Monday, June 24, 2013

Plutonium Babies

Thank goodness for the Battle of Jutland, say some scientists. Whenever they need steel uncontaminated by radioisotopes, they've got several thousand tons of steel at the bottom of the North Sea, ready for specialty instruments or sensors.

That's the problem living post-1945, we are all contaminated. Some more than others. I remember getting away with that excuse on one occasion with my Dad, who, having taken offense to some stupid teenage behavior, was amused, or at least distracted with the excuse I came up with: "What do you expect? I'm a plutonium baby, dad! I was irradiated in the womb by atmospheric tests!"

Which is true. All of us have something inside of us. Some more than others. It would seem, based upon what was dumped on whom, that the federal government of the United States of America has a particular ax to grind against those citizens of the Mormon persuasion. (See: fallout from Nevada tests, and the Idaho National Laboratory reactor tests sites).

(And, no, this essay is not an attempt to mollify the "Market good, government bad" troglodytes out there. It is, like the prior essay, an attempt to recognize empirical facts, to deal with reality. The US government, like the people it represents, can be an awfully nasty entity).

So, remember Three Mile Island? How every little flipper-limbed jellyhead that could squirt out a little brown stain in public or on the media did so? And how much radiation was released? How many people died? Answers: hardly any, and zero.

Ah, but let's talk about all the bomb tests from 1946 through 1980. Shit, there was a period in the 1950s where the military was like a bunch goofy little kids with firecrackers. What to blow up next? What NOT to blow up next? Above ground? Underground? Underwater? In space! On barges, on tops of towers, suspended from balloons, you name it. At least, globally half a gigaton of explosions.

How many tons of radioisotopes have been distributed globally, to be found in everything alive, from the bones of Yanomami Indians deep in the Amazon, to whale blubber in the Antarctic? The mind boggles.

Of course, my favorite is the unofficially named Wiener Roast experiment. The Air Force, determined to build a nuclear plane, and not for any strategic or defense reasons, but solely and selfishly to be part of the cool nukes club, decided they needed to find out what would happen if a nuclear powered plane crashed. As reported in Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History, by Todd Tucker:
"To simulate this catastrophe, the Air Force in the summer of 1958  designed a series of experiments  in which they burned to a crisp a series of used nuclear fuel elements in open air. The official name of the experiment was the Fission Products Field Release Test, but it was soon informally dubbed Operation Wiener Roast. Previous crude experiments... had burned highly radioactive, used fuel elements in a section of airplane fuselage filled with kerosene, but the temperatures achieved were not sufficient to melt the fuel elements. (phew!- JK) For Wiener Roast, a special induction furnace was constructed, and in nine separate experiments highly radioactive used fuel elements were incinerated, and a wide, club-shaped swath of contamination was soon mapped in detail across the NRTS... The Wiener Roast experiments were in some ways emblematic of the Air Force's efforts throughout the 1950s. They generated huge amounts of radiation, employed hundreds of scientists, engineers, and servicemen, and generated thousands of pages detailing an effort that was, in its own way, dramatic and impressive. The experiments did not, however, in any discernible way, get the world any closer to a nuclear-powered airplane".
The Air Force effort cost some one billion dollars over the course of nearly thirteen years (1946-1958). Amortized today, that is roughly $12 billion. Your tax dollars at work!


  1. they told us to fear the russians and their nukes when we should have been fearing the US and our nukes.

    1. Oh, the Russians were much, much worse, if that's any consolation.

      But, you know, I wouldn't have even half minded the radiation if we had something to show for it. Like a nuclear thermal rocket. Hell, production of the NERVA NRX would have given us the whole goddamned Solar System in fucking 1964, with a literal fraction of the radiation release. Instead you got a bunch of dumbass nuclear cowboys having a drunken wienie roast at all of our chromosomal expense.