Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pillars of fire

October 27th, 2007

Dear Readers,

Yesterday (Friday, October 26th, 2007) we ventured outside and opened the windows for a while, for the first time since the wildfires began here last Sunday evening.

The sky was blue with streaks of low white clouds. A few large grayish clouds drifted high overhead. The air seemed nicer outside than inside. But it's the microscopic particles that can injure you or even kill you. This morning it smells smokey outside again, because the winds have shifted.

Every car in the parking lot was clean as a whistle -- except mine. It looked like it had been sitting untouched for several months, but it was less than a week.

I drove slowly to the car wash, and used the light spray to mist down the car before blasting it with the high-powered wash. That way I could minimize the release of dry particles into the air. Then we drove by the post office. The box was overflowing with junk mail. Then we drove home. Every car we passed was clean. The soot and ash ruins your paint.

I make friends who stop by climb through the window, so I didn't have to dismantle the wet towels at the bottom of the door and the paper towels jammed in the cracks. One friend was complaining of feeling like he had allergies. "I never get allergies" he said. I reminded him that I'm pretty sure he had the same problem four years ago after the Cedar Fire.

A neighbor -- a fireman -- was pulled off the line after 43 hours straight. He is getting a few days off now. His hands and wrists are black from the soot.

They had him lie down and swallow some fluid that makes him cough up stuff, but it only helps a little. The smoke they breath when they are fighting forest fires is different from cigarettes or from when they are fighting house fires, in terms of the most likely toxins to be found in it. Further away from the fires it all gets mixed together.

Hucking a fire hose is hard work -- but using it is the most dangerous part. They get so close the fire sometimes licks them. It comes at them from surprising angles, it breathes, it spreads out its attack, it focuses. As you push one way and the wind pushes another, the fire dances. It frolics. It plays with your life. It seems alive -- and intent on killing you.

"I saw the wind-driven flames go right between my legs!" my friend tells me. "That's when I decided it was time to back off."

He was fighting the Witch Creek fiasco. Winds were so strong they could see flames rolling up, over, and then DOWN nearby hills.

When the flames go UP, sometimes they form a swirling tornado of fire. Television crews interviewed people who saw 200-foot tornados of flame. My friend saw numerous 50 and 60-foot "pillars of fire." The highest power lines would still be charred in conditions like that.

I asked him about the sparks going even higher. "Oh, yeah. Way, way higher."

Fire spreads a lot like cancer. They can hose down a fire line, especially with air support (which was mockingly late, and probably less than a quarter the number of aircraft it should have been), but they can't stop a fire that bursts out everywhere in a matter of minutes.

Is there any insurance company which can afford several billion dollars in losses a couple of times per decade? No. But rich people can buy commercial firefighting services, who will hose down your perimeter with "eco-friendly" fire retardant. They won't do your neighbors' house, unless they also paid for the service in advance.

Isn't there a better way? Night firefighting requires a lot of sophisticated equipment because cheap infrared goggles won't do. Weak, ground-based spotlights won't do.

You could light the scene with mirrors from space, but you have to have global companies making a good clean American dollar for that to happen. Objects placed in Low-Earth-Orbit have ZERO chance of becoming long-term space debris because the pieces, if destroyed, would quickly fall to earth and then incinerate in the upper atmosphere. If they are made of the right materials, it's no more pollution than a single house fire, of which there are millions every year.

Space-based mirrors could be used for city evening and morning light. They could light a stadium or allow a forest fire to be fought at night when the winds are often calmer and the moisture content of the air is usually higher. This technology is cheap in comparison to what it costs NOT to have it available to the planet! And a lot of people would line up for the chance to work in space.

Other clean-energy systems exist, and many of them need to be used together. One, which I mentioned it in my previous newsletter, and which takes advantage of the principles embodied in the whirling funnels of fire seen so frequently during the recent wildfires, is the Atmospheric Vortex Engine.

These could be built around San Diego to produce CLEAN electricity. Unlike similar Solar Chimneys, the vortexes can be temporarily shut down when emergency aircraft need to fly low over an area.

The slightly-warmed air which the Atmospheric Vortex Engines send into the upper atmosphere can be generated with passive solar heating methods. One would simply be transferring existing heat from one place to another. It would help keep temperatures DOWN locally, and yet have NO net effect globally!

Instead, greedy utilities will do anything to keep the 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors operating, because they hardly have to pay ANY insurance. You'll be lucky to get a tenth of a penny on the dollar after a nuclear accident (if you survive), thanks to the Price Anderson Act -- an unworkable public insurance policy fraud, first passed in 1957 because no insurance company would take on the risk of insuring nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power plants have other hidden costs, but appear to operate in the black because they get practically free fuel, and practically free fuel removal services -- promised, anyway. Not delivered, because Yucca Mountain is a financial and scientific boondoggle doomed to failure. After more than 60 years, there is still no viable, safe, cost-effective solution to the nuclear waste problem. Yet still, the industry creates more nuclear waste every day, on the PROMISE that waste disposal is a solvable problem!

The nuclear power industry loves to watch the price of oil go up, because it also makes alternatives more expensive. Even renewables become more expensive as oil prices rise, because they must be built and transported and constructed before they can be used, and each step burns oil. Already-operating nuclear power plants are less effected in the short term by oil price increases, making them look better on paper as oil prices go up.

The 104 nuclear power plants in the United States generate 10,000 pounds of high level nuclear waste -- the stuff no one knows what to do with -- EVERY DAY, at the rate of about 250 pounds PER DAY PER PLANT. To give you an example of how deadly that 250 pounds is, one thirtieth of teaspoon of the element tritium is all a plant is allowed to release PER YEAR without exceeding the normal allowable limit. Except that additional "accidental" releases are invariably overlooked by regulators, and major releases are gratuitously dismissed as impossible by these same regulators. It defies the laws of physics, and the law of averages.

Uranium, before it goes into the reactor, is relatively free of so called "fission products," and handling such fuel is about as dangerous as handling Depleted Uranium weapons -- which isn't safe, but it's about 10 million times SAFER than trying to handle spent nuclear fuel.

There's no protective suit that can give a person more than a few SECONDS of life near spent fuel. In the midst of a meltdown, where the fuel is burning (VAPORIZING) and releasing the pent-up fission products which the fuel has been generating since it was placed in the reactor, no one can get close to put out the fire.

All "modern" nuclear reactors use essentially the same FISSION process as a nuclear bomb. But they spread the process out over time, from millionths of a second (in an atomic explosion) to years (in a nuclear reactor). The fuel is removed from the reactor after about five years. During that time, it is "poisoned" with fission products. In the event of a nuclear accident, these will get out in large quantities, along with lots of other radioactive materials.

Nuclear power plant operations allow for DAILY RELEASES into the environment. Fission, fusion, and activation products, and particles of the original uranium, plutonium, or thorium are all released.

Nuclear power plant operators boast that their plants "cannot explode like a nuclear bomb." But in truth, they are just a slow-motion nuclear bomb.

AND don't forget: A steam explosion is also possible. The fuel in a reactor cannot be packed tight enough to create a nuclear explosion, but a steam explosion can release a thousand times MORE radioactivity than a nuclear bomb would release.

After a major release, you'll probably be told to plug up the cracks around the doors with wet cloth, and to duct-tape the edges of the windows. You'll be expected to stay indoors for weeks, while some of the most dangerous radioactive substances, such as Iodine-131, decay.

Iodine-131 has a half-life of about eight days, so it takes about 80 days for the levels to drop to below a millionth of the original level, and another 80 days to drop to below a millionth of that. When you have a gazillion trillion billion particles being released, you need the full millionth of a millionth! So always pack a lot of water and be ready to sit tight.

There are a spectrum of other elements that will be released, with a rainbow of half-lives. Strontium-90, for example, has a half-life of 28.8 years.

In addition to the damage caused by radioactive decay, many of the radioactive elements in spent nuclear fuel are potent chemical agents.

In strong winds, most of the problem quickly becomes someone else's problem. But regulations and emergency plans for nuclear power plants only expect releases to be dangerous within 10 miles of their fences, which is preposterous.

Considering all the dangers, it's a wonder that nuclear power ever took hold anywhere in the first place. But when one considers all the clean alternatives that are available now, it's obvious that greed, lies, and corruption are the only things keeping nuclear power going. One accident will explain it all in terms everybody can understand, but waiting for such awful PROOF should not be necessary.

Meltdowns are nasty things. Hospitals fill up so fast that if they can't save you, they won't even let you in. No comfort for the dying. And even if you feel fine, a swipe with a Geiger counter might determine you're actually one of the doomed ones.

As oil closes in on one hundred dollars a barrel, as the polar snow melts and the summer rains stop coming, as war-for-oil becomes openly accepted as state policy, as tropical diseases spread because climates change, as precious resources are carelessly thrown away -- we have to ask ourselves why our share of the work hasn't made a difference -- why it wasn't enough. What did WE do wrong?

The only possibility for preventing nuclear disaster in America is to shut the plants down. So why don't we?


Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA
"Nuclear war must be the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world. People are not curious about the details." -- Paul Brians
�When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.� -- Sinclair Lewis (first American Nobel Prize winner in Literature, d. 1951)
"There is no such thing as a pro-nuclear environmentalist." -- Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), 1992
"Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories." -- Sun Tzu (Chinese General), b.500 BC
"The most intolerable reactor of all may be one which comes successfully to the end of its planned life having produced mountains of radioactive waste for which there is no disposal safe from earthquake damage or sabotage." -- A. Stanley Thompson (Nuclear Physicist)
"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery." -- Octavia Butler

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Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA