Response to contamination: WIPP and New Mexico should practice communication skills
Recent events at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) provide an opportunity to reinforce the need to practice good communication skills in order to improve the future response to a contamination event.
Though there is no public hazard associated with airborne contamination levels of 0.64 Bq of Am-241 and 0.046 Bq of Pu-239/240, the New Mexico Environment Secretary has taken the WIPP leadership to task with regard to their handling of a situation that some knowledgable observers describe as a “puff”. It is worth noting that the EPA’s action level for the isotopes of concern is 37 Bq, more than 50 times the measured amounts.
To recap the situation, just before midnight on Friday, February 14, continuous air monitors in the WIPP alarmed. Immediately after the air monitors alarmed, the ventilation system shifted to pass exhaust air through high efficiency particulate absorption (HEPA) filters. It then shifted into recirculation mode to prevent any discharge into the atmosphere. The ventilation system functioned as designed, so there was no reason to suspect any substantial release to the environment.
There were no people in the facility at the time of the alarm.
The site leadership notified the appropriate government agencies and the press about the event and the fact that the site was sealed.
On Wednesday, February 19, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, the independent laboratory that is under contract to conduct environmental monitoring in the areas surrounding the WIPP, completed its analysis of the first of many samples taken from incredibly sensitive monitoring systems designed to provide post event details helpful in determining the exactly location and cause of any event. The CEMRC issued a press release describing the results in exquisite detail that same day.
This environmental monitoring program is not a real time process; there are no real time sensors that could provide the kind of sensitivity these devices provide. Under normal circumstances, analysis of filters from the monitoring systems takes about a week. When there is an event, there are certain parts of the process that can be somewhat accelerated, but the minimum time between a release and a sample result that provides any information related to that release will always be several days.
The right time to make sure that all of the right people know and understand this limitation on information development is before any event happens. The next best time is immediately after the event happens during the period when the scientists and technicians are busy performing their detailed work. If that work is not properly completed using specific, detailed protocols, the information will be unreliable and cause confusion.
Apparently, this communication process did not function properly, either because the people providing the information did not provide it clearly enough or because the people who should have been listening were not listening closely enough.
Here is how the New Mexico Environment Secretary communicated his displeasure about the communications flow.
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said he traveled to Carlsbad as soon as he was told Wednesday night that radiation had been picked up by an above ground air sensor.
“We are wondering why it took a couple of days to confirm the radiological event outside of the underground,” he said. “We will demand that federal officials share information with the public in real time. That’s the reason we are here.”
If Secretary Flynn or his staff were told about the analysis process and the inherent time delays, they were not listening. If they were not told, they should have been.
Secretary Flynn was not just upset about the communication delay, he also criticized the fact that there was event a tiny amount of material picked up by the environmental monitors located outside of the facility.
Flynn, however, said, “Events like this should never occur. From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many. Our primary concern continues to be public safety.”
“Even though the levels detected are very low,” he said, “radiation is simply not supposed to be released outside the building.”
Those statements indicate a failed communications process that allowed a responsible official to believe that there is a perfect system in place that will never release any radiation. That is simply not possible. It not, however, necessary to be perfect to ensure public safety. There is no risk to anyone from contamination levels that are only detectable using protocols that require several days to complete.
People work in the underground storage facility. They need large quantities of fresh air to survive. The ventilation system provided in the WIPP moves a lot of air in and out of the underground cavern – 425,000 standard cubic feet per minute (SCFM) to be exact. Though the exhaust air can be directed through HEPA filers whenever there is any indication that it is contaminated, it is not routinely filtered because the filters would be routinely less than 100% capable and would require frequent maintenance or replacement with no added value.
As soon as the continuous air monitors alarmed, indicating the presence of radioactive material, the ventilation system shifted into the filter mode, reduced the flow rate, and then shifted into a recirculation mode. Since the facility was not occupied at the time of the event, the shift to recirculation probably happened more quickly than it would have if there had been people who would have still needed fresh air while they were being evacuated from 2150 feet underground.
The system in place is “pretty darned good”, but it is not absolutely perfect. The environmental monitoring systems are incredibly sensitive and can almost count atoms, so the likelihood of a detectable — but far less than hazardous — level is relatively high in the event that there is any contamination in the facility in the first place.
This information should have been routinely communicated to responsible officials, to the press, and to the general public. Even though the WIPP’s record up to this point has been almost flawless, no marketing material should ever imply that perfection is possible. People armed with appropriate knowledge can accept and applaud performance that is good, even exceptionally good unless they have been constantly told to expect absolute perfection.
Imagine how frustrating it would be to be a figure skater, an airline pilot, a quarterback, a surgeon, a half-pipe snowboarder, a waiter, a designated hitter, a mom, or even a writer if your judges, audience, or customers considered you a complete failure anytime you did something that was not exactly right.
The response in this situation has also been hampered by the incorrect assumption that even the tiniest dose of radiation is so harmful that it must be avoided at all costs. According to all released information, there were never any significant levels measured anywhere. There is no health-based reason to have limited site access to “essential” personnel.
The following is me practising my communication skills, like James
Greenidge and others have often exhorted us to do. I would appreciate any critiques,
all in the spirit of raising the standard of communication with outsiders.
Dear Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn,
As people who also care about our environment, we appreciate your concern
about radioactive emissions at WIPP.
However, in this case, there is no need to worry. It is a problem of
perception rather than the actual hazard, which turns out to be negligible.
The measured amounts of radioactivity above ground have in all cases
been of the order of 1 Becquerel or less. This compares with 5000 Bq
taking place inside our very own bodies from natural potassium! These
low levels of radioactivity are perfectly normal and safe.
It is noteworthy in this context that a regular smoke alarm contains
35,000 Bq of Americium-241. These useful items are present in most
homes and present no significant hazard.
Radioactive sample analysis is incredibly sensitive, and in this way
can be its own worst enemy as far as “perception of risk” is
concerned. Its sensitivity is equivalent to being able to measure the
flatulence from a single person inside a block of flats by taking air
samples half a mile away, analysing them, and being able to say “Joe H
Schmoe did it!”
Every lungful of air we breathe contains millions or billions of
molecules of substances which are hazardous in excess: gasoline fumes,
smoke particulates, carbon monoxide, ozone, etc etc. The negligible
hazard from literally a few atoms of radioactivity needs to be viewed
against the backdrop of these everyday poisons.
We hope this brings a sense of perspective about the problem. Please
be assured that we take any cases of radioactive flatulence very
The numbers you cite comparing the “risks” is exactly what I was talking about in my post below. WE need to be more proactive in communicating “the risks” in official statements.
One critique: leave out statements like “However in this case there is no need to worry” and “These low levels of radioactivity are perfectly normal and safe” and “These useful items are present in most homes and present no significant hazard.”
The more we use the word “safe” the less the public believes it. The second people are told they shouldn’t worry they think we’re hiding something that SHOULD make them worry.
t think that allowing people to come to the conclusion, on their own, about their household smoke detectors, makes a big cognitive difference. We need people to THINK about radiation, not react.
The way you’ve made the case leads them there, but will be more effective without the 3 examples noted above.
Otherwise, go for it!
Andrea, thank you for those tips.
I should admit at this point that, not being a citizen of New Mexico, nor indeed the USA, I don’t really have standing with the local politicoes in this particular matter. (I live in the UK, and work here: http://www.jet.efda.org ). Nevertheless, the facts of this case cry out for making this a “teachable moment” by whatever means, and I drafted my letter as an exercise in that vein. (FWIW I hereby freely license it for re-use, adaptation, or copying of any sort in whole or in part, no attribution required.)
Incorporating your suggestions, and polishing a little, the text becomes:
Dear Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn,
As someone who also cares about our environment, I appreciate your concern
about radioactive emissions at WIPP.
However, in this case, it is a problem of perception rather than the
actual hazard, which turns out to be negligible.
The measured amounts of radioactivity above ground from the WIPP
incident have in all cases been of the order of 1 Becquerel (=1 atom
nucleus disintegrating per second) or less. 2,200 cubic metres of air
had to be collected to measure even this much.
This compares with 5,000 nuclear disintegrations per second taking place inside each one of us from natural potassium in our own bodies!
It is noteworthy in this context that a regular smoke alarm contains
35,000 Bq of Americium-241.
Radioactive sample analysis is incredibly sensitive, and can thus be
its own worst enemy as far as “perception of risk” is concerned. Its
sensitivity is equivalent to being able to measure the flatulence from
a single person inside a large apartment block by taking air samples
miles downwind, analysing them, and being able to say “Joe H Schmoe
Sr dropped a hot one!”
Every lungful of air we breathe contains millions or billions of
molecules of substances which are hazardous in excess: gasoline fumes,
smoke particulates, carbon monoxide, ozone, etc etc. The negligible
hazard from literally a few atoms of radioactivity needs to be viewed
against the backdrop of these everyday poisons.
I hope this brings a sense of perspective about the problem. I am sure that the capable and hardworking experts at WIPP, and the independent CEMRC, can corroborate this view.
(As I say, if anyone wants to copy or adapt this letter and sign it with their own name, they’re absolutely free to do so.)
WIPP recently had some favorable news coverage, and it occurred to me, when this “news” broke, that it might be a wholly fictitious rebuttal to that coverage. There is, after all, no way for anyone outside the facility to confirm that anything happened at all. But the details above provided suggest someone may have dismantled a smoke detector and applied a torch flame to the several kBq of americium in it.
… I’m assuming the ” airborne contamination levels of 0.64 Bq of Am-241 and 0.046 Bq of Pu-239/240″ are per cubic metre.
That is apparently not an accurate assumption. Those are the total number of Bq’s measured on the filter media which was collecting particles in air flowing at 20 SCFM (1.13 m^3/min) for about 33 hours after the continuous air monitors alarmed.
That makes the measurements Bq / 2200 m^3, not per m^3.
Rod, I contacted the director Russell Hardy directly, and he stated they did not have time to calculate the m^3, so I wonder how you got that data, since the director didn’t have it?
Dr. Hardy provided the flow rate for the monitoring device, which is 20 standard cubic feet per minute. Another source, Dr. Conca said it was 1.13 cubic meters per minute which is actually 40 SCFM. (Confession – I just checked that math.)
He also provided the time that the sample was collected – about 9:30 on Sunday morning.
I simply calculated the number of cubic meters that flowed through the monitoring device.
1.13 m^3/min x 60 min/hr x 33 hours ~ 2200 m^3.
Note that if the Pu activity were pure Pu-239, the mass of the deposited material would be about 0.02 nanograms. (The specific activity of Pu-240 is greater than that of Pu-239, so the actual amount of the mixed isotopes is likely less than that.) And per the report from the CEMRC, they can actually detect at least an order of magnitude lower contamination; as Rod noted in his previous post on this issue, trace amounts of Pu (and other radionuclides) have been registered in the past, attributable to residual fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests–as low as 0.004 Bq of Pu-239/240. (A becquerel is one disintegration per second, which means that 0.046 Bq is roughly equivalent to one radioactive decay every 22 seconds.)
Have to agree with Rod on the communications issues here. To measure the contamination at these filter stations, the filters have to be collected, and they are actually destroyed in the process of recovering and measuring the captured radioisotopes. If the state environmental people were expecting real-time measurements of a few billion atoms of Pu, they were either poorly-informed or not paying attention.
Using a small assumption of a cylinder of air of average density of Pu, and the .04 Bq/sample, and Rods flow rates and hours, implies .0327 grams of plutonium dispersed in the nearby environment, or about 8.08 E19 Atoms of Pu, not Billions.
Per extrapolations on Beagles and the few tests on humans, this is enough to kill 32700 humans.
Now do we have something to talk about?
Doesn’t this assume that every particle of plutonium will find its way to a human lung? And that those humans will be outdoors at all times, instead of indoors where contamination is likely to be much lower?
Yes it does. So maybe its only 5000 killed.
And maybe per the new information of 4.4MBq Alpha inside the Panel 7 storage unit, that means 6.2g Plutonium or Americium by the detector, how much more in the storage vaults overall…..
6.2g is enough to kill 6.2M people if it goes to the lung. Or is it only 300,000 it will kill if say, the ventilation system screws up and exhaust the whole Panel 7?
Where do you get the information that it takes .000001 grams of Pu to kill a person? Do you have any evidence from actual deaths of people who were exposed to Pu dust?
We will be getting some real life data from the 13 WIPP workers who were exposed, you may have to wait a few years.
Lots of people have bantered the 1 microgram level around. Certainly any amount “could” cause a lung tumor or liver, or bone. But to effectively kill Beagles around 130 microgram was effective, and the USNRC that 259Bq is the max dose in 1 year in air. Thats 378 micrograms.
Rod, thank you for addressing this communication concern. While the local community is very positive of the WIPP program and it’s success so far, there is an element in Santa Fe that are not so positive. New Mexico is the only state that has such a facility and it is amazing that people in this state are not educated to that fact and possible consequences. The local community wants to expand the facility and now we have had 3 minor incidences reported in a very short time period; salt fire, underground leak and outside airborne contamination, minor as they were, has created a cause for concern that things were too perfect at WIPP and are the procedures getting lax? These were probably positive incidents for WIPP but not so for public relations around the state or country for those not informed of nuclear science and technology. That really is the bigger problem and people like Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn, who should be educated, spread dis-information.
BTW, I plan to write my 18th nuclear information letter to the editor this week-end about your article. The local news and paper left out a lot of useful information. Thanks again for writing your commentary.
@ Martin Kral
Thank YOU for taking the time to write the letter. More of us need to do it.
This is a great piece, Rod. Thank you.
I thought a lot about your first post on the incident, which demonstrated real reporting skills and lots of useful info. Thanks for that, too.
What I wonder is this: why can’t experts give context to the radiation measurements? In other words, if X amount of radioactivity from isotope A is released a human being would have to be B feet away from it for C amount of time in order to get a dose that matters–if it matters at all.
This would help to also put into context the important difference between how much radioactivity an isotope is emitting and how much a person might be receiving. I mean, a jillion bequerels sounds scary–but if the dose is 0.001 m/Sv, or one-one thousandth, it isn’t.
If we could give people some sense of what the numbers mean–e.g., equivalent to 45 dental x-rays–perhaps we’d start to cut down on FUD over “the dangerous radiation.”
And yes, I’m aware that such comparisons exist. But EXPERTS typically don’t provide them in their official statements. Maybe they should.
I agree with you that it would be beneficial to get this sort of information put into “plain language,” but some care is needed in converting amounts of radioactive material into dose rates (or doses). If we’re talking about Pu-239 and/or Pu-240, which decay by alpha particle emission, it’s an easy matter to shield if the source is outside the body. The concern about airborne contaminaton, however, is the dose resulting from inhalation, which is a more complicated matter. An amount of Pu that would be of little concern externally can be far more hazardous if the exposure is internal.
This is NOT to suggest that the minuscule amounts of radioactivity released in this specific instance are hazardous, nor that it’s not possible to explain the situation in terms that a “layman” can understand. But it’s not necessarily as simple as you imply.
“This is NOT to suggest that the minuscule amounts of radioactivity released in this specific instance are hazardous, nor that it’s not possible to explain the situation in terms that a “layman” can understand. But it’s not necessarily as simple as you imply”
Then you need to find a way to make it “simple”. Constantly here I see assurances being made that the widespread public fear of alleged low dose radiation exposure is unfounded. Yet most of us do not possess the knowledge to know the difference between “low dose” versus dangerous exposure, and the numbers and jargon you all use do little to alleviate the fears. If, in fact, exposure limits are imposed in a conspiratorial manner by regulating agencies in an effort to place insurmountable obstacles in the way of the nuclear industry’s expansion, and big oil is in collusion with the media in sensationalizing and misrepresenting the “danger” posed by events such as Fukushima, San Onofre, or WIPP, then you need to offer a more convincing counter argument. Telling some housewife in San Diego or some carpenter in Tehachapi that ……
“Note that if the Pu activity were pure Pu-239, the mass of the deposited material would be about 0.02 nanograms. (The specific activity of Pu-240 is greater than that of Pu-239, so the actual amount of the mixed isotopes is likely less than that.) And per the report from the CEMRC, they can actually detect at least an order of magnitude lower contamination; as Rod noted in his previous post on this issue, trace amounts of Pu (and other radionuclides) have been registered in the past, attributable to residual fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests–as low as 0.004 Bq of Pu-239/240. (A becquerel is one disintegration per second, which means that 0.046 Bq is roughly equivalent to one radioactive decay every 22 seconds.)”
……..just ain’t gonna get your point across. You might as well be talkin’ Swahili.
But they measured 4.4MBq at a sensor inside Panel 7. Thats all Alpha.
Know what that equates to—-6.2g of plutonium, if distributed to human lungs enough to kill about 6.2 Million people.
Or the Station 107 data, that points to about .03g of Pu (unless the wind was blowing it could be far higher). “properly distributed” to human lungs that is 32000 deaths. but why not sell it to the masses as
Just .09% of the USA are likely to die, in relation the the number of illegal immigrant , it is only .29% of the illegal immigrants.
Or that is it only equal to around the amount of people that die from nicotine in about 15 days.
There, I fixed it for ya, minimized all of it. Appreciate your response.
So 1 gram of plutonium kills 1 million people. Really?
Well then I guess everyone on the planet is dead about 423 times over.
Nuclear weapons testing released a total of about 3.5 tons of plutonium, most of which is still around. That is 3,175,000 grams, so that equates to over 3 TRILLION people dead, right? And with current world population being less than 7.5 Billion means we are all actually dead despite walking around and breathing, right?
I would appreciate your source information on that testing, and please break it down into below ground testing and above ground testing.
I like your back of the envelope approach, as great truths can come from a bird’s eye view. Anedoctyl evidence is also interesting as I was born at the end of open air testing, and almost died twice in my first year from respiratory failures.
So is it 10 micrograms that could be the LD50, or 50 micrograms.
Also, maybe do your own research on Beagle testing (255 of 255 dead)
But we have to make it simple. It’s on US to do that. Otherwise, our opponents make “the explanation” and frame the risk–and the ensuing FUD is too easy to generate and spread.
Then we are under siege. Again. I’d rather try to simplify than continue to let the antis hijack the industry.
Thank you for the kind words. I’m really trying to improve my reporting and writing skills.
In the case of this event, I could not think of any comparisons that could provide any context to the dose that might be given to a person from 0.64 Bq of Am-241 distributed in 2200 cubic meters of air. The number is so darned close to zero that even writing it would require scientific notation that would make most English majors eyes role up.
I guess I could have noted in the post, as I did in the following comments, that a typical smoke alarm contains about 35,000 Bq of Am-241. Sure, it’s sealed, but I would bet a substantial amount of money that a few of the many millions that have been sold have found their way into trash shredders/incinerator systems.
Some sealed Am-241 sources might even have been damaged in house fires. They warn people, but no one grabs an alarming smoke detector as part of their emergency evacuation plan.
Rod, I took a course with online Coursera called “Critical Thinking” from the University of Edinburgh. It tells you how to structure arguments for major world events like climate change, etc. This might also help with your commentary, although I think you do a fine job already.
When people ask me about things like this, I always try to have the amounts quantified in terms of curies. Then we can quote amounts in terms of nanocuries or picocuries or attocuries, rather than Bq. The press likes to use Bq because it is an exceedingly tiny unit, almost like quoting amounts in terms of individuals atoms. So then they can write scary stories about gigabecquerels or terabecquerels. I say turn the tables on them and use the same tactic in reverse.
I like Bq because they are the SI unit and because they rarely need modification with prefixes like nano, pico or atto. I’m a reasonably savvy guy but without my search engines at hand, I am never quite whether nano is bigger or smaller than pico. (Actually, I think I can get those two without the search engine 10^-9 and 10^-12). However, I’ve never even heard of atto.
The Health Physics Society recently asked its members to stop using so many different units of measure. They confuse people. I think the advice is sound – stick with Sieverts and Bequerels.
Pet Peeve: I also avoid banana equivalent dose. My dad grew bananas in our Florida backyard. They were about 1/3 to 1/2 of the size of an average store bought banana and some of the best bananas I’ve ever tasted. I’ve also had bananas that are nearly twice as large as average. Which one is the standard?
Why use a unit of measure that has no standards? It is sort of like the constant effort to translate Megawatts (a unit that has a rigorous, fixed definition) into number of homes served. That unit confuses me because it is completely non standard and subject to interpretation. End pet peeve.
10^(-18) boy: one atto boy
You’re making it too hard. Everyone knows what a banana is. Almost everyone eats bananas. If such a common thing like a banana, that’s radioactive, is safe, then overblown fears about “the dangerous radiation” have less power.
THAT’s what it’s about: conveying risk in ways that the average person relates to. Scientific precision in public communications is what has tripped the nuclear energy industry up in the past.
Even sieverts and Bequerels mean nothing to 99% of people on the planet. But I think the number 35,000 is something that people CAN relate to. “If my smoke detector is ok (at 35,000) then maybe this WIPP stuff is, too.”
I agree. Perfect accuracy is the enemy of persuasion in this case. The antis don’t bother to be accurate, at all, and then they conclude with a lie. Lead with your persuasive conclusion, and supply a persuasive amount of background, without rolling people’s eyes up, in my opinion. I could be wildly wrong. Of course, for the audience here, it’s nice that you supply all of the details. But in a persuasive debate, in which you’re really trying to persuade the lurkers, don’t let the explanation swamp your thesis.
Andrea, the “banana equivalent” is now known widely to be an intellectually dishonest method of comparison, and it discredits those who use it.
1) Potassium in the human body is regulated quite consistently. Eating 1 banana or 100 has no effect on the rad potassium in the body.
2) Humans have evolved with rad potassium from the get go, mechanisms to repair work fairly well, as long as the damage is not a double double break.
3) Double double breaks are not likely in potassium since the K is spread pretty evenly through the body and cells. Its not like having Pu repeatedly attacking the same lung, bone, or liver cells.
Dumbing it down to the point of discrediting yourself is not an effective strategy.
You’re probably right. I do use bananas and other common examples of natural radioactivity, I just avoid using them as a unit measure when trying to report numbers to provide context. I honestly believe that obfuscation and uncertainty are enabled by a plethora of measuring scales. We make it hard on ourselves by insisting on maintaining our unique American measuring system so that even professionals get tied up in “unit conversion” exercises that invite error.
If an error gets made, the anti’s are ready to pounce with their simpler message that units don’t matter because the standard should be zero.
By the way, did you read anything about the way Ed Lyman analyzed a statement about bananas in Pandora’s Promise?
From a PR perspective, there is only really one thing that someone in the general public wishes to know. Is it safe.
I prefer: “well below levels established by the EPA to ensure protection of public,” etc. For this to work, however, public has to have confidence in regulatory agencies and EPA. The nuclear industry does itself no favors by attacking regulations and regulators as burdensome (lining up with the same from the fossil fuel industry), and coming up with misleading comparisons that overly simplify what everyone knows is a complex issue. Nobody (except the minimizers who are promoting the technology) finds this very revealing. It doesn’t build trust, it actually breaks it down. And the antis (which appear to be anybody who has questions about nuclear power) have nothing to do with it (the industry seems perfectly willing to do it to itself).
Just imagine something similar in another context. An oil sheen from a passing tanker on a popular swimming beach. The PR spin: “we live in an oil rich area of the ocean, and natural seeps are common. There are microorganism that are adapted to these conditions over hundreds of thousands of years, and feed off the oil. It’s part of our natural ecosystem. Swimmers face no greater chemical exposure than a bather resting in bathwater for 10 minutes after washing your hair and body with petroleum based cleansers.”
You don’t spin these issues (and earn the public trust at the same time). You face them directly, openly, and with creditable and verifiable facts. The biggest mistake so far appears to be that it took the DOE several days to share the news with State officials: “DOE scientists say the delay in notification was caused by tests that had to be done to the samples to confirm that they were from the WIPP leak, and not naturally occurring radiation” (here).
At a minimum, is there a reason why company can’t report on the visual condition of the barrels (even without personnel down there). They have no video monitoring of the site. I find this pretty surprising.
Judging from how angry the banana equivalency makes anti-nukes, it seems to be quite effective. But I *do* concur that we should use more examples, such as smoke detectors, or the human body itself (~4400 Bq). Adding the examples of indisputably dangerous polonium exposure from smoking tobacco, or radon exposure risk in general, would also be effective.
Randall Munroe’s radiation dose chart from xkcd is also an excellent way of defusing radiation hysteria, and is hated by the antis ().
I’m concerned however first that Becquerel strongly depends on the material, 1 Bq of tritium is not the same thing at all as 1 Bq of Strontium but people won’t understand that at all.
And second the abusive use of Sievert to design what should actually be Gray is also very misleading. That’s how the water leaks at Fukushima could be shown as very worrying wih Sv number that were actually Gy. In other words, expressing the Gy value in Sv was hiding the fact that maybe the number was high, but it was unlikely someone would be exposed, and even if exposed by touching the water, they would not receive a full body exposure, so the correctly calculated Sievert exposure would be much lower in any situation the the raw number in Gray of mostly beta radiation the water was emitting.
On the other, for the life of me, I just never can remember correctly in which direction I should convert Rem to Sievert. Let e say that the change from the one to the other happened at the same time all over the world, but there’s only one country that never has been able to switch, even within most official documents.
It’s about conveying risk. You want to drop bananas, fine. Drop ’em. But find something else.
The 3 points you raise are why we suck at talking to the public. How much additional understanding, knowledge and education does the average person need to understand them?
And who exactly would we be discrediting ourselves with? The antis? Who cares? They aren’t the target audience.
“The sun is free.” Is that accurate? True? Credible? Intellectual honest? No. But it doesn’t matter. It works.
Think about it.
“And who exactly would we be discrediting ourselves with? The antis? Who cares? They aren’t the target audience”
Therein lies one of the real problems I see in “communication” in regards to nuclear pluses and minuses. It is this adversarial mind set, which is evident even here, that turns the sincere questioner into “the enemy” in the eyes of the advocates. Read Mitch’s response to me on another thread, and look over the thread. Is it reasonable to assume, by my words, that I am an “anti”? By the mere posing of questions, it is assumed the queries are offered insincerely, or in an attempt to “damage” the argument of the advocate.
A town meeting of concerned mothers becomes a mob of “antis” in the minds of some of you. If these mothers are harboring unfounded fears, it falls on YOU, nobody else, to honestly alleviate those fears with understandable explanation as to risk, or non-risk, due to levels of exposure. Certainly, attacking them as being just a bunch of ignorant “antis” is extremely counterproductive, and who can blame them if the end result is distrust and unalleviated fear?
Here, when I see someone like EL attacked as an “agent” of the fossil fuel baddies, it makes me wonder what it is in his responses that requires that kind of rebuttal. Is he hitting a nerve? “You:” can’t present your case on its merits, rather than by attacking the motives or integrity behind his argument?
Its possible, by delivery of your argument, to actually CREATE an “anti”. Derision and assault don’t add up to a constructive formula for successful PR. The “us against them” mindset works against you, whether it be turning a concerned mom into an anti, or constantly harangueing about those bad nasty undeserving renewable folks.
And, by the way, Andrea. This “banana” thing IS too simplistic. There has to be a middle ground somewhere, but I don’t grok enough of the science to know where it is. But I do know, that everytime I see the “banana comparison” offered, I tend to muse “What, you think I’m an idiot?”. Truth is, I might be, in regards to nuclear exposures. But reading “see spot run” to me is offensive, even if its not intended to be so. I don’t envy the task of the nuclear advocate, thats for sure. You have to take complicated science and break it into understandable terms for John Q Public, without insulting his intelligence. Not an easy mission. And history has worked against you, through events such as TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima, etc.. Just try to remember that just because a person has fears doesn’t mean they’re the enemy, it just means they’re uninformed, or illinformed. (If what “you all say” here is true.)
Wow….it appears EL and I experienced a Vulcan mind meld this morning.
(Insert Twilight Zone music now)
Great writeup, Rod.
It highlights how much we have become infected by the Hollywood perceptions, that environmental monitoring and analysis is just a matter of looking at the right dial. Bet none of the people holding office had a clue that there were filter papers, collection times and destructive analysis involved in the process.
Bad on the WIPP for not doing the needed advance planning and spadework. Politicians do not like to be caught out. I fear that will be the most consequential effect of this event.
I’m not willing to simply lay the blame on the WIPP without finding out if they tried to communicate. Sometimes, believe it or not, politicians don’t bother to listen to what they have been told.
“Sometimes, believe it or not, politicians don’t bother to listen to what they have been told”
They always listen. Its the only way they can figure out how to twist the words and pervert the message into fitting thier own agenda. Attorneys excel at it as well.
Very good article. One correction, you wrote about the HEPA filters as “high efficiency particulate absorption (HEPA) filters.”. These are not absorption or adsorption filters but a particulate filters. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air or Absolute (depending on how old you are) filter.
Rod, I absolutely love this piece. Informative and easy to read, which is always a good combination. I have posted this as widely as I can on Facebook and also tweeted it. Hopefully, this will get “No Agenda” to say something about.
Back in my day, the acronym stood for High Efficiency Particulate Apparatus.
I once declared a war on acronyms, partly because they develop a life of their own. According to Acronym finder, you and I are both correct, but there are an additional 7 meanings listed.
The source I checked when I wrote the article was Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HEPA – because it ranked first in the Google search results and I was just doing a quick check.
I declared that old war on acronyms when I was working for the Navy in Washington. Some subjected me to a PowerPoint brief that included a slide with the two letter acronym IA used three times with three different meanings – all on the same slide.
IA – Individuals Account
IA – Information Assurance
IA – Individual Augmentee
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to win or even survive the war, so I still use acronyms – and argue about them – on occasion.
The government is now the largest “customer” in the economy.
Therefore, if the useless twits at the EPA and NRC couldn’t continuously shake down their victims with $500/hr fees from mysterious “contamination events” , the economy would kick the bucket.
There will be lots of contamination events This is your Scam Economy at Work. Have fun chasing phantoms.
The media can and will find anything to fill paragraphs to make a story. Accuracy and truthfulness can have little to do with it.
I think the lesson is unless you provide the details someone else for sure will, and competency for all its rarity, will likely not be a deciding factor.
This post is not about the way the media covered the event. It is about the way a responsible government official has responded, indicating a communication failure.
After reading it more carefully again Its still kinda my takeaway Rod. Like I said before I kinda looked around for this sor of coverage of the incident elsewhere. I could not find it anywhere. Of course I would never think to check at CEMRC. Mr Flynn would know about that I suppose and why he made his comments you reposted above are beyond me. I also didn’t understand how the contaminates could be detected/moved around until further reading here.
I guess I should mention I read the coverage at the anti nuke sites first as well. Including the truck incident earlier. That probably has a lot to do with my response into the off topic(?) waters. Like it or not, this to them and the people they influence, as well as all things atomic are connected in the same conspiracy. To me that pervasive, politically resonating mindset combined with the vagueness on these matters everywhere is a very real conspiracy.
I am also rather furious at many comments I have seen lately on other sites comparing the severity of Fuku/nuclear hazards to fossil pollution issues, climate change and GW. Thats one huge lie and distortion I likely wont be backing down about.
Im kinda also irritated that you guys have not been more aggressive. These days incidentally im chalking it up to something like impostor syndrome. Regardless I feel like many of you need to become current on related issues and get out there more.
Ok on the third reading and paying more attention to the technical stuff that I unfortunately tune out too often, I see your intent more clearly perhaps.
Still though is this a “communication failure” or a unrealistic expectations meets reality thing? Or are they the same thing. Do they even matter on a individual level until once they are mass communicated? How were they mass communicated? (then I am back to where I was).
See, even our friends often tune out the important details we’re trying to communicate. Numbers and units matter, even if they are a tad on the boring side.
Example: I care very little about one penny, but I would care quite a bit about share of Berkshire Hathaway or one 2 carat diamond.
“The media can and will find anything to fill paragraphs to make a story. Accuracy and truthfulness can have little to do with it”
“I think the lesson is unless you provide the details someone else for sure will, and competency for all its rarity, will likely not be a deciding factor”
So…if the media is such an impressive foe, in the pockets of the all powerful antis, how exactly do you intend to get YOUR message out?
Its more just random sensationalism. All over the place really. Fortunately it also gives them a credibility problem.
We need to start advertising ourselves. That’s the obvious way for us to get OUR message out.
I remember the early ads, when I was a kid. Can’t remember who put them on. But they were fantastic! They really presented nuclear power in a dynamic, modern, cutting edge, utopian manner. That symbol, the atom, held such huge marketing value in the way it was presented……
Re: “Andrea Jennetta”
“The 3 points you raise are why we suck at talking to the public. How much additional understanding, knowledge and education does the average person need to understand them?”
But you know Andrea, that’s been the lamest of excuses that the nuclear “industry”/community avails to explain its PR plight and Darth Vader reputation; “We’re clueless how to do it!” The folks who run Tylenol and BP Gulf know squat about running Ads and promotive PR campaigns themselves; their Outside firms do — and they’re ready and eager at one phone call to pluck your bacon out of the fire or bleach the stain on your record with cold unassailable fact and record. They know how to use your strong points to clean your blemished reputation. Nuclear power has nothing to be ashamed of in its mortality scores and environmental impact record. So why isn’t it being flaunted to the hilt?? Isn’t anyone else tired of that sashaying gas Ad lady having the floor to herself?? Nuclear energy’s bad name can be turned in months or even weeks of the powers that be in the “industry”/community just made that phone call. How much effort can it be? If the energy utilities don’t want to do the call and slice the throats of their other fossil cash cows then why can’t nuclear professional organizations or even atomic workers unions make the call? They certainly have the bucks (dues), unless someone tells me that those running those exasperating Puppy Rescue commercials in high-priced TV ad market NYC metro here have deeper pockets to go with their PR gung-ho to capture a million hearts and minds. Like I keep harping, it ain’t Saturn V science. It takes Will and Guts to step up to the plate and do the phone call! In the eyes of industry, nuclear people might be the among the top professionals on earth, but they’re rank amateurs at the art of self-preservation. I hope Rod does the Donald Trump “Apprentice” take and lassos the head PR honchos of NEI, ANS, and the atomic unions (not holding my breath for energy companies themselves) in one sitting and grills them about this totally needless pitiful state of public affairs!
This story now has a life of it’s own. Today’s headline on www(dot)fukuleaks(dot)org: “WIPP Plutonium Leak May Have Been From Ceiling Collapse”. Definitely a communication difficulty when reporters force techies to speculate on problems (that’s what techies are good at). Sometimes it is better left at “We’re still investigating, no further comment.” Also that story has an interesting link at: http://www.cardnm.org/repository2_a.html#panel
No real way for me to know the validity of that link, but I’d suspect it’s going to gain traction in the coming days. It just verifies how serious the subject of this blog post on “communication” can become in today’s reality. mjd.
But until we can get a bot down there, who can tell?
At the first measured 4.4MBq of Alpha, that is some seriously scary stuff down there, sure it might have settled out of the air, but it didn’t disappear.
For comparison, I did a google search for “wipp leak” and compared the results to “Parachute creek benzene spill.” If you do a similar search you’ll find that the results are international in nature to the WIPP leak, but only local and state media bothered to report on the benzene spill. This was a major spill that was first detected in March of 2013 and allowed to continue until late August. Parachute creek is on the western slope of Colorado and flows directly into the Colorado river just above Grand Junction (home of the famous Palisade peaches and many other irrigated crops). The potential impact of this spill was far greater than the “puff” from WIPP, yet I’ll bet this is the first any of you have heard of it.
Media bias? Event happens often enough to not be news? Or is benzene a safe chemical?
I don’t think it’s the last one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benzene#Health_effects – note “it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero” sounds a lot like what is said about exposure to nuclear radiation.
“I don’t think it’s the last one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benzene#Health_effects – note “it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero” sounds a lot like what is said about exposure to nuclear radiation”
As an apprentice at a custom fine furniture shop I worked extensively with benzene, as it was an important component of tortoise shell and “dropped” fine finishes. It was before the chemical became tightly controlled and unavailable over the counter. I have no idea if Benzene was a contributing factor, but the master of that shop died in his fifties of severe respiratory illness, his last five years spent carrying an oxygen bottle and experiencing extreme hardship in his efforts to breathe. The man spent most of his lifetime working with benzene, laquers, shellacs, varnishes, etc. as well as the various dusts created by milling and sanding numerous species of hardwoods.
Does this too “sound like” a parrallel to “exposure to nuclear radiation”? Sometimes it takes years and years before we find out that what we deem “safe” is actually killing us.
POA, have you considered the possible toxicity of the sawdust that was part the shop work environment? See http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/wood-allergies-and-toxicity/
Funny you say that, because I spent the entire day milling some gorgeous clear vertical grain redwood that I salvaged off a remodel I’m involved in. The house it came off of was built in the late fifties, and was entirely sided with 1×6 T&G, not well maintained. I’m having to remill it to 5/8″ x 4 1/2″ T&G in order to get to firm unweathered grain. Well worth it though, there is no way you could purchase this quality of redwood in today’s market. And I managed to get ALOT of it. Smiling.
But, point being, milling redwood is always irritating to the eyes and sinuses, to say nothing about how festering the splinters are. Cedar as well, although the splinters aren’t as bad. Sometimes white oak, when milled, will fill a shop with a truly obnoxious stench. And I can only imagine what some of the popular exotics have in store for the health of us wood workers.
Thanks for the link. It takes this old desk top forever to load a fresh site, so I’ll check it out when I get the time. Its a site I haven’t seen. I’m aware of the toxicity of some wood dusts, as well as the toxicity of many of the glues used in plywood and composites. And, like most craftsmen, I haven’t done near enough to protect myself. My fingers are crossed. 62 now. If its gonna bite me, I imagine it’ll let it be known soon enough.
Benzene is most closely associated with leukemias and the like, not lung disorders.
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