Monday, October 16, 2006

Offsite Releases


At the risk of shocking you, it turns out that underground nuclear tests in Nevada vented significant amounts of radiation.

U.S. above-ground testing ended in 1962. However, since 1961, radioactive material escaped from 433 tests, "some of which have simultaneous detonations" where several explosions would go off at once, the report says. "However, only 52 of these are designated as having offsite releases," according to the report.
There's also astonishing news from Santa Susana, CA, where a sodium reactor melted down in 1959:
The study shocked even the most veteran SSFL observers, revealing that the now-infamous 1959 meltdown of the lab’s Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) most likely caused cancer in 260 to 1,800 people within a 62-mile radius of the east Ventura County lab.
Meanwhile, the news that radioactive snails have been discovered in Spain puts Reuters in a playful mood. It posted the article in its "Oddly Enough" section - which is normally consecrated to incompetent thieves, people who fall into chemical toilets, and intricate sexual mishaps - and gave it the droll heading Investigating escargots that glow?

This is standard-issue hackwork; glowing snails are funny, just like depressed fish. The reality, though, remains rather drab:
The discovery of radioactive snails at a site in southeastern Spain where three U.S. hydrogen bombs fell by accident 40 years ago may trigger a new joint U.S.-Spanish clean-up operation, officials said Wednesday.

The hydrogen bombs fell near the fishing village of Palomares in 1966 after a mid-air collision between a bomber and a refueling craft, in which seven of 11 crewmen died.
I bring these stories up because a group of nuclear-industry experts has reportedly proclaimed that the most serious threat of nuclear terrorism comes from dirty bombs made with radioactive medical waste.

Part of the argument here is that "nuclear power plants are essentially fortresses," and are therefore impregnable to terrorists. Maybe that's so. But as I've mentioned before, the entire security force at Oak Ridge National Labs was "killed" in 90 seconds during a preparedness exercise. In another incident, sixteen foreign-born workers with phony immigration papers were able to enter ORNL's Y-12 weapons plant with impunity.

Just in case you noticed the dates on these stories, and assumed the problems have been addressed, an article dated 10/16/06 says:
The Energy Department cannot meet its own post-Sept. 11 security standards to repel a terrorist force at the Ft. Knox of uranium, a facility in Tennessee that stores an estimated 189 metric tons of bomb-grade material, agency officials acknowledged.

The material is stored in five masonry and wood-frame buildings at the Y-12 facility, a key part of the nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure at the Oak Ridge site near Knoxville.
Last, here's a tangentially related story:
A train carrying high-level nuclear waste between plants owned by CP&L/Progress Energy was recently boarded illegally by one or more inmates in Richmond County, NC...."If these people had been intending to cause serious harm, they were in perfect position to do so," said Nora Wilson, an organizer with the group. "Being scared off by armed guards after they were already on the train? That's too late."
Putting these anecdotes - and their implications - aside, it's interesting to think about the potential effects of dirty bombs versus the actual effects of soberly debated U.S. policy at sites like Hanford and Yucca Flat. Radiological dispersal is interpreted very differently depending on whether the culprits "hate America," or have merely designated part of it as a national sacrifice zone.

(Photo by Emmet Gowin.)

UPDATE: I just remembered that CKR discovered a similarly grim radioactivity-themed story in Reuters "Oddly Enough" section.

UPDATE II: POGO Blog has more on the current ORNL findings.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rueters does have a funny sense of humor, don't they?

Yes, underground tests have vented, Baneberry being legendarily the worst of them. I'm recalling a rather wonderful photo of roiling dark clouds above a convoy of vehicles headed in the opposite direction from the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, too, now in Kazakhstan. If I find it, I'll post it.

But I'd like to see some numbers. I'm not convinced that a tiny bit of radiation (no, I don't have numbers for "tiny") is worse than a co-worker who smokes or a couple of drinks after work.

I'm also not convinced of the terrorist threat to whatever, Y-12 being the latest. I grew up signing my name for a dozen or so bottles of uranyl nitrate (depleted), while trucks trundled back and forth on the local roads carrying much more exciting cargoes without shutting down the roads or even saying much about it.

Los Alamos is currently in the throes of constructing an elaborate entrance station that will make its ski area and research park much more forbidding to access.

We can get carried away with these fears of terrorists (see Doonesbury), so that we make ourselves quite nonfunctional.

Did we need to do more than carry criticality assemblies around in unmarked trucks? Probably. Do we need to strangle ourselves in TSA maroon vests and entrance stations with swirly roads so a vehicle can't get a straight shot at them. Probably not.

CKR

Phila said...

But I'd like to see some numbers. I'm not convinced that a tiny bit of radiation (no, I don't have numbers for "tiny") is worse than a co-worker who smokes or a couple of drinks after work.

Sounds reasonable to me, not least because you know way more about it than I do. My point here is really just that the threat of "dirty bombs" is overstated in and of itself, and in terms of what we accept in our own backyard. There's kind of a disconnect, it seems to me.

Re: Terrorism at nuke plants...well, that doesn't keep me awake nights either. My impression - and please, correct me if I'm wrong - is that even if you make it inside, blowing one up/melting one down is not quite as easy as some people make it sound. I do think ORNL's continuing failure to meet its own security standards is noteworthy, though.

Still, as I've probably said before, I worry more about comparatively simple forms of attack, using legal or easily accessible weapons/devices. And even then, I worry less about the attacks themselves than about how we'd respond.

Anonymous said...

It's the same kind of disconnect that we see in insisting that others give up their nuclear programs while we look to developing new weapons designs. [sigh]

I agree that the physical threat of dirty bombs is overstated and that our reaction is the real danger.

While the security standards are nominally ORNL's (Y-12's?), they are what I consider the highly exaggerated standards insisted on by the Department of Energy.

I also agree that nuke plants (power plants?) are pretty safe. The stored fuel is somewhat less safe, and, yes, I also agree that blowing it up and spreading it around, while not a good idea, is not the end of the world or even of the immediate area. The stuff stored at Y-12 is highly enriched uranium; one of your links said that just dropping one piece of it on another can cause a nuclear explosion. I don't do neutronics, so I can't verify the accuracy of that claim. I'll try to ask some friends.

When I was working on terrorism, we did a lot of thinking and came up with the same conclusion: get something that is certain to work, which is usually ANFO.

I couldn't find that wonderful Semipalatinsk photo, but there's a shot of Baneberry venting on this page. It's on a Los Alamos web page--they obviously couldn't resist one more dig at Livermore for that test.

CKR

Phila said...

While the security standards are nominally ORNL's (Y-12's?), they are what I consider the highly exaggerated standards insisted on by the Department of Energy.

OK, fair enough. And I can understand that there might be political difficulties involved in lowering those standards, even if it were scientifically warranted.

one of your links said that just dropping one piece of it on another can cause a nuclear explosion. I don't do neutronics, so I can't verify the accuracy of that claim. I'll try to ask some friends.

Yeah, I found that claim pretty surprising myself. Please let me know what you find out! I don't know the first thing about this, and I'm curious.

When I was working on terrorism, we did a lot of thinking and came up with the same conclusion: get something that is certain to work, which is usually ANFO.

Absolutely. I think it's very hard to argue with that logic.

Re: the linked photo, thanks. Very dramatic!

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