Ah! Fukushima reactor situation facts by people who know stuff. Thank you. :) The situation as described in detail there sounds considerably less apocalyptic than the news bites that have been gnawing at me.
I have to thank A* readers Drew and smartwombat for--after three days of me thrashing around in trying to decipher media reports of the situation at the tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan--taking pity on me and giving me links to alternative sources of information--sources based rather more on fact and science than hearsay and sensationalism. It's nice! Of these, the BraveNewClimate blog was recommended by both, and smartwombat tipped me off to the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub, where students in MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering are keeping a blog of situation updates and analyses. And as usual I was rambling around Wikipedia, and found Wikipedia's Fukushima nuclear accidents page, which isn't quite as chronologically organized and condensed, but has a heck of a lot of information.
And anyway fortunately for me and the media, there doesn't seem to have been much to report from Fukushima today, aside from them starting to use helicopters to drop more sea water on the overheated reactors in their continuing effort to cool them down. Of course the horrible irony of the whole situation is that it's been prolonged by a lack of power at the power plant: the electrical generators needed to power the plant's automatic cooling system were put out of commission by the tsunami. If they could just get those powered up, cooling the reactors down to normal temperatures might be a relatively simple matter; I did see a rumor of an effort to bring an external power line in to do just that, but it wasn't a definite report.
And thanks to whoever made an A* entry on TV Tropes' "Narm" webcomics page; "narm" seems to be their term indicating a serious situation in a drama that is (supposedly unintentionally) made humorous by something ridiculous, and of course that most-discussed aspect of A*, Solvan Mar's nose, rose to the occasion; episode 11, page 72 is the page used as an example. Huzzah for the nose and the person who immortalized it there! It got me a bunch of visitors today. :) And while I'm on the topic, I may as well mention that A* does have a tiny entry in TV Tropes' "notable webcomics" section, made by me and my low-skill Trope editing some time ago; if any TV Trope editing wizzes out there would like to take a crack at fleshing it out a bit, that would be fabulous. :)
And I'm sending out yet MORE thanks today, namely to the author of the brand new webcomic And To Be Loved, who let me know that their eye was caught by one of the postcard-sized flyers I left on the tiny freebie table at the recent Emerald City Comic Con here in Seattle. Huzzah! I hadn't had any feedback on them, so it was nice to hear that they did succeed in catching at least one con-goer's eye. Also I kinda like the bravely mustard-colored background on that site, which somehow complements the finely drawn black and white of the comic.
Oh yeah, I also have to thank smartwombat for pointing out that it was inaccurate for me to say the quake in Japan was 9.0 on "the Richter scale," since that was superseded eh decades ago by the "moment magnitude" scale, which uses a similar range of numbers, but is much more accurate for medium and large-sized quakes, and also distant quakes, where the seismographs used for Richter measurements simply can't get accurate readings. More on the two scales can be found here; Richter is still used for small local quakes, but those don't really make the news, so it looks like I'll have to bid a fond farewell to the term, which I still like better than its rather bland-sounding replacement. Alas, dear Richter!
I shouldn't try to squeeze this much into a single news update, I suppose, but who knows what could happen with Fukushima tomorrow that might completely distract me, so in this relatively quiet day, I'm goin' for it!
Since I was looking up stuff about Chernobyl for my article yesterday, as usual I got to clicking around on ol' Wikipedia and came across some neat stuff I hadn't known before. Also I seem to be kind of obsessed with Chernobyl. >_> But really it *is* the best source for real examples of what radiation does in the environment, which is very important for my writing in A*, since there is a whole lot of radiation in space, and particularly near the center of the galaxy, where A* takes place. For instance, Vero seeing flashes of light and having a metallic taste in his mouth as he went through Lode's high radiation magnetic field at the end of episode 8 was based on accounts by people who suffered radiation exposure at Chernobyl, and in other criticality accidents, most of them fairly small scale incidents back in the young days of the nuclear industry, the 40's and 50's, when the threat of radiation wasn't well understood.
Also, Chernobyl is a source of many--often heartbreaking--highly dramatic human stories of survival in a high radiation environment. Wikipedia's page of Deaths due to the Chernobyl disaster has concise accounts of individual heroism, scapegoating, and trauma surrounding the accident, and it was from a curious mention on that page that I wound up at an article called Chernobyl 20 Years On, written by Adam Higginbotham for The Observer in 2006. The article is written rather dramatically, and doesn't try to take a really close look at hard-to-establish figures such as the mentioned "hundreds of thousands" of liquidators--people sent into the radioactive zone around Chernobyl after the accident to remove leaves from trees, bury whole towns, and otherwise try to remove all trace of the mess, which the USSR did its best to cover up, thus making many definite facts hard to come by--but Higginbotham does get some fascinating interviews with people directly involved in the disaster. I'm going to mention just a couple things that struck me, so I really encourage you to read the whole article, because there's a lot of other very interesting stuff in it; his description of pre-accident Chernobyl, for instance, has an eerie ring: as one of the largest power stations in the world, it was a coveted scientific posting, the little idyllic town of Pripyat built nearby to house the staff in comfort--and Pripyat is now perhaps the most famous radioactive (ghost) town on Earth.
The two accounts I'm going to mention from the article struck me again because they are unique accounts of a high radiation environment that include qualitative observations found almost nowhere else in human history--the kind of hard detail that can make a story...well yeah, that can make a story. The first is in the account of Alexander Yuvchenko, who was in his office between Chernobyl reactors 3 and 4 when 4 exploded. You should read the rest of it, since it contains things like the three guys assigned to check on the manual rig for operating the reactor's control rods: Yuvchenko held the door to the blasted reactor hall for them, and they crept up to a ledge, and peeked out...directly into the melting reactor core, a sight never before seen, and a horrible one: all three received fatal radiation doses in seconds, and were dead from acute radiation poisoning a month later.
Anyway the detail that struck me was Yuvchenko's first observation of the ruined reactor as he rushed outside from his office following the explosion: as Higginbotham puts it rather dressily, "an unearthly, delicate, blue-white light shot upwards into the night - a shaft of ionising radiation from the exposed core. 'I remember thinking how beautiful it was,' Yuvchenko says."
The other observation that struck me also had to do with color, and sounds perhaps slightly less reliable: firefighters were sent up to the roof of the reactor buildings to put out fires, receiving lethal doses of radiation in the process; some were even spraying water directly down into the ruined core. Those firefighters died within two weeks, and surviving Chernobyl fireman Anatoli Zakharov recounts to Higginbotham something he heard about one of them, Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik: that Pravik had taken so much radiation that it turned his eyes from brown to blue. That does sound a bit urban-legendy, but dang if it isn't interesting. Their bodies were so radioactive that they were sealed in lead coffins.
I did notice, though, what I think (hopefully one of my more scientifically trained readers can check this for me :) is at least one error in the article: Higginbotham calls the blue-white light Yuvchenko saw above the reactor core "Cherenkov's Light," but according to what I can understand from Wikipedia, it almost certainly was *not* Cherenkov radiation, but rather an entirely different phenomenon.
Cherenkov radiation is often seen as a bluish glow in water-filled nuclear reactor cores:
It occurs when "a charged particle (such as an electron) passes through a dielectric medium at a speed greater than the phase velocity of light in that medium." That sounds nutty, since nothing's supposed to move faster than light, but in water, for instance, light moves at just 75% of its speed in a vacuum, so it is possible for a particle in that pool to get excited by the nuclear reaction to a speed faster than light (ie faster than 75% of light's speed in a vacuum). The particle passes through the water, polarizing nearby atoms; after it has passed, they emit photons to restore their equilibrium, and these photons, moving slower than the charged particle, trail behind it, building up in a sort of "shock front": it is these photons that are seen as the blue glow--blue because "higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) are more intense in Cherenkov radiation," and blue is higher frequency than red and green.
Now, the glow Yuvchenko saw was in air, not in water--and in air, light travels at about 99.97% of its speed in a vacuum, which means that in order to produce Cherenkov radiation there, the ruined #4 reactor would, according to this article, have had to have been emitting charged particles traveling faster than 99.97c, which would have required them to have more energy than what you can really get from nuclear decay--so basically, Cherenkov radiation would not be present in visible amounts in air, even above the ruined Chernobyl reactor.
What Yuvchenko was probably seeing was a phenomenon known by the rather less poetic name (I'm getting Richter flashbacks here...) of ionized air glow: excited nitrogen molecules in the air get themselves back to equilibrium by emitting a photon; nitrogen's emission spectrum tends toward the blue range when the nitrogen is ionized, so the resulting light is bluish, as seen here in an ion beam emitted by a 60-inch Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory cyclotron around 1939:
I wonder how many fictional death ray beams that photo inspired. Other excited elements in the mix can alter the color: hydrogen undergoing the same process emits violet light; that might be what's causing the more purpley color in this photo, where air has been excited by the nearby Tesla coil:
So it sounds like that was the kind of thing creating the shaft of light Yuvchenko saw shooting up out of Chernobyl #4's core.
Ah, one other thing I want to relate from the Higginbotham article is just an interesting part of the deadly drama that I hadn't heard much about before:
By the beginning of May, two weeks after the explosion, nearly 4.5 tons of sand had been dumped by helicopter into the reactor in an attempt to smother fires, cool the core, and absorb radiation, but then it in fact turned out that core temperatures were rising rather than dropping; it was thought that the sand was actually making things worse, and now the uranium in the core could reach its 2900 degrees C melting temperature, which might result in a molten ball of uranium burning down through the earth to the water table below Chernobyl, and the steam explosion from that meeting could have blown the entire plant to bits, spreading radioactive material from all four of the plant's reactors over the entire Soviet Union.
To prevent that doomsday scenario, a massive plan was hatched to dig tunnels below reactor 4's foundation, freeze the surrounding earth with liquid nitrogen, and build a heat exchanger below the core to prevent meltdown. Higginbotham, getting details of the plan from Veniamin Prianichnikov, nuclear physicist and director of the plant's training programs, relates that miners were made to dig by hand in the highly radioactive area below the reactor due to fear of causing further disturbance to the reactor's foundations, and that "all the liquid nitrogen in the western Soviet Union was sent to Chernobyl" (that's another dramatic statement that probably can't be fact-checked) and when it didn't arrive quickly enough, the director in charge of the operation was told by the government minister to get it, or he (the director) would be shot.
The core, however, cooled by more than several thousand degrees in a few weeks, and so the freezing plan was no longer needed--small consolation to the miners who had been exposed to sometimes fatal doses of radiation while digging the now-useless tunnels beneath the reactor.
Looks like I've only managed to fit in one page today after staying up a bit too late writing that massive Chernobyl post yesterday. Time management skills, will I ever get you? Hm I wonder if this extra gray I've been doing lately is slowing things up a bit, too. I kinda like the look of it, though. Ooh wait I know, it's because I've been having to draw two detailed characters per page for this huge brawl. Darn these crowds!
~~~~~~~~~~~ An interesting factoid I happened upon about the recent earthquake in Japan came from this Reuters photo caption, which mentions that the quake moved Japan's main island 2.4 meters (8 feet), and shifted the Earth 10 centimeters (four inches) on its axis. Dang! Ah and I see the Wikipedia page on the earthquake has that information as well...hm and it mentions that JAXA (Japan's space agency) evacuated their Tsukuba Space Center in response to the earthquake; Tsukuba is their main control center, and controls part of the International Space Station.
Those dark hemispheres with a hole through their middle are uranium-235; when clamped together in the middle there, they would be just below critical mass; then, a rod of fissile material (maybe also uranium, I dunno) would be dropped through the middle, and in the split-second where it was falling through the uranium sphere, critical mass was reached, giving off a pulse of energy, and then the rod fell through, and critical mass was lost, so you avoided a chance of a larger radiation release.
That was the theory, at least. In practice, there were two criticality accidents with the device: the first in 1954, which did this to it:
and the second, damage from which forced the device's retirement, in 1957 (although it was followed up by Godiva II, which as far as Wikipedia knows is still present at the Nevada Test Site, America's primary nuclear test site (the site of 928 announced nuclear tests from 1951 to 1992 (none since then--one planned one was canceled after state Congresses objected), only 828 of which were above ground--so most of those old ground-level desert nuclear tests you see footage of now and then with army guys just standing around watching nuclear explosions as in '55's Operation Teapot
took place there--only 126 American nuclear tests have taken place anywhere other than the Nevada site).
Godiva's self-canceling design was inspired by a 1952 incident with its predecessor, Jemima, in which that device accidentally brought together too many of the uranium-235 disks used by it to achieve critical mass.
Interesting note for Wikipedia editors (I know you guys all read this ... :P): Wikipedia's article on the Godiva device conflates it with a 1944 test in which Otto Frisch--who named the Godiva device--caused a test device utilizing blocks of uranium to go critical when he leaned too close to it: his own body reflected additional neutrons back to the uranium stack, causing it to go critical; fortunately, Frisch saw the criticality indicator lights go solid red, and, thinking quickly, he moved away, and scattered some of the blocks; Frisch survived and lived to the ripe age of 75. Anyway, the Godiva article says it was Godiva that Frisch leaned against in '44, but it sounds like Godiva wasn't around until '52, and anyway didn't use manually stacked uranium blocks; the Otto Frisch article has a much better account of Frisch's '44 experiment (not mentioning the term "Godiva" at all): Frisch was stacking 3 cm bars of uranium hydride together, one by one, and measuring rising neutron activity as the mass approached criticality; fellow nuclear researcher Richard Feynman called this "tickling a sleeping dragon's tail," since one block too many (or, in Frisch's case, one body too many) could lead to a runaway nuclear reaction that would release enough neutrons to kill everyone in the vicinity...just like a suddenly awoken ticklish dragon would. ...
Man, they sure were nonchalant around radiation back in them days; of course, they had more immediately deadly things to worry about, like the millions of conventional bombs of WWII, which could kill you just fine right away, rather than months or years or decades later. Also, they didn't really know how nasty radiation could be to the human body. Frisch had given the Godiva device its name as a bit of a joke on this carefree attitude, since, in folklore, the medieval Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Lady Godiva is said to have ridden through the streets of Coventry, England, in the nude (to get her husband to stop his excessive taxes; the story goes that she'd been asking him on behalf of the people to repeal them, and he got testy and said he would if she rode through town naked--so she did; the question is, did he really want to a) repeal the taxes, or b) have his wife parade around in the buff? Weird guy :p), and, as Frisch put it, the device, like Lady Godiva, also was "naked and unshielded"; it didn't repeal taxes, though.
Whoa okay, I have to backtrack and go on more about Operation Upshot-Knothole, whose eleven nuclear test shots in Nevada in '53 had quite a few knotty down-shots in them. For one thing, the shots of the first two tested uranium hydride bombs--in which deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen: it's a proton (hydrogen) plus a neutron) is used as a moderator to slow emitted neutrons, converting them to thermal neutrons, which are good for sustained nuclear reactions--fizzled, managing yields of only 0.2 kilotons each, which, in the first one's case, didn't even destroy the little tower on which the bomb was mounted:
That kind of result sure wasn't gonna keep us safe from the reds!
The other, much worse failing in Upshot-Knothole was the Harry test, in which a 26-kiloton air-dropped bomb detonated at 2,400 feet above the test range. The explosion released much more fallout than anticipated, and winds carried the radioactive cloud 135 miles to St. George, Utah, "where residents reported 'an oddly metallic sort of taste in the air'" (there's that qualitative phrase I borrowed for A* again!); apparently, this sort of thing happened repeatedly to St. George. Jeez. Due to the accident, the press dubbed the bomb "Dirty Harry"--that's gotta be where the character "Dirty" Harry Callahan's nickname came from, right?
Sheesh, I gotta cut down on these huge news posts. :P But at least I cut my news backlog down by a net of one browser tab. :pp And I learned stuff, darn it.
Fri Mar 18, 2011 5:42 am
Joined: Fri Mar 13, 2009 4:18 pm Posts: 2859
Also got the plot outlines for the end of episode 13 and all of episode 14 typed up. Whee!
Man, caffeine *does* hit me pretty hard. >_>
EDIT: Somewhat needless to say, the next page will be a wee-hours-Saturday-morning affair. It seems I have a birfday party to attend. \o/
Well we've reached the end of the week safely, without even having any nuclear reactors melt down, so how about that. If you're feeling happy to be alive, you could use some of that vibrant energy to visit the latest page of my Sunday fairy tale comic, The Princess and the Giant, by clicking this here banner/link thing:
And finally, to show that life after the big meltdown to end all meltdowns might not be so bad, I leave you with this music video (coincidentally enough by the band I'd never heard of whose "Supermassive Black Hole" song in the soundtrack of the first Twilight movie got me a whole lot of confused Facebook young followers =p), which has pretty much everything sci-fi should have, like cowboys, laser guns, kung fu, and a unicorn (oh and an actress who could probably do a pretty mean Selenis, provided she learned how to shoot like she means it):
Since we came into this space station I've been using grays over skin to get some additional shading and--most importantly--highlights, which I hadn't really been able to do before when I was leaving skin mostly white. But back on page 44 I started realizing that the gray skin starts to look flat in close-ups, so for the next one, on page 46, I rolled in some areas of slightly lightening (layers of white set to 20% opacity) to make the cheeks stand up a bit and so forth. That worked pretty well!
Then I kind of forgot about it, but on Friday I was struggling with another close-up, and thinking boy, why isn't it popping like good ol' page 46 did, and I realized part of the problem was the lack of those lightened skin areas. So I added them and changed the weight of the shadows around a bit; if you saw the page in the first hour or so after I uploaded it, you saw the pre-lightened version on the left; on the right is the final version, with additional lightening layers:
That seemed to help give the hand a sense of receding around her head, and got rid of the flat pancake face effect the single gray was creating; although, I think I still have some practice to do with these to get to the point where they're enhancing the effect of depth without reducing the sensation of contrast in the image. But you'll probably see me using this technique fairly regularly now.
Remember how I said episode 12 was a shorty? Well, we're at hm maybe ten or a dozen pages left to go in it--see? short!--which means that soon I'll have to storyboard and script episode 13, which means that I need to build myself up a buffer of pages to give you guys while I'm doing all that writing and storyboard doodling; so the short of it is, starting tomorrow, I'll only be able to give you one page a day. :P Holding back pages always irritates the heck out of me, but I haven't found a better way to handle the extra work I have to do between episodes. Hopefully (fingers crossed) it will take me less than the five full days of buffer I'm building up with that schedule, and I'll be able to get back to some multi-page days near the end of episode 12--but I think 13's gonna be kind of a long one, so it's fairly likely I'll need all those days to drive myself crazy with drawing hundreds of storyboards. =p
Still gotta draw Tomorrow's Page--Today! so I'm gonna make this a brief news blurb: I ran across the webcomic Cura Te Ipsum this past week, and it has some really nice black and white art, and even some silly sci-fi stuff like trans-dimensional portals or something. It might be worth checking out!
One up side of working ahead and posting just one page a day to cover me for the upcoming transition to episode 13 is that I at least get the page posted a bit earlier in the day. =P
I saw an article recently saying that the University of California, San Diego is working on building the world's largest antimatter trap; I've talked a fewtimes about the ALPHA antimatter-trapping experiment at CERN, and this article I linked about it before doesn't say how many antiparticles it holds, exactly, but various particle or proton figures given there relative to the trap are in the 30 million to 1 billion range. The UCSD trap, on the other hand, "will be able to store more than a trillion antimatter particles at once"; one difference in its design is that it will be a "multicell" trap, with multiple magnetic "bottle" fields, each holding "ten of billions" of antiparticles. So if it comes off, it *sounds* like it could greatly accelerate (little joke there :p) antimatter research by making more of the stuff available for observation and testing.
NASA's MESSENGER craft that I mentioned recently as approaching Mercury is now in orbit around our solar system's innermost planet--the first craft to accomplish that feat. The article says it will start sending pictures back in April, which should be neat. It also mentions that MESSENGER and Voyager 2--NASA's 1977 probe, now winging outward at the far edge of the solar system--"exchanged tweets," which is, uh, well...weird. :P
Speaking of NASA probes going out, NASA's Stardust probe, which I have also mentionedbefore, having visited an asteroid and not just one but TWO comets, will conduct one final test: according to this NASA news article, it will fire its engines until its fuel is depleted. That will help NASA check how close their fuel use estimates have been to how much the craft--which has fired its rockets 2 million times, and covered over 5.5 billion space kilometers (3.5 billion miles)--has actually used, since apparently "no one has invented an entirely reliable fuel gauge for spacecraft." Huh! This final burn will leave Stardust drifting somewhere between Earth and Mars; once it runs out of fuel, it won't be able to maneuver to keep its solar panels pointed at the sun, and will consequently run out of power within hours. So farewell, Stardust! You've been one of the most successful space probes in history, and I'll miss writing about your adventures around the solar system.
Hey, my Sunday fairy tale comic, "The Princess and the Giant," updated this past weekend. Have you seen the latest page yet? :D
The newest major version of the Firefox browser, Firefox 4, came out today, and it seems pretty neat. Normally I wouldn't bother writing about a browser release, but Firefox 4 is tremendously faster than 3, which was already pretty darn fast, and although I'd heard and wasn't particularly excited about its new major feature, grouping browser tabs, I soon realized that I can now throw all my "for future A* news post" tabs that accumulate into their own group, so they're out of the way and aren't filling up my tab bar the rest of the time. Neat! Also it didn't break my web site, which is nice. :)
And I was gonna update to the brand new version of Internet Explorer as well, but then I found that it doesn't support Windows XP. Wha. Oh well, I guess IE is less relevant to me than ever now. :P I do like having the latest version for compatibility testing when I make layout changes to the web site, but I guess now I'll just have to rely more on browsershots.org for that as far as new versions of IE are concerned. Wait, they don't have IE 9 there (yet?). Huhhh. Well, if you're using IE 9, and you ever see anything on the site break, send me a forum PM or tweet or something and lemme know. :o
I *do* seem to be having a problem with the new Firefox where it won't show me newly updated versions of my webcomic sites, so I have to press F5 after updating to see the new comic--that's a little worrying. I never had that problem in previous versions of Firefox (or IE or Chrome).
Also, FF4 removes the RSS feed indicator that FF3 had in the address bar, which I liked (they've made it an optional menu bar button or something, although when I tried placing it, it vanished :o), but fortunately there's already an add-on that puts it back there.
EDIT: Hm, this news post came up for me just fine on the front page--didn't have to reload manually. So maybe it was some kind of transition problem where the new version of Firefox wasn't detecting pages cached under the previous as having changed? I guess I'll find out when I post another page tomorrow!
I have to thank Metruis, author of the Between Places webcomic, for pointing out to me that a common link banner size is 200x40, and I didn't have any that size for A*. Well, I do now:
Others banners and icons, in somewhat less convenient sizes, can be found on the icons page. Thanks for the tip, Metruis!
And thanks to my brother for tipping me off to the existence of Robonaut, a NASA/GM project working on a robotic assistant that can be used by astronauts to do things like perform exterior repairs when nobody feels like getting up and putting on a space suit. Most pertinently, the project's second unit, Robotnaut 2 (the "R2 unit," in case there was any doubt that there are some Star Wars fans at NASA), shown here with "his" blinged-out rover mounting, "Centaur 2"
They haven't actually switched him on and had him doing stuff, so to see him in action, you'd have to catch his older test videos, for instance where the legless robot is swinging his arms around or--are you ready for this??--pushing buttons. Robonaut (2)! He's so hip, he even has his own YouTube channel, and I'm sure he Tweets like nothing else or whatever.
Apparently they're boxing him back up for a while until they actually figure out what to do with him, but at any rate he is meant to stay on the ISS and maybe eventually go on remote-controlled (?) spacewalks or something. Although of course what we really want to know is a) how good is his chess game and b) how long before he turns evil and starts crushing people's skulls? BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS PEOPLE.
Seriously though he is kind of neat. He even has video-out and USB ports--daaaang--and what looks like it might be a camera in his mouth grill...the better to see people with when he's crushing and eating them, no doubt.
This new fancy Firefox 4 browser I've been so excited about seems less tolerant of the ancient cache control hacks I was using to make sure your browser always loads up the latest and greatest version of the A* news and comic when you come to the site, so I've added in what seems to be the proper way to do such things (ie the 'Cache-Control: "must-revalidate"' HTTP header in an .htaccess file on the server), which will hopefully do the trick. Uh but I guess I won't really know for reasonably sure until I do a few more updates. Next week! And don't forget to check out the update to my fairy tale Princess and the Giant comic on Sunday! Okay!