Archive for April, 2010


April 28, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Apr. 28, 2010

KAL 007

            In the month of September, temperatures in Moscow are beginning to move downward in anticipation of the coming snows, which usually begin by middle October. But on the evening of September 26, 1983 the summer weather, if perhaps a little humid, still lingered around the average of 61° F. That evening, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Force, was reporting for a twelve hour duty cycle at a top secret early warning radar center about thirty miles south of the city. The radar alert bunker, known as Serpukhov-15, was assigned a mission of watching for missile attack from the United States. Colonel Petrov reported at seven pm and was to take command of the facility until the following morning.

          At this moment, tensions between the Soviets and the U.S. were on a hair trigger alert. President Regan was advocating the Star Wars anti-missile defense system. The Soviets, always thinking in the most paranoid fashion, believed this system once deployed, would negate their ICBM arsenal during an attack. They reasoned that Star Wars was being built therefore, as a preparation for an American nuclear first strike against them. The only response to this situation in the Soviet mind was to strike the Americans first.  At this time, both countries shared in excess of 20,000 nuclear warheads between them. The Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, was an ex KGB Commandant. He was aging and very ill with kidney failure, and typified this traditional old-guard suspicion. He knew the Soviets were losing the technology race, and among the aging hard-line leaders fears of an American first strike were mounting.

          Suspicions had been heightened on both sides earlier in the month, when on September 1st, the Soviet Air Defense shot down a commercial airliner, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over prohibited airspace in the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 on board. Among the dead were 63 Americans, including a sitting member of the United States Congress, Lawrence McDonald. This incident seriously heightened international nuclear tensions, causing a crisis which nearly erupted into World War III. Let us begin our tale on the night of the mishap.

          On Sept.1, 1983, KAL 007 was en route from New York City to Seoul via Anchorage. It departed Anchorage at 4 a.m. Alaska time,  and was cleared to Seoul by Air Traffic Control (ATC) to maintain flight level 310 (31,000 ft). Three minutes later KAL set its autopilot to steer the flight over the ocean on heading 220. By 4:50 a.m. KAL 007 was at flight level, but King Salmon military radar (later) showed them at this time to be 12.6 nautical miles off course and north of the intended track.

          The 007 crew seemed unaware of this, even when they flew out of radio range, and unperturbed, asked another KAL flight following behind (KAL 015) to relay messages to ATC. At 6:51 a.m (Alaska time) KAL 007 entered Soviet airspace over the Kamchatka Peninsula. At 8:45 a.m. the flight re-entered international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk (see map). Four minutes later Soviet Air Defense scrambled two fighters to intercept although the flight was now again over neutral airspace. The 007 cockpit voice recorder showed normal chatter at this point in the flight, indicating the crew was unaware of the course error. (note: following the disaster the Soviets held the voice recorder for nine years before releasing it for examination after a change in government.)  

          The ground controllers seemed confused:

We don’t know what is happening now, it’s heading straight for our Island [Sakhalin]…this looks very suspicious to me…”

          The Commander of Air Defense, Far East, General Kamenski asks a rational question:

“…[should we] destroy it even if it is over neutral waters? Are the orders to destroy it over neutral waters?…”  

Base Commander at Sakhalin, General Kornukov, orders the interceptors not to approach from the rear because

“… Don’t forget it [target]  has cannons in the rear…”,

although the interceptors were not yet close enough to identify the flight in the darkness. Again Kornukov urges the fighters to speed up since the target is approaching the neutral zone.

          KAL 007 reports strong headwinds to ATC (possibly the cause for the off course condition). The Soviet fighters are reporting target’s course as 240 (not the intended 220).

          The aircraft was a Boeing 747, somewhat similar in appearance to a US Air Force RC-135. The flight was showing all its navigation lights and a blinking beacon. KAL 007 does not have transponders set to respond to Soviet fighter’s interrogation. The lead Soviet pilot informs ground controllers he sees a blinking beacon but in the darkness cannot identify the “target”.

          At 9:11 a.m. as the fighters are vectored in, the KAL crew is talking about exchanging money at the destination airport, and what is the exchange rate from Dollars to Korean.

          One Soviet General (Kamenski) is reacting with good sense despite the heat of the moment:

“We must find out, maybe it is some civilian craft or God knows who.”

He is contradicted by the Sakhelin Base Commander, General Kornukov:

What civilian? It has flown over Kamchatka! It came from the ocean without identification. I am giving the order to attack if it crosses the State border… the fighter is locked on at 6 km range…the target is not responding to identify…”

          9:14 pm, KAL 007 request an altitude change to level 350 due to winds. Tokyo ATC gives permission for level 330.

          9:15 Colonel Maistrenko, the Ops Duty Officer at Combat Control, attempts a moment of sanity:

“…[target] may be a passenger aircraft. All necessary steps must be taken to identify it…”

His answer is “Identification measures are being taken, but the pilot cannot see. It’s dark. Even now it’s still dark…”

Maistrenko replies “Well, okay. The task is correct. If there are no lights-it cannot be a passenger aircraft.”

This despite the fighter reporting seeing a beacon. Also the pilots were never asked whether navigation lights were showing.

          The lead fighter is at 2 km locked on with armed missiles. Suddenly 007 begins to climb for altitude change and consequently loses airspeed. The fighter jet loses position and falls behind. He has to maneuver for a better shot angle.

          Base Commander Kornukov gets angry. “…cut the horseplay at the command post, what is the noise I hear there? I repeat the order. Fire Missiles, fire on the target…”

He changes controllers to the second fighter, a Mig 23:

“Comply and get Tarasov in there…take control of the Mig 23…destroy the target !”

Controller: “Wilco…task received destroy the target with missile fire…”

Kornukov: “Carry out the task, destroy it… Oh, [expletive] how long does it take him to get into attack position. [target] is already getting out into neutral waters? Go to afterburner…while you are wasting time it will fly right out.”

          KAL 007, unaware of the impending disaster, reports reaching altitude 330 to ATC.

          At 9:26 pm The first fighter fires two missiles.

          At 9:26 pm, the KAL 007 cockpit recorder records the sound of an explosion. The Captain asks “What happened?”

          The crew of KAL 007 struggles with control for almost 5 minutes, but the aircraft loses altitude. At 9:30 pm KAL 007 is last seen by radar at Wakkanai losing altitude. Six minutes later the flight disappears from Soviet radar, last seen in a descending spiral.

          9:41 the air is silent except for Tokyo ATC:

“Tokyo radio to KAL 007. Korean Air zero zero seven this is Tokyo Radio request radio check. Tokyo requests radio check…”

          There is no answer.

          Soviet military dispatches a KGB helicopter to the sight. There is no public report whether anything is found.

           First the Soviet Union disclaimed any knowledge of the incident. Finally they admitted the attack, claiming the aircraft was on a spy mission. They impeded all international search and rescue operations. This incident caused intense anti-Soviet reaction in the U.S. and worldwide, escalating nuclear tensions between the two countries.

          It is in this hostile atmosphere that Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov reported to assume command of the radar alert center Serpukhov-15,  some three weeks later…

(to be continued…)


You can be Sure…

April 9, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 Charles Glassmire


Apr. 9, 2010

You Can Be Sure…

          We arrived back in Pittsburgh after the strange experience of having our first irradiation capsule experiment destroyed. The General Electric Test Reactor (GETR) had suffered a reactor SCRAM in the middle of the night shift and ruined the data on our test. Dave traveled back on the airplane still wearing the blue coveralls supplied by the reactor health physics team. It had the large white GE logo on the back, which he tried unsuccessfully to cover up with a sweater. The reactor team had confiscated the pants to his suit because they were contaminated with fission products. It looked pretty weird; blue coveralls and an orange sweater (with a football letter on the side). Needless to say, I refrained from laughing out loud. The pants were being held in a hot cell to measure the radiation half life, to see if they would ever become safe to release and wear.

            There were, of course many questions to be answered, and meetings and explanations to be made back at the Astronuclear Laboratory. GE and our Westinghouse team needed to know exactly what had happened to cause the emergency before we could plan to continue testing the other capsules.  Something very unusual had caused the reactor to SCRAM, and the GE Safety Committee would not allow the reactor to be restarted until a thorough investigation was made. The Operators Logbook would be examined, and records of every radiation detector in the system would be scanned to determine the origin and progress of the emergency. Many dollars had been lost and experiments ruined.

            A reactor SCRAM is not a usual event. The phrase “reactor SCRAM” had its curious origin back in the days of the Manhattan Project. In 1942 it was determined there would not be enough Uranium made in time for a second bomb. The second device was decided to be Plutonium, the first non-natural element recently discovered by Glen Seaborg at Berkley. Its existence was top secret and the element was referred to only by the code name “49”. Many names were considered for this new element, and the names of the planets were high on the list. Also considered, jokingly, was the name “Pandemonium”. It was rejected for the planet Pluto; yielding “Plutonium” instead.

            Plutonium 239  is made by bombarding U238 with neutrons. It’s not found in nature. You can’t dig it up out of a mine anywhere. So a big neutron source was needed to bombard Uranium and create enough Pu for the second bomb. (There was plenty of U238 around – it’s the principal isotope in natural Uranium). So Enrico Fermi was given a blank check to create a giant neutron source to bombard U238. He experimented at Columbia by stacking up graphite (a neutron moderator) bricks with U plugs in each brick, into a big pile and measuring the parameters. It came to be called just that, a “pile”.

          But where to put it? The University of Chicago had recently abandoned their football team, leaving them with a useless football stadium, Stagg Field, and an abandoned Squash Court under the West bleachers. It was the last place a spy might look to find a secret project.  So Fermi and his team of scientists constructed a pile there in the empty space of the squash court.

            By late 1942 the pile was ready to be tested. The device was named “Chicago Pile One” or CP-1 for short. Nobody had ever tried a controlled self sustaining chain reaction inside a pile of Uranium bricks before. Fermi’s team did the calculations, but theory and experiment often seriously diverge. So on Wednesday morning, December 2, 1942, a group of nervous scientists gathered at the Chicago Squash Court for the experimental start-up of the first nuclear reactor in history. 

            There was concern that the chain reaction might run out of control. One big control rod could be moved by hand to stop the reaction. If this failed, there were actually three guys in the court balcony with buckets of liquid Cadmiun salts (neutron absorbers) to throw onto the reactor bed. Finally, if this failed, a fellow named Norman Hilberry stood on top of the pile with a fire axe. If all else failed, he would use the axe to cut a rope which would allow a gravity driven “zip” rod to fall home into the reactor core to stop the reaction! Rube Goldberg had never imagined a better set of devices. Norman’s job title called him the “Safety Control Rod Axe Man”, or SCRAM man. But the pile start-up was flawless, and enough Plutonium was produced in the ensuing months without operation of the axe. The SCRAM acronym has stuck to this day in reactor operations, although the system is automatic now, and the fire axe for nuclear control has long disappeared into the annals of history.

            So back at Vallecitos, the GETR Safety Committee traced records on the progress of the SCRAM, and soon determined that the origin of the fission product release was in the Trail Cable Facility, releasing radioactive gases back up the tube and into the second floor air of the Containment; thus starting a cascade of alarms ending in an emergency reactor shutdown. Our own capsule had been the source of the problematic release!

            When the telephone call came in, we all were dumbfounded! What could have possibly gone wrong? The GE people were quite nice about the whole thing, but insisted we had to find the source of the problem before any more experiments could be run in our test series. They also told Dave that his “hot pants” had a relatively short half-life, and they would be releasable in a matter of months. Meanwhile, the GETR had been cleaned up and decontaminated and the reactor was now operating nicely once again. Decon was a relatively easy process in the steel interior of the Containment Vessel, and it wasn’t a rare occurrence in the test reactor.

            The failed capsule in question was now highly radioactive, so we had to examine it in a Hot Cell to shield from the radiation. We shipped it to a Metallographic Hot Cell facility, which is capable of doing close up photography of radioactive metals. Back during the assembly, the capsule had been sealed except for a small nipple and hole on the very end. It was then placed in a vacuum chamber and all gases pumped out. Then the hole had been carefully welded shut in vacuum by an experienced welder to preserve the vacuum inside. Upon polishing through this sealed weld and photographing each step of the way, a large crack was observed under the surface of the weld. This crack had opened up as the capsule heated up to white heat. This allowed fission product gases to escape into the cooling water flow in the Trail Cable tube, and out into the second floor air. It seemed our welder hadn’t been quite experienced enough. But it was a tough job on a tiny piece of metal in a vacuum chamber filled with the blinding welding arc. Mea Culpa.

            Several months went by, and one day an innocuous package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string, arrived from Vallecitos California, addressed to Dave. I walked it to his cubicle puzzled as to the contents. He took the package, and slowly unwrapped the paper, revealing his long lost suit pants! He happily shook them out and stood up to measure the condition, proudly holding the pants against his waist. Putting his hand in the pocket, he discovered a piece of note paper. He unfolded the note and read out loud in a disgusted voice the words

“YOU CAN BE SURE – IF IT’S WESTINGHOUSE! (From your friends at GE)”…

(to be continued…)