Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tedium, worry and deep, deep sadness (and a physics lesson)

I'm filling my day with trimming small HSTs and listening to the ever worsening news on the radio. The trimming is the tedium part of the title. When you're making 1 1/2" finished HSTs you need to be careful of even 1/32" size discrepancy because it adds up quickly. So I make a batch of 24 and then trim them. It's dull work that leaves my brain space to fret about the world situation.

The worry and sadness are from what I hear on the radio. The earthquake and tsunami news was depressing and sickening, and the situation at the nuclear plant is worse. I worked in the nuclear industry for 30 years and know far too much to take what the news agencies and the Japanese government are saying at face value. Things are bad, very bad, and getting worse at Fukushima Dai-ishi. A fire in the spent fuel cooling pool? There's nothing there to burn except the zirconium fuel rod cladding. Unit 4 was down for maintenance and the fuel rods were unloaded and stored in the pool. Because it's old fuel doesn't mean that the isotopes in the fuel pellets aren't still decaying and emitting heat. You have to keep it cooled. If it caught fire they let the pool where the fuel bundles were stored go dry while coping with the other units and now unit 4 may be the worst contaminator of the bunch. And what about units 5 and 6, which weren't operating either? What about their fuel pools?

The unit that was described as possibly having damage to the suppression chamber is a great worry too. This is a structure at the bottom of the reactor vessel which is full of water and can have cooling water injected into it to bring down the temperature of the system. It's fully exposed to the contaminated water around the melted fuel rods and is carrying particulate contaminates. If that system is breached, then the contamination may be capable of spreading outside the plant. And that's the bad stuff - cesium and other long half-life isotopes.

The news reporters are getting on my nerves with their utter ignorance of what they are reporting. When they get an expert to interview, they won't shut up and let the expert explain anything. One host on CNN infuriated me because she seemed to be trying to steer the expert into saying things in the most inflammatory way possible. This guy had long-time industry experience from the IAEA and I wanted to hear what he had to say because he was making more sense than anyone they had brought on the programs in days. And she wouldn't close her mouth and let him.

Finally, please someone, explain to the CNN talking heads what radiation and contamination mean and how they differ. Radiation is emitted energy from unstable isotopes in the form of alpha, beta or gamma rays or neutrons. You can use distance from the emitting source, limited time near the source, or shielding (such as metal) between you and the source to limit your dose of ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation causes cellular damage to the body, both genetic and somatic (meaning to your children born later or yourself).

Ionizing radiation (ionizing means that the alpha, beta or gamma rays or neutrons are damaging the atoms of your body that they come in contact with by disrupting their atomic structure, thus causing you harm) comes from many sources, not just nuclear plants. You are exposed to radiation from the sun every day. The people in Japan most at risk for direct doses of ionizing radiation are those 50 workers still at the plant trying to save it. I very much fear that even with all caution they are getting high exposures. Every time they are mentioned in the news I want to cry.

On the other hand, contamination means that you have particles of material which are emitting radiation that have become loose from the source and can be spread through the air or on surfaces. These particles can get on your skin or be breathed in or ingested, and either way you get a dose of radiation from them, from the outside or inside of you. Some of the particles, like iodine isotopes, target specific areas of the body. Others can do widespread harm.

Contamination can be spread by the weather, like the wind or the rain. It can infiltrate into small spaces. Nobody's house is completely airtight, and airborne contamination can get inside. From there it can get inside a person's lungs or on their skin or be swallowed. When you see people being checked with a Geiger counter on the news they're being scanned for contamination. That won't measure the radiation dose you may have received but it will tell if you or your clothes are contaminated.

Having all this industry exposure makes watching the news difficult because the facts aren't going to be available at the technical level I want. Add to that the evasive announcements from the Japanese government and it becomes even more exasperating.

I've gone on far too long about this, I guess, but I want to educate people about what they're seeing on TV.


paula, the quilter said...

I wondered about this. Thank you for a very good explanation.

Tonya Ricucci said...

I don't know if it's better to understand what's going on or try to be ignorant and hope it's not as bad as I fear it is. Must be so hard for you. Maybe it's time to listen to books on tape or watch a tv show you love??? I know, like that's easy. I watch/listen to way too much news myself.

The Calico Cat said...

Thanks for taking the time to explain this in layman's terms. (I am only a news reader - I gave up on the entertainment called news on TV a long time ago - so I can filter what I read/when/how thoroughly...)

Katie said...

Thank you for the lesson. My brother works in the nuclear industry and I know is watching things as closely as you are....and probably with the same frustration. It's all such a worry.

Lisa Boyer said...

Thank you for this! Very interesting. I'm struggling to understand it all from the news reports--now I know it's not just me--there really is confusing info out there! I'd be interested to hear what you think about the US starting to sound more alarmed than Japan seems to be. I know they've got a lot to deal with, but do you think they're not being realistic? Or truthful? Or is the US being overly cautious?

Greenmare said...

no you did not go on too long! my husband works at a nuclear plant, he is a control operator, and I work occasionally at the information center and I am soooooooooo frustrated with the media coverage of this! it is so incredibly irresponsible! I am telling everyone I know to check out www.nei.org for real information, do NOT get your information from the news websites.

momtofatdogs said...

I don't know enough aobut contamination or exposure to comment about either. But you're right. It's awful. I can't even look at the pictures & NOT cry. I don't even know anyone in Japan & it justs brings me to tears. The human suffering is just rotten. And it won't stop just becasue they cleaned up. Thanks for explaining it.


Suze said...

Thank you for taking the time to explain things.