Saturday, June 22, 2002

Wandering uranium...

Kathy Kinsley notes the discovery of 2 kg of uranium in Russia in a company car, as reported in the Hindustani Times. Is this a big deal?

IMO somebody wanted something scary to write. For one, why 2000 microRoentgen, instead of 2 milliRoentgen or .002 Roentgen? Physically speaking, if a piece of pure uranium of this mass were in the form of a cube, it would be less than 2" to a side.

Warning - I am not a health physicist. But I worked with them for a few years at commercial nuclear power plants. I was always interested in my exposure for obvious reasons, so I learned some interesting things. And I'll give you links to what I'm talking about, so take it for what you're paying for it.

The first thing to note is that there is energy exposure, and energy absorption. Your microwave oven provides an example. It puts out microwave energy, but this energy isn't absorbed by everything - it's designed to be absorbed by water. Then the water molecules heat up and transfer that heat to the rest of the food. It won't do to try to use a microwave oven to try to heat something without water in it (or some other substance that will soak up microwaves). Similar logic applies to sunscreens - they don't affect the sunlight, just how it interacts with your skin.

Likewise what matters about the radiation is how much of it is absorbed by the body, not how much is there. That's why we have units like roentgens (R) for energy, radiation absorbed dose (Rads), and radiation equivalent in man (rem, also sieverts). The first is about how much energy is there, the second is about how much of it is absorbed, and the third is a measure of the impact.

Measure of the impact? Yes. This is necessary because not all parts of your body are equally sensitive - the quicker the cells grow, the more susceptible they are to radiation. That's why radiation picks on cancer cells, and why federal law requires us to chase pregnant women out of situations where they might get significant radiation dose. Your outer skin surface is already dead, so radiation there means nothing. Your lower extremities have no vital organs, so radiation matters less there. Your bone marrow is very susceptible, so the radiation equivalent is higher than for your lower extremities.

From here, "Rem: (Roentgen Equivalent Man) A unit used to express all types of ionizing radiations on a common scale to indicate relative biological effects. For beta and gamma radiations: Exposure to 1 Roentgen delivers a dose of 1 Rad, which is equivalent to 1 Rem." This is not strictly true in that the same dose to your hands isn't the same as that to your bone marrow (which is why we speak of equivalents), but it's the most comprehensible thing I found on the Web in a few minutes of looking.

But...2000 microRoentgen per hour as cited in KK's post then equates to 2000 microrem per hour or 2 millirem per hour. OK, that's 48 mrem per day. The historical dose rate cited in KK's post is .2R/day, which would convert to 200 mrem per day per the earlier conversion (with caveats as noted). This would imply a permissible yearly dose of 73000 mrem, as compared to a federal maximum of 5000 per year when I last looked. In practice 100 mrem per day is a common daily limit, and we would aim for no more than 1000mrem/year.

Again, but...not all radiation has the same properties. For everyday purposes there is alpha, beta and gamma radiation. With gamma there's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide - it'll penetrate anything. OTOH alpha won't even penetrate your skin, and it doesn't take much to block beta (gloves and glasses mostly). But when it hits something vital alpha will do the most damage, beta less so, and gamma the least. The outside layer of your skin is already dead, and because it repulses the alphas, the real impact of external alpha radiation is almost nil. And uranium is an alpha emitter.

There will be some gamma present for reasons beyond the scope of this post. But the idea is that this occurrence isn't exactly a radiological disaster in itself. I'm awfully interested in what it's doing where it was found though...

Friday, June 21, 2002

Hair of the dog

I see that New Jersey will be passing out potassium iodide pills as a precaution against various types of radiological terror.

The devil in me makes me point out that these pills will be radioactive.

Why? The potassium. About a percent or so of all potassium is a radioactive isotope. Sic a Geiger counter on some salt substitute (potassium chloride) and you'll see what I mean (you have a Geiger counter laying around, don't you?)

Of course potassium is essential to your body, particularly for your heart. So if your body can't handle some radiation, it's a pretty bad design, eh?

UPDATE: The percentage of radioactive potassium found in naturally occurring potassium is significantly smaller than "a percent or so" as mentioned above. According to this PDF it's about .012%. The idea is the same though.

There's other interesting stuff in that PDF, such as this:
Hence, the potassium-40 content in the body is constant, with an adult male having about 0.1 microcurie (┬ÁCi). Each year, this isotope delivers doses of about 18 millirem (mrem) to the soft tissues of the body and 14 mrem to bone.
That's just from living, folks - if you're a human being you have no practical way to avoid it. Keep those numbers in mind the next time someone wants to spread radiological terror.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Super pork

Dave Kopel earned his permalink on this blog with stuff like this about "Superfund".

Read it all. But here is the best passage.
If the people of a given state are unwilling to raise their own taxes (or to cut other government services) in order to pay for the ultra-expensive, over-protective remedies favored by Ms. Kriz, the public's unwillingness suggests that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make abandoned factories as sanitary as day-care centers isn't a good idea.
Doggone right. The fact is that legislators love having money spent in their district, because some of the money is going to wind up in local pockets. This means that well intentioned legislation like this can be turned into pork by inflating claims about toxic sites. If the locals won't raise the money to fix local messes, why should the rest of us?

If you really have an environmental problem which endangers your life and health, or that of your family, you either get out or otherwise start dealing with it immediately. If you have time to wait for lawyers to settle on how it's paid for first, then your problem must not be critical. If the do-gooders want this, let them pay for it themselves instead of funding it through what amounts to random taxation. Otherwise they don't get the negative feedback needed to impose restraint.

PC marches on

Recently we've seen posts about tests using bowdlerized versions of various writings without the authors' knowledge or consent. Kimberly Swygert offers a plausible enough defense of the practice for tests at least, but this Orwellian nonsense has to stop somewhere.

Amy Welborn and Lee Bockhorn point out some PC sanitization of old movies, Tom and Jerry cartoons and others.

Next time you get a chance to watch an old MGM movie, look at the image directly below the lion. What's that? It looks to me like an illustration of a white man in blackface. Uh oh...

Scouting boys

This post is rated R.

From a collection of smutty limericks:
From the depths of the crypt at St Giles

Came a scream that resounded for miles.
Said the vicar, "Good gracious!
Has Father Ignatius
Forgotten the Bishop has piles?"
Yes, people have joked about homosexuality in the priesthood for some time. But we haven't seen anything like the recent scandals, pitting gays against the Roman Catholic Church.

Gays have a formidable lobby and some gay groups have shown themselves to be particularly nasty protesters. They also are strong in the media and have managed to spin many stories in their favor or suppress them entirely. Now we are seeing attempts to present the molestations of boys by priests as something other than homosexuality.

It always seemed plausible to me that closeted gays would head for a seminary - they'd have to hide their sex life anyway, and they wouldn't have to explain not being married. Likewise it always seemed plausible to me that gays would be more likely to prey on the young than straights, if only because by being gay in the first place they had already demonstrated a willingness to buck strong social taboos.

But I had no statistics. I don't know where the following writers got theirs, but it seems I was on the right track. According to Eric Raymond, gays are 3 to 10 times more likely to have sex with children than straights are. Then after a long passage he offers this:
Here is where the question becomes practical: were the Boy Scouts of America so wrong to ban homosexual scoutmasters? And here we are with a crashing thud back in the realm of present politics. After the numbing, horrifying, seemingly never-ending stream of foul crimes revealed in the scandal, even staunch sexual libertarians like your humble author can no longer honestly dismiss this question simply because it's being raised by unpleasant conservatives.

The priestly-abuse scandal forces us to face reality. To the extent that pederasty, pedophilic impulses, and twink fantasies are normal among homosexual men, putting one in charge of adolescent boys may after all be just as bad an idea as waltzing a man with a known predisposition for alcoholism into a room full of booze. One wouldn't have to think homosexuality is evil or a disease to make institutional rules against this, merely notice that it creates temptations best avoided for everyone's sake.
That must have been awful hard on him - his email ought to be a real trip after this. But he takes pains to say that the issue is not pederasty per se, but whether it was consensual.

I don't have a scientific answer. But it's clear that various gays (who might represent the tiniest of fringes) have been moving to make pedophilia acceptable. Some have even succeeded in introducing gay sex education in schools to the point where we're teaching kids "fisting". And they have a history of harassing the Boy Scouts of America for their policies of banning gay Scoutmasters, in terms that suggest that there is a civil right to be a Scoutmaster. And as Raymond notes, less radical gay groups don't attempt to distance themselves from groups such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association.

What makes me laugh are the efforts to represent priestly celibacy as the real problem. Yeah, that's it. And the next time there's a mad dog bomber in Israel, let's blame it on the Bahais. What, you've found evidence of cannibalism? Round up the vegans. You heard a joke? It must have been the feminists. Stop it, we're not all that stupid.

Thomas Sowell sounds off too.

Is this post anti-gay? That's your call. But don't tell me to deny the obvious - there's some things I just can't swallow.

The scientist in the kitchen

I started out engineering school intending to be a chemical engineer. Mercifully I got out of that - it was overcrowded when I was there. The professors were meaner than snakes and made no bones about trying to drive you out of the department. Then when I graduated I saw guys with sterling averages and excellent coop experiences go without jobs because the market had turned south severely. (Aerospace engineers can tell you something about that too).

A big part of ChE is something called unit operations. Here you learn about things like filtration, distillation, and other batch or continuous processes to create such things as bourbon, fudge, gasoline, ketchup, or about anything you can pump or dump. They never did tell us how they put the stripes in the toothpaste, doggone it, but this does.

I got my engineer designation the hard way. But calling traditional housekeepers "domestic engineers" might not be so far off the mark, especially if they can cook. You can read all about it in Robert Wolke's book "What Einstein Told His Cook". Nine stirring chapters cover the stuff you might have learned about cooking in engineering school - topics such as food irradiation, microwave ovens, chemicals like vinegar and cream of tartar, why cooking is different at high altitudes, and everything else you're just dying to know.

And for extra credit, you can measure the speed of light with your microwave oven.

Monday, June 17, 2002

Because it's my blog, that's why

This blog has been too serious lately. So I'll offer this invaluable contribution from "Hee Haw", and a list of Worst Country Song Titles!. The latter I found while researching the lyrics to "If My Nose Were Running Money, Honey, I'd Blow It All On You".

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Costs of nuclear power - some details

Now for some harder info about what nuclear plant operating companies pay toward their liability and other costs.

Nuclear power plants are required to carry $200M in liability insurance, and this is provided by a joint underwriting association called the American Nuclear Insurers. It may just be a coincidence that ANI is the plural of "anus", but it gives you an idea about what it's like dealing with these guys - if they have an issue, it gets fixed (and nothing regulates a capitalist like another capitalist).

Above and beyond this, in the event of a severe nuclear accident, existing nuclear power plants' operating companies would be assessed to pay for the losses:
The Act also requires nuclear operators to participate in a secondary retrospective assessment program to meet public damages above the $200 million primary insurance limit. Any damages above a reactor’s $200 million primary insurance coverage are to be assessed equally against all operating reactors, up to a current limit of $83.9 million per reactor, per accident (a 5% surcharge may also be imposed to pay legal costs). These assessments, called “retrospective premiums,” would be paid out at a rate of $10 million per reactor, per year, until the cap is met. Retrospective premiums are adjusted for inflation every five years. The Act currently covers 106 reactors (103 of which are currently operating). As a result, the Price-Anderson Act would provide $9.09 billion in compensation in the event of a nuclear accident. Payment of any damages above this combined primary and secondary cap would require congressional action. Under the Act, only reactor owners and operators are liable for damages in the event of an accident; companies that designed reactors or provided reactor parts or construction services are exempt from liability under the Act.
So nuclear operating companies have a strong incentive toward helping one another as needed to make sure that plants are operated safely, and they have formed organizations such as the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) to spread best practices, maintenance information, parts failure info, and other common information on their own terms without recourse to govt regulators like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

For radwaste, operators have been contributing to the Nuclear Waste Disposal Fund for years now. These contributions come from the ratepayers as noted here:
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), referred to as the Department, finds that the current 1.0 mill ($0.001) per kilowatt-hour fee charged on generators of spent nuclear fuel is adequate, and recommends that the fee not be changed.
Note that this assessment dates to 1998, during the Clinton administration. The amounts are not chicken feed -we're talking around $600M per year.

Here is some more information specifically about the funding of Yucca Mountain.

As for security, the costs are borne by the utilities themselves, and violators are subject to heavy fines. It's inappropriate to go into any more detail here.

Questions? Bear in mind that I'm no longer in the industry and I have a day job and a life, so it may take some time to run things down.

Cost of nuclear power - some history

I often hear questions about federal subsidies to nuclear power in one form or another. This might be the wrong question.

I haven't yet found the document that says exactly what I want to demonstrate, if it exists at all. But you must realize that whether there were any commercial nuclear power plants or not, the US govt would still have to pay for mining uranium, transporting it, refining it, reprocessing it, and ultimately disposing of it, because the Manhattan Project and other govt initiatives long predated commercial nuclear power. And the stuff the US govt uses is nastier and more highly refined than what is used in commercial nuclear power plants, so the marginal cost of adding additional consumers is not particularly high.

So under such circumstances, what is the logical thing to do? Apparently President Eisenhower had the right idea when he initiated the "Atoms for Peace" program. With this, the govt loosened its grip upon radioactive material and technology so that private industry could develop new applications or expand the usage of existing ones. And the new consumers could then contribute to the costs of maintaining the nuclear infrastructure without obvious taxes on voters.

One particular concern was labor problems. Some nasty coal miner strikes had occurred in 1946 on Harry Truman's watch, and that liberal Democrat was forced to break them. Nuclear power offered a way to break that stranglehold on our power supplies, and Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act that very year.

But electric utility executives weren't born yesterday, and they were particularly worried about liability in case of accidents. Insurers were not willing to underwrite anything near the costs of postulated accidents. It became clear that no private firms would build nuclear power plants until the govt dealt with this. Thus was born the Price-Anderson Act capping liability in case of accidents at nuclear power plants.

Bear in mind that at this point there were no commercial nuclear power plants. So there is no way that Price Anderson can be considered pork. Rather, it is clearly an inducement for private industry to enter the market in the first place.

Likewise the govt was concerned with control of nuclear material, and electric utilities wanted no part of the new field of radioactive waste disposal. So it was agreeable to everyone that the govt would make fuel available and would handle the waste.

Why would the US govt agree to these things? Was the govt stupid? Was it fear of labor problems? Was this just Cold War politics? Something else?

Or was the real reason the exact opposite of what detractors claim? That is, perhaps the real motive was to get nuclear power plant operators to help in bearing some of the costs of the nuclear infrastructure, through their purchases of fuel and reprocessing services. In this way we can help pay our defense costs without raising taxes.

The short answer is that the commercial and the govt nuclear establishment are tightly linked, and it would be difficult to say what might fairly be called a subsidy or not. But it is clear that the nuclear fuel cycle, with all of the technological and safety problems it entails, long predates commercial nuclear power and might well long outlive it. And that the existence of other consumers of nuclear material extends the usefulness of these facilities as a minimum, and might even help support them.

There's an interesting corollary to this theory. Note that anti-nuclear groups typically are left-wing politically. Why is that? Surely fears of the shortcomings of a technology would cross over traditional political lines. So there would appear to be no rational reason for the left wing orientation of antinukers.

Except for one. Left-wingers historically have been more sympathetic to our Cold War rivals than other groups have. And those rivals were aided by anything that 1) increased costs of our defenses, and 2) reduced the reliability of our energy supplies. Both of these goals could be advanced by attacking nuclear power. So although they might claim that the govt subsidizes nuclear power in their propaganda, their behavior says otherwise.