Monday, May 27, 2013

Minding the Nuclear Store

Most Americans my age experienced the 1960s “duck-and-cover” drills in elementary schools, when the notion of getting blown up in a nuclear holocaust was just a part of everyday life.  The fact that the U. S., Russia, and a lengthening list of other countries still have the ability to vaporize millions with nuclear weapons has gradually faded from the public’s consciousness over the years, as the Cold War wound down following the collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1991.  Most of the college students I teach were born after the end of that era, so it’s not surprising.

But there are a few folks who haven’t forgotten.  Notable among them is a team of two U. S. war veterans and a Roman Catholic nun in her eighties who gathered in the pre-dawn hours of July 28, 2012 outside the Y-12 nuclear material complex near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  This high-security facility is one of the main storehouses for the nation’s nuclear-weapons material:  highly enriched uranium, mainly, which is used in the fission “triggers” of thermonuclear (fusion or “hydrogen”) bombs.  The Wikipedia article on Y-12 says that we also keep enriched uranium there for other countries that don’t want to bother with storing it themselves.  Needless to say, a terrorist outfit that managed to steal some of this uranium would be in a good position to make their own nuclear weapon, so the bunker-style storage buildings with watchtowers on the ends are surrounded by several security perimeters:  barbed wire, fences, and the usual security cameras and sensors.

The three anti-nuclear protesters (for that is what they were) took bolt-cutters to the outer fence and climbed inside with the rest of their equipment, which they say consisted of “a Bible, hammers, candles, bread, white roses and blood.”  They surprised themselves by getting close enough to one of the main buildings to smear blood on its white walls, and spray-painted words on it: “The fruit of justice is peace” and “Plowshares please Isaiah.”  The latter is a reference to the famed “swords into plowshares” passage of the second chapter of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. 

Evidently, the guards in charge of preventing this sort of thing initially believed that the noises their sensors picked up were wild animals, which occasionally cause false alarms.  Eventually, however, someone went down to check and discovered the intrusion.  The three were duly arrested, jailed (this was not a new experience for Sister Megan Rice, who has been arrested more than thirty times and served two previous jail sentences), and on May 8-9, 2013, were convicted of felony charges in federal court in relation to the break-in.  They are in jail awaiting the sentencing phase to come in September.

Whatever one thinks of the rightness or wrongness of nuclear weapons, I think most people can agree that as long as a government cares to deal with such things, it is that government’s responsibility to make sure that no unauthorized persons can steal the weapons, or nuclear material that can be used to make a weapon.  Other things being equal, I would probably rather live in a world without nuclear weapons, but that is not the world we live in now, and as with so many other things in politics, the problem lies in how we get from here—with nuclear stockpiles around the world—to a point where nobody has any. 

Nuclear protesters such as Sister Rice clearly see their roles as prophetic.  The Old Testament prophets had hard jobs:  God told them to say unpopular things that usually got them thrown in jail, or worse.  But the real prophets­, as opposed to the popular and successful false prophets, were under a compulsion to bring God’s message to the people. 

I learned of this incident via Joe Carson, a long-time Department of Energy safety officer who has his own prophetic role that his Christian faith has impelled him to play.  He has found that many areas of the U. S. government’s civil service are infected by incompetence, carelessness, and neglect of duty.  What is worse, those such as Mr. Carson who attempt to right such wrongs are often punished by their superiors for rocking the boat (going outside the organization, or “whistleblowing”), and even so-called whistleblowing defense organizations can fall victim to corruption and self-serving activities as well.  The breach of security by the protesters at the Y-12 facility revealed how vulnerable the nuclear storehouse is to attackers armed with nothing more than bolt cutters and hammers.  One wonders whether the vigor with which they were prosecuted arose more from embarrassment than from a genuine concern for national security.  Making powerful officials look bad can get you in more trouble than almost anything else.

Sr. Rice and her compatriots broke laws, it is true, but they are in a long and honorable tradition of civil disobedience that goes back at least to Martin Luther King and ultimately to the Old Testament prophets themselves.  They knew they would probably go to jail, and they did.  When convicted, Sr. Rice was quoted as saying “I regret I didn’t do this 70 years ago.” 

70 years ago, she would have been about 13, almost old enough to work in what was then a top-secret World War II uranium processing facility devoted to making the first nuclear weapons.  In Y-12’s cavernous hallways, teenage girls fresh from the surrounding Tennessee hills were hired by the dozen to sit at control panels all day, turning knobs to keep meter needles at a certain value.  The girls knew only that they got paid well and were somehow contributing to the effort to win World War II. 

Sr. Rice would have indeed had to be a prophet to have protested effectively against the U. S. effort to make the world’s first nuclear weapon with the Manhattan Project.  Almost from the beginning of the program, some of those involved harbored doubts that it was a good thing to do.  Ever since the end of the war, a small but dedicated number of people have worked to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but so far they have fought an uphill battle.  I can both wish for them to succeed, and also hope that until they do, we can keep better watch over our nuclear store than we have been doing lately. 

Sources:  I referred to several articles on various aspects of the July 28, 2012 incident:  a Knoxville News-Sentinel editorial at

an article from an alternative newspaper on the trial at,

some photos of the scene of the event posted at

and the Wikipedia articles on Y-12 and Megan Rice.  Thanks to Joe Carson for bringing this incident to my attention.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Update on West: Causes and Consequences

Last Thursday, May 16, officials from the Fire Marshal’s Office of Texas and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives announced that the cause of the April 17 fertilizer-plant explosion in the town of West was “undetermined.”  However, they had eliminated a number of possible causes and narrowed the probable ones to three:  something to do with the 120-V electrical system in the plant, a golf cart stored in the same room with the ammonium nitrate bins, and arson. 

Considering the horrible jumble of wreckage that the explosion left behind, even this much progress in the investigation is laudable.  The investigators did determine that about 28 to 34 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer ingredient, exploded in the blast that dug a crater ten feet deep and 93 feet wide and caused seismometers to register the equivalent of a 2.1-magnitude earthquake.  It could have been worse:  another 140 tons of the material stored either onsite or in railcars at a nearby siding did not explode. 

The investigation revealed that the ammonium nitrate that exploded was stored in wooden bins next to bins of flammable seeds.  No sprinkler system was in place, and under current fire-code regulations none was required in the industrial facility. 

The reconstructed sequence of events is fairly brief.  At 7:29 PM on the evening of April 17, a fire was reported at the facility.  Unless there were personnel on site that late in the evening, it is likely that no one was present at the time and the first report was turned in only after smoke was visible outside the plant.  So the fire may have had some time to get going before it was reported.  This is significant, because when ammonium nitrate is heated, it can turn from a white powder into a solid mass that transmits shock waves well.

Nine minutes after the fire was reported, firefighters arrived and began to play water on the blaze, which the investigation stated did not contribute to the explosion.  Investigators speculated that as the fire progressed, a piece of heavy equipment might have come loose and fallen onto the now-solidified mass of ammonium nitrate, causing a detonation wave that led to two almost simultaneous explosions, 22 minutes after the fire was reported.  It was these explosions that killed fifteen people, most of them firefighters, and laid waste to 37 blocks of the small town. 

Not involved in the news conference at which these findings were announced, were members of the federal Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an agency charged with investigating chemical accidents with a view toward making recommendations about how to avoid them in the future.  A Dallas Morning News reporter interviewed members of the Board involved in the West investigation, and their work is still continuing.  Rather than focusing on the narrow question of exact causes, the CSB is examining the broader picture of how regulations affected the outcome of the incident and how community responses could have been improved.  Questions have been raised, for example, about the wisdom of storing so much explosive material literally across the street from an apartment complex, and not much farther from a school and a nursing home.  Any time a fire occurs at a facility where large amounts of ammonium nitrate are stored, prudence would dictate that at a minimum, the area within a possible explosion range should be evacuated. 

On July 30, 2009, a fire at a fertilizer plant in Bryan, Texas where large quantities of ammonium nitrate were stored led to the evacuation of thousands of residents of that college town (home to Texas A&M) as a precaution.  Fortunately, the fire burned itself out without incident and no damage outside the plant resulted.  But as the West explosion shows, things could have turned out very differently.  The Bryan incident also differs from West in that the people who accidentally started the fire were the ones who reported it promptly, giving more warning than otherwise.

While regulation is always a two-edged sword that can cause more harm than it alleviates, the West explosion will at least inspire re-examination of the whole complex of federal, state, and local laws, as well as insurance-company practices, that bear on the storage of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer.  Determining the appropriate level of regulation, as well as the appropriate agency or agencies to issue regulations, is not an easy task.  Local officials, especially in smaller towns such as West, rarely have the expertise to come up with customized, science-based regulations about hazardous materials that do not cause problems most of the time.  But federal regulations are a blunt instrument, and customarily matters such as fire codes are left to the states and local communities to decide on.  National organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) issue model guidelines and codes, but it is a state or local option as to whether these codes are made part of local laws. 

The deaths in the West explosion were preventable, and I for one hope that the memory of this tragedy will lodge in the minds of firefighters, code-enforcement officials, and governmental agencies who are in a position to keep such things from happening, or at least lower the chances of them happening, in the future.  The sharing of basic information and knowledge about how much of what stuff is stored where needs to be mandated so that first responders know both what they are dealing with and what is prudent to do in a given situation.  Firefighting is a hazardous job, and loss of life in the line of duty is one of the risks that firefighters take on when they join their companies.  But if better information and procedures, even if mandated by the federal government, will keep both firefighters and their communities safer in situations such as what happened in West last month, it may be time to change the way things are done.

Sources:  I referred to an article on the West investigation news conference published on the Dallas Morning News website on May 18 at  I also used an article from the KRHD-TV website for information on the Bryan, Texas evacuation, found at 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Printing Guns

Somebody was going to do it sooner or later.  And we have Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, to thank for the fact that, when it was finally done for the first time, the news media learned about it right away.  All the same, now that somebody has used a 3-D printer to make a functional gun, we face a whole array of questions that up till now were hypothetical ones.  But technology has a way of turning hypotheticals into facts.

What are the facts?  For some years now, systems called “rapid prototype fabrication” or “3-D printing” have been available in various forms.  People at my own university, Texas State University, have been active in this area for over a decade.  When I arrived in 2000, I saw one such machine here in operation.  It worked this way:  a roll of sticky paper would feed into an area where a computer-guided laser beam cut out a shape that was a thin cross-section of the object to be made, and position the cutout on top of the previous layer, affixing it with the sticky side down.  Then the cycle would repeat with the next layer.  In this way, shapes of arbitrary complexity could be gradually built up, although there were practical problems such as how to get rid of the excess paper, the many hours it took to construct even one small object, and the fact that when you were finished all you had was a “dummy” model made out of paper, instead of anything mechanically strong like plastic or metal.  Still, the ability to realize a 3-D prototype shape was useful for design purposes, and many miles of paper went through the unit before it was superseded by later models that use more substantial materials.  In fact, the field is still a subject of active research both at my school and elsewhere.

As often happens, technology that was initially so expensive that only giant firms like Boeing could afford it has now gotten cheap enough that impecunious law students such as Cody Wilson can rent or buy 3-D printing devices.  Mr. Wilson is a member of an increasing cadre of young dedicated libertarians tending toward anarchy.  It seems to me that libertarianism is a self-limiting phenomenon, in that while a functioning society can tolerate a certain number of individual libertarians, if everyone in a state followed libertarian principles there would be no state.  And we’ve seen how bad life can get in states such as Somalia that effectively have no government. 

Whatever the philosophy’s limitations as a principle of government are, individual libertarians are always fighting battles for various freedoms that they perceive have been infringed, and Mr. Wilson’s beef was that the government has unfairly restricted the access of the individual to guns.  There are apparently two goals in Mr. Wilson’s mind:  an idealistic long-term goal and a more realistic near-term goal.  The long-term goal appears to be the notion that if a person wants a gun (or anything else that is hard to buy legally but can be made with a 3-D printer), he or she can simply look up the plans on the Internet and print one in the privacy of home.  Even during Prohibition from 1919 to 1933, when the U. S. Constitution forbade the manufacture of intoxicating liquors, it was practically impossible to prevent homebrewers from making their own beer or wine in their basements, and many people did so.  Perhaps Mr. Wilson is envisioning something of this kind with respect to guns.

His near-term goal was more realistic:  to draw attention to the fact that 3-D printing technology has now become cheap enough and precise enough to allow even a student (though one who raised $20,000 for the project online) to design, make, and successfully fire a working firearm with it.  Reportedly, during the few days that Defense Distributed, Mr. Wilson’s website, displayed the plans, the plans were downloaded over 100,000 times, so the gat is out of the bag, so to speak. 

Now that we know it can be done, what should we do about it?  Those of a libertarian persuasion would say, “Nothing,” and it’s possible that no new laws or regulations will result from what some would consider a stunt.  Someone at the State Department did take it seriously enough to send Mr. Wilson a letter warning him that he had better take the plans off his website, and he did.  It seems there are restrictions on transferring technical data to “a foreign person” which of course might include many of those 100,000 who downloaded the gun plans before the information was taken off the website.  Mr. Wilson’s libertarianism does not extend to the limit of civil disobedience, but he has been working on this project for over a year and he says he intends to find a lawyer to help him further his cause.

The dismal imagination of an engineer can extend this quandary in other directions.   Suppose we develop cheap and inexpensive ways to synthesize complex chemicals in a table-top unit?  How popular would the downloadable instructions for LSD or cocaine turn out to be?  Fortunately, I’m not aware that the chemical engineers have anything like this up their sleeve, but stay tuned.

In the meantime, let’s be glad that nobody (to my knowledge) has invented all-plastic bullets yet, so even if someone manages to sneak a plastic pistol from a 3-D printer on an airplane, they’ll have to use metal bullets, and maybe those will be discovered by the eagle-eyed inspectors of the Transportation Safety Administration.  And those folks are now using the latest millimeter-wave technology to see just such objects.  So if working plastic guns start showing up all over the place, we at least have some technology that may be able to catch them before they do any real harm.

Sources:  The Austin American-Statesman has published at least three stories about Cody Wilson’s doings online:  back in October 2012 at when he was in the news as the 3-D printing company he rented his equipment from had come to confiscate it back when they found out what he was doing, earlier this month at when he successfully fired his plastic weapon in front of news representatives, and on May 12 at when a State Department letter persuaded him to take down his online gun plans.  I also referred to the website operated by Mr. Wilson and his friends, Defense Distributed, at

Monday, May 06, 2013

What Price Cheap Clothing?

When the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapsed on April 24, crushing hundreds of workers under a pile of concrete and machinery that used to be an eight-story factory building, it was like lifting a rock in your garden and finding a snake’s nest full of baby rattlers.  Something that most of the world preferred to keep out of sight was exposed to full view.  The latest body count as of this writing is 640, but that is sure to rise as more bodies are pulled from the wreckage.  Despite the tragedy of the collapse, there is hope that something else died in the wreckage too:  the type of criminal negligence that leads to such catastrophes in the first place.

Bangladesh is the second or third largest exporter of garments in the world, behind only China and possibly Vietnam.  Over three million people are employed in the country’s garment industry, which provides 80% of its export income.  Women make up 70% of the garment industry’s employees, and a recital of the typical garment worker’s life would sound familiar to the girls in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who toiled in the water-powered mills erected in the 1850s by a group of enterprising New England capitalists.  You will not be surprised to learn that one of the big events in that town’s history was the collapse in 1860 of the Pemberton Mill, in which 145 people died from both the initial collapse and a fire started in the largely wooden structure by an overturned kerosene lantern. 

As engineering disasters go, the Bangladesh tragedy was not mysterious.  In fact, the engineer who (perhaps irresponsibly) supervised the addition of three more floors to what was originally planned as a five-story shopping mall warned the owners of the factories inside that it was about to collapse and should be evacuated, when cracks were observed the day before the collapse.  But these warnings were ignored, and shortly after the morning shift entered the building on April 24, it fell down.  So far, the factory owners, the engineer, and several others have been arrested, but that won’t bring back the lives lost in this disaster.

The Rana Plaza accident tells us something about ignorance and authority.  First, ignorance.

Over the last five centuries, the majority of the world’s increasing number of citizens have moved from living on the land, eating what they themselves (or people they know) have grown, and having little if any dealings with persons farther away than a few miles, to today’s inconceivably complex interconnected world where information, money, and goods intermingle in ways that are both beneficial and profitable.  The simple fact that the world now supports over seven billion people is largely due to the improvements in living conditions brought about by engineering and science applied in a world-economy context.  But the same forces that can benefit billions can also produce conditions in places like Bangladesh that are exploitive in the extreme.

If you lived in the fourteenth century A. D. and the baker at the shop around the corner where you bought your bread habitually beat his cooks, you at least stood a chance of hearing about it.  But if the bargain-discount top of the type my wife likes to buy is made halfway around the world by a Bangladeshi company that sells to another Bangladeshi broker, who contracts with a wholesaler in the U. S. to distribute clothes to retailers under a number of different labels, it would require the diligence of an investigative reporter and the acumen of a forensic accountant to discover the true origins and conditions under which that particular piece of clothing was made.  In the absence of forces other than economic ones, the goods are going to go to the highest bidder, and the work is going to go to the lowest-wage employer.  Many of those employers happen to be in Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is reportedly $38 a month.

Such figures must always be taken in context.  Even the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs are sometimes freely chosen by workers who would rather slave in a hot, hazardous city job than risk starvation at a subsistence farm in the country.  (Sometimes, however, the workers are hired under false pretenses and kept as de facto slaves, which is even worse.)  So by and large, most of the millions of garment workers in the Bangladesh factories may consider themselves better off than their parents, who probably lived in the countryside and may not always have known where their next meal was coming from.  Nevertheless, the contrast between the urban U. S. soccer mom buying cheap clothes at a bargain outlet in Wichita, Kansas, and the women in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who slaved from dawn to after dusk (sometimes reportedly pulling 24-hour shifts) to make those clothes, could hardly be exaggerated.  And that is why there is a great silence on the part of most sellers and manufacturers about the conditions under which their garments are made, except for the simple label “Made in Bangladesh.”  Now, with the Rana Plaza disaster, that veil of ignorance has been breached, and anyone who is paying a modest amount of attention will not read such a label without at least wondering about whether this piece of clothing was made in a sweatshop like the one that killed hundreds last month.

Next, about authority.  The authorities in Bangladesh have not exactly covered themselves with glory either before or after the disaster.  They have pledged to increase inspection of potentially unsafe factories, to recruit more government inspectors, and to allow collective bargaining, among other things.  But pledges are one thing and actions are another.  It is obvious that whatever building codes were on the books in Dhaka, the suburb where the Rana Plaza was located, were either inadequate or inadequately enforced.  In the absence of governmental or other countervailing authority, the ironical Golden Rule applies:  those with the gold make the rules.  In this case, when the building engineer told the factory owners to evacuate, he was overruled, despite the fact that if he (or government agents) had had the authority to implement an evacuation unilaterally, the tragedy might well have been averted.

As we in the U. S. learned in numerous fires and mill collapses in the 1800s, the entire absence of any regulation of working conditions leads to a situation in which profits overpower all other considerations, and the system will provide economic incentives that push some owners to allow hazardous and exploitative conditions to go to the limit of disaster.  It happened here until laws were passed making such limit-testing illegal, and it will continue to happen in places like Bangladesh until authority structures are in place that provide harsh and prompt penalties for safety violations, so that it is not only immoral, but unprofitable, to operate in a way that endangers the lives of one’s employees. 

Sources:  I referred to news items in the online versions of USA Today at and  I also referred to a Huffington Post item at, and the Wikipedia articles on Lawrence, Massachusetts and the Pemberton Mill.  I also used statistics from a paper by Md Zafar Alam Bhuiyan in the IOSR Journal of Business and Management, vol. 3, pp. 38-44 (Sept. - Oct. 2012), which is available at