Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lemming Tracks: 2011: Japan's Worst Earthquake? Yes and No

Many of what the news has been calling "aftershocks" in Japan would, before the March 11, 2011, earthquake, have made international news as serious earthquakes. In the Lemming's opinion opinion, of course.

Japan's 2011 Earthquake: "Worst?"

The March 11 quake was the most powerful in Japan's recorded history, in terms of how much energy was released. Whether or not it's the "worst" depends, in the Lemming's opinion, on point of view.
From a geological/tectonic viewpoint: The earthquake was the most powerful in recorded history: Magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale. (USGS) "Worst?" The Lemming isn't sure that "best" or "worst" are terms that apply to earthquakes - when considered as phenomena to be studied.
As far as the monetary costs are concerned, yes: this was the worst earthquake on record in Japan. Right now, it looks like it's going to cost Japan around $310,000,000,000. (FoxNews.com) Indirect effects, like folks in China, America, and elsewhere being afraid of spinach; folks from Japan cutting back on Hawaiian vacations; that sort of thing? The Lemming doesn't know, but suspects that it will be non-trivial.
What about loss of life? That, in the Lemming's opinion, may be the most important measure of "how bad" the March 11 tremor and tsunami was. Folks in Japan are still finding bodies, and the final count may be upwards of 18,000 dead. That's tragic. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.

The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake was only about 7.9 on the Richter scale. (March 11, 2011) Much less powerful than the 2011 event. But it killed about 140,000 people. If the Lemming's doing the math right, 18,000/140,000 is about 12.8%.

Assuming that the 18,000 estimated death toll is roughly accurate, and using human lives as the criteria, that makes the Great Kanto Earthquake seven or eight times "worse" than what's happening today. It's still bad - really bad - but yes, it could have been worse.

2011 isn't 1923

What happened? The Lemming thinks that what we're hearing about Japan's efforts to be ready for the next 'big one' paid off. Not perfectly: but 18,000 dead, bad as it is, isn't 140,000 dead.

Why the bigger price tag? Good question, and there isn't enough in what the Lemming's read to answer that. Inflation, maybe. Or maybe the cost is a reflection of Japan's prosperity: Japan had more expensive stuff to be broken.

Japan: Prepared, But Not Enough

This is not, in the Lemming's opinion, a good time to be working for Tokyo Electric. Not for anyone in the company who's connected with the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Folks working at the plant have been risking their health and lives. The company's brass hats may not be in physical peril - but they've got a whole lot of explaining to do.

Even allowing for Monday morning quarterbacking, it looks like executives decided to deal with unpleasant realities by ignoring them:

"...An AP investigation found that Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials had dismissed scientific evidence and geological history that indicated that a massive earthquake - and subsequent tsunami - was far more likely than they believed...."

That, and missed inspections, may have made the quarterly spreadsheets look better: but when brass hats and bean counters go up against realty, reality wins.

Fukushima: It Could Be Worse

Even with at least one of the Fukushima reactors starting to melt, the situation could be worse. Journalists use Chernobyl and THREE MILE ISLAND!!! as reference points. The Lemming's discussed that before. (March 16, 2011)

Fukushima may edge out Chernobyl as the world's worst disaster involving a nuclear power plant, but the Lemming thinks the Soviet Union's record will stand. For a while, at least. Why? Two reasons, in the Lemming's opinion:
  • 2011 isn't 1986
  • Japan isn't the Soviet Union
Possibly-inadequate design and backup cooling systems that didn't last long enough notwithstanding - Japan's mildly-melting reactors have containment vessels, which are still (somewhat) functional.

A bad situation? Yes: but folks have learned quite a bit since 1986. Including what not to do with nuclear reactors.

Dangerous Technology? There's No Other Kind

The Lemming's made the point before: There's no such thing as a 'safe' technology. Flint knappers can get crushed or cut fingers, horse-drawn vehicles leave manure that's at least as hard to deal with a smog, and nuclear power plants melt on rare occasions.

The Lemming will grant that the scale of technological problems has increased over the last million or so years: but we've always lived with some level of risk.

There's an old cartoon, with a grouchy old (cave) man commenting on a crazy new technology: fire. "Just wait," he said, "some day it'll get out of control, and burn the entire village."

He was right: but instead of giving up on fire, the rest of us learned how to control it - and how to put out fires.

From today's news:
"Workers scramble to contain radioactive water at nuclear plant"
CNN World (March 29, 2011)

"Workers at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant faced a difficult balancing act Tuesday as they struggled to keep reactors cool and prevent radioactive water from leaking into the ocean.

"Water has been a key weapon in the battle to stave off a meltdown at the facility since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems. But tons of water have been pumped and sprayed to keep the plant's radioactive fuel from overheating, and the plant is running out of room to store the now-contaminated liquid.

" 'Now the focus is how to ... remove the water and contain it safely,' Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the government's point man for the crisis, told reporters Tuesday.

"The discovery of contaminated water in a maintenance tunnel that leads to the No. 2 reactor's turbine plant has sparked fresh concerns about the possibility of additional radiation leaking from the plant. Japan's nuclear safety agency said workers were using sandbags and concrete panels to keep the water inside the tunnel, which is located about 55 meters (180 feet) from the Pacific shore.

"Workers are also trying to pump water out of the turbine houses of the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant's owner. Lights were restored in the main control room of the No. 4 reactor, the utility said...."

"...'TEPCO is in an awful dilemma right now,' said Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'One the one hand, they want to cool the reactor and keep the reactor cool, so they have to pour water in. If there is a leak in one of the containment vessels, that water keeps leaking out. So they have a problem where the more they try to cool it down, the greater the radiation hazard as that water leaks out from the plant.'

"Japanese officials and international experts have said they believe there's been a partial meltdown at three of the plant's six reactors, and Edano reported Monday that the No. 2 reactor's containment vessel may be leaking...."
"Workers at Japan Nuke Plant 'Lost the Race' to Save Reactor, Expert Says"
FoxNews.com (March 29, 2011)

"Workers at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant appeared to have 'lost the race' to save one of the reactors, a U.S. expert told the Guardian.

"Richard Lahey, who was head of safety research for boiling water reactors at General Electric when the company installed the units at the Japan plant, says the radioactive core in the Unit 2 reactor appears to have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on a concrete floor.

" 'The indications we have, from the reactor to radiation readings and the materials they are seeing, suggest that the core has melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel in unit two, and at least some of it is down on the floor of the drywell,' Lahey told the paper.

"Lahey did add there was no danger of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe...."

"...The struggle to contain radiation at the complex has unfolded with near-constant missteps — including two workers drenched Tuesday with radioactive water despite wearing supposedly waterproof suits. The unfolding drama has drawn increasing criticism of the utility that owns the plant as well as scrutiny of Japan's preparedness for nuclear crises.

" 'Our preparedness was not sufficient,' Edano told reporters. 'When the current crisis is over, we must examine the accident closely and thoroughly review' safety standards.

"An AP investigation found that Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials had dismissed scientific evidence and geological history that indicated that a massive earthquake - and subsequent tsunami - was far more likely than they believed.

"That left the complex with nowhere near enough protection against the March 11 tsunami.

"A massive offshore earthquake triggered the tsunami that slammed into Japan's northeast, wiping out towns, killing thousands of people and knocking out power and backup systems at the coastal nuclear power plant.

"More than 11,000 bodies have been recovered, but officials say the final death toll is expected to exceed 18,000. Hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, their homes and livelihoods destroyed. Damage could amount to $310 billion — the most expensive natural disaster on record...."
Related posts:More:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Quantum Entanglement, Diamonds, and New Information Storage Tech

"Diamond Could Store Quantum Information"
Devin Powell, Science News, via Tech News, Discovery News (March 28, 2011)

" * By manipulating atoms inside diamonds, scientists have developed a new way to store information.
" * The technique could lead to quantum computers capable of solving problems beyond the reach of today's technology.

"Could be that diamonds are a geek's best friend.

"Scientists have developed a new way to manipulate atoms inside diamond crystals so that they store information long enough to function as quantum memory, which encodes information not as the 0s and 1s crunched by conventional computers but in states that are both 0 and 1 at the same time. Physicists use such quantum data to send information securely, and hope to eventually build quantum computers capable of solving problems beyond the reach of today's technology.

"For those developing this quantum memory, the perfect diamonds don't come from Tiffany & Co. -- or Harry Winston, for that matter. Impurities are the key to the technology.

" 'Oddly enough, perfection may not be the way to go,' said David Awschalom of the University of California, Santa Barbara. 'We want to build in defects.'...

The article implies that the defects - anomalies in the diamond crystal's lattice - would probably involve nitrogen, a frequently-found impurity in diamonds.

The non-carbon atoms are important because - "...Several years ago, scientists learned how to change the spin of such electrons using microwave energy and put them to work as quantum bits, or qubits...."

The new technique links the spin of an electron to a nitrogen atom's nucleus. The transfer involves magnetic fields, and it's fast: "...about 100 nanoseconds, comparable to how long it takes to store information on a stick of RAM."

Back to the article, again: "...The technique has 'a fidelity of 85 to 95 percent,' Awschalom said March 22 in Dallas at a meeting for the American Physical Society.

"In contrast to some other quantum systems under development, which require temperatures close to absolute zero, this diamond memory works at room temperature. The spins inside the diamond can be both changed and measured by shining laser light into the diamond. This could make diamond an attractive material for scientists developing nanophotonic systems designed to move and store information in packets of light.

"Unlike a diamond itself, this quantum memory isn't forever. But it lasts for a very long time by quantum standards. The nuclear spin remains coherent for more than a millisecond, with the potential to improve to seconds....

"...Sebastian Loth, a physicist at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. [said], 'If you have a lifetime of milliseconds, that lets you do millions of operations.'

"In addition to stability, diamond may also overcome another hurdle that has faced quantum computing -- it can be scaled up to larger sizes. In a paper published last year in Nano Letters, Awschalom developed a technique for creating customizable patterns of nitrogen atoms inside a diamond, using lasers to implant thousands of atoms in a grid...."

A thousand atoms in a grid is impressive: but the scaling doesn't, apparently, stop there. Transmitting quantum information is possible, by connecting/entangling qubits. Problem is, entanglement seems to work up to a distance of kilometers: which is huge on the atomic scale, but pretty much useless for a network that extends much beyond one city.

That may not be such a serious limitation, though. The article ends with this: "...Quantum repeaters could potentially use small chips of diamond to catch, store and retransmit this information to extend the range, enabling quantum networks to work over much longer distances."

The principle sounds pretty much like the way we transmit radio and television signals today - and that's almost another topic.

For an article with phrases like "fidelity of 85 to 95 percent" that says why some folks are interested in which way electrons spin - it's pretty interesting. In the Lemming's opinion. Your experience may vary.

The Still Sell Vacuum Tubes

The Lemming checked: and sure enough, some outfits are still selling vacuum tubes.

That's not very surprising. Old technologies are sometimes useful for particular situations - or someone may just like doing things the old-fashioned way. One of the Lemming's extended family was a flint knapper - and that's another topic.

It's been an exciting half-century. The Lemming remembers when it was obvious that computers would be huge things, occupying entire buildings and consuming vast amounts of power.

Then the transistor stopped being a laboratory curiosity, and started being part of little boxes attached to the ears of adolescents.

This hasn't, the Lemming suspects, been a particularly comfortable era for folks who'd just as soon that their great-grandfather's way of life be indistinguishable from their own - and for whom "innovation" is the reckless practice of trying a new sort of food. Or wearing a shirt of a different color.

And the Lemming's getting off-topic again.

Somewhat-related posts:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beauty, the Scientist, and Dog Vomit Slime Mold

xkcd (March 26, 2011)

(xkcd, used w/o permission)

Four panels, taking us from "The problem with scientists is that you take the wonder and beauty out of everything by trying to analyze it." to "Okay, never mind: What's wrong with scientists is that you do see wonder and beauty in everything."

The Lemming has been interested in science for decades. Also art, music, and mud puddles. Those are fascinating things by themselves - and, when studied, give insights and knowledge of the universe as a whole. Each doesn't give the same kind of insight and knowledge as the others, quite.

On the other hand, the golden ratio shows up in art, and in the shape of many nautilus shells: almost.

And the Lemming is not going to get sidetracked on logarithmic spirals, Euclid, H. P. Lovecraft, and fuzzy set theory.

The original strip is wider - and a tad easier to read.

Somewhat-related (by the Lemming's standards) posts:More:
A tip of the hat to irish_brigid, on Twitter, for the heads-up on this strip.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Learning at Night: We Sleep, Our Brains Work

"Sleepwalkers Replay Day's Learning"
Brandon Keim, Wired Science (March 24, 2011)

"A video of what appears to be a sleeping woman doing a modified, slow-motion funky robot dance in bed may represent the most direct evidence yet that minds replay a day's learning during slumber.

"Much research supports this hypothesis, which in recent years has eroded the classical conviction that sleeping minds were, if not empty vessels, blank slates for undirected neurological activity. When tested on new facts, people remember them better after a good night's sleep than after a short break.

"Brain imaging shows similar patterns in their sleeping brains as when they are learning. But while compelling, such demonstrations are indirect.

"To avoid ambiguity, sleep researcher Delphine Oudiette of France's Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris and colleagues devised a cleverly straightforward test: They would teach a motor task to sleepwalkers and people with sleep behavior disorders, who typically move their bodies in tandem with dreams. If test subjects repeated the motions while sleeping, it would clearly demonstrate replay.

"Oudiette's team describes the experiment Mar. 21 in Public Library of Science ONE. Participants were trained to hit an array of color-coded buttons in response to computer prompts, then taped while asleep. Taken in aggregate, their sleeping movements tended to resemble those in the test. One woman in particular performed the test choreography with uncanny precision....

"...But be careful with those evening karate classes...."

There's something to the last line in that article. One night, the Lemming awoke - rather abruptly - because my wife had practiced a particular kick she'd been learning in Soo Bahk Do, a sort of Korean karate.

Then she woke up: probably a side-effect of the Lemming's yell. No harm done, but it was startling.

This research, besides shedding more light on what the brain does when we're asleep, has a practical application for students, in the Lemming's opinion. The traditional cram-all-night-for-finals ritual may be less effective than a brief review, followed by a good night's sleep.

So much for a hallowed academic tradition.

Vaguely-related posts:

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi Plant, Water, and a 'Bad Sunburn'

It's been a while since the Lemming re-posted Google's resource for folks looking for family and friends in Japan, following the March 11, 2011, earthquake:

A 'people finder' for Japan, in Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese (simplified), and Chinese (traditional):

Now, about what's happening today:

"Japan reactor core may be leaking radioactive material, official says"
CNN (March 25, 2011)

Military officers on Friday hold a blue sheet over people exposed to high levels of radiation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant. AFP/Getty Images, via CNN, used w/o permission"Authorities in Japan raised the prospect Friday of a likely breach in the all-important containment vessel of the No. 3 reactor at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a potentially ominous development in the race to prevent a large-scale release of radiation.

"Contaminated water likely seeped through the containment vessel protecting the reactor's core, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

"Three men working near the No. 3 reactor Thursday stepped into water that had 10,000 times the amount of radiation typical for a nuclear plant, Nishiyama said. An analysis of the contamination suggests 'some sort of leakage' from the reactor core, signaling a possible break of the containment vessel that houses the core, he said.

The three men have been hospitalized - but their burns may not be the sort of '50s horror show thing we see in the movies. The Lemming will get back to that.

The reactor core may have sprung a leak, as the article says: or the 10,000-times-over-normal radiation level in that water may have something to do with the tons of water that have been poured over the plant, cooling the reactors down. Water is a pretty good solvent - and that's another topic.

"Radiation Burn:" Serious, But Not Like the Movies

Movies can be good entertainment, but they aren't, in the Lemming's opinion, all that reliable as science teachers. A person can learn quite a bit about science fiction from Hollywood, Bollywood, and all: and that's another topic. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space, "Science Fiction in the Movies: 'The Satan Bug' to 'The Matrix' " (January 26, 2010))

That's a photo of a radiation burn. It's what the top of my head looked like on July 23, 2007, after I'd neglected to wear a cap. "Radiation burn?!" That's just an ordinary sunburn. Right on both counts.

Back to the CNN article:

"...Nuclear power experts cautioned against reading too much into the newest development, saying the burns suffered by the workers may not amount to much more than a sunburn."

"Moreover, evidence of radioactivity in the water around the plant is not necessarily surprising given the amount of water sprayed onto and pumped into the reactors, said Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts institute of Technology.

" 'I am not particularly alarmed,' he said...."

Which reminds the Lemming of what someone said, decades back, after hazardous materials were found in a neighborhood. 'They say it's safe: so how come they always show up in moon suits?'

Moving on.

The reactor that may - or may not - be leaking 'hot' water is the same one that made white smoke on March 16, and encouraged a serious evacuation of the folks trying to fix problems at the plant.

"...That reactor is of particular concern, experts have said, because it is the only one at the plant to use a combination of uranium and plutonium fuel, called MOX, that is considered to be more dangerous than the pure uranium fuel used in other reactors...."

"...The hospitalized employees were working to reconnect power to the No. 3 reactor building when they encountered water that was about 5 inches (15 centimeters) deep. Water rushed over the boots of two workers, who received what is called a "beta burn." The third worker had taller boots but was hospitalized as a precaution, according to Nishiyama.

"The men were exposed to the water for 40 to 50 minutes, said Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the plant...."

Two of the three workers have the highest level of radiation exposure so far at Fukushima: the one in his 30s, 180.7 millisieverts; the one in his 20s, 179.37 millisieverts. ("milisieverts?" see (March 18, 2011))

"...[Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency's Hidehiko ] Nishiyama said the third man -- who was exposed to 173 millisieverts but at first did not go to the hospital because his boots were high enough to prevent water from touching his skin -- has also gone to the same research hospital out of 'an abundance of caution.'

"Beta rays given off by radioactive substances don't penetrate deeply into materials, including flesh, said Nolan Hertel, a professor nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech. Consequently, the danger is relatively limited, he said.

" 'Basically, a beta burn would be akin to a bad sunburn,' he said...."

There's quite a lot more in the article.

The bottom line seems to be that folks living in Japan are still dealing with a major disaster - and will probably continue doing so for a long time.

Somewhat-related posts:More:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lemming Tracks: East Coast Air Travel; or, 'Oops'

First, the good news: Nobody got hurt.

Now, the sort-of-good-news: It's really quiet, that time of night, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Which may explain why the air traffic controller fell asleep.

Looks like the FAA may be re-evaluating having just one air traffic controller on duty on the late-night shift. About a year ago, the one (1) air traffic controller locked himself out of the control room.

Meanwhile, the fire is out at Miami International Airport.

It's been a big day for east coast air travel.
"Air Traffic Controller Is Suspended"
Timothy Williams, Jad Mouawad, with Anahad O,Connor, Julie Creswell contributing, The New York Times (March 24, 2011)

"The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday suspended the air traffic controller who was on duty just after midnight Wednesday, when two passenger jets landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport without clearance or guidance from the control tower. The controller may have been asleep, officials said.

"No one was injured in the incident, which involved two airplanes carrying a total of about 165 people.

" 'The F.A.A. is thoroughly investigating Wednesday's early morning incidents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport's control tower,' said Randy Babbitt, the agency's administrator. 'While that is taking place, we have suspended the air traffic controller from all operational duties. I am determined to get to the bottom of this situation for the safety of the traveling public.'..."

There's more: mostly about the F.A.A. fellow being outraged; and something's going to be done; and he when he was a pilot he wouldn't have landed that plane, no way, no how.

Also, this isn't the first oopsie at R. R. W. N. A.:

"...According to transcripts of the radio communication between the pilot and a controller at the Potomac center on Wednesday morning, a third aircraft also approached the airport during the incident on Wednesday. 'So you're aware, the tower is apparently not manned,' the controller told the pilot of the third plane, an American Airlines flight. 'We've made a few phone calls; nobody's answering. So, two airplanes went in in the past 10 to 15 minutes, so you can expect to go in to an uncontrolled airport.'

" 'Is there a reason it's not manned?' the American pilot is heard asking.

" 'Well, I'm going to take a guess and say that the controller got locked out,” the Potomac controller responded. 'I've heard of it happening before.'

" 'That's the first time I've heard it,' the pilot said.

" 'Fortunately, it's not very often,” the controller said. 'It happened about a year ago. But I'm not sure that's what happened now, but anyway, there's nobody in the tower.'

" 'Interesting,' said the pilot, apparently exasperated.

"After a few seconds, the Potomac controller reported, 'The tower's back in business.'

" 'That was a close call,' said the pilot, who sounded relieved.

" 'Wasn't it, though?' the Potomac controller replied."

Television news that the Lemming's heard has been careful to point out that Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is pretty quiet after midnight, when this happened. And that it's several miles away from some of the most restricted airspace in the country. Or, looking at it another way, it's only miles away from some of the most restricted airspace in the country.

Still, like The New York Times pointed out, nobody got hurt. That's good news.

Meanwhile, near Miami, Florida:
"MIA fuel tank fire affecting flights into the evening"
WSVN-TV (March 24, 2011)

"Though the flames at Miami International Airport are no longer raging, the aftermath is still causing major travel troubles.

"Dozens of flights have been canceled following the fire that ignited late Wednesday night. The resulting fueling issues at MIA are expected to have a ripple effect into Thursday evening.

"Thursday morning, the aviation director spoke at the Miami-Dade Commission to explain what caused this fire. 'We think one of the 16 pumps that we have in line,' said Miami-Dade Aviation Director Jose Abreu. 'The problem is the underground infrastructure that connects these pipes was also aversely affected.'

"Abreu said the trigger was electrical in nature. 'I'm an engineer, and I go by the numbers,' he said, 'and based on what I've heard-- cause I was there up until about a few hours ago-- based on what I've heard from both the firefighters and the Miami-Dade Aviation folks, it was a short-circuit.'

"The blaze broke out at 11 p.m. at the airport's fuel farm, an area where fuel is stored for planes. Fire crews, including 110 firefighters, battled the flames into the early morning hours, at around 1 a.m., Thursday...."

More good news: nobody got hurt.
It's rough, getting suspended like that air traffic controller did. At this point, the Lemming hasn't a clue why the fellow dozed off. It could be anything from having to work shifts back-to-back, to carbon monoxide in the ventilation system, to putting decaf instead of regular in the thermos.

Whatever the reason - and whatever the F. A. A. decides to do about what they find out - the Lemming is glad that his traveling is of the virtual variety these days.

The Miami International Airport fire? That was one spectacular blaze: and the Lemming is very glad that nobody was hurt.

Sort-of-related posts:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932–2011

"Elizabeth Taylor: The life, the looks, the movies, the smarts, the talent"
Hadley Freeman, guardian.co.uk (March 23, 2011)

"The Cleopatra costume will, surely, dominate the news reports but with all respect to the Egyptian queen, Liz was bigger than that.

"Elizabeth Taylor evokes more images than the number of husbands she had. She was the breathtakingly beautiful child who - unlike her near contemporary, Judy Garland - seemed to slip into adulthood unscarred by her precocious professional success; the sultry dramatic actress; the compulsive bride, who went through husbands like fashion trends...."

It's not a particularly breathless, or sentimental, obituary: for which the Lemming is duly grateful. However, the Guardian piece focuses more on Taylor's adherence to contemporary mores, and less on her remarkable professional career.

The sparse IMDB bio, "Elizabeth Taylor," does a better job, in the Lemming's opinion: by simply listing the titles that she played in.

Elizabeth Taylor played rolls in The Simpsons (1992), Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1992), Sweet Bird of Youth (1989), Doctor Faustus (1967), Quo Vadis (1951), and - of course - National Velvet (1944).

IMDB, and quite a few other sources, say that she won two Oscars.

That's fine: but the Lemming thinks it's more impressive that Elizabeth Taylor played a wide variety of roles in dozens of movies and television episodes: and had what it takes to keep getting re-hired from 1942 to 2001.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

North Dakota Winter Storm Wimps Out: Only a Foot of Snow

"Winter storm arrives later, weaker than expected"
Stephen J. Leem GrandForksHerald.com (March 22, 2011)

"The winter storm hit eastern North Dakota a little later than expected and doesn't have quite the punch earlier predicted.

"But it's got enough to drop a foot or more of snow on the Devils Lake Basin by Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service's report about 7:20 p.m. Tuesday. From six inches to 12 inches could fall across much of eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, the weather service said...."

The Lemming's #3 daughter and son-in-law live about 40 miles south of Grand Forks: They've got about nine inches of snow on the ground now, and expect about eight more before the storm passes. That's on top of freezing rain that came earlier.

Roads won't be open for a while there - but they've got a snowmobile, so getting to town shouldn't be a problem.

Back to that article.

"...By Tuesday evening, Interstate 94 from Fargo to Bismarck was closed by the Highway Patrol. U.S Highway 83 from Bismarck to the Canadian border was closed, and a stretch of U.S. Highway 2 from just west of Minot to east of Rugby was closed. State highway officials put a no-travel advisory out for most of the state's highways, and a travel alert for the remainder.

"The winter storm warning that went into effect at noon Tuesday remains in effect until 7 p.m. Wednesday....

"...Power outages were reported in several cities in central and southwest North Dakota beginning Tuesday morning as ice formed on power lines, state officials said. But most outages were repaired within a few hours....

"...No Delta airline flights to and from Grand Forks were canceled for Tuesday or Wednesday, according to the Grand Forks Airport Authority's website. In Minot, some flights were canceled Tuesday because of icy, slushy conditions....

"...Williston, N.D., and Dickinson, N.D., broke records Tuesday for precipitation that dated to 1975 for the date. By 7 p.m. Tuesday 0.45 inch of precipitation fell at Williston and 0.41 inch at Dickinson, breaking records set in 1975, according to the weather service. The 5.2 inches of snow that fell on Williston by 7 p.m. also set a record."

One reason the Lemming loves living in this part of the world is that we have blizzards, howling winds, raging thunderstorms, freezing rain, and the occasional tornado - often enough so that we're prepared for them.

Or should be: and that's another topic.

Slightly-related posts:

Good News from Fukushima, Japan?

"Lights restored at Japan nuclear reactor"
BBC News (March 22, 2011)

"Lighting has been restored in the control room of one of the most badly-damaged reactors at Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, officials say.

"It is hoped the development will speed up work to restore cooling systems vital for stabilising the reactor.

"Meanwhile, the UN's nuclear watchdog says radiation is still leaking from the quake-hit plant, but scientists are unsure exactly where it is coming from...."

Elsewhere in today's news, the Lemming noticed some none-too-surprising 'coulda-woulda-shoulda' speculation and Monday morning quarterbacking. It's fairly easy to be wise after the fact, and the Lemming will leave it at that.

'Lights on in the control room' is good news: but there's still a long, long road ahead.

"...The Fukushima Daiichi plant's operators, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), said engineers will try to power up water pumps to reactor 3 some time on Wednesday.

"However, they warned that safety checks had to be made to damaged equipment and any volatile gases vented, to avoid an explosion when the electricity is switched back on.

"They said restoring power to all the reactor units could take weeks or even months.

"Workers have been battling to cool the reactors and spent fuel ponds to avoid a major release of radiation.

"Emergency teams at Fukushima have also poured seawater into a boiling storage pond housing spent nuclear fuel rods, cooling it and stopping clouds of steam - possibly radioactive - rising from it...."

And that's restoring power to all the reactor units. From other reports, the Lemming gathers that having electrical power on site will make cleanup and containment a trifle easier: but it's unlikely that all the Fukushima reactors will be back in service.

Damage done by the earthquake, tsunami, malfunctioning nuclear reactors, and slightly radioactive spinach? That, in the Lemming's opinion, is going to take year and years to fix.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Space Junk, Lasers, and Diplomacy

"Earth-based Lasers Could Zap Space Junk Clear From Satellites"
Charles Q. Choi, Space.com (March 17, 2011)

"Lasers on the ground could be used to nudge debris in orbit, which could help move dangerous space junk away from satellites and spacecraft, scientists working with NASA suggest.

"Space debris might not sound like much of a threat until one realizes that in low-Earth orbit, 'these objects are typically going at about 7.5 kilometers per second, or almost 17,000 miles per hour,' said physicist James Mason, a NASA contract scientist at the Universities Space Research Association. 'To put this in perspective, a 1-ounce piece of debris traveling at this velocity has about the same kinetic energy as a 2-ton car traveling at 60 miles per hour.'

"The problem that debris poses gets worse when collisions spawn even more debris, eventually cluttering space with high-speed shrapnel, a scenario nicknamed 'Kessler syndrome' after NASA scientist Donald Kessler, who predicted it in 1978.

" 'The February 2009 collision between an active Iridium sat-phone satellite and a defunct Russian Cosmos weather satellite was the first example of an active satellite being catastrophically destroyed in an accidental collision,' Mason said. 'Collisions like this were predicted by Kessler in 1978, and he predicted that if the number of debris in certain orbits got high enough then there would be a cascading series of collisions that might eventually render whole orbits unusable.'..."

Information Age services like GPS, television, telecommunications, and weather forecasting depend at least partly on satellites orbiting Earth. The growing collection of junk in orbit is a very practical concern. In the Lemming's opinion, of course.

Using lasers to vaporize bits of space junk, producing thrust/recoil that would nudge them toward Earth - where they'd burn out like meteors - is one way of disposing of the debris. Another would be to rendezvous with each individual piece and do about the same thing. Since there are "Hundreds of thousands of pieces of space junk," (Space.com (December 23, 2011)) it'd probably be cheaper and quicker to use lasers.

The good news is that we've got technology that could - with a bit of development and testing - start nudging orbiting debris out of the sky.

The bad news is that the technology would be seen as a weapon by some folks. And that opens at least one can of legal and diplomatic worms.

Somewhat-related posts:More:

Japan: Missed Inspections, Two Colors of Smoke at Fukushima; Years of Rebuilding Ahead

Japan's worst earthquake in recorded history is still in the news. Here's a sample:
"Japan tsunami survivors face long wait to go home"
AP, via The Hindu (March 21, 2011)

"Temporary housing is beginning to go up for the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes in last week's tsunami in Japan...."

It's obvious, in the Lemming's opinion, that folks in Japan will be putting their homes and lives back together for many years.

"Japanese nuke plant operator missed inspections"
AP, via The Hindu (March 21, 2011)

"Japan's nuclear safety agency says the operator of the country's troubled nuclear complex repeatedly failed to make crucial inspections of equipment in the weeks before it was crippled in the quake and tsunami...."

This isn't 'Monday morning quarterbacking.' The report - that 33 pieces of equipment hadn't been properly inspected - came out nine days before the earthquake.

"Japan reconstruction may take 5 years: World Bank"
PTI, via The Hindu (March 21, 2011)

"Japan may need five years to rebuild from the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that has caused up to $235 billion of damage, the World Bank said on Monday.

"The March 11 disaster which killed more than 8,600 people and left more than 12,800 missing, and ravaged northeastern Japan will likely shave up to 0.5 percentage point from the country’s economic growth this year, the bank said in a report. The impact will be concentrated in the first half of the year, it said.

" 'Damage to housing and infrastructure has been unprecedented,' the World Bank said. 'Growth should pick up though in subsequent quarters as reconstruction efforts, which could last five years, accelerate.'..."

Maybe it seems cold and calculating, discussing money and economics at a time like this. But that, in the Lemming's opinion, is one way to measure how well folks are doing - or how badly off they are.

News of radioactive spinach aren't going to help food producers in that area - although it'd take a year of eating the "tainted food" to get the same dose of radiation you'd get in a CT scan. (March 19, 2011)

"Workers Evacuated as Smoke Rises From Japanese Nuclear Plant"
VOA News, Voice of America (March 21, 2011)

"Nuclear authorities say workers have been evacuated from an area of Japan's troubled nuclear plant after gray smoke was seen coming from one of its reactors.

"Officials said Monday that no increase in radiation levels has been detected and they are still trying to determine the cause of the smoke...."

That, plus more rain and more restrictions on "certain foods contaminated by the radiation" - Folk in northeastern Japan are most profoundly not having a good month.

About the rain - on top of being somehow connected with concerns about radiation, it makes flying difficult.

"...Authorities said the rain was also preventing helicopter crews from flying food, water and other relief goods to remote locations where tens of thousands of people are housed in makeshift shelters with scant food and heat.

"A spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the smoke was detected in mid-afternoon and that workers were 'temporarily' evacuated until the cause can be determined. He said the smoke was coming from the area of the Number 3 reactor, one of two reactors which are believed to have suffered damage to the containment chambers surrounding their nuclear cores.

"Authorities said earlier that two of the six reactors at the Fukushima complex are now stabilized and that progress has been made in restoring power lines so that water can be pumped to the others. But the government says it may be days before power is restored to the Number 2 reactor, which also is thought to have suffered damage to its containment chamber. Serious problems also remain at the number 4 reactor...."

The Lemming thinks it's a good idea to be careful about potentially-unsafe food. On the other hand, halting sale of spinach and another leafy vegetable, and raw milk, from four prefectures isn't going to be easy on folks who make a living with that facet of agribusiness.

"Smoke spews from 2 reactors at stricken Japanese nuclear plant"
CNN (March 21, 2011)

Smoke spewed Monday from two adjacent reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a nuclear safety official said, setbacks that came despite fervent efforts to prevent the further release of radioactive materials at the stricken facility.

"After 6 p.m., white smoke was seen emanating from the facility's No. 2 reactor, according to Hidehiko Nishiyama, an official with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. About two hours earlier, workers were evacuated from the area around the No. 3 reactor after gray smoke began to rise from the wreckage of its steel-and-concrete housing, which was blown apart by a hydrogen explosion last week.

"The No. 3 reactor has been the top priority for authorities trying to contain damage to the plant and stave off a possible meltdown. Its fuel includes a small percentage of plutonium mixed with the uranium in its fuel rods, which experts say could cause more harm than regular uranium fuels in the event of a meltdown...."

The big concern is the health and safety of folks living and working around the Fukushima power plant. That said, the Lemming also thinks that this is not a good time to be involved with Tokyo Electric Power Co. / TEPCO, the company that runs the facility. Judging from what's in the news, TEPCO is going to have quite a bit of explaining to do.

Related posts:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Weather on Titan: New Season, New Knowledge

"On Saturn's Moon Titan, Methane Rains on the Desert"
Denise Chow, Space.com (March 17, 2011)

"When photos showed a large patch near the equator of Titan mysteriously darken and then grow lighter within a couple of weeks, scientists knew something big was happening on Saturn's largest moon. But what they found was something they didn't expect: a methane rainstorm in a region of Titan thought to be covered by vast, arid dunes.

"While the large moon is known to have methane lakes at its north and south poles, scientists thought Titan's equatorial region was mostly dry, but the likely cause of the darkness was determined to be an outburst of clouds and methane rain - which suggests Titan's equator has a rainy season.

"The photos taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 27, 2010, showed a decrease in brightness over an area measuring over 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) long and 62 miles (100 km) wide...."

A key word in the article, in the Lemming's opinion, is "suggests." Rain on that part of Titan isn't guesswork, though:

"...Turtle and her colleagues examined other explanations for the darkening seen in Cassini's images, including strong windstorms and volcanism. Through their analyses, however, the researchers found that the effects of possible windstorms and volcanism on Titan were not consistent with the changes observed over such a large area...."

At this point, it looks like Titan's weather systems are like Earth's - but not quite. There's a diagram that shows what seems to be a reasonable model for how Titan's weather works:

(P. Huey/Science © 2011 AAAS, via Space.com, used w/o permission)
"Cloudy with rain. Simplified global atmospheric circulation and precipitation pattern on Titan and Earth. Most precipitation occurs at the intertropical convergence zone, or ITCZ, where air ascends as a result of convergence of surface winds from the northern and southern directions. Titan's ITCZ was previously near the south pole (A) but is currently on its way to the north pole (B). The seasonal migration of the ITCZ on Earth is much smaller (C and D). This image appears in a Perspective by Tetsuya Tokano titled, 'Precipitation Climatology on Titan.'
"CREDIT: P. Huey/Science © 2011 AAAS"

Saturn, and Saturn's moon Titan, go around our sun once for every 29 trips Earth makes - which means that it's going to be a while before we get a full year's worth of seasonal data. The Space.com article notes that Cassini got the Saturn system in 2004 - so data from that probe covers about a quarter of the Saturn/Titan year.

Still, it's more than we knew before.

Related posts:

Japan: More People Found, Alive and Otherwise

It's been close to 'all Japan, all the time' on this blog. Understandably, the Lemming hopes: the March 11, 2011 quake was the worst in Japan's recorded history.

Here's a bit of the news from the last 24 hours or so:
"Japan: Alive after 10 days in the rubble"
Associated Press, via The Independent (March 21, 2011) (It's March 21 in the UK by now)

"The voice rang out suddenly, unexpectedly, from the wreckage left behind by the earthquake and tsunami that ripped through north-eastern Japan 10 days ago. 'Please help. Please help.'..."

Good news: which is nice to see now and again, in the Lemming's opinion.
"Death toll from Japan's disasters over 8,000; more than 12,000 missing"
David Nakamura, Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post (March 20, 2011)

"The official death toll in Japan soared past the 8,000 mark Sunday, nine days after a powerful earthquake and tsunami ravaged the northeast coast. Yet amid this grim reality came a piercing note of uplift when rescuers reached an 80-year-old woman and her 16-year-old grandson trapped in a house in a village that had mostly been swept away by the March 11 tsunami.

"The dramatic helicopter airlift, broadcast live on national television, came after Sumi Abe had been pinned in her home by fallen debris for nine days in Ishinomaki City. She survived with the help her grandson Jin, who fetched her food from the refrigerator and eventually waved down rescue workers from the roof, according to NHK television...."

Not-so-good news, again in the Lemming's opinion. The confirmed death toll, that is. Another rescue: that's good news.
"Japan quake: Health risk to survivors as deaths rise"
BBC News Asia-Pacific (March 20, 2011)

"Hundreds of thousands of survivors living in basic temporary shelters in the cold with little food could be at risk from disease according to the Red Cross....

"...Police in Japan say 15,000 people may have been killed in a single prefecture, Miyagi, by the disaster, as the official death toll rose to 8,133, with 12,272 people missing."

There's a little text - the page's content is mostly a BBC News video.

And, again, a sort of good news/bad news mix.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fukushima, Japan: (Somewhat) Good News, Bad News

First, the good news:

"Tokyo Electric Power Laid 1 Kilometer of New Power Line"
Natalie Obiko Pearson, Jim Polson, Bloomberg (March 19, 2011)

"Tokyo Electric Power Co. engineers have laid a new power line to the stricken No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.

"The new line, measuring about one kilometer (0.6 miles), aims to restore power to the plant's cooling systems, which were knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami March 11, a company official earlier told a press conference on NHK...."

Someone described the emergency power line that Tokyo Electric strung to the Fukushima plant as "the world's longest extension cord." Which, in a way, it is.

More detail about what's been happening at the Fukushima power plant:

"Latest Reactor Status at Japan's Stricken Fukushima Nuclear Plant: Table"
Naoko Fujimura, Bloomberg (March 19, 2011)

"The following is the latest status of each nuclear reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant.

"No. 1: Workers are ready to restore power to the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama said on NHK Television today. The reactor was damaged on March 12 by a hydrogen explosion that destroyed the building walls. The reactor is rated level five in terms of threat on an international scale of 1-7.

"No. 2: Engineers hope to use the power cable attached to the No. 2 reactor as a hub to restore electricity to the other five reactors, Tokyo Electric said. A March 15 explosion may have damaged the containment chamber. The reactor is rated a level five threat.

"No. 3: Firefighters sprayed to control the reactor between 2 p.m. yesterday and 3:40 a.m. today, NHK reported. Similar actions March 18 managed to replenish water in the spent-fuel pool...."

That, considering what's been happening in the Fukushima area lately, actually is good news. In the Lemming's opinion.

A slightly more chatty take on the same news:

"Electric power partially restored at Japan nuclear plant"
Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times (March 19, 2011)

"Engineers restore power to cooling pumps at two of the buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but not to the most troublesome reactors yet. Meanwhile, manual spraying of seawater seems to be reducing radiation levels.

"Working overnight into Sunday, engineers have successfully restored power to cooling pumps in two reactors at the disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the first genuinely hopeful sign in the week-long battle to prevent a full-scale meltdown at any of the six reactors at the site.

"Although power has so far been restored only at reactor buildings 5 and 6, which were not considered a particular threat, that success suggests that workers are finally beginning to make some headway in their effort to prevent more radiation from escaping the plant...."

So, that's the good news: there's a better chance now, that there won't be more catastrophic failures at the Fukushima facility. Getting the place running again - or at least cleaned up so that folks can move back into the area - - - well, that's another story.

Now, the bad news:

"Radiation found in food as workers scramble to curb nuclear crisis"
CNN (March 19, 2011)

"As workers scrambled to curb a nuclear crisis Sunday, the Japanese government considered halting the sale of food from farms near the Fukushima plant after abnormally high levels of radiation were found in milk and spinach.

"Very small amounts -- far below the level of concern -- of radioactive iodine were also detected in tap water in Tokyo and most prefectures near the Fukushima Daiichi plant damaged by last week's monster earthquake and tsunami.

"Six members of the emergency crew at the plant have been exposed to more than 100 millisieverts of radiation per hour, the equivalent of getting 10 chest X-rays per hour, plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Company said...."

"...People are naturally exposed to about 3 millisieverts of radiation a year. The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends no more than 50 millisieverts exposure in a given year for nuclear rescue and recovery workers. It offers no restriction in a crisis when 'the benefit to others clearly outweighs the rescuer's risk.'

"Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said levels of radiation exceeding safety limits stipulated by Japanese law were found in some samples of spinach and milk from the Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures but authorities said the radioactive iodine-contaminated food posed little risk.

"Tainted milk was found 30 kilometers (18 1/2 miles) from the plant and spinach was collected as far as 100 kilometers (65 miles) to the south, almost halfway to Tokyo.

" 'Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about eight days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body,' warned the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"A person who consumed the tainted food continuously for a year would take in the same amount of radiation as a single CT scan, Edano said. That's about 7 millisieverts or double what an average person in an industrialized country is exposed to in a year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration...."

The first part of that last paragraph bears repeating, in the Lemming's opinion.

"...A person who consumed the tainted food continuously for a year would take in the same amount of radiation as a single CT scan ... That's about 7 millisieverts or double what an average person in an industrialized country is exposed to in a year..." (CNN) [emphasis mine]

That detail about just how big a risk the "tainted food" was - appears rather deep in the article. Which is standard 'inverted pyramid' reporting: an old journalistic standard, and another topic.

The point is that the "Radiation found in food" is - not much more than we're exposed to, just by living on this planet. It makes sense for Japan to have stringent standards for food - and to check what's being grown around the Fukushima power plant. In the Lemming's opinion.

But the Lemming hopes that folks won't take the "Radiation found in food" part of the news, remember that, and be scared of eating anything that's grown in northern Japan. Or in Japan.

Folks who survived having their towns destroyed and lives disrupted have, in the Lemming's opinion, enough trouble as it is - without having folks elsewhere shunning their exports.

Still - focusing on the (somewhat) good news: there's now a better chance that folks working at the Fukushima power plant will be able to get the situation under control. Before the radiation kills them.

Under the circumstances, that is (somewhat) good news. In the Lemming's opinion.

Related posts:More:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Too Much Radiation is Dangerous: Numbers and Background

"Factbox: How much radiation is dangerous?"
Richard Borsuk, Kim Coghill, Tan Ee Lyn, Edition: U.S., Reuters (March 15, 2011)

"Health experts urged governments in the Asia Pacific to monitor radioactivity levels after Japan's quake-damaged nuclear power plant exploded and sent radiation into the air.

"Radiation is measured using the unit sievert, which quantifies the amount of radiation absorbed by human tissues.

"One sievert is 1,000 millisieverts (mSv). One millisievert is 1,000 microsieverts...."

So far, so good. Particularly. in the Lemming's opinion, the refresher on decimal prefixes:
  • 1 sievert (Sv) =
    • 1,000 millisieverts (mSv)
      • 1,000,000 microsieverts
There's a somewhat more technical definition of the sievert and a short history of Rolf Sievert's research at:Back to that Reuters backgrounder:

"...* Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano had, at one point, said radiation levels near the stricken plant on the northeast coast reached as high as 400 millisieverts (mSv) an hour. That figure would be would be 20 times the annual exposure for some nuclear-industry employees and uranium miners.

"* People are exposed to natural radiation of 2-3 mSv a year.

"* In a CT scan, the organ being studied typically receives a radiation dose of 15 mSv in an adult to 30 mSv in a newborn infant.

"A typical chest X-ray involves exposure of about 0.02 mSv, while a dental one can be 0.01 mSv.

"* Exposure to 100 mSv a year is the lowest level at which any increase in cancer risk is clearly evident. A cumulative 1,000 mSv (1 sievert) would probably cause a fatal cancer many years later in five out of every 100 persons exposed to it.

"* There is documented evidence associating an accumulated dose of 90 mSv from two or three CT scans with an increased risk of cancer. The evidence is reasonably convincing for adults and very convincing for children.

"* Large doses of radiation or acute radiation exposure destroys the central nervous system, red and white blood cells, which compromises the immune system, leaving the victim unable to fight off infections.

"For example, a single one sievert (1,000 mSv) dose causes radiation sickness such as nausea, vomiting, hemorrhaging, but not death. A single dose of 5 sieverts would kill about half of those exposed to it within a month.

"* Exposure to 350 mSv was the criterion for relocating people after the Chernobyl accident, according to the World Nuclear Association...."

It's a pretty good article, in the Lemming's opinion, although the Reuters reporters could, again in the Lemming's opinion, made the idea of background radiation a little clearer.

"Background radiation?!"

Background radiation is the radiation we're exposed to, just by living on Earth. It isn't the fault of evil scientists, Big Oil, or shape-shifting, space-alien lizard men. In the Lemming's opinion.

Most of Earth's background radiation comes from radon gas, which comes from the natural decay of uranium. Which is an element that occurs naturally on this planet.

More about background radiation:
  • "Background Radiation"
    Emory University, Radiation Safety Office, Laboratory Worker Training Manual

What's the Big Deal With Radiation?

Japan's got a full plate of problems just now:
  • Towns knocked flat by an earthquake
    • And rearranged by a tsunami
  • Thousands of known deaths as a result
    • And upwards of ten thousand missing
  • Road and rail system out of service
  • Power and utilities gone for survivors
  • Fires
  • Badly-damaged reactors at a nuclear power plant
That last item is why the Lemming thought this post might be of interest. There's been quite a lot of talk about 'radiation' and 'danger' on the news: but precious few facts about just what the danger is, and how serious it is.

Aside, that is, from the recurring references to Chernobyl and THREE MILE ISLAND! THREE MILE ISLAND! (March 16, 2011)

Which is why the Lemming was glad to see that Reuters backgrounder.

Radiation: Godzilla, Killer Bees, and Reality

We can learn a lot from the movies. For example, the movies teach us that radiation makes gigantic fire-breathing lizards attack Tokyo.

That's the movies.

This isn't quite as entertaining, but the Lemming thinks it's a tad more firmly attached to reality than Godzilla and The Swarm:

"Radiation and Health"
Department of Health, New York State

"...Radiation is energy that moves through space or matter at a very high speed. This energy can be in the form of particles, such as alpha or beta particles, which are emitted from radioactive materials, or waves such as light, heat, radiowaves, microwaves, x-rays and gamma rays. Radioactive materials, also known as radionuclides or radioisotopes, are atoms that are unstable. In nature, there is a tendency for unstable atoms to change into a stable form. As they change form, they release radiation.

"Radiation that can produce ions when it interacts with matter is called ionizing radiation. Ions are the charged particles that are produced when electrons are removed from their positions in the atoms. Alpha particles, beta particles, x-rays and gamma rays are forms of ionizing radiation. On the other hand, radiation that is not capable of producing ions in matter is known as nonionizing radiation...."

Not the stuff of which box office hits are made: but the Lemming thinks it's interesting, anyway.

Related posts:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day, Michael Gough, and Love

"Batman's 'butler' Michael Gough dies at age 94"
The Associated Press, via News10.net (March 17, 2011)

"...He died of old age at home in England on Thursday, surrounded by family, his ex-wife Anneke Wills said through her agent.

"Wills said in an obituary posted on the Doctor Who website: 'As his body was deteriorating this week, he said that he wanted to hang on for St. Patrick's Day. And he did, just. In the end ... there is only love.'..."

His IMDB biography says that Michael Gough had roles from the voice of the Dodo Bird in Alice in Wonderland (2010) to Spintho in Androcles and the Lion (1946) And, like the AP article said, Alfred in Batman movies (1997, 1995, 1992, 1989) and Dr. Who (1966-1983).


Salt as a Radiation Sickness Cure: SALT?!

There's been a run on salt in China. Folks are jittery about what's happening in Japan, understandably, and think salt will protect them from radiation.

Turns out, that's not as crazy at it may sound.

"Chinese scramble to buy salt as radiation fears grow"
Jo Ling Kent, CNN (March 17, 2011)

"Chinese shoppers in Beijing and Shanghai cleared salt from supermarkets shelves on Thursday morning amid fears of a potential radiation crisis from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

"Government officials and experts attempted to calm fears by emphasizing that radiation levels in 41 cities across China remain normal.

"Staff from multiple branches of the French supermarket chain Carrefour reported that their supplies of salt have been sold out since Thursday morning in Beijing....

"...Small, local and independently-run grocery stores in Beijing told CNN they have also run out of salt supplies for the first time in recent memory...."

The idea that salt will protect folks from radiation sickness isn't as daft as it might seem. Not in China. Or here in America, for that matter.

Both countries have a policy of putting iodine in the salt their citizens use.

No, it's not a communist plot. At least, the Lemming thinks that's really, really, unlikely. On the other hand, the United Nations is involved, so conspiracy theorists could probably find something fishy.

Iodized Salt Makes Sense

Why put iodine in salt? Homo sapiens sapiens needs a bit of iodine in the diet: which shouldn't be a problem, since seafood is a rich source of the element. We've moved around quite a bit in the last few hundred thousand years, though: and now quite a few folks don't live anywhere near the ocean.

We do, though, like salt in our food - so that's a reasonable place to add the iodine we're missing. In the Lemming's opinion.

  • "Iodized salt"
    J. C. M. Holman, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, v.18(1-2) (1958)
  • "Iodine in diet"
    MedLinePlus, National Institutes of Health
Back to China and salt.

"...Iodide tablets were also snapped up at many pharmacies in Beijing and Shanghai as of Thursday morning, according to state-run China Daily....

"...The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised individuals against taking potassium iodide tablets unless the government and public health officials recommend doing so.

"Iodine in iodized salt is ineffective for preventing radiation effects, according to the World Health Organization.

"It does not contain an adequate amount of the iodine necessary to prevent radioactive iodine from damaging the human thyroid gland. It would take 80 tablespoons of salt to make up one prophylactic, or preventative, iodide tablet...."

Iodine, Salt, and Getting a Grip

Before some lunatic reads this, downs 80 tablespoons of salt, and the Lemming gets sued:


That's about as clearly as the Lemming can put it.

But isn't salt bad for you? 'The government says so.'

Uff da.

Salt, too much, is bad for you. Water can drown you, when it comes to that. But human beings need both - in reasonable amounts. As with so many things, the key is MODERATION, and a little common sense.

Why do Americans keep hearing 'salt is bad for you?' In the Lemming's opinion, it's because salt is over-used in the typical American diet. 'I like a little food with my salt' seems to be the slogan some folks in this country live by. And that's another topic.

Related posts:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

And Now, for Something Completely Different: a Spiral Candle Video

"Spiral Self Filling Candle"

(shown half-size: full version at YouTube)
anoasisproduction, YouTube (March 15, 2011)
video, 0:42

"A candle that burns around a hollow center and fills itself...."

The Lemming thinks it's a fun little video: and has a personal interest. The inventor and developer of this candle is the Lemming's son-in-law.

It's a new product - and available through Amazon.com:

Red Spiral Wick Self Filling Candle
by Spiral Fire

Seven-Point International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale: and a Ranting Lemming

"INES / The international nuclear and radiological event scale" (pdf)
International Atomic Energy Agency iaea.org

"The INES Scale is a worldwide tool for communicating to the public in a consistent way the safety significance of nuclear and radiological events.

"Just like information on earthquakes or temperature would be difficult to understand without the Richter or Celsius scales, the INES Scale explains the significance of events from a range of activities, including industrial and medical use of radiation sources, operations at nuclear facilities and transport of radioactive material...."

The four-page pdf document explains what sort of events are described for each of the seven (eight, counting the zero, or 'nothing happened') levels of severity: and gives brief definitions of the terms.


The reactor failure at Three Mile Island, back in 1979, was very scary, very expensive, and not, in the Lemming's opinion, all that dangerous to people who didn't have money invested in the power plant. Not compared to, say, housing developments built on toxic waste dumps. And that's another topic.

Still, the Lemming's gotten the impression that for some folks, particularly chronic journalists, Three Mile Island is spelled "THREE MILE ISLAND! THREE MILE ISLAND!"

Yes, the Three Mile Island accident was the worst nuclear power plant malfunction in American history to date. But, expensive and scary as it was, the containment building held - and there doesn't seem to have been a serious health risk involved. Unless someone decided to go inside in his skivvies. ("Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident," NRC)

Or maybe everybody in Harrisburg and York, Pennsylvania, died horribly; and those space-alien, shape-shifting lizard people have kept us from finding out. You probably don't know anybody in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: YOU SEE? THAT PROVES IT!!

Quite a few news sources - the ones that the Lemming's seen, anyway - seem to have calmed down quite a lot since the '80s. As far as THREE MILE ISLAND! THREE MILE ISLAND! is concerned, anyway. Even so, there still seems to be quite a bit of emphasis on that 1979 overheated core: that may have done more damage to the bank balances of a few individuals, than anything else.

Moving on.

And taking a more 'global' approach:

It looks like the Soviet Union won the nuclear disaster race in one category. The top two occurred at soviet-era reactors. The winners, looking at this as a contest, so far are:
  • Category: People and Environment
    • Level 7: Chernobyl, 1986
      • Widespread health and environmental effects
      • External release of a significant fraction of reactor core inventory
    • Level 6: Kyshtym, Russia, 1957
      • Significant release of radioactive material to the environment from explosion of a high activity waste tank
    • Level 5: Windscale Pile, UK, 1957
      • Release of radioactive material to the environment following a fire in a reactor core.
  • Category: Radiological Barriers and Control
    • Level 5: Three Mile Island, USA, 1979
      • Severe damage to the reactor core.
    (source: "INES," IAEA)
As disappointing as it may be to the 'America first' folks, it looks like the United States was beaten by the Soviet Union - and edged out of the top of category 5 by the United Kingdom. That's assuming that hurting people is worse than hurting equipment - which is how the Lemming sees it, but that is an assumption.

INES Scale: What Those Numbers Mean

Here's a sort of short, and not-terribly-informative, rundown of what those seven levels of severity mean.
  • Major Accident
    Level 7
  • Serious Accident
    Level 6
  • Accident with Wider Consequences
    Level 5
  • Accident with Local Consequences
    Level 4
  • Serious Incident
    Level 3
  • Incident
    Level 2
  • Anomaly
    Level 1
  • No Safety Significance
    (Below Scale/Level 0)
    (source: "INES," IAEA)
Like the Lemming said, that's not terribly informative: but that's probably why the IAEA put all those definitions and illustrations in the rest of the flier.

"INES," Fukushima's Reactors, and Getting a Grip

As for Japan's Fukushima power plant: depending on who you ask, yesterday it was at level 6, or 5. Maybe 4. (CNN)

As the Lemming recalls, the Japanese government's assigning a level 4 to Fukushima was
  • After
    • The earthquake
      • Which doesn't appear to have seriously damaged the reactors
    • The tsunami
      • Which took out the primary cooling system
  • Before
    • The backup system ran out of power
    • Other systems failed
    • Explosions started happening at intervals
The fires aren't helping the situation at Fukushima's power plant any, either: in the Lemming's opinion.

Doesn't the Lemming Care About the Horrors of [insert phobia]?

The Lemming, as this blog's name suggests, is "apathetic." That's been discussed before. The Lemming's "apathy" means not caring - hysterically, irrationally - about the "right" things.

Nuclear power plants are dangerous. So are those using oil, natural gas, or coal for fuel.

There's no such thing, in the Lemming's opinion, as a "safe" technology. (March 12, 2011) Even knapping flint is risky. What's changed in the last million years or so is the scale of problems we're dealing with.

Happily, along with dangerous technologies like fire, sharp rocks, scissors, and nuclear reactors: we've also developed increasingly powerful and sophisticated societies. We didn't all die of manure pollution in the 18th century - and I'm pretty sure that the folks in Japan will deal with what's happening at Fukushima.

And if they don't, we'll all have learned something.

Now, about caring: Yes, the Lemming cares.

It's possible, maybe likely, that tens of thousands of people were killed last Friday. That's a terrible loss. Many more are facing sub-freezing temperatures and snow today. That's not good, either.

But the Lemming won't make the situation better by wringing his paws and agonizing. The Lemming can give a link back to a list of probably-okay charities, assembled for the Haiti disaster. (The list is what was assembled: with one exception, the charities had been around for a while.)

Most of the organizations on that list are global, or connected to international outfits: and although Japan is a major nation - this week, they might be able to use some financial help. Just a thought. Here's that link:About the Fukushima power plant: News reports today say that the facility has been evacuated, except for a relatively small number of folks who are staying behind to do what they can to control the situation. In the Lemming's opinion, it's very likely that they will not survive. That is a sad thing: but what they are doing may save a great many lives.

So, yes: the Lemming cares.

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