Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The (Ridiculously Small) Risk from Japan's Nuclear Reactors

Larry Mantle interviewed some radiation risk experts on his show, today. 

One of the two guests was David Ropeik, the author of several books that look at what's actually likely to happen to you vs what you'll see on the local TV news that makes you want to hide under your bed.

Here's the problem:  when I take my kids to the park, and one of them says, "Dada, I need to go potty." I obsessively search the bathroom as if I was a SWAT team member looking for a bank robber.  I search the entire mens room for that lurking child molester with one hand on his video camera, and the other down in his underwear.  I have yet to catch a pervert in a public bathroom, but if you watch Eye Witness News you'll be convinced that they're hiding in the bushes outside your house.

So what's the problem?  The problem isn't the 20 second effort that I need to make, to ensure my kids are safe in that public bathroom.  The problem is that the split second that my kid tells me that he needs to pee, I freak out.  The fear and anxiety is completely disproportionate to the actual risk.  All I need to do is check the bathroom.  I'm 5'9", and I don't care how many hours the theoretical, imaginary child molester in the bathroom has spent lifting weights and working out in the gym.  I'm a dad, and God help you of you look at my kid funny.  I'll tear you apart with my bare hands.  You ever watch those videos of the angry mama bear, or lioness defending her cub?  Yeah, if anybody messes with my kid, I'll make that mama bear look like a wimp.  That's what happened at College of the Canyons, last week.  The 12 year old was unharmed, and they caught the guy.

But, again, the reality is that within my lifetime, the odds of my kid getting molested in a public bathroom are lower than winning the lotto.  So, I need to chill out.

THE REAL DANGER IN PUBLIC RESTROOMS: We went to John's Incredible Pizza in Montclair, yesterday.  The boy needed to go potty.  While I was in the mens room, waiting for him, this tall, good-looking guy who clearly works out (he wore a tight t-shirt to show off his upper body musculature) took a shit, opened his stall door, and waltzed right on out of the mens room while zipping up his jeans.  He did not wash his hands.  How many other guys used the toilet in that restaurant yesterday, and then went back out there, where they proceeded to touch the salad tongs, the stacks of plates, etc?

And you wonder why I got so sick to my stomach last week (before we went to John's so I didn't get it there) that my wife had to drive me to the urgent care, where they had to give me i.v. fluids and an anti-nausea shot?  I probably picked up something at USC from a student who didn't wash his hands...

Here's the real problem with the nuclear contamination in Japan: last week on the TV news they showed a guy who knows that his wife and son died in the tsunami, but the police won't let him go search for their bodies, because of the radioactive contamination.  I keep thinking about him every day.  I feel horrible for him.

CLICK HERE to go directly to Larry Mantle's show, AirTalk, and listen to the interview.

NBC can kiss my ass

That's it; I'm pissed at NBC.

1) First, the buttheads cancelled "The Cape".  Finally, there was a reason to stay up on Monday nights.  The Cape was original.  It was different, and it had the cutest blonde on TV, Izabella Miko.

 Actually, my favorite actor on the series is Keith David.

My wife, who doesn't know the difference between Dusty Springfield and Bruce Springsteen, thinks that "The Cape" is--to quote her-- "A lame-o rip-off of Batman."

Somebody shoot me.

2) Now the idiots at the Numbnut Broadcasting Corporation have tweaked "Law & Order Los Angeles".  They think they're "fixing" it by dumping Skeet Ulrich (In a previous post, I described how the morally ambiguous and complex relationship between Ulrich's character and his wife--a retired cop--adds 3 dimensional reality to the show). That, and here's something that instead of saving the show, will wind up sinking it, because it's so patently implausible:  Alfred Molina's character will quit the D.A.'s Office, and go back to LAPD to be a police detective.


I predict the unfortunate demise of "Law & Order Los Angeles" within 9 months.

NBC has a known history of sinking good shows and not supporting them:

(1) Dark Skies Dark Skies was a great series about JFK being assassinated as part of the government cover-up of the UFOs that are taking over Earth.  This series was so well written, that despite the fact that every episode presented impossible historical ideas e.g. comspiracy theories, everything was plausible i.e. so cleverly thought-out and written that it "could" have been true.  That's some good writing.

(2) Surface Another sci fi series about a government conspiracy to cover up--this time it isn't Little Green men--it's sea monsters rising to the surface to threaten mankind.  NBC actually cancelled the series in a manner that left viewers not knowing what the conspiracy was, and why.

Why do I let NBC sucker me into watching anything new they put on the air?  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice...

A friend has repeatedly told me that the reason why new TV shows don't last is that the 2011 TV audience is totally fragmented into people who watch the Crochet Channel, ESPN, Bravo, the History Channel, and the Cartoon Network.  That is, those people who aren't on the internet staring at donkey porn.  We had the same conversation again when I complained that CNN or one of the Big Three (ABC, NBC, or CBS) should have a one hour prime time science news special in which they explain what's really going on in Japan with the nuclear power plants, and with the "radioactive cloud" that is harmlessly floating over L.A.  He said that the advertising dollars aren't there, because there aren't enough eyeballs available to justify spending money on that.

I say, "BALONEY."

Here's why:  TV in Europe and Asia is also driven by the need for commercial profits, but they still have real news programs with real journalists who cover real news. 

In depth.

People in Europe still watch hour-long TV interviews with politicians, scientists, and writers, and unlike Charlie Rose, these interviews are actually on TV when people with jobs are awake.

The real truth is that the spineless idiots who run The Big Three need to grow some testicles (how's that for a mixed metaphor, Mr Welsh?) need to decide, "Look, dammit, this is good material, it's for the public good, and it goes on at eight o'clock."

The world needs less Kim Kardashian, and more Keith David.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Stranger than Fiction

     March 1st was one of those days that didn't end the way I had expected it to:  I waltzed into the office, and got asked to meet with my boss, and a nice lady from Human Resources.  They laid off over a third of my department--including yours truly, the Radioactive Birdwatcher.

     No moss has grown under my feet, over the last 25 days.  Twenty five days?  Hell; 25 minutes after I was informed that I'm history, I was on the phone with somebody who expressed great interest in my unique combination of jobs skills.  And that's for the job that's my "number two" choice.  I hate to say "number two" because, truth be told, the job that I only applied for after getting laid off is a job that I would thoroughly love to have.  Through a bizarre series of coinkydinks, I was already in the application process for a job at another research institution when--to my complete surprise--USC laid me off.  Either way, if neither one of those prospective employers snatches me up, there's always Plan B: scanning patients full time.

     Scanning patients is Plan B?  Wow, in this economy my Plan B is better than most other guys' Plan A.  So, my life is still going better than Harold Crick's, the protagonist in the Netflix movie that has been collecting dust on my bookshelf since--you guessed it--March 1st.  Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction.

     I love this movie. 
     If you are a writer, or (God help you) live with a writer, you will love this movie.  It's literary, but not in a pretentious, artsy-fartsy way.  If you expect Will Ferrell to run around naked, shouting obscenities, you will be profoundly disappointed. As a matter of fact, there isn't a single 4 letter word in the whole movie.  This is the most cerebral American comedy I've seen in forever.  Ferrell restrains himself, playing Crick with sublety and understatement.

     I don't want to say too much about the plot, for fear of ruining it for prospective viewers.  Instead, I'm going to click on "Publish Post", and get back to what I've been doing a lot of these last 3 weeks:  obtaining on-line Continuing Education credits in Nuclear Medicine, so that the State of California will renew my nuclear license...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan Nuclear

        I have to look into statements made in Greg Palast's article's in detail, but I am already concerned by the hyperbole-laced language and half--truths in it regarding the amounts and types of radiation released at Fukushima. The article also makes "logical" connections between unrelated events. Unfortunately, the science illiteracy of the average American makes it easy for reporters in the field to make all kinds of factual errors, while wild-eyed and clutching a microphone in front of the news camera outside the fence of a facility.

I recommend the article at http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/13/fukushima-simple-explanation/  and compare its statements to the Palast article, below. Unlike Palast, this article explains technical details of what happened in Japan in language that is accessible to the general public.
I don't believe in the generic American concept that "There are two sides to everything." Nuclear power is either doable safely--or it isn't, and Paslast's article shows a very emotional bias against nuclear energy without offering alternatives. What are we going to do as greenhouse gas emissions rise, along with the price of petroleum and coal??? I think we can do a lot more with wind and solar, a helluva a lot more (anti-renewable conservatives make a similar argument to the "fire department telling us they couldn't save a building because "it was on fire." argument by claiming that solar and wind are no good because hardly anybody uses it.) but nuclear is unavoidably part of our future. That said, absolutely, anybody who falsifies safety data in the nuclear industry should be strung up by his cojones, and the Japanese do have their infamous inability to step up to the microphone and admit when they've messed up.

I do take insult at Palast's claims that there will be thousands of cancer deaths over the years from what happened in Japan, this week--along with his claims that a radioactive cloud is floating over Seattle.  That's just a bunch of baloney.

Keep the following in mind when you read the http://www.bravenewclimate.com/ article: they explain how overdesigned those nuclear plants in Japan are, and point out what I have been saying since Friday: Hello?  It was a 9.0 freakin' earthquake! The planet actually shifted on its axis, and one earth day is now actually 1 second shorter.  That's how bad that earthquake was.

I am not copy & pasting  the http://www.bravenewclimate.com/ article here, because it has pictures and diagrams.   Please read the original Greg Palast blog posting at his web site after you read it, below:

Subject: Tokyo Electric to Build US Nuclear Plants

From Greg Palast

The no-BS info on Japan's disastrous nuclear operators
by Greg Palast
New York - March 14, 2011

I need to speak to you, not as a reporter, but in my former capacity as lead investigator in several government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations.

I don't know the law in Japan, so I can't tell you if Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) can plead insanity to the homicides about to happen.
But what will Obama plead? The Administration, just months ago, asked Congress to provide a $4 billion loan guarantee for two new nuclear reactors to be built and operated on the Gulf Coast of Texas — by Tokyo Electric Power and local partners. As if the Gulf hasn't suffered enough.
Here are the facts about Tokyo Electric and the industry you haven't heard on CNN:
The failure of emergency systems at Japan's nuclear plants comes as no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field.
Nuclear plants the world over must be certified for what is called "SQ" or "Seismic Qualification." That is, the owners swear that all components are designed for the maximum conceivable shaking event, be it from an earthquake or an exploding Christmas card from Al Qaeda.
The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ is to lie. The industry does it all the time. The government team I worked with caught them once, in 1988, at the Shoreham plant in New York. Correcting the SQ problem at Shoreham would have cost a cool billion, so engineers were told to change the tests from 'failed' to 'passed.'

The company that put in the false safety report? Stone & Webster, now the nuclear unit of Shaw Construction which will work with Tokyo Electric to build the Texas plant, Lord help us.
There's more.
Last night I heard CNN reporters repeat the official line that the tsunami disabled the pumps needed to cool the reactors, implying that water unexpectedly got into the diesel generators that run the pumps.
These safety back-up systems are the 'EDGs' in nuke-speak: Emergency Diesel Generators. That they didn't work in an emergency is like a fire department telling us they couldn't save a building because "it was on fire."
What dim bulbs designed this system? One of the reactors dancing with death at Fukushima Station 1 was built by Toshiba. Toshiba was also an architect of the emergency diesel system.

Now be afraid. Obama's $4 billion bail-out-in-the-making is called the South Texas Project. It's been sold as a red-white-and-blue way to make power domestically with a reactor from Westinghouse, a great American brand. However, the reactor will be made substantially in Japan by the company that bought the US brand name, Westinghouse — Toshiba.

I once had a Toshiba computer. I only had to send it in once for warranty work. However, it's kind of hard to mail back a reactor with the warranty slip inside the box if the fuel rods are melted and sinking halfway to the earth's core.
TEPCO and Toshiba don't know what my son learned in 8th grade science class: tsunamis follow Pacific Rim earthquakes. So these companies are real stupid, eh? Maybe. More likely is that the diesels and related systems wouldn't have worked on a fine, dry afternoon.
Back in the day, when we checked the emergency back-up diesels in America, a mind-blowing number flunked. At the New York nuke, for example, the builders swore under oath that their three diesel engines were ready for an emergency. They'd been tested. The tests were faked, the diesels run for just a short time at low speed. When the diesels were put through a real test under emergency-like conditions, the crankshaft on the first one snapped in about an hour, then the second and third. We nicknamed the diesels, "Snap, Crackle and Pop."

(Note: Moments after I wrote that sentence, word came that two of three diesels failed at the Tokai Station as well.)

In the US, we supposedly fixed our diesels after much complaining by the industry. But in Japan, no one tells Tokyo Electric to do anything the Emperor of Electricity doesn't want to do.
I get lots of confidential notes from nuclear industry insiders. One engineer, a big name in the field, is especially concerned that Obama waved the come-hither check to Toshiba and Tokyo Electric to lure them to America. The US has a long history of whistleblowers willing to put themselves on the line to save the public. In our racketeering case in New York, the government only found out about the seismic test fraud because two courageous engineers, Gordon Dick and John Daly, gave our team the documentary evidence.

In Japan, it's simply not done. The culture does not allow the salary-men, who work all their their lives for one company, to drop the dime.
Not that US law is a wondrous shield: both engineers in the New York case were fired and blacklisted by the industry. Nevertheless, the government (local, state, federal) brought civil racketeering charges against the builders. The jury didn't buy the corporation's excuses and, in the end, the plant was, thankfully, dismantled.
Am I on some kind of xenophobic anti-Nippon crusade? No. In fact, I'm far more frightened by the American operators in the South Texas nuclear project, especially Shaw. Stone & Webster, now the Shaw nuclear division, was also the firm that conspired to fake the EDG tests in New York. (The company's other exploits have been exposed by their former consultant, John Perkins, in his book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.)

If the planet wants to shiver, consider this: Toshiba and Shaw have recently signed a deal to become world-wide partners in the construction of nuclear stations.
The other characters involved at the South Texas Plant that Obama is backing should also give you the willies. But as I'm in the middle of investigating the American partners, I'll save that for another day.

So, if we turned to America's own nuclear contractors, would we be safe? Well, two of the melting Japanese reactors, including the one whose building blew sky high, were built by General Electric of the Good Old US of A.
After Texas, you're next. The Obama Administration is planning a total of $56 billion in loans for nuclear reactors all over America.
And now, the homicides:
CNN is only interested in body counts, how many workers burnt by radiation, swept away or lost in the explosion. These plants are now releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere. Be skeptical about the statements that the "levels are not dangerous." These are the same people who said these meltdowns could never happen. Over years, not days, there may be a thousand people, two thousand, ten thousand who will suffer from cancers induced by this radiation.
In my New York investigation, I had the unhappy job of totaling up post-meltdown "morbidity" rates for the county government. It would be irresponsible for me to estimate the number of cancer deaths that will occur from these releases without further information; but it is just plain criminal for the Tokyo Electric shoguns to say that these releases are not dangerous. Indeed, the fact that residents near the Japanese nuclear plants were not issued iodine pills to keep at the ready shows TEPCO doesn't care who lives and who dies whether in Japan or the USA. The carcinogenic isotopes that are released at Fukushima are already floating to Seattle with effects we simply cannot measure.

Heaven help us. Because Obama won't.

*** For Truthout/Buzzflash
Greg Palast is the co-author of Democracy and Regulation, the United Nations ILO guide for public service regulators, with Jerrold Oppenheim and Theo MacGregor. Palast has advised regulators in 26 states and in 12 nations on the regulation of the utility industry.
Palast, whose reports can be seen on BBC Television Newsnight, is a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow for investigative reporting.