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This weekend was an adventure in building a new closetserver. I was working with LDAP so I tried installing Fedora Directory Server on my box. When I ran out of memory, that was the last straw. Saturday I went to Fry’s to find some decently cheap new kit. I picked up a Gigabyte motherboard, an AMD Athlon 64 CPU, and memory. This is where things started going south.

I got home and realized I no longer had a VGA monitor I could use to set the system up. Then realized I was going from i386 to x86_64, so I’d need to reinstall the OS. Then realized I’d have to buy IDE->SATA adapters for the 300GB drives which already contained data. Then realized the case I had didn’t have a large enough power supply, nor have all the necessary 12V connections, nor for SATA power.

Went back to Fry’s and bought the kit I needed, and eventually borrowed a monitor from a coworker so I could get things going. The IDE->SATA connectors were a pain to work with and I eventually ditched them. This left me having to copy files from one computer to the other which is still going.

The new system is superfast. X1 weeps that I’m sticking this in the closet rather than using it as a desktop. The x86_64 architecture is very similar to what I work on at work, which is handy. The system runs much, much cooler than the other one as well. I tinkered with CPU speed management and hard drive suspension today. I really need a watt meter to actually measure what the box draws.
In other news, I watched a documentary last night called “Battle of Chernobyl. It had a lot of pictures and film footage right after the explosion and the cleanup. There were commentaries from journalists, liquidators, and several operators and military commanders who took a part in the cleanup. It’s a fascinating watch, and shocking to know how serious of a problem it was and still remains today.

A few things surprised me and I learned a lot about what I didn’t know. It seems like it was long ago, but it only happened in 1986, very much in my lifetime. I’ll admit I’m ignorant of the progress of Russian science, I’ve been given the impression that it’s dated and antiquainted. But, the Russians kicked our ass at the arms race, the space race, and they seem to make solid non-exploding space vehicles, so they’re probably at the same level of advancement as us. Whether or not this carries over to development of nuclear engineering, I don’t know. While the science may be solid, it seems corners were cut on design and most certainly the training. In the end it was a mass effort by everyone doing what they could to protect their homeland.

This isn’t an account of what happened, just some of the points I found to be of interest:

The explosion knocked a 1200 ton lid off the top of the reactor chamber which fell and wedged back inside. A #4 reactor operator said he looked up and saw stars (since the roof was blown off) and a “beautiful” stream of lights and many colors from the ionized air venting upwards.

There was 195 tons of fuel in the reactor which melted through a concrete floor. The firefighters who first responded to the explosion poured tons of water onto the fire which settled into a basin a couple floors below the reactor core. There were fears that the fuel lava would keep melting and eventually drop into the water. An engineer said that only 1.4 kilograms of the uraniuma and graphite mixture dropping into the water was enough to set off an explosion of 3-5 megatons, razing several hundred square miles and leaving all of Europe uninhabited. (!!!)

I didn’t know that they actually rounded up some coal miners and actually dug a tunnel from reactor #3 over to reactor #4. Because all of the sand and lead they had dropped onto the reactor, it was trapping the heat and not really solving the problem, thus accelerating the melting. Miners dug the tunnel and they eventually drained the water and poured a new layer of concrete under the lava. The risk was that the lava would eventually eat away the final bottom level of the building, contaminate the ground water, which would contaiminate the river, and eventually the Black Sea.

General Nikolai Antochkin, President of Heros of Russia, said a lot of people now critisize what the response was, how they battled the disaster, how they endangered thousands of lives, but “At the time, it had to be done. It was heroic.” A journalist says there were no ranks, every person there from civilian to general to soldier were doing the best job they could do to help.

During construction of the sarcophagus, they had to halt progress at one point because radiation levels were too high. They discovered on the roof of reactor #3 were chunks of graphite ejected from the explosion, which once held fuel rods. Each chunk gave off 500-1500 rontgen, enough to kill a person within an hour. They tried using robots to clear the debris, but eventually the radiation fried he electronics. So, they built up makeshift armor for workers out of thin sheets of lead. They sent thousands of workers up in groups for only a minute at a time to throw off a couple shovelfuls of graphite, then they were relieved by other workers.

A journalist who was on the roof said he was overcome with an eerie feeling, his mouth immediately tasted of lead and he couldn’t hear his teeth when he snapped his jaw. He snapped a dozen photographs and promptly left. His film photographs have faded areas extending from the sproket holes, showing where radiation was coming off the ground all over the roof.

Some people interviewed said the Soviet silence and denial of any problems at first was a bigger disaster than the explosion itself. Citizens in Kiev were encouraged to have their May Day celebration just days after the explosion, officials full well knowing the city is heavily contaimated. Gorbachev himself says he had the KGB answering to him personally as to the damage, but it was ultimately Sweden who tipped them off to the scope of the problems. After the fall of the USSR, a clerk seized documents from high level party officials which later explained how the casualty rate was far higher than anyone ever admitted.

Gorbachev is shown discussing the most powerful nuclear weapon the USSR had in their arsenal was the SS18 missile. Each one could produce 100x the damage of Chernobyl, and the Soviets had a stockpile of 2,700 SS18 missiles intended for attack on the USA if needed. Having seen the damaged caused by Chernobyl, this prompted disarmament of any nuclear missiles they had with a range over 500 miles.

This has me wondering what would happen if Chernobyl was an accident on US soil. Estimates range up to 400,000-500,000 people over several months were directly involved with the cleanup of Chernobyl. How many Americans could we gather up to put themselves in imminent danger to drop sand or dig a tunnel or operate machinery? How much would we depend on technology to solve the problem compared to outright heroics? Does Halliburton have a nuclear firefighting crew?

I also wonder if the general American population has genuine concerns about handling nuclear disasters (terrorist attack or not) or if we’ve got a general over-confident attitude of “Oh we’ve got a bunch of really smart people working on it, they’ll figure it out. Not my concern .. say, who’s going to win American Idol?” During Katrina I saw pictures on TV saying “When’s the government gonna come rescue me!” Nothing technically challenging about storm recovery, you work out the damage, form a response, send in food/water/sanitation and extract the people. What happens when we’ve got a mass of uranium goo threatning to contaminate the Mississipi or the Great Lakes. Who’s going to step up to put their lives on the line for an invisible enemy?

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