Thursday, July 31, 2008

Plutonium Spill! Aircraft Carrier Fire! Warplanes Crashing! Disasters Everywhere!

I ran into a number of news items recently, none of them calculated to encourage calm:

Plutonium in Denver Sewers! Federal Agents Investigate! Foreign Involvement!

All true, but the accident last June wasn't all that bad. Traces of plutonium from a small glass container got onto a researcher's hands, and onto a notebook. The bottle broke in a NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) lab that's working on ways to detect 'dirty bombs.'

The researcher washed his hands in a basin that drained into the Denver sewers. Then, he took the contaminated notebook out of the lab. Later, other researchers walked into the lab, got contaminated, and spread the stuff more.

The real problem here isn't a minor increase in the background radiation in the Denver sewer system. What's bothersome is that the lab didn't train the people who handled radioactive materials, didn't have a procedure for dealing with a spill, and generally wasn't on the ball.

Big, big problem.

American Navy Captain Lets Carrier Burn!

It looks like someone smoking in the wrong place, where flammable material had been improperly stowed, started a fire that hurt over a dozen sailors, and caused $70,000,000 USD damage to the George Washington.

Normally, there's no smoking allowed in some parts of a nuclear carrier, and there are a lot of nit-picking rules about where flammable liquids should be stored. The George Washington's captain had a more laid-back approach: which doesn't seem to have worked out the way he expected.

The Captain and Executive Officer have been relieved of duty, the George Washington's being repaired in San Diego, and the Japanese government is understandably edgy about the planned arrival of the carrier in Japanese waters.

Air Force Sends Nuke Fuses to Taiwan, Nuke Cruise Missiles to Louisiana!

This is old news. The American Air Force has been making mistakes with sensitive equipment. The fuses sent to Taiwan, in place of some helicopter batteries, didn't have any fissile material in them: but certainly weren't supposed to go to Taiwan. The cruse missiles were armed with nuclear warheads, and flown over the United States: a really big 'oops.'

Nobody got hurt, aside from a couple of severe career setbacks when the SNAFUs surfaced.

F-15 Crashes, Pilot Killed!

Quite a lot of F-15s are in service, and several have crashed. Another one went down yesterday, killing one pilot and injuring the other. They were involved in a large-scale red flag training exercise, a close approximation of actual combat experience. A Las Vegas news station, KVBC's News 3 ("Watching Out for You") gave the usual commentary on such things: "Over the past three decades, dozens of airmen have died or suffered critical injuries during these red flag training missions. But the Air Force claims that the lives 'saved' by this type of training far outweigh the casualties...."

Exactly what happened is anyone's guess at this point.

Time to Panic? Hardly

I'd start worrying, if the news was full of our smiling leaders, courageously and compassionately protecting us from antisocial malcontents at home, and maintaining friendly relations with all the other nice leaders around the world.

It looks like the Air Force and Navy are getting back to the 'rigid' and 'authoritarian' leadership styles that tend to keep ships from catching fire - and nuclear weapons where they're supposed to be.

NIST labs' handling of radioactive materials, and the people who work with them, is getting a (much needed) review.

I'd be surprised if the Air Force doesn't take steps to deal with whatever brought that F-15 down yesterday.

And the news services are, by and large, doing what they're supposed to do: exposing glitches in this society. National notoriety for big-time errors can have a wonderfully stimulating effect to the corrective processes.
  • Plutonium in Denver Sewers!
    • "Plutonium mishap draws stern rebuke"
      Denver Post (July 31, 2008)
      "BACKGROUND: A 62-page report [*.pdf format] details the spread of contamination at a Boulder lab and the lack of handler training. Some material got to the sewer."
      • "A project to enhance the United States' ability to detect "dirty bombs" went awry at the Boulder campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where dangerous plutonium sources were obtained without management approval and handled by inexperienced and untrained researchers, according to a scathing review released Wednesday.
      • "The result, said the 62-page report by the NIST Ionizing Radiation Committee, was the spread of plutonium contamination at the lab and into the Boulder sewer system...."
    • "Bad Training Caused Mishandling Of Plutonium Spill"
      ABC 7 News, Denver (July 12, 2008)
      • "DENVER -- An internal investigation found that sloppy safety procedures and poor training and response contributed to the mishandling of a plutonium spill at the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology lab last month.
      • "A vial cracked June 9 and about one-quarter gram of powder containing plutonium spilled. An investigation by experts found that the vial probably cracked while three scientists were performing an experiment involving a spectroscopy system used to detect radiation.
      • "One of the scientists, a visiting researcher from India, then washed his hands in the sink, sending a small amount of the plutonium down the drain into Boulder's public sewer system.
    • "Information Update: June 24, 2008 Plutonium Discharge into Sink Below Federal and State Limits"
      NIST (June 24, 2008)
      • "BOULDER, Colo. – Using detailed measurements made with the assistance of a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) team, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has determined that a discharge of plutonium powder into the sanitary sewer system from a laboratory room sink at NIST on June 9 was below federal and state limits.
      • "Boulder wastewater officials have said in a statement that the wastewater treatment process has shown no indication of contamination. NIST has been consulting closely with the City of Boulder wastewater officials and city management since the incident. In the same statement, wastewater and city officials did not express health concern for the local population due to the discharge.
      • " 'The health and safety of our personnel and local communities is our top priority,' James M. Turner, NIST deputy director, said. 'The fact that this incident occurred is not acceptable. We are actively investigating what happened and have enlisted the help of top radiation safety experts to review our procedures. We are committed to strengthening our safety program and its implementation to help prevent safety incidents in the future.'...
    • "Feds investigating possible plutonium in Colo sewer system"
      Denver Post (June 18, 2008)
      • "DENVER—A government laboratory is investigating how much plutonium may have leaked into the Boulder city sewer system following a spill of radioactive material.
      • "The spill happened June 9 at the National Institute of Standards and Technology when a small glass vial containing a quarter of a gram of powder that included plutonium cracked.
      • "NIST spokeswoman Gail Porter said Wednesday that experts don't believe the spill is a public health concern because contaminated water wouldn't make it into Boulder's drinking water....
  • American Navy Captain Lets Carrier Burn!
    • "U.S. Navy boots captain after fire on carrier"
      CNN (July 30, 2008)
      • "WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Navy fired the captain and executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington on Wednesday because of a massive fire that damaged the ship in May, Navy officials said.
      • "Capt. David C. Dykhoff and his executive officer, Capt. David M. Dober, were relieved of duty while the ship is in port in San Diego, California, for repairs.
      • "The two were fired because of practices on their ship that Navy investigators believe led to the fire, Navy officials said.
  • Air Force ships nuclear fuses to Taiwan, armed nuke cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana - by mistake
  • Three air disasters in Guam This Year!
    • "Air Force says no survivors of B-52 crash off Guam"
      Associated Press (July 23, 2008)
      • "HONOLULU (AP) — All six crew members aboard a B-52 bomber that crashed off Guam were killed, the Air Force said Wednesday as the search effort shifted focus from rescue to recovery of the crew and pieces of the wreckage.
      • "Two bodies have been found; the Air Force, without elaborating, said in a news release that forensic specialists were trying to identify additional remains recovered.
      • " 'Losing this bomber crew has been a tragedy felt by everyone here and across the Air Force,' said Brig. Gen. Doug Owens, commander of the 36th Wing...."
  • Air Force Claims Lethal Exercises "Save" Lives
    • "Pilot killed in jet crash identified"
      KVBC's News 3 ("Watching Out for You")
      • "NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - The pilot who died in an aircraft accident July 30 was identified as Lt. Col. Thomas Bouley in a press conference with Col. Russell Handy, 57th Wing commander. Colonel Bouley was the 65th Aggressor Squadron commander.
      • "Colonel Bouley died when the U.S. Air Force F-15D Eagle, a two seater he was piloting, crashed on the Nevada Test and Training Range during a Red Flag training exercise July 30, 2008.
      • " 'Colonel Bouley had recently celebrated his 20th year wearing the uniform, and had more than 4,200 flight hours in the F-15 Eagle, the Royal Air Force F-3 Tornado, and the T-38 Talon,' said Colonel Handy during the press conference. 'He was a decorated warrior, an inspiring leader of Airmen, and a loving father and husband. He served his country with distinction and will be greatly missed.'..."
      • "...Over the past three decades, dozens of airmen have died or suffered critical injuries during these red flag training missions. But the Air Force claims that the lives 'saved' by this type of training far outweigh the casualties. ..."


The Mad Dog said...

If only the various news services were as thorough and objective as you.

Brian H. Gill said...

The Mad Celt,

Thanks for the good words. Actually, reporting of these events was rather even-handed. Although the 'plutonium spill' coverage required the reader to read a bit into one of the articles, to find out just how much (or how little) had been found.

In my opinion, the most egregious example of bias in this set was KVBC's News 3's insistence on putting the word "saved" in quotes ("...But the Air Force claims that the lives 'saved' by this type of training far outweigh the casualties...."). I believe that this is an effort to indicate a high level of skepticism over the Air Force's assertion about the value of training exercises.

Brigid said...

Don't you have to practice dangerous evasive maneuvers in order to execute them effectively in combat?

Though it is sad that people die.

Brian H. Gill said...


Sad, yes: certainly.

It's remotely possible that someday training exercises like that can be conducted with something like massive virtual reality gaming software and equipment.

Ideally, there would be no need for any nation to have military forces. But, since every country is populated by human beings, that's about as likely as dental floss becoming popular among chickens.

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