Monday, November 24, 2014

My Summer At A Nuclear Research Facility

On Memory, Science & Faith

“It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald & Zelda Fitzgerald,
Esquire (New York, June 1934). "Show Mr. and Mrs. F to Number—"
The Summer of 1980: In this Polaroid photo, I am in front of a zirconium alloy fuel bundle (50 cm long by 10 cm in diameter and weighing 20 kg), which was on display at the Public Information Centre at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories. Apparently, corduroy jackets were fashionable then.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum


My recent post (“Nuclear Life and Death”; Oct 18, 2014) on remembering Chernobyl brought to mind my own brief experience where I worked one summer, in 1980, as an engineering student at a nuclear research facility in eastern Ontario (Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories). The facility is 180 kilometres (110 miles) north-west of Ottawa, Canada’s capital. and straddles the Ottawa River. It is also near a large military base, Garrison Petawawa, the largest in Canada. We resided in dorms in the nearby bedroom community of Deep River.

Each year, the research facility hired dozens of university students for the summer, each of us were rigorously selected, or so we were told; and although most were drawn from the hard sciences, a few were not, including two of my colleagues who came from the school of languages. That summer, I was one of six tour guides, offering the general public tours of the nuclear facility. This was right after Three Mile Island, a nuclear incident that took place the year before in the United States, in Middletown, Pennsylvania, thus bringing the whole nuclear industry under much scrutiny, and rightfully and understandably so.

Here is an overview from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s fact sheet:
The Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, although its small radioactive releases had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public. Its aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations. It also caused the NRC to tighten and heighten its regulatory oversight. All of these changes significantly enhanced U.S. reactor safety.
The focus on safety was also apparent in Canada, although Canada’s CANDU reactor is designed differently than its American counterpart, and is arguably safer (i.e., the use of a heavy water moderator and of unenriched uranium in the form of sintered UO2 pellets). Not surprising, a large part of our three-week training program was dedicated to preparing us six guides to answer all questions, including controversial ones, on nuclear energy and the issues surrounding safety and security. We were all keen and eager to explain to the public why nuclear energy was both safe, but also why it was important to secure Canada’s energy needs. Equally important, Canada’s nuclear reactor program and design was also a viable economic export.

The Training Program: The six of us, and our boss, Frank Finley, at one of the many nuclear sites we visited during our three-week training program as tour guides.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum
Chalk River's importance as a supplier of medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and in the treatment of cancer is undeniable; it is not only the world’s largest supplier of medical isotopes such as cobalt-60 (radiation treatment) and Technetium-99m (diagnosis), but by far the world’s leading supplier. These have been produced at Chalk River’s National Research Universal, or NRU reactor, since the early1950s. I stood on top of the NRU reactor numerous times while conducting tours; it was part of my job and is one of those stories that sound strange but are true.

Stories aside, my views on nuclear power or energy for wide-spread residential and business use have changed since then, and for many reasons, including that of safety. It might be more harmful than its advocates say, and yet safer than its opponents say. Even so, it is more than likely that nuclear energy is probably not a good idea for humanity, that there are better alternatives that need be developed. Eventually, these might be; when this happens is unpredictable.

As for changing views, such is the sign of an open and honest mind, and not of a wishy-washy mind as some contend.  What one sees as good and possible at one time can change at another time. Many “truths” are not eternal; they change with new evidence, new knowledge, with one’s increasing age. One can have faith in science that is as dogmatic and unchanging as faith in religion. At least that has been my observation.

It is interesting to note that youth and inexperience confer a high degree of optimism and exuberance about things, including technology, that age and experience tends to diminish if not dull altogether. At times, this leads to cynicism; at other times it leads to new knowledge. I have come to think that I have more knowledge today than I had then. But I am wistful of late, wishing that I would today have the enthusiasm and exuberance for the possibilities that the future holds as I did back in 1980 when I was much younger and much more hopeful. Yet, faith in something is not the same as knowledge about something.

Some Birthday Cake: Brigitte, one of the guides, has a birthday; the cake was a surprise, if my memory is correct.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum
Yet, we can only know with certainty what we or others can prove. The rest is a matter of belief or faith or doubt, and we live with its uncertainties. Did my summer working at a nuclear research facility contribute to my having cancer more than three decades later? Did I make too many visits to NRU? It’s possible, but I could never know for sure. I have thought about it, but not too much. Over-analysis has no positive purpose.

Over-all, I think about my memories. This is to say that I did enjoy my time at Chalk River (and the residential community of Deep River); I did meet many fine and generous persons, including a high proportion of dedicated scientists and engineers, during my four months there. If a summer job is supposed to help us learn and gain real-life experience and knowledge, then this was the summer I learned the most. Truly, it was a memorable summer in more ways than one. (For one, I was a member of the tennis & yacht club.)

Even so, it is said you cannot go back to the way things were, that the past remains in the past; and so we must forget what we wished then. If only I could; it would make my life, and the living of it, much easier.

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In Part 2: The Day After My Summer Ends

Saturday, November 22, 2014

U.S. Govt Proposes Killing Cormorants To Save Salmon

Saving Species

Killing Cormorants: NatGeo writes: “Some 60,000 shorebirds, including nearly 30,000 double-crested cormorants, nest on East Sand Island, at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes to kill 16,000 cormorants, which it says are eating too many salmon and steelhead trout.”
Photo Credit: Jim Wilson, The New York Times/Redux
Source: NatGeo


There are almost 30,000 double-crested cormorants that nest on East Sand Island, at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, says an article, by Isabelle Groc, in National Geographic. These cormorants are eating too much salmon and steelhead trout, says the United States government; as a result, the American government is considering killing 16,000 of these birds as a measure to control their population. This raises the question on whether it is ethical and right to kill one species to save another.

 Groc writes:
That's too many cormorants, says the U.S. government. Starting next spring, it proposes to shoot more than half of the iridescent black birds, on the grounds that they're eating too many fish.

The cormorants eat mostly anchovies—but they also dispatch as many as 20 million salmon and steelhead trout smolts every year. The nesting season of double-crested cormorants on East Sand happens to overlap with the migration of the juvenile fish down the Columbia to the Pacific.

"They're eating over 6 percent of all the wild steelhead that are passing through the lower Columbia River," says Ritchie Graves, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They also consume more than 2 percent of the yearling chinook salmon.

Besides being commercially valuable, both fish are on the Endangered Species List, and that's what's forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to act. The corps owns and manages East Sand Island; indeed, it created the bird colony when it expanded the island with dredging spoils back in the 1980s.

Last summer the corps announced a proposal to kill 16,000 double-crested cormorants on the island over a period of four years. It also proposes to remove enough sand to inundate the nesting area of the cormorants, so that birds that leave won't come back. The goal is to reduce the double-crested cormorant population on East Sand Island to about 5,600 breeding pairs.

The move is part of a growing trend toward what wildlife managers sometimes call "lethal control"—killing one species of animal to protect another.

Lethal control of natural predators "is slowly becoming a dominant conservation strategy," says Michael Nelson, a professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. "We are embracing this as the first line of defense."

As the strategy is playing out at local levels, it is drawing opponents. That includes Piggott, who is dismayed by the corps' plan to shoot cormorants.

"We have built a level of trust between the researchers and the birds that nest around the blinds," she says. "It makes me sad and angry that we are breaking this relationship and using the blinds against the birds. They have no idea what's coming."
This might be one of those cases where the American government is forced, by law, to act unreasonably— protecting an endangered species by killing one not currently endangered. This seems like a bad idea, and the rest of the article raises important questions on why it is important for humans and wildlife to share land and resources, including food. It would seems that human reason can find other less harmful solutions. Killing the birds is a simple and cheap solution to one problem, but it might not be the best answer. And I am persuaded that it is a short-sighted solution that will lead to more problems in a few years, or decades.

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You can read the rest of the article at [NatGeo].

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Clear Blue Skies In Toronto

Looking Blue: After weeks of grey leaden skies, the sun appears and my mood lightens, even if the temp is minus 9°C (16°F). This northern-view photo was taken from my second-floor balcony,. You will note the snow on the ground below, it also having a blue tone.
Photo: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Day My Dad Died

Life-Changing Memories

My Father: This Polaroid photo from the early 1970s shows my father, on the left, with his best friend and neighbour, Mr, Pakman. Both came from Poland and worked as carpenters. (For an excellent article on Poland, see here.)
Photo Credit: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum, circa 1970s


I do remember the important details of November 6, 1980. It was Thursday; it was after sunset; it was a grey overcast day. It was the day after my 23rd birthday. It was the day my father died of colon cancer (the same disease that would three decades later assault me without mercy); he was 69, two months short of entering his seventh decade. But this time would not be granted to him for reasons that I have yet to comprehend.

My mother was at the hospital, which was where she always was these last few weeks; I was home frying some chicken and potatoes for supper for my twin brother (fraternal); my older brother was out visiting a friend. The phone rang at approximately 5:45 p.m. For some reason, it startled me and I burned my hand with oil, leaving a scar that remained for years. I walked the short distance to the hallway where the black rotary phone was set up on a small mahogany desk my father had made years before. After I said “hello,” the person on the other end said, “You better come to the hospital, now. Your mother needs you.”

I dropped the spatula I was still holding in my hand; I hung up the phone on to the receiver. I then turned to my brother, and said, “We have to go to the hospital; Dad is dead.” His was wordless but what he felt was written on his face.

I can still recall an image of my father at work, swinging a hammer, effortlessly and efficiently driving nails into pine boards. I often helped my father during my summers off from school, an idea that my two boys would today find odd, perhaps quaint, even unfair, denying them of their free time to pursue their own interests. My father, the carpenter, trained as a cabinet-maker in Europe, worked hard and enjoyed life, defeating death on many occasions during the Second World War. Not this time, however. How can it be that at one moment there is standing before you a strong living human being; and in another moment months and years later, there is not? Philip Roth writes in Patrimony: A True Story (1991) about reconciling the impossible:
To unite into a single image the robust solidity of the man in the picture with that strickenness on the sofa was and was not an impossibility. Trying with all my mental strength to join the two fathers and make them one was a bewildering, even hellish job. And yet I suddenly did feel (or made myself feel) that I could perfectly well remember (or make myself think I remembered) the very moment when that picture had been taken, over half a century before. I could even believe (or make myself believe) that our lives only seemed to have filtered through time, that everything was actually happening simultaneously, that I was as much back in Bradley with him towering over me as here in Elizabeth with him all but broken at my feet.   (231)
When a person we love dies, we are left with only memories of him or her. It is undoubtedly true that a part of us dies with the death of a loved one. Death erases, and never adds.

My Younger Father: In this undated photo is my father, on the left, showing some personality that I did not see much of while growing up. I am sure my children also wonder if their parents had “a life“ before they became so old.
Source: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum


I mechanically turned off the gas stove and took the frying pan full of food and placed it on the counter. I ignored the pain of my left hand. Both of us quickly and silently got dressed and hurried out the door. We made it to the hospital, which was about seven blocks away, in about ten minutes. We took the elevator up to the sixth floor, where we met our Mom, who was sitting on a chair outside my father’s room in the corridor; she was not her self. The nurse said she had been sedated; and she then showed us my father. My brother and I looked in and saw a man who resembled our father, but his body was cold to the touch and without life. And then while we were standing there, the nurse (an Asian) did something that I will never forget. She said, “Can you hurry up; we have to bring the body downstairs to the morgue.“ A heartless women had just spoken.

Not wanting to make waves, or insisting on our rights to be treated and viewed as human beings, we left soon after, my mother supported by us both. When we got home, it was around 7 p.m., and I first made arrangements with the funeral home to pick up my father's body from the hospital. I then started phoning family and friends. My older brother soon arrived, and we told him the news. Shortly, friends and neighbours came pouring into our modest three-bedroom home, bringing not only their sympathies but food. Lots of food. Particularly memorable was the many boxes of food brought in by the Workmen’s Circle or Arbeter Ring (אַרבעטער־רינג), the Jewish fraternal organization that my father had worked tirelessly for for decades. These men were part of the Chevra kadisha (חברא קדישא).

On Sunday November 9th the funeral took place. The funeral hall was packed with family, my Dad's friends, my mother's friends, my brother's friends, our neighbours and many others I did not personally know. There were hundreds present to pay respects to an unpretentious hard-working and caring man from Poland. Many spoke from the pulpit passionately about the man they knew, but whom I did not. My father had done many good things (mitzvot) for many people that he did not tell me about. In some ways I was not surprised; in many ways he was private, but had always told me “to be a mensch.” I say this without sentimentality or embellishment, but my father was “the mensch” he very much wanted us (me and my two brothers) to be.

I have met few like him, but this is understandable; after all is said and done, he is my father. Not everyone has the same relationship with his father that I did. Many move on easily and without any hint of regret. I miss him; I hang on to his memory. Confession: I am not sure what this says about me. But I do value life, more than anything else.

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My father’s died, passed from my presence, on 28 Cheshvan 5741 in accordance with the Jewish calendar; thus, his Yahrzeit (“anniversary of death”) is on 28 Cheshvan. This corresponds, this year, to Friday November 21 in the civil calendar; the evening before, in accordance to tradition, I will light a memorial candle.