The Science Behind “America Declassified” – Bayou Sinkhole

14 12 2013


The Worst-Case Scenario

Having taken an in-depth look at the tragic salt-cavern sinkhole in Bayou Corne as a scientist-host for the Travel Channel series, “America Declassified,” it is clear it me that the situation there is truly a perfect storm of physical and chemical hazards.

Now, in order to demonstrate this reality, allow me to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

The Nuclear Option

In today’s cultural climate, most perceive there to be no greater environmental hazard than high-level nuclear waste.  However, if it had been nuclear waste bottled up thousands of feet beneath Bayou Corne, and not fossil fuels, I contend that no one would have ever had to evacuate at all.

In essence, radioactive waste could have saved Bayou Corne.

Controversial?  Perhaps.  But it all comes down to the simplest of physics principles: Buoyancy.

Hydrocarbons float.  They’re lighter than water, hence the sheen observed on puddles, streams, lakes, and oceans after a spill.  Conversely, the great majority of radioactive materials manifest as heavy metals.  They do not float.  In fact, they sink like anchors.

So, had even the most fearsome nuclear waste been stored in or near the doomed cavern, because the collapse took place thousands of feet beneath the surface, the disaster as it unfolded would have looked entirely different.

An Alternate-Reality View

In a parallel universe where there were no hydrocarbons near the salt dome, and instead the nation dumped several thousands of tons of nuclear waste in the cavern, let’s take a look at what would have happened:

First, there would have been no bubbling preceding the sinkhole opening up, as no fossil fuels would have been available to float to the surface.  Then, there would be no “burping” of toxic hydrocarbons that according to many have contaminated the region’s shallow aquifer and water supply.

Next, the lack of the many chemical threats from methane and hydrogen sulfide, (i.e., being poisonous, corrosive, flammable and explosive), means that the primary driver for the community’s evacuation order would not have existed.  (Note: Radioactive material is not explosive, corrosive, or flammable.)

Finally, this all means that while the residents remained, there would have been no need for vent wells, flare wells, or the crisscrossing  networks of hoses and pipes to connect them across streets and through neighborhoods – eyesores and constant reminders of the current lurking chemical threat beneath Bayou Corne.

The disaster would have simply appeared as a new lake appearing nearby, one which has expanded away from the town as the disturbed earth beneath settled.

Without hydrocarbon contamination, this new lake would be safe to boat, fish, and swim in after the ground beneath finishes settling.  It would have simply served as a somber reminder of the need to better understand the environment of our natural resources before harvesting them while marking the silent, entombed radioactive waste sitting nearly a mile below.

Quite a different scenario than that facing the residents of Bayou Corne today, and all the more reason to keep critical thinking alive when assessing our environment, the best ways to preserve it as a resource, and the possible effects of our activities on Planet Earth!

Semper Exploro – Always Explore.
Ben McGee

NASTAR: Day 0 – Part 2

9 05 2011

Finally.  I never thought I’d be so happy to see one of these guys:

Managing to keep an entire bottle of fluid down through the final few hours of the flight and during the hour-or-so drive to Warminster, PA, (while thwarting my smartphone GPS’s diabolical scheme to get me permanently lost in a sea of obscure surface streets,) I hit this beautiful hotel at about 1:00 a.m. local time.  -Decompressing and a little Skype back home, and I’m now hitting the pillow about 2:00 a.m.

Four-and-a-half hours until the alarm goes off.  I can’t wait.

I’ll have a debrief post around 5:30 p.m. eastern-time tomorrow (today)!

Bigelow Aerospace in talks for ISS spot, pulls fast one on NASA…

31 01 2011

Cutaway of NASA's TransHab module, father of Bigelow Aerospace technology, docked with the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

I have been staggeringly busy of late, so this post will only be a brief one.  There is much in the works.  (More on that soon.)

In any event, I was stunned to read last week (in a piece from renowned space reporter Leonard David from that NASA is in talks to purchase an inflatable module from Bigelow Aerospace for the International Space Station.

In all senses, this is a complete coup.  Why?  -The technology Bigelow Aerospace purchased and developed for their inflatable habitats was based on NASA’s TransHab, which itself was an inflatable module designed to be tested on the International Space Station(!).  (For those unfamiliar, TransHab was intended to be a forerunner for future Mars and deep-space astronaut habitats.)

Bigelow is selling NASA’s abandoned technology back to them.  It’s brilliant! 

-And, I might add, this is just another instance of a NewSpace corporate space endeavor outpacing government-run space activity.  If these talks prove fruitful, I think having rescued politically-torpedoed technology and successfully developing it means that the business case for NewSpace has been completely proved out. 

Where bureaucracy and politics fail, private industry can succeed.

Two cents.

Bigelow Aerospace's BA 330 inflatable module. Note the distinct family resemblance to TransHab, with Mars in the background, to boot! (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

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