Rocky Flats and the Downwinders

As predicted, large numbers of people are lining up to demand more money from the government after DOE agreed to a $375 million settlement of a lawsuit by people near the plant. People in the metropolitan area of Denver not included in the settlement area now want some money for themselves. A recent Denver Post article describes a meeting to describe preliminary results of a survey by the Metropolitan State University of Denver in which “. .  . respondents reported unexpectedly large numbers of cases of thyroid cancer and rare cancers.” The nurse presenting the information probably disappointed a large audience by saying “There is no way currently to determine whether those cancers identified occurred at higher rates in people who lived near Rocky Flats than they do in the general population.”

I became suspicious about the reports of thyroid cancers when I saw a television report of the meeting showing Kristen Iversen addressing the crowd. She published an autobiography of her experiences growing up near Rocky Flats. Her popular but technically flawed book mentions that many of her relatives and neighbors had thyroid problems. The book inferred that Rocky Flats was similar to the Chernobyl disaster, which resulted in numerous children developing thyroid cancer from the emissions of radioactive iodine. To the best of my knowledge, exposure to radioactive iodine is the primary cause of thyroid cancer, although there are undoubtedly some who develop it simply because it is in their DNA. Rocky Flats never had a criticality accident and didn’t process radioactive iodine.

A limited search found numerous articles describing thyroid cancer and the causes. One article had some very interesting observations. “People younger than 15 at the time of aboveground testing (between 1945 and 1963) who drank milk, and who lived in the Mountain West, Midwestern, Eastern, and Northeastern United States, probably have a higher thyroid cancer risk from exposure to I-131 in fallout than people who lived in other parts of the United States, who were over the age of 15 in the 1940s, or who did not drink milk.”

It would be interesting to learn how many of the respondents to the survey claiming thyroid problems and were younger than 15 while aboveground testing was proceeding and drank milk. I’m cynically skeptical that question won’t be asked, since the objective of the study is to blame Rocky Flats for any and all health problems. The reality is that the Colorado nuisance law apparently doesn’t even require actual health effects. All that is required is to prove the mere presence of the Rocky Flats Plant created some sort of concern, irritation, or anxiety. Perhaps doing health surveys and studying the results isn’t need to collect money.

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading

Attack on Coal Mines

The mining of coal in Colorado came under attack when WildEarth Guardians sued advocating that the environmental review for operating the Colowyo mine near Craig, Colorado did not consider the impact on global warming. “The Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation Enforcement issued its decision…five days before court-imposed deadline…” The review “…found that the burning of coal at the nearby Craig Generating Station would have ‘insignificant impacts’ on national greenhouse gas emissions and moderate impacts on emissions in Colorado. It also noted that only 20 acres of the 809 acres to be mined under the original permit still remain untouched.”

The ruling was good news to the 220 people who are employed at the mine, but the issue is a stark reminder of how far the environmental movement will go to shut down any generation of energy by any means other than solar and wind. Similar law suits have been filed against other coal mines, including the Trapper Mine near Craig and other mines in New Mexico and near the Montana-Wyoming border.

I find it frightening that some who are advocates of the dangers of global warming are willing to accept economic devastation of people who make their living providing the fuel that generates the energy that supports our lives. A smart friend has calculated that there would be an insignificant impact on global temperatures if the United States stops the use of all energy-producing methods that produce carbon dioxide emissions. (He allows for each of us to continue generating carbon dioxide in the breath we exhale.)

The friend posted a previous thoughtful and informative commentary on global warming. Part of what he wrote was that, “One of the major problems with the concept of global warming is, if it is caused by Man, the potential remedies could be catastrophic to society.  If we were to stop using fossil fuels, our society must change drastically.  It is only a dream that solar and wind power can replace fossil fuels.  There are some political facts that are “inconvenient truths.”  The three major CO2 producers are China, the U.S., and Europe, in that order.  China has recently agreed to consider curbing their fossil fuel use in the next few decades.  America has cut back significantly on the generation of CO2, but will have a real problem going much farther.”

Perhaps the environmental groups, such as the one who has been filing the lawsuits against coal mines, have discovered ways to heat their homes, drive their cars, power their computers, and recharge their cell phones without completion from the masses who aren’t as smart. There is no doubt that there will be severe energy restrictions if the only “allowed energy” is from solar and wind. Perhaps some antinuclear activists will be willing to consider nuclear if energy isn’t available to recharge their cell phone batteries?

Building a Safer, Cleaner Nuclear Reactor

I had an opportunity to read a copy of Popular Science while waiting for a doctor appointment, and I had forgotten how much I had liked that magazine as a young adult. There were several interesting articles, but the one titled “Revive the Nuclear Dream” was fascinating. Two young scientists, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, have been working on nuclear power generation since they found articles about reactor research performed at Oak Ridge at an MIT library in 2009. One subject was molten salt reactors, and it intrigued them that using liquid uranium fuel instead of solid fuel eliminates the chance of a meltdown. “So they dusted off the Oak Ridge design and got to work. Today, their start-up, Transatomic Power, is poised to build a new, even better molten salt reactor.”

The idea has some very compelling possibilities. Fuel rods from light water reactors, the design used at existing U.S. nuclear power plants, have to be replaced when only four percent of the uranium has been converted to energy. The molten salt reactor will convert 96 percent of the uranium into energy and generates 75 times the amount of electricity per ton of uranium. Of course another advantage is there is less waste to manage. Even better is that their reactor could run on spent fuel from those other reactors.

The article describes how the reactor works. Uranium salt is liquefied by heating it to 500 degrees C, and the molten salt is pumped past zirconium hydride to slow down the neutrons and induce fission. The krypton and xenon that poisons light water reactor fuel rods is continuously off-gassed. “You basically simmer the reactor like a Crock-Pot for decades…The fuel salt flows through a loop with a drain that is blocked by a freezer plug, a chunk of electrically cooled frozen salt. If the reactor loses electricity, the plug melts, and the fuel drains into a tank where it cools and solidifies.” That feature makes the design “virtually accident proof.”

The big hurdle for the technology is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t have a framework for licensing “advanced reactors.” The coal and natural gas lobbies see nuclear as a threat and some environmental groups will fight anything labeled “nuclear.” The two young scientists want a regulatory pathway developed, but good luck with that. We may still be developing smart and ambitious entrepreneurs, but we haven’t found a way to make government bureaucracies lobby-proof, efficient, or courageous. China would probably welcome the technology, but Dewan says they want to succeed in the U.S. I think we should think of ways to help them. My first contribution is this commentary.  Meet the two impressive people by watching the video on the home page of their web site.

The Road to Trinity

road-to-trinityThis book, which had the subtitle, “A Personal Account of How America’s Nuclear Policies Were Made, was written by Major General Kenneth D. Nichols, (Retired). Nichols was a Lieutenant Colonel when he began an assignment as deputy district engineer of the Manhattan Engineer District. He was deputy to Leslie Groves. There have been many books written on the subject, but I would recommend this and the Groves account “Now it Can be Told,” as the best two to read if you are just beginning to want to understand what happened in the Manhattan Project and beyond. I was shocked that there hasn’t been a single review of the Nichols book on Amazon. You can buy a used copy of the book for about a dollar plus shipping. It would be worth your investment, although interlibrary loan was even less expensive.

The book begins in November 1952 when Nichols is directed to write his “…personal views on the political and military implications of the hydrogen bomb and given three hours to write it.” He wrote that the hydrogen bomb “…has equal or greater political than strictly military implications.” He warned that to achieve deterrence the U.S. must convince the Soviet Union we will utilize nuclear weapons ruthlessly. He believed we should have used tactical nuclear weapons in Korea “…proving to the world we really mean to use every potential weapon available to us to preserve peace and thereby deter war. He recognized that might or probably would  have precipitated a major war “…at a time when we have the greatest potential for winning it with minimum damage to the U.S.A.”

People who are “anti-nuclear” and favor disarmament will gasp at some of the things Nichols writes. I was comfortable with his advice and opinions, and judge that he had, because of the roles he filled, an informed understanding of the real world situation that should be carefully and respectfully considered despite which side of the argument you might stand on. Continue reading

Brotherhood of the Bomb

brotherhood of the bombThe subtitle of this book by Gregg Herken is “The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.” Another book by the author, “The Winning Weapon” (a review was posted October 1) concluded that too much was made of Soviet espionage of the Manhattan Project. “Brotherhood of the Bomb” reaches an entirely different conclusion. A footnote on page 126 states “Near the end of the war, because of Fuchs and other spies at Los Alamos, the Russians had a precise description of the component parts of Fat Man, including such engineering details as the makeup and design of the explosive lenses use to compress the plutonium core and the exact dimensions of the bomb’s polonium initiator. The device that the Soviets exploded in their first nuclear test, in August 1949, was essentially a copy of Fat Man.” “The Winning Weapon” was published in 1980 and “Brotherhood of the Bomb” in 2002. Much was learned about the extent of Soviet spying after the first book was published in 1980. For example, the Venona Project that revealed the massive extent of Soviet spying was declassified in 1995. Both books have value to someone interested in the atomic bomb and its impact on the Cold War, and the first gives a good idea of how much of the media looked at the issue of Soviet spying in 1980.

“Brotherhood of the Bomb” gives detailed insight into the scientists who became famous as the result of discovering what could be accomplished, mostly in the form of weapons, with atomic energy. Lawrence had announced in 1932 that “…heavy particles not only disintegrated readily but in the process seemed to release more energy than it took to break them apart.” He proposed a vista of cheap, reliable, and virtually limitless energy…” His “disintegration hypothesis” was greeted with skepticism verging on ridicule. Rutherford made his now famous statement that “anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of atoms was talking moonshine.” Continue reading