Monday, April 22, 2013

On the INL Plutonium Exposure Controversy

Warning! Do not eat the plutonium!
Recently, my mother brought an AP article published in the Idaho Falls Post-Register and the online version of The Oregonian to my attention. The article briefly discusses a complaint filed with OSHA against Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) by two employees. In 2011, 16 employees, including the two who filed the complaint, were exposed to plutonium contamination at the Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC), which is one of the many facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) (the official Accident Investigation Report can be found here). Of course, the article actually says that they were exposed to "plutonium radiation", which once again shows that the media has no interest in learning the difference between radiation and radioactive contamination. Anyway, as part of their complaint, the two employees claim that the 2011 incident occurred after they had expressed safety concerns over several different jobs.

Let me start by saying that I don't deny that the employees involved have a genuine complaint with regards to the incident itself. Had they been assigned to work a properly planned and engineered job, the spread of contamination would have been avoided. As a matter of fact, I heard about the incident the day it happened; my first response was "why didn't they just use a glovebox?" I wasn't too surprised when I found that Table C-1 in the official report states that the problem would not have occured if they had done exactly that.

Regardless of the errors made, I have a low tolerance for the perpetuation of inaccuracies or falsehoods with regards to the nuclear field. While I could criticize or question the article's statements (and the employees' complaints if it's assumed that the article accurately reports them) on several of fronts, I want to address a detail that is completely wrong. Specifically, one of the primary examples given of a safety concern that was supposedly ignored by BEA turns out not to have been a safety problem at all in light of the radioactive properties of plutonium. The fact that the workers still believe that it was an issue shows that the January 2012 report's statement that "Workers did not understand the consequences of Pu contamination" apparently remains true. According to the article:
Twice in 2011, BEA allegedly refused to allow Stanton and Simmons to use lead shielding to protect themselves when handling plutonium. Both workers exercised their right to stop the jobs, according to the complaint.
Let me cover a few of the most basic radiation types encountered in nuclear power and then we'll see why this particular claim is entirely baseless.

Alpha Radiation: Alpha radiation or alpha decay is the emission of particles from a radioactive isotope. These particles have two protons and two neutrons and are simply helium nuclei with a significant amount of kinetic energy. However, alpha particles present very little external risk since their kinetic energy is expended after traveling through a few centimeters of air or striking something as flimsy as paper or the dead layer of cells on a person's skin. Once stopped, an alpha particle is rendered harmless. Alpha particles only become dangerous when a strong alpha-emitting isotope enters the body. Internal tissues can become severely damaged since they aren't protected by a dead layer of cells like the skin is.

Beta Radiation: Beta radiation is the emission of electrons or positrons (which have the same mass as an electron but are positively charged) from the nucleus of a radioactive isotope. Beta particles don't have as much kinetic energy as alpha particles, although they have greater penetrating power. A beta particle can be stopped by sheets of metal, plastic, or glass. While beta particles have the potential to penetrate the outer layers of a person's skin, personnel working with a beta-emitting isotope are generally protected by the plastic walls of a glove box or by anti-contamination clothing. Since beta particles can penetrate the cornea, personnel may wear goggles or a face shield to protect their eyes.

Gamma Radiation: Gamma radiation is the emission of high energy photons with high penetrating power. Dense materials such as lead or steel are typically used to shield significant gamma-emitting sources, although a generous layer of water or concrete can perform the same function.

Neutron Radiation: Neutron radiation is the emission of free neutrons that usually occurs as the result of nuclear fission. Neutrons can also be produced by exposing certain light elements such as beryllium to an alpha-emitter. Neutron radiation is only effectively shielded by water or other hydrogenous materials such as oil or polymers.

Here's where the INL workers' complaint about the lead shielding falls apart. The workers claim that they weren't allowed to use lead shielding to protect themselves while working with plutonium. However, as I mentioned above, dense shielding is used to protect against gamma radiation, which is highly penetrating. Plutonium, on the other hand, is an alpha-emitter. Unless you have a critical mass (in which case you've started a lethal fission reaction and anything short of a reactor vessel isn't going to save you), plutonium is only a threat if it gets inside your body. As explicitly stated by the EPA, the external risk presented by plutonium is very small since it emits almost no gamma or beta radiation. BEA did not endanger the two employees by disallowing them from using lead shielding since such shielding is completely unnecessary to protect people from an alpha-emitter like plutonium.

I can understand why BEA would have disallowed its employees from using lead shielding while working with plutonium. Once BEA had conceded to allowing two employees to install useless shielding because it made them feel better, the company would be compelled to use "feel-good" shielding all the time. The allowance would simply perpetuate the myth among employees that lead shielding is effective and necessary for handling plutonium. Personally, I would never engineer a job to use unnecessary shielding for that very reason, although I would make sure to explain my reasoning to the workers to avoid any misunderstandings.

There's a lot more I could say about the article and the complaint filed by the two employees (I actually deleted a third of my draft before posting because it became too long and unfocused). For example, I believe that the purported retaliation didn't necessarily have sinister motivations, although I don't have any inside sources on this matter. The employees' claim that their radiation dosage information was withheld might sound suspicious, but may simply reflect the fact that dose assessments following exposure to an alpha-emitter are very difficult to perform. Page 61 of the accident report acknowledges that the measurements needed to complete the assessment might have to made over a period of months or even years.

Nuclear power has many enemies who latch onto any accusation of safety violations in support of their cause. Much too often, these anti-nuclear groups take advantage of the public's ignorance of the science to get their way. Inaccuracies like those found in the AP article and the employees' complaint are inevitably used to frighten the public away from an effective and safe form of power.

[The above represents my own opinions and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, BEA, or the INL.]

Saturday, April 13, 2013

2012 Family Movie Reviews, Part III: ParaNorman

This odd little film was made by Laika, Inc., which specializes in stop-motion animation and made a name for itself in 2009 with Coraline. I enjoyed both films quite a bit since I generally like strange movies. ParaNorman won't appeal to all viewers, but the people it was made for should enjoy it.

Norman, a young zombie-movie fanatic, lives in the town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. Like Cole in The Sixth Sense (1999), Norman can see and talk to dead people. Since he makes no attempt to hide his gift and openly talks to ghosts while others are around, the boy has become an outcast and a frequent target of bullies.

As is the case in almost any movie based in a small Massachusetts town, Blithe Hollow's history includes witch trials. The most famous of these trials ended with a terrible curse being placed on the judge and jury that sentenced the witch to death. According to the legend, the seven were cursed to eventually rise from the dead and plague the town. No one takes the story seriously, of course, but it keeps the tourists coming. As the 300th Anniversary of the curse approaches, Norman finds himself taking part in a school play depicting the witch trial. During the dress rehearsal, Norman has a vision in which he's being pursued through the forest by Puritan townsfolk. During the play itself, he has an even more intense vision, which ends with Norman screaming "Everybody is going to die!" in front of a bemused audience.

As if the visions weren't enough, Norman is soon approached by his crazy uncle Prenderghast who tries to convince him he has to undertake a ritual at the witch's grave to prevent the curse from being fulfilled. It turns out that Norman's gift is hereditary and that the aging Prenderghast has been using his power to keep the witch's ghost asleep. On the eve of the witch's awakening, Norman's uncle dies without performing the ritual. In a hilarious scene, his ghost visits Norman in the school restroom and explains about the book he's been using to keep the witch at bay for years. As the sun begins to set, Norman sneaks out of his house and makes his way to the graves of the cursed townsfolk, assuming that the witch is also buried there, and begins to read the book. When Alvin, Norman's most dedicated antagonist, decides to give Norman a hard time, the ritual goes unfinished and the undead judge and jury emerge from their graves. As much as he likes movie zombies, Norman doesn't much care for the real thing and spends much of the rest of the movie being pursued by shambling Puritan corpses. With Prenderghast dead, only Norman's special ability can bring an end to the witch's curse.

While the above summary sounds pretty horrific for a family film, ParaNorman is actually pretty funny and the zombies are played mostly for laughs. Just as Frankenweenie spoofs classic horror films, this film spoofs more modern horror films made after Night of the Living Dead (1968). It's not a direct spoof, though, and ParaNorman actually makes fun of the fact that the townsfolk expect the victims of the witch's curse to behave like film zombies. The movie also takes a surprise turn a bit past the one hour mark that, while somewhat predictable, makes for an interesting story.

ParaNorman doesn't have as wide an appeal as Frankenweenie or Wreck-It Ralph and wasn't as popular with my family as those other two films. My oldest and youngest daughters enjoyed it quite a bit, but my middle daughter and Bride of Atomic Spud weren't particularly impressed. Also, while all three movies are rated PG, ParaNorman is a bit less family friendly. Wreck-It Ralph might as well have been G-rated while Frankenweenie deserved it's PG rating for some mild scares and the general theme of reanimating the dead. Some of the humor in ParaNorman is a little more crude and there's some relatively mild swearing. That's not to say that the film deserves a PG-13 rating (it's far cleaner than many of the PG movies that I grew up with), but parents with younger children might want to screen the movie first.

Friday, April 5, 2013

2012 Family Movie Reviews, Part II: Wreck-It Ralph

As anyone who has seen the ads will know, Wreck-It Ralph is essentially a video game version of Toy Story (1995). Just as Woody and Buzz have adventures while humans aren't looking, Wreck-It Ralph and the other video game characters follow secret lives when the arcade shuts down and their actions are no longer directed by the players or the games' programming. During this time, characters are able to visit other video games' worlds through a shared power strip appropriately called "Game Central Station". The power strip has also become a refuge for homeless characters whose games have malfunctioned or lost popularity and been unplugged. When the "Out of Order" sign appears on a screen, the game's residents prepare to make a run for the power strip to avoid being trapped in an unplugged game.

Like the toys in Toy Story, the video game characters have certain rules and restrictions that are essential to the plot. For example, characters can die and regenerate over and over again in their own game. However, as explained by Sonic the Hedgehog in a public service announcement, if you die in another game, you can't regenerate. Additionally, a glitching character can't leave his or her own game. While some of these rules seem a bit arbitrary, there's another that has a much more obvious rationale: characters from one video game aren't supposed to interfere with another game while a player is present. This act is called "going Turbo" and is named after the titular character of a racing game called Turbotime. As seen in a flashback, Turbotime was the most popular racing game in the arcade in what appears to be the early '80s. When a newer racing game was installed, Turbo became jealous and entered the new game to sabotage it. Turbo's absence from his own game and his actions in the new one convinced the arcade manager that both games were malfunctioning, which led to both being unplugged.

This brings us to the story of Wreck-It Ralph, the villain of a classic game called Fix-It Felix, Jr.. The game's premise is that Ralph had been some kind of squatter who was displaced when an apartment complex was built. As the vengeful Ralph tries to wreck the building, Fix-It Felix races to repair the damage with his golden hammer. At the end of each successful level, Felix is awarded a medal while the apartment residents toss Ralph off the roof and into a mud puddle. Once the arcade closes, however, a downcast Ralph attends "Bad-Anon" support meetings. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, we find that most villains (including perpetual kidnapper of princesses, Bowser) aren't even remotely villainous and are simply forced to play their part game after game. Unfortunately, most video game characters don't understand the villains' essential role and don't appreciate them. At the end of each meeting the villains repeat their affirmation: "I'm bad and that's good, I will never be good and that's not bad, there's no one I'd rather be than me."

Ralph isn't satisfied with being himself, though, especially when he finds that he's not been invited to the game's 30th anniversary party. While Felix is relatively kind to Ralph, the apartment residents despise him and declare that he will never be allowed to join them until he earns a medal like Felix does. That night, Ralph wanders off, determined to get a medal. The residents become concerned when the arcade opens the next morning and there's no Ralph to wreck their apartment. The lack of the villain leads to the dreaded "Out of Order" sign on their game and Fix-It Felix's inhabitants realize that they may soon be homeless. Felix, the designated hero, decides to go out looking for his nominal arch-nemesis.

Meanwhile, Ralph has entered the new first-person shooter game, Heroe's Duty, disguised as one of Sergeant Tamora Calhoun's nameless grunts. This represents a significant risk since such characters are typically eaten by the game's cybernetic insects called "Cy-Bugs". (Unlike other villains, the Cy-Bugs are mindless and act more like viruses.) Ralph eventually gets a mostly unearned medal but an errant escape pod sends him and a stowaway Cy-Bug egg out of the game, through the terminal, and into a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush. His medal ends up in the hands of a Vanellope von Schweetz, a character within Sugar Rush who perpetually wants to race but has been disallowed by King Candy because she's a glitch. When Vanellope uses some subterfuge and Ralph's medal to enter the race, Ralph is forced to help her build a candy racer so she can win the race and get his medal back. In the meantime, Felix and Calhoun join forces to find Ralph and the missing egg. What our heroes don't know is that King Candy's motivation for preventing Vanellope from racing runs deeper than a simple prejudice against glitches. They also don't realize that the Cy-Bug egg has since hatched and that Cy-Bugs are rapidly reproducing underneath the surface of Sugar Rush.

One of the first things that almost every viewer of Wreck-It Ralph will notice are the ubiquitous video game references; everything from the first Atari games up to today's high resolution first-person shooters. For my wife and I, one of the funniest shows a character accessing a game's programming by entering UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A on a classic NES controller. This code was burned into the memory of nearly every member of our generation. (Is it even possible to beat Contra without the 30 life code?) However, the numerous jokes that were previewed in Wreck-It Ralph's advertising had actually concerned me at first; there are already too many movies that strive to pack as many pop-culture references as possible into their running time while completely losing sight of things like characters and plot. Fortunately, the video game-related gags in Wreck-It Ralph are merely the icing on the cake. The characters are endearing and the story is on par with many of Pixar's films.

The film also has some very clever original ideas. For example, characters in games with static screens, such as Fix-It Felix, Jr., see the human world through a giant window floating in the air. In a first-person shooter, on the other hand, the player is seen through a widescreen monitor mounted on a tracked robot holding a gun. The film also makes fun of the odd video game logic that humans simply accept; e.g., that Felix's golden hammer fixes things when he hits them with it. During one scene, after being struck numerous times in the face, Felix actually fixes it by... hitting it with his hammer. Given the rules of Felix's game, hitting himself with a hammer is the logical thing to do. However, it surprises Calhoun since her newer game doesn't depend on the backwards logic of so many 8-bit games.

It's a shame that, for all its cleverness and the quality of its characters and story, Wreck-It Ralph was made for a narrow demographic and is unlikely to become as timeless as its apparent inspiration. The Toy Story films make a lot of references to well known toys and games, but nearly all of these are still current and recognizable nearly twenty years after the release of the first film. Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, was made for adults who were raised on an Atari or the Nintendo Entertainment System and whose children are being raised on a Wii, X-Box 360, or PlayStation 3. While my parents would probably enjoy the story, they wouldn't understand the majority of the video game-related jokes. And I suspect that within 20 years, gags such as the classic cheat code being entered on an NES controller will go completely over most viewers' heads. I wouldn't be surprised if only Mario and Sonic, who are still going strong decades after they were introduced, will be recognized by my grandchildren.

My only real issue with the film is the lack of explanation for some of the restrictions on the video game characters. (This would probably bother only those who are nitpicky about details.) Obviously, the real reason why characters can't regenerate in another video game and glitches can't leave their own game is because it's necessary for the plot, which isn't a very satisfying answer. I would have much preferred some sort of in-universe explanation that each character is supposed to represent a discrete program that isn't fully supported by other games. While a game's programming can recreate its own characters, it can't do the same for visiting characters. Presumably glitching characters would require constant support from their own game to continue to exist, which would prevent them from leaving.

I suppose it could be said that these rules are no more arbitrary than those in Toy Story. With few exceptions, the toys consistently act like inanimate objects while humans are looking. Even toys that lack self-awarenes and have no reason to behave this way follow the rule; e.g., a brand new Buzz Lightyear. I may be more accepting of the toys' behavior since the concept of living toys is a lot more bizarre than the idea that they follow certain rules. But the premise of sentient computer programs is so common in science fiction (and has been seriously discussed as a a future possibility) that you expect the rules governing their universe to have a more logical explanation than "just because".

This issue aside, Wreck-It Ralph's intended audience will find it hilarious for its depiction of the lives of our favorite video game characters (or they could have been our favorites had Fix-It Felix, Jr. been a real game). Even better, Disney has managed to produce a good imitation of Pixar's films by making a movie that's funny without being hollow.


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