This morning on NPR I heard a story about the dismantling of the final blockbuster nuclear weapon in the
USA's arsenal: a 9-megaton bunker buster known as the B-53. The story related how these weapons were the size of a minivan, weighed 4.5 tons, and could obliterate all life within 9 miles of ground zero. Only two could be carried aboard a B-52, and during the height of the Cold War, 24 of these things were always in the air ready to take out the Soviet Union.
So what does this have to do with water? A lot, actually.
My first position out of graduate school was with the water group at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. DRI had (and still has) a big contract with the Nevada Operations Office (NVOO) of the Department of Energy, then called the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). ERDA the old Atomic Energy Commission, which had been split into ERDA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because one agency could not really promote and regulate the nuclear industry.
In those days we worked on the Nevada Test Site (now known as the Nevada National Security Site), a 1,360 square mile (3,500 square kilometers) chunk of Nevada desert about 90 miles (145 km) northwest of Las Vegas.
Hydrogeology was important to NTS operations because of the underground nuclear detonations and the potential for groundwater contamination and surface venting of radiation. So DRI worked with other organizations (USGS, et al.) to characterize the nature of the unsaturated zone and groundwater reservoirs beneath and adjacent to the NTS. It was fascinating work, as we had to deal with fractured volcanic rocks, carbonate aquifers, heterogeneous sediments, thick (as much as 2000 feet [600m]), infiltration into craters, etc.Fun stuff. The work on the carbonate flow systems was especially stimulating and enjoyable. And seeing those drilling rigs capable of drilling a 96-inch [2.5m] diameter hole was a hydrogeologist's dream! (Not really but it sounds good.)
Yeah, and I even had a Q-clearance (top secret). The security (I use that term loosely) guards always had to actually touch our badge when we passed through the security checkpoint. The reason? Legend had it that a worker at the NTS just used to flash his badge for the guards to see. He had an L-clearance, which resembled a pack of Marlboros. Turns out that's what he had been using all along - a pack of Marlboros!
Another story was not quite so humorous. It was the one about a couple of workers who went to remove a steel plate that had been placed over an open borehole that was 96 inches in diameter and had 800 feet of drilling mud in it. One worker grabbed one end then stepped forward right into the hole, where he fell to his death. It was noted that he did not scream while falling down the hole - he had apparently hit his head on the steel casing as he tumbled in.
Perhaps the most interesting work I did was serving as DRI's official observer on the NTS Containment Evaluation Panel (CEP). Our CEP members were Paul Fenske, a hydrogeologist, and alternate Clint Case, a physicist. Every time a sponsoring agency (often a national lab) was going to detonate a device (an 'event'), they had to present their case for containment (no leakge or venting of radioactive materials to the atmosphere) before a panel of experts (mostly physicists and engineers) from other organizations. Many of the panel members were top weapons experts and the discussions and questions were often quite animated and at times contentious.
The design of the emplacement hole and the 'plugging' of it after the device was emplaced were critical. I seem to remember endless discussions about CTE (coal-tar epoxy) plugs, stemming, sensor emplacemnt, cabling, etc.
I actually witnessed an underground 'nuclear event' on the Nevada Test Site in 1981. Exciting and frightening .
Especially enlightening were the presentations by, and subsequent questioning of, those who performed the numerical simulations of the explosions and the aftermath. Talk about a nonlinear mechanics problem! This was supposedly the reason why Seymour Cray invented his famous computer - to simulate nuclear weapon detonations and effects.
It was amazing how much CPU time was required to simulate a few seconds after the detonation. The codes these guys used were the most sophisticated finite-element codes of the day. The modelers were simulating underground detonations, so there was plenty of discussion about subsurface material properties, location of the water table (some detonations were below the water table, most were above), structural geologic features, etc.
I'll never forget one modeler who said that to be safe, he had decided to run the code for a long period of time after the detonation. Long period? Seven seconds!
One funny CEP story concerned Burke Maxey, the famous hydrogeologist who had been DRI's CEP panelist until his death in 1977. Maxey was an inveterate smoker, but you could not smoke in the CEP panel room so he would often have an unlit cigar in his mouth. One day after lunch Burke was nodding off during the discussion. He would sort of rock back and forth while dozing off, and finally gravity took over and Burke's head hit the table. He awoke when the cigar was driven into his mouth and he uttered a loud expletive. Needless to say, the panel decided to take a break.
Many more stories to be told, but alas, you know what I would have to do if I told you.
Did you hear about the time I was sucking some tritiated water (to be used for a soil tracer experiment) out of a 55-gallon drum? Got a mouthful of radioactive tritium....And that's why I am the way I am today!
The good ol' days!
"They're not 'bombs'; they are 'devices'! They are only called 'bombs' when we drop them from the sky." - an especially irritating Lawrence Livermore physicist, educating yours truly on the correct nomenclature for nuclear devices, 1976