Thursday, May 26, 2011

ALL BRAWM and NO BRAINS: The University of California, Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Department.

Recently, I have come across Fukushima fallout charts produced by the Berkeley Radiation Air & Water Monitoring Team (BRAWM) of the University of California Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Department. What is clear from those charts is that the BRAWM team has the brawn (tools and resources) to identify radioactive nuclides, but not the scientific intellect (BRAINS) to research the data. One significant research error the BRAWN team has made is to identify several high atomic weight radionuclides from their measured fallout as “NATURAL”. Functionally this error would be the equivalent of the LSU’s Petroleum Engineering department identifying the oil that wash up on the Gulf shores from the BP disaster as being “natural” and therefore not attributable to BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.

Obviously such an LSU engineering team would never mark the BP oil spill as “natural” because the visible abundance of the “natural” oil would make it clear to the public that its abundance on the beaches was most likely manmade and unnatural. On the other hand, UCB’s BRAWN team’s declarations of “natural” radionuclides in the fallout may go unquestioned because the differences in pre to post Fukushima abundance are not visible to the public's eye. However, it is NOT something that should have escaped the questioning of a competent research engineering team. The fact that it apparently escaped the collective BRAWN team’s intellect is telling; It smacks of a lack of engineering due diligence at max, and a lack of full disclosure at min. But, it is to be expected given that the majority of the field of nuclear fallout detection and weapons proliferation detection is based on looking for key radionuclide markers that do not readily occur in the environment . In those scenarios “natural” fallout is noise to be avoided; such avoidance of data has the potential to be a very dangerous , yet easily concealed , oversight in the Fukushima disaster.

To relate the situation back to the BP Gulf oil spill, Berkeley’s fallout detection methodologies would be the equivalent of ONLY looking for oil that has metallic contamination from the pumping rig’s metal pipes, and then claming that any oil NOT contaminated with trace amounts of well pump metal must be from natural oil seeps (and not the from the BP well blowout). In the BRAWN team’s defense, most nuclear engineers study well defined and controlled nuclear systems, be they bombs or nuclear generating plants. The current situation at Fukushima is massively different; it is a long term uncontrolled and unconstrained experiment. Berkely’s BRAWN engineers have no experience with the witches’ brew of nuclear reactions, fission products, photofission products, transmutations and nuclear spallation products occurring in Fukushima and/or downstream in the upper atmosphere. They apparently do not have the conceptual research experience to enter that white space. Even the simple concept that the potentially 40 year old fuel rods stored on the Fukushima site might be loaded with “natural” radioisotopes seems to have escaped them. For an interesting read on transmutation and decay products found in 10 year old fuel rods click here.

The University of California Berkeley Nuclear Engineering department’s BRAWM team does have the BRAWN (tools and resources) to quantify and prove that the “natural” radionuclides they have detected are not from Fukushima and are in no greater abundance than pre-Fukushima ; but will they now do so? I would suggest that while the BRAWN team’s research intellect may have failed them, The engineering department’s business intellect would suggest to them that researching and showing large amounts of “natural” fallout arising from Fukushima might cause such a public stir to actually affect the nuclear industry and reduce the very life blood enrollment demand for nuclear engineers.

A better research institution with access to the sheer brawn of the BRAWM team’s test equipment and research library would sample fresh rain fallout and compare the data with historical data gathered from other experienced researchers. Such an analysis would allow the researcher to capture the complete performance envelope of Fukushima fallout and identify truly “natural” contamination from un-natural fallout containing “natural” radionuclides. An additional goal of such a research project might be to correlate the Geiger counter readings of easy to detect short half life fallout against harder to detect longer half life fallout; such a finding would be useful for rapidly determining threat levels faced local populations and first responders. I don’t suspect that such work will be forth coming out of Berkeley.

But, I do suspect that if Berkely’s BRAWN team ever commented about this blog post, they would state that whole thing was silly because short half life radiation in the USA is natural and could not come out of Fukushima. To hearken back to the BP Gulf oil disaster analogy, the equivalent logic would be that the dead fish washing up on the Gulf Coast shore are natural and could not have come from a BP oil well.

Now of course, dead fish aren’t pumped up from underwater oil wells. But dead fish are a consequence of manmade oil spills. A competent engineering group would use their brawn (resource and tools) to investigate such a circumstance before declaring it natural. Maybe a good place to start would be to look at the magnitude of such detections pre and post Fukushima. This pre-Fukushima work from Klemic in 1996 shows maximum rain washout peaks of 0.012 mR/hr. This post-Fukushima data taken after several days of rain and tornadoes shows a fallout reading of 0.60 mR/hr; that result is nearly sixty times greater than Klemic’s. One would expect all the natural washout to have occurred in the first few hours during the previous days of rain; 60 times background radiation is a lot of dead fish to be explained away as “natural” by the BRAWN team. One would think that an institution educating engineers that will sign off on the safety of future nuclear work, would hold the current safety of the public in higher regard. In that light, I would prefer to believe that the University of California Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Department's failure is a case of all BRAWN and NO BRAINS.

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