Friday, February 28, 2014

13 (or more) workers exposed to radation at WIPP

WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located in the Chihuahuan Desert, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, is where the nation disposes of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste.

Transuranic refers to atoms of elements that are higher in atomic number than uranium (which is 92), almost all of which are synthetic. Atomic number equals the number of protons in the nucleus, while atomic mass means the total number of protons plus neutrons in the nucleus. An element is defined by its atomic number  - i.e. 92 is always uranium - but can contain varying numbers of neutrons, referred to as isotopes. So uranium comes in different masses, like  U-238 or U-235. The most common transuranic element is plutonium (94), which is found in most forms of transuranic waste.

It turns out that plutonium does occur naturally in very small amounts in a type of uranium ore called pitchblende, which contains approximately one part per trillion of natural plutonium. The uranium in pitchblende decays primarily by alpha-particle emission (2 protons and 2 neutrons), but there is also a process called "spontaneous fission" that occurs occasionally. In spontaneous fission the nucleus splits ("fissions") and neutrons are released. These neutrons can then sometimes be absorbed (captured) by another U-238 nucleus, triggering a process that produces Pu-239. In addition, trace quantities of Pu-244 were found in Precambrian Age phosphate from southern California in 1971. Because of its long radioactive half-life scientists believe that this isotope has existed since the creation of Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. However, these isotopes exist in such small quantities that for all practical purposes, any element past uranium is considered anthropogenic (human-made).

Transuranic radioactive waste consists of items like tools, rags, laboratory equipment and safety gear (suits etc.) that has been contaminated by contact with radioactive materials. It also includes organic and inorganic residues and even entire enclosed contaminated cases in which radioactive materials were handled. Transuranic (TRU) waste materials have been generated in the U.S. since the 1940's.

By its very nature, TRU has a mixture of properties. Some waste will emit high levels of penetrating radiation, while other waste will emit small particles that have little energy but can inhaled and cause significant damage to lung tissue (alpha emitters like radon gas) or ingested and cause organ damage. Most of the elements involved are long-lived, which means will stay radioactive for a long time. 

There are 15 different isotopes of plutonium, each of which has a different half-life (the time it takes for half of the original atoms to decay into a new form, called a daughter product). The half-life of Pu-239 is 24,000 years and the half-life of Pu-241 is 14.4 years. Naturally occurring Pu-244 has a radioactive half-life of 80 million years. The plutonium isotope with the shortest half-life, 20 minutes, is Pu-233. Substances with shorter half-lives emit stronger radioactive energy, so they decay more quickly than those with longer half-lives but would also do more damage if you were exposed to them.

In 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the DOE - Department of Energy) decided that TRU waste should be stored for easy retrieval to await disposal at a permanent repository. Federal facilities in Washington, Idaho, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Tennessee, South Carolina, Ohio, and Illinois are currently storing TRU waste.

The DOSCO Rotary Head Mining Machine
Underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
As a first step in developing a permanent disposal site for TRU waste, the DOE created an underground, geologic repository called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, NM. The site was excavated in a salt bed about 2,100 feet underground.

WIPP began operations in 1999 when the first waste shipment, from Los Alamos National Laboratory, arrived. As of February 28, 20104, the plant had received and stored 11,872 shipments composed of 90,807 cubic meters of waste in 170,946 containers.

Emplacing Transuranic Waste in Room 6 of Panel 3

According to the DOE, at 11:30pm Friday, February 14th, "a continuous air monitor detected airborne  radiation in the underground." There were no employees working underground at the time and employees on the surface sheltered in place as a precaution. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but the most likely scenario is that a huge chunk of salt fell from the ceiling and ruptured a drum or multiple drums of waste. The other suggestion is that a forklift (automated ?) punctured a canister. It could be weeks before they can get underground to find out what caused this.

On the 15th, the DOE reported that "Multiple perimeter monitors at the WIPP boundary have confirmed there is no danger to human health or the environment. No contamination has been found on any equipment, personnel, or facilities.

Any possible release is minimized by the highly protective filtration system that is designed to filter any air leaving the WIPP repository.

WIPP’s ventilation system automatically switched to Filtration Mode when airborne radiation was detected underground.

As a precautionary measure, employees on the surface were instructed to shelter in place.

At 5:00 PM MST, a determination was made to allow non-essential employees to leave the site.

These employees were cleared by radiological control technicians prior to departure. All non-essential employees were off-site by 5:30 PM MST."

Then, according to NPR, "two days later, independent monitoring stations operated by New Mexico State University detected radioactive americium and plutonium on the surface." The levels reported are extremely low, well below Environmental Protection Agency reporting limits, according to the head of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center. The DOE reported on the 19th that trace amounts of americium and plutonium had been detected at one of the WIPP sampling stations located on an access road. They say this is expected because the HEPA filters remove 99.97% of contaminants from the air, so a minute amount can still pass through the system. WIPP officials reiterated their previous statements that residents of nearby communities are not at risk and the radiation levels detected were very low.

Then, around 5 a.m. on Wednesday (2/26/14) WIPP officials informed 13 workers that they had tested positive for radiation contamination. These workers were performing above-ground duties at the WIPP facility on Feb. 14, the day the radiation leak was detected. They have also identified additional employees who were on-site the morning of Feb. 15 and have requested biological samples from them to determine if they are have been affected.

WIPP officials said Thursday it's premature to say what effect the radiation will have on the workers' health and what course of treatment is necessary. Officials said these results are preliminary, and more tests need to be done.

There are about 300 employees on the physical property each day, according to the DOE. About 200 of them are classified as essential, and they have kept the plant running since the accident.

WIPP officials also said that an attempt will be made to get back into the mine for testing. They plan to send two probes down the salt-handling shaft to get airborne radiation readings and air quality readings. From there, officials will attempt to safely fix the leak and bring the facility back to full operation. Depending on what caused the accident, this could take months.

This accident is the first-known release of radiation since the site began accepting plutonium-contaminated waste from the nation's nuclear bomb building sites 15 years ago, in 1999.

This leak came just nine days after a truck hauling salt in the plant's deep mines caught fire, but officials say they are confident the incidents are unrelated.

No transuranic waste shipments were scheduled from February 14 though March 10 for planned annual maintenance, but as of now all shipments have been suspended.

Official announcements from the DOE are at 
This is the image from the WIPP Environmental Sampling pdf

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Great Lakes Ice Cover

Ice cover was at 79.8% on 2/26/14
Ice cover on the Great Lakes reached 88 percent February 12-13, 2014. The last time the lakes were this frozen was back in 1994.

On average, since 1973, the maximum ice extent is a bit over 50 percent. It has only been over 80 percent five times in the past forty years.

The lowest average ice extent occurred in 2002, when only 9.5 percent of the lakes froze.

This image was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on February 19, 2014. It shows the Great Lakes in natural color in the early afternoon, when ice covered 80.3 percent of the lakes, according to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.


A peak into Curtsies & Conspiracies and Jewels: A Secret History

I finally finished The Disappearing Spoon! So to treat myself, I have started reading Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger, the second book in the Finishing School series.

So for  Book Beginnings on Friday hosted by Rose City Reader I present the first few sentences ...

"Miss Temminnick. Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott. With me, ladies, please."

Sophronia glanced up from her household sums. She was glad of the distraction. She was convinced she was miscalculating the purchase of the three most deadly flower arrangements. Does one need four fully grown foxgloves for decorating a dinner table for six guests? Or is it six foxgloves to kill four fully grown guests?

And in keeping with my pattern, here are a few sentences from page 1 of Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay...

2 - 2.5

In the ancient Cheddar Gorge of Somerset in England, there is a huge cavern. Since it was first discovered more than a century ago it has yielded many rare artifacts and bones from the ancient past, including even a complete seated skeleton, nine thousand years old. But in 1950 this place, named "Gough's Cave" after the Victorian sea captain who found it, also yielded what is perhaps the oldest piece of traded gem-type material ever discovered. 

Six Large Baltic Amber Specimens, one with
 traces of encrusted sea barnacles (Source)
A chamber and mirror pool inside Gough's Cave, Cheddar,
called Alladdin's Cave. (Source)

For The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice here is something from page 56 of Curtsies & Conspiracies we have ...

Bumbersnoot was, technically, illegal. Not only were students of Mademoiselle's Geraldine's not permitted pets, but unregistered mechanimals were forbidden throughout the British Empire.

"Lesson five five four," said Sophronia. "Sometimes it is best to hide a suspicious item in plain sight."

And from page 56 of Jewels: A Secret History here is ...

In January 1870 a Mr. Charles Bryan hosted an annual supper for his employees at the Black Horse Hotel in Whitby. He began the meal with a toast to "The health of our most gracious Queen." Everyone drank with enthusiasm. The diners were the jet-workers of Whitby, and Queen Victoria's taste for their products had kept them employed for years.

Jet Brooch with the letters V-I-C-T-O-R-A
(I can only find one letter "I")
You can see Whitby jet at

My hundred and first post !

I noticed, just slightly too late, that my last post was my 100th post. Just as I hit publish, as a matter of fact. My daughter just celebrated her 100th day of school yesterday (things are a little off because of all the snow days this year). We had meant to do something special for the 100th post - but oh well - now we are going to celebrate the 101st post by reading 101 Dalmatians, because that seemed like a logical thing to do.

The actual 100th post went past something like this.

So we are going to read 101 Dalmatian - because that totally makes sense :)

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Disappearing Spoon
by Sam Kean

Published: Little Brown and Co.
Format: hardback
Copyright: 2010
Pages: 391
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: own book

From the cover flap "Why did Gandhi hate iodine (1, 53)? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missles made of cadmium (Cd, 48)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie's reputation? And why did tellurium (Te, 52) lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history ?

The periodic table is one of our crowning scientific achievements, but it's also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. The fascinating tales in The Disappearing Spoon follow carbon, neon, silicon, gold, and every single element on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

Why did little lithium (Li, 3) help cure poet Robert Lowell of his madness? And how did gallium (Ga, 31) become the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?* The Disappearing Spoon had the answers, fusing science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery, and alchemy, from the big bang through the end of time.

*Though solid at room temperature, gallium is a moldable metal with a unique property: it melts at 84 degrees Fahrenheit. So a classic prank for scientists is to fashion gallium spoons, serve them with tea, and watch as the guests recoil with the Earl Gray makes their utensil disappear."

Gallium melting in a warm hand. Picture from
This description from the cover gives you a very clear idea of what the book is about. The author takes interesting stories about the discoveries and discoverers of the elements and atomic properties and strings them together to create a human history of the periodic table. He arranged the book in a series of chapters that cover groups of elements with similar histories - for example Chapter 9 is called Poisoner's Corridor: "Ouch-Ouch" Cd, Tl, Bi, Th, Am (which stands for cadmium, thallium, bismuth, thorium, americium). This makes for a neat theme in each chapter, but it also means that you end up zig-zagging back and forth in time throughout the book. So while it starts out well, it gets kind of irritating when things that you read about in the earlier section of the book are events that actually came after the events you read about in the last section of the book. I think this is one of the things that slowed me down in the book. I just realized that the chapters read more like magazine articles - each is self-contained and works well as a standalone, but when you string it all together as a book it works less well. This makes sense because the author does actually write primarily for magazines and the like. 

I give the author high marks for telling some really fascinating stories and providing lots of cool tidbits of information that I wandered around reading at or reciting to various people. I just wish it had been organized better. Also the section on wartime development of chemical weapons and the like was really depressing and made me feel like I was losing my faith in humanity. It got better again once I got past that section of the book.

I also generally love the author's use of language - apotheosis, demotic, avant la lettre, susurrus - an expanded use of lots of lovely words that kept me on my toes and added to the feel of the text, i.e. a rich use of words rather than a gratuitous abuse of a thesaurus.

I do have to say that I was rather disappointed with the authors discussion of Pons' and Fleischmann's adventures with cold fusion though. Yes, We Have No Neutrons: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Bad Science by A. K. Dewdney has a good history of cold fusion which has a rather different perspective and, as far as I can tell (from a non-physicist but earth scientist perspective), is a bit more accurate. It wasn't the factual stuff I was bothered by so much as the spin the author put on it.

This did make me wonder a bit about how accurate some of his gloss really is ... though the majority of the time, when it was an event I knew something about, the author's summary seemed reasonably accurate, so I don't really think that is a deep problem. However this leads me to one of the other 'down' sides of the book for me - it kept making me think about other books that I want to read - there is a book called Toxic Truth: A Scientist, a Doctor, and the Battle over Lead in my TBR pile that was called to mind as well as a couple of other books buried in there, plus now I want to add another book about the periodic table that the author talks about I want, and I want to read a biography of Roentgen, etc., etc. Plus it sort of makes me want to re-read The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, which is very cool even if it is way overly focused on forensic developments in New York at the expense of events in other places around the world.

Also, the periodic table at the back of the book is pretty useless; it doesn't include the names of the elements or cool stuff, just the chemical symbols, atomic numbers and weights.  I had to bring home one my tables from work so that I could look things up as I read. But that is a chemistry geeks complaint so I doubt it would bother most people.

Overall this was a pleasurable read - it floated between 3.5 and 4 for me but mostly I think it is a 4. If you like science history this book should be a fun read for you.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Winter in the Northeast my have been cold but ...

While the temperatures in most of eastern half of the United States have been colder than normal  ...

... the western side of the country has been warm, really warm in some places.

The seemingly weird extremes are directly related to the position of the jet stream. The western and eastern sides of the US fall on opposite sides of a big loop in the jet stream,  which is keeping the west hot and dry, while on the eastern side of the country cold air is descending from the Arctic and freezing us.

Source (
The cold air mass that circles around the North Pole is bounded on the south by a jet stream, or a fast moving, narrow air current in the atmosphere that is located near the tropopause (the boundary between the troposphere - where we live - and the stratosphere).  Jet streams typically have a meandering or wiggly shape that bobs up and down in latitude depending on a variety of factors. Sometimes the jet stream can be really strong, with only little wiggles, and sometimes it weakens and the meanders can get really large. When the later happens, a mass of frigid air can drop south - an event that can be called a polar vortex. 

You can see this better in this NASA video ...

This unusual behavior lead to possibly the best winter jet stream map I have ever seen ...
Source (

So when you average things out, nationally January 2014 was the 347th consecutive month (or about 29 years) with temperatures above the 20th-century average! So - stinks for us locally, but nationally things are still warmer than average. And for the earth as a whole, it was the fourth-warmest January on record.

If you want more information,

Visit the NOAA State of the Climate website (

and Phil Platt is all over this, as usual, at Bad Astronomy

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wonderous Word Wednesday 4

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Kathy at the Bermuda Onion where you "can share new words that you’ve encountered or spotlight words you love. Feel free to get creative!"

Here are a couple of interesting words from the books I have been reading lately ...

First - something fun - from Curtsies and Conspiracies by Gail Carriger we have ... Bakewell pudding, which like portmanteau, turns out to be way more complicated than I anticipated.

Bakewell pudding, which originates from the Derbyshire town of Bakewell, is a dessert consisting of a flaky pastry base (puff pastry or similar), covered with a layer of jam (raspberry with the seeds removed seems the most popular now but originally gooseberries and apricot or peach marmalade with orange zest were common) and topped with a mixture of beaten eggs (fluffy but not frothy), sugar and ground almonds (or almond paste) [or lots of butter and some almond flavor - often alcoholic in origin]. This is baked for 30 minutes and may, or may not (more often not ), be topped with almond slivers or slices and fresh raspberries before serving.
There are lots of different "correct recipes" out there and several bakeries in England claim to hold the original recipe (also usually with historically inaccurate accounts of said origin). Outsiders can differentiate Bakewell Pudding from Bakewell Tart because the pudding is made with puff pastry and the tart with shortcrust (it is more complicated than that but this is getting silly). If you are really interested in following this up, I found this which has a big history dump on this topic.

The long and short of it is that Sophronia apparently made the right decision in not eating the Bakewell pudding because there could be practically anything in there.

Finally, something just plain weird from The Disappearing Spoon (yes, sigh, I am still reading it but I will finish it this week!) we have ...

argyria  which is explained in the text but I definitely needed a picture to go with this !
From Wikipedia

"Argyria or argyrosis (from Greek: ἄργυρος argyros silver) is a condition caused by inappropriate exposure to chemical compounds of the element silver, or to silver dust. The most dramatic symptom of argyria is that the skin turns blue or bluish-grey. It may take the form of generalized argyria or local argyria. Generalized argyria affects large areas over much of the visible surface of the body. Local argyria shows in limited regions of the body, such as patches of skin, parts of the mucous membrane or the conjunctiva [which lines the inside of the eyelids and covers the sclera (white part of the eye)] ... Generally silver is only slightly toxic to humans, so the risk of serious harm from clinical exposure is slight."

In this context "inappropriate exposure" usually means dosing yourself with silver as a "medicinal' supplement, though some people were apparently prescribed something that contained some form of silver.
Photo from BBC (
Stan Jones of Montana, a candidate for US Senate in 2002 and 2006, seems to be one of the most famous examples of argyria. I know it looks like there is something wrong with the picture, but he really was that color - sort of like he was squishing blueberries on his face.

There are several examples of this online if you care to take a look. Some people turn more of a gray color and others looks more like large, renegade Smurfs.

This is just too weird.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday REWIND! Childhood Favorites
Hosted by the Broke and Bookish

The topic for February 25 is Top Ten Tuesday REWIND! (Pick from previous topics that you want to do again or may have missed). Since I just started this blog and am doing this purely for fun, I have done practically no Top Ten Tuesdays, so I decided to start at the top with the very first topic ...
Childhood Favorites

So in no particular order besides they came to mind this way, here are some of my favorite books from when I was a child ...

0) Andre Norton - I read as many of her books as I could get my hands on. Strangely enough, I never saw any of the Witch World books, so I have never read them. Initially I didn't know the author was female, and when I found out I was very, very excited. 

1) Peter Pan - in whatever incarnation I could find it. I read various versions of the Disney Peter Pan, I read the original J.M. Barrie story in a variety of forms, I read a script version of the stage play. I loved Peter Pan.

2) Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones - I like lots of this author's books but this one is undoubtedly my favorite.

3) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll - I can't count how many times I have re-read this book in various forms.  My favorite version was the Annotated Alice that I checked out from the library ages ago.  I am now lusting after the gorgeous new edition of the Annotated Alice that came out last year.

4) Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck.  I remember liking several of his books, but this one in particular I re-read several times.

5) From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler  by E. L. Konigsburg. Oh my god - running away from home and living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art ?  Too awesome for words.  It is just really lucky for me that I was nowhere near New York as a kid.

6) Ellen Raskin was totally a go to author for me.  I worked to track down everything she wrote.  I loved The Westing Game, The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues and Figgs & PhantomsThe Mysterious Disapperance of Leon (I Mean Noel) - I was never quite sure what to make of that one. The artwork was always fascinating and the stories were very different from anything else I had ever read.

7) The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster - I always loved the idea of conducting a sunset.

8) Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell was another favorite. 

9) Judy Blume books were pretty much a staple of my childhood.  Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was pretty groundbreaking for its time.

10) A Wrinkle in Time and the sequels by Madeleine L'Engle were early favorites too.

10.1) Where the Sidewalk Ends is a book of very weird poetry by Shel Silverstein that I really loved as a child.
10.2) Oh, sheesh - I forgot The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, as well as the rest of the Narnia books. Those need to be on here. These were the very first boxed set of books I ever owned.

I think I had better stop now. This is gonna start getting messy - well messier.

Well, since I apparently can't stop ... here is a shout-out to a couple of children's book series that I have been enjoying as an adult ...

1) Ursula Vernon's Dragonbreath books are hysterical. The humor works on a level that both my 11 year old son and I can both enjoy. I think the second one, Dragonbreath: Attach of the Ninja Frogs is my favorite one out of the series, though I have really enjoyed them all.

2) Jessica Day George's series Tuesdays at the Castle is also lots of fun, though the second book ends with a total cliffhanger, which is rather stressful for kids. 

It's Monday! What are You Reading? 2-24

The It's Monday! What are You Reading? meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

I finished Scarlet by Marissa Meyer  and Digger by Ursula Vernon last week , which means that I am still working on The Disappearing Spoon but will finish it this week.  

And I have new books (which I need like a hole in the head) as a reward for getting those exams written this weekend.

I now have Cress (which I decided I wanted despite being not that overly thrilled with Scarlet. I still want to know what happens with Cinder. I really enjoyed the first book and have been silently cursing whomever decided that this story needed to be restructured (I guess originally the whole who is the princess thing wasn't supposed to be figured out until later) and padded out into four books.

And I adored Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger so of course I had to get Curtsies and Conspiracies!

However, I am not allowed to read either until I have finished The Disappearing Spoon, written a review of it and picked out and started my next non-fiction TBR pile read (which will probably be Uranium) !

That ought to force me to get this done!  It is not that I don't like the book. It's just too similar to work right now to be as much fun for me as it should. After all, the other book I am reading right now is Geochemistry by William White - the new text I am using for my class. I ended up picking it because the texts I prefer are either way overpriced ($200+) so the students won't by them or are out-of-print. That makes Disappearing Spoon a bit of a busman's holiday for me at the moment. I should have chosen something else and saved it for the summer.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sunday Post 2

The Sunday Post
Sunday Post 2 Review of Feburary 17th  

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Kimba @ Caffeinated Book Reviewer.

Work has picked up dramatically and I am now behind in practically everything. I have classes to prep, homework assignments to design and exams to write (any wonder that I would rather hide under the table and read a book?)

However, due to the Presidents' Day holiday, this past week I managed to post three book reviews.

 I also participated in four memes ...

On the other hand, I only have one Environmental News Post from the past week  ...

We staged a raid on the bookstore today, so I now have copies of Cress by Marissa Meyer and Curtsies and Conspiracies by Gail Garriger.

Am I the only who keeps picturing salad greens each time I see/hear Cress ?

Cress, or garden cress, is a relatively fast-growing, edible herb,
 genetically related to watercress and mustard,
and sharing their peppery, tangy flavor and aroma. 

Watercress is a fast-growing, aquatic or semi-aquatic, plant native to Europe and Asia,
and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans.