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Sunday 15 February 2015

America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown: A Disaster Made of Words - Part 1: Nuclear Fear

It is arguable whether the human race have been gainers by the march of science beyond the steam engine. Electricity opens a field of infinite conveniences to ever greater numbers, but they may well have to pay dearly for them. But anyhow in my thought I stop short of the internal combustion engine which has made the world so much smaller. Still more must we fear the consequences of entrusting a human race so little different from their predecessors of the so-called barbarous ages such awful agencies as the atomic bomb. Give me the horse.  - Winston Churchill -  


When it comes to nuclear accidents, the first casualty of what happened is always the truth. The world of nuclear issues is a veritable minefield of misstatements, because activists almost uniformly resort to hyperbole and a half, while nuclear industry professionals will try to make any accident sound as frightening as making toast in your kitchen. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little but when dealing with nuclear topics, I always assume bias and I will advise everyone to do the same. Very few people can write rationally on this subject. I'm not even sure I can - but I'll try.

Before I go waltzing down the path of tangents, let me introduce today's target of being wrong on the internet. It's an article in the web-magazine, Pacific Standard:

50 Years After America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown (1)

What's wrong here is the accident this article refers to. No, it's not Three Mile Island ("TMI") or the SL-1 accident in Idaho, the only real reactor accident that killed people prior to Chernobyl (2). The article is about a small experimental sodium-potassium cooled reactor whose design was being tested for satellite applications at a Rocketdyne facility in the Santa Susana Hills of Simi Valley, City of Los Angeles in California. The first time I ever saw this while surfing the internet one evening I just about had a cow. Los Angeles? The site of America's worst nuclear reactor accident??? Oh Please! Show me the bodies, someone!

Then I started digging. It turns out there is a dedicated knot of activists down in the Southern California who believe that an accident at with this small experimental salt-cooled reactor accident really is the worst nuclear meltdown in this country and that it was covered-up and concealed from the public. I hope to show that neither of these two points is true. But this post has gotten so long in the writing that I'm breaking it into four parts, of which this is the first. But before we begin to dig into details, it's time for -


For the purpose of complete disclosure, I glow in the dark as does my family and my spouse's family too. I found it hugely amusing when I told my father about this person I was dating when I was in grad school. The second I mentioned that my future father-in-law was a former "navy nuke" and reactor operator, and that my future spouse had worked at one time at a nuclear power plant, everything was A-Okay with with cold warrior dad.

My father cut his nuclear teeth working on the Manhattan Project, spent half his career designing and building nuclear submarines and the other half fixing nuclear reactors. My favorite picture of my father is of him at the helm of the USS Nautilus, back when the engineers at the Electric Boat shipyard manned the controls for sea trials. Yes, my dad, the first helmsman of the Nautilus. It doesn't get any better than that. My brother's got a PhD in nuclear engineering and is an expert in modeling reactor vessel degradation (don't quote me on that - I haven't read his resume for a couple of decades and disciplines do shift with time, but I do know he was still doing a lot of stuff for Oak Ridge not too long ago). He founded the health physics program at Columbia University. That's reactors and nuclear safety too. I'm not in the nuclear field myself but at one time I could honestly claim to be an expert in nuclear methods used in borehole geophysics. I've extracted lots of isotopes from earth materials and irradiated a lot of rocks and boreholes in my day. And I'm really really good at x-ray fluorescence. Nuclear credentials? Mine aren't as good as my brother's or my father's but I got 'em!

If I have a bias, it probably leans favorably toward nuclear power generation using the proven reactor designs that can't melt down and/or cause explosions that release ionizing radiation. Yes, we do know how to build reactors that can't meltdown or explode though some of you will not believe me, either because you don't know what a meltdown really is or because all things anti-nuclear are a matter of religion for you.

I have nothing to cite in support of this, but I believe that anti-nuclear power stances are essentially religious beliefs. See? There's my bias, out in the open. I will try to stay objective here.


Nuclear fear exists and it is irrational. It affects the people who think nuclear reactors are part of the road to hell. It also affects the people who work in nuclear-science based industries who fear that irrationality.

Let me tell you a short story about nuclear fear.

I spent part of my career as an earth scientist in the environmental field. I've investigated and helped to remediate some tens of sites, mostly on the west side of the USA. Several of those were Superfund sites. I was the field work manager for one of those Superfund sites. But I cut my environmental teeth on the Navy's landfill on Mare Island. I did a well-logging geophysical survey using a passive gamma-ray detector in something like 30 groundwater monitoring wells. A passive gamma-ray detector measures the natural background gamma-ray emissions of the materials next to it. This works because almost all physical matter emits a very small amount of radiation from the natural decay of naturally-occurring radio-isotopes, including alpha particles, electrons and gamma-rays. The naturally-occurring radioactive elements include uranium, thorium, radium, radon gas and potassium; and almost all physical matter on the earth's surface contains very small amounts of these elements including all those fancy granite kitchen counters, table salt and your own body. The radio-isotopes of these elements are one of the two contributors of that background radiation you hear scientists talk about. This background radiation is nothing to worry about because all biological systems have been exposed to it for billions of years and are already evolved and adapted to it. Another way to look at background radiation is that it is actually plays an essential role in evolution - but that's a post for another day...

The purpose of the passive gamma well-logging study at Mare Island was to document the integrity of the well seals in an environmentally-sensitive area. All wells have to be constructed such that fluids from the surface or from a stratigraphic layer can't leak into any other stratigraphic layer in the ground. I'm sure you can see where testing the well seals of wells built in and around a landfill would be a good thing. The well-logging survey was a tasty little study and I was quite proud of it. The study worked like this: clay was used in the grout to seal the monitoring wells, and because clay is rich in potassium in comparison to the calcareous mudstones of Mare Island, recording the elevated gamma-ray emission from the radioactive decay of naturally-occurring K-40 in the clay-rich grout would show that the well seals were thick enough and continuous. The passive gamma logging tool I sent down the wells was just a glorified hyper-sensitive gamma-ray analog of a Geiger-Mueller counter called a scintillation detector which was calibrated to measure the extremely small amount of background radiation in the wells. To give you an idea of how much gamma radiation there was, the background in plain old air was around 5 to 8 API units, the bay muds, siltstones, and sandy shallow aquifer layers underlying the landfill were around 5 to 12 API units and the well seals were around 18 to 20 API units. Now don't quote me on that since I'm remembering this off the top of my head - but since it was my first real well-logging survey at my very first real industry geology job, I remember it well. That was back in the days when my first job was still an adventure for me instead of the slog it later turned into.

California law at the time stipulated a minimum seal thickness of two feet for environmental monitoring wells (please don't quote me on that either - I don't know where my old California well standards booklet has wandered off to so I can cite that thickness - but I do know we built those wells to exceed the state standards). When I was done logging, my gamma-ray study showed that all the wells had continuous seals of three to four feet as indicated by the steady elevated gamma-ray counts next to those grout seals around the well casings.

Now here's where the nuclear fear comes in: the Navy had the study removed from the publicly-published report on the environmental investigation of the aquifers under the landfill. Why? Because they were afraid the public would panic over or misunderstand the words "gamma-ray." Here's their reasoning: gamma-rays were ionizing radiation after all, and ionizing radiation is nuclear by definition. Since the Navy had just lost a huge civic suit brought against it by the State of California over its stand that the State's environmental laws did not apply to federal military reservations, and since they were also fighting a battle at that time over the presence of the nuclear reactors on submarines at Mare Island, they were overly-sensitive about accusations that there might be nuclear waste on the navy base. So the last thing they wanted was someone claiming there was radioactivity in the Mare Island's landfill on the basis of the passive gamma study I did of the well seals.

It really was absurd. Potassium-40 is everywhere in this world. It's a naturally-occurring substance. You yourself as you read this have naturally-occurring Potassium-40 in your body which you acquired by ingestion of everyday table salt. It's background radiation. It's there and it has always been there. Some earth materials like clay have more of it than other earth materials like limestone or coral - and that's why passive gamma-ray detection is useful for investigating rocks in wells. Passive gamma logging is so useful that every oil and gas well in world will have a passive gamma log run in it.

My first borehole logging study was never published because of nuclear fear. I still have the report draft from over 30 years ago packed away in a box somewhere. Was the nuclear fear in this case justified? Well, probably. To people lacking a basic understanding of science and for whom anti-nuclear doctrine is a matter of religion, seeing the measurement of gamma-rays in monitoring wells might very well have caused some numbnuts to misunderstand the nature of the my well-logging study.

Whoops - showing my bias there again... My bad!


Humans in general can be uncomfortable with change and one of the usual responses to hard-to-understand change in the form of new technologies is avoidance (3). Nuclear fear is really only one of many negative reactions to new technologies and this particular fear phenomenon is actually quite dated. Some of the most notable negative reactions to new technologies are exemplified by the introduction of the steam engine, the railroad and electricity (4, 5).

I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late James Watt, who said that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. - Richard Trevithick, inventor of the first high-pressure steam engine - (6)

Early fears about railroads centered around the adverse effects that high speeds of 30 mph could have on the human body and around the dangers of locomotive explosions (7). Fears over electricity persisted well into the mid-20th century where some older people in rural areas would not even touch a telephone for fear of electrocution (5). The data on the power of vaccines to conquer the former plagues of the past is inarguable (8); however, fears over vaccinations persist to this day despite the existence of proof-of-principle for the effectiveness of vaccines for over 200 years. The more you look at such phenomenon, the stranger it looks. To the scientifically inclined, such behaviors appear irrational and perverse since, after all, facts are facts. Behavior like this is why some people like myself tend to think of such fears as religious beliefs since they are taken by their advocates as the truth based not on fact but on an act of baseless faith and bolstered by bad theodicies of pseudo-scientific arguments. Yet many holders of such anti-rational beliefs are intelligent people of non-trivial education. So what is going on here?

The answers to such a question are not easy or obvious. To say that holders of anti-technology beliefs are luddites or stupid or uneducated is as insulting as it is wrong. Nor can you say that it is limited to western civilization in the face of such episodes as the great Japanese resistance to the introduction of smallpox vaccine in the 19th century (9). There aren't a lot of good explanations of this phenomenon which is a bit off from my point of view since this is one of the most important cultural happenings of our time.

One partial explanation that seems to work is that of Weart (3, 10). If there is one book to read, I'd point anyone to his Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, though if one is more oriented to explanation and text rather than pictures, his shorter distillation and update of his early work, which goes by the title of The Rise of Nuclear Fear may be the better pick. For those in love with ebooks - or at least in love with their convenience like I am - the latter is available as an ebook whereas the former is not.

Weart's model is based on the phenomenon of psychological-to-physiological connection. The trite and cliche example of this is Pavlov's dogs who would salivate at the sound of bell because Pavlov had trained the association of the bell and being fed into the dogs. Weart makes the case that technological fears like nuclear fear work in a similar way. No, people are not animals like dogs but there are proven human responses to stimuli that provoke emotional responses that are seemingly unconnected except in the mind of the person experiencing a stimulus response. I am reminded of an example I read in a book on the psychology of adults who were orphaned as children old enough to remember the missing parent or parents. One case study was of a woman who felt extreme sorrow and sometimes would weep every time she heard a particular piano piece by Chopin. Investigation with her relatives revealed that one of her parents, who died when she was something like four, was fond of playing Chopin on the piano. 

Others of these psychological-to-physiological behaviors appear to be hard-wired to humans as a whole: for example, arachnophobia or ophidiophobia are statistically-significant behaviors for the human race everywhere.  For most people, fight or flight at the sight of a spider or snake is in your genes, even if the snake is a harmless garter snake or the spider is one of the helpful ones that eat mosquitoes.  Weart's point is that people can be trained - and are trained - to respond in specific ways to certain stimuli even if there is a rational disconnect between the two, and that this is a real thing which exists at both individual and sub-species levels.

When you understand Weart's point in the previous paragraph, then his main argument is that nuclear fear is based on response to stimuli unconnected with nuclear stuff in the real world. The connections come from the world of the imagination as manifested in popular literature, entertainment and modern myth. The X-men, Godzilla and the giant insects of countless 1950's "B" movies all belong to the nuclear mutants created by the aftermath of atomic bombs. It's so common a thing in movies and comic books that it's a tired old cliche and trope. Now there's no such thing as Godzilla but Godzilla is real in our cultural universe and every time you see Godzilla, something in the back of your brain says "mutant monsters are nuclear consequences." 

Then there's the gig that folks in the nuclear business glow in the dark but that's not real either - but in the reality of cultural memes, one can nuke things until they glow in the dark. Well, places that have been bombed do not glow in the dark. It just doesn't happen. Some reactors exhibit bluish glowing effects, most commonly when fission occurs surrounded by a pool of water. It's called Cherenkov Radiation and it's due to the creation of highly charged particles in a reactor which then travel through the reactors coolant at speeds faster than light can travel through the same coolant. As the particles interact with the coolant and slow down, they dump energy. In the classic case of water-cooled reactors, the dumped energy manifests as high-frequency blue-light photons. It's a reactor thing. It's not a bomb effect. You can't bomb something to the point that it will glow in the dark.  Physics just doesn't work that way - but that's not what the cultural meme tells you!

Weart's point is that stuff like this is what's behind nuclear fear. Godzilla isn't real but your cultural exposure to science fiction movies associates mutant monsters with the aftermath of atomic bomb explosions. These are the sorts of things Weart talks about but in much greater detail on many more levels than my quick and dirty examples here.

Nuclear fear, like all technological fears, is a gut reaction based on emotional, psychological and cultural responses that have very little to do with real science, fact and critical thinking. We are ruled far less by our higher thought processes than we believe we are.



  1. Bien, T. J, and Collins, M., 25 Aug 2009, "50 Years After America's Worst Nuclear Meltdown", Pacific Standard Magazine, accessed 30 Jan 2015. 
  2. Doc Clark, 31 Jan 2013, "The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident???", accessed 14 Feb 2015. 
  3. Weart, S. R., 1989, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674628366.
  4. Volti, R., 2005, Society and Technological Change, 5th edition, Worth Publishers, ISBN 978-0716787327.
  5. Simon, L. 2005, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-ray, Mariner Books, ISBN 978-0156032445.
  6. Francis Trevithick, 1872, Life of Richard Trevithick: With an Account of his Inventions, Vol. 2, p. 395-6, accessed 13 Feb 15. 
  7. National Railway Museum (UK), 2012, "Fear and Fascination", accessed 12 Feb 2015.
  8. Doc Clark, 28 Jan 2015, "Vaccination for Idiots", accessed 14 Feb 2015.
  9. I wish I could find a good English-language reference on what happened in Japan with the smallpox vaccines but my friend who was a published Japanese historian passed away just a few years ago so making a phone call to pick his brains for a reference isn't an option anymore. So I'll fess up in the dearth of a better reference for now and confess that most of my knowledge on this subject is actually based on the late great Tezuka Ozamu's award-winning historical manga epic Hidamari no Ki. Commonly considered the Walt Disney of Japanese anime, Tezuka obtained an MD before becoming an manga and anime creator and medical themes run through many of his works. Tezuka was descended from one of the historical doctor characters in Hidamari no Ki, which was one of the last manga series he wrote before his death. But basing one's knowledge of history on a manga, even one by Tezuka, is not the preferred way to document an historical event. I'll keep looking for a ref on this. One the big problems here is that I have never found a good popular history of Japan that's a decent read and at my age, life is too short to slog through dry history texts when there isn't a grade at stake...
  10. Weart, S. R., 2012, The Rise of Nuclear Fear, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674052338.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Plotting Real Fukushima Data Because I Can

Gunning Fog Index = 12.49

More nerdly fun with data from the EPA radiation monitoring database. It took me a while to make this plot but I find it fascinating.


Not only can you see a Be-7 spike in the month after the Fukushima disaster, you can also see the effect of EPA budget cuts starting in federal fiscal year 2010. We lack what would have been truly significant data because of the budget wars - data that has implications for the health and safety of all citizens. It's not that I'm saying all budget cuts are bad but I do opine that indiscriminate budget cuts or cuts aimed at an agency disliked by powerful special interests can hurt us. Not all regulation is bad and not all businesses act in the public interest, as that great Republican Teddy Roosevelt would have said if he were still alive today. Well, that's my opinion, for what it's worth.

Why am I playing with Fukushima data? Partly because I'm sick and tired of looking at faked Fukushima data on the internet that's designed to scare and panic people. I know where to find real data and I'm not afraid to use it.

As a scientist, what I find really sad about this data is that clump of intense sampling for the month and a half just after Fukushima with no monthly sampling before or after. For a radioisotope like Be-7 which has well-known seasonal and solar-cycle variation cycles, the lack of before and after data makes that clump of post-Fukushima data almost useless because the signal of the Be-7 variation cycles now can not be accurately removed to show the magnitude of the Fukushima pulse.

Plotting Chernobyl Fallout

Gunning Fog Index = 11.17

Today we explore the EPA's radiation monitoring database, not because I caught someone wrong on the internet but because I had insomnia last night and occupied myself by playing with data until I could sleep. So here's a plot of beta decays vs. time before, during and after the Chernobyl disaster. Beta decays are a decent proxy for the non-actinide fission products created in a Uranium-fueled reactor. I only plotted two detector locations because they both had fairly robust and continuous datasets for both before and after the reactor failure and they show what I wanted to see, i.e. the evidence of trans-Atlantic fallout in the eastern half of the US.


How bad is the contamination on this plot? Actually it's way less than it looks. The EPA considers less than 4 pCi/liter very low risk which requires no intervention or action (based on radon; ref: The highest value in the data I used was 1.06 pCi/m^3. To convert to pCi/liters, divide by 1000 to get 0.000106 pCi/liter. Ignoring the fact that radioactivity and dose are apples and watermelons, a quick back-of-the-envelope calc reveals that we're talking micro rems here in terms of equivalent dose. You get exposed to around a thousand times more than that from just watching TV. (Yes, yes, yes, this is really pushing it in terms of evaluating dose but rigorous dose calcs are such a pain in the butt when all I wanted was a good qualitative arm wave. I won't stop anyone who wants to bust my chops over this from doing their own calcs and posting those as a comment...)

The beta decay measurements in this plot are for particulate matter trapped in air samplers. It would not be unsound to postulate that some of that particulate matter was true honest-to-pete fallout because the Soviets did not built a robust reactor containment around the reactor vessel - so when the reactor went critical during the accident, the explosion vented to the atmosphere. FYI - most of the rest of world builds robust reactor containments, which is why Fukushima isn't anywhere near as bad in terms of airborne contamination despite its more complex nature and the presence of multiple meltdown bodies.

I'd love to get some real beta decay data like this for Fukushima but due to Tea Party/Republican attacks on EPA funding, the radiation monitoring program was gutted starting in federal fiscal year 2010 through to mid-fiscal year 2012 (the federal fiscal year starts in October) and then again during the Sequester. We lack a lot of meaningful data for the crucial before-and-after periods of the Fukushima disaster. Mind you, that's just a personal opinion so YMMV!

Monday 5 May 2014

They Paid Me To Write This - Part 1

Gunning Fog Index = 12.75

Today's target for someone being wrong on the internet is really special! It's so special that I have to share the entirety of today's target first before diving in and analyzing its various statements. I know that writing the commentary on today's target is going to be difficult so I will beg some indulgence in advance for any uncalled for sarcasm, irony, parody, satire or condescension in which I might inadvertantly engage. I feel I must say this upfront and in advance just because today's target is just that special.

It's also apparent to me that I'm going to have to break my commentary into two parts, because there's really that much to say. The normal amount of arm waving isn't going to suffice this time around. What you're reading now is the first of two parts.

Today's offering is from a blog website whose URL is The offering itself is from the comments following a blog post (1) on the alleged sinking of the building housing Fukushima Daiichi Reactor 4. I was thinking of writing a post on the alleged subsidence of the Reactor 4 Building until I found today's target in the comments that followed. I suspect I might return to the Reactor 4 sinking sometime in the future but I think you will agree with me that the subject of today's blog post really should take precedence here. After all, I do think it is of the upmost importance to give my readership my considered and dispassionate determination as to whether the Illuminati are really trying to destroy Mother Earth.

So here's the comment (2) by one "Astraelia" on 24 Oct 2012 to the Reactor 4 subsidence blog post on Since we may be dealing with the potential destruction of life as we know it, I urge you all to read this comment carefully and reflect on this might imply for our future existence our planet:

FUKUSHIMA – the SECRET TRUTH: A ILLUMINATI SABOTAGE OPERATION IN THE ENGINEERING OF THE GENERAL ELECTRIC DESIGNED REACTORS. These GE General electric reactor design is from the USA, and was BUILT TO FAIL on the event of an emergency that required to urgently cool the nuclear reactor. All the safety valves where non operational by design, and could not be activated when after the Tsunami, the operators tried to cool down the nuclear core. It is not ignorance or incompetence, but systemic, on purpose technical sabotage from the conceptors of this USA General Electric nuclear generator. The emergency cooling valves engineering have been covertly manipulated to neutralize all attempts of opening these cooling valves to lower the temperature of the nuclear reactor in an overheating emergency scenario. There is 30 others such nuclear bombs plants in Japan, and over 30 in the USA. Over that, almost all nuclear plants have been located on purpose on seismic fault lines. The seismic signature of this earthquake does not correspond in any manner to the profile of earthquakes, but exhibit the exact profile of a nuclear explosion. This proves that it was not of natural origin, but was the result of a US covert operation of exploding a nuclear bomb right inside the deep sea seismic fault line. Almost ALL the Nuclear Plants in the world have been built ON PURPOSE on seismic fault lines. It is a concerted plan of destruction of humanity & life by the enemies of life that have taken complete covert control of our ancient paradise planet. The Illuminati have put these time bombs disguised as nuclear reactors all around the world with this on purpose secret technical sabotage.

I'm not making this up, you know. This is a real comment on a real blog and I can prove it! If I created the above comment text myself as a gag, I would have created the website, website blog contents and blog commentary and then would have posted about the above commentary on April 1. First, if you run the whois command on the URL, you will find that the website does not belong to me, which is proof #1. Second, today's date is not April 1, demonstrating that this is not another of my infamous and elaborate April Fools gags, like the journal article I created on the discovery of pages from Dr. Dee's copy of The Necronomicon in the Vatican's Secret Archives (3), so this is proof #2. The blog comment is real, I kid y'all not!

Let's just pause for a moment to define the one essential abbreviation for today's blog post. The abbreviation is "BWR" which stands for "boiling water reactor." Most commercial reactor designs in use in the United States and Japan are in a design class known as "light water reactors," which are further divided into BWRs and "pressurized water reactors," or PWRs for short. In case you're wondering about why this design category is called "light water reactors," it's because there's also a design class known as "heavy water reactors" which use deuterium-rich water, which is also known as heavy water since the deuterium isotope of hydrogen is twice as heavy as normal hydrogen. A early popular reactor design used in Canada was known as the Canadian Deuterium reactor or "CANDU" reactor. But we can save discussion of different reactor designs for some other day. Now back to today's topic...

It is apropos at this point to make a list of the various claims alleged in the above blog commentary. Those allegations are:

  1. All safety valves were designed to be non-operational in the event of an emergency where cooling the reactors was necessary in order to halt or prevent overheating.
  2. The design of the built-to-fail safety valves was a covert act of sabotage by General Electric, the United States-based vendor of the reactor designs used at Fukushima Daiichi.
  3. There are 30 reactors with these built-to-fail safety valves in Japan and over 30 in the United States.
  4. Almost all nuclear electric power generation stations worldwide have been intentionally sited directly on top of seismic fault lines.
  5. The 11 March 2011 Tohoku earthquake event was not really an earthquake but was actually a nuclear bomb explosion based on seismic signature evidence.
  6. The nuclear bomb detonation was a covert act by the United States which took place in the deep sea fault where the Tohoku earthquake was alleged to have originated.
  7. The secret nuclear bomb detonation by the USA is part of a plan by the Illuminati to destroy humanity and all other life.

Let's now look at each of the claims that were made and consider them rationally. Since this is part one of two parts, today's blog post will deal with allegations one through four. Part two, which will follow in a few days, will deal with allegations five through seven. Allegation five is going to take some hard explaining, complete with lots of beach balls - no, really - and that will take a bit of work to put together.beach balls

Seriously, there will be pictures of beach balls, I kid you not. Discussing the science of earthquakes vs. explosions requires lots and lots of beach balls. Serious seismicity means serious beach balls. And maybe even one or two pictures of jello. I learned this at the Seismo Lab at Caltech. No kidding. I'm 100% on the level here. I'll even post a picture of my diploma from Caltech if needed. But you're going to have to wait for part two...

One: Built-to-Fail Safety Valves

This claim is actually easy to dismiss. When the Tohoku earthquake happened on 11 March 2011, Japan's reactors all had early earthquake warning systems which successfully shut down all the operating reactors in the country, including reactors 1, 2, and 3 at Fukushima Daiichi; reactors 4, 5 and 6 were already offline for maintenance operations (4). All the valves on all the cooling cycle circulation systems worked as designed despite the loss of electric power from the grid: Fukushima Daiichi had back-up diesel generators which fired up and started producing power as designed when grid power was lost. Those diesel generators worked flawlessly right up until the tsunami arrived approximately an hour later. The tsunami swamped the diesel generators and their power distribution control panels, and all power and control was lost. Without electricity, the reactor operators could not operate the pumps and valves of the cooling systems, which is the contributing cause of the nuclear accidents that followed over the next few days. The valves worked as designed. The nuclear accidents did not happen because of an alleged covert design flaw in the Fukushima valves, but rather because the idiots who designed the inadequate seawall and oceanside reactor buildings went and placed the emergency diesel generators and their power distribution panels in basements that were flooded by the tsunami. The seawall between reactors 1 through 4 and the ocean was 10 meters high; the maximum tsunami height at Fukushima Daiichi was 14 meters (4).

Actually, of the 12 emergency diesel generators at Fukushima Daiichi, one actually stayed operation and was responsible for keeping reactors 5 and 6 cool and safe by providing electricity to run the pumps and valves and such. That's because someone had the brains to locate it on the top floor of the building for reactor 6, not the basement. It and its electric distribution control panel didn't get flooded and so never failed.

I am tempted to say that one should never attribute to vast international conspiracies for world destruction circumstances which can be simply explained by incompetence - but that would be way too sarcastic for the dispassionate and objective tone I would like to maintain on this blog, so I won't.

Two: GE Covertly Designed Valves To Fail

Again, this claim is also easy to dismiss on the grounds that after the earthquake and loss of grid power, the valves and the rest of the coolant circulation systems operated as designed up until the loss of the emergency diesel generators. Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 through 4 were damaged because the tsunami flooded the diesel generators (4). Valve design had nothing to do with the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

Three: 30 Japanese reactors and >30 American reactors have built-to-fail valves

The author of today's target wasn't clear about which reactors have covertly flawed valves. I'm going to extrapolate and assume the author was writing about all GE-designed BWRs, not just the Fukushima ones. The numbers alleged by the author then make sense if the author believes all GE BWRs have built-to-fail valves. The author's numbers are approximately correct: there are 31 GE-designed BWRs in Japan, of which 25 are operating and the 6 at Fukushima Daiichi are either damaged and shutdown (5). There are 45 BWRs in the US at 33 power stations, of which 35 are operating, 4 are dismantled and 6 are mothballed (5). While the author implies these additional BWRs have built-to-fail valves, there is reason to doubt this since the author was already wrong about the valves at Fukushima Daiichi.

Four: Almost All Reactors Are Sited On Top Of Seismic Fault Lines

I think we have to begin here by looking at the author's implicit assumptions apparent in the above claim. I opine that there are two such implicit assumptions and believe that they reveal more about the author's ignorance about science than anything else. The implicit assumptions seem to be that all faults are active and that all active faults are capable of building-destroying earthquakes. Neither of these is true.

Faults are roughly planar features where the earth materials on either side of the fault have moved with respect to one another. The amount of that motion is termed "fault displacement." Opposing forces on either side of a fault determine how much fault displacement takes place. Large forces, like those found at tectonic plate boundaries, cause large fault displacements, and smaller forces, like the ones seen when a reservoir is filled or ground subsidence occurs, cause smaller displacements. But not all fault displacements cause earthquakes. Earthquakes occur when fault displacement occurs all at once - but some fault displacements occur continuously and never cause the jarring catastrophic ground motions of earthquakes. Continuous fault motion is called seismic creep and if you live in the Bay Area of California, you can find several places locally where you can actually observe fault displacement due to seismic creep along the Hayward Fault, like three houses down from the house I lived in north of Berkeley.

Earthquakes, the sudden displacement of ground on either side of active faults, happen when faults lock up and seismic slip is prevented. This happens because faults are planar only to a first approximation. In reality, most fault surfaces have irregularities and there's a lot static friction present on a lot of fault surfaces which prevents peaceful seismic slip. For a locked-up fault to move, the forces on either side of fault have to overcome the static friction present in the fault.

Small earthquakes happen all the time and can occur just about everywhere, even far from tectonic plate boundaries, because the earth is never really still even though it may seem that way to us. For example, filling large reservoirs can set off seismic spasms of many itty bitty earthquakes for months afterward but these are usually small enough that most people aren't even aware of them. And far from active tectonic plate boundaries, the mostly stable strata of continental interiors slip only a little along small faults or fractures due to events like subsidence from the withdrawal of oil in the ground or compaction of underlying rocks - and the small earthquakes from such ground motions are again hardly noticed except by those who actively monitor seismic networks.

You can site a nuclear reactor on top of an old inactive fault in a place where there are no strong tectonic forces acting on either side of that fault and nothing catastrophic is going to happen. Inactive means just that. Most of the mapped faults on the earth are these old inactive faults that no longer move because the stresses that originally created them are long gone. Faults do not cause earthquakes. Stresses in the earth cause earthquakes and earthquakes create faults. We shouldn't be freaking out over every little mapped fault near a reactor. Most of those faults are just scars, most of them very old. The thing to worry about is the state of stress in the ground, which is the thing that creates faults. In areas near tectonic plate boundaries, the forces that act on those plates are the big concern for reactors and any other kind of structure that will cause a disaster in failure, like petroleum storage tank farms, oil refineries, chemical plants and natural gas pipelines. Concern over faults without looking at whether an area is tectonically active is putting the cart before the horse.

To be frank, you don't even have to site a reactor on top of an active fault in a tectonically-active area to be in danger, since any nearby large earthquake will cause damaging ground motions throughout a region and not just at the surface expression of a fault. Granted, already existing faults are where earthquake displacements will most likely occur, especially in tectonically-active regions, but sometimes the forces active in the earth will create new faults where none existed before.

Basically the comment author's allegation that almost all reactors are sited on top of faults is moot because earthquake damage depends on more variables than just the surface location of a fault. (The citations for all the content of this section thus far are refs 6 and 7.)

Still, we can test the author's allegation at face value too, regardless of its lack of scientific merit as outlined immediately above. We can do so by starting with the list of BWRs and looking at their locations with respect to any nearby mapped faults or other seismic hazards. "Nearby" as I'm using the term here means within approximately 10 miles. The choice of a 10 mile proximity as "nearby" is entirely arbitrary. I picked it because it's a conventient scale for looking at the USGS seismic hazard maps.

So here's a list of BWRs listed by the nearest town to the power generation stations:

  • Browns Ferry, AL: 3 BWRs. Power plant site is located between two buried inactive faults of age >500 million year, located 2 miles and 5 miles respectively from the plant (8).
  • Brunswick, NC: 2 BWRs. No known nearby surface or buried faults though the plant is located on the perimeter of the South Carolina earthquake Quaternary liquifaction zone (9).
  • Clinton, IL: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (10).
  • Richland, WA: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (11).
  • Brownville, NE: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Morris, IL: 2 BWRs. The late Paleozoic Sandwich Fault Zone is approximately 10 miles north. This is a mostly buried fault which has not been active since before the advent of the dinosaurs (12).
  • Palo, IA: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9, 13).
  • Baxley, GA: 2 BWRs, No known nearby surface or buried faults (9, 14).
  • Frenchtown Charter Township, MI: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9, 15).
  • Port Gibson, MS: 1 BWR. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Lower Alloways Creek Township, NJ: 1 BWR (next door to 2 PWRs at Salem Nuc. Power Plant). No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Oswego, NY: 3 BWRs. No known nearby surface or buried faults (9).
  • Ottawa, IL: 2 BWRs. No known nearby surface or buried faults (16).
  • Limmerick, PA: 2 BWRs. Chalfont fault approx. 10 mi ENE of reactors; splays of the Ramapo Fault System approx. 10 mi west of reactors; plus some small local faults associated with volcanic dikes within 2 to 3 miles of reactors. All faults are Jurassic to Triassic in age and have been inactive for at least the last 100 milliion years (17, 18, 19). A trend of infrequent small to moderate shallow earthquake epicenters map along the surface expression of the Ramapo Fault in New Jersey 50 to 100 km NE of the reactors and are thought to be the result of intraplate stress accommodation in the North American Plate taking place in the complex system of fractures associated with the Ramapo Fault opportunistically. It is not currently known if the trend of minor seismicity along the Ramapo Fault System may indicate that this feature might be capable of a large earthquake, which are very rare on the east coast but not unknown (20).

At this point, I'm going to end making this list of BWRs and their proximity to faults. The above list covers approximately two thirds of the all BWRs in the US. Chasing down the remaining third isn't going to change the trend that's already apparent in the data of this list: none of the above reactors are sited on top of faults and most reactors aren't even within 10 miles of a mapped fault. Testing two thirds of a sample population (in this case, of boiling water reactors) is way past the point of statistical validity. I'm pretty sure based on statistical theory that any further sampling of commercial reactors in the US will merely confirm this trend we've just seen in the data: reactors don't tend to be sited on fault lines - not that that's really germane if you followed the arguments in the previous section on why the location of a surface expression of a fault is not the issue that matters. The real issue is whether an area with a reactor is one under substantial tectonic stress, with a subsidiary issue of whether there's an active fault near a reactor that's locked up instead of seismically creeping in a area of known large tectonic stresses.

Bottom line: the author of the comment got this allegation wrong. It appears, at least if we look at US reactors, that no one is going out of their way to site reactors on top of faults. I suspect, though I have not confirmed, that a survey of reactors in other countries will show similar trends in nuclear facilities not being located on top of known fault lines, active or inactive.

In a few days, I will have part two finished, just as soon as I'm done with getting all my beach balls ready for our serious lesson on how to differentiate earthquakes from explosions. You have to wait but it will be worth it.


  1. Huff, E. A. (16 Oct 2012), "Ground Under Fukushima Unit 4 Sinking, Structure On Verge Of Complete Collapse," as reposted at (21 Oct 2012),, accessed 5 May 2014.
  2. Astraelia (24 Oct 2014), "Fukushima - the Secret Truth" (Commentary),, accessed 5 May 2014.
  3., accessed 5 May 2014.
  4. Corrice, L. (2012), Fukushima: The First Five Days, Amazon Digital Services, ASIN B008GFLTK6. Also,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  5., accessed 6 May 2014.
  6. Stein, S., and M. Wysession (2002), An Introduction to Seismology, Earthquakes and Earth Structure, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-0865420786.
  7. Richter, C. F. (1958), Elementary Seismology, W H Freeman & Co, ISBN 978-0716702115.
  8. Geological Survey of Alabama, Alabama Earthquakes,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  9. United States Geological Survey, Interactive Fault Map,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  10. Illinois State Geological Survey, Fault Systems of Illinois and Neighboring States,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  11. Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington State Fault Map: Open File Report 80-02,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  12. Kolata, Buschbach and Treworgy (1978), The Sandwich Fault Zone of Northern Illinois, Illinois State Geological Survey Circular 505,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  13. United States Geological Survey, Iowa Seismic Hazards Map,, accessed 6 May 2014. Also Iowa Geological Survey, Bedrock Map of Iowa,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  14. United States Geological Survey, Georgia Geology,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  15. Bricker, D. M. (1977), Seismic Disturbances in Michigan, Michigan Natural Resources Circular 14,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  16. Illinois State Geological Survey, Faults in Illinois,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  17. Glaeser, J. D., 1966, Provenance, dispersal, and depositional environments of Triassic sediments in the Newark-Gettysburg basin: Pennsylvania Geological Survey, 4th ser., General Geology Report 43,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  18. Schlische, R. W., Geology of the Newark Basin,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  19. Ibid., geologic map of Newark Basin in NY, NJ and PA,, accessed 6 May 2014.
  20., accessed 6 May 2014.

Thursday 31 January 2013

The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident???

One of my favorite sayings is that thinking is work and people are lazy. It's right up there with wondering why common sense is so uncommon, and with distrusting anything written by journalists. Needless to say, I have once again been disgusted with a matter badly misrepresented in the press. This opinion piece is about a claim that the SL-1 reactor accident was the first nuclear accident in the USA.

Introduction: The SL-1 Reactor

My brother borrowed and recently returned to me one of the most readable books ever written about a reactor accident: _Idaho Falls_ by William McKeown. It's a decent read and I recommend it. The book is a good account of the only fatal nuclear power plant accident to ever occur in the United States. The reactor involved was a US Army prototype called the SL-1, built and operated on the grounds of the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), which has since been rebranded as the Idaho National Lab (INL). I used to work there.

The SL-1 was a US Army project. In the 50s and 60s, the Army was responsible for radar stations north of the Arctic Circle. These installations were built to monitor any incursions into American and Canadian airspace by Soviet bombers. Most of the radar locations were far from the electric power grids of North America. As a consequence, the Army was exploring the concept of small nuclear reactors simple enough that a small crew could run them and small enough that all the components could be built elsewhere and airlifted in. The Army investigated a handful of small reactor designs and prototyped at least two: the SL-1 and the ML-1, both built and operated at the NRTS. This is not as stupid as you might think. You would never guess this from reading about power generation in the news media, which is where most people get their info, but nuclear power is not that expensive on a cost per kilowatt-hour basis compared to other methods (there are many sources for this sort of info; a good place to start is at Even when regulatory burdens are figured into the equation, nuclear power is in the middle of the pack for electricity production costs, with solar and wind power being much more expensive. Don't take my word for this. Go look at the analyses by the Dept. of Energy and other groups with your own eyes and your own brain - and make your own evaluation.

During the time when the Army was exploring reactors for remote radar stations, they were aware of the costs. The SL-1 design was essentially a disposable reactor. The reactor core was good for about 5 years without refueling; however, the reactor was not designed to be refueled insitu. At the end of its life, the core would be removed and replaced by a whole new core delivered by airlift. The operators of an SL-1 would never do their own refueling, greatly simplifying the reactor's operation and reducing the number of staff required. The concept of using a reactor rather than a fossil fuel-driven generator had huge appeal since it would eliminate the significant expense of constantly delivering diesel or fuel oil to remote locations where lousy weather was the norm. The US Navy was transitioning to an entirely-nuclear powered submarine force for the same reason: the elimination of the constant need to refuel.

I reread _Idaho Falls_ last week while tidying up. That's a bad habit I have, the propensity to be ambushed by something good to read. I do have some caveats about McKeown's narrative though. My first exposure to the SL-1 reactor accident was through the original reports published by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In fact anyone can read these for themselves even though it's a bit of a slog through rather dry engineer-speak and the AEC's bad habit of non-overlapping sequential reporting. Having read all of the available AEC reports for myself, I know that there are spots where McKeown glossed over details and left out some stuff I think he ought to have left in - like the ultimate fate of the ambulance. What McKeown did and did not cover was quite the topic of conversation at the INL when the book came out. To get an idea of where McKeown was a little too glib I would point the interested reader toward the reviews on where several folks actually present at the SL-1 accident and investigation had a few things to say. Regardless, where McKeown's text really shines is in telling the story of the SL-1 from the human interest perspective despite its small number of flaws.

America's First Nuclear Accident?

Right off the bat, let me make it clear that we're talking about accidents, injuries and deaths where the primary cause is ionizing radiation. This is a very specific category. Not only do we exclude more prosaic accidents like falls and electrical fires and mechanical machinery failure, we also exclude here accidents or illnesses from passive non-ionizing radiation. There's a huge radiation source we live with everyday and that's the sun. On the ground under our protective atmosphere, the sunlight that reaches us is passive radiation. By the time it arrives at the surface of the earth, the constant rain of solar particles give us both heat and light - but to a first order approximation, none of it is ionizing. Ionizing radiation by definition creates new ions or particles (spontaneous fission of U232) and changes ion energy states resulting in energy emissions (e.g., passive gamma radiation of K40). X-rays are ionizing, as are gamma rays, beta radiation (emitted electrons), alpha radiation (emitted positively-charged helium ions) and the neutron flux inside a nuclear pile.

The one thing that has always annoyed me about McKeown's book is the subtitle on the front cover: "the untold story of America's first nuclear accident." That subtitle is repeated on the book's page. That claim shows up on search results headers in big type you do a google search on "idaho falls sl-1 book." That's quite a claim and one for which McKeown never actually presents evidence. In fact, one of the reasons I picked the book up in the bookstore was that subtitle - because I knew it was not true. I'm a real sucker for targeting demonstrable errors.

The SL-1 accident happened in 1961 during the reactor's third year of operation. It was not a meltdown sensu stricto leading to the creation of corium - though some of the fuel did melt, it did not stay in the molten state. The SL-1 suffered what is known as a prompt criticality accident. During maintenance, one of the control rods was removed too far out of the reactor core, allowing a brief chain reaction to occur. The heat from this unwanted nuclear excursion flashed some of the cooling water to steam. The steam acted as a hydraulic hammer which blasted control rods and fuel assemblies out the top of the reactor vessel. The force of the steam-driven hydraulic hammer also lifted the reactor vessel itself upward nine feet in the air before it dropped back down. The super-heated steam explosion killed or fatally injured the three reactor operators who were working on or next to the reactor vessel cap. A great deal of radiation was emitted; and if the operators had not already been fatally injured or killed by the explosion, they would have been dead from radiation poisoning within a day. Despite the high levels of radiation inside the reactor building, that building acted like a containment structure and kept most of the radioactivity inside. The deliberate destruction of the Borax-1 reactor in a prompt criticality experiment at the NRTS in 1954 was larger event and much messier, releasing radioactive contamination over a 2 acre area ( Like the excursion that destroyed the SL-1, the Borax-1 excursion caused a lot of its fuel to melt; however, none of the melted fuel stayed melted, so this too was not a true corium-producing meltdown. Just because fuel melts in an exursion doesn't mean it's a real China-syndrome meltdown.

There is a great deal of info available on the SL-1 event, including McKeown's book, a very readable overview narrative from the DOE (, and a wikipedia page that repeats some of mistakes the McKeown made in his book. If you're okay with engineer-speak, the original accident report for the AEC is online at the INL at: For what it's worth, you can watch the destruction of the Borax-1 reactor at

Getting back to our main topic, it is apropos to inquire what McKeown meant by "America's first nuclear accident"? There's a lot of ground to cover here. Did he mean the first fatal accident from handling fissionable radioisotopes? I know of at least two fatal ones from Los Alamos in 1945 and 1946. Howabout the first accidental reactor fuel melting? Nope - that's probably the EBR-1 in 1955, Fermi's pet breeder reactor project at the NRTS and the first reactor to turn a generator to make electricity. The EBR-1 is now a national landmark and is open as a museum from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Howabout the first documentable deaths from handling radionuclides? Nope, I think that's probably Madame Curie herself. The first occupational injuries and/or deaths from exposure to radionuclides on the job? I believe that honor may go to the women who died from licking their brushes used for radium paint. This activity had a peak during World War I since the military desired and could afford instrument gauges that could be read in the dark. The war was followed by the now well-documented jaw cancer cluster in New Jersey in the 1920s.

The bottom line here is that the SL-1 accident was not America's first nuclear accident. The only thing the SL-1 accident can claim is the dubious honor of the world's first fatalities while operating a nuclear power generation station, i.e. while operating a reactor designed and used for the generation of electricity. To my knowledge, the three deaths at the SL-1 were the first and remain the only fatalities sustained while operating a nuclear power generation station in North America. These deaths were the only nuclear power plant fatalities due to radiation in the world up until the accident at Chernobyl. The label of America's first nuclear accident is incorrect. Given that the details of nuclear accidents are abundantly documented and available publicly, I find it unlikely that McKeown was ignorant of these. I am forced to conclude that either McKeown or his publisher used the "first nuclear accident" description on the cover of the book for marketing purposes, assuming that most people were ignorant enough to believe the lie.

Note: Just to preemptively head off any commentary about nuclear fatalities on Soviet submarines, the first known fatalities were aboard the K-19, the so-called "Widow Maker" and the inspiration for the Harrison Ford movie of the same name occurred in July 1961 ( So even if we compare the SL-1 power-generation reactor accident with the K-19 ship-propulsion reactor accident, the SL-1 still retains its dubious status for the first known power-generation reactor fatalities.