Velma and the cloud of krypton

Jim Gutshall:

It was coming up 441, when you’d come up the road, you could taste it. Up there around Wickersham Road. And right around the Hoover farm. It must have been that it hit the high spots. I can’t really say anything else other than the metallic taste. My main thing was that taste.

Ruth Hoover:

That night we had little red spots on our arms where we didn’t have sleeves on. … We saw on TV that night where they said, “Take a shower if you think you had any exposure to anything. To fallout.” I was so scared and I was just glad to be out of there. We never did take a shower until the next morning. I was so emotionally exhausted, all we did that night was just lay there and watch for the news on TV. We talked about it later, that we had little red spots on the arms. We talked to our doctor. He said that it definitely should have been washed immediately. We should have scrubbed it. But, time will tell if anything happens to us. There was quite a few over in Goldsboro (who said they saw the powdery substance). There might have been a couple of people on this side of the river (also). But it was really fine. It wasn’t as large as paper trash or anything like that. It was real fine. 

Marie Holowka:

So, I finally got up after struggling there maybe five minutes or so. I walked to the house. I opened the door. I stumbled into the house. I said to them, “Did you hear anything about Three Mile Island?” They said, “No, we didn’t.” I said, “You know what happened to me. I fell down three times before I could come to the house.” I was just something like a drunk. We stayed in the house. It was blue. You couldn’t see anything or nothing. And we were scared. Everything was blue. Everywhere was blue. Couldn’t see the buildings or anything. It was just heavy blue all that time. We closed up our doors. We stuffed rags underneath the door so this wouldn’t come in. But I think it was all the way in. And we stayed there. It was a warm day. It was a hot day. It was so hot. We shut all the windows and all the doors and we stayed inside. And about nine [a.m.] we listened to the local radios. But they wouldn’t say anything. They were only playing Dolly Parton’s music.

From Three Mile Island: The People’s Testament, by Aileen Smith, 1989.

Aaron Datesman at A Tiny Revolution takes the last of these reports and tentatively puts forward a physical explanation: the Holowka farm had been blanketed in radioactive krypton, the emitted gamma rays colliding with atmospheric nitrogen to produce blue light. One of the messages Datesman wants us to take away is that nuclear accidents have hard-to-predict and hard-to-track outcomes. Uncontained fission products may turn up some distance from the site of the accident, in patches, and in harmful concentrations. There are no systems in place for measuring the spread of radiation over large areas; in any case ‘radiation’ refers to three physical processes (alpha, beta and gamma decay), each of which affects human health differently.

And Holowka’s story is terrifying. But then, it would be. It has classic ghost story ingredients: an isolated, rural setting; a malign, home-invading, luminous ether which suffocates its victims. In his retelling, Datesman adds a sucker punch: a plausible explanation that makes things worse. Normally, with a ghost story, you have a rational ‘out’. Someone plays the role of Velma from Scooby Doo, explaining that the floating lights are just illuminated balloons, or something, and the fear is instantly dissipated. Datesman’s role, by contrast, is to make that same explanation intensify the fear; this time, the rational position doesn’t lead to an out: our world really is like this. There really are ground-hugging poisonous clouds that glow, and will kill you.

It’s not that there are no comforting explanations available, and in this next bit I’ll have a go at providing some. Of course, unlike someone who knows some physics and who—in a pinch—can quantify, I can offer only endoxa, shuffled around. Marie Holowka had a stroke; a transient ischaemic attack. She lost consciousness for a while, then—the blood flow to the part of her brain that processes vision having been impaired—she ‘saw’ blue. No one else reported seeing blue. Ruth Hoover and her sister were sunburned: it was unusually sunny for early spring, and they were just outside for too long. And fallout was something they’d been told about since high school. There’d been an accident at the nuclear plant: yes, you’d expect to see fallout. In reality, some ashes from a neighbour’s fire had been picked up on a breeze. Similarly, Jim Gutshall was the reteller of an urban myth: that radiation ‘tastes like metal’. Everyone in the neighbourhood of Three Mile Island got to hear that same story that year. The local doctor had a stream of people coming to him saying they’d had a funny taste in their mouth.

These, then, are my outs, my Velma stories. If you’re an advocate of nuclear power generation, should they also be your outs, your stories? I tend to think not. Plausible, anecdotal reassurance falls far short of what’s needed. Saying that the worried are irrational isn’t warranted. Datesman is right to point out that we are not systematic in how we measure and report radiation. A quick survey of news reports on Fukushima-Daiichi shows significant confusion over the units involved. Milli-sieverts are reported as micro-sieverts, or vice versa (one is a thousand times greater than the other); the odd reference to grays, rems and curies gets thrown in. Some people are sceptical about the informativeness of the official radiation counts; the suspicion is that they’re cherry-picked. But say the reports are honest. Are they sufficient? Nuclear plants may have radiation-measuring devices at ‘the main gate’, but what’s happening a hundred metres beyond the main gate? At a thousand metres? At ten kilometres? Although there are radiation sensors in various places (aircraft carriers, universities, EPA monitoring stations), there’s no grid of radiation sensors emplaced in the terrain. Could there be? The official response to a lack of reliable, fine-grained information—in the context of a known accident—is to announce an evacuation zone. This may be sensible, but how can it possibly be reassuring? It’s surely the opposite: an evacuation zone is meant to be alarming; you’re meant to take heed, and leave. So say you do leave. At what point is it safe to go back? At Three Mile Island, the official evacuation zone was a five mile radius from the plant, and evacuation was voluntary. After a while—it can only be—most of those who left went back. Did they go back because they were assured it would be safe from then on? Core meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred in March 1979: a release of radioactive krypton—a dense gas, heavy enough to settle on dwellings—was authorised in July 1980. There was no second evacuation. There is some good news: this planned release was to some extent monitored. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes how they went about tracking it:

On a large wall-map of the area surrounding Three Mile Island, EPA scientists plotted the trail of the krypton. The map is divided into 16 pie-shaped wedges radiating out from the power plant, with colored dots showing the location of permanent sampling sites. Other markers show the placement of the mobile sampling units, which were kept constantly informed of changes in the direction of the plume by radio contact. … EPA’s two teams were stationed on the east and west banks of the Susquehanna opposite the power plant. A monitoring team from the Nuclear Engineering Department at Pennsylvania State University took measurements at locations further out to provide an independent check of EPA’s samples. The data obtained by Penn State researchers also served as an assurance that the krypton plume was dispersing as predicted and not touching in high concentrations at remote locations.

Assuming this is how it all actually happened—that any findings of high radioactivity during the single authorised release would have been broadcast promptly—Pennsylvanians of July 1980 had a way to assess risk. You’d hope this was the case: it’s hard to see any other way of making the planned Three Mile Island krypton release acceptable, short of a second, compulsory, evacuation. But what about unauthorised, unplanned releases? In retrospect, it’s widely believed that there were several. Marie Holowka says she saw blue on the morning of the accident. On that day—March 28, 1979—there was no EPA tracking. On that day, no one was expecting Kr-85 (or Xe-133, say) to be floating around Pennsylvania.

Generally, the cause of nuclear power generation is blighted by a mix of real danger and imaginary danger, a mix of good information and bad. The responsibility for this is almost always placed on the public and the press. But in such a situation, a non-specific fear of nuclear power generation is surely rational: we, as people who happen to live near nuclear power plants, nuclear waste processing facilities and nuclear weapons factories, have only the most limited and coarse-grained information, no ready way to weight it, and the cost to us of getting it wrong seems very high. Lumping all the non-experts together and blaming them is a poor response: the official information is bad. If not outright inconsistent, it’s ad hoc and tainted with the narratives associated with nuclear deterrence. State (or state-licensed) nuclear power generation is as matter of historic fact closely tied to state production of nuclear weapons and the emergent security state which monitors for dirty bombs and / or suitcase bombs. There’s an attendant diversity of information, whether it’s the old and crude ‘Duck and Cover’ or ‘Protect and Survive’, or something more modern, like this from the US DHS (note: uses rem as its units). The state, or some part of it, attempts to to equip its own citizens with a reasonable survival plan in the case of accident, terrorist attack, or all out nuclear war. There are attempts at systematicity, and the language tends to the moderate. At the same time the same state (or some part of it; perhaps some other part) wants people to know that fissile material can be deadly: deterrence depends in part on spreading this perception. For example, here’s Kissinger (albeit in 2009, long after leaving office):

The danger posed by nuclear weapons is unprecedented. They should not be integrated into strategy as simply another, more efficient, explosive. We thus return to our original challenge. Our age has stolen fire from the gods; can we confine it to peaceful purposes before it consumes us?

So we all know that nuclear is dangerous: we’ve been told. So when is it safe?

3 thoughts on “Velma and the cloud of krypton

  1. A bright blue glow would be Cerenkov radiation, and I think either impossible or very unlikely from a release of Kr-85. (As in, if you can see the glow, you’re probably looking at a reactor core or something similar and you should already be running.)

    Any health physicists about, kindly comment.

  2. I think what Datesman is getting at is that there’s another mechanism – or at least he says there is – by which ionising radiation can produce a blue light. Specifically, the radiation creates a low temperature plasma. Gamma rays strip nitrogen atoms of electrons, which then reunite with other nitrogen atoms, emitting light. Perhaps he’s crazy wrong, but if ignoring him won’t do the job then it’s going to come down to work with numbers. He adds some anecdotal evidence. The Slotin accident was said to produce a blue glow. Datesman implies that this couldn’t have been Cerenkov radiation:

    Cerenkov radiation (which refers to optical photons, not nuclear decay) is an interesting physical quirk which arises from the fact that light travels more slowly in a medium (such as water) than it does in a vacuum. However, the index of refraction of air is so nearly identical to that of vacuum that I cannot believe Cerenkov radiation explains what [was] observed.

    The Slotin accident was almost immediately fatal (to Slotin). Why wasn’t Marie Holowka also killed quickly, if she was in fact exposed to Slotin accident levels of radiation? (She did die a few years later.) Datesman’s answer is that in the Holowka case the gamma rays were of higher energy levels, such that human tissue would be largely transparent to them. Again, it comes down to numbers, I think.

    I don’t endorse Datesman’s argument, my main intent is to draw attention to the TMIA interviews and to point out that there are plausible sounding explanations for those accounts which implicate major (but unrecorded) releases of radioactive material and these explanations are at least as good as the plausible sounding explanations which say that the locals were just imagining things.

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