Meltdown at Three Mile Island (Documentary)

As I type this, there are at least two nuclear reactors in serious danger of meltdown in Japan. I think they are already in partial meltdown. I don't know, because nuclear reactors are tough things to get inside, and Japan's nuclear regulatory agency is spending most of its time trying to avert disaster rather than speculating on what might be happening (this doesn't stop lots of pundits, myself included, from weighing in). For the latest, check this page from the IAEA. But despite the headlines, we must remember Douglas Adams's advice: "Don't Panic." (Always, always bring a towel.)

Reactor cooling efforts over the weekend included flooding the reactors with seawater and boric acid, after several explosions in containment buildings around reactors. A third explosion in a containment building was reported today. Explosions at nuclear plants often include a release of radioactive material, but it's debatable how much impact any given release is. This doesn't look good -- but it's not the end of the world, either. On the bright side, the term "meltdown" isn't quite as bad as most people think. It means there's something seriously wrong with the cooling system in a nuclear reactor, and continued failure of the cooling system leads to overheating, which can lead to bad things like explosions. Meltdowns can be contained (indeed the reactors are designed to contain them), or they can turn catastrophic -- and the meltdowns in Japan appear to be containable. In other words, even if there are two or three meltdowns in these reactors, we aren't necessarily talking about two or three Chernobyl-level events. It's hard to say what the eventual fallout (apologies for the pun) will be, but I'm guessing Japan has three Three Mile Islands on its hands. And, in case you don't know, the TMI-2 reactor was (more or less) cleaned up, albeit at great expense (nearly $1 billion) and over a shockingly long time (roughly 14 years). TMI is its own story, and that story is told in a documentary I've embedded below.

As the tragedy unfolds in Japan, lots of people are wondering: what's a meltdown? How does a nuclear reactor work? Weirdly enough, I studied this topic in college, although my degree is in Library and Information Science. I took a series of courses covering major disasters, with the notion being that if you could understand how a disaster occurred, perhaps the things you built would not themselves be so disaster-prone. (I went on to build computer systems and software -- fortunately none that were "mission critical.") On Saturday, fellow _flosser Maggie Koerth-Baker posted Nuclear energy 101: Inside the "black box" of power plants, a good overview of the technology involved. Read up, then come back for the documentary I've posted below: Meltdown at Three Mile Island.

The common pattern in a disaster is the confluence of at least one technical or environmental problem (for example, an earthquake knocking around some nuclear power plants), leading to secondary technical problems (the tsunami apparently disabling backup diesel-powered cooling systems at those plants), and then human behavior that interacts with those problems in unexpected ways (human attempts to shut down reactors can sometimes be destructive by themselves, although they're always well-intentioned -- currently Japanese nuclear plant workers have a makeshift cooling system rigged up to replace the failed diesel backup pumps, but it's not perfect). The operators of nuclear reactors often have limited information about what's happening inside the reactor itself, and workers under pressure to make decisions on the fly. Sometimes these high-pressure decisions turn out to be correct -- other times, not so much.

Here's a representative quote from the TMI documentary: "If the operators had not intervened in that accident at Three Mile Island and shut off the pumps, the plant would have saved itself. They had thought of absolutely everything! Except: what would happen if the operators intervened anyway?" -Mike Gray, author of The Warning: Accident at Three Mile Island. (See also: Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, a classic text by Charles Perrow.)

The rest is after the jump.

Another good resource: Mr. Reid's explanation of the situation (Reid is a Physics teacher).

Courtesy of October Films
This Scientist's Idea of the 'Perfect' Human Body Is Kind of Terrifying
Courtesy of October Films
Courtesy of October Films

The perfect human body has the legs of an ostrich, the heart of a dog, and the eyes of an octopus, according to anatomist Alice Roberts. And it’s utterly terrifying.

With the help of anatomical artist Scott Eaton and special effects designer Sangeet Prabhaker, Roberts created a life-size replica of herself that fixes many design flaws inherent to the human body, Motherboard reports. Roberts unveiled the sculpture on April 23 at the Science Museum in London. On June 13, the BBC released a documentary about the project.

Among the flaws Roberts’s sculpture corrects are humans’ inferior ears, spine, and lungs. Roberts borrowed anatomy from reptiles, birds, and other mammals to create a Frankenstein-esque creature straight from the island of Dr. Moreau.

The sculpture of Alice 2.0, left, with Alice Roberts, right
Courtesy of October Films

The sculpture has legs like an ostrich because, as Roberts says on her website, the human knee is complex and prone to failure. Like humans, ostriches are bipedal, but they are far better runners. Bird-like lungs that keep air flowing in one direction, not two, make running and other aerobic activities easier for the perfect human to manage. And a chimpanzee’s sturdier spine and a dog’s heart (which has more connected arteries, leading to lower heart attack risk) make Roberts’s alternate self more resistant to injury and disease.

Roberts’s ideal human body also has skin like a frog that can change shades based on the environment, and large, bat-like ears that amplify sound. Roberts also fixed humans’ backwards retina, which produces a natural blind spot, by borrowing from octopus eye anatomy.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the baby head poking out of the sculpture’s marsupial pouch. Roberts says marsupial pregnancy would be far easier on the human body and more convenient for parents on the go.

“This could be a human fit for the future,” Roberts says at the end of a trailer for her BBC documentary.

[h/t Motherboard]

Employees at Antarctica's McMurdo Station Are Throwing a Party for Pride Month

Employees at Antarctica's McMurdo Station are gearing up to celebrate Pride month in one of the world's harshest environments. On Saturday, June 9, the station will host what Hannah Valian, who deals with the center's recycling efforts, calls "one of the larger parties ever thrown" at the station.

McMurdo Station is an Antarctic research facility owned and operated by the United States. The station is more sparsely populated during Antarctica's colder autumn and winter seasons (which run from March to September), but employees tell us there's still a decent-sized LGBTQ scene to celebrate this June.

About 10 of the 133 people currently at McMurdo identify as LGBTQ, says Rachel Bowens-Rubin, a station laboratory assistant. Valian said the idea for a Pride celebration came up in May at one of the station's regular LGBTQ socials.

"Everyone got really excited about it," she tells Mental Floss via email. "So we ran with it."

Ten individuals are wearing coats while holding a rainbow-colored Pride flag. They are standing in snow with mountains in the distance.
"I hope when people see this photo they'll be reminded that LGBTQ people aren't limited to a place, a culture, or a climate," McMurdo's Evan Townsend tells Mental Floss. "We are important and valuable members of every community, even at the bottom of the world."
Courtesy of Shawn Waldron

Despite reports that this is the continent's first Pride party, none of the event's organizers are convinced this is the first Pride celebration Antarctica has seen. Sous chef Zach Morgan tells us he's been attending LGBTQ socials at McMurdo since 2009.

"The notion is certainly not new here," he says.

To Evan Townsend, a steward at the station, this weekend's Pride event is less a milestone and more a reflection of the history of queer acceptance in Antarctica.

"If anything," Townsend says, "recognition belongs to those who came to Antarctica as open members of the LGBTQ community during much less welcoming times in the recent past."

This week, though, McMurdo's employees only had positive things to say about the station's acceptance of LGBTQ people.

"I have always felt like a valued member of the community here," Morgan tells us in an email. "Most people I've met here have been open and supportive. I've never felt the need to hide myself here, and that's one of the reasons I love working here."

Saturday's celebration will feature a dance floor, photo booth, lip sync battles, live music, and a short skit explaining the history of Pride, Valian says.

"At the very least, I hope the attention our Pride celebration has garnered has inspired someone to go out and explore the world, even if they might feel different or afraid they might not fit in," Morgan says. "'Cause even on the most inhospitable place on Earth, there's still people who will love and respect you no matter who you are."


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