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Carjackers doomed to die in petty theft gone horribly wrong

Two days ago, a truck carrying a container of radioactive cobalt-60 (enough to make a dirty bomb) was stolen by carjackers off a highway near Tijuana. Today, authorities found the truck. The thieves probably aren't terrorists, just some guys who wanted a truck with a crane attached to it. But, at some point, they opened the container of cobalt-60 and will now almost certainly die from radiation exposure.

More on the Fukushima water leaks

The New York Times has a story that ties together several reports of contaminated, radioactive water leaking into the ground and the nearby harbor at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. From the sounds of things, this water has not yet heavily contaminated the open sea. That's the good news. The bad news is that everybody pretty much agrees that TEPCO has no idea what to do when it comes to actually stopping the leaks, and no clue how long they could continue.

Risk of forest fires rising near Chernobyl

A trend towards drier, hotter summers in the forests around the abandoned nuclear power plant at Chernobyl has increased the riks of forest fires in the region — which is a big deal, considering the fact that trees and plants in the area have absorbed some of the radioactive isotopes from the 1986 disaster. If they burn, more people will be exposed to airborne particles. It's a small fraction compared with the people exposed by the original Chernobyl power plant fire, but still dangerous.

Safecast, crowdsourced radiation monitoring project, logs 10 million data points

The crowdsourced radiation monitoring project Safecast, which was launched in the weeks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, has reached a big milestone: they have collected and published over 10,000,000 individual data points.

Another look at Fukushima's legacy

Recently, I linked you to a report on the World Health Organization's estimates of the long-term risk of cancer and cancer-related deaths among people who lived nearest to the Fukushima nuclear plant when it went into meltdown and the people who worked to get the plant under control and into a cold shutdown. The good news was that those risks seem to be lower than the general public might have guessed, partly because the Japanese government did a good job of quickly getting people away from the area and not allowing potentially contaminated milk and meat to be consumed. The bad news: That one aspect isn't the whole story on Fukushima's legacy or the government's competency. Although the plant is in cold shutdown today, it still needs to be fully decommissioned and the site and surrounding countryside are in desperate need of cleanup and decontamination. That task, unfortunately, is likely to be far more difficult than anybody thought, with initial estimates of a 40-year cleanup now described as "a pipe dream". One key problem: The government cut funding to research that could have produced the kind of robots needed for this work, because it assumed that nobody would ever need them.

Everything you thought you knew is wrong

The Van Allen Belts are donut-shaped rings of radioactive particles that encircle the Earth. They can damage satellites and pose a bit of a risk for human astronauts who venture outside our planet's protective magnetic field and into the regions of the belts. Back in high school, you probably learned that there were two of them. But, it turns out, under certain situations, this planet actually has three Van Allen Belts. The story about this at Nature News, written by , is a joy to read. You really get a sense of how totally scientists' minds were blown by this discovery.

The legacy of Fukushima

At Time, Bryan Walsh reports on two pieces of news coming out of the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. First, the World Health Organization has released estimates of the health effects on the plant's workers, the people who were involved in shutting it down, and the local residents who lived closest to the plant when it went into meltdown. These people will have an increased risk of leukemia, thyroid cancers, and cancer, in general. But the increase isn't as large as you might have feared. Walsh does a very good job of breaking down the statistics, here. The second bit of news is, unfortunately, not so good. In Germany, which decided to phase out nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima, coal power is on the rise. And it's rising faster than the increase in renewable energy.

Build your own quantum entanglement experiment at home

It may be a little late for folks on the East Coast to round up the necessary parts before the blizzard really hits, but this would be a fun trapped-in-the-house project. It's not cheap, but it does give you the opportunity to see how subatomic particles interact with one another in the privacy of your own home. In a post at Scientific American George Musser explains how he put his experiment together. A follow-up promises to show you how to use it, and what he found when he did.

The origin story of a fungal super hero

In comic books, radiation exposure always leads to awesome superpowers. In reality, not so much. Except in the case of Cladosporium cladosporioides, a fungus exposed to high doses of radiation during the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Not only did C. cladosporioides survive it gained a superpower — the ability to "eat" radiation.

Kinetic energy, as illustrated by Disney

This is the difference between low kinetic energy (top) and high kinetic energy (bottom), as illustrated in the 1956 Disney book Our Friend the Atom. It may be useful in visualizing some of the ideas presented in my recent feature on space radiation.

From Fresh Photons, a fantastic blog chock full of science pictures.

Via David Ng

How space radiation hurts astronauts

Space is full of radiation. It’s impossible to escape. Imagine standing in the middle of a dust storm, with bits of gravel constantly swirling around you, whizzing by, pinging against your skin. That’s what radiation is like in space. The problem is that, unlike a pebble or a speck of dirt, ionizing radiation doesn’t bounce off human flesh. It goes right through, like a cannonball through the side of the building, leaving damage behind.

Read the rest

The dangers of being a 19th-century x-ray fiend

X-Ray Specs — the cheap glasses that ostensibly allow you to see the bones in your own hand and/or ladies' undergarments — are instantly familiar to anybody who read comic books in the 20th century. Last week, The Onion AV Club shared a fascinating video showing that immature gags about x-ray vision began long before the Marvel Comics' advertising department was even a glimmer in somebody's eye.

"The X-Ray Fiend" was a short film produced in 1897 — just two years after William Rontgen gave x-rays their name. It's basically an X-Ray Specs gag writ large, with the aforementioned fiend checking out the insides of a necking couple. You can watch it at The Onion.

That video sent me toodling around through some of the fascinating history surrounding x-rays in pop culture. Rontgen wasn't the first to discovery x-rays, but he was the first person to really study them in depth and his x-ray photograph of his wife's hand kicked off a public sensation. To give you an idea of how into x-rays everybody was for a while, the AV Club story actually includes a link to a 19th century Scientific American how-to that promised to teach the reader to make their own x-ray machine at home. You know. For funsies.

It's kind of crazy how popular x-rays became, considering how dangerous they can be. The Scientific American piece, for instance, now comes with a 21st century disclaimer warning that "Many operators of the early x-ray systems experienced severe damage to hands over time, often necessitating amputations or other surgery." Which brings us to Clarence Dally ...

Read the rest

The most polluted place in the world

At Grist, Jess Zimmerman has an interesting piece about a lake near a notoriously leaky former Soviet nuclear research site, where the radiation level is so high that an hour on the beach can be enough to kill you.

You can’t really blame Lake Karachay for acting up — it comes from a really rough area. The lake is located within the Mayak Production Association, one of the largest — and leakiest — nuclear facilities in Russia. The Russian government kept Mayak entirely secret until 1990, and it spent that period of invisibility mainly having nuclear meltdowns and dumping waste into the river. By the time Mayak’s existence was officially acknowledged, there had been a 21 percent increase in cancer incidence, a 25 percent increase in birth defects, and a 41 percent increase in leukemia in the surrounding region of Chelyabinsk. The Techa river, which provided water to nearby villages, was so contaminated that up to 65 percent of locals fell ill with radiation sickness — which the doctors termed “special disease,” because as long as the facility was secret, they weren’t allowed to mention radiation in their diagnoses.

Read the rest at Grist

French doctors on trial for cancer radiation overdoses

In France, doctors and radiologists accused of overdosing hundreds of cancer patients, then destroying evidence to cover up their potentially lethal mistakes, are on trial for manslaughter. Out of a group of 24 patients who got up to 20% more radiation than they should have, seven patients died. "The errors were blamed on the radiation machines being upgraded with new ones and doses of radiation being miscalculated." More at the Guardian.

For those with cancer: make your own "With great power comes great radiotherapy" t-shirt

Science blogger Ed Yong whipped up this awesome graphic and made me a one-off tshirt to wear to radiation treatment for breast cancer.

Cancer patients, radiation oncologists, radiation therapists, and the people who love them all can make their own t-shirts and stickers with the JPEG if you are so inclined!

Thanks, Ed!

Radiation is like an angry wife

A public info campaign in Japan compared radiation to a nagging wife. Apologies have been made. Reuters' Miki Kayaoka:

The Japanese Atomic Energy Agency devoted a page on its website to an effort to "make the hard words used in the nuclear power industry" more easy to understand, particularly for women. The page, which included a cartoon of an angry, fist-waving wife and her cowering husband, compared the wife's yell to radiation. It continued the metaphor by saying that the women's increasing agitation could be compared to "radioactivity", while claiming the wife herself was comparable to "radioactive material".

An interesting way to explain radiation exposure and risk

Science blogger Lee Falin has a potentially useful analogy for putting radiation dose and risk into perspective—treat it like currency. Part of the problem with explaining radiation is that there are multiple units of measurement in play and they're all unfamiliar to the average Joe and Jane. The numbers get confusing quickly and when numbers get confusing, most people just tune them out. "Blah blah blah blah radiation blah blah" is both an unhelpful message, and an often terrifying one.

Falin tries to get around that problem by putting radiation doses into a number system that everybody knows and uses every day—money. He starts by deciding arbitrarily that 1 sievert of exposure is worth $1000. Once you've got that established, it's easier to understand relative doses. In this system, getting $4000 all at once is a deadly dose. Most of us get $2.00-$3.00 a year in background radiation exposure. A mammogram is worth .40.

This is not a perfect method. In particular, it seems to work best for acute exposure. Falin still hasn't totally solved the problem of explaining the accumulation of radiation over time. But I think that this idea—thinking of radiation doses in terms of money—could go a long way to helping some people understand this stuff a little better. I really liked how he explained cancer risks, for instance:

What about the long term risk of cancer caused by radiation exposure? According to the EPA, an average of 2,000 out of every 10,000 adults will die from some form of cancer. If you expose everyone in that group to an extra $10.00 of radiation in one year, the number will jump to about 2,005 people.

Read the rest at Everyday Einstein

Image: International Money Pile in Cash and Coins, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from epsos's photostream

Bunnie Huang's open Geiger counter: design notes and reference


Bunnie Huang, cracker of the Xbox and creator of the Chumby, wanted to do something to help people in Japan following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. He created a reference design for a cheap, reliable, stylish Geiger counter for everyday carry, under the auspices of Safecast, a group that works on ongoing disaster relief in Japan. Being a consummate hardware hacker, bunnie has documented the steps he took along the way to create his free/open Geiger counter.

After much discussion and review with the Safecast team, we decided that a key component of the user experience should be a graphic display, instead of a 7-segment LED readout. Therefore, a 128×128 pixel OLED panel was incorporated into the design. The OLED panel would be mounted behind a continuous outer shell, so there would be no seams or outward design features resulting from the introduction of the OLED. However, as the OLED is not bright enough to shine through an opaque white plastic exterior shell, a clear window had to be provided for the OLED. As a result, the naturally black color of the OLED caused the preferred color scheme of the exterior case to go from light colors to dark colors. User interaction would occur through a captouch button array hidden behind the same shell, with perhaps silkscreen outlines to provide hints as to where the buttons were underneath the shell. I had originally resisted the idea of using the OLED because it’s very expensive, but once I saw how much an LND7317 tube would cost in volume, I realized that it would be silly to not add a premium feature like an OLED. Due to the sensor alone, the retail price of the device would be in the hundreds of dollars; so adding an OLED display would help make the device “feel” a lot more valuable than a 7-segment LED display, even though the OLED’s presence is largely irrelevant to the core function of the apparatus.

Safecast Geiger Counter Reference Design

Hacking geigers: Safecast crowdsources radiation data in Japan after Fukushima disaster

Watch Online "Hacker" Group Crowdsources Radiation Data for Japanese Public on PBS. See more from PBS NEWSHOUR.

On PBS NewsHour tonight, a report I helped the program's science correspondent Miles O'Brien produce about the challenge people in Japan face of finding and sharing reliable data about radiation contamination, after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Embedded above, a conversation between Miles and NewsHour host Hari Sreenivasan about our report, which focuses on a grassroots group called Safecast that measures, maps, and publishes data on radiation contamination levels throughout the country.

While in Tokyo, Miles spoke to Hari Sreenivasan about his trip with Safecast workers into the voluntary exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where they detected levels reaching the equivalent of six X-rays per day.

He also filled us in on his conversations with Japanese officials working in evacuated areas and Japanese residents eager for more information about the consequences of the nuclear accident.

I'll post the video for the full feature when it's available online.

How much radiation are you exposed to on a plane?

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, you’ve probably heard me and other people talk about the radiation exposure we experience in everyday life.

Read the rest

At a Tokyo radiation hotspot, weirdness abounds

Officials were worried this week, when they discovered a radiation hotspot in Tokyo, kicking off readings as high as 3.35 microsieverts per hour. (For context, a dental x-ray is about 5 microsieverts. This wasn't a massive amount of radiation, but it was concerning. The AP reports that readings of that level have been found in the Fukushima evacuation zone.)

The good news: This has nothing to do with Fukushima. It turned out to be an extremely localized hotspot, and officials found the real source nearby.

The bad news: The real source turned out to be something the AP is describing as "mystery bottles" stored under someone's house. No. Really.

So, I guess the takeaway to this story should be something like: Japanese officials find source of radiation hotspot, and are no longer worried that it's being caused by Fukushima. Instead, they are now worried about why somebody in Tokyo is storing bottles of a radioactive substance under a house.

(Via Steve Silberman)

Another radioactive Boy Scout

My old employers, mental_floss magazine, have a new editor and some cool new stories out in their September/October issue. One is about a kid who built a nuclear reactor at age 14. No, not that kid. Meet Taylor Wilson, a kid who shares some hobbies with the more-famous "Radioactive Boy Scout" David Hahn, but with, apparently so far, less tragic results. (It helps that Wilson, unlike Hahn, discussed his plans with adults who helped set him up with the right safety environment to build his reactor in.) Another difference: Wilson's interests lie with fusion, not fission.

By the time Wilson stumbled across Fusor.net, 30 hobbyists worldwide had managed to produce the reaction; Wilson was determined to become the thirty-first. He started amassing the necessary components, such as a high-voltage power supply (used to run neon signs), a reaction chamber where fusion takes place (typically a hollow stainless steel sphere, like a flagpole ornament), and a vacuum pump to remove air particles from the chamber (often necessary for testing space equipment).

Wilson also funneled money collected from Christmases and birthdays toward buying radioactive items, many of which, to his surprise, were available around town. Smoke detectors, he learned, contain small amounts of a radio-active element called americium, while camping lanterns contain thorium. In antique stores, he found pottery called Fiestaware that was painted with an orange uranium glaze. Wilson trolled websites such as eBay for an array of nuclear paraphernalia, from radon sniffers to nuclear fuel pellets, and came to own more than 30 Geiger counters of varying strengths and abilities. Most of Wilson’s radioactive acquisitions weren’t dangerous, given their small quantities. But a few—vials of powdered radium, for example—could be fatal if mishandled, which is why he’s never opened them. (Although he’s been tempted.)

There's a longer preview of the story online. The rest is in the new print issue.

Image: Radiation Suit Minifigure, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from n8kowald's photostream

What sulfur particles in California can tell us about Fukushima

During the early weeks of the Japan 3/11 crisis, after a tsunami critically damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, we talked on Boing Boing about why Americans on the West Coast didn't need to worry about exposure to radioactive fallout. Shorter version: The levels of radiation that made it across the Pacific were far too low to cause a serious health concern.

Now here's something really interesting: The levels of fallout that made it across, while too low to pose a risk to humans, were detectable by extremely sensitive scientific equipment. And those measurements are now being used to document what happened at the site of the disaster.

In the process of trying to cool down the overheating reactors, officials in Japan dumped sea water and reaction-slowing boric acid into the reactor cores. The resulting chemical reaction—chloride ions in salt water combining with fast-moving neutrons from the reactor—produced a form of radioactive sulfur. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, were already measuring sulfur particles in the air as part of climate research. Days after the crisis began, their instruments picked up the radioactive sulfur that had crossed the ocean.

Now, using modeling and some basic knowledge about how particles behave, they've been able to use the information they gathered in California to estimate how high radiation levels were in Fukushima in the early days of the crisis. A couple of things they've found: Further evidence that at least one of the reactor cores suffered a meltdown, and evidence suggesting that the damaged reactors didn't re-start after the emergency began—a possibility that has been pointed out by other scientists. I'll have a more in-depth look at this study later this week. For now, check out the write ups at Nature News and USA Today.

The full research paper is at The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Thanks, Miles O'Brien + Jenny Marder of PBS NewsHour)

Read the rest

Fukushima: Very high radiation levels still being found in some parts of power plant

This image shows two spots at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, at the bottom of a ventilation stack between the No.1 and No.2 reactors, where radiation levels are still high enough to kill a human being. I'm talking about the quick-death-by-radiation-poisoning sort of "kill," not the possible-death-by-cancer-at-some-point-in-the-future sort. At the colored spots, radiation levels were measured at 10 sieverts (10,000 millisieverts) per hour.

The image was captured using a gamma ray camera, the same sort of equipment that researchers use to track radioactive isotopes in the human body as part of medical treatments.

Image: REUTERS/Tokyo Electric Power Co

Via David Biello and the Atlantic Wire

The pros and cons of irradiated food

Irradiating food doesn't make it radioactive, and it does kill dangerous bacteria, like the E.coli that killed many Europeans this summer. But it's also not a panacea against food poisoning and it's definitely not the most popular idea ever thought up. In a column in the New York Times, Mark Bittman examines the evidence behind irradiation, and how that evidence does and doesn't get considered in the choices we make about food.

When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food. Proponents say those changes are beneficial: like killing E. coli or salmonella bacteria. Opponents say they’re harmful: like destroying nutrients or creating damaging free radicals.

Many people are virulently for or against. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that irradiation “could do for food what pasteurization has done for milk.” (The main difference between irradiation and pasteurization is the source of the energy used to kill microbes.) Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch — which calls irradiation “a gross failure” — told me it was “expensive and impractical, a band-aid on the real problems with our food system.”

There are a few people in the middle. Former assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Carol Tucker-Foreman is mostly anti-, but said that if she ran a nursing home or a children’s hospital — a place where people with weaker-than-average immune systems were cared for — it “might be something I wanted to do.” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (and a food-movement icon), allows that “the bottom line is that it works pretty well if done right, and I’m not aware of any credible evidence that it does any worse harm to foods than cooking. But it isn’t always done right, and foods can become re-contaminated after irradiation.”

Via Andy Revkin

Image: NAM - Nabob Irradiated Coffee, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from lifeontheedge's photostream

Japan: angry Fukushima citizens confront government (video)

The video above documents what I am told is a meeting between Fukushima residents and government officials from Tokyo, said to have taken place on 19 July 2011. The citizens are demanding their government evacuate people from a broader area around the Fukushima nuclear plant, because of ever-increasing fears about the still-spreading radiation. They are demanding that their government provide financial and logistical support to get out. In the video above, you can see that some participants actually brought samples of their children's urine to the meeting, and they demanded that the government test it for radioactivity. When asked by one person at the meeting about citizens' right to live a healthy and radioactive-free life, Local Nuclear Emergency Response Team Director Akira Satoh replies "I don't know if they have that right." Boing Boing reader Rob Pongi spotted this online and sent this in to us. I asked him for more info.
The current evacuation zone in Fukushima is only 20-30 kilometers. The Japanese government has compensated the evacuees from inside that zone and has financially supported them in moving out of it. However, as more and more high levels of radiation are being discovered outside of the evacuation zone, many more Fukushima residents (and many others located nearby Fukushima) want the government to also help them logistically and financially so that they can move out further away from the nuclear plants. Especially since many children are now being exposed. But the government does not want to do this at all and many people are getting very upset. This video was filmed in Fukushima at the Corasse Fukushima Building on July 19, 2011. The meeting was entitled "Japanese Government Discussion - Demands for Evacuation Authority". This meeting was attended by residents of Fukushima and some Representatives for the Nuclear Safety Commission Of Japan. It was filmed by some anonymous members of the "Save Child" website. This site includes Japanese news about the Fukushima Nuclear disaster, advice on how to avoid contamination, and many, many related videos. This site is much like enenews.com on steroids! I checked domaintools.com and the name of the registration is private. You can see the original Japanese videos of this meeting on the Save Child website here (English), and on Youtube here. This video was translated by pejorativeglut. And, for sure, the English subtitles are correct. I was not involved in the production of this video.