Thursday, March 31, 2011

Movie Review: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001)

It's obvious from watching The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra that Larry Blamire has seen more 1950s b-movies than is healthy. Like the H. P. Lovecraft Society's The Call of Cthulhu (2005), The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is designed to look like it was made in the period in which the story takes place. Unlike Cthulhu, which is a serious and relatively faithful adaptation of Lovecraft's story, Lost Skeleton serves as a spoof of films from the era.

The brilliant scientist Dr. Paul Armstrong and his wife Betty take to the woods in search of a meteor laden with the rare radioactive substance known as "atmospherium". Once they find it, they take it to their rented cabin in order to study it. Little do they realize that their discovery was noticed by Kro-Bar and Lattis, two aliens from the planet Marva who need to replenish their spacecraft's fuel supply (which happens to be atmospherium). Out of desperation, the two aliens decide to take it by deception. While the aliens are relatively harmless, their pet mutant who escaped during the crash has begun to commit a series of "horrible mutilations". The aliens aren't the only ones who want the atmospherium, though; the evil scientist Dr. Roger Fleming intends to use it to reanimate the titular "Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" as part of an entirely unexplained plot to take over the world.

No scientist is complete without his trusty Geiger counter

Kro-Bar and Lattis use their "transmutatron" to make themselves look human (it changes their metallic spacesuits into a suit and a dress respectively) and get themselves invited to dinner at the cabin. Dr. Fleming, who knows about the aliens, also decides to drop in on the Armstrongs. Since he thinks he'll look suspicious if he arrives at the cabin alone, he uses the aliens' transmutatron (which they carelessly left behind) to transform a group of animals into a human woman that he names "Animala". A hysterically funny dinner scene ensues as the aliens attempt to emulate human eating customs but unwittingly end up following Animala's feral habits instead. Eventually, the atmospherium is stolen, the lost skeleton is reanimated, the mutant shows up, and a distinctly bizarre wedding à la Bride of the Monster (1955) is inexplicably introduced into the story.

The skeleton actually has some of the best dialogue

Like I said, Blamire is obviously a huge 1950s b-movie fan, which is reflected in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. The aliens' costumes, the low-budget spaceship exterior, and the stilted dialogue would be familiar to anyone who has seen an Ed Wood movie, particularly Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). For example, this deliberately humorous line from Lost Skeleton:
"Seriously, Betty, you know what this meteor could mean to science. If we find it, and it's real, it could mean a lot. It could mean actual advances in the field of science."
isn't a whole lot more awkward than this one from Plan 9:
"We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future."
While many references to the genre are recognizable to non-fans (e.g., an awful mutant costume that's still better than many costumes from the era, low quality models and sets, visible wires, the inevitable scene in which the monster walks off with the heroine), others are more subtle. For example, the fact that Dr. Armstrong is a 'scientist who studies science' is constantly emphasized (an unusual number of b-movie heroes were scientists who had an unrealistically broad knowledge of all fields of science). B-movie fans will immediately recognize that The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra was filmed on location at Bronson Canyon; a portion of Griffith Park in Los Angeles that became the setting for dozens of budget-strapped b-movies. And fans will also appreciate that the actor in the mutant suit is obviously struggling to carry Betty over the rough terrain (Ro-Man had the the very same problem in the exact same canyon in Robot Monster (1953)).


The only place where The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra stumbles is where it deviates from the b-movies that it emulates; its running time. Robot Monster was 66 minutes long, Bride of the Monster was 69 minutes long, and Plan 9 from Outer Space ran for an excruciating 79 minutes. At the time those films were made, audiences expected a feature film to last just over one hour. Although the makers of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra intended for it to be an homage to '50s sci-fi movies, they made it 90 minutes long; i.e., closer to the length of a modern film. Although Lost Skeleton remains funny throughout, it starts to sputter around the one hour mark. The judicious removal of 20 or 25 minutes of material would not only have given Lost Skeleton a running time similar to those of the movies that inspired it, but also would have made it a slightly better film.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Proper Response to Bullying

Like so many other nerds, I was a victim of bullying in junior high school. Only once did it come to blows, when the most dedicated of my tormenters cornered me on the playground and decided to actually take a swing at me. I guess the kid had made a big deal about what he intended to do because the anticipated fight attracted a sizable number of onlookers. He actually approached me and said "let's fight", to which I responded that I'd prefer not to since I would lose. Fortunately, when he finally hit me, it was a weak punch in the stomach during a moment in which I was breathing out (which thus failed to knock the wind out of me). I was so surprised at how well I took the hit that I actually started laughing at him. This humiliated him in front of the dozen or so observers and finally his friends pulled him away. This encounter didn't make me a hero, but it did mark the end of the worst of the harassment.

At no point was there any adult involvement. The playground was large, but the teachers never bothered to police the areas farther from the buildings. Of course I never told any teachers or aides about what was happening. Those ridiculous anti-bullying ads shown during kids' programming always instruct children to tell a teacher about it. What the ads don't show is that school punishments have no teeth, that an adult can't really take any action if he or she doesn't actually see any bullying going on, and that the bully is going to wait until you're outside of school to really let you have it because you told on him.

Forcefully introducing a bully to the pavement. Awesome.

I think every nerd, geek, or outcast has dreamed about finally getting back at the bully. The scene in Spider-man in which Peter Parker, newly endowed with his Spider-man powers, finally gives Flash Thompson a taste of his own medicine is the fantasy of every comic book reader ("comic book reader" is synonymous with "nerd", "geek", or "outcast"). Well, recently one long-suffering Australian kid named Casey Heynes finally had his Peter Parker moment. The video below contains footage of the bully's justly deserved fate as well as some hilarious commentary (and a spoof of A Christmas Story) by the very funny Steven Crowder.

The news reported that Casey had "been bullied all his school life". Given his size and the fact that he was strong enough to body slam the bully, I can only guess that Casey had been a victim because he had done what the school authorities wanted and had avoided responding with physical violence.

Like Crowder I find it ridiculous that the very school officials who failed to protect Casey are now condemning his act of self-defense. The boy had tried to resolve the problem peacefully, had been struck several times before he responded, and only used enough force to end the fight. He was cornered at the time so he couldn't have alerted the authorities (who would probably had done nothing) and, having been a victim for years, was probably aware that reporting the bully would have only made his life harder.

With the video evidence showing that Casey definitely didn't start the fight and that he tolerated quite a bit of abuse before he responded with force, I can only assume that the school officials are either irate bureaucrats who realize that they've potentially been exposed to lawsuits from the parents of either boy, or hopeless idealists (it's probably a little bit of both). The overly simplistic philosophy that "violence never solves anything" that is so common in schools is absurd on the face of it: violence obtained America's independence, ended the Nazi regime, stopped Saddam Hussein's butchery of the Iraqi people, ended the Fort Hood shooting, etc. And it the case of Casey Heynes, violence showed a bully that he can no longer abuse another person with impunity.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nuclear Power and Relative Risk

A commenter on one of my recent posts said that "Every human enterprise involves some risk". This is the same message as a March 14th Wall Street Journal opinion article. In light of the ongoing Fukushima crisis, I think it's instructive to review the concept of relative risk.

Just looking at the statistics, I think the most obvious lesson of the Tōhoku earthquake and the resultant tsunami (i.e., the disasters that caused the Fukushima accident) is that it's more dangerous to live by the beach than it is to live by a nuclear plant. The earthquake and the tsunami (which caused most of the casualties) left a death-toll of around 10,000 people, while the nuclear accident has not officially killed anybody (although two workers are missing who may have been killed in an explosion). Yet the lesson that so many anti-nuclear activists and ordinary Americans will take away from the disaster is not that beachfront property may be a poor investment, but that nuclear power is dangerous and bad. In fact, even in light of the 230,000+ deaths caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I think most people would still like to own a home by the ocean.

Three Mile Island
I am always amazed by how risk-averse Americans are with regards to some things while having absolutely no trepidation about other things that are much more likely to kill or injure them. For example, nuclear power is one of those touchy subjects that causes panic or fear in millions of Americans. Yet the total number of Americans that have been demonstrably killed by nuclear power (not counting a handful of early incidents involving experimental bomb cores) is three. That's right; three people, all of whom were military personnel killed in the explosion of the experimental SL-1 reactor in 1961. One study suggests that one or two cancer deaths may have occurred after the Three Mile Island accident, but this number was determined statistically and cannot be confirmed. Worldwide there have only been 63 confirmed fatalities directly associated with nuclear power (this number omits weapons and military related incidents as well as the Fukushima crisis, which isn't quite finished yet).

The Chernobyl disaster, which was caused by a poorly designed reactor and an ill-advised experiment that disabled essential safety systems, accounts for the bulk of the fatalities (53 out of the 63). However, it must be admitted that the official figure may be misleading since the Soviet Union was never known for releasing honest casualty figures. Shortly after the accident, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) estimated that 4,000 people would suffer from cancer due to the accident (later reports suggested that this was an overestimate). Not all of these 4,000 people would have died prematurely since some types of cancer associated with radiation exposure (e.g., thyroid cancer) are relatively treatable and have a decent survival rate.

To prove my point about relative risk, let's begin by approximating how many people may have been killed by nuclear power. Since I couldn't possibly guess how effective Soviet medicine was in the 1980s, we'll just count all 4,000 potential cancer cases caused by Chernobyl as fatalities. Thus, an upper limit of 4,063 people may have been killed by nuclear plant accidents since 1961, with the vast majority of that number being questionable. If we divide that number by 57 years (the number of years that have passed between now and 1954, when the first nuclear reactor to provide power for an electrical grid came online) we end up with an average number of approximately 71 deaths per year due to nuclear power plants. Remember, this number was boosted by an estimated number of cancer cases that might have been incurred by the Chernobyl disaster. If we only use confirmed numbers then the average number of deaths per year drops to about 1.

A lot more deadly than any nuclear reactor
Using the exaggerated number of 71 deaths per year, it becomes horribly ironic that most anti-nuclear activists protesting at a nuclear power plant must have driven there. Every year around 30,000 to 40,000 Americans are killed in auto accidents. It is estimated that a worldwide total of 1.2 million people are killed annually in auto accidents. This means that, on average, nearly 17,000 times more people die annually in car accidents than in nuclear plant accidents. Clearly we're in the middle of an automobile-spawned apocalypse. So where are the anti-automobile activists?

Electricity: Threat or menace?
How about an energy source that we interact with daily? In 1993 550 people were killed by electricity in the United States. Given that US electrical safety standards are significantly higher than they are in parts of the developing world, the number of electrical fatalities worldwide is undoubtedly much higher. Either way, this number is almost eight times higher than our average annual rate of nuclear power-related deaths (this assumes that 550 is a fairly representative fatality rate for more recent years). Honestly, how can we even allow electricity into our homes when it's clearly so dangerous?

Windmills of DEATH
While we're throwing numbers around, it turns out that accidents involving wind power have killed 73 people between 1975 and 2010. Note that this number of fatalities (which were incurred over a period of 35 years) exceeds the 63 officially confirmed deaths caused by nuclear plant accidents (after 57 years of commercial nuclear power). The most common cause of windmill related accidents was blade failure. When a turbine blade fails, the blade or pieces of the blade can be thrown at a lethal velocity. Now that wind turbines are being built in ever greater numbers and closer to inhabited areas, we can only expect the number of accidents to go up. Too bad all those activists are too busy protesting nuclear plants to care about the windmill farms being built near residential areas.

Don't breathe too deep
Now that we're back on the subject of electricity production, let's talk about coal-produced power. In 2006 coal plants generated about 49% of America's electricity and 68.7% of China's electricity (nuclear power accounts for about 20% of US electricity). Ironically, because coal contains a number of naturally radioactive isotopes, it is estimated that US coal burning in 1982 released 155 times more radioactivity into the air than the Three Mile Island accident. Ignoring the effect of radioactivity, we find reports suggesting that 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year due to air pollution. The World Health Organization has claimed that 2.4 million die each year due to air pollution. Much of this pollution comes from burning coal for electricity. Now, I know that there are anti-coal plant activists, but many of them are the kind that conveniently forget that coal power is a major source of the energy used to make solar cells, manufacture wind turbines, or to charge their "environmentally friendly" Chevy Volts. Modern life (which is more than 20 years longer and healthier than life in the early 20th century) would not be possible without the electricity produced by burning coal.

The point I'm trying to make is that human life is full of risks but that many people seem to be confused about what risks they should worry about. Even if the Fukushima accident turns out as bad as the most extreme estimates suggest (estimates which are almost invariably developed by anti-nuclear organizations), the number of deaths that could be caused by radiation sickness and radiation-induced cancer would be far exceeded by the number of auto deaths that occur in the United States in a single month. Yet most of the Americans who are stocking up on iodine tablets probably don't think twice about getting into a car (and I'd bet a good percentage of them don't even bother to put on a seatbelt). Although I spend every work day in close proximity with nuclear materials and energy, I know that the most dangerous part of my day is the drive to and from work.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Going to the Symphony

After about a week of blogging about nothing but Fukushima, I thought a brief change of topic might be appropriate.

Last night my wife and I went to the symphony thanks to a friend's generous gift of two tickets. The symphony played works by Brahms, Ravel, Sibelius, Beethoven, and Elgar. The night started out strong with Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. Since I'm not too much of a fan of the post-Romantic Period of music, I wasn't too excited by the Ravel piece, although the symphony and the solo pianist (a high school student!) performed it well. Since I seem to be some sort of Philistine, I had never actually heard of Elgar, although I enjoyed his Enigma Variations.

However, I was once again reminded of one of the main reasons why I prefer to avoid theaters; a surprising number of people actually pay to attend such events and then end up being rude and disruptive. Unfortunately, I have an obsessive compulsive personality, which means that I easily lose focus when there are extraneous noises and other distractions.

At least three couples nearby found it necessary to whisper throughout much of the performance. None of these people were children or youth who were dragged to the symphony against their will. All were adults, most of whom were older than my wife and I. When the music got louder their whispering got louder (which sometimes jumped into quiet talking). To those couples I'd like to say that I'm sorry that the orchestra was interrupting your conversation; perhaps you should shush them next time. All joking aside, there is absolutely no reason why patrons at the symphony should be holding any sort of conversation while the orchestra is playing. Nothing you have to say can possibly be more important than showing consideration for the people around you and for the artists who have put so much time and talent into their performances. Next time, stay home and put on a CD and let everyone else at the theater enjoy the music without having to hear the sound of your voice.

One gentleman apparently thought it was appropriate to surf the Net with his iPhone for most of the performance. How much thoughtlessness or contempt for the artists must you have to think that it's appropriate to attend a live event just to play with your fancy electronic toy? This is what children do, sir. If you're going to insist on playing with your overpriced device while listening to music, why don't you stay home, pop in some earphones, and listen to an mp3 on your iPhone instead?

Finally, why would you bring fussy infants or toddlers to the symphony? You're in a theater that's designed to readily transfer sound from one side to another; every whimper, cry, or scream from your children will reach every other patron in the room. This is a performance by a symphony orchestra, not a Disney movie or a children's concert. Do yourselves and everyone else a favor; hire a babysitter and leave the kids at home like we did.

Despite these distractions, I will still return to the theater if only because no CD or mp3 player can possibly compete with a live orchestra. I just hope that next time there will be less attendees who have no intention of giving the performers their undivided attention.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

An Update on the Fukushima Situation

Some of the following will make more sense if one has a basic understanding of the composition and construction of nuclear fuel. I provided a basic introduction to nuclear power in my last blog post and have created a standing page on the subject.

Fallout Over California
Previously I discussed the possibility of fallout from the Fukushima incident reaching the West Coast. Although I erred slightly when I said that the fallout "would probably be so widely dispersed that the radioactivity would be effectively undetectable" (I neglected the fact that radioactivity detection systems used to monitor nuclear weapons tests have become extremely effective), I was right when I also said that it "would have a negligible impact on public health". Recent reports indicate that the levels of contamination reaching the United States are "about a billion times beneath levels that would be health threatening".

Damage Control and Radiation Exposure
A damaged reactor building at
the Fukushima nuclear plant
In the meantime, nuclear plant workers (the heroic "Fukushima 50", although there are actually about 180 of them) have been attempting to stabilize the reactors. Working in shifts, these plant employees are being limited to 50 rem (0.5 Sv) total radiation exposure. This is ten times the annual Federal limit for radiation workers in the US but is about half the amount of exposure at which point the effects of acute radiation sickness can be felt; i.e., 100-200 rem (1-2 Sv). Although these workers will undoubtedly face an increased cancer risk in the future (perhaps four times greater than normal if they end up like Chernobyl's "Liquidators"), as long as they observe the 50 rem limit it is very unlikely that any of the Fukushima 50 will die from radiation sickness. In other words, the plant workers have been given a dangerous task, but it isn't a "suicide mission" as some in the media have called it.

Dry Cooling Pools
The latest reports also seem to indicate that some of the greatest problems being faced are not coming from the reactors themselves but from spent fuel cooling pools that may be going dry. If the fuel assemblies aren't being properly cooled they can become damaged due to decay heat. The zirconium cladding can bubble and burst open, releasing fission products into the air. Even worse, it is feared that the overheated zirconium alloys will begin to oxidize rapidly, which can result in a fire. In the presence of steam, the oxidation process can produce hydrogen gas. This process occurred earlier this week when hydrogen was created by the oxidation of the cladding of the overheated fuel assemblies inside the reactors. To reduce the likelihood of damage to the reactor vessels, operators vented the hydrogen out of the reactors and into the reactor buildings, which caused several explosions. The decision to vent the gas was definitely the right one since an explosion within the reactors would have been even more disastrous.

Given the potential consequences of allowing the cooling pools to dry out, plant workers have been desperately trying to refill them. However, in addition to cooling the fuel the water also provides radiation shielding. Without shielding, it is very difficult to approach the pools due to extremely high radiation levels.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Introduction to Nuclear Power

As I've discussed recently, a lot of information on nuclear power has been long on hype and short on accurate information. My own experience with friends and family has shown me that many otherwise intelligent people have little to no understanding of nuclear power. I recommend that people refer to Wikipedia for detailed explanations of how nuclear fission works or how a nuclear reactor uses fission to make power, since those subjects deserve a more in-depth treatment than I can given them in a blog post. However, the news coming out of Japan may make more sense if we briefly review what nuclear fuel is and how the fuel works.

A uranium fuel pellet
Most commercial reactors use enriched uranium in the form of pellets for their fuel. Uranium consists mostly of the isotope uranium-238 along with a small amount of other isotopes. When uranium is enriched to be used as nuclear fuel, the isotope uranium-235 is increased above the 0.7% found in natural uranium (most power plants use fuel that's 3% to 5% uranium-235). As shown in the photo, these pellets are relatively safe to handle before undergoing nuclear fission. The pellets are sealed into tubes (often called "cladding"), which are usually composed of a zirconium alloy. Zirconium is the material of choice due to certain favorable properties, not the least of which is its near-transparency to neutrons (neutrons will have to be able to pass from one tube to the other in order to sustain a fission reaction). These tubes are then bundled together into fuel assemblies. In a boiling water reactor (BWR), like those used at Fukushima, the assemblies are encased in an additional thin-walled tube. A removable control rod is inserted into the fuel assembly to absorb neutrons and prevent a premature fission reaction. In a pressurized water reactor (PWR) (the most common reactor type in the United States), the control rods enter the fuel assembly from above; in a BWR the control rods enter from below. Notice that all elements of the fuel, the cladding, and the control rods are made of solid materials. I am always surprised to find that many people believe that nuclear fuel is some sort of glowing liquid.

Nuclear fuel rod assemblies
The assemblies are inserted in a reactor vessel and the vessel is sealed. To start up the reactor, the control rods are withdrawn. Neutrons produced by the spontaneous fission of a relatively small number of uranium atoms strike other uranium atoms nearby, which causes still more fissions. A nuclear chain reaction (or "criticality") occurs when, on average, at least one neutron produced by each fission goes on to produce an additional fission. The control rods are partially inserted or removed as necessary to keep the reaction at the desired rate. The control rods contain materials like cadmium or boron that absorb neutrons and prevent an excessive rate of fission. Water within the reactor cools the fuel assemblies, slows the emitted neutrons (slower neutrons are more effective at producing a fission reaction in uranium), and is used in conjunction with steam turbines to produce electricity. In a BWR, the fission reaction boils the water within the reactor vessel. In a PWR, the water in the vessel is maintained at a pressure that prevents it from boiling; the heat from the water in the pressurized "primary loop" is transferred to water in the "secondary loop", which is allowed to boil.

Fuel assemblies in a nuclear reactor opened for servicing

The typical commercial reactor will operate for about 12 to 24 months before the fuel must be replaced. By this time, much of the uranium-235 within the assemblies has been changed into fission products (some of the most common being iodine-131, cesium-137, and strontium-90). Isotopes of plutonium will have also been produced when neutrons were absorbed by atoms of uranium-238. The reactor is shut down by fully inserting the control rods. At this point the reactor is "subcritical", meaning that, on average, each fission produces less than one additional fission. The fuel assemblies are then removed from the reactor and are placed in a water-filled pit or pool. Although the nuclear chain reaction has been stopped, the water is required to cool the assemblies since radioactive decay of the fission products produces a significant amount of heat. Eventually the rate of decay will fall sufficiently that the fuel assemblies can be removed from the pool and be placed in a dry cask.

Spent fuel assemblies in a cooling pool

I'll be explaining what the above means for Fukushima in a later post.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Obama's Surgeon General Makes Things Worse

Let me start by saying that this whole Fukushima issue has me frustrated. An earthquake and tsunami kill tens of thousands of people and all the media can talk about are the problems that Japan is having with a handful of reactors. As serious as those problems are, to my knowledge no one has yet died or become seriously ill because of the partial meltdowns or the spread of radioactive contamination. The Wall Street Journal has a good article that discusses this unequal treatment. Also, I believe that America would greatly benefit from a greater exploitation of nuclear power. It is therefore immensely irritating to know that its opponents, with the aid of their useful idiots in the media, will use the Fukushima incident to further strangle the nuclear industry.

It's bad enough that the media seems to be deliberately conflating the nuclear accident with the tsunami's death toll (e.g., "Japan Digs for Thousands of Dead Amid Nuclear Crisis"), which appears to be an attempt to make unwary readers think that the accident at the power plant caused those deaths. And it sure hasn't helped that they've been distorting the science behind radiation and radioactivity. Now the ineptitude and ignorance of Obama's Surgeon General is actually making things worse.

In an example of panic and illogic that is typical for the Golden State, fears that a plume of radioactivity will cross the Pacific and rain down on California have resulted in a run on iodine tablets. Pharmacies are being inundated with requests for the chemical. I've even heard of some people in Idaho and other regions who are snatching up iodine at drugstores as well as buying it on the Internet.

As I mentioned in a previous post, tablets of stable iodine are taken by those who are exposed to fission products to saturate the thyroid and prevent the absorption of the radioactive isotope of iodine that is produced in a nuclear reactor. However, it won't protect a person from external gamma radiation or the ingestion of other fission products like radioactive strontium or cesium.

So, in the middle of a panic, when state and local officials are trying to calm down the citizens, what does Surgeon General Regina Benjamin say?
State and county officials spent much of Tuesday trying to keep people calm by saying that getting the pills wasn't necessary, but then the United States surgeon general supported the idea as a worthy "precaution."

[...] NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo asked [U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin] about the run on tablets and Dr. Benjamin said although she wasn't aware of people stocking up, she did not think that would be an overreaction. She said it was right to be prepared.
Dr. Benjamin's response was utterly inappropriate and thoughtless. Instead of backing up Californian officials who correctly insist that such precautions are unnecessary, the Surgeon General has instead given support to baseless worries.

Californians' concerns are unwarranted for several reasons. First, the spread of contamination seems to be relatively limited. This is not like the Chernobyl accident in which the combination of an exploded reactor vessel and burning graphite blew huge amounts of contamination into the air and caused a measurable amount of radioactivity to spread across northern Europe. Even then, although towns near Chernobyl were made uninhabitable, the levels of contamination found in the rest of Europe were relatively harmless. In contrast, the Fukushima reactors are mostly intact and don't contain flammable materials inside their vessels. Second, Japan is over 5,000 miles from California. By the time contamination could reach the West Coast from Japan, the cloud would probably be so widely dispersed that the radioactivity would be effectively undetectable and would have a negligible impact on public health. Third, the radioactive isotope that the pills are designed to protect against (i.e., iodine-131) has a half-life of only 8 days. This means that within 8 days, half of the iodine reaching California would have transformed into a stable form of xenon gas. Since it can take 7 to 9 days for dust in Asia to cross the Pacific Ocean, by the time any contamination actually reached North America much of the iodine-131 would have changed into a harmless substance. The other major fission products, cesium-137 and strontium-90, have longer half-lives (30.2 and 28.9 years, respectively).

After the absurdities of the media, panicky Californians, and the U.S. Surgeon General this past week, I can honestly say that I've seen 1950s b-movies with a better understanding of nuclear energy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Radioactivity Versus Radiation: Getting a Couple Things Straight

Don't breathe too deep, guys
I've been closely following the troubles that Japan has been having with a couple reactors since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the area. As usual, I'm amazed at the misconceptions that the news media continues to spread. I'm talking specifically about the difference between radioactivity and radiation.

Recently presented an article that said that "About 1,500 people had been scanned for radiation exposure". Another article suggested that iodine serves as a treatment against radiation exposure, stating that "virtually any increase in ambient radiation can raise long-term cancer rates, and authorities were planning to distribute iodine, which helps protect against thyroid cancer." Both these articles have confused radiation and radioactivity.

Given that the reactors shut down shortly after the earthquake, the radiation they're worried about is gamma radiation. Like visible light, gamma radiation is composed of photons, although they have a much higher energy than photons of light. Unless a person receives enough exposure to show signs of radiation sickness, there's no easy way to determine if someone has been exposed to radiation. That's why nuclear workers wear dosimeters, which measure how much radiation a person has received. Nor does gamma radiation make things radioactive. A person could receive a lethal dose of radiation and yet their body wouldn't emit any radiation itself. Nor would an inanimate object become radioactive after being exposed to high levels of gamma rays. Neutron radiation, on the other hand, can cause a substance to become radioactive (this is called "activation"), but such high levels of neutron radiation are only encountered during an active fission or fusion reaction.

With regard to the general public, which was kept too far from the plant to have received dangerous levels of radiation exposure, what Japanese authorities are worried about is radioactivity (this is often called "radioactive contamination" or simply "contamination"). Radioactivity consists of particles of matter that emit radiation. A good analogy of radioactivity is burning charcoal; the charcoal is the radioactivity and the heat given off is the radiation. Confusing radioactivity with radiation is like confusing hot coals with the heat being produced.

An actual anti-contamination suit
As of this blog post there have been two explosions at the nuclear plant. Under the right conditions, high levels of radiation inside the reactors can turn cooling water into gaseous oxygen and hydrogen. Apparently the Fukushima plant operators vented the gases from the reactors, which then exploded outside of the vessels (better outside the reactors than inside). Japanese authorities are worried that the combination of damaged fuel rods, gas venting, explosions, and potential breaches in the reactor vessels may have spread radioactivity in the region around the plant. People that are several miles away are relatively safe from the radiation being emitted by the damaged reactors, but they may fall victim to radioactive materials blown into the air by the explosions.

This radioactivity would consist of various fission products such as radioactive isotopes of cesium, strontium, and iodine. The 1,500 people mentioned in the article were being scanned for radioactivity (particles of fission products) on their clothing, skin, or inside their bodies. This contamination is detectable through the radiation emitted by the radioactive particles that are on the victims or inside them. Since strontium is chemically similar to calcium and is absorbed by the bones, and iodine is absorbed by the thyroid, these substances can spend a long time inside the human body. Long term internal exposure to radiation can cause serious health problems. The reason why Japanese authorities were planning on distributing iodine (the non-radioactive form, of course) is because it saturates the thyroid and prevents it from absorbing the radioactive version that may have contaminated the environment.

An "anti-radiation suit"
would look more like this
It's because of the media's and the general population's misunderstanding of the difference between radiation and radioactivity that I keep having to explain to people that there's no such thing as an "anti-radiation suit". The yellow anti-contamination suits (sometimes called "anti-Cs") that people may be familiar with are designed to protect the wearer from radioactivity. The yellow fabric is an impermeable material that prevents radioactivity from getting onto the wearer's skin. Where contamination may be found in the air, a respirator is worn to prevent inhalation of the material. These suits do not protect the wearer from external radiation. People in anti-Cs are as concerned about radiation as someone in street clothes. Radiation can only be shielded by dense materials like steel or lead or by generous layers of water or concrete. A steel or lead suit that could reduce radiation levels reaching the wearer by 90% would need to be several inches thick and would probably look like something from Iron Man.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Abusing Taxpayer Dollars

Harry Reid to America: this
guy deserves your tax dollars
By now it should be obvious that the Democrats are not actually serious about cutting government spending. In a screed against the GOP's efforts to reduce the deficit, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev) lamented that those heartless Republicans would cut funding for a cowboy poetry festival:
The mean-spirited bill, H.R. 1 ... eliminates the National Endowment of the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts. These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.
Can someone please tell me why the U.S. Federal Government a) thinks it has the right to spend our taxpayer dollars on a cowboy poetry festival and b) how any rational elected representative can possibly justify spending money on cowboy poetry when the nation is trillions of dollars in debt? Oops, I guess I shouldn't have assumed that Harry Reid is rational. That adjective couldn't possibly apply to anyone who thinks cutting government funding for talented cowboys is "mean-spirited" while dumping an unimaginable amount of debt on our posterity is perfectly acceptable. Obviously the reason why the nation is so far in debt is because our elected representatives think it's appropriate to spend taxpayers' money on cowboy poetry festivals! But the amount being used to support cowboy poetry is relatively small compared to the millions of dollars that taxpayers provide to Planned Parenthood.

The legacy of eugenicist Margaret
Sanger deserves your money, too
Planned Parenthood offers a variety of reproductive health services, one of which is abortion. In fact, their organization is the largest provider of abortions in the nation. Although Federal money can't legally be used for that purpose, some argue that it indirectly subsidizes abortion by freeing up their budget. Either way, taxpayers are being forced to support an organization whose practices are deeply offensive to a large number of Americans. And even if you ignore the political/moral issues, it turns out that the organization doesn't really need taxpayer support:
From 2002 to 2007, the national organization and its affiliates took in $388 million more than they spent on programs and services. No doubt the group lost some of that money in the same kinds of investments that disappointed the rest of us, but that has not prevented it from paying its president more than $337,000 in annual salary and tens of thousands more in benefits and allowances.
Of course, cutting government funds to Planned Parenthood will be even more viciously resisted than the elimination of taxpayer-subsidized cowboy poetry since the principle of abortion on-demand is one of the far Left's articles of faith.

I agree with the commentators of National Review: "If a sparkling new Tea Party Congress won’t cut off this bunch, what will it cut?"


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