Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Surreal Higgs Bumps The LHC

Alan Gillis Reports   ¿Es macho el Higgs o no es macho? Did Alexander Calder discover the Higg's boson while inventing the Large Hadron Collider? Well, anything is possible in Quantum mechanics. Physicists at CERN have always been closet Surrealists. Their latest hat trick, Run Rabbit Run, a brand new particle, possibly the one they were looking for. Though it will take more analysis and more experimental data and maybe even a new cleaner very high energy electron-positron collider to find out. The Higgs is an important particle and central to Standard Model physics if it exists. The Higgs has to be nailed or the SM collection of interlocking theories is flawed. Without the Higgs the SM cannot account for the mass of the Universe. Ergo non fiat, no Ferrari in any CERN parking lot. And that's impossible and might start a trend if $10 Billion is not enough to prove anything.

All CERN has for sure is a new particle that looks like a Higg's candidate. And the Higgs may not be fundamental after all, only responsible for a small amount of the mass of the Universe. See the "Higgs Fandango" below.

Chorus from The Rain In Spain ...

“As a layman, I would now say, I think we have it,” said CERN Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer (back row 2nd from left, Peter Higgs in front) announcing the preliminary results July 4. “It’s a historic milestone today. I think we can all be proud, all be happy.”

Anyway after 50 years of slaving over hot colliders, you can't blame physicists if they're partying now. It's great for morale and with the whole world watching the party, the applause from enraptured physicists, the Champagne flowing, well it's a relief for any physicist just to be human again.

Then it's the post-collider hangover and maybe we over did it. A heavy particle at 125 GeV or about the mass of an iodine atom looks good in the data but Dr Heuer clarifying "it" as a "fundamental scalar boson"? Sounds like Premature Collider Evacuation Syndrome where circumlocution pops out a Higgs, but with no conclusive evidence for scalar or zero spin from these bosons at the LHC.

The WW decay data channel should tell CERN that the Higgs decays into two W bosons indicating it is the SM Higgs with zero spin, but there is a deficit in this data both in the CMS and ATLAS experiments.

Lots of types of decays happen too and there are other puzzling deficits. Here's the research from ATLAS on what's been discovered in all channels.

There's an odd excess too. The diphoton decay channel for this new boson shows many more photon events than was predicted for the Higgs. Here's the latest diphoton data from ATLAS in pdf.

Higgs? Blasts Into 4 Muons

So it's premature to talk of any Higgs discovery. Maybe we have signals from one of a group of Higgs particles, but not from the Standard Model Higgs. Maybe it's just a new charged particle outside the Higgs group. Or even a composite particle. Two things we know for sure are more research is needed and CERN PR provides more spin than any known particle.

A Simple Higgs Experiment For The LHC

The mysterious Higgs and all from a vacuum too. So why not study the vacuum? CERN already has a space-type vacuum at a space temperature of near absolute zero in its 54 km (27 km x 2) beam pipe system. This heavy Higgs field has to be inside it if it's real. Run the LHC without the protons and see if you can excite the Higgs field with the RF system used to accelerate protons. But CERN does this anyway in any proton run. Both protons and any fields in the vacuum are being accelerated. You could say the data is in. No Higgs field has been excited or accelerated or collided or found. So is there a real Higgs field that exists everywhere? Not at the LHC. No says CERN, that's not how it works:

"Higgs bosons are quantum fluctuations in the Englert-Brout-Higgs field that are visible experimentally only when energy is “injected” into the field. Concentrating the right amount of energy in proton-proton collisions at the LHC excites the Englert-Brout-Higgs field, which resonates at a precise energy corresponding to the mass of the Higgs boson.  The Higgs boson appears momentarily before decaying into other particles that the LHC experiments can measure. Some theories predict the existence of multiple Higgs bosons."

The fundamental Higgs boson decays? So far all big particles discovered at colliders decay. Why? Well the short answer is because they can. That's one answer from Lily Asquith at ATLAS. But maybe these fundamental particles aren't fundamental, but unstable composites from the bottomless pit of collider physics.

Maybe the  E-B-Higgs field is unstable too. Then can CERN kick it with some energy to get a Higgs? Or is there another pathway if it is stable? An electron is stable and an electron field is stable. Do you need to kick the electron field with energy to produce an electron? Unstable particles would have no mother fields.  

What CERN says above, can be translated in another way. CERN strikes a Higgs high C "energy" from its SteinwayLHC that is "injected" into the totally quiet and invisible high C E-B-Higgs field where the energy "resonates" and "excites" the field and out pops an excited real world high C Higgs note that suddenly decays into other minor notes, sometimes 4 bright photons or a trill of mi-mi-mi-mi's etc etc.

Nonsense, as we know the air here is the field that resonates with high C but there are no high Cs in it that pop out. Don't need a collider to prove that at least. In either case, with or without a collider, is there any proof of a Higgs field?

If you don't think a musical analogy works, well CERN started it. Listen to "Higgs" for piano at ATLAS (Bravo!) based on an actual data graph or read more first on data sonification.

Collider Artifacts Of The Universe

Back to work. Nice theory CERN (in quotes above) on how energy (125 GeV) knocks a Higgs out of Higgs Space for us to see, but it is true? Recall the Big Bang in a vacuum? No fields before then and suddenly some super-condensed energy ball the size of an orange explodes, eventually producing everything including the Quantum fields presumably now in Spacetime where everything else is too including the LHC. Unless the LHC is in some hyper-reality because 10,000 physicists concentrate the LHC into a Higgs Player Piano or anything else they agree on just by a collective observer effect you do see in Quantum physics. Which could also be interpreted as a mass delusion like dancing orbs of light over Phoenix and other UFOs the Army always flatly denies. If only the Army reviewed LHC data? Not convincing guys. Call it a night. Your wives are waiting. OK so labcoats are confusing. CERN says 9% of their physicists definitely have larger breasts. See Fabiola over at ATLAS for details.

Shortfalls In CERN's Little Bang Machine

In reality however, the much hyped LHC Big Bang Machine or Little Bang frankly, is supposed to create similar conditions just a very tiny fraction of a second after the first BB explosion. Doesn't seem to be at all that similar. First thing you get is matter particles from high energy explosions that often decay into massless particles.

Blame that on the big Higgs field from the first BB. But then you really can't study the BB with CERN's Little Bang Machine. Fields from the BB are always interfering. Particles with mass seem to appear first and then some decay into particles without mass in these collider experiments. So the real object is not to make CERN PR a real world event, but to tease particles out from BB fields. Then why aren't there a lot of relatively low energy 125 GeV Higgs in all collider data? There aren't, indeed Higgs are extremely rare. Lower power but powerful enough colliders like the former Tevatron at Fermilab (RIP) and the still operating RHIC at Brookhaven should have seen them easily. Why does it take 8000 GeV (8 TeV) to produce a Higgs weighing 125 GeV? Well, there have been mysterious unconfirmed signals from other colliders including CERN's old LEP. But would the old data have been conclusive if it was processed by CERN's mighty computing center? Might have saved a few Billion dollars.

The new Mother Of All Colliders at CERN uses a sledge hammer to smash a mosquito to get one Higgs. Sorry, but CERN used to say they were smashing proton mosquitos together to make high energy physics look modest, familiar and safe.

Well CERN protons are heavy. When a proton at rest of 1 GeV (1 billion electron volts) is accelerated near light speed that adds a lot of mass. In the Higgs experiment CERN was using 4 TeV protons (4 trillion electron volts) meaning each proton punched 4,000 times above its rest mass weight for a collision energy of 8 TeV from just 2 protons. With on average 27 very very near simultaneous head-on collisions/explosions per 2 beam bunches crossing for collisions near twice the speed of light in a very tiny space, you get fireballs that explode. This isn't early days atom smashing. Though there is a lot of smashing due to focusing difficulties.

Millions of other collisions going on at the same time are off center elastic types, and these protons can smash each other to bits. What happens is already well known and this data noise is filtered and deleted. On a good day any of the 4 main experiments can achieve 100 million events each or more per second. But nearly all the data is noisy elastic collisions and so is discarded. Only interesting primary events are recorded for study.

Even so, there are mountains of interesting data that rush out so fast, the events have to be computer modeled if we want to see anything remotely like the original events. So it's complex software and vast computing power, that gives CERN its images and graphs and they are really only simplified schematics of strange but real events. An abstract of abstract events. How accurate are they? As good as the software, as clean as the original signals flowing through miles of fiber optics and copper wire and thousands of cores ganged together.

If you're a pro photographer working with RAW files and converters and then processing and enhancing images with various other software packages always being updated, you get the idea. No real definitive image of reality, just interesting versions. And if you didn't take the original shot yourself of something you've never seen with the shutter set to near light speed, capturing the very very insanely small, what is the image supposed to look like? What are we studying here?

Safety First But First The Higgs

In 2 years the LHC should reach its design objective of 14 TeV collisions a little later than planned. Hot on the trail of the Higgs on a giddy July 4th, everything else can wait. A year-long shutdown of the LHC for safety retrofits including more tinkering with weak magnets, has been delayed again, now for 3 months more, so as not to stop the LHC before Spring 2013. Fine except more safety systems after the $40 Million accident of 2008, were recommended and promised by CERN. Some safety modifications were made, and are working. But CERN is driving the collider hard, 24 hours a day.

Imagine an all electric Ferrari with an electrical short like last time. Imagine the mechanic says the liquid helium rad could still blow like last time. You want to go with a few tiny--don't mess with the collider--dimwit relief valves? You twist out some manometers for that? You need hundreds more of those in all 8 Sectors. Big ones are better remember? Gimme the big toot-toot ones you engineers said after the boom-boom-boom, when everything has got to be cooled down as cold as space. If not then it's boom-boom-boom again. This is a 10 Billion Dollar Machine. Safety first you say or gimme-dat Higgs?

As any old hand from the days of the Tevatron will tell you, every relief valve is a big problem. They leak all the time. And they blow all the time when helium pressure fluctuates as it does. And then beams dump and Cryogenic Havoc!

Could that be why CERN avoided installing them everywhere they should have before Catastrophic 2008? Nevermind, now we need them. A few tiny ones will do or maybe no collider for years. Safety, or as they might say in Collider Safety Committee meetings post-2008, Gentlemen we have a solution. Démarrons!

Vraiment? Well so far so good, but to get an idea what power one proton beam has at its eventual 7 TeV, imagine a Subaru travelling at 1712 kilometers per hour around the 27 km LHC ring tunnel. Then a second Subaru like the first but travelling in the opposite direction. All this from a little cc vial of hydrogen gas that's had its electrons stripped from its protons. 

Fortunately it's very difficult to collide protons head-on. From a pokey though much celebrated start, the LHC is now blazing. CERN keeps working up the numbers, hoping that at full power and luminosity it can get 600 million with hopes of a billion collisions per second. Though that's still a tiny fraction of the protons per beam. Yet if CERN loses control these beams can melt near a metric tonne of copper cooled to 2 degrees Kelvin (LHC beam vacuum is at 1.9 K) in a flash.  Or burn holes right through the collider and spill  liquid helium as instantly expanding cold gas that blows safety doors off their hinges. The LHC spilled tonnes of helium in the 2008 accident but due to other causes. Lost beams in a collider or runaway beams have happened before. A runaway beam of about 1 TeV at the Tevatron did cause major damage in 2003. See my article Major Failures At The Tevatron that also covers 1200 faulty relief valves.

Bottomless Pit Collider Physics

To return to what the LHC is for really. Evidently not a Big Bang Machine. No Big Bang yet, we're hoping. Not really a scalable model for the Big Bang either as BB fields distort experimental data. No way of extracting Big Bang data from a dingbat Little Bang Collider relying on Artificial Conditions that did not exist at the time of the Big Bang, like near light speed proton beams colliding head on in gigantic magnetic fields. American Baseball might be similar to English Cricket if you're a moron. So what kind of experiment is the LHC geared to?

Producing particles which it does. With more energy available than any other collider, then maybe new heavier particles. But perhaps this mania for the discovery of particles that need to be produced in colliders to be identified, as they cannot be found elsewhere in the real Universe, is an open-ended search that could produce an untold number of new particles that can exist temporarily in colliders and maybe exist elsewhere. Or don't exist elsewhere and may never have existed except inside rarefied and artificial environments like these gigantic fusion reactors that make them inside gigantic magnetic fields that CERN simply and modestly calls Detectors like CMS and ATLAS at the LHC.

If experiments are open-ended sooner or later the LHC could make dangerous collider objects like theoretically possible micro black holes. So far no experimental data show any being produced, but the race for higher and higher energy collisions at the LHC goes on. Up another big notch now from 3.5 TeV per proton beam to 4 TeV for collisions at 8 TeV and eventually to 14 TeV and that's Tera or Trillion electron Volts.

Proof positive of the Higgs is the main advertised event. But equally welcome to String theorists in the majority at CERN, are mBH from the LHC as Black Hole Factory, no longer advertised. Probable proof then of String theory and its extra dimensions and a chance to study elusive black holes, a quantum mechanical gold mine and a possible alternate for the Big Bang.

The LHC Demonstrates Einstein At Least

Waait a minute. Isn't something obvious going on at the LHC? About as simple as OxyClean on TV. Mysterious Quantum fields hiding in a vacuum are not needed to produce a Higgs or anything else. Just watch the LHC. Concentrate tremendous energies into a teeny bit of space and matter erupts from energy. The original Energy is transformed.

Happens all the time at the LHC. Isn't that what Einstein more or less implied with E=MC^2 ?

Do we even need a Higgs?

The Higgs Fandango 

Sure a particle might make sense inside a theory especially that partially predicts it, but is that why it's there? Can't the same particle fit into a better theory no one has invented yet, that explains that Theory H is suspect, because Particle H is really Particle Y which may be the case with the new Higgs Candidate. Theory H also doesn't predict the Higgs mass so any new boson lurking in the future with Spin0 might be the Higgs. The spectacular Higgs field is even stranger, everywhere, but nowhere we can find it. Thinking about mass for a minute, how does it account for the mass of an astronaut on the moon, one sixth of what it is on earth? Aha! Well physicists and CERN can answer that but don't often in all the brouhaha about the Higgs. Yes, you guessed it. There are other more important forces and the Higgs only accounts for a small amount of mass, like 1% of your body weight.

That's what they say at CERN behind closed doors. Gian Francesco Giudice, a CERN physicist, mentions it in his new book, A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC. Though you'll have to dig deep pp173-175.

"... the Higgs sector is rather arbitrary, and its form is not dictated by any deep fundamental principle. For this reason its structure looks frighteningly ad-hoc". Then he drops the other shoe, "It is sometimes said that the discovery of the Higgs boson will explain the mystery of the origin of mass. This statement requires a good deal of qualification.” And goes on to say, “In summary, the Higgs mechanism accounts for about 1 per cent of the mass of ordinary matter, and for only 0.2 per cent of the mass of the universe. This is not nearly enough to justify the claim of explaining the origin of mass.”
I think I just heard an explosion at Building 40, is it? From the CERN PR Machine.

The fundamental Higgs is not as important as advertised. So why fill the Universe with a Higgs field that doesn't do very much? Would CERN do that even if it could?

No, it's just not simple and elegant enough. Not Premium Grade A Physics.

Then why the Higgs circus at CERN? Why all this categorical rubbish about the importance of the Higgs? Sounds like stamp collecting for physicists, the rare penny black Higgs, but there's a serious Nobel on the horizon and more funding, certainly. In the end it's the not very likely and in basic energy terms very expensive Higgs field with little effect on the cosmos, with the very big question of gravity, unresolved.

The Higgs Key To Gravity? H to 4e

Unless the Higgs is really a graviton and in that case it can also account for the missing 1%, plus all the mass in the Universe which then also happens to be relative. Then we have an astonishing discovery and Alan Gillis should get the Nobel.

Nevermind, CERN Like Any Housewife Wants More

Let's face it Higgs are great but what every String theorist wants is funding and a real mBH for a thesis or a knock'em dead paper. In this Brave New World finally all String theorists are proved exactly right, and that's most physicists at the LHC. Except what would mBH do? Decay says Hawking and CERN. Or you can't produce mBH says CERN at the rock bottom On Sale Now new low power LHC, confidently invoking Einstein to cool down earlier PR and excited String theorists. Other worst case scenarios aren't taken seriously as real risks.

Anything new is interesting too. Some strange particles or collider objects may have been already created by colliders. If you don't know what to look for, you might miss them entirely. Always a career risk, but there are always more particles.

If the subdetectors in the big Detectors aren't specific enough to unknown particles or the magnetic fields aren't strong enough for containment, you could lose particles you never even dreamed of. Or maybe some physicists fast asleep have found Mt Blanc closed due to strange matter "tomato paste", leaving CERN ski teams baffled. We don't really know if it's strange matter yet.

CERN has built a CASTOR detector hitched to CMS for not expected but possible events, just in case. Then the unexpected can be familiar like a bus and yet knock you down, going the wrong way down a one-way street. Unexpected Symmetry breaking if you aren't looking both ways. Or something totally unexpected as we don't yet have an infinite number of theories to cover everything happening and anything can happen in Quantum mechanics.

No one wants that many theories of course, just one Theory of Everything that includes the big fields outside, like the gravity of the Universe and now theoretical dark energy and dark matter.

Or on the quest for ToE, have physicists simply reached the end of their mindset? Now padding reality with theories and inventing collider particles to prove them? Maybe it's as simple as going off on the wrong foot, in the wrong direction. Going into the maze that has no end, when maybe you should have stopped at the Starbucks first and had a double slim latte on ghiaccio with Amaretto and biscotti.

Italians are sensible. Neutrinos travel faster than light when they jump from CERN Geneva to Gran Sasso Italy and they make better and cheaper lattes. You would too if you were an Italian Neutrino working for CERN who just passed through a paper stupido cup of espresso americano from one of CERN's autocuppa machinas. But Slim in Italia, non subis est.

The LHC is all about human ambition and imagination like other extreme sports. With no more Everests to climb, there's the power of the surreal to conquer. Build a new fantastic Everest and climb it. And take the world with you.

Except the Maya didn't bring an end to the Long Count and all Long Counts, but CERN could, on or before December 21, 2012. Or after, if the Maya got it wrong. Time at CERN might be wrong too measured in bizarre units of 1 trillion collision events, but interesting as a proof of elastic time that might be real. So how many more Inverse Femtobarns to go you guys?

Back To Square One 

The Maya would be impressed with the magic of the LHC.
Is this your temple? What are you doing? You don't know yet!

In the old Mayan days, the stars told them. Outside on a clear night in Spacetime.

--Alan Gillis

Friday, December 30, 2011

Fukushima In 40 Year Cold Shutdown

Alan Gillis Reports Nine months after the 8.9 earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese Government claims that the 3 damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi are in cold shutdown conditions. Yes, if you add "conditions" which they did. At best with all the jerry-rigging to cool down the melted reactor cores and melted spent fuel pond at Reactor 4, using a mile of rubber hose to patch in new pumps, also add Temporary to cold shutdown conditions and 40 years to dismantle the industrial carnage in the Japanese government's new plan. That is if all goes well and new technologies are developed to safely remove melted cores and rods and dispose of them somehow somewhere.

At Chernobyl the solution was to cap the disaster with concrete. There was no way to cool the single exploded reactor with its mangled fuel rods scattered in a heap on the floor. With the aging sarcophagus steadily rotting, there is now a multi-billion dollar project underway to dismantle the cap and destroyed reactor complex (caused by a steam explosion during a safety test in 1986) and cover what's left with a giant containment building.

The China Syndrome

With 4 nuclear nightmare meltdowns at Daiichi, 3 reactors and 1 cooling pond, the Japanese situation was beyond critical. What could happen was far worse than what did happen at Chernobyl. Though with reactor vessels still holding it was thought or at least their concrete casings, there was a chance for a safe cooldown. It was a desperate gambit, a bet with a nuclear devil with a potential of more than 4 times the fallout of Chernobyl if the Japanese lost control of Daiichi. In the end they almost did loose control of Reactor 1 according to The Wall Street Journal, December 1. The 100 tons of uranium metal that comprised the core did liquefy and burned through the stainless steel vessel and 3/4 the way through the concrete containment, on the way to a China Syndrome. How did that happen?

Shutdown Cooling System Reactor 1 (Operator Error: TEPCO Report)

The problem is no one knows if the temporary Cold Shutdown Conditions will hold while extraction of somewhere around a 1,000 tons of superhot nuclear fuel goes on for 25 years. The new 40 year plan appears to avoid the need for a new and permanent cooldown system while work goes on. "Maintain stable reactor cooling" says the plan. Stockpile duct tape, hai.

Fukushima 40 Year Cleanup Or More Cheapo-Screamo

The first target is the spent fuel rods stored at 4 reactors starting with the more dangerous melted and damaged rods from the pool at Reactor 4. That extraction of hundreds of tons of spent fuel should start in 2 years and would take around 10 years to remove. Meanwhile reactor cores would be examined and properly flooded with heavy water before workers start the even more difficult and dangerous extraction of melted cores to take another 10-15 years, then another 10 years to dismantle and decontaminate the site. That's 40 long years if all goes well.

And what do you do about general Daiichi contamination and current radiation leaks so workers can safely extract the hot uranium? A makeshift shed for Reactor 1 now in place, but no secure containment for the old exploded reactor buildings that are dangerously radioactive with flooded basements too of radioactive water, 90,000 tons in all onsite, including some in tanks above ground.

Use robots, build robots first, design robots before start, checkout American MIT in lunch teams for exploratory session, no try unJapanese solution first, bake many meetings, try remote Honda Prius fly in 5000 for gang-bang enemy reactors.

Then like Chernobyl, shouldn't Fukushima Daiichi be fully shielded by a vast containment building over the entire site in case of other accidents like cooldown failure or another tsunami? At least stop any radiation release. It might be the permanent solution after all if there's major trouble with the Plan. In the end what do you do with all the nuclear waste?

Bury it somewhere else of course, though more safely. That's possible if you could ship it all to France (Japanese problem solved) where the French have the expertise in reprocessing and permanent storage. Or of course bury it at Daiichi and go Cheapo-Screamo to save a few billion bucks. Cleanup number 2 around Daiichi is way more gigantic, over 1500 square miles of primary contamination and thousands more of secondary, and could sink Japan too as every last Yen falls into the bottomless Fukushima money pit.

Not Saving Fukushima

It wasn't thanks to a mature nuclear industry (in surprise mode) or a wise government that had plans and answers. There was however some serious (don't panic the public) lowballing of the disaster from the authorities including low estimates on just about everything from reactor damage to radiation released and food safety. Another nail after nail in the coffin of public trust, we're so used to on this side of the Pacific, though shockingly new in a modern Japan that thought it had recovered from Samurai movies and feudalism. Suddenly safe friendly nuclear is only safe if you lowball the risks and PR the percentages to death.

Fukushima was the devastating wakeup call for Japan.

The national psyche where paternalism and conformity were the usual pillars of success took a hit. After the earthquake and tsunami the third nuclear shock was too great to be a game-changer. The public reaction was eerily quiet. The Japanese did not take to the streets to stop nuclear or call for the collapse of the government, apart from some mild demonstrations in Tokyo. Did not even remind the government that it failed to protect them as is the primary function of any government and why powerful central governments came into being in the first place. After all private industry can do most everything else including get us into trouble. Even TEPCO the utility in charge was not raked over the coals.

What did happen to Japan was a kind of national paralysis. First the great tsunami from nature and then on its heels the greater man-made nuclear threat for a generation. The Japanese public could only wander through the tragedies we watched on TV. In other countries there might have been panic and riots. In Japan the nuclear disaster and menace to the future didn't need a voice of thunder. The disaster seemed to be everywhere as high as the sky, as deep as the water.

Still who is to blame? What needs to change? Can Japan go forward if it re-builds on the sands of the past? Has the world gone forward after the financial meltdown? Still melting. You can blame the banks for the global financial meltdown as Occupy Wall Street has done and you can blame TEPCO for the meltdowns of Daiichi, but governments create the conditions for exploitation and disaster or safeguard the land and the people. Governments must change and that means the people who make the decisions. The easiest way? Make them liable for stupid mistakes like the rest of us. In most any country politicians walk away from their jobs with pensions, deserved or not. Shrugging off stupid policy or dumb do nothing that can cost us Billions is part of the political game: Public Service, win some loose some. Let the next guy fix the mess and let the public pay.

A Ray Of Hope Or Back To Square One

At least the Japanese government did respond by shutting down other nuclear plants at risk of similar failures pending new safety reviews and went as far as suggesting that nuclear power would be phased out within 40 years. Other governments took notice of nuclear reality and international protests and followed suit. At least in Germany, the waffling over nuclear is at an end. Other smaller nuclear powers like Italy might call it quits too, but the big players like the US, Russia, China and France are still in the nuclear game at least until the next accident.

After the initial soul-searching the picture that is now emerging in Japan is nuclear plants coming back online with some committee rehashing of alternative energy sources like wind and solar, some promises of funding for more green energy.

In the East they say The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step. In our non-Confucian age we say Too Little Too Late. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hasn't Japan and the world been on the wrong road to power? Who built the bombs that can burn the Cauldron of the World? Who subsidized a nuclear power industry that threatens the well-being of every plant, animal and human on the planet? A thousand corporations or a handful of governments?

Bring On The Experts

Even now the experts still don't know the condition of damaged cores and containment. As late as November there were reports of more nuclear fission products detected meaning more nuclear fission. According to the Plan the reactor vessels and concrete are assumed to be stable, but will they deteriorate further, maybe breaching during the very long cleanup? It depends not only on continuing cooling but the corrosion of the concrete. A recent experiment at MIT suggests that concrete can corrode in the presence of seawater and uranium. Emergency seawater injection was already used as a stopgap coolant with boric acid. Is it still inside the reactors or has it been replaced with the usual safer heavy water (not available in drug stores) or purified water at least? Dasani, hai.

Saving Fukushima

When it came down to saving technological Japan from itself, it was seawater and fire trucks and firemen and the Fukushima 50 and the workers that followed, the brave few, that stood alone with a little luck behind them battling forces that could have destroyed Fukushima.

If 'cold shutdown' holds at Daiichi (the winter will be the next stress test on the makeshift cooldown system) there's a better future for Fukushima, though there are no guarantees. Not yet for the 88,000 still displaced from their homes and farms in the 12 mile No Go Zone and the larger 20 mile exclusion zone around Daiichi. Considering the scope of the damage, both from tsunami and nuclear contamination, at best there's little hope of a return to what residents had. A promise of a large scale Fukushima cleanup starting next Spring that could allow some into the outer zone, but how do the Japanaese decontaminate thousands of square miles and thousands of buildings exposed to about the equivalent of 60% of the fallout released from Chernobyl?

The reality so far is an abandoned Fukushima in cold shutdown and slow decay with police checkpoints about the only safety system in place. For something to do while waiting they can always read the TEPCO Report, the Government Plan and the new interim 500 plus page brick of a Government Report suitable for throwing, just out. Enough fallout there to kill every hope for no sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The usual disaster B movie stuff where you want to scream in Japanese: Everybody 'ron' 'ron' 'ron'. Stupid Daiichi, lucky monkey SOB!

The Probable Future When Money Makes Policy

Is the Japanese government like most governments promising what it cannot deliver? If you look at the EPA's long list of old nuclear sites in the US needing decontamination at millions of dollars an acre, if you look at the vast Chernobyl hinterland how do you scoop up billions of tons of contaminated topsoil and where do you put it? You don't. Of course you can study how to do it. Remove a little cesium contaminated topsoil, plant some new rice, wait. Burn the rice and measure radioactivity left, as is being done in a few test zones called Model Rehabilitation Projects. Or tag wild monkeys with dosimeters to see how much and how dangerous the radiation is. Never mind the radioactive groundwater contamination which keeps on spreading and is impossible to stop. Gone for awhile like the hypothetical badass rapper $40Million. Back as $40Billion, on your back and in your fn water tap.

From lessons learned, it is highly unlikely that the Japanese government can do more for Fukushima than a superficial cleanup. At present the government's plan is superficial. The first stage for the most contaminated zones, about 1500 square miles, the top 2 inches of soil (actually a little less or 4 cm) will be removed, as if there are no plants, trees and debris around. If that can be done the amount of dirt alone would fill 12,000 Olympic swimming pools. Supposedly that will remove about 3/4 of the radiation. But then where do you put that soil or are you going to try to wash it first, and with what? Then if that's the best you can do, are the former residents really going to want to have their children play in partially decontaminated zones running the risk of cancers as they grow up? Will these families actually return? Would you? Well the less fortunate who don't have friends outside or money to move are nearby in prefab makeshift housing bravely waiting to return. How long, who knows? Thousands of square miles of secondary contamination is all around Fukushima. The government has also promised to clean that up.

The Japanese will try their best, but if this goes on for years and years at 10,000 Yen a shovelful at a time, you might be seeing fences around old Fukushima and very few people in the ghost towns and villages until the next generation decides it's safe enough to return.

All of this could have been avoided as everyone knows. You don't build a nuclear plant in Japan near a well-known fault zone and if you do, then it has to be bullet proof and safe from tsunami, or better still you don't build any nuclear plants at all. There was no earthquake at Three Mile Island or at Chernobyl either. These were cases of Operator Error. You know the guys behind the buttons at the consoles, like Homer Simpson, often bored and half asleep, but before you laugh, it's fact-based TV according to Inspectors from DOE on surprise visits to real US nuclear plants.

Government Nuclear Action And Inaction On Nuclear

Thanks. Now the whole world is between a rock and a hard place. For cheap clean nuclear? Since when? 40 years, maybe 40,000 vacuum cleaners and just how much cash is that Daiichi-san? You can run rural Fukushima Prefecture for 4,000 years on Duracells for that kind of money.

Back home it's the same thing. Can't we do better than Homer Simpson For President or South Park For The Senate? Dunno. Maybe if we roll the dice like the Ancient Greeks did and elect our functionaries by lottery. From the folks that brought you Democracy. Power Ball Your House. $5 gets you the chance of a lifetime, one long 4 year lunch in Washington and your own mike on live TV. Play hard! Forget your 15 minutes of fame on Youtube with Fido. Dare to win it all!

That'll get governments truly democratic. Might even follow the will of the people since they won't be all lawyers. The boys and gals (50-50 too) on Capitol Hill could even stop pretending there are complex issues that have to be studied to death before anything is done, if ever, like lawyers do when padding accounts.

Stop all nuclear now, start the big shutdown of all reactors. Also the cheapest and safest solution in the long run. Follow the Kingdom of Heaven or die in fire. No metaphors needed. Ask the children of Chernobyl, the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

--Alan Gillis

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cooling Down A Nightmare: The TEPCO Daiichi Top Kill

Alan Gillis reports: Use firetrucks. Hai! Concerns by outsiders like physicist Michio Kaku and NewsHammer expanded in The Science of Conundrums, that the Japanese government and the nuclear plant operator, TEPCO have underestimated the scope of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi and so have been slow to act, are now confirmed. Unprepared for the unthinkable nothing was done the first day to cool the reactors until 4 hours after the first hydrogen explosion the following day. Overheating spent fuel ponds were ignored until fire hit Unit 4 later. With temperatures and pressures soaring, pumping in sea water was the only option, but it seems TEPCO didn't want to sacrifice Daiichi by ruining what was left of the plant. Now there's less left to worry about. Reminiscent of Chernobyl in this photo of late 1986 at the start of entombment operations.

Using seawater would destroy their multi-billion dollar investment. The Bridge on the River Kwai dilemma, the financial meltdown of TEPCO dilemma, and the political end of the myth of safe nuclear. Not the dilemma of the destruction of life in Japan.

The New York Times article of March 19, 2001 "Executives May Have Lost Valuable Time at Damaged Nuclear Plant" makes a compelling case for more bungling. The house is on fire? Should we use seawater? It will ruin the rugs and furniture.

But consider the four lives lost and other workers at the plant exposed to deadly radiation, the other hydrogen explosions and fires that might have been prevented, if these reactor buildings had been vented in time. The other day TEPCO did do some venting of buildings at risk to prevent hydrogen from collecting inside. Seems big holes were punctured. Why not that first day, before the hydrogen buildup, why not after the first explosion, the second, the third and before the smaller explosions and fires in Unit 4 that threatened its spent fuel pond? Consider the blasts of radioactive smoke and dust and steam released in massive plumes that could have been avoided. If these buildings hadn't been heavily damaged, they would also still act as a considerable barrier to continuing radiation release. Why no safety systems in place to vent these buildings? Why not louvers or vents that could be manually opened when the buildings were intact? Physicists and engineers knew the hydrogen formation/ explosion risks since Three Mile Island. A much more massive containment building there withstood similar explosions.

And now a senior government official admits Japan was caught off guard by the overwhelming scope of the triple disaster, see AP: "Japan official: Disasters overwhelmed government":

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano: "In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster," he said.

More than a week into the meltdown crisis, the experts have failed us over and over again. If Daiichi has shown us anything, once a disaster happens, those in charge not only fail to prevent it, but continue failing. This after last year's Gulf Oil Spill, where BP, the entire oil industry and the US Government were unable to prevent a simple accident, and in the first weeks were totally unprepared to deal with it, preferring to lowball the disaster and see what happens. Start the PR Machine first. Go through the motions. Look concerned.

Is this a repeat? A rerun with new footage and an alternate ending for DVD? So where is the vast Nuclear Industry's vast response to a nuclear emergency? Where is the Task Force that should have been flown in by the IAEA? Where are the Nuclear Navy Seals? Aren't any. A few talking heads on TV. Here is an industry that thinks nothing of spending $5 to $10 Billion on one new nuclear plant, that has a thousand more reactors deployed throughout the world, but won't spend a dollar on an Emergency Strike Force. It's even afraid to stress test its reactors after the stress test at Chernobyl in 1986 that caused the meltdown and radiation destruction of a zone of Ukraine the size of Switzerland.

Nuclear Safety Today: We're Perfectly Safe Until The Next Accident

Physicist Michio Kaku:"Japanese government clueless"

Better to start the Top Kill of Daiichi now, but there is little discussion of a Chernobyl Sarcophagus option and no political will yet to do so. There is some tinkering though like better delivery of seawater via low-tech fire trucks hosing down Daiichi. Will this stabilize the emergency? Yes, somewhat. Steam pressure in reactors that was threatening to explode reactor vessels seems to have eased. Attempting to restore electrical power for electric pumps that may or may not be damaged that also depend on piping that may or may not be damaged, is more problematic. One new electric line to only one unit might be turned on soon once everybody is satisfied that electrical arcing in damaged components and circuits won't occur and spark more hydrogen explosions. But with miles of wiring, how long could that take? In a nuclear hot zone with the Fukushima 50 working in the dark with no power? Though more technicians and engineers are on it, about 300 called in for re-establishing electrical power to Daiichi, but how many of them on site? You might recall remote crisis management from BP Houston in the early days where tremendous but invisible resources were deployed. One cleanup crew one shovel at a time spent half a day in a media glare cleaning a piece of beach for President Obama's press conference. If Obama went to Daiichi we'd get some action. "Weather's kind of hot but we're working on AC for the media trailers as you can see behind me. Plenty of ice-cold Coors if anybody wants some?"

If by a miracle we do get more cooling systems operating, well that's great. Except what's happening to the cooling water. Like hosing down your burning car, the water spills into the street, into the sewers and water table, out to sea, but here it's in tons per hour of dirty radioactive water contaminating the environment. Even if the old closed loop cooling system at Daiichi can be salvaged and its electrical system patched, it's bound to leak with the piping and valves cracked or smashed by the hydrogen explosions and fires. What about a permanent solution? Why not plan for the worst?

No planning to prevent a worst case scenario at Daiichi caused the real damage in the first place that now can't be fixed. It's radiation release. At best the Daiichi Nuclear Disaster can only be contained.

Lessons From Chernobyl

Physicist Michio Kaku: "Catastrophe in the making"

The Chernobyl sarcophagus is now being entertained like an unwelcome guest at Fukushima Daiichi by TEPCO, see Reuters: "Japan weighs need to bury nuclear plant; tries to restore power":

"It is not impossible to encase the reactors in concrete. But our priority right now is to try and cool them down first," an official from the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, told a news conference.

But some experts in Japan scoff at realistic containment:

"We believe it is not a realistic option," said Hidehiko Nishiyama of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Yeah, why not? He didn't say but other experts don't want to see further damage to the reactor cores and steel vessels reinforced with concrete. Duh? So don't drop heavy sandbags or bags of lead from helicopters. Use parachutes if you're that dumb. Hey, maybe there are other options, like spray your sand and concrete?

Others say encasing the reactors and spent fuel ponds without a cooling system would allow meltdown to continue and perhaps aggravate it like adding an insulation layer to the fire, raising temperatures inside. Yes, but you could go higher tech and allow for heat to travel throughout a thick concrete shell. So you could have passive convection cooling if you did it right. Maybe add a refrigeration plant on top? Why not work on engineering now? Hire Bechtel who designed the new confinement shell for Chernobyl that's under construction. A sarcophagus could stop most nuclear radiation from releasing, though you have to consider the "core on the floor scenario" where the fuel rods could continue their burn through the floor and rock underneath. Instead of officials saying no, better ask the best engineers what can be done. It's not a small problem unless you think that firetrucks can fix it.

Small For Profit Thinking And The Big Picture

And how do we get into these disasters? As long as politicians and CEOs make the ethical decisions for us based on what an oil well or a reactor should cost to be profitable. Engineers are asked to design and build within straitjacket budgets. They see the risks, they warn the client, they warn the operator, they warn their own company, but what do $80,000 guys in hardhats and jeans know? Not as much as suits and ties pulling in $6 million a year and $12 million in perks and options and bonuses, who know they can fire engineers for breakfast.

But there are exceptions. Some engineering firms like Bechtel insist on safety and won't work for nickel and dime clients. They don't cut corners and they don't come cheap. Bechtel has the best safety record in the industry, over 20 million man-hours without a fatal accident. What they build is first class. Contrast that with BP for instance and the BP spill, with hundreds of safety violations on other projects and workers dead and seriously injured since the Texas City Refinery disaster. The stakes at Daiichi are way higher. Daiichi threatens northern Japan and Tokyo, maybe Korea and China.

4,277 Tons Of Nuclear Fuel Can Burn

The scale of the potential disaster of a full meltdown at Daiichi is now clearer, see AP: "Plutonium in troubled reactors, spent fuel pools":

"The Fukushima Dai-ichi site has a considerable number of fuel rods on hand, according to information provided Thursday by Toyko Electric Power Co., which owns the atomic complex: There are 3,400 tons of fuel in seven spent fuel pools within the six-reactor plant, including one joint pool storing very old fuel from units 3 and 4. There are 877 tons in five of the reactor cores. Officials have said that the fuel in Unit 4's reactor vessel was transferred to its spent fuel pool when the unit was temporarily shut in November."

---Although the earlier news on Units 5 and 6, that these 2 reactors had been previously shut down for maintenance as well as Unit 4, suggesting fuel rods had been removed, seems only true for unit 4. So five reactors could melt down as well as 7 spent fuel ponds, for 4,277 tons of fuel rods, with significant levels of extremely dangerous plutonium especially in spent fuel and in the Unit 3 reactor that uses MOX fuel, a mixture of plutonium and uranium. Plutonium which is produced anyway in the other fuel rods in reactors as a by-product, is way more deadly. All 4,277 tons of Daiichi fuel has some plutonium in it. How much they don't say. A pinhead of plutonium can kill a human. How many pinheads in one ton?

Contain the radiation now or more of Japan will be threatened including the world's largest city of Tokyo, only 150 miles away with a total sprawl of 35 million people. Better start design now. It took 6 months of mobilization and engineering to seal just one damaged reactor at Chernobyl in 1986 in a quick and dirty operation that cost many lives, the firemen, the soldiers, the workers on the cleanup and construction. The official numbers of dead at the site and in the hot zone and beyond in Belorussia were lowballed by the PR Machine. Claims today run as high as a million dead. Many are still dying of slow cancers.

Unfortunately the old sarcophagus shell has been cracking for years. The new replacement for Chernobyl containment is taking 4 years to build. Work started last year.

Japan Can't Wait And See

7 Years For The New Chernobyl

With about 50,000 soldiers or half of Japan's army, its Self Defense Forces, devoted to Earthquake/ Tsunami relief and cleanup, it already looks like its entire force will be needed to help its stricken people. For the nuclear emergency too Japan needs massive International Aid, not just a handful of nuclear experts flown in from the IAEA, the US and France.

Japan should ask for the UN to intervene. Japan can't wait and see. A consortium of the world's best engineering firms needs to study Daiichi and how it can be safely sealed, without exposing workers and the general population to lethal radiation. If tinkering fails, without a backup plan, what's the option? Total meltdown? An open nuclear fire pit threatening Japan and its neighbors?

Michio Kaku has said that the possibility of a hydrogen bubble forming at Daiichi and blowing up nuclear cores and nuclear material into the air, is still possible, for another Chernobyl type disaster. The potential in Japan for destruction with 5 reactor cores and 7 spent fuel ponds is up to 12 times the radiation release of Chernobyl. It could kill millions.

Stranger Than Fiction

The Less Horrific BBC Version: Chernobyl 1986

If Japan said yes today, and the best and brightest, the bravest, were on it now, an all out effort could still take months to stop Daiichi. The new entombment of Chernobyl has been an extreme 3 year design and engineering challenge for Bechtel and its partners. How to build on a radioactive hot zone? You don't. Bechtel designed an ingenious solution. Construction after years of bickering on who will pay, is underway to 2013, budgeted at a cost of $1.17 Billion, with delays adding to costs, now $1.4 Billion.

Instead of risking the health of on-site workers in a nuclear hot zone, the project minimizes exposure. A monumental movable arch-like containment building 32 stories high and 3 football fields long will be dragged into place in sections on skid-like roads to secure Chernobyl for the next 100 years. It's an amazing engineering solution from Bechtel that no politician or bureaucrat would dream of.

Still only the second installment on a long nuclear mortgage. The site will be hot for thousands of years to come.

Breaking News from the Japanese PR Machine. Radioactive iodine 3 times normal levels in Iitate tapwater, a village 19 miles from Daiichi. It's "no danger to humans". But don't drink it, according to the same official at the same Japanese Ministry of Health. True story. Is that like Chernobyl isn't dangerous unless you're planning to visit? The gun is not loaded but do not use it for Russian Roulette. To catch a monkey you need a banana?

Updates And Resources

For updates on the International Nuclear Emergency, see The New York Times and check out NYT timelines and interactive features that make it easier to follow what's going on.

The latest NYT The Lede Blog is an overview of major developments.

Here are 3 NYT Interactive Features: The GE Mark 1 Reactor or Deconstructing a Controversial Design, Spent Fuel Poised For Meltdown or Hazards of Storing Spent Fuel, and the Status of the Nuclear Reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant.

--Alan Gillis