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 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

Deaths Caused by Nuclear Power Generation

This posting was inspired by the review last week of “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” and a commentary about radiation exposure from the Three Mile Island Accident. Spencer R. Weart, the author of the “Nuclear Fear” book, has a conclusion I consider worth repeating. “Much more electricity will be needed before the entire world reaches minimal prosperity. None of the ways to generate electricity is fully satisfactory. In terms of both my family’s health and the health of the environment, I would personally live near an existing nuclear reactor than near a plant fired by fossil fuels such as coal.” Continue reading

The Rise of Nuclear Fear

nuclear_fearI struggled with the first part of the book by Spencer R. Weart, my interest in the title kept me reading, and I’m glad I did. I suggest beginning with the personal note at the end of the book. The opening sentence explains the book’s focus on the psychology of fear and the “forces of imagery and their pressure upon policies.” The author also reveals his personal opinions, and I was frankly somewhat surprised that he believes we should develop nuclear energy. The book carefully presents the pros and cons, with more emphasis on the cons, that I hadn’t anticipated that position. Continue reading

Choices for Producing Energy

I just posted a review of “Wormwood Forest” by Mary Mycio about the Chernobyl disaster, and that brought me back to the question of what is the most responsible method of producing our electricity. We all want electricity to power the fans on our furnaces, the air conditioning, our lights, our computers and printers, to charge our phones other devices, and for some to charge the batteries in their cars. Abundant and affordable electricity is crucial to our economy and the comfort many or most of us have come to expect in our lives.

Most of our electricity is produced in plants fuled by coal (about 50%) or natural gas (about 21%) and by nuclear energy (about 19%). However, new regulations are putting pressure on the coal plants. First Energy Corp recently announced they are retiring six coal-fired plants because of the stricter federal anti-pollution rules. About a third of the workers at the six plants are eligible for retirement, and another 100 or so will be able to transfer to other jobs in the company. However, that leaves about 250 people who can’t retire without a job. This is probably just the beginning of such announcements, since it won’t be economically feasible to retrofit older plants.

I’ve reviewed several books that are pertinent to the discussion. The best, in my opinion, is “The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear” written by Dr. Petr Beckman and published in 1976. On the subject of Chernobyl he would have observed the that minimal environmental effects from Three Mile Island proved that properly designed safety systems can prevent a disaster while shoddy design gives us what happened at Chernobyl. Dr. Beckman wrote that there is no completely safe way to make energy. “Energy is the capacity for doing work, and as long as man is fallible, there is always the possibility to do the wrong type of work; to ask for safe energy, therefore, is much the same as asking for incombustible fuel. He also observed that nuclear energy is “…far safer than any other form of energy.”

Back to the review of “Wormwood Forest,” the author was astonished during her tours of the Zone of Alienation created by the explosion of a Chernobyl reactor by the proliferation of wildlife. She said little is known about the radioactive animals of Chernobyl, but “What is known is that there a many, many more of them than before the disaster.” She also wrote that what she saw during her extensive tours converted her from being an “…adamant opponent of nuclear energy to ambivalent support…”at least until we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.” I’m hoping that thinking such as that spreads before we reach the economic disaster created by bad economic policy and energy shortages predicted by some of the books I’ve recently reviewed.

Recent events involving the government trying to fund development of alternative energy endorses  the wisdom of Ms. Mycio in advocating nuclear energy until we sort out what is really possible with alternative fuels. As mentioned in the review of the book “Game Over” by Stephen Leeb, there isn’t enough iron to build the windmills and towers to replace energy from carbon based production. Solar power hasn’t been proven to provide a net gain in energy, and the results of providing Solyndra over half a billion dollars in government loans only led to a delay in bankruptcy and the layoff of about 1100 employees. There isn’t enough land area to grow biofuels to replace hydrocarbon energy production, and converting food such as corn into ethanol is both inefficient and idiotic.

Solyndra isn’t the only failure involving alternative energy technology. Beacon Power, a company involved in energy storage also went into bankruptcy after receiving $578 million dollars in taxpayer-guaranteed loans. The most recent bankruptcy was Ener1, an electric battery company that was recently awarded an $118 million dollar stimulus grant. That bankruptcy occurred about one year after Vice President Biden visited the plant to highlight the progress being made by the company with federal funds.

My hope is that technology for alternative energy becomes more successful or that new nuclear power plants will be built using the lessons learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Japan before we reach a precipice of economic failure driven by misguided political policies about how we make our energy.

Wormwood Forest, A Natural History of Chernobyl

This book by Mary Mycio was given to me by a friend who told me I would love it. He was right. It describes the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in 1986 that scattered 20-40 tons of radioactive materials across large areas of the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The area is designated the “Zone of Alienation,” and 350,000 people were evacuated and resettled. There are over four million people still living in areas that are contaminated with at least one curie of cesium per square kilometer. The book has detailed information about the levels of contamination of the Zone and the effects on the animals, plants, insects, and fungus. Many sections are difficult to read because of the amount of technical information. However, I’m glad I read it.

The book begins with a quote from Revelation to explain the title. The quote is about a star called Wormwood that falls on the earth “…and the third part of the waters become wormwood; and many men died of the waters because they were made bitter.” Chornobyl is the Ukrainian name for the wormwood plant and Chernobyl is “…the Russianized version…”   The wormwood herb and other plants have thrived since the reactor disaster. There have been effects, such as pine trees that have grown into distorted shapes called “pine bushes.”

It was believed people would never be able to enter many areas contaminated by the disaster, but the author joined the fad of “atomic tourism” by obtaining permits to tour the Zone wearing her camouflage protective clothing and dosimeter. She writes she was shocked to discover the area “…has become Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary, a flourishing—at times unearthly—wilderness teeming with large animals…” There are large herds of wild boars, healthy populations of wolves and lynx because of the proliferation of their prey, wild horses, and a large variety of birds. The author observes that “…very little is known about the radioactive animals of Chernobyl. What is known is that there are many, many more of them than before the disaster.

The book is undoubtedly controversial in many aspects. For example the author writes although plutonium is a heavy metal and therefore toxic, the myth that it is the “…deadliest substance known to man…” is not accurate. There are other toxins such as arsenic that win that distinction. I expect the effects on people and the various species described in the book will reinforce the opinions of those who oppose nuclear power and the general absence of longer term devastating effects will reinforce the opinions of those who are proponents. One of the author’s tour guides observed that there has not been mutant animals in the zone. He admitted when pressed that “Because with wild animals, mutants die.” Toads and frogs often develop malformations when exposed to toxins, but those are seen more often in the United States than in the Zone.

There were hundreds of children exposed to radioactive iodine who developed thyroid cancer. However, “… perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is the disaster’s impact on people.” “Samosels,” or squatters, originally hid to prevent being evacuated from the Zone. They are dying at the expected ages despite being exposed to twice the maximum dose “allowed.” “Moreover, it seems impossible to tease the health effects of radiation out of the tangle of poverty, alcoholism, smoking, poor diet, and other factors that plague public health in the the places in the former Soviet Union that were unaffected by Chernobyl and that made life expectancy—especially among men—the lowest in Europe.” It is also observed the Samosels inhale “…too little plutonium to influence their dose.”

The “involuntary park” (a term coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling) appears to be proving wildlife will thrive after being made radioactive by cesium, iodine, strontium, and plutonium where there is little human activity. Touring the Zone converted the author from “…adamant opponent of nuclear energy to ambivalent support—at least for giving a window of time for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels…” She describes how she believed life would be mutated if it managed to survive the holocaust, but Chernobyl showed her a different view. The ghost towns are a “…tragic testimony to the devastating effects of technology gone awry. But life in the Wormwood Forest was not only persevering, it was flourishing.”  Of course there were and are numerous media ventures to “…exploit Chernobyl’s inherent spookiness.”

There are interesting bits of historical background about the areas impacted by the disaster. For example, it is mentioned that Stalin’s forced collectivization created an artificial famine in the Ukraine that starved ten million people to death in 1932-1933. There are also bits that were fun to read. One example is that the ugly blob that formed after the reactor meltdown cooled is called the “elephant foot.” The authorities wanted to take a sample, so a machine gun was fired at the blob until a chip came off.

One of my favorite passages in the book was a discussion of the author attending a third grade class trip to the New York Hall of Science. There was a terrarium with a sign: “The Impact of Radiation on Rats.” There was nothing in the terrarium except plants, and author decided the radiation had made the rats invisible. Another passage tells a joke about a “babushka” selling apples labeled “Chernobyl.” A passerby notes that no one will buy apples from there and is told people will certainly buy them for their husband, wife, and mother-in-law.

I was interested in the author’s willingness to expose herself to the radiation levels during her tours. She writes she did not wear a cumulative dosimeter. She calculated an estimated exposure of a few hundred millirems, which isn’t much, but she judged her exposure to be “enough.”

Anyone interested in taking a tour of the Zone of Alienation around Chernobyl should read this book. Approval for a visit is obtained by sending a fax to Chernobylinterinform.

I’m going to let the author have the final say with words written in her closing. “If a nuclear disaster really is …in your metaphoric backyard…it seems best not to think about it too much. Not, at least, until many years have passed, and the bountiful evidence of nature’s nearly miraculous resilience and recovery makes the thinking more bearable.”