good example of this is her post "Should You Drink Raw Milk?" In this post, Astyk acknowledges the various public health concerns that resulted in the ban on raw milk sales in the US but concludes that:

If you want raw milk, I would purchase it only after understanding the full risk-benefit analysis. I do not recommend it for pregnant women or children under 2, although I know plenty of people do drink it in those circumstances. I would either get your own dairy animal or purchase milk *only* from people who you actually develop a relationship with, after seeing their barn and handling techniques, and knowing what testing they do. I would make sure that I *always* do my milk pickup with a cooler on hand and keep it cool all the time. I would drink my milk quickly, or process it to make cheese and yogurt.

I would love to see raw milk be more available to those who do make informed choices and who want it, and I'd love to see small dairy producers able to sell it. But to do so requires a level of involvement and consciousness about your food that is simply different than picking up a quart of milk at the grocery store.

So Astyk's answer to the question "should you drink raw milk?" is somewhere between "sure, if you want to" and "maybe." The problem here is that this is NOT a justifiable conclusion based on the substantial body of scientific literature on raw milk consumption. The scientific answer to the question is "NO."

For instance, see S.P. Oliver et al., "Food Safety Hazards Associated with Consumption of Raw Milk," published in the September 2009 issue of the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. According to the abstract:
"An increasing number of people are consuming raw unpasteurized milk. Enhanced nutritional qualities, taste, and health benefits have all been advocated as reasons for increased interest in raw milk consumption. However, science-based data to substantiate these claims are limited. People continue to consume raw milk even though numerous epidemiological studies have shown clearly that raw milk can be contaminated by a variety of pathogens, some of which are associated with human illness and disease. Several documented milkborne disease outbreaks occurred from 2000–2008 and were traced back to consumption of raw unpasteurized milk. Numerous people were found to have infections, some were hospitalized, and a few died."
The article reviews CDC records for the last decade regarding outbreaks of illness related to raw milk consumption for the last decade, while cautioning that these are clearly incomplete due to reporting problems. The authors conclude that "Enhanced nutritional qualities, taste, and health benefits have all been advocated as reasons for raw milk consumption. However, science-based data to substantiate these claims are lacking or do not exist. On the other hand, the evidence for the risks associated with raw milk consumption is clear."

There a substantial body of literature supporting the same basic conclusion, going back decades. Some pertinent examples:
Lejeune JT and Rajala-Schultz PJ. Unpasteurized milk: a continued public health threat. Clin Infect Dis 2009;48:93-100
Headrick ML, Korangy S, Bean NH, et al. The epidemiology of raw milk-associated foodborne disease outbreaks reported in the United States, 1973 through 1992. Am J Public Health 1998;88:1219-1221.
Chin J. Raw milk: a continuing vehicle for the transmission of infectious disease agents in the United States. J Infect Dis 1982; 146:440-441.
...and so on. Research on this dates back well into the 19th century.

So what Astyk is ACTUALLY doing, rather than offering a reasonable science-based assessment of the risks and benefits of raw milk consumption, is undermining scientific medicine. It is in fact eerily similar to one of the rhetorical gambits used by the anti-vaccine movement: "shouldn't parents be allowed to weigh the risks and benefits and choose for themselves?" It sounds appealing, but from a scientific standpoint it's indefensible, and it ends up killing innocent children for no good reason.

Perhaps it's unreasonable of me to expect this, but I think something called "ScienceBlogs" should be firmly based in actual science, not in Peak Oil resource millenialism or a faux-progressive pastoral romanticism. To avoid confusion, I suggest that Seed magazine (the sponsor of Sb) change the name to "W00Blogs," and potentially consider inviting advocates of other anti-scientific and non-scientific outlooks to blog there. Is Deepak Chopra available?