Slide-top Box Redux

Although I still can’t claim much expertise even now, I can call myself a long-time woodworker. Over fifty years, in fact. While casting my eye about looking for a new project, I saw something I’ve had since my high school days in Queensland, Australia: a slide-top box made in woodshop class using hand tools, mostly. It’s not much to look at and the dovetails are really crude, but it’s lasted fifty years and the top still slides open nicely.

My thought was – why not duplicate it except not with dovetails? I suck at dovetails and even donated my jig to the local DIY place. I’ve been looking for an excuse to use my box joint jig and this seems like the ticket.

Having no clue what wood species the original was made from, I decided to just use white oak because I not only had some pieces left over from one of the air filter projects, I also had leftover white oak veneer.

I’ll jump ahead and post the final results. Finish is a wipe-on poly, lightly applied.

I was a little worried how the oak would do in the box joint jig, anticipating some chipout but it did quite nicely. Helps to have sharp router bits. The jig being a newish addition to my tool inventory, I was somewhat unfamiliar with it. Lessons would be learned. The first lesson involved the highly recommended step of setting up the jig using test pieces. I did that with some scrap hemlock but I sort of ignored the part about the test pieces needing to be the exact same width. Mine were close but not exact. Well, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, as they say. I had to repeat the test setup using correctly sized test pieces. I did gain some experience with the jig however and the small box I made with hemlock was nice enough that I made a trinket box out of it.

Results with the white oak – very clean fingers.

After some routing and dadoing, check for square and glue up:

After applying the veneer to the 1/8″ plywood top, I needed to fashion the end piece.

Had to fill in a couple of spaces with scrap oak. I probably could have designed it not have to do this but, as is my practice, I was winging it.

The only things remaining were to attach the bottom and apply the finish. One improvement I made from the original was to rabbet the bottom edges to accept and hide the plywood bottom. The original did not do that, so you can see the bottom from the sides. I also did not exactly match the overall dimensions as you can see (photo before I applied finish). The new is about the same width, a little taller and significantly shorter in length:

This was a fun project both from the standpoint of doing box joints and because it recapitulates an object that represents one of my earliest memories.

Air Filtration Unit #4

Last summer, Central Oregon – along with a large swath of the western US – experienced yet another season of raging wildfires. And with wildfire comes smoke, lots of it. It got pretty severe in here in Bend, very unhealthy. In recent years, I’ve combated the problem by making air filtration units equipped with near-HEPA filters and ultra-quiet fans. So far, I’d made three such units. Along with the house forced air unit (the furnace), we kept the inside smoke to a minimum. My next door neighbor also suffered from the smoke so when the air was at peak unhealthiness, I quickly cobbled together a portable air filter to help out. It was basically just a wooden frame sized to fit a filter and then attached to a fan. It worked but was obviously a temporary solution.

After the smoke cleared, I took the filter/fan unit back and proceeded to construct a proper one. My initial thought was to make it into a bedroom end table but the space and dimensions weren’t right so option B was to see how small a piece of furniture I could squeeze the fan and filter into and go from there.

Here’s the result:

It’s almost exactly a sixteen inch cube, with the body and legs made from hemlock and a flip-up top from alder. There’s a 12″x12″x1″ filter that sits inside held by gravity. A wood frame with a screen sits on top of the filter. It serves no function other than to hide the filter from view. As with the last two units, the electrics include an outlet in case you want to set a lamp on top, or a phone charger, or whatever. Air is drawn in through the gap on three sides and exhausted out a port in the back. The gap on the fourth side is blocked with a piece of hard white oak, necessary to attach hinges.

I’m happy with the result but, like with all my projects that I build without a set design (winging it), I made mistakes – some I had to correct, some I decided to live with. I’ll mention those in the build details.

Sizing things up:

I started with the wood frame piece I built for the temporary unit, seen here sitting unattached on top of the fan (a Broan bathroom fan). It was sized to hold the filter so there was no reason not to re-use it. The plywood on the bottom was cut to the same size as the filter frame with the idea I could ‘simply’ slap four side walls around the fan. Mounting the fan to the plywood and the frame to the fan seemed trivial but actually was quite a finicky operation given that the frame had to be lined up exactly with the bottom.

This is the result (above). I first attached a piece of 2×4 to the bottom to provide a secure mounting surface for the fan’s side flanges, and also screwed it to the bottom directly. The filter frame is then attached to the flanges on the fan body – the finicky operation that required keeping the frame exactly lined up while I drove screws in from the bottom. It took like an hour to do that.

The sides:

Unlike with the living room end-table piece I made a couple years ago, for which I used nice white oak pieces, I was looking at lighter, cheaper wood for this unit, preferably available from the local big box hardware store. My choices were poplar and hemlock. I’d not made anything with hemlock before and I saw the store had 1/2″ stock available in that species, so hemlock it was. The thinner stock would cut down on weight and wouldn’t require me to plane 3/4″ pieces down to size. And hemlock is fairly cheap.

The easiest way to fashion the sides was to glue three long boards together using a spline joint and then cut the individual sides to size.

One side needed a bit more work to accommodate the exhaust port and power switch/outlet. And it’s here I made my first mistake, which I didn’t recognize until much later in the build. I think the exhaust port should have been on a panel adjacent to the power switch. That way the unit can sit against a wall hiding the switch and cord, while the air is free to flow out the side into the room. As it is, the unit will have to sit away from the wall to ensure proper air circulation or the switch and cord will have to be visible. Not a huge issue.

To hide the end grain at the top of the side pieces, I glued a thin slat of hemlock. Then a round of sanding and a couple of coats of wipe-on poly.

Electrics:

Before attaching the sides, I installed the switch/outlet, ran the wiring and also fashioned a short duct to channel the fan exhaust to the outlet port. There’s a screen over the port to keep critters out.

Legs:

Also made from hemlock, the legs are two pieces glued in an ‘L’ shape designed to ‘capture’ the side pieces against the plywood and filter frame. Besides being lightweight, the design accommodates my goal of being able to disassemble the unit in case the fan malfunctions or the outlet fries. For additional support, I glued blocks inside the legs; the body of the unit actually sits on these blocks with long screws coming up from the bottom. Before attaching the legs, I put screws through the middle of the side panels, top and bottom. The screws are a nice-looking square drive type I found at Lowes.

We arrive at another of my mistakes; this one I had to correct. Originally, I sized the leg pieces to overlap the sides by maybe an inch. That wasn’t enough as it would mean driving the screws too close to the edge of the wood. I had to trash them and start over using wider pieces.

Here’s where we are with sides and legs attached and wiring complete:

The top:

For the top, I judged hemlock to be too soft. I wanted wood that would be at least a little impervious to scratches and dents, but not heavy white oak. A couple of years ago, I rebuilt the bay window shelves in my dining room and used alder for the top. Alder is also sort of soft but not like hemlock. It’s also a light-colored wood. So, off to the local wood supply store to fetch some alder.

A gratuitous shot of the bay window build:

I used a familiar method to join pieces to make a wider panel: biscuits. I like my biscuit joiner, although it’s probably not the choice for more accomplished woodworkers. And here I made another mistake. Not having decided on exactly how big the top would be – that is, how much it would overhang the sides – I glued up a big enough piece thinking I’d just cut it down to size. But I didn’t think about where those pesky biscuits were and ended up cutting through them on one side. It’s not an issue structurally but you can see the biscuits (that edge isn’t seen in the below photo but you can see it in the first two photos I posted).

The top is just a flip-up deal with hinges on one side. I needed a stout piece of wood to attach the hinges to so I inserted a piece of white oak on the back (what I’m calling the back – the side with the switch and outlet port).

You’ll also see in the above photo where I decided to glue blocks inside the part of the legs that stick up, thinking they would provide a nice surface to attach felt pads. I eventually removed them, which involved taking the legs off and running the table saw blade along the inside. It was that or toss them and make a (third) set of legs. The table saw did the job nicely.

Removing those upper blocks became necessary because of a design element. With the sides open to allow air in, the filter was visible and it didn’t look right. Initially, I tried to design side screens but it just didn’t work. The solution was to build a screen frame to sit on top of the filter and hide it. For added interest, I attached a cool pig knob to the screen.

So here’s the final unit:

The tale of the 4th air filtration unit is not complete without one more mistake. Not a mistake, per se, but a minor design issue. I was real proud of how the top came out – it was absolutely flat and sits on the legs perfectly. But over a couple of weeks, I noticed it was warping slightly. It still sits on the legs nicely but the front to back edges are a bit bowed now. It’s not real noticeable but might get worse. After contemplating ways to fix the issue – or at least halt further warping – I decided to leave it be. The top is not designed to be strong – you can’t sit or stand on it, so a bit of bowing is OK. Probably the reason it bows is because I failed to alternate the grain patterns of the three pieces I glued to make the top. Rookie error. Next time I’ll be sure to do that, and to incorporate some sort of strengthening pieces.

Black Walnut Jewelry Box

A friend of mine had a wedding planned for the spring of 2020 so I decided to make a trinket box as a wedding gift. Well, we know how 2020 went and the box ended up sitting in my living room for two years. I sent it off last week.

The box is made from wood salvaged from an old black walnut tree that stood in Decatur, Georgia until it became a hazard and had to be felled. After the main trunk and big pieces were cut up and sold, the property owner offered the scraps to whomever wanted them and I grabbed some of it. Walnut is a hard wood to work and I didn’t make anything with it for years, even transporting the lot from Atlanta to Oregon when we moved. The trinket box seemed like the perfect opportunity to use the old walnut and it was fun to make even if the wood was difficult to work (quite a few failures due to the wood cracking and chipping). All of the scrap pieces were/are very rough cut with absolutely no straight edges. My table saw, band saw and planer got a real workout in getting pieces to the right size.

Initially, I wanted to use some sort of interlocking joinery but found the walnut was just too brittle and difficult to deal with, so I ended up with a lot of glue joints. Not ideal and I hope it hopes together for a good number of years.

Here’s a photo of it in its new home.

Chuck

2006-2022

With all pet owners and animal people, there’s I think that one special creature that stands out from the rest. The best pet ever. For me, that would be Chuck, my Little Buddy. My best friend and near constant companion for sixteen years.

We lost Chuck last week after an extended bout with cancer, a foe he had bested two years ago in their first encounter with a year-long regimen of chemo. But cancer eventually won the war and Chuck passed from our lives and hearts peacefully, painlessly, as we cared for him best we could. I miss him so much.

Air Filtration Unit #3

About a dozen years ago, I decided to build a TV console to help de-clutter the various devices feeding our television. It wasn’t meant to be a super nice piece of furniture, mainly because I decided to build it mostly out of scraps of various species of wood I had on hand. Except for the top – that would be from a really nice piece of wenge I obtained years earlier for a project that never came to fruition. The basic design came from an article in a woodworking magazine:

Here’s a few photos from the build:

And the finished product (probably should have dusted the top before taking the photo):

So that’s the starting point for this latest air filter project. In an earlier post, I detailed how I built an end table filtration unit using an ultra quiet bathroom fan and a 12 x 12 near-HEPA filter. That worked out pretty well – we get a lot of wildfire smoke in central Oregon. In the bedroom, I’ve been using the first filtration unit, which is a stand-alone piece that doesn’t double as a piece of furniture. But, although it probably works better than the end table unit because of its larger filter (12 x 24), it’s kind of ugly. We’ve moved since I built the TV console and it now serves as an end of the bed … cabinet, table, whatever you call that sort of thing. A couple of months ago, I was staring at it (and I think I will just refer to it as a TV console) and thought that we really didn’t use the four baskets that sit on the lower shelf all that efficiently. And I looked at the ugly filter unit. What if I replaced two of those baskets with a fan & filter and installed a door? Yep, I’m doing it.

I’ve learned a bit from the first two filter projects (the ugly one and the much nicer end table) so installing the fan and filter in the TV console went a lot smoother. The challenges are two-fold. First, I had to figure out how to orient the fan so the exhaust port points in a direction away from the filter – doesn’t do any good to promote a circulation loop – and where I could easily breach the side panel of the console. The other units had four inch dust collection fittings installed to accept a hose. This one would just exhaust directly out the side with no hose. Second, I had to figure out how to mount a filter so it could be replaced easily. The first unit – with the bigger 12 x 2 filter – kind of failed that criterion as it requires removing several screws to get at the filter. The second unit – the end table – has the fan sitting horizontally with the filter resting on top in a custom frame. Very easy to change out by opening the louvered front door. The TV console couldn’t use either of those configurations. The depth of the console is less that 12 inches, so the fan had to be aligned vertically and the 12 x 12 filter had to be angled to fit. Took a little experimentation but I think I managed to nestle both inside the console nicely. The air is drawn from the right side where the two remaining baskets sit, and is exhausted through a port in the left side. There’s a screen covering the port. As with the end table unit, along with an on/off switch, there’s an electrical outlet for convenience. Not sure what we might plug in but it’s there.

There was actually a third challenge, one I couldn’t manage quite as well. Because the TV console was built with several species of wood, I tried to get them all to ‘blend’ by using a dark stain. Either black cherry or walnut, I forget. It worked out OK, not great. But now I was adding a front panel door of yet another species. And as I mentioned, I couldn’t remember the stain I used. The final result is also just OK. Given the bedroom is usually fairly dark , it’ll do.

The filter is easy to change. Two strips of wood are dado-ed to loosely accept the filter and I installed weatherstripping front and back to seal it in fairly snugly. A wooden dowel holds the filter against the rear weatherstripping and the door latch is set to seal the front weatherstripping against the filter frame. Just open the door, pull the dowel and slide the filter in or out. All the other avenues of air leakage are sealed as well, so essentially all the air drawn through the fan goes through the filter and out the exhaust port. A little might leak out around three sides of the door but not much.

The finished product:

Having the console down in the woodshop opened up the bedroom a bit, so I decided to place the finished piece against a wall until we need it. It’s easy enough to slide it over the the end of the bed when the air quality gets bad, as it inevitably will again next summer, and the summer after that.

Next up, a filtration unit for my neighbor. When the air was really bad this year, I quickly cobbled up a fan-filter for her to help alleviate headaches and such. Her unit will essentially be a copy of my end table piece, sized to fit.

One Veteran’s View of War

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

President Dwight Eisenhower, General of the Army (Ret), April, 1953

Nuclear Power and Climate Change

I’m a lifelong nuke. I joined the navy at 17, was trained in their naval nuclear power schools, served as a reactor operator on a ballistic missile submarine, and then had a career in the commercial nuclear power industry as an instrument technician and an electrical/I&C engineer. I count myself fairly well versed in most things nuclear (including nuclear weapons but considerably less so).

All through my career in the civilian world, I would often reply to someone asking what I did for a living by saying “I keep the world safe from the evils of nuclear power.” Which was not entirely facetious. My specialty as an engineer was preparing a type of safety analysis calculation which examined the efficacy of plant safety systems. In other words, I demonstrated that they would work (to a specific degree of certainty) when they were most needed. Or I demonstrated they wouldn’t (again, to a specific degree of certainty), in which case the plant would have to modify something in order to ‘pass’ my calculation. Earlier on as an instrument technician, I ensured that the safety systems were in proper working order. I wrote a blog post on that subject.

Many aspects of my career were unpleasant (particularly the navy part) but I really never had any doubts that nuclear power was a great technological achievement for the benefit of society. Now that scientists (virtually ALL scientists in relevant fields) have concluded quite authoritatively that we’re in the midst of human-caused rapid climate change, I see nuclear power not only as a great thing but vitally necessary. We need nuclear power electrical generation and we need a lot of it. I’m not alone in this opinion.

But wait, what about all those nasty bad things – radiation, nuclear waste, Chernobyl? Fukushima, for chrissakes!? How can nuclear power be not only good but necessary with all that?

The long answer follows but the short answer is: because all other forms of base-load power generation are worse and we need electricity or society will collapse. Conservation, wind, solar, geothermal, etc. are all good things – technologies we should embrace and expand – but none can come close to powering industry, which uses the bulk of electricity in industrialized countries. Until we develop fusion power, only nuclear, coal, oil, natural gas and hydro can supply sufficient electrical power to satisfy our industrial demands. Putting solar panels on our roofs and driving EVs isn’t going to get it done (note that your Tesla still needs to be charged and that electricity comes from power plants). Coal, oil and natural gas have brought us to the present dire situation with climate change and hydro is played out. We can build no more dams, or at least not many.

Great. So we’re all doomed to either a planet-wide climate crisis or radioactive poisoning. Well, no. I don’t know if climate change has progressed to the point of being unstoppable but it certainly will be if we continue on the same path. Some scientists say we’re there already but I’m not sure that stance has a strong consensus. But I can address the radioactive poisoning bit. The short answer to that is: none of those nasty bad things I mentioned earlier are really anything to get worked up about. They’re all solvable with today’s technology and some are not really problems anyway.

Lets take them one at a time.

Radiation. I’m sure you’ve all heard about how bananas are radioactive, so too are granite buildings, how a flight across the country exposes you to a higher dose than nuclear plant workers receive (on average), how living in Denver will too. Not sure why Denver is always the city that gets mentioned – it’s not all that high in elevation – but there you are. Maybe you’ve seen graphs and charts that show how little radiation gets emitted from nuclear power plants as compared to, say, cosmic rays. All that is true so why is it that these facts don’t seem to matter to people? Why doesn’t it sink in? Why do you keep eating bananas, traveling across country by air to visit the relatives during the holidays, keep working in granite buildings while dreaming of a nice retirement cabin on a lake in the Colorado Rockies? Yet you recoil in fear at the thought of living in the same state as a nuclear power plant. It’s irrational.

Radiation scares people more than it should. I hear that it’s because radiation is ‘invisible’ but so are other hazards. Can you tell if your food is contaminated by e-coli or salmonella? Can you smell or taste COVID-19? No, you can’t, at least not without equipment you’re unlikely to have at hand. Detecting radiation also requires specialized equipment but it is very, very easy to do so with simple, cheap instruments. You’ve seen the sci-fi movies where someone is holding a radiation detector which starts clicking like mad. OMG! We’re all going to die! That’s the message. It’s wrong. Detectors designed to measure low-level background radiation will happily click away no matter where you are on Earth. We can detect individual radioactive decay events. A single atom emitting radiation. You’ve heard it before – “The dose makes the poison.” Almost anything is deadly to humans if the dose is too high. Radiation is no exception. It’s around us all the time but you really only need to get concerned when the dose rate (the amount of radiation per time) exceeds a certain level, which varies depending on the type of radiation. Speaking of which, a gamma ray, an x-ray, a beta or alpha particle, are all the same no matter where it came from. The radiation associated with nuclear power plants is not somehow more deadly to humans. For the more technically astute, you may have raised an eyebrow at that statement. I’m not saying all gamma rays are the same. They aren’t. Higher energy gammas, for example, are more hazardous to biological processes. But a 1 Mev gamma from a ‘natural’ source is exactly the same as a 1 Mev gamma from a nuclear power plant.

Being easily detected, radiation is quite manageable. It’s a simple matter to monitor, segregate and isolate radioactive materials to lessen exposure risks. Far easier than other hazards, in fact. When a salmonella outbreak is discovered, do grocery stores check to see which bags of romaine lettuce are contaminated? No, because there’s no easy, cheap way to do that. So it all gets thrown away.

Nevertheless, most folks, even if they’ve just read what I wrote, will become alarmed if the local news reports a tritium leak from the neighborhood nuclear plant. They won’t bother to find out if it was a leak sufficient to cause a health hazard. And the news folks are in the business of scaring you so they won’t say anything to dispel your concerns. Nope. It’s radiation and all radiation is deadly.

Fact is, nuclear plants emit very little radiation outside their perimeters during normal operations. That which does escape is dwarfed by natural background radiation. We’ll discuss abnormal operations in a bit. When it comes to radiation from power plants, it’s not that from the plant that is of concern. Rather, it’s the nuclear waste the plant generates that needs to be discussed.

Nuclear waste. This topic engenders so many misconceptions, it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s break it down into three subtopics: radioactive half-life, amount of waste, long-term storage. Before discussing the first one, a nuclear physics refresher might be of benefit.

Radioactive half-life refers to the time (on average but when you have trillions of atoms, the average is essentially exact) it takes for one-half of a given amount of radioactive isotope to decay, to emit radiation of some form in a process that transforms the isotope into a different isotope.

An isotope is a subset of an element. Uranium, for example, has several known isotopes: U-234, U-235, U-236, etc. The number (e.g. 235) refers to the sum of the isotope’s neutrons and protons. All isotopes of a particular element have the same number of protons but they vary by the number of neutrons. So U-235 has the same number of protons as U-234 (92) but has one more neutron. All elements, from hydrogen (one proton) to oganesson (118 protons) have isotopes. [I had to look up oganesson on the latest chart of the nuclides] All elements have more than one isotope; some have many. Lead, if I counted correctly, has over forty isotopes. Physicists are continually discovering new elements and extending the periodic table. If you’re interested in the subject, check out this link: https://www-nds.iaea.org/relnsd/vcharthtml/VChartHTML.html or just search on ‘chart of the nuclides.’

Isotopes can be further divided into two groups: those that are stable and those that are radioactive. A stable isotope is one that has essentially an infinite half-life. A radioactive isotope is one that will emit some form of radiation and in the process transform into a different isotope, on a schedule according to its half-life. It is the latter group that concerns us here. Some half lives are quite short. Oganesson 294 (Og-294) has a half-life of 5.8E-4 seconds. That’s 0.00058 seconds – it doesn’t hang around very long. U-235 is quite long-lived with a half-life of 2.22E16 seconds, or a little over 700 million years. So if you had a gram of U-235 in your hand, in 700 million years you’d now have half a gram. The other half would be something else, probably mostly lead. In other words, U-235 is not exactly stable but it’s pretty close. That chunk of uranium in your hand just isn’t very radioactive – you could hold onto it for a long time without any noticeable health effects.

The U-235 decay process – termed the ‘decay chain’ – doesn’t go directly from U-235 to Pb-207. Rather, the decay chain involves several steps, each with its own half life and therefore, each with an associated level of radioactivity. In the case of U-235:Pb-207, there is an additional 34,000 years worth of half-life along the chain.

So what’s the point? If you read a news article about nuclear waste and it stated that some of the radioactive material had a half-life of 700 million years, what would your reaction be? If you’re like many people, you’d think “No way! We can’t keep waste safe for that long!” and might jump on the anti-nuke bandwagon just over that. But consider, we just reasoned that U-235 is almost stable, effectively non-radioactive. So why would you worry about burying it in a nuclear waste repository anyway? You could just bury it in your backyard for all the harm it would do. Or maybe you had a chunk of that Og-294. Would you worry about properly disposing it? Of course not. With its half-life, before you could even load it on a truck bound for Yucca Mountain, it would be essentially gone, decayed away (Disclaimer: I don’t know the decay chain for Og-294, so I don’t know the half lives of the downstream isotopes. Maybe nobody does because it just got discovered. But my point stands).

Of course, U-235 and Og-294 are not the components of nuclear waste – and we’re mainly talking spent nuclear fuel here – that need to get buried in Yucca Mountain. There are other far more harmful elements with half-lives somewhere between 700 million years and 0.00058 seconds. I used those two to illustrate a concept, which is that we really only need to consider medium-long half-lives, those in the hundreds or thousands of years. All of the short-lived isotopes will have mostly decayed away to stable isotopes while the spent nuclear fuel is still stored at the nuclear plant, and the longer ones aren’t much of a health hazard anyway.

Our second sub-topic is the amount of waste. How much spent nuclear fuel are we dealing with? I mentioned the old adage about dose making the poison, so it stands to reason that if we bury tons of waste in every local landfill, we’ll have a problem, right? We don’t have that much. In fact, very little. The volume of spent nuclear fuel generated in the US since the beginning of nuclear power plants would fit in one football field at a depth of ten feet (Americans demand their measurements be related to football fields). All of the fuel from all of the power plants for all of the years – one football field. Of course, burying nuclear waste in a football field-sized repository isn’t good engineering so we’d require something a bit bigger, practically speaking. A repository the size of, say, Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Not the whole mountain – just part of it. Wrap your head around that. Or better yet, go to Google Maps, find Yucca Mountain (just north of Las Vegas), zoom in to see the mountain (more like a big hill) and then zoom out to the whole US. That’s the scale we’re talking about to store every bit of spent fuel ever generated in this country. It’s really not an issue. If you’re enthusiastic, now look up how much coal ash is generated in this country. Coal ash is radioactive, by the way.

The third sub-topic is long term storage. Recalling the half-life discussion, it’s clear a nuclear waste repository, such as Yucca Mountain, requires a stable geologic environment on the order of maybe a few tens of thousand years, well within the realm of current geologic knowledge. We might not need even that long – there’s quite a bit of geologic evidence and research relating to heavy isotope migration that strongly suggests that even if the spent fuel storage containers ‘leaked’, the dangerous isotopes aren’t going very far, maybe tens of meters. Finally, repositories such as Yucca Mountain are not ‘bury it and forget it’ installations. There’s no reason why we can’t periodically check up on things – the spent fuel would not actually be buried. More like securely stored with provisions for access. Spent nuclear fuel is a valuable commodity – it can be used in breeder reactors after some reprocessing – so we’d probably be hauling it out again before too long anyway. So don’t pay attention to the folks who scream about million year half-lives.

If you’re up for another Google Maps exercise, find your local nuclear power plant – doesn’t matter which. If you zoom in, somewhere on the site you’ll find a parking lot-sized area that appears to be somewhat segregated from the rest of the plant that seems to contain a bunch of circular objects. You’re looking at the ISFSI – the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation. Because of the delay in opening Yucca Mountain, all US nuclear plants have had to devise methods to store spent fuel onsite. Those circular objects are actually cylinders of concrete and steel – casks – that hold several spent fuel assemblies each. Note that the fuel is not transferred into the casks right away after being removed from the reactor but rather sits in the plant’s spent fuel pool for a number of years while the short to medium-short isotopes decay and the assembly ‘cools.’ Once cooled, the spent fuel assemblies are easily encapsulated in the casks, which are then welded shut. The external radiation from the fuel isn’t all that high because it’s shielded by the cask. Engineers and technicians can safely approach the cask to do whatever is needed in terms of monitoring cask condition. It is these casks that will be ‘buried’ at Yucca Mountain when it finally becomes operational. You can also see that the idea of casks ‘leaking’ is not realistic – they’re composed of metal and concrete and the spent fuel itself is entirely metallic.

Anti-nuke advocates sometimes toss out figures on how much waste is generated by nuclear power plants but they usually lump in all the low level radioactive material to get a bigger, more scary number. They’re including waste such as rags, used anti-contamination clothing and other stuff that really could be buried in the local landfill if people weren’t so paranoid about radiation but has to be segregated because of NRC regulations. Note that I’m not dissing the regulations – they’re a good thing but to understand the issue of nuclear waste, it’s important to understand there’s a lot of regulatory overkill. Focus on the real issue: spent nuclear fuel. For further info: https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management.aspx

OK, but that’s radiation from nuclear power plants that aren’t currently melting down or from spent fuel. What about Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island? Don’t those accidents prove that nuclear power is not safe? How can we be safe knowing the local plant might melt down and emit far greater amounts of radiation? While there have been other, less known nuclear incidents, let’s very briefly examine those three infamous nuclear accidents. With all, the causes and lessons are quite complex but an overview is easily at hand. For those who want the whole, detailed picture of each event, the information is available online.

Three Mile Island. I worked there as a technician, just after the Unit 2 meltdown had occurred in 1979. Talk about a weird workplace! TMI was an accident that had several causes. There were equipment failures (stuck relief valve), procedural failures (cooling valves erroneously locked shut), training failures (operators not believing their instruments), bad design (the control alarm systems inundated the operators and then fell hours behind in recording significant events), insufficient understanding of some aspects of pressurized water reactors (experts did not anticipate a hydrogen bubble) and industry and regulation failures (another plant with a similar relief valve had issues but that wasn’t communicated to the other utilities that operated the same type of plant and the NRC had no regulatory mechanism to compel them to do so). In a nutshell, a relief valve stuck open, much of the water in the core was expelled, a key automatic safety system had been disabled, a hydrogen bubble formed in the core which caused anomalous readings on some control room instruments, the operators did not believe their instruments so they shut down the emergency water supply to the core. The core became uncovered and with safety systems compromised, it partially melted.

Eventually, over days, reactor experts figured out what had happened and efforts to supply water to the core were successful. But not before a significant portion of the core had melted and not before some very anxious hours wondering if the hydrogen in the vessel would explode, as hydrogen has a propensity to do.

What were the immediate ramifications? Well, the reactor was destroyed of course and the effort to relieve the reactor building (the containment) of dangerous conditions mandated venting some radioactive gas to the atmosphere. Radioactive water was released into the auxiliary building but not beyond that. Two things didn’t happen. First and most importantly, the primary defense against an unacceptable release of radioactivity to the public did not fail. The containment building held. Inside the containment, it was radioactive hell. Outside, not so much. And by ‘outside’ I mean immediately adjacent to the exterior of the building. It was still safe for workers outside to do what they needed to do. Secondly, no significant radioactive material or radiation escaped the plant boundary. Yes, there was some venting and the radiation level at the plant boundary fence rose, but never to a level remotely dangerous to the public. I know there are scare stories of radioactive cow milk and increased cancer rates but they’re bullshit. Utter (udder?) bullshit.

Long-term, the ramifications of the TMI accident, other than the utility going bankrupt and nuclear construction across the country stalling, were enormously positive. The industry and the NRC responded in several significant ways: plant operating procedures were modified, existing equipment was upgraded, new equipment was installed, a whole industry watchdog came into being, the NRC became more assertive with regard to plant safety. I personally built half a career on installing extensive modifications to several nuclear plants in the country. It was a veritable boom time for workers like me. You know those safety analysis calculations I mentioned? That was part of it. World-wide, the nuclear power industry is much more safety conscious and much better equipped to handle accidents because of the lessons learned from TMI.

Chernobyl. No discussion of the accident at Chernobyl 4 can be valid if the political situation is ignored. Chernobyl is located not too far from Kiev in Ukraine – at the time a republic of the USSR – and was tightly controlled by the Soviet Union. It has been thirty years since the collapse of that regime so maybe people have forgotten how dysfunctional it was. With regards to what we’re discussing here, the USSR designed, built and operated some very inferior nuclear power plants. Safety systems were minimal and unreliable; the plant operators were cowed into compliance even when they knew things were not right. The basic design of the four Chernobyl units – the RBMK reactor – is notoriously unstable. Chernobyl Unit 4 was as unlike a western nuclear power plant as you could imagine and still be an electric generating station.

I am not nearly as familiar with the events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster as I am with TMI, or as with Fukushima. That’s largely due to the secrecy imposed in the aftermath by the Soviets, which was not relaxed all that much by Yeltsin’s Russia after the USSR’s demise. And good luck getting anything out of Putin. I wouldn’t be surprised if officials of the now independent Ukraine aren’t privy to the details. I did find the HBO show Chernobyl to be illuminating, however. Worth a view.

Briefly, for whatever reason, the agencies responsible for nuclear plant operations in the USSR ordered a test to be performed at the Unit 4 reactor which would demonstrate whether the latent heat of the reactor after an emergency shutdown could supply the turbine with enough steam to power the reactor coolant pumps until backup generators could come online. It was ill-advised because it required disabling safety systems designed to shut the plant down when key plant parameters were exceeded. It also involved operating the plant in a manner outside its design limits. The reactor responded badly to the test, power increased at a rate far beyond limits and entered an operating region that was uncontrollable. A steam explosion occurred due to the excessive power level and the reactor essentially blew its top. A fire ensued. The fire is key because the RBMK used graphite as part of its core design and the graphite caught fire, resulting in an inferno that was extremely difficult to put out. The heat plume from the raging fire sent highly radioactive material into the atmosphere where it was carried by winds to neighboring regions.

But bad as it was, it wasn’t as bad as some nuclear doom-sayers said it would be. Many people died trying control the fire and plenty more died in the local region due to radiation poisoning, cancers. Certainly, this was the worst nuclear disaster we have experienced. However, predictions of enormous swaths of land uninhabitable for centuries have not borne out. The area surrounding Chernobyl is still abnormally radioactive but wildlife is flourishing. It isn’t the post-nuclear wasteland many predicted. Ukraine, including Kiev, is fine and countries further away that were in the path of the plume have no significant residual contamination. I should mention that the other three units at Chernobyl eventually resumed operation (they were finally shut down in 2000, I believe). They probably shouldn’t have.

Fukushima. Fukushima teaches a lesson and that lesson is that TMI already taught the lesson. Ignore it at your peril. The Japanese nuclear regulatory agencies were lax in their oversight and failed to insist the plants adopt newly-developed safety measures, as is routinely done in the US.

The six-unit Fukushima Daiichi plant, located about 250 km from Tokyo on the Pacific coast, was inundated by a tsunami generated by a large earthquake centered offshore which caused massive damage to the country. The plant’s seawall was inadequate to hold back the rising water which subsequently flooded most of the plant, including vital safety equipment. Units 1 – 4 were most affected, with the newer units 5 and 6 being better protected. Of the four affected units, 1 – 3 were operating; Unit 4 was shutdown for refueling. Units 1 – 3 each suffered substantial core meltdown.

The details are not as involved as at TMI, which had in my opinion more numerous sub-failures, but briefly the floodwaters disabled the emergency diesel generators, located at low elevation (i.e., below the level of the seawall). Without the diesels, the plant safety systems were left with only the emergency batteries, which were not designed to last very long. The four reactors eventually lost electric power and injection of core cooling water terminated. Without continual cooling water, the cores in 1 – 3 overheated and melted. The core for unit 4 had been removed to the spent fuel pool. There was some concern with the spent fuel pool conditions post-accident but they turned out to be unfounded.

Fukushima has become a major economic disaster not only for the utility that operated the plant but for Japan as a whole. Regulators and government officials shut down the entire Japanese nuclear industry in the aftermath and it still hasn’t fully recovered. Prior to Fukushima, the country relied on nuclear power for some 30% of its electricity, all of which had to be replaced by non-renewable power during the shutdown. In the years since, many of the reactors have either restarted or are gaining approval to do so. Meanwhile, the cleanup effort at the Fukushima plant and the Fukushima prefecture is ongoing and very, very expensive.

It’s not my intent to minimize the extent of the Fukushima disaster. It surely was the worst accident to occur with Western built reactors (Fukushima’s reactors were designed by General Electric, one of the four reactor suppliers in the US). The only points I will offer are: one, such failures are very rare and should be evaluated in context of the industry’s record as a whole, particularly in comparison to that of competing industries. An examination of the coal, gas and oil industries will quickly expose far greater environmental and economic damage, damage that includes worsening climate change. Moreover, far more people have died and are dying from fossil fuel use than can be attributed to radiation exposures. My second point is that the recovery from the disaster has been a bit of a disaster itself, mainly due to unreasonable fears of radioactive contamination preventing engineers from doing what needs to be done: use the Pacific Ocean as a heat sink and a source of dilution. Rather than build hundreds of storage tanks to hold the radioactive water used to cool the disabled cores, a pipeline could be constructed to carry the water far out to sea where it would mix with ocean currents. The resultant increase in ocean radioactivity would be extremely minimal due to the enormous dilution factor, and would be localized at that. Such is the state nuclear power today – even reasonable recovery and mitigation efforts are thwarted by ignorance.

Current Regulatory Environment. The USNRC has long set a good standard for safety and has in my estimation has properly directed efforts to learn from Fukushima as we did with TMI (Chernobyl was irrelevant – the RBMK reactor design and Soviet regulatory practices were so far afield from western reactors and regulations that no real lessons could be learned, other than to do what you can to keep nuclear technology from countries like the USSR). Not long after regulators and industry experts determined what exactly had gone wrong to allow the Fukushima accident to happen, the NRC developed a two-phase plan. Phase I was guidelines (some were mandatory actions) for the industry to use to determine if similar vulnerabilities existed at US plants. Phase II comprised regulations implemented to address the vulnerabilities with utilities having a certain period of time to make physical and procedural changes that would assure Fukushima-like accidents would not occur. Unfortunately, the NRC now has three Trump-appointed commissioners and they voted to shelve Phase II of the Fukushima effort.  How far Trump’s commissioners have degraded the NRC’s history of safety consciousness in favor of a ‘good for business’ regulatory atmosphere remains to be seen (think of the cozy relationship Boeing has/had to FAA regulators, resulting in the 737 Max 8 mess).

With a few exceptions (Davis Besse, Grand Gulf, Diablo Canyon), nuclear utility operators have always been very safety-conscious. They want nothing to do with a potential accident – it’s bad for business. Even those plants that have skirted too close to the safety line (such as the three I just listed) still operated well above Fukushima levels of safety compliance and have had increased regulatory scrutiny. Moreover, as mentioned above, after TMI an industry watchdog group – the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) – was created to monitor individual plant safety performance and to provide a vehicle for sharing important technical information between utilities. Recall that knowledge of a the faulty relief valve design was never shared with other plants, including TMI. INPO now has in place a repository of data regarding equipment and procedural issues available to all utilities. Indeed, plants are committed to inform INPO of any such issues as they come up. In terms of monitoring operations, all plants are subjected to periodic inspections by INPO, inspections that comprise audits of past operations as well as monitoring current operations.

My Stance. I no longer work in the nuclear industry and I derive no source of income from when I did. As the saying goes, I have no horse in this race. If every nuclear plant in this country was shutdown tomorrow, I would lose nothing. But I do still have a considerable amount of knowledge from my decades of work in the industry. So here’s what I think should be done:

  • Shutdown vulnerable plants. I’m not in favor of shutting down good nuclear plants before their design life expires but as they come up on that milestone, strict scrutiny and application of the latest data and protocols need to be employed to determine whether a license extension should be granted. For sure, if any existing GE designed BWR’s are still operating with Fukushima vulnerabilities, maybe we should pull the plug on them.
  • Accelerate construction of new generation reactors. Several good, improved designs are out there. The new Westinghouse reactors coming online as Units 3 & 4 of the Vogtle plant in Georgia are an example of a large-scale design but there are also a few small-reactor designs that have passed various regulatory approval stages and are eligible for preliminary licensing. Smaller plants are cheaper and have greater inherent safety with respect to major disasters (they are much less likely to suffer core meltdown). Smaller plants are easier to site, both from a local regulatory and public resistance stance as well as not needing as large a heat sink for cooling. And being new designs, they benefit from the latest technology and innovations.
  • Strengthen NRC independence (not sure how but certainly we need scientific experts not lobbyists). The NRC is already an independent agency (like the EPA) so is not under the president’s authority. As we have seen with Trump, that doesn’t mean the president can’t set their agenda. We need the NRC to do their job, as they have done for most of the agency’s existence.

I don’t expect the long-anticipated nuclear renaissance will come about in my lifetime, if ever. What with the alarming increase in not only ignorance but vilification of science and scientific expertise in the last decade or so, I can’t imagine the country will accept large scale nuclear power as a solution to climate change. Indeed, many progressive elements in the country who are working to stem the climate crisis still can’t seem to get past their long-held, irrational fears of radiation and radioactive waste. And if Trump gets elected again, all bets are off.

Futurespeak, and Some Other Topic

Lately I’ve been reading – in some cases rereading – classic science fiction novels. BookBub, a website that notifies you of one-day sales on eBooks, often has one of them in the daily listing so I link over to Barnes & Noble and download it to my Nook for a pittance, like $1.99. Some are free but those tend to be B-listers you’ve never heard of.

  • By the way, I love my Nook. With failing eyesight, having an ereader that allows you to crank up the font size to whatever you like is a fabulous thing.

Classic novels are characterized by several things I guess but obviously one of them is that they’re old. They were written decades ago. As such, the authors necessarily wrote from the perspective of the era they were living in – the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, whatever. With science fiction, that also meant foreseeing the future from the perspective of their particular present time, and as we all know, predictions of the future are pretty loose and evolve as the ‘present’ moves forward. Maybe movies teach us that better with perhaps Blade Runner, made in 1982 and set in Los Angeles 2019, being a prime example of a future prediction that wasn’t quite on point. With novels, I go with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949. As we all can now attest, the events of that dystopian future took place not in 1984 but a bit later in 2016 with the election of the Mango Mussolini and subsequent demise of the last remaining rational Republicans.

But this post is actually a rant. I’m not here to expound on the greatness of classic sci-fi novels. I’m here to complain about an aspect of the novels that often bothers me, and sometimes makes the book unreadable. It’s futurespeak. That might not be the correct term and I certainly didn’t coin it. Futurespeak is what it literally sounds like – speaking in the future. In other words, the language, idioms and peculiar syntax that future people speak, or at least how the author imagines they might speak. As a concept, futurespeak is not only good but inevitable. Consider pastspeak – how folks spoke in the past. It’s said that an English-speaking person transported back in time a couple of hundred years to England would have trouble understanding the locals despite their speaking ‘English.’ Language evolves, and fairly quickly I’d say. Consider also old movies, maybe a 1940’s gangster flick. The slang used by the characters is often entirely out of use today, and I’d suspect that a lot of young people might not even know what some of it meant. And that’s just half a decade or so.

So when a science-fiction writer puts pen to paper on a novel set a few centuries or more in the future, it’s logical that the characters would be speaking a language quite unfamiliar to us today. But is that really what we want to read? I say no, at least not that much. Take Samuel R. Delany’s classic Dhalgren. Acclaimed as one of the great novels of our time, it leans heavily on futurespeak. I’m not sure how far in the future it’s set but the characters use a whole lot of unfamiliar words, slang, idioms. It’s sometimes hard to parse. Mind you, Dhalgren is one of those books I’d read before – maybe on the submarine – and I recall thinking highly of it, so clearly I haven’t always had this aversion to futurespeak.

Probably most people reading this post (clarification: no one reads these posts) will think my issue with futurespeak is at best trivial and at worst, a sign that I’m embracing ignorance. Frankly, I lean towards the latter; as I grow older, I feel less inclined to put in much effort to read books. My life has been one of reading difficult things, albeit mostly technical stuff involved with three disparate degree programs and a career as an engineer/technician. But I have read a lot of the heady, classic books. I just don’t want to anymore. Instead, I’d like authors to concentrate on the plot, character development, suspense and the like and not force me to learn a new language. After all, if I wanted to read War and Peace (I don’t want to), I really think I’d like the English translation over the original Russian and French, even though those languages are what the characters would have spoken.

Some futurespeak is OK – I’m currently reading Across a Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg, which is set a few centuries in the future and employs a moderate amount of unfamiliar slang and other futurespeak, certainly less than the characters would probably actually speak given the time. So I’m not totally ignorant.

Oh, and the ‘other topic’ this post’s title alludes to? I’ve actually already touched on it: my aversion to challenging reads. Didn’t used to be that way but I now really only like easy reading. Probably a sign a failing mental acuity. Sigh.

July 4, 2021

I’m not a big Independence Day, patriotic, flag-waving kind of guy and July 4th 2021 is really no different. But this year I put up an American flag on the front porch. I wouldn’t even have a suitable flag to display were it not for the three that my wife and I have from various relatives dying. Today’s flag was that which was presented to my mother on the death of my father, a career Army man.

Why this year? Not long ago, someone on the local Nextdoor internet site crowed that he walked around and could not find a single house displaying a US flag and a Biden campaign sign, clearly suggesting that liberals are unAmerican. That guy clearly is a nazi Trump supporter and fuck him. But also fuck the Republican Party as a whole for co-opting the flag as their own. Liberals need to reclaim their national symbol.

So the flag went up but at the same time, I moved our bleeding-heart liberal ‘welcome to all neighbors’ sign to a spot just beneath. Nearby on the other side of the house, our BLM sign continues to proclaim similar lefty sentiments. No Biden sign, although we still have it from last year’s campaign season.

Liberals – remember, I’m one – as a group tend to point out a lot of things wrong with this country, more so than do conservatives anyway. Racial injustice, income equality, warmongering, the 2nd Amendment, crappy health care system, and so on. Liberals tend not to extol the country’s virtues as many conservatives are quick to do, although their idea of ‘virtues’ often seem rooted in the 1950’s. You know, the good ol’ days of Eisenhower and McCarthy, colored people drinking fountains, Hollywood blacklisting. Conservatives also like to use any excuse to praise the military, all the time, something that aggravates this veteran to no end. As Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station – a combat veteran who you need to follow – recently expressed, July 4th is not ‘Military Day’ and there’s no need to thank the veterans; it’s a day to celebrate ALL of America. Couldn’t agree more.

So where does that leave folks who are mostly OK with the USA but don’t want to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to all our national societal failures? It’s a difficult question, particularly if you’re not terribly up on the state of the world as a whole as a way of comparison. This blog is normally almost entirely my opinions and words but here’s one guy’s take on America that strikes a balance on Independence Day, I think. Jeff is a Marine Iraq war veteran posting on his page Unprecedented Mediocrity:

Without exception, reservation, or qualification, I will always be proud of the United States of America. That’s not to say that [there have not been] some great moral evils in our past. How this great nation could simultaneously enshrine the notion that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator certain inalienable rights while simultaneously making other men property of those men is beyond me.

Yes, the ramifications of that injustice persist today as you cannot have two families walk down those very opposite paths and wind up at the same destination. With each generation, we are getting closer to merging those two timelines. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, but I can either commit myself to pulling them closer together or pushing them further apart. As [for me] and my household, I will commit my days to pulling them together.

Manifest Destiny led to some pretty terrible atrocities against the native people and friends, we’ve had airplanes longer than women have had the right to vote in this country. Despite acts of inexplicable gallantry, men of color could not command white men in what we call the greatest generation.

My mom went to segregated schools and as such, it was not that far back in history, one generation, where black and white kids couldn’t go to the same schools. America has gotten much wrong but that is only because our nation is infested with humans and we are [fallible] fallen creatures. Which brings me to my point.

I will always be proud of America because we have always shown that we are willing to self correct. Let’s face it, just 60 to 75 years ago, humans conquered other humans and did terrible things to one another on an unprecedented scale. That’s humanity’s story, not the singular story of the United States.

I’ve [traveled] the world in both war and peace and I’m here to tell you, the rest of those people outside our borders are not exactly acing the humanity test either. Not even you Canada, you’re close, but you still got that jacked up bacon thing that frequently pisses me off.

Friends, the world is not getting it right and neither are we. However, we are self correcting. Slowly and painfully, we are riding that long [arc] of the moral universe that bends toward justice. We fight and argue with each other and that’s largely because we liked each other a lot more before we knew what our countrymen felt about every single topic on the internet. January 6th was a travesty, but I’m here to tell you that if it were any other country, if our democratic institutions were just a bit weaker, our elected government would have fallen.

We have a lot of self correcting to go and I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ll see perfect in my lifetime, so I’ll guess I’ll have to settle for ‘Merica, better than the rest of the world. Because sooner or later, we self correct. Granted, not always as [quickly corrected as] that prohibition on alcohol thing, but sooner or later, we get there.

That’s why I am now and always will be proud of the United States of America. To all my friends judging from other nations, I leave you with a July 4th, screw you buddy your country can’t human any better than we can. Now, if you will excuse me I have to go watch my fellow Americans start an insane amount of wildfires today as a result of ignorant firework usage. We [are] trying to human better, we really are, but ‘Merica!

Agree with Jeff or not, he makes more sense than most. Perhaps he has more faith in our ‘self-correcting’ than warranted but it’s an optimistic sentiment. Perhaps you think certain other countries *are* doing human better. Maybe. Surely not many.

Here’s to leaving a better America – and world – to our (someone else’s) children. Here’s to self-correcting.

A Small Thing

At last night’s local Elks baseball game, I watched a pop foul fly into the stands behind home plate. There, two boys – one older, maybe 13 or 14, and the other much younger – scrambled after the ball. The older kid won the race, proudly holding up his prize. As the victor turned to rejoin his seatmates with a spring in his step, the younger boy walked slowly back towards his parents, head down, dejected. A baseball glove in his hand, empty.

I saw then that the older boy had also noticed his vanquished rival, the way he walked, the disappointment. Older boy, who had already sat and displayed the ball to his friends, got up and trotted down to where the younger kid sat – and gave him the ball.

Small town baseball, an American tradition. We have season tickets and go to most games. The play on the field is not always stellar but it’s real. Off the field, in the stands? Well, sometimes you’ll see things there, too. Small things, but no less real.