Tag Archives: radioactivity

Deep Time, Nuclear Semiotics and Atomic Priests

un-radioactive_warning_signTime seems to unfold over different — lengthier — scales in the desert southwest of the United States. Perhaps it’s the vastness of the eerie landscape that puts fleeting human moments into the context of deep geologic time. Or, perhaps it’s our monumental human structures that aim to encode our present for the distant future. Structures like the Hoover Dam, which regulates the mighty Colorado River, and the ill-fated Yucca Mountain project, once designed to store the nation’s nuclear waste, were conceived to last many centuries.

Yet these monuments to our impermanence raise a important issue beyond their construction — how are we to communicate their intent to humans living in a distant future, humans who will no longer be using any of our existing languages? Directions and warnings in English or contextual signs and images will not suffice. Consider Yucca Mountain. Now shuttered, Yucca Mountain was designed to be a repository for nuclear byproducts and waste from military and civilian programs. Keep in mind that some products of nuclear reactors, such as various isotopes of uranium, plutonium, technetium and neptunium, remain highly radioactive for tens of thousands to millions of years. So, how would we post warnings at Yucca Mountain about the entombed dangers to generations living 10,000 years and more from now? Those behind the Yucca Mountain project considered a number of fantastic (in its original sense) programs to carry dire warnings into the distant future including hostile architecture, radioactive cats and a pseudo-religious order. This was the work of the Human Interference Task Force.

From Motherboard:

Building the Hoover Dam rerouted the most powerful river in North America. It claimed the lives of 96 workers, and the beloved site dog, Little Niggy, who is entombed by the walkway in the shade of the canyon wall. Diverting the Colorado destroyed the ecology of the region, threatening fragile native plant life and driving several species of fish nearly to extinction. The dam brought water to 8 million people and created more than 5000 jobs. It required 6.6 million metric tons of concrete, all made from the desert; enough, famously, to pave a two lane road coast to coast across the US. Inside the dam’s walls that concrete is still curing, and will be for another 60 years.

Erik, photojournalist, and I have come here to try and get the measure of this place. Nevada is the uncanny locus of disparate monuments all concerned with charting deep time, leaving messages for future generations of human beings to puzzle over the meaning of: a star map, a nuclear waste repository and a clock able to keep time for 10,000 years—all of them within a few hours drive of Las Vegas through the harsh desert.

Hoover Dam is theorized in some structural stress projections to stand for tens of thousands of years from now, and what could be its eventual undoing is mussels. The mollusks which grow in the dam’s grates will no longer be scraped away, and will multiply eventually to such density that the built up stress of the river will burst the dam’s wall. That is if the Colorado continues to flow. Otherwise erosion will take much longer to claim the structure, and possibly Oskar J.W. Hansen’s vision will be realized: future humans will find the dam 14,000 years from now, at the end of the current Platonic Year.

A Platonic Year lasts for roughly 26,000 years. It’s also known as the precession of the equinoxes, first written into the historical record in the second century BC by the Greek mathematician, Hipparchus, though there is evidence that earlier people also solved this complex equation. Earth rotates in three ways: 365 days around the sun, on its 24 hours axis and on its precessional axis. The duration of the last is the Platonic Year, where Earth is incrementally turning on a tilt pointing to its true north as the Sun’s gravity pulls on us, leaving our planet spinning like a very slow top along its orbit around the sun.

Now Earth’s true-north pole star is Polaris, in Ursa Minor, as it was at the completion of Hoover Dam. At the end of the current Platonic Year it will be Vega, in the constellation Lyra. Hansen included this information in an amazingly accurate astronomical clock, or celestial map, embedded in the terrazzo floor of the dam’s dedication monument. Hansen wanted any future humans who came across the dam to be able to know exactly when it was built.

He used the clock to mark major historical events of the last several thousand years including the birth of Christ and the building of the pyramids, events which he thought were equal to the engineering feat of men bringing water to a desert in the 1930s. He reasoned that though current languages could be dead in this future, any people who had survived that long would have advanced astronomy, math and physics in their arsenal of survival tactics. Despite this, the monument is written entirely in English, which is for the benefit of current visitors, not our descendents of millennia from now.

The Hoover Dam is staggering. It is frankly impossible, even standing right on top of it, squinting in the blinding sunlight down its vertiginous drop, to imagine how it was ever built by human beings; even as I watch old documentary footage on my laptop back in the hotel at night on Fremont Street, showing me that exact thing, I don’t believe it. I cannot square it in my mind. I cannot conceive of nearly dying every day laboring in the brutally dry 100 degree heat, in a time before air-conditioning, in a time before being able to ever get even the slightest relief from the elements.

Hansen was more than aware of our propensity to build great monuments to ourselves and felt the weight of history as he submitted his bid for the job to design the dedication monument, writing, “Mankind itself is the subject of the sculptures at Hoover Dam.” Joan Didion described it as the most existentially terrifying place in America: “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” Thirty-two people have chosen the dam as their place of suicide. It has no fences.

The reservoir is now the lowest it has ever been and California is living through the worst drought in 1200 years. You can swim in Lake Mead, so we did, sort of. It did provide some cool respite for a moment from the unrelenting heat of the desert. We waded around only up to our ankles because it smelled pretty terrible, the shoreline dirty with garbage.

Radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel has a shelf life of hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe even more than a million, it’s not possible to precisely predict. Nuclear power plants around the US have produced 150 million metric tons of highly active nuclear waste that sits at dozens of sites around the country, awaiting a place to where it can all be carted and buried thousands of feet underground to be quarantined for the rest of time. For now a lot of it sits not far from major cities.

Yucca Mountain, 120 miles from Hoover Dam, is not that place. The site is one of the most intensely geologically surveyed and politically controversial pieces of land on Earth. Since 1987 it has been, at the cost of billions of dollars, the highly contested resting place for the majority of America’s high-risk nuclear waste. Those plans were officially shuttered in 2012, after states sued each other, states sued the federal Government, the Government sued contractors, and the people living near Yucca Mountain didn’t want, it turned out, for thousands of tons of nuclear waste to be carted through their counties and sacred lands via rail. President Obama cancelled its funding and officially ended the project.

It was said that there was a fault line running directly under the mountain; that the salt rock was not as absorbent as it was initially thought to be and that it posed the threat of leaking radiation into the water table; that more recently the possibility of fracking in the area would beget an ecological disaster. That a 10,000 year storage solution was nowhere near long enough to inculcate the Earth from the true shelf-life of the waste, which is realistically thought to be dangerous for many times that length of time. The site is now permanently closed, visible only from a distance through a cacophony of government warning signs blockading a security checkpoint.

We ask around the community of Amargosa Valley about the mountain. Sitting on 95 it’s the closest place to the site and consists only of a gas station, which trades in a huge amount of Area 51 themed merchandise, a boldly advertised sex shop, an alien motel and a firework store where you can let off rockets in the car park. Across the road is the vacant lot of what was once an RV park, with a couple of badly busted up vehicles looted beyond recognition and a small aquamarine boat lying on its side in the dirt.

At the gas station register a woman explains that no one really liked the idea of having waste so close to their homes (she repeats the story of the fault line), but they did like the idea of jobs, hundreds of which disappeared along with the project, leaving the surrounding areas, mainly long-tapped out mining communities, even more severely depressed.

We ask what would happen if we tried to actually get to the mountain itself, on government land.

“Plenty of people do try,” she says. “They’re trying to get to Area 51. They have sensors though, they’ll come get you real quick in their truck.”

Would we get shot?

“Shot? No. But they would throw you on the ground, break all your cameras and interrogate you for a long time.”

We decide just to take the road that used to go to the mountain as far as we can to the checkpoint, where in the distance beyond the electric fences at the other end of a stretch of desert land we see buildings and cars parked and most definitely some G-men who would see us before we even had the chance to try and sneak anywhere.

Before it was shut for good, Yucca Mountain had kilometers of tunnels bored into it and dozens of experiments undertaken within it, all of it now sealed behind an enormous vault door. It was also the focus of a branch of linguistics established specifically to warn future humans of the dangers of radioactive waste: nuclear semiotics. The Human Interference Task Force—a consortium of archeologists, architects, linguists, philosophers, engineers, designers—faced the opposite problem to Oskar Hansen at Hoover Dam; the Yucca Mountain repository was not hoping to attract the attentions of future humans to tell them of the glory of their forebears; it was to tell them that this place would kill them if they trod too near.

To create a universally readable warning system for humans living thirty generations from now, the signs will have to be instantly recognizable as expressing an immediate and lethal danger, as well as a deep sense of shunning: these were impulses that came up against each other; how to adequately express that the place was deadly while not at the same time enticing people to explore it, thinking it must contain something of great value if so much trouble had been gone to in order to keep people away? How to express this when all known written languages could very easily be dead? Signs as we know them now would almost certainly be completely unintelligible free of their social contexts which give them current meaning; a nuclear waste sign is just a dot with three rounded triangles sticking out of it to anyone not taught over a lifetime to know its warning.

Read the entire story here.

Image: United Nations radioactive symbol, 2007.

The Radium Girls and the Polonium Assassin

Deborah Blum’s story begins with Marie Curie’s analysis of a “strange energy” released from uranium ore, and ends with the assassination of Russian dissident, Alexander Litveninko in 2006.

[div class=attrib]From Wired:[end-div]

In the late 19th century, a then-unknown chemistry student named Marie Curie was searching for a thesis subject. With encouragement from her husband, Pierre, she decided to study the strange energy released by uranium ores, a sizzle of power far greater than uranium alone could explain.

The results of that study are today among the most famous in the history of science. The Curies discovered not one but two new radioactive elements in their slurry of material (and Marie invented the word radioactivity to help explain them.) One was the glowing element radium. The other, which burned brighter and briefer, she named after her home country of Poland — Polonium (from the Latin root, polonia). In honor of that discovery, the Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with their French colleague Henri Becquerel for his work with uranium.

Radium was always Marie Curie’s first love – “radium, my beautiful radium”, she used to call it. Her continued focus gained her a second Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911. (Her Nobel lecture was titled Radium and New Concepts in Chemistry.)  It was also the higher-profile radium — embraced in a host of medical, industrial, and military uses — that first called attention to the health risks of radioactive elements. I’ve told some of that story here before in a look at the deaths and illnesses suffered by the “Radium Girls,” young women who in the 1920s painted watch-dial faces with radium-based luminous paint.

Polonium remained the unstable, mostly ignored step-child element of the story, less famous, less interesting, less useful than Curie’s beautiful radium. Until the last few years, that is. Until the reported 2006 assassination by polonium 210 of Russian spy turned dissident, Alexander Litveninko. And until the news this week, first reported by Al Jazeera, that surprisingly high levels of polonium-210 were detected by a Swiss laboratory in the clothes and other effects of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Arafat, 75, had been held for almost two years under an Israeli form of house arrest when he died in 2004 of a sudden wasting illness. His rapid deterioration led to a welter of conspiracy theories that he’d been poisoned, some accusing his political rivals and many more accusing Israel, which has steadfastly denied any such plot.

Recently (and for undisclosed reasons) his widow agreed to the forensic analysis of articles including clothes, a toothbrush, bed sheets, and his favorite kaffiyeh. Al Jazeera arranged for the analysis and took the materials to Europe for further study. After the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Radiation Physics released the findings, Suha Arafat asked that her husband’s body be exhumed and tested for polonium. Palestinian authorities have indicated that they may do so within the week.

And at this point, as we anticipate those results, it’s worth asking some questions about the use of a material like polonium as an assassination poison. Why, for instance, pick a poison that leaves such a durable trail of evidence behind? In the case of the Radium Girls, I mentioned earlier, scientists found that their bones were still hissing with radiation years after their deaths. In the case of Litvinenko, public health investigators found that he’d literally left a trail of radioactive residues across London where he was living at the time of his death.

In what we might imagine as the clever world of covert killings  why would a messy element like polonium even be on the assassination list? To answer that, it helps to begin by stepping back to some of the details provided in the Curies’ seminal work. Both radium and polonium are links in a chain of radioactive decay (element changes due to particle emission) that begins with uranium.  Polonium, which eventually decays to an isotope of lead, is one of the more unstable points in this chain, unstable enough that there are  some 33 known variants (isotopes) of the element.

Of these, the best known and most abundant is the energetic isotope polonium-210, with its half life of 138 days. Half-life refers to the time it takes for a radioactive element to burn through its energy supply, essentially the time it takes for activity to decrease by half. For comparison, the half life of the uranium isotope U-235, which often features in weapon design, is 700 million years. In other words, polonium is a little blast furnace of radioactive energy. The speed of its decay means that eight years after Arafat’s death, it would probably be identified by the its breakdown products. And it’s on that note – its life as a radioactive element –  that it becomes interesting as an assassin’s weapon.

Like radium, polonium’s radiation is primarily in the form of alpha rays — the emission of alpha particles. Compared to other subatomic particles, alpha particles tend to be high energy and high mass. Their relatively larger mass means that they don’t penetrate as well as other forms of radiation, in fact, alpha particles barely penetrate the skin. And they can stopped from even that by a piece of paper or protective clothing.

That may make them sound safe. It shouldn’t. It should just alert us that these are only really dangerous when they are inside the body. If a material emitting alpha radiation is swallowed or inhaled, there’s nothing benign about it. Scientists realized, for instance, that the reason the Radium Girls died of radiation poisoning was because they were lip-pointing their paintbrushes and swallowing radium-laced paint. The radioactive material deposited in their bones — which literally crumbled. Radium, by the way, has a half-life of about 1,600 years. Which means that it’s not in polonium’s league as an alpha emitter. How bad is this? By mass, polonium-210 is considered to be about 250,000 times more poisonous than hydrogen cyanide. Toxicologists estimate that an amount the size of a grain of salt could be fatal to the average adult.

In other words, a victim would never taste a lethal dose in food or drink. In the case of Litvinenko, investigators believed that he received his dose of polonium-210 in a cup of tea, dosed during a meeting with two Russian agents. (Just as an aside, alpha particles tend not to set off radiation detectors so it’s relatively easy to smuggle from country to country.) Another assassin advantage is that illness comes on gradually, making it hard to pinpoint the event.  Yet another advantage is that polonium poisoning is so rare that it’s not part of a standard toxics screen. In Litvinenko’s case, the poison wasn’t identified until shortly after his death. In Arafat’s case — if polonium-210 killed him and that has not been established — obviously it wasn’t considered at the time. And finally, it gets the job done.  “Once absorbed,” notes the U.S. Regulatory Commission, “The alpha radiation can rapidly destroy major organs, DNA and the immune system.”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory, Paris c1906. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]