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Francium is a naturally occurring element–a highly radioactive alkali metal with one valence electron. At any given moment there is 20-30 grams of Francium (about an ounce) present on Earth. This tiny sample is found in the form of individual atoms located within uranium and thorium ores around the Earth’s crust.   The half-life of the longest-lived isotope of francium is only 22 minutes. The weird transient metal continuously vanishes (decaying into astatine, radium, or radon)–only to be continuously replaced when actinium-227 decays into francium-223.


Marguerite Catherine Perey (19 October 1909 – 13 May 1975), French physicist

How did we ever even find out about this stuff if it only exists as 20 grams of individual atoms scattered around the entire world like evanescent Easter eggs? I’m glad you asked! It was discovered by a French woman in 1939. Marguerite Catherine Perey (1909 – 1975) was born in 1909 in Villemomble, France (just outside Paris)–where Marie Curie’s Radium Institute also happened to be located. Perey aspired to be a medical doctor, but her family fell into financial difficulty so, at the age of 19, she took a job at a local spot–working directly for Marie Curie. Curie died of exotic cancer in 1934, but Perey kept up her mentor’s work purifying and studying actinium and looking for a theorized “eka-caesium” (a heretofore unknown alkali metal with an atomic number of 87). Through her methodic and painstaking work and observations, Perey discovered it just as World War II. broke out. Francium was the last element discovered in nature. The rest have been synthesized in labs.


Marguerite Perey (second from left) at the Curie laboratory in 1930

After discovering an entirely new atom, Perey finally received a grant to pursue her university studies, and she received her PhD from the Sorbonne in 1946. In 1960 she became an officer of the Legion of Honor. She founded the laboratory which ultimately grew into became the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry in the Center for Nuclear Research and she was the first woman to be elected to the French Académie des Sciences.


True to her original dream of helping people as a doctor, Perey hoped that francium would help diagnose cancer and make the disease more treatable, but sadly, francium itself was carcinogenic (which is something to remember, if you find an atom of it sitting in some uranium ore). In her late life, Perey developed bone cancer which eventually killed her–a dark fruit of her pioneering research.

I mention francium this week, not because of its name (coincidentally, it is named after the great nation of France), but because of the life of the scientist who discovered it. Marguerite Catherine Perey had to struggle against prejudice and steroetypes, but she was able to overcome them and move to the foremost ranks of scientists and leaders of France. Her research helped that country become a nuclear leader (which it still is) and helped humankind better understand the nature of chemistry and physics.

Fifty years ago marked the height of the Cuban missile crisis.  The entire US military was operating at DEFCON 3–and Strategic Air Command had moved up to DEFCON 2 (a readiness condition which indicates that “nuclear war is eminent”).  As part of these protocols, the Air Force moved nuclear armed interceptor aircraft to smaller airports along the northern border in preparation for a Russian strike.

A F-106A with a Russian TU-95M

On the night of October 25, 1962, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center spotted a commando stealthily climbing over the perimeter fence to sabotage the base.  The guard fired at the intruder but missed all his shots. He then sounded the alarm.  The proper alarm rang at several nearby bases, but at Volk field in Wisconsin, the alarm system was wired incorrectly.  Instead of an intruder alarm, the klaxon for nuclear war sounded.  The pilots duly got in their F106-A jets (each of which was equipped with a nuclear rocket) and prepared to fly north for the last battle.

Just as the planes were taking off, a truck sped onto the field flashing its lights.  The false alarm had been caught in time and the interceptors did not launch.  Decades later the Air Force declassified documents relating to the incident.  The shadowy saboteur was revealed to have been a bear.

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The incident was quickly forgotten because it was only one of an astonishing number of near misses in the subsequent days of the crisis.  On October 27th, 1962 alone there were multiple live-fire accidents and misunderstandings: the world nearly ended several times that day.   That morning, a U-2F spy plane was shot down over Cuba by means of a Soviet surface-to-air missile and the pilot was killed.  Later that day a US Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft was fired on and one was hit by a 37 mm shell.  The US Navy dropped a series of “signaling depth charges” on Soviet submarine B-59 which was armed with nuclear torpedoes (however one of the three Soviet fire officers objected to launching the weapons).   Over the Bering Sea the Soviets scrambled their MIGs in response to a U2 spy plane and the Air Force in return launched their F-102 fighter aircraft.

After a bewildering storm of desperate diplomatic negotiations which were interspersed with apocalyptic bluster, the American and Soviet administrations began to back down from the confrontation.  The Kennedy administration dispatched negotiators to meet with representatives of the Soviet Union at Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant, and a deal was reached over the fortune cookies and chopsticks.   The Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba and America, in turn, pulled nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy.

It’s easy to look at the news today and feel a sense of despair about the world and its inhabitants, but it is worth looking back a half a century to the sixties when the world was a much more stupid and dangerous place.  Everyone drove giant unsafe cars with big fins.  Lobotomy was a common medical procedure.  China and India were actively fighting a war.  But, above all other concerns, the Soviet Union and the United States eyed each other beadily and prepared to destroy the world in response to a bear or a spy plane or an insult in a Chinese restaurant.

After the Cuban missile crisis ended, the STRATCOM stood down from DEFCON 2 on November 15, 1962.  Although the armed forces have returned to DEFCON 3—medium readiness— a few times since then (notably during the Yom Kippur war and on September 11th) the nation has never again gone to DEFCON 2.

So, it is not easy to do what has never been done before. In October of 2010, I wrote about the National Ignition Facility, a joint scientific project run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California.  The National Ignition Facility aims to recreate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs on a microscopic controlled scale.   The project is ostensibly designed as a United States defense project to model the nation’s next generation nuclear arsenal without use of (treaty-prohibited) nuclear testing, but cognoscenti have long suspected that it is a way that our country can pursue fundamental energy and physics research despite the apathy (or outright animosity) of a do-nothing congress and politically divided citizenry.

One of four banks of giant capacitors which power the laser microburst

Unfortunately the facility experienced a series of setbacks, and the massive laser array did not deliver the promised energy output.  However, this month all that changed!  On July 5th the facility briefly powered up its 192 lasers to deliver a 1.85-megajoule blast that released more than 500 trillion watts of power. Although the laser beam was only active for a miniscule fraction of a second, during that brief time it was focusing a thousand times more energy than the rest of the entire United States was actively using.  Remember Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” shouting about “1.21 gigawatts!” and desperately running his hands through his hair? Well, a gigawatt is a billion watts.  This laser beam produced a 500 terrawatt blast–500 trillion watts.  So just imagine Doc shouting “1.21 gigawatts!” four hundred thousand plus times!

The successful test firing brings the NIF within tantalizing reach of their desired ignition breakthrough—the glorious moment when scientists flip a switch and create a controlled, contained fusion reaction.  Building such a “star in a jar” is the first step on a road to titanic engineering and energy-creation achievements which could reshape humanity’s place in the universe.

While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years.  There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.

So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design.  Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem.  This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood).  It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!

Hindsight is 20/20, but, seriously, was this the best place for a series of fission reactors?

The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash.  Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down.  Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely.  Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside.  Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans.  The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants.  Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march in Cologne (AP Photo/dapd/Roberto Pfeil)

Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine.  Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.

Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?

Well no, not really.  The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth.  Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post).  The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers).  Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.

Nigerians fight an oil pipeline explosion which burned hundreds of people to death

But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future.  At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.

I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend.  I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant).  Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.

Tsunami Memorial Stone

But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay.  Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward.  Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again.  I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.

If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things.  And of course happy new year to all of my readers!

[And as always–if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]

The Tarim Basin

Tarim Lake was a salty lake which once covered more than 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 sq mi) in a dry region of Xinjiang, China.  The Lake was formed because the Tarim River and the Shule River both emptied into an endorheic basin–a landlocked area which prevents the outflow of any water. Since the time of the Yuan Dynasty the region has been called Lop Nur— a Mongolian name which apparently means something like “lake of many converging water sources”.  The name has become ironic: because of climate change, deforestation, and a series of ill-conceived dams, Lop Nur is now an inhospitable desert with a few small seasonal salt ponds. The region is today an arid wasteland.

Ruins of Loulan City in Xinjiang

Lop Nur boasts a complex history stretching back to before the Bronze Age and the region has been the site of a number of fascinating but mysterious archaeological finds. A number of exceptionally preserved mummies (known as the Tarim mummies) which date from 1900 BC to 200 BC intrigue scholars because of their Caucasian features and DNA. These inhabitants of the Tarim Basin probably spoke Tocharian, the eastern-most known Indo-European language.  As history ebbed and flowed, the Tarim/Tocharian people became mixed with Uighurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyzs, and Han Chinese to form a vibrant culture.

A Tarim Mummy The mummy of a young woman nicknamed "The Beauty of Xiaohu", dating from about 1500-1800 BC

Lop Nur is thus the site of one of the great lost cities from Chinese history. During the time of the Han Dynasty, a large oasis town now known as the Loulan Ancient City flourished by the lake and grew rich from its position along the Silk Road.  But in the 7th century, due to a changing climate, the Loulan Ancient City vanished entirely destroyed by desertification, sandstorms, and other factors.   It is believed that the deforestation of the swampy poplar forests around the lake may have been an important factor contributing to the swift decline.  The region holds on to its treasures fiercely.  Numerous archaeologists and treasure hunters have been killed by the dunes, quicksands, and flash floods of the desert including noted archaelogist Peng Jiamu, who disappeared in 1980, and the explorer Yu Chunshun, who died there in 1996.  Because of its desolation and danger Lop Nar is also called the forbidden zone.

Satellite photo of Tarim Basin

There are other even more compelling reasons that the region has that name. The Red army uses parts of the desolate and unpopulated evaporite wasteland as a testing ground (much in the manner the US Defence department makes use of certain desert regions Nevada).  In 1964, Lop Nur was the site of the first successful thermonuclear fission test by the Peoples Republic of China, a project which was blandly codenamed “596”. Three years later in an exercise known as “Project Number 6” the Chinese military successfully tested a hydrogen bomb at the site thereby simultaneously demonstrating their power, scientific aplomb, and ability to craft boring secret names.

A Photo of Project 6 a hydrogen bomb detonated in the air at an altitude of 2960 meters (9549 feet)

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