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Atomic City

AtomicCityI left Idaho Falls and headed west towards the Craters of the Moon National Monument. It’s a rural landscape that gradually gives way to ancient (and not so ancient) lava flows. The black basalt contrasts with the sagebrush in a pleasing way until you try to imagine what it looked like when the volcanos were active and firey red magma spewed and destroyed everything in its path.

ArcoDuring WWII the area was used by the Navy as an artillery test range. After the war, it became the focal point of America’s nuclear energy program. It was a time when we were competing with the Russians in a race for nuclear power. Arco, Idaho was the first city in the “Free World” to be powered by a nuclear reactor. Russia beat us by about a year. In June 1954 the world’s first nuclear powered electricity generator EBR-1 exteriorbegan operation at the FEI in Obninsk. That’s a fact that’s missing from most of the signage at EBR-1 (Experimental Breeder Reactor – 1) which started generating electricity for Arco, ID in 1955.

HotRoom2EBR-1 is now on the National Register of Historic Places. I drove past but had to turn around. It’s not every day you are able to see a nuke station. My tour guide was a summer intern. Her knowledge of physics was basic, but it was her interpretation of “facts” that surprised me. She was tightly scripted and well coached on how to present nuclear power in a positive light.

PressureVesselThe tour started with a basic overview of atomic fission. As my guide explained how heat is generated when splitting atoms, she said “Using uranium to heat water is just like using coal to heat water.”

What? That’s such an oversimplification that I had to counter that with an observation about nuclear waste. It’s been an issue since before I was born and will remain an issue after I’m dead. The recent accident that closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) only puts us farther away from the goal of isolating the deadly waste products from our nuclear energy and weapons programs. While it’s a concern, she admitted that the waste is safely stored above ground for now. There’s little comfort in that statement when there are thousands of barrels of waste that may explode above ground, spreading contamination in populated areas.

Caution_edited-1After digesting that bit of bad news I asked her about Fukushima. What are the lessons learned from the triple meltdown? She told me that the Japanese people were somewhat anti-nuclear after the accident, but the passage of time has changed their attitudes. Today, she asserted, most Japanese are in favor of nuclear energy as they have few other options.

Really? This is at odds with the facts. While the Japanese BoomGovernment is overwhelmingly pro-nuke, the citizens are not. “The most recent Japanese opinion poll on nuclear restarts is the March 18 survey by the Asahi Shimbun. It indicates that 59% of the Japanese public oppose restarts of any nuclear capacity, whereas only 28% support restarts.” The misinformation doled out by my tour guide was egregious. 

Atomic engineAs I left EBR-1 I saw the remains of an experimental nuclear plant for powering atomic aircraft. I reflected on the incredible optimism of the early atomic age. The engineers had big ideas and budgets to match. Nobody seemed to consider the unintended consequences that we live with today. Aging nuclear plants that have their licenses extended beyond the projected service life of the plant. Tons and tons of toxic waste with nowhere to go. Communities exposed to the biological effects of radiation. Dead zones that nobody can enter. All of this is obvious in retrospect. Obvious to me, but not the nuclear industry. They are fighting tooth and nail to preserve their industry. The industry’s PR flacks try to put a happy face on this questionable technology. And when that fails to work, they attack and smear those who speak against nuclear power.

In the end, nuclear power was born in a top secret environment. It remains secretive, opaque and untrustworthy. Who can we believe in this polarizing debate? I don’t know who to believe, but I do know who not to believe.  The nuclear power industry cannot be trusted.


What’s going on in the Pacific ocean?

KenIf nothing else, Dr. Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is a scientist. By that I mean that he lives and breathes data. It’s data that drives his conclusions about what’s going on in the Pacific ocean. In short, this is a man that does not speculate about things he cannot prove.

I wouldn’t have had this impression of him if I had only read his work or seen him on YouTube. The only way to make this judgement was to meet him face to face. Thanks to Fukushima Response in Sonoma County, CA I found myself at the beautiful French Garden Restaurant in Sebastopol, CA. The folks at Fukushima Response organized a “meet and greet” with Ken Buesseler and Dan Sythe, CEO of International Medcom, a manufacturer of radiation detectors. I came away impressed that both men are doing something about collecting the facts about Fukushima’s pollution.

Asked Ken a few questions and he was kind enough to answer them. His responses are paraphrased below:

RossiChinesePlumeQuestion: You showed computer simulations of Fukushima radionuclides in the ocean. Rossi’s long term projection showed very widely disbursed radionuclides. What do you make of the Chinese-Korean model that suggests a concentrated plume headed directly towards California’s coast?

Answer: The Chinese-Korean model is flawed. There are papers that show that the plume will not be as concentrated as their simulation suggests. These are computer simulations that are not based on direct observation and in that sense they are just estimates.

Question: What extrapolations can we make from your work to the safety of Pacific Ocean seafood?

Answer: I’m not that concerned about cesium in fish. Cesium uptake and elimination by fish is relatively rapid. They eliminate 50% of the cesium in 50 days. A bigger issue is strontium 90. We are seeing increased levels of strontium relative to cesium being discharged from Fukushima now. Strontium is a bone seeker with a half life of 29 years. Eating fish with bones, as is sometimes done with anchovy and sardines, may be a concern.

Question: Wood’s Hole Federal funding has been trending downwards for the past 3 years. Corporate sponsors from the energy industry have been picking up the slack in terms of funding research programs. How can you assure us that you remain independent from corporate influence on your research?

Answer: My research is not funded by energy companies. I publish the names of all of our funding sources on our website and the crowdsourced funding of our work helps to maintain our independence.

I came away from our meeting with the impression that Ken’s work is his passion and he cares deeply about the health of our oceans. While he may have been criticized in the past for comparing exposure to Fukushima radionuclides to eating bananas he has thankfully cut that slide from his presentation. That adds to his credibility in my opinion.

Dr. Buesseler is to be commended for taking action when our government would prefer to turn a blind eye. His work is an ongoing effort that will allow coastal communities and seafood consumers a view into what is going on in their ocean. I urge everyone to get involved in his effort. Take a look at his website at ourradioactiveocean.org. Get in touch with local organizers or raise funds locally to sample and test the waters in your community. Knowledge is power and that can only be a good thing.





Long, long ride

By Pimps of Joytime

Citizen Science: Radioactivity in the Pacific

There are two efforts underway to assess the impact of Fukushima’s pollution on the west coast of the United States. You’d think that this sort of work would fall in the wheelhouse of NOAA or the EPA or the FDA or even the NRC but no. Our government at the state and federal level is playing ostrich on the issue. Their heads are firmly in the sand (or elsewhere) on the issue of radionuclides in our water and food.

Dr. Ken Buesseler was one of the first to survey the waters off the coast of Japan after the Fukushima disaster. His results revealed a plume of cesium, strontium and other daughter products drifting east, towards the United States and Canada. When he tried to interest Federal agencies in futher investigation, every one of them balked. Without governmental interest in the problem, what can one do? It’s a problem that effects a wide geographic region (the west coast of North America) and it requires lots of hands to collect samples.

ourradiactiveoceanBuesseler’s solution is to crowdsource the work. His website, Our Radioactive Ocean, is an example of crowdsourcing citizen scientists to undertake a geographically disbursed survey of the Pacific. It provides them with the tools to collect samples and the opportunity to have those samples tested for the presence of Fukushima radionuclides.

It works like this. If you live in a coastal community and can raise $550 to $600, you can join the program. The cost covers the expense of shipping and testing a 20-liter sample of ocean water. Results of the testing may take 5 to 10 weeks to appear on the site’s interactive map. Over time, the map will show data from all of the collection points. The data can be used to verify the models of ocean transport of Fukushima’s pollution to our shores.

KelpThe other crowdsourced project is Kelpwatch 2014. Dr. Steven Manly of Cal State Long Beach and Dr. Kai Vetter of UC Berkeley. They are enlisting citizen scientists to collect samples of kelp blades to determine the extent of possible radionuclide contamination kelp forest ecosystems from arriving from Fukushima in 2014.

If you live in a community that has the interest and you can raise about $1000 your community can participate in Kelpwatch. They will send you a kit with sampling instructions. Your samples will be shipped to UC Berkeley for analysis. The goal is to sample the same sites every 3 months through the year. So far, the results show nothing above background radiation. They serve as a baseline against which to measure changes.

I’ll be attending a talk at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus tomorrow, May 31. Ken Buesseler will present Fukushima – A View From the Ocean” He will be joined by Dan Sythe, CEO of International Medcom, a manufacturer of nuclear detection devices. Sythe will share his experiences with citizen radiation monitoring projects from Three Mile Island, a 1979 nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania, to Chernobyl and now Fukushima. He will present practical details, such as how to select and use a handheld monitoring device, how to understand the data it collects compared to the more precise equipment required to identify specific isotopes, and also how to submit data to Safecast’s global network for mapping regional radiation levels.

Tomorrow’s event will take place in Ellis Auditorium, 680 Sonoma Mountain Parkway at 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.) and will include a question and answer session. Admission is free and wheelchair accessible; parking on campus costs $4.00. I hope to see a few friends of the Pacific there.

Crowdsourced Design Innovation

Local Motors Rally Fighter desert runner caught my attention at the Overland Expo but that is just the tip of the iceberg. They leverage their community of 20,000 designers to disrupt the typical design and production time required to develop new products. Their efforts focus on automotive designs that are built to specific applications or geographies. The results are stunning. In addition to the Rally Fighter, they won a DARPA challenge for a new military ambulance, designed a fantastic retro style motorcycle and are printing a complete auto with a 3D printer.

Take a look at the video as Giovanni talks about the company, its process and the products that come from their disruptive approach.




I always approach checkpoints carefully. Sometimes you get waved through, other times you get searched. There’s no in-between.

MexicansoldierYears ago in Mexico we carried a carton of cigarettes (Marlboro was a favorite) and a few pints of tequila. When we were stopped, our first step was to identify the officer in charge. It usually wasn’t the bubblegum chewing, comic book reading 16 year old soldier that approached first. It was the older guy standing a little farther away.


If the soldier wanted to search our vehicle, we’d ask to talk to the boss. A discreet walk around the corner, out of sight of his men, and we’d cut our deal. It never failed to call off the search. Booze and cigarettes are a great third world currency.

In the new militarized America the checkpoints are manned by unsmiling professionals. Some checkpoints are designed to catch illegals, others are intent on protecting American assets from evildoers. My encounter with the latter almost rattled my cage.

I left White Rock, New Mexico and headed towards Los Alamos. There’s a great route through the mountains that I intended to take back to Arizona. Halfway to Los Alamos I realized I hadn’t topped off my gas tank. I decided to turn into Los Alamos to find fuel.


Within a mile I saw the sign. Federal Checkpoint Ahead. Too late to turn around so I approached the men in blue with caution. When I came to a halt, they eyed my rig with suspicion. I’d been traveling for 10 days and a certain amount of cargo chaos had set in.

“I’m looking for a gas station” I said. His reply was curt and to the point. “Do you have any alcohol, drugs or weapons with you?” Oh man, the security trifecta. My mind raced. Sure, I have a well stocked bar in my trailer. I’d just been to Telluride and my pop’s shotgun is in a case back there too. How to respond? Answer all three at once or just one? I said “I have an unloaded shotgun and rifle in a locked case in the trailer.” That’s when the other guy said “We’ll have to search him.”

I remained silent. Not out of concern for my situation, but because I’d seen too many episodes of Dragnet. I know my rights. But when he said “I want you to take a left and turn around on the other side of the building” I was worried. I saw myself spread eagled for the inevitable cavity search and then crushed by the evidence they’d find. My Cinzano, medical caramels and Browning A5 all going to the locker until my trial. Oh crap.

I took the left turn slowly. I expected to see the guys with blue latex gloves. Then I saw the sign. Turnaround it said. It pointed straight back where I came from. I made the dash and thanked my lucky stars.


Attrition is a byproduct of travel. Even more so when Overlanding. Whether it’s by theft, act of nature, wear and tear or stupidity, it’s going to happen to you sooner or later.

Years ago my girlfriend lost her wallet then her purse in two well-rehearsed acts of street crime. We were on the bus to the National archeological museum in Mexico City. It was crowded, hot and ripe with the smell of humanity. A street urchin on crutches hobbled up to Diane to beg for change. As the urchin distracted her, his uncle came up behind her and slashed her purse with a razor. He snatched the wallet and got off at the next stop. The urchin moved with uncharacteristic grace to make the same exit.

As we got off a few stops later, something dropped from her purse. That’s when we discovered the slash and the theft.


A few weeks later we were enjoying the comida corrida at an open front restaurant. The seats were lined up in such a way that Diane was sitting with her back to the sidewalk. Halfway through lunch, a guy sits on the curb at the edge of the restaurant to tie his shoe. I didn’t think anything of it but this time Diane was on guard. She felt him lifting the strap from her chair. The thief bolted and so did I. We ran downhill several blocks. I was gaining on him when he stopped, spun around and brandished a steak knife. Probably lifted from the same restaurant.

I stopped in my tracks about 5 yards from him. I didn’t want to get cut so I let him go. By the time I got back, the local cops were on the scene. We spent about an hour riding around town in the back of their pickup to see if we could spot the bastard. Then it was back to the station house to look through books and books of mug shots until everyone started looking the same.

The lesson here is don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Spread out your cash over several places. I travel with a small amount of cash in my wallet, credit cards on my body, a passport in a pouch inside my shirt and more cash and traveler checks in my boots.

My most recent act of attrition for which I offer contrition happened on the way to Arizona. I had a big coaches athletic bag, the kind you see baseball and soccer coaches lug around. It had my ski/mountain clothing, gloves, goggles and some prospecting gear.

I was about an hour into a windy dirt road out of Arvin, CA headed towards Needles when I decided to pull over. I opened the rear hatch and pulled the bag out of Bunky to let Cody out. We walked and he did his business. When we returned to Bunky, I let Cody in through a side door. I never looked back to see my bag on the ground. About 100 miles later I realized my mistake. By then it was too late to turn around. I went on without. My parting thought is that someone with a 40” waist and a 32” inseam will enjoy my jeans.

This time it was a lesson in attachment and impermanence. Don’t beat yourself up for your mistake. Learn from it instead. Travel with the minimum you need. It makes it easier to keep tabs on all your gear.


The Sound of Freedom

Take a look. It’s airshow time!

Motel 6 Silicon Valley

Igloo This place is amazing. Nothing but work trucks in the parking lot and all of the ice machines are empty by 5:30. Road crews coming back from the gig fill their Igloos, making your dainty “ice bucket” a non-starter.

Given the number of Ford 150s in the lot, this has to be the least expensive place (with a pool) to stay in Silicon Valley. I can smell the carne asada in the hallways.


Lots of hard workers, coronas and cigarettes. We’re right across the street from Oracle World Headquarters but you won’t find any tech workers here. They’re ensconced in the Sofitel or some other more uptight accommodation.


I like the folksy Tom Bodett commercials but the only reason they keep a light on for you around here is to reduce crime. I’m off to the foothills tomorrow.

More Beef

The Toyota 4Runner is impressively capable right out of the box. But what’s good can always be made better. That’s why I’m adding more armor to Bunky.

My old Landcruiser had a big skid plate that covered the bottom of the engine compartment and transmission. The stamped aluminum pieces that pass for protection on Bunky are about as useful as aluminum pie plates. All it takes is a sharp rock to gash the gas tank and I’d be stranded. That’s why upgrading the skid plates is one of the first things I’ve done.

IMG_7586I chose plates from RCI Metalworks in Fort Collins, CO. They make them in aluminum or steel. To my eye, 3/8″ steel is real. It’s going to keep rocks and other shrapnel from doing any damage. BTW, the stock plates do not cover the transmission. A design oversight to my way of thinking.

I installed four plates yesterday. The engine, transmission, transfer case and gas tank are effectively bulletproof now. It’s a two man job, but one can handle it if you have some jack stands to position the plates before bolting them on. A clamp would have been a nice thing to have too. There’s nothing technically difficult here. The hard part is maneuvering heavy steel under the vehicle and positioning it so the holes line up with the attach points on the frame.

IMG_7574With the bottom armored I turned my attention to body protection. The stock running boards are plastic and aluminum. They’d shred at the first encounter with a boulder. I shopped around and liked the design of Budbuilt sliders. Bud offers these in regular gauge and beefy. I went with beefy.

When I unwrapped the packages, I saw that there was some shipping damage. The red powder coat had some scratches. I just can’t get worked up about finish details like this. This is not a mall crawler. It’s a trail rig that’s going to get plenty of trail pinstripes along the way. Get over it.

A bigger deal was noticing that the flange that attaches to the frame rail was bent in shipping. Paul, my comrade in 4×4 conveniently has a powerful hydraulic break press. You want flat? We got flat! Problem solved.


Bolting on the rock sliders was simple. Bunky’s frame has plenty of threaded holes that aren’t being used. Third party fabricators put those attach points to good use. My red rock sliders are on and they are solid. They’ll keep Bunky’s body away from damaging rocks, trees, glaciers, and whatever else I can find above the arctic circle.

The red trailer is icing on the cake