Posts Tagged ‘nuclear fuel’

h1

New life for Silkwood plant

November 20, 2016
dscf2411_v1

Plutonium vault in the former Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Plant. Some 50 lb. of plutonium went unaccounted for at the Cimarron plant during the Silkwood years due to sloppy handling and accounting uncertainties.

Stigma has a long half-life.  42 years ago, a young woman named Karen Silkwood was found dead in her wrecked car on the side of Oklahoma State Highway 74.  She had been a laboratory worker at the nearby Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Plant as well as an OCAW union officer, and at the time of her death she was on a journey south to Oklahoma City, purportedly carrying evidence of unsafe work conditions and nuclear material diversion to a meeting with union representatives and the press.  After Silkwood’s death, the alleged smoking-gun documents were nowhere to be found.  Conspiracy theories blossomed in the absence of conclusive understanding into the circumstances of her death.  The idea that Kerr-McGee management had her “bumped off” gained a major following, despite no evidence underpinning this suggestion and a competing toxicology finding of methaqualone in Karen’s blood.  Two years later, in 1976, the Cimarron plant shut down in ignominy.

In 1983, Meryl Streep played Karen Silkwood to critical acclaim in a major motion picture that served to cement the murder theory in the popular imagination.  While the basic plausibility of the alleged murder conspiracy fades with each passing year, it endures as fact in the folk wisdom of numerous anti-corporate and anti-nuclear advocates.  As for the Kerr-McGee plutonium fuel plant, it too endures; and after decades of vacancy, is poised to rise from the ashes of its scandal-ridden nuclear past as a manufacturing facility for aircraft parts.  This is particularly remarkable, as very few former nuclear facilities survive cleanup intact, and few structures survive decades of neglect to the elements.  (Some of the surrounding lands, however, remain under NRC license and are still being remediated for contaminants.)  I visited the site in the fall of 2016, and would like to thank Jeff Lux, project manager and engineer, for his generosity and willingness to take me around this landmark in the cultural history of nuclear technology in the USA.

h1

Videos from my recent trip to Chernobyl

September 17, 2011

Two videos from my most recent radioactive scavenger hunt in Ukraine’s Chernobyl exclusion zone are now on YouTube.  One features a pinhead-sized piece of spent nuclear fuel (pictured at left) that was carefully excavated from under about six inches of soil with the aid of a CDV-700 Geiger counter probe, taken back to our hotel through Checkpoint Lelev (where the scintillation portal monitor was conveniently out of service), and analyzed using a scintillation detector and Marek Dolleiser’s “PRA” software—a clever MCA emulator that uses one’s computer audio device as a nuclear ADC.  Check it out (I recommend selecting the HD format at the bottom of the window):

The second video illustrates some environmental radiochemistry at work, namely the affinity of the beta emitter Sr-90 for the phosphate matrix of deer antlers.  In this video I show that although the gamma activity (i.e. Cs-137 activity) in a pair of shed antlers is no different than local background, the beta activity is much higher.  The reasons for Sr-90’s notoriety are tangibly apparent: a decades-long half life that keeps it cracklin’ long after the accident, and alkaline-earth chemistry that favors uptake in bone.

%d bloggers like this: