Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Explosives as Movie Star: 10th Anniversary of Vertical Limit

December is the tenth anniversary of Vertical Limit. There are rescues, avalanches, blasts, leaps, and crevasse plunges every few minutes, high up on K-2. Emotions run high as recriminations and treachery abound.

It's not my favorite movie, but it's fun to watch, because it counts as one of the sillier portrayals of high explosives. Apparently inspired by The Wages of Fear and the excellent remake Sorcerer, the writers ladled a generous amount of nitroglycerin into the plot.

In the movie, the explosive is portrayed as a glowing liquid inside glass containers, which are packed conveniently in cases. When sunlight falls on it, run for the hills!

In reality nitroglycerin doesn't blow up when sunlight falls across it (though it is ultra-sensitive when thawed, after having been frozen), and it's not a garish fluorescent color. It's clear to slightly amber, and has the consistency of a light syrup. Miners used the liquid long ago in hard-rock tunnel jobs and mines, but it was so unsafe that dynamite took its place. Nitroglycerin and its close relatives are still used in manufacturing a limited number of explosives, propellants for cannon and rifle ammunition, and heart medicine. Anscanio Sabrero first mixed up a batch in 1847.

Back in 2000, when visiting Dyno Nobel's dynamite plant near Carthage, MO, I learned that Dyno Nobel had ceased using nitroglycerin there in favor of metriol trinitrate, aka nitropentaglycerin. It's abbreviated MTN. MTN is less likely to cause headaches and is somewhat more stable than nitroglycerin when heated, but equally prone to exploding under shock.

I had the chance to accompany a Dyno Nobel employee inside some of the buildings while the dynamite manufacturing process was underway, and found it quite interesting. The smell of MTN reminded me of a blend of two familiar odors: the chemicals used to disinfect swimming pools, and the disinfectant once used in hospitals.

An “aha” moment for me was seeing a stream of MTN flow from an upper pipe to a lower one with a bigger diameter. The clear liquid gurgled peacefully across an air gap, so it was in plain view. (This precaution is for a good reason; it avoids shock waves -- see below). Later I went to the wooden building where MTN is mixed with absorbent and loaded into casings to make the familiar “dynamite sticks.” The packaging structure was decades old and had a peaceful, timeless quality, and reminded me of an old mining building of the kind I've seen out west because it was built into a hillside. There were no radios and every nail head was covered, to prevent sparks.

But even when experts take much care there is still a residual risk when dealing with nitroglycerin and MTN, which are extremely powerful, pound for pound. In fact, two months before I visited, the Carthage plant had suffered a good-sized explosion while processing a batch of MTN. But there were no injuries that time, thanks to many precautions: intense training, sirens, a generous distance between buildings, doors that open easily when a man is running for his life, stuff like that. See Chapter 9 of Inviting Disaster.

One no-no for visitors to a dynamite factory is dropping stuff: say knocking a coffee mug onto a hard surface with one's elbow. That's because of the slim chance that MTN could have leaked onto a floor. My guide on the tour made sure I left behind my cell phone, coins, and car keys. Even though the plant was doing everything it could to prevent such a puddle, the precaution was mandatory.

Back to the adorably bad movie Vertical Limit: I can't think of any reason that even half-sane mountain climbers would load up their backpacks with nitroglycerin. When I visited Dyno Nobel wasn't shipping any MTN as a liquid to quarries and mines; it blended the liquid with absorbent and packed it into dynamite casings first.

(Yes, there was a time in oilfield work when quantities of nitroglycerin would be made locally and delivered by truck; it helped cleanse aging oil wells of paraffin build-up downhole. Readers with access to Ebsco Host databases can read all about it in a Saturday Evening Post article, "The Most Dangerous Job in the World," January 27, 1951.)

I first read about the history of nitroglycerin when writing an article on the history of vault-breaking and safecracking. In the late 1800s, itinerant criminals called yeggs would steal dynamite from quarries, boil it with water in kettles (very bad idea, that one), skim the "soup" off and store it in rubber flasks. Once on the job, they'd funnel it into tight-fitting safe doors before detonating it.

One reason that nitroglycerin and MTN can be so dangerous when transported in liquid form is that they slosh. They have the consistency of a light syrup, so they trap air bubbles. Explosions have been triggered by sudden shifts of the liquid, although it's not inevitable. (Old hands in the oil field industry tell stories of cans of nitroglycerin falling off a truck and bouncing down a hillside, without incident.) Sloshing caused the entrapped air bubbles to compress rapidly; this made the air in the bubbles heat up; this made the container explode. It's called adiabatic heating. According to Dyno Nobel, adiabatic heating is not a problem if plumbing is adapted to MTN's special demands. Hence the air gap I mentioned above.

Spontaneous explosions are most likely if MTN hasn't been thoroughly cleansed of all unused ingredients and unwanted reactants. Tainted batches can blow up promptly, or months later if the explosive has been stored (unwisely) as a liquid.

Strangely, I found while researching Inviting Disaster that a great many more people have been killed by accidental explosions of the “safer,” modern explosives based on ammonium nitrate than by accidental explosions of nitroglycerin. The most common reasons for ammonium-nitrate disasters -- such as the two ships that blew up at Texas City in 1947 -- were carelessness and lack of knowledge.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Traveling Wave Reactor: On the Move?

According to recent articles like this one, Bill Gates is v-e-r-y enthused about his investment in TerraPower, which hopes to put a breakthrough reactor on the market sometime around 2020 ... or maybe later.

Indeed Terrapower's proposal (and that's all it is at this point, with no reactor in operation) appears worth investigating.

A "traveling wave reactor" sounds like something out of the seventh dimension, but the general idea has been discussed since 1958. TerraPower worked out further details and filed for a patent. The company might be more easily understood by the general public if they had called it CandlePower.

About candles: When you buy a candle, the wax embedded in the new wick has so much surface area that a kitchen match can volatilize the wax to a flammable gas, which ignites. The wick's flame melts a pool of wax at the top of the candle; this liquid moves up into the wick's fibers by capillary action (aka "wicking") and the cycle continues smoothly and slowly. The wick carbonizes at the top, and the candle shortens until the last of the wax is smeared across the top of your candleholder. A candle works because a wave of heat travels across the body of the fuel and makes it available, a little bit of time, for the reaction to continue. A candle is a stable system: yes, a candle can start a house fire if it tips over, but it can't explode like a gasoline lantern.

A TerraPower wave reactor wouldn't get shorter over the years, but as with a candle, raw material would be converted to fuel slowly and continuously, as a wave of radiation moved very slowly through the reactor's volume. Imagine a long container with fuel rods filled with "depleted uranium," which is nearly all U-238 rather than fissionable U-235 (which is also A-bombable in high concentrations, if a critical mass can be brought together very quickly).

In between the fuel rods are coolant channels; a high-performance coolant is vital since the wave reactor would produce a lot of heat.

But it can't get going without help. That requires mounting a small conventional nuclear reactor at one end. This is necessary to get the fuel production going. The startup reactor's neutron radiation converts the nearby U-238 to plutonium-239 through a chain of reactions. Pu-239 is plenty fissionable, so much so that bomb designers can't use the simple methods that are suitable for U-235 bombs. The new plutonium fissions and that produces more neutrons, which converts more U-238 into plutonium fuel. According to TerraPower a wave reactor could turn out heat for a hundred years or more, depending on size, and most of the energy would come from relatively cheap U-238. About 99.3 percent of natural uranium mined from the earth is U-238, little of which is being used today.

Present-day reactors can do the same transmutation trick with U-238, if someone takes the trouble to chemically separate plutonium out of spent fuel rods. Once separated, the plutonium can be machined into fuel rods to go back in reactors. But reprocessing is highly controversial for the wastes produced, and some miscreants might be tempted to divert the separated plutonium for nuclear weapons rather than reactor fuel.

A principal talking point for wave-reactor advocates is that everything happens inside a big box, without the need to pull out extremely radioactive fuel rods and send them off to a robot-operated refinery. Another attraction is that a wave reactor will burn natural uranium, which is plentiful. Here's a video and animation with more detail.

These sound great! Building a working prototype is a good idea, along with tests of other promising new-generation reactors. But there will be special hurdles for the TerraPower machine to cross. One is handling the coolant safely. This is projected to be liquid sodium because of the high heat. This molten element reacts readily, even violently, with other chemicals like water. It might be possible to immerse the wave reactor in a bath of liquid sodium, avoiding problems with pipe malfunctions.

Will the extremely long-duration of the reactor cause unmanageable radiation damage to the metals used? At question here is what happens to metal atoms after getting whacked by neutrons, hundreds of times per atom. It might be okay, but there is little evidence one way or the other past 30 years of constant exposure. Will off-gassing of xenon (a reactor byproduct) be a problem? Uneven heat transfer?

Here's a link to a good Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article summarizing the work that will be needed to test out the safety of the traveling-wave and other off-beat reactors.

As one longtime observer of the nuclear field told me, "The wave reactor is revolutionary. Its new materials and features may all be faultless, leading to a reactor that operates more safely and economically than today's reactors." But if significant shortcomings appear along the way, he cautions, "the wave reactor can actually drop below the performance levels of today's reactors."

Finally, this bit of really ancient history to give perspective: two billion years ago, a dozen or so natural nuclear reactors ran for hundreds of thousands of years in present-day Gabon, Central Africa. The Oklo reactors could operate because uranium back then was four times richer in U-235 than today's uranium ore (some of today's reactors run at this low level of enrichment, 3 percent). Second reason it was possible: the rock formation was soaked in groundwater, which acted as a neutron moderator.

Using evidence from the unusual mix of isotopes in the rock, nuclear physicists surmise that a given reactor ran for about two and half hours, then stopped because the groundwater boiled away (probably making all kinds of weird underground noises if anybody had been around to listen). Then after everything cooled, water returned, and short-lived fission decay products broke down, each reactor cranked up for another short run. This went on for umpteen thousands of years. Heat output: somewhere around 100 kW, thermal. That's a tiny fraction of the thermal output of today's commercial reactors, but rather impressive for a reactor that started and ran, hands-off.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Google Book: Grist for the Historical Novel

After reading Jack Finney's Time and Again five years ago, I set myself the goal of writing an historical novel. He sets a high threshold. His book's setting alternates between 1970s tattered New York and 1880s gilded New York. It combines a gripping plot, science fiction, social commentary, keen observation of humanity, and "you are there" detail. The book earned a devoted fan base, and the audio-book version is even better. The sequel based in 1912 (From Time to Time) is good but I prefer the first book.

Finney spent many hours in libraries and newspaper morgues noodling out the details, such as the seating arrangements inside horse-drawn streetcars, the view across Central Park, and how police Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes dressed and spoke. Finney makes Byrnes a scary, ambitious dude, which he was.

But what are Midwestern writers of the 2010s to do, who want to write about New York of long ago? Yes, we go and visit the libraries and cool legacy settings like Pomander Walk. But something we have that Jack Finney didn't is Google Book.

Authors, publishers, and my agent are all unhappy about the scope of Google's worldwide reach, but while they fight it out in the courts for the next decade, Google Book does much for the historical writer in search of information about how people lived, talked, and worked. Full text books, delivered free of charge to our PCs are an obvious benefit, but also valuable is its scanning of period magazines like Century, The Smart Set, and Railway Signal Engineer. Even the snippet view of copyrighted books is useful because it can be used as a sort of super-index, which saves me much time once in a library. And it's possible to do proximity searches with Google even though the function isn't as easy to use as in Proquest.

But Google's toolbox of wonders hasn't made doing a novel any faster. That's because there's such a mountain of scanned books and magazine volumes available for downloading. Skim one, and there are a few hundred more waiting to be read.

One that I decided to go all the way through was King's Photographic Views of New York (1895).

Using business-sponsored pages to cover much of his photographic and printing costs, Moses King's Boston-based printing business churned out many such city guides. The Googlized King books offer hundreds of photos, etchings and ads. The aerial drawings of New York are fascinating: they clearly show the "spine" of high buildings that ran down the wealthy center of the island, north to south, and that clustered around Wall Street.

Google Book started out keeping a low profile on its methods and even now there is not a lot of information how Google has been able to scan over 10 million books, many of which are too delicate to thunk down on scanner platen in the pursuit of lower costs. From what I can tell Google uses people to scan the delicate stuff (you can see their purple-plastic-gloved fingers in some book images) but is said to rely on automated, high-speed, page-turning scanners whenever possible.

Here's a video of what said to be a Google book scanner in action, the Kirtas APT 240. Humans load books, like feeding ammunition into a Bofors cannon, and the Kirtas does the rest.

With the help of Google Book, we can glean visual details about life back then that are likely to be missed in biographies, newspapers, or yearbooks. For example, every building owner of significance wanted a personalized pennant waving from a pole atop his building. The one decorating the Broadway Rouss department store appears to be longer than the building was high: see page 465. But the rest of the pennants look authentic and I make a note: if my character has paused at the corner of Broadway and 29th, and she's looking at Macy's up the street, if the wind is off the Meadowlands she's going to see plenty of department store pennants. They'll be blowing left to right, crossing Broadway like fairy bridges.

On page 509 is an excellent view in front of Crawford Shoe Store. The location is just off the south end of Union Square. This camera wasn't one of the “hold that pose!” models of the early years – these folks are caught in mid-stride, without blurring.

The men are all wearing hats, of course. The weather must have been seasonable since there are straw boaters among the derbies. Two policemen are standing in the street, wearing the bulbous helmets not yet made silly by Keystone Kops movies. Women are holding parasols to keep the sun off. The street is wide, paved with what appears to be brick or stone. No vehicles of any kind are in view. The sidewalks are amazingly spacious -- they look to be as wide as a street. Perched on the second floor are two oversized metal statues in niches, gazing over the shoe store's big flat sign. Roman shoe gods?

Although I'd come for the photos, I lingered for the ads. According to p. 474, when babies are fussy, mothers should give them Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, which the advertisement neglected to mention was a morphine cocktail.

Had you been a "brain worker" in 1895, and felt weak, broken down, and otherwise debilitated you could have benefited from Horsford's Acid Phosphate because It is the Best Remedy for Relieving Mental and Nervous Exhaustion (p. 482). The endorsing doctor heartily recommends it for curing "general derangement of the cerebral and nervous systems." An apt description of writers who have been spending too much time absorbing street-level history from Google Book ...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Leeroy's Call: Implications for Proto-Memers

Starting a new meme is a hard road! And it's probably a good thing. English is ridiculously complicated already.

While I was writing an article about the sub-genre of Steampunk in which the settings include giant, rigid, floating aircraft (think Miyazaki movies, Neil Gamin's Stardust), Youngest Son suggested I use the word HindenPunk, since the Hindenburg was the most notorious horse in that stable. It sounded good to me, and my editor helped out by making it the single-word title. I waited to see if it would start multiplying in Steampunk sites.

Not much!

The gold standard of modern Internet meme-hood could be Leeroy Jenkins' yell of "Let's Do This!", which has jumped via YouTube from gamers to television, songs, movies, and even the Armed Forces Journal.

An early electronic meme was the novelty song Mairzy Doats with this line:
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
It's not nonsense though it reads that way. It's phonetic for:
"Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy."
The song's two-year run of success starting with airplay on the home front during World War II suggests that memes are more likely to catch hold if they start as an inside joke. American combat troops used snippets from the song as a challenge password because German spies had trouble coming up with the following lines as a countersign when trying to sneak through our checkpoints in France. While some of the enemy commandos had grown up in America and knew flawless colloquial English, they had no knowledge of a fad that hit the New York airwaves in 1943.

All I know that is that many new words and proto-memes are launched but few take flight. In a humor column for Smithsonian I wrote about early bachelor life with my brothers in an old farmhouse in Missouri. We built cabins from oak logs in the back lot of a sawmill and re-assembled them elsewhere. In describing guy-housekeeping I invented the word "messismo," a variation of machismo. As illustrations, I listed our use of high-explosives crates (empty ones) for bookshelves, and my oldest brother's habit of overhauling his Stihl chain saw on our kitchen table. Googling reveals my other new word never went viral either, with only minor appearances.

But even the most successful Internet memes are shelf-limited: viral one day, cliche the next. See Robert Frost ...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Part 2: Julia B. Rice vs. "Useless and Unnecessary Whistling"

In the last installment, we left Julia Rice's Manhattan mansion called “Villa Julia” semi-surrounded by angry, tooting tugboat captains. They didn't like the lobbying she had been doing for noise-limiting laws.

But Rice stuck to her plan of gathering evidence, both written and recorded, and playing her wax-cylinder recordings at public meetings in major cities, always at top volume. The tugboat captains’ counterattack only confirmed her claims that noise was out of control.

In time she roused Congress enough to pass a law authorizing the Inspector of Steamboats to enforce a whistle ban. At the city level, she succeeded cutting back the time during which church bells could summon the faithful on Sunday. "The majority of them are decidedly discordant,” she explained to reporters. In 1907 she took on the problem of children fighting and playing loud games just outside of hospitals and schools. Mark Twain agreed to serve as president of the society’s Children’s Auxiliary. The young members swore to hush up, at least near children’s hospitals.

Without action, Julia once said, the twentieth century would be the Age of Noise: hence the name of her group, the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. After she retired from the field, city agencies made some additional headway but nobody could do much about the escalating noise from cars and trucks.

Her vast collection of ambient-noise recordings dropped out of sight sometime in the 1920s. If the wax cylinders of Julia Rice are ever located, they will be the earliest street recordings from New York. (On a side note, no verified recordings of Mark Twain's voice have survived either. But according to this website a professional actor by the name of William Gillette, who knew Twain well, once recorded an impersonation of Twain telling the Jumping Frog story. So that's close.)

If the Rice recordings ever turn up in a basement somewhere, they will give us new insight what life in New York was really like during this boisterous, optimistic pre-war era, what some observers called the Age of Energy.

Julia Rice Takes on the World: Early Noise Fights in NYC

If you live in a big city and noise gets on your nerves, it might make you feel better to know that Julia Barnett Rice (1859-1929) was one of the first to make the issue into a social crusade.

In 1905 she was living on Manhattan’s 89th Street and Riverside Drive, the wife of corporate lawyer and investor Isaac Rice. That summer, she decided enough was enough.

Her chalet-style mansion called Villa Julia overlooked the Hudson River. Though upscale the neighborhood was noisy due to river traffic on the west and street traffic on the east. Isaac had the same horror of noise but rather than look outward, he turned inward. He had contractors build a soundproof room in the basement of their house where he could concentrate on his long-distance chess game. He often played opponents in Britain, exchanging moves by telegraph. Down below the street, whiling away the quiet and happy hours, he invented a strategy called the Rice Gambit. He generously sponsored chess tournaments as long as the chessmasters promised to begin each game with his gambit.

Julia could have spent a bit of the family fortune to sound-proof the entire mansion, or to relocate to a quiet stretch of the Upper Hudson, but instead took on noisemakers with zeal and persistence. These were not pushovers. Her first targets were tugboat and scow captains who worked the waterfronts of the Hudson River (then called the North River). About two in the morning, every morning, these officers summoned their crews from the taverns by laying on the steam whistles. To pass the time, the captains also sent friendly messages to each other via steam-whistle.

Rice needed evidence for people who didn't live near the river, so she hired Columbia University students to go out with portable graphophones and dictographs to vacuum up all available boat sounds along with the screech and thump of wheels on the elevated railway, the clack of sticks on picket fences, factory whistles, and the banging of carriage-wheel repair shops. She had the students sidle into saloons and nickelodeons to record drunken brawls ("the boisterous sports of hoodlums," she called it).

Her hard-working students logged 3,000 tugboat signals a day. But steam-powered tooting did not break any law. The river was a “free soundway” under federal and common law. Nor did the noises on land trigger legal crackdowns, no matter how obnoxious, like organ grinders who stood under one's window on Rivington and screeched out "Hear Me Norma" and "Silver Threads Among the Gold" a few hundred times a day. Remember: in the summer everybody had to keep their windows open ... no air conditioning!

So the good-hearted Julia wrote articles, visited schools and offices, harried politicians, and marshaled her six children to hand out pamphlets and mail thousands of letters. She had a platform to press her views, since the Rices owned the magazine Forum. She did generate so much publicity that angry tugboat captains began gathering on the Hudson River near her house in the middle of the night. They yanked on whistle lanyards and shone their spotlights into the windows of Villa Julia.

Did she succeed? Stay tuned for the conclusion!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Crush Syndrome: A Mystery in Early Collapse Rescues

Following is information that the editor couldn't fit in my article on heavy rescue, published last year in Invention&Technology.

From the earliest days of building collapses, rescuers knew time was of the essence, but important details were elusive. One mystery: During the Blitz of London (September 1940 through May 1941), rescue parties took enormous risks to remove survivors from heavy rubble who, after extrication, appeared to be in good spirits and good shape. After receiving effusive thanks, the rescuers packed them off to the hospital. End of story?

No - within a day or so, the rescuers heard that the victims had died under care at the hospital. It was heartbreaking. A medical team at Hammersmith Hospital had two such cases in a single day in 1940. This coincidence raised the salience of the issue and triggered a wave of calls to other hospitals. More cases turned up. What was going on? Autopsies and experimental therapies followed.

By early 1941 the answer emerged: in a manner of speaking, the people were dying because they had been released from entombment. Massive wreckage had lain across muscle tissue for many hours, blocking circulation. In a typical situation, tissue of the large leg muscles began dying as the rescuers worked through the wreckage by hand, excavating a tunnel by pulling out bricks and sawing timbers. When help arrived and the crushing pressure came off, blood began flowing to and from the damaged tissue. This carried a wave of toxic byproducts through the circulatory system.

Kidneys went off line and survivors who looked quite healthy died of heart failure. Those with pelvic injuries were particularly at risk. Maddeningly, the British researchers discovered that a German physician by the name of Von Colmers (I couldn't find his first name -- does anyone know?) had figured out the problem while assisting at the Messina earthquake of 1908.

(People interested in the history of disaster response may find the case of Messina worth a look, because the big earthquake and tsunami triggered one of the first major international relief efforts. The King and Queen of Italy took such a strong interest in the recovery that they jumped into the work, hands-on. During an aftershock, Queen Elena came rather close to being trapped in a hospital collapse.)

After World War I German doctors published more journal papers on handling crush injuries, but the information never drew attention in England ... until the Blitz.

Today, heavy rescue crews know to expect cases of “crush syndrome.” Before any beams and timbers are lifted they begin medical treatment via intravenous fluids, which may mean an EMT crawling through a void with a medical kit. Those of us with a fear of confined spaces can be very grateful there are men and women with the courage to volunteer for such work.

Another lifesaver is an intravenous kit designed specifically for use on survivors so entrapped that nothing but one wrist is visible, and immobilization aids that allow a survivor to be sledded through a twisty tunnel while protecting the spine from further injury.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Truman Committee: One of a Kind?

In 1941 a special committee in the Senate began chasing down fraud and carelessness in the defense program. While editorials today still call for a new Truman Committee on this, that, or the other, the bipartisan magic of the original "Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program" has never been duplicated.

But it could be.

The committee’s obscure junior senators and their hired investigators began by following up on citizen letters complaining about waste and monopolies in Army camp construction. The committee acted and voted on a strictly bipartisan basis. Because the Democratic majority on the committee was willing to expose neglect and fraud within a Democratic administration, it set the tone for rigor in overseeing the entire war production effort.

Harry Truman took so much criticism from conservative radio commentators that FDR considered shutting the committee down but decided to work with Truman instead. Truman's determination to pursue fraud and ineptitude wherever it led astounded the press. Citizens responded by sending in thousands of new leads for investigation.

Contractors and the Army learned the new rules rather quickly. The U.S. Navy was the last to yield. One of the most controversial steps of the Truman Committee was to publish the horrific shipping losses from U-Boat attacks in the Battle of the Atlantic. That's what it took to force the Navy to adopt convoy tactics, which it had strongly resisted.

A few observations: To have any effect in keeping contractors and agencies honest during a protracted crisis, an investigative committee must begin work immediately, since that's when the waste and fraud starts. The Administration must cooperate even when embarrassing facts about its programs come to light. Rather than grandstanding for the press (as in members’ indignation in 2008 about auto execs’ use of private jets in getting to Washington), committee members have to do enough actual homework themselves that they avoid depending excessively on staff, which is the usual road to senatorial incompetence. Members must believe that federal money is limited, so using it wisely is important.

And here's another element, often neglected. Slaying the dragon once isn't enough -- checking back is vital. Truman sent his investigators back to drop in on miscreants a year later.

(Coincidentally, I’m related to Truman by marriage. Truman's uncle was James J. Chiles, an ex-Confederate saloon owner who died in a gunfight with the Independence, MO, sheriff in 1873).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Edgy Business of Stunt Flying

Mentioned the original Flight of the Phoenix movie in the last post, and it reminded me of the risky business of stunt flying, before computer generated imagery. Pilot Paul Mantz was killed in 1965 during the filming, while doing an "insurance shot." The director had a usable shot in the can but didn't know for sure at the time, and wanted one more shot of the triumphant, edgy takeoff so he could be sure. The crew had built a flyable aircraft out of parts of other planes to portray the Phoenix, but its strength was marginal and the plane broke up after touching down on soft ground. One of the wings pinned Mantz, killing him.

Contrast that with the success in filming the "helicopter bridge" scene in Terminator 2. This snip from my book The God Machine:

During a night-time chase scene, a Bell JetRanger dips down -- bringing its skids nearly to the pavement -- to fly under an overpass. It was director James Cameron's idea. Veteran pilot Chuck Tamburro put his helicopter on wheels and rolled it under the bridge to measure the clearance (five feet above and four feet on each side). He flew the stunt twice at a speed of sixty knots. No special effects were used.

Tamburro told me he just followed the highway stripe and by keeping the skids barely off the pavement, had all the cues he he needed for a safe flight.

Tamburro has a cameo earlier in the movie, when the T-1000 tells a pilot to jump out of a hovering helicopter. That's Tamburro.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Poetry as Disaster Literature

Can poetry and disaster lessons go together? This genre would fill a rather small shelf, but one of my favorites is Rudyard Kipling's Ballad of the Bolivar (1892). Upon first reading, it sounds like a basic adventure story: a ship goes out and is trapped in a storm. The men barely get their cargo to port, all the while cursing their old bucket of bolts. There's more to it, but it's not obvious to the modern eye, given Kipling's use of irony and arcane nautical terms. What was happening here? I'll offer some details on the other side. For now, enjoy his lyrical skills:

Ballad of the Bolivar, by Rudyard Kipling

Seven men from all the world, back to Docks again,
Rolling down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain:
Give the girls another drink 'fore we sign away--
We that took the 'Bolivar' out across the Bay!

We put out from Sunderland loaded down with rails;
We put back to Sunderland 'cause our cargo shifted;
We put out from Sunderland--met the winter gales--
Seven days and seven nights to the Start we drifted.

Racketing her rivets loose, smoke-stack white as snow,
All the coals adrift a deck, half the rails below
Leaking like a lobster-pot, steering like a dray--
Out we took the 'Bolivar,' out across the Bay!

One by one the Lights came up, winked and let us by;
Mile by mile we waddled on, coal and fo'c'sle short;
Met a blow that laid us down, heard a bulkhead fly;
Left The Wolf behind us with a two-foot list to port.

Trailing like a wounded duck, working out her soul;
Clanging like a smithy-shop after every roll;
Just a funnel and a mast lurching through the spray--
So we threshed the 'Bolivar' out across the Bay!

Felt her hog and felt her sag, betted when she'd break;
Wondered every time she raced if she'd stand the shock;
Heard the seas like drunken men pounding at her strake;
Hoped the Lord 'ud keep his thumb on the plummer-block.

Banged against the iron decks, bilges choked with coal;
Flayed and frozen foot and hand, sick of heart and soul;
'Last we prayed she'd buck herself into Judgment Day--
Hi! we cursed the 'Bolivar' knocking round the Bay!

Oh! her nose flung up to sky, groaning to be still--
Up and down and back we went, never time for breath;
Then the money paid at Lloyd's caught her by the heel,
And the stars ran round and round dancin' at our death.

Aching for an hour's sleep, dozing off between;
Heard the rotten rivets draw when she took it green;
Watched the compass chase its tail like a cat at play--
That was on the 'Bolivar,' south across the Bay.

Once we saw between the squalls, lyin' head to swell--
Mad with work and weariness, wishin' they was we--
Some damned Liner's lights go by like a grand hotel;
Cheered her from the 'Bolivar,' swampin' in the sea.

Then a greyback cleared us out, then the skipper laughed;
'Boys, the wheel has gone to Hell--rig the winches aft!
'Yoke the kicking rudder-head--get her under way!'
So we steered her, pulley-haul, out across the Bay!

Just a pack o' rotten plates puttied up with tar,
In we came, an' time enough 'cross Bilbao Bar.
Overloaded, undermanned, meant to founder, we
Euchred God Almighty's storm, bluffed the Eternal Sea!

Seven men from all the world, back to town again,
Rollin' down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain:
Seven men from out of Hell. Ain't the owners gay,
'Cause we took the 'Bolivar' safe across the Bay?

It's a story of men and machines persisting against great odds, and has the spirit of the "Flight of the Phoenix" movie (the original one, anyway). To summarize: the owners had insured the old steamer and sent it out in bad shape under the worst conditions, hoping it would sink so they could collect on the policy from Lloyd's. But the crew (much smaller than it should have been for a tramp steamer) keeps it afloat, causing consternation among the owners upon its arrival in Spain.

The voyage starts in Sunderland, on the northeast tip of England. At the time it was a major shipbuilding center. The ship heads south, then across the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao on Spain's north coast, near Portugal. The season is winter, the worst time to cross the bay because of storms that arrive unhindered off the North Atlantic.

Refrain: this tramp steamer is woefully undermanned. A crew of 20-30 would be more like it.

First stanza: the Bolivar is cursed with carrying one of the most dangerous cargoes of the era, steel rails. Steel rails are massive and slippery, and therefore tend to break loose from their fastenings in a storm. Then they try to bash their way out of the hull. I gave an example of this in Chapter 12 of Inviting Disaster: in 1886 five ships left Liverpool in one week, carrying steel beams and rails, westbound across the Atlantic. Three sunk on the way. In this stanza, the crew realizes their danger in time and returns to Sunderland to rework the fastenings.

Second stanza: Seawater is coming through the riveted joints and the weather deck. Ships often carried extra steam coal on the deck in burlap bags or in temporary wooden bunkers, and this is coming loose. The smokestack is turning white, either from frozen spray or salt crust.

Third stanza: After seven days the ship is clearing the lighthouses on the southern tip of England. The Wolf is Wolf Rock Lighthouse at Land's End, in Cornwall. The Start" is Start Point. It's now exposed to the gales on the starboard beam, so it is leaning to the left. "Coal and fo'c'sle short" means that the ship is moving so slowly it's running low on coal. It's also short of deckhands to cope with the emergency.

Fourth stanza: Now the weather deck can't be seen for the foam and spray.

Fifth stanza: "Wondered every time she raced if she'd stand the shock:" this refers to a general problem for steamships in storms. The propeller speeds up as the stern comes out of the water, then slows abruptly as it re-enters the water. This puts great stress on the propeller shaft and the journal bearings that carry the shaft from the engine room to the stern gland, unless the engineer backs off the throttle with every roll. The problem is described in Farley Mowat's classic book about deep sea salvage, Grey Seas Under. "Plummer block" is one of those bearings. To keep a thumb on the block is to make sure it's not vibrating or overheating.

Sixth stanza: "Bilges choked with coal" means that coal dust is about to foul the intakes of the bilge pumps. If not cleaned the pumps will fail and the ship will get lower in the water with every hour.

Seventh stanza: A reference to the owners' insurance policy at Lloyd's of London. "Felt her hog and felt her sag" means that the ship is flexing with every wave, the midships section rising one moment and sagging the next.

Eighth stanza: "Shipping green:" Now the ship is taking waves over the bow and starboard rails. It's so deep over the deck that the water is green, rather than spray or foam.

Ninth stanza: a salute to a big liner that is having no trouble handling the weather.

Tenth stanza: The chains that connect the steam engine to the rudder head have broken under the impact of the waves, and the crew has to jury rig the rudder with block and tackle. Having control over the ship's heading is essential to staying afloat in such a storm.

Eleventh stanza: Reference to the gambling game called euchre.

Closing refrain: the men have made it back to Sunderland, and are celebrating in the bars of Ratcliffe Road. Ironically, the men cursed the ship but it brought them to shore, against all odds.

My rating: two thumbs up, for technical accuracy and great storytelling. More details are available at the Kipling Society, here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pipe Bursting, and San Bruno

Several articles have mentioned the NTSB's interest in sewer work done in 2008 at the intersection where Line 132 blew up.

The work included a method called "pipe bursting," which replaced an old six-inch sewer pipe with a new ten-inch pipe, without having to dig a trench for the job. The news mentioned a 2001 study for the Corps of Engineers on the uses of, and cautions about, pipe bursting. You can find that study here.

The word “bursting” might suggest underground blasting but it's just a slow, chugging mole-like machine that uses power from the surface, and causes the ground to vibrate with each cycle as it scoots along. We don't know all the details in San Bruno, but normally pipe bursting works like this, typically over spans of 300-400 feet (the distance between manholes). Say there's an old sewer pipe that's become too leaky to tolerate, and it's made of sections of vitreous clay connected with pitch at each joint. Such pipe is relatively strong but brittle.

Workers feed a torpedo-like “bursting head” in one end of the old pipe. Using hydraulic or air power, or else by being dragged from the other end, the bursting head proceeds down the old pipe, breaking it into little pieces as it goes and forcing the fragments into the soil surrounding the pipe. It also drags new pipe behind it, typically medium-density or high-density polyethylene. Remarkably, the new pipe can be bigger than the old pipe since the bursting head is powerful enough to shove aside the adjoining soil. (Of course the shifted soil has to go somewhere -- more on that below.)

Unless the old pipe has major sags or deviations in it, or is encased in concrete, the bursting head usually has no trouble following the old pipe and emerging at the next manhole, ready for another leg.

Bursting is one modern method of replacing old pipe: others include "pipe eating," "pipe reaming," and "pipe ejection." All these underground construction methods avoid having to scoop out a trench the length of the pipe run. Old-fashioned trenching work is very labor intensive, since most utility corridors also host other pipes running nearby that have to be protected from damage.

To visualize this, imagine a hallway: put in eight pipes and conduits of different sizes and ages; fill the hallway with sand and gravel; add a few decades of leaks, corrosion, and vibration to compact the soil, create voids, and generally shift things around. Now imagine having to empty that hallway and expose all the pipes without breaking anything ... like a gas line or a buried high-voltage line. There's no way to finish the job without hiring lots of guys to wield shovels in places too tight for backhoes, and to install temporary bracing.

Trenching also poses a collapse risk to workers and it's sure to mess up traffic on the street above. For major projects full-scale excavation is hard to avoid, but for a city looking to fix up portions of its buried infrastructure fast and affordably, “underground construction” methods can be be very attractive.

But every cloud comes with a dark lining, or at least a gray one. The old pipe fragments don't go far away and they can cause problems for the new pipe, by creating stress-concentration points. If the pipe to be replaced lies near the surface or is in a rock trench, the only place for the shifted soil to go is upward so the ground can bulge upwards as the bursting head chugs along. Think of the ridges of soil that moles or gophers make in one's lawn.

And pipe bursting can put stress on adjacent underground lines in some cases, which is one hypothesis for the Line 132 catastrophe. Guidelines say that – assuming average conditions – pipe bursting shouldn't cause damage to other pipes if the other pipes are two, preferably three, diameters away. That's just a rule of thumb, of course, and doesn't take into account the strength of the other pipe or soil conditions. Was there this much separation here? Sometimes that's hard for an underground-construction crew to know, because as-builts often differ substantially from construction blueprints. If remote-sensing methods were used to check this out in 2008, there might be electronic records from that work.

So we don't know at this point whether there was plenty of separation, or too little. We have read that the sewer line installed in 2008 was 10 inches across, so that would indicate a minimum safe separation of around two feet.

As the NTSB pointed out, even if pipe bursting did play a role there would have had to have been other contributing causes, since the sewer work happened two years before Line 132 blew apart. Other possible causes being considered are metal corrosion from liquids and/or bacteria, delayed repairs by PG&E, the fact that this line was too bendy for the use of diagnostic pigs, modifications to the gas line after construction, and temporary overpressure.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

From Derail to Re-rail

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe coal train derailed in June near where I live so I went over to watch the response. Basically, a contractor works around the clock until the line is provisionally open. Delays on a main line are very disruptive, costing a railroad tens of thousands of dollars per hour, so derailment contractors are well paid.

Seventeen cars overturned or went off the rails on a Wednesday morning, ripping up a section of rail and sending it through the wall of an office building. The woman who normally uses that space was elsewhere at the moment -- a good thing.

The line was open for slow-speed traffic two days later. Reflecting on the many stops and starts at the Deepwater Horizon disaster site, it struck me how this company, Hulcher Services, knew what it needed to do and brought, or hired, everything it needed. There were no wasted motions and no press packets on how many people or machines were at work. They just worked.

The process works like this: after a wreck, the railroad calls Hulcher's HQ in Denton, Texas. HQ dispatches the nearest Hulcher crews. In this case the closest was Hudson, Wisconsin. Hulcher keeps its men on standby, something like firefighters, and guarantees to have its semis rolling in an hour.

First job for Hulcher: get the site organized. Hulcher hires extra heavy equipment as needed, trackhoes in this case. The wreckmaster notes which cars or engines are off the rails; how many of these are undamaged enough to use again, and how many have to be scrapped. This particular wreck involved a unit train of aluminum hopper cars, hauling 15,000 tons of Western coal. It was bound for Superior, Wisconsin.

Second job: drag wreckage off to the side and load up scattered freight. In this case, trackloaders and vacuum trucks moved heaps of coal into rear-dump semis. I'd guess a thousand tons of coal was on the ground.

Third: re-rail undamaged cars that have gone off at low speed, using side-boom tractors that can lift 50-80 tons short distances. A side-boom tractor features a compact boom and hook on one side, and a massive, hydraulically extendable counterweight on the other side. This keeps the machine from tipping. The side-booms substitute for the "big hook," which is railroad lingo for a wrecking crane. Hooks offered a lot of lifting power but could only operate from a track, so they were cumbersome and slow, and needed a lot of manpower to handle the rigging and lay temporary track.

Fourth: pick up damaged cars and engines and haul them off the right of way. Four side-booms working in close coordination can pick up a locomotive and set it back on the rails. Recovering locomotives is particularly challenging when a train has gone off the rails into a ravine, and crews have to work off a steep slope or a trestle.

Fifth: Using ballast brought in by the railroad, regrade the right of way and install sections of temporary panel track. Panel track comes in pre-assembled sections of rail and ties, like in a Lionel set, but forty feet long. It arrives stacked on a flatcar. Panel track can be a bit uneven but it gets low-speed traffic moving.

Since Hulcher is an emergency service, the railroad crews take over at this point, spending days or weeks to rehab the area. In August, BNSF said the cause was a track misalignment caused by summer heat.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rescue Drilling, the Outer Limits

We're waiting for more news about the “Plan C” drilling rig moved to the San Jose Mine in Chile. The rig, which is normally used for oil and gas work, is owned by Precision Drilling, based in Calgary. The big rig will chew a hole 35 inches wide and 2,300 feet deep. If the bit doesn't run into a major fault or get stuck in mine debris along the way, and if Plans A and B don't get there first, it could open an escape route well before December. At that point a man-cage would be lowered on a wire rope to pull the men up one at a time.

This may sound like a whopping big borehole, and it is, but there have been much bigger and deeper ones. A pioneer in the field was Fenix & Scisson, now part of PB Energy Storage.

Beginning in the early 1950s it excavated deep rock caverns for compressed gas storage, typically located near pipeline hubs and refineries. Fenix used a drill rig to make a vertical hole that was hundreds of feet deep but just wide enough for a man to wield a rock drill. While suspended in this chimney, a few dozen feet off the bottom, he drilled and blasted enough rock to clear out a small cavern, with the muck going into the bottom of the borehole. (Yes, he was hauled out of range each time a shot was fired ...) Once the cavern was roomy enough, Fenix lowered a small front-end loader in pieces. Workers reassembled it and went to work, hollowing out caverns as big as football stadiums.

Fenix bored a really big hole to prepare for the Atomic Energy Commission's Cannikin underground nuclear test on Amchitka Island in 1971. Fenix's hole (before the concrete liner) was a vertigo-inducing 90 inches across and 5,875 feet deep. At an approximate yield of 5 megatons, Cannikin was the biggest underground shot ever fired in the US. Here's a link to snips of ground-wave effects from an AEC video on YouTube.

So Rescue Plans A-C at the San Jose Mine are not pushing the margin in either size or depth.

But they are trying to move fast because 33 men have already been down there six weeks. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we know from other trapped-miner incidents that even over shorter periods, the men can suffer from erratic behavior and severe depression, and a few have attempted suicide. You may have read recent reports that some of the miners were still driving around in mine vehicles, despite orders. I'm trusting that the foreman Luis Urzúa, who seems quite capable, has put any explosives out of reach.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Selling the Nuclear Nightmare

In a waiting room, looking through the October 2010 issue of Pop Sci.

One article was about people selling nuclear-free hideaways, such as space in the "Terra Vivos" line of underground retreats. One development so described is being remodeled from a bomb-resistant AT&T emergency operations center near Barstow, CA, dating to 1965. Amenities will include a gamma ray detector to activate shutters that will close the ventilation system. This was installed to detect H-bomb bursts up to 100 miles away. Projected price: $50,000 for adults, $25,000 for kids. Other companies named were Survival Condos (Kansas) and Hardened Structures (Colorado).

This talk of havoc in the homeland reminded me of one of the more thought-provoking factoids I've come across in 31 years of nonfiction writing. This was while researching an article for Air&Space on the Nike anti-aircraft missile system. The full text is reproduced here as a PDF. These smallish US Army bases ringed major cities and industrial complexes, so as to fight off Soviet bombers. The initial missiles were explosive-tipped Nike Ajax models, and the second generation were nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules. The latter had an adjustable warhead. Some were good for up to 40 kilotons.

Publicly, the story was that if they were ever used, the Nike Hercules fireball would occur at stratospheric altitudes, so the public would not be threatened by our defense measures. That seemed to make sense, given that the bombers we saw in the newsreels were all flying high and leaving contrails.

The reality could have been rather grim, and so was not part of the civics lesson. The reason is this: An enemy pilot was trained to drop as low as possible during the final bomb run, since that gave him a reasonable chance of evading our radar. If he had penetrated this far, one of the few ways for us to stop him from dropping a monstrously large H-bomb -- perhaps the only way -- was for the Army to launch a Nike atomic warhead to bring him down, down low, even if it meant taking out a suburb too. From my article:

In the event of a real attack, the Nike rules of engagement allowed officers considerable freedom of action. According to Dale Nichols, a commander could fire missiles without additional authorization from the AADCP if he saw evidence of hostile nuclear explosions, if the base was under direct attack, or if the radar track of an unidentified airplane showed that it met something called the 'pop-up criteria.'

'That means you exceed Mach 2 and you climb from 2,000 feet to 15,000 feet in less than three minutes,' Nichols says. Flying like that would indicate that an attacker had slipped under the radar screen and was about to loft a nuclear bomb toward the target, then make a climbing turn and flee. Shooting under those conditions was entirely possible, says Nichols, but only if the missiles were up at the time, and they hardly ever were. If a Hercules was launched, the fervent hope was that radiation from its blast would destroy all bombs, including those falling from an enemy aircraft's wreckage. Any fireballs created by the Nike warhead's explosion were supposed to occur tens of thousands of feet up. You didn't want to have the fireball touch the ground,' says Frank Evans; such contact would create a mushroom cloud of radioactive fallout.

'But there might be decisions to make, say if you had a lot of Russian bombers coming in, not just a couple. You might say "To hell with it" and accept some fallout. That's if you knew absolutely it was Russians and they had 25 megatons on board.' The awful decision to push a button overriding the 'minimum burst altitude' setting and triggering a nuclear fireball low enough to scorch American soil would have been the missile commander's alone to make.

Monday, September 13, 2010

NTSB on the case

Mentioned the National Transportation Safety Board on the ground at San Bruno. The board is there because the disaster involved a transportation system. The National Transportation Safety Board is not your conventional bureaucracy. It doesn't promote industries and it can't regulate them either. It's strictly there to make investigations on a wide range of public transportation incidents, then issue preliminary reports and final findings on probable cause. It also maintains a list of the most pressing safety issues. Here's a recent piece on the need for professionalism among regional carriers, highlighted by the NTSB and others. The Board can bring attention, but not force action. Sometimes the lack of an industry or congressional response is frustrating. But I'm glad the NTSB is on the job and it's a model for other nations.

The Chemical Safety Board has a similar mission when it comes to all kinds of plants that process reactive chemicals, not just refineries but factories.

A good description of the NTSB's process is in Bill Adair's book, Mystery of Flight 427, Inside a Crash Investigation. Here's a summary of his book. It's about how investigators puzzled out a mechanical flaw in the rudder actuator that caused a Boeing 737-3B7 to crash six miles from the Pittsburgh, PA airport in 1994.

While investigators head for the site of a disaster as quickly as they can (they keep "go bags" packed and ready) a complex investigation takes time. A year to two years is common, depending on workload and complexity. The principal parties in a major incident, which can be the airplane manufacturer and the pilots' union in the case of an airliner crash, designate representatives to participate in meetings and to review the evidence. Sometimes evidence takes months to locate, such as an engine part that comes off a plane and lands in in a cornfield short of a crash site.

While investigators do have to form hypotheses along the way, as they work toward a report to the board, their ethic is to keep an open mind and let the facts set the course. This can be tough because sometimes key parties get very nervous about what a rigorous investigation might turn up.

Still we can be confident in the board's neutrality. At one time it was connected to the Department of Transportation, but Congress cut those ties in 1975.

The board finishes its work with a "probable cause" finding. Sometimes there is a public hearing. Reporters benefit from the stacks of reports issued and available on the Net. And I think the board's work also benefits from the press's involvement, including the investigative pieces.

I had the chance to meet now-vice chairman Christopher Hart when we were presenting to the Chemical Safety Board staff and members. I was impressed. His specialty when an assistant administrator for system safety with the FAA was the promotion of statistical methods to pick up precursors well before they turn into failures: it's called GAIN, for Global Aviation Information Network. GAIN uses principles lined out by operational research in World War II, which improved military tactics with statistical analysis.

Here's a link to proceedings in 2003 on close-call analysis to improve railroad safety -- a summary of Chris Hart's talk on the application of GAIN principles starts on page 27.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What makes gas so smelly?

There have been neighborhood reports of gas smells in the weeks before the San Bruno explosion. Unknown at this time is whether such a smell was a precursor of the gas line break.

NTSB vice chair Chris Hart mentioned at a press conference referenced in the LA Times online that not all transmission lines for gas are required to have the odorant added beforehand.

Odorant is there mainly to flag leaks in the distribution lines. As far as I know the utilities are responsible for adding it, not pumping stations upstream. But the possibility that the pipeline gas was odorized and a leak was missed needs to be checked out. PG&E may well have had other precursors that the line (built in the 1950s) needed attention.

The odorant is commonly methanethiol (aka methyl mercaptan), smelly down to a few parts per billion. Since most natural gas as extracted is odorless -- one exception is sour gas, from hydrogen sulfide -- the thiols help people detect gas leaks before the cloud a flammable or explosive mixture with air.

A 1937 explosion caused by leaking, un-odorized raw gas at a public school in New London, Texas, helped firm up the practice of adding odorants to gas. This blast, which killed almost 300 people, launched the news career of Walter Cronkite.

Many biological processes produce methanethiol, such as the human digestion of broccoli. Another is the decomposition of algae. During WWI, there was a crash effort to obtain phosphates by harvesting and digesting giant bladder kelp off the California coast. The breakdown of kelp produced a smell so atrocious that one worker called it "enough to drive a dog off a gut wagon." Colorful expression! A gut wagon was an operation that sold outdated, funky sandwiches to workers during lunch breaks.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Another pipeline blast

Following the intense gas-transmission line fire that started last night at San Bruno, CA: a local article is here.

This article from the San Jose Mercury says it was an 8-alarm fire and the radiant heat was enough to ignite furniture through a plate glass window.

In a Time blog on "natural gas industry under new scrutiny," there's a map of the pipelines feeding into CA.

Natural gas is a rare energy source in that (until the hydro-fracking controvery, anyway) it has generated little concern on a national level although there have been some catastrophic events on a local scale and a number of regional controversies about proposed LNG terminals.

Big gas-line breaks are statistically rare but release a great deal of energy.
Causes are usually construction machinery damage or corrosion. One of the worst US gas-line blasts caused was due to untended corrosion and caused fatalities at a camping site on the Pecos River near Carlsbad, NM, in 2000. The NTSB report on that one is here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

BP's Story

BP is distributing its version of events: full PDF is here.

It's a mix of lawyerly conclusions (BP's errors are characterized as forgivable ones of inadequate communications across work teams and faulty analysis of test results), some rather blurry diagrams, and many pages of extremely technical material about well control and design. A subsea engineer could follow it but the rest of us struggle.

Even BP execs would be hard pressed to say that it's a complete and convincing picture. For one thing, the report predates the recent recovery of the BOP -- and the BOP hasn't been taken apart and studied yet -- so a disaster report from BP is premature.

But rather than get into a book review, let me suggest that detail-hounds check out some descriptions of key hardware (such as the MUX reels to control the BOP and how they may have been damaged in the blast, accumulators to energize the rams and how they're normally recharged, the twin control pods, and how fault reporting on the BOP alarm board didn't alert the subsea engineer to weak batteries), fault trees, and new detail about events not previously reported.

On pp 163-166 is a description of pipe anomalies in the BOP, which includes a mention of the "drift-off" that must have occurred after the explosion, before the rig sank, and what it likely did in bending the riser above the blowout preventer.

Drift-off is when a floating rig loses power and ocean currents or winds try to drag it off station, while it is still connected via the riser to the BOP and wellhead. Since dynamically positioned deepwater rigs like the DH have no anchor lines to keep them on station, a loss of power to the thrusters puts a strain on the drill string, even in calm weather. As I read the report, the DH's drift-off began to drag drill string up and out of the wellhead. Has that ever happened before?

Also there's a photo of a section of deeply striated tool joint, apparently eroded by the enormous flow of sand, gas and fluids up the wellbore.

Also catching my eye was mention of ROV operations, undertaken before the rig sunk, in hopes of forcing the rams to close off the blowout. It didn't work but that must have been a time of high drama, and high frustration.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Offshore Workers' Heli-Phobia

Read a Men's Journal piece out on the Deepwater Horizon, "The Well from Hell." Readers may puzzle at a comment to the effect that offshore workers rank helicopter travel near the top of their fears. I came across this opinion also, when researching the loss of the Ocean Ranger rig off Canada.

The main reason for the workers' worry is that helicopters tend to roll over soon after ditching in an emergency. This can happen very quickly, so each passenger must unbuckle and find his way out of a flooding, crowded, inverted, dark compartment at the same time that other highly motivated people are trying to do the same. Although there is time to do it right (a flipped aircraft doesn't sink like a stone, even when the doors are open) but people who heard a safety briefing beforehand sometimes forget this in the excitement. The challenge is compounded greatly if this happens in a storm in frigid seas because the survivors must also find and don their survival suits, before the helicopter sinks. There are companies that train offshore workers specifically in how to get out of an inverted helicopter in the water.

Why do standard copters tend to roll over in the water? Think of the difference in how weight is distributed in an airplane compared to a helicopter. The heaviest portions of an airplane are the engines, payload, fuel, wings, and the landing gear assembly. In airplanes these are near the center of gravity or below. But a transport helicopter carries some heavy iron above the CG: commonly powerplant, transmission, main rotorhead, and main rotor blades. In short, it's top-heavy.

The most likely rotorcraft to stay upright in the water are ones with permanent flotation gear like Navy Sea King rescue helicopters. But the helicopters the offshore workers are worried about aren't the Sea Kings - they're worried about commercial transport helicopters that roll over after ditching.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Shaped charges, and a call for new engineers

In the last five years when researching stories on technology I've commonly heard concerns from industries about a demographic crisis in getting enough people with specialized training, now that old hands are retiring: such as inert gas welding, underwater engineering, numerically controlled machinery, and explosives. Here's a Wash Post article where this concern has come up in air traffic control. Sort of a "human infrastructure" crisis.

When researching my piece on shaped charges, I heard from both the explosives companies and the mining school at Rolla, Missouri, that there's a strong demand for young explosive engineers. If you know of high-schoolers interested in the subject, have them take a look at Rolla's summer school in explosives. I interviewed Prof. Paul Worsey of Rolla ... very helpful! Here's a link to his series on explosives for Discovery.

Re: shaped charges, here's a Wikipedia link ... the penetrating effect comes not from a jet of "white hot plasma" but rather in how it forges a rod of metal from a sheet of metal (it's hot, but not necessarily molten) and projects it forward at supersonic speed. When striking armor plate, this rod actually shoves aside molecules of metal in the armor and opens a cavity in the direction of travel. In a 1997 military test, one shaped charge opened a hole through 11 feet of armor plate. Numerically, the vast majority of shaped charges now manufactured are pocket-sized devices used in the oil and gas industry, quite effective at perforating steel pipe and opening up rock formations to production.

For armchair historians interested in the history of the WWII bazooka (a marriage of the shaped charge warhead and the solid fuel recoilless rocket), here's an excerpt from my article. Two things to note: first, the M1 was not a great antitank weapon but still proved its worth in taking out pillboxes and giving heart to our infantry; second, how very quickly industry was able to produce the weapons in quantity (GE had 30 days from working out the first prototype manufacturing article, to finishing the production run). I might add some posts in the future on lessons in rapid production from WW2, by far the most productive period in US history.

By late 1941 the Army had a lightweight warhead able to destroy the era's lightly skinned tanks, but it lacked a delivery system with which an infantry-man could confront an oncoming tank. Meanwhile, two American Army officers had overcome all hurdles to build a workable shoulder-fired rocket launcher. But they had no lightweight, armor-busting warhead to fire. Soon thereafter these two projects would intersect and spawn almost a half-million offspring known as bazookas.

The search for an effective shoulder- fired rocket launcher had begun long before, most notably in 1866 with the pyrotechnics manufacturer Gustavus Adolphus Lilliendahl and the one- armed whaling captain Thomas Roys, who began selling a shoulder-launched rocket system. It fired an explosive- tipped rocket intended to harpoon whales at distances up to 130 feet. In both appearance and function, the whaling rocket was a closer kin to the eventual bazooka than the solid-fueled, man-portable launch weapon developed by the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard during the First World War.

Unfortunately for Goddard, the Armistice came less than a week after he demonstrated his rocket, and the Army declined to proceed. After recovering from tuberculosis, Goddard shifted to liquid-fueled rocket research. But his coworker, graduate student Clarence N. Hickman of Clark University, continued in the field. (During the war, the university would support more rocket research at its Allegany Ballistics Laboratory in Rocket Center, West Virginia.) And in 1931 the Army detailed Maj. Leslie Skinner to serve as a one-man rocket research center. Skinner's program doubled with the addition of Lt. Edward Uhl, expanding again in 1940 after Hickman pointed the new National Research Defense Committee toward rocket research. Working in a basement lab at George Washington University, Uhl and Skinner progressed from a closed launcher with tremendous recoil to an open- ended tube that allowed each rocket to discharge its exhaust out the back.

Top Army Ordnance officials happened to be visiting Aberdeen in May 1942, when Skinner and Uhl were firing their prototype at a moving target. Although the launcher only mounted dummy warheads, the flame and whoosh drew their attention. Skinner gamely let them test-drive it even with its rudimentary gunsight. On his first try, Gen. Gladeon Marcus Barnes, who headed weapons research and development at Ordnance, hit the target squarely. “The other staff people fired until all our rounds were gone,” Skinner would recall. “Right there and then the Bazooka was ordered into pilot production design.” In one of the fastest procurement decisions ever, the Army contracted a few days later with General Electric for 5,000 M1 launchers, and with Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company for 25,000 M6 rockets employing a shaped charge like that in the M9 rifle grenade.

The companies had 30 days to deliver. By 1942 much American war production happened at a sprinter's pace, but this particular job gave a new meaning to “rush order.” Working 24 hours a day, General Electric engineers spent more than two weeks building and testing a dozen prototypes before the Army approved a production model. That left eight days for a converted refrigerator factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to turn out the goods. The supply chain included police officers who picked up pieces at the airport, hurled them in the trunks of their squad cars, and raced to the factory. General Electric finished with 89 minutes to spare.

At first the troops dubbed it the “Buck Rogers gun” but then settled on “bazooka,” because it resembled a musical instrument of the same name that movie and radio comedian Bob Burns had improvised out of pipe. The tube was made long so that the propellant would have burned out by the time the rocket left the tube, thus avoiding injury to the operator's face by exhaust flame. The Army's publicity machine was quick to celebrate this paragon of American ingenuity: the bazooka was a miracle weapon, Ordnance chief Gen. L. H. Campbell Jr. told reporters in March 1943, enabling any GI “to stand his ground with the certain knowledge that he is the master of any tank which may attack him.”

In truth the early bazookas fell short of actual panzer-stopping power. Commanding officers, including Lt. Gen. James Gavin, reported back to Ordnance that German tanks had flattened GIs who had stood their ground. Moreover, the rush of battle easily damaged the long tube. The battery circuit wasn't reliable, many troops lacked training, and some rockets misfired or bounced off their targets. But even the early M1 models were good pillbox wreckers; after the M9A1 was available, Allied soldiers were able to disable light and medium tanks, some-times working in concert with tracked tank destroyers. All told, American companies produced 441,000 bazookas and 15 million rocket warheads.

After the bazooka appeared, the Germans fielded their own tank- busting rockets: the shoulder-fired Panzerschreck (tank terror) and the short-range, single-use Panzerfaust (tank fist). Franz Thomanek insisted after the war that these were no mere knockoffs of the M1 and M9 bazookas. (This is probably true in the case of the Panzerfaust.) In any case, most GIs who tried both German and American models agreed that the bigger German weapons inflicted more damage than their 2.36-inch-diameter counterparts.

Reacting to the competition, the Army commissioned the M20 Super Bazooka, but this did not materialize in time for World War II, even arriving a bit tardily on Korean battlefields. Task Force Smith and other American units first thrown into action against the North Korean 105th Armored Brigade found that their war-surplus M9A1 bazookas had no effect on the Russian-built T-34s. On its arrival in September 1950, however, the Super Bazooka helped turn the tide, remaining in use until the one-shot, disposable M72 Light Antitank Weapon replaced it during the Vietnam War.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

From Red Flags to Torpedoes

Railroads switched from flagmen to automatic block signals long ago, so it's time to freshen up some metaphors, particularly the shopworn red flag of danger. If an editorial writer is trying to make the point that some earlier incident should have given regulators a clear warning about some company's recklessness long before things blew up, he could toss out the red flag and say instead, “There was a torpedo right there on the track but the agency rolled over it and kept on going.” Laid on a rail to warn of sure danger ahead and detonated by pressure, torpedoes were flat, round noisemakers that would detonate with a cannon-like report at the first touch of a locomotive wheel. An engineer might miss noticing a man on the right of way waving a red flag, but he wouldn't miss the sound of a torpedo.

"That project was a complete train wreck that took out all the investors" could be freshened up to "That whole project was a snakehead." In the early decades of railroading, a rail was not the sturdy round-topped bar of rolled steel we know today, but a long board laid on its edge and topped along its length with a wrought-iron strap, nailed on. Sometimes one end of a strap worked loose and bowed upward as a train was rushing by. If snagged by running gear the iron bar would fly loose and smash through the wooden floor of a moving coach, killing or maiming all passengers within reach, however wealthy. So when a big pyramid scheme goes bust and takes out hundreds of families' savings, that's a snakehead.

"His reputation is shot" could be railroadized to "His reputation is on the hammer track." That's a salvage siding used for tearing apart old boxcars and locomotives.

Friday, September 3, 2010

NPR's summer jobs series

Enjoyed this series a lot, and the way it gave listeners the opportunity to speak for themselves. My jobs through graduation: construction work, haying, summer camp counselor and cook, freight handler in an oil warehouse, roofer, bus driver, law clerk, freelance writer, and a brief stint of logging in Missouri and mining in New Mexico.

Most miserable times on a job: installing fiberglass insulation in an attic in July 1980 – it was so hot that I started feeling cool and knew it was time to get out. Flip side of that: standing in a January blizzard in North Dakota as a reporter, watching tower hands stumble around trying to find structural steel in hard-packed drifts. Their Bobcat kept running into buried steel so they gave it up.

Though I had on every bit of arctic gear I had bought while living in Fairbanks, Alaska, the 30-mph wind was cutting through every gap and I was delighted to head for shelter when they did.

Sounds dangerous but wasn't really: working with high explosives on a construction job. As long as some critical mistakes are avoided, modern nitrate explosives (we used DuPont's Tovex, plus detonating cord for the primers) and electric detonators are quite safe to handle. Odd fact: when a cartridge is cut open, Tovex has the appearance of tapioca pudding.

Sounds risky and it was: Most dangerous five minutes had to be riding on an MD 500 helicopter with a power line maintenance crew in Pennsylvania. Their job was to replace metal spacers that separate the conductors of a high voltage power line. I think of it as hazardous not because the powerline was energized (it was, at 230Kv), or because the crew lacked skill (they were very good) but because the situation had no room for error or malfunction.

Normally, almost any industrial operation has enough slack – call it margin of error -- that one mishap doesn't turn into a disaster, but this job had no slack. It was a single engine helicopter hovering at a low altitude, so an engine failure or rotor strike was guaranteed to end in a crash; the work required the pilot to hover the left side of the aircraft within a foot of the power line with his main rotor overlapping the line, and the tail rotor within two feet; and as an observer I didn't get a crash-rated seat. The pilot had a military-style model with shock absorbers to cushion a vertical impact and save helicopter pilots from permanent back injury (think compressed vertebrae) in the case of a crash, but in the back seat I had a plywood special. Anyway, it was a thrilling chance to see experts at work and it turned out fine but it's not something I would want to do on a regular basis.

Stuff I'd have to do more to be safe: cutting down trees with a chain saw. Even with all the safety devices and PPE this takes constant attention and I found when I got tired the odds of a mistake went way up. The mishaps I've had have been comparatively minor (except for one cut that got infected and took some special antibiotics.) The dilemma is that it takes a lot of hours to be good, but using one for lots of hours is also risky. I can see why logging is one of the riskiest jobs there is.

Most motivated moment: my brothers and cousin Rich had the chance to do some drilling on a mountaintop in New Mexico, for a gold company that needed work done so as to hold its claim. Our job was to get up there towing an air compressor and use a jackleg to drill holes in the rock face and collect rock samples to bring back. The compressor was a good sized one and burned a lot of gasoline so we brought along a drum of fuel, which we decided to leave chained upright on the back of the truck since it weighed about four hundred pounds. One night a thunderstorm came up and we realized at about the same moment that the pump handle on the drum would act a lot like a lightning rod once rain started, which would put water on the tires and act as a ground. The next thought: the image of a fireball in the middle of our camp, like in the movies. With one mind we piled out of our sleeping bags and divided up the work: One man to unscrew the pump and close up the hole with a bung, two guys to clear a path through the junk on the flatbed, and one to round up a pair of timbers so we could roll it off. Within two minutes we had the drum off the truck and laying sideways in the lowest spot available. Teamwork!

INPO - the magic bullet?

Saw a string of articles in mid-August about INPO (Institute of Nuclear Power Operators) as a potential breakthrough model for improving offshore rig safety. Presidential commission chair Bill Reilly says he likes the idea. INPO harnesses the "enlightened self interest" of the nuclear industry to assist with some self-policing, since all operators are going to be threatened by one disaster. INPO reviews each power reactor every two years and delivers a confidential report to the operator that can be blistering. All in all, INPO has proved its worth.

An INPO-like group for offshore oil is worth considering as an adjunct to regulation by a non-industry-controlled agency, but there would be problems in transferring the model to offshore oil and it's not a miracle worker. Two words to make the point that INPO can't do everything: the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant at Oak Harbor, Ohio. In 2002 maintenance work to check nozzles at a difficult-to-reach portion of the reactor pressure vessel at Davis-Besse coincidentally revealed that boric acid corrosion had over the course of years eaten a football-sized hole through more than six inches of steel, leaving less than half an inch of stainless steel to contain the steam pressure inside.

This was an extremely serious lapse in safety by the operator FirstEnergy, despite multiple warnings that boric acid corrosion if neglected could cause a loss of coolant accident. It was coincidence that caught the problem, not INPO or the NRC.

INPO visits have merit because they offer more expertise and more independence than the NRC or most companies have been able to muster, but they can't substitute for what the operator should be doing.

The other limitation of the INPO model when it comes to deepwater oil is the difficulty of cross-inspection by an outside industry team. How would such a team evaluate a new combination of methods, never tried on any rig before? How would they have been able to comment on the maintenance needs of MUX-style blowout preventers versus hydraulic ones, when the former came into use?

Compared to the deepwater oil play, boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors are a mature technology. In deepwater exploration and production the methods are changing all the time, the operating environment is dynamic rather than controlled, and much of the equipment is inaccessible to inspection.