Friday, April 26, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl

by Adam Higginbotham

This book is a retelling of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, and its effects on the people and landscape around it. It is presented as a narrative, and is based on the translation of several Russian books on the topic, interviews with the survivors, and evidence which has been preserved in the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.

The book starts with the selection of what was initially a forested site in a Ukranian backwater, and describes the building of the plant, the construction of the futuristic atomic town of Pripyat, the disaster, cleanup activities ,and further health and career trajectories of the people who were involved in the meltdown of reactor number 4 at the V. I. Lenin nuclear power station exactly 33 years before this post went up.

Chapter two, which contains a brief introduction to the science behind the nuclear power station, was not clearly written and contained a few glaring errors. This put me off for a while. After all, I’ve encountered Chernobyl science in a few forms over the years. The meltdown resulted in molten uranium oxide (the fuel) and zirconium oxide (from the zirconium fuel rods, after they combusted) melting its way through the concrete lower radiation shield of the reactor. As the melt assimilated concrete (which is sand and Portland cement), it gained enough silica that when it cooled, zircon crystallized as a major phase. Some of the SHRIMP labs in Europe were interested in analysing this “chernobylite” zircon, and asked us detailed questions when we built them their instrument. Additionally, we had a visit from several potential customers from the Kurchatov Institute, so it was interesting to learn about the organization’s role in the Soviet Nuclear Power system. However, I soon realized that the science was only a bit player in the disaster.

The nuclear power plant exploded because at 1:26 am 33 years ago, Leonid Tuptunov followed his checklist for shutting down the reactor, and pressed the emergency stop button. He was unaware that the reactor had entered an unstable configuration, or that the fuel rods engaged by the emergency stop would briefly increase reactivity before suppressing it- a brief increase that was long enough to a runaway nuclear reaction.

In other words, this was not a technological failure so much as a managerial and information handling one. And as such, it is very relevant to today’s scientific, technological, and governmental culture.

In recent years, I have seen a trend towards a butt-covering, information-poor, checklist-heavy, auditable approach to safety in various workplaces here in Australia- this is a departure from the deep knowledge, situational awareness, information-rich approach that I learned earlier in my career. So it was illuminating to see that this 150 billion dollar disaster was caused by a combination of information siloing, image management, and undereducating, along with the inevitable corner-cutting that unrealistic expectations produce. This book is just as relevant to those who want to prevent the next technological disaster as it is for history buffs interested in the previous one. I highly recommend it to anyone with these interests.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Geosonnet 53

An opal is the desert’s hidden gem
Precipitating from a torrid brine
Geologists from arid zones condemn
Ideas that ice, not heat, can redefine.
The glacial polish, hiding in plain sight
Amorphous silica precipitate
Dissolved from glacial floured andesite
It coats the scoured rock with silicate.
Will Coober Pedy yield to Mawson Base?
Should new chums and their ratters venture south?
Probably not; a glaze on orthoclase
Will not put food in hungry digger’s mouth.
   For chemical erosion makes a rind
   So thin that only TEM can find

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Geosonnet 52

Peridotite, without the peridot
A paradox, clinopyroxenite
What metasomatized this mantle plot
Reacting mantle min’rals out of sight?
A garnet, like an elephant, forgets
No detail of its formative hot years
Included in its structure, tiny bits
Of felsic melt, the mantle’s frozen tears
A crustal rock’s subducted ‘till it melts
The rock’s identity is not air tight
Melanosome in metamorphic belts?
Or metasomatized old hartzburgite?
The isotopes of osmium declare
They’d solve this if they weren’t so very rare

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

Monday, April 08, 2019

Preserved Lemmings

I don't know what the elimination of G+ is going to do to this lounge, but if there is an interruption, please note that several years ago, the National Library of Australia decided this blog was worth archiving. The government archive version is here:
So now lemmings can lounge on both the north AND south sides of Lake Burley Griffin.