Monday, April 25, 2011

George C. Marshall and the World's First Gas Station

John Mclean's Plaque
On June 5, 1947, two seemingly unrelated events occurred on either side of the country.  In Seattle, a group of Standard Oil of California executives, a couple of reporters and a photographer gathered on the waterfront.  They stood before a plaque commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the world's first service station and talked about how remarkable the accomplishments had been, how far they had come and how bright the future was.

Seattle Times ad for opening of Standard Oil's
Newest Gasoline Station in Seattle, 1947

They thought about tomorrow, when they would go up to Sixth and Olive streets where their new, state of the art service station would open and wondered whether they should have rented the spotlight after all.  They thought of their late friend, John Mclean, head of sales for Washington state, who set up that first station just south of Safeco Field and had touted it as the first ever, though some people continued to claim that the first service station really belonged to St. Louis and, even worse, to a competitor, two years earlier.

"Hell," he might have said, "I'm just a salesman."

The price of gasoline at the hundreds of service stations then located in 1947 Puget Sound was about 15 cents a gallon. 

The other event was just getting underway in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  General George C.  Marshall, the Secretary of State, would soon speak at the Harvard University commencement.  He would unveil what came to be called the Marshall Plan, an enormous public investment to fund reconstruction of Europe through purchases of fuel, equipment and supplies that would avoid chaos in Europe and ensure its future prosperity, and ours. 

Sixty-one years later, the world economic order and the service station seem even more closely related.  Gasoline prices are surging.  If only inflation were at work on the price of gasoline, it would cost about $1.50/gallon today.  But the realities of oil's supply, demand and its myriad political considerations have a gallon of gas today at nearly four dollars. 

We are at the edge of a fundamental crisis that is driving a core change in our basic transportation fuel from petroleum to cleaner electricity, but we also see that the change is coming far to slowly to move us beyond the reach of old, autocratic men in otherwise irrelevant places.

While slow, we can sense it is very big and that it will help define the future of our planet as well as our own prosperity and national security.  We're impatient to move in this new direction because it affects our own well-being and that of our country.

But all we can do now is note how violently the center of the oil universe is shaking and find in Marshall's brief remarks the unveiling of a truly big idea at the time all of Europe was shaking even more.  Like all big ideas, it speaks across time and addresses the landscape in front of us as clearly as it addressed the broken images in front of him.

"The consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all.  It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.  Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.  Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. 

"We are remote from the scene of these troubles.  It is virtually impossible at this distance by reading, or listening, or even seeing photographs and motion pictures, to grasp at all the real significance of the situation.  And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment."

Read the text of Marshall's Harvard speech or listen to it. 

Idaho National Labs' Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity, everything you want to know about how electric cars are doing on the road

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Earthquake That Wouldn't Stay Put

It all started with the Hydro-Thermal program, a very big 1950s idea that ultimately crashed very hard in the 1980s with the largest municipal bond failure in the history of the country.  The big idea was that the Northwest electrical need was growing quickly and the Columbia River was all dammed up and our electrical growth would soon outpace our ability to make enough of it.  So, to save the aluminum industry, to serve customers whose demand, according to the forecasters, would triple in the 20 years between 1970 and 1990, the engineers driving the power system proposed building more than 20 nuclear and coal plants along with 20 or so new dams. 
We'll return to Hydro-Thermal one day, but this story is about an unintended consequence of it – the demand for seismic knowledge in the Northwest that went through the roof as project sponsors sought to license new facilities throughout the region.   It was a great season to be an earthquake guy.  Better yet, we are safer today because of the sophisticated knowledge of our seismic character kicked off by this gold rush for new electrons.
Monte Dolack Poster used in campaign
to stop Skagit nuclear plants.
Building a nuclear power plant requires an analysis of the biggest earthquake in the past that might affect the structural capabilities of a plant in the future.  With potential sites scattered all around the region, one engineering company’s placement of the epicenter of an event became an increased risk to other engineering companies and their plant-building clients.  That’s what happened to the earthquake of 1872, likely the biggest earthquake in the interior of the state of Washington.
Our story starts with Puget Sound Power and Light, today's Puget Sound Energy, working against considerable local opposition to build two nuclear plants near Burlington in Skagit County. 
Conventional wisdom, and a Canadian seismologist named W. G. Milne, had the epicenter of the 1872 quake about a hundred miles east of Vancouver, near Hope, on the west side of the mountains and uncomfortably close to Puget’s project. 
Puget's seismic consultant, Bechtel, countered with a report that featured the big slide at Entiat, the one, they said, that blocked the Columbia River on the night of December 14, 1872.  There was native oral tradition of such a slide and the engineers knew that only a big shocker like '72 could cause such a signal event.  There was also a pattern of aftershocks that pointed to the Ribbon Cliffs epicenter, at a place called Earthquake Point.

That was all very compelling unless you happened to be the Washington Public Power Supply System and you were building a clutch of nuclear plants near Richland.  Suddenly, the big earthquake that was 300 hundred miles away and across the Cascade Mountain Range was located just 120 miles distant up State Highway 97. 
In 1872, people had no technology to measure the intensity of an earthquake.  In fact, a measure of our pre-Hydro-Thermal seismic maturity is that there were just three seismographs in Washington and three in British Columbia as late as 1969.   The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network has a different story today, thanks, in part, to our Hydro-Thermal friends.

We understand an earthquake that happened long ago by using one of the oldest technologies available to us, the observations of people describing what they see, hear and feel.  The tool is called the Modified Mercalli Scale and it has a twelve level description of an event, starting with something that might be felt on the second story of a wood frame building (II), to something that feels like a passing truck, or maybe some dishes rattle (IV), to something felt by everyone inside and outside the house with people unsteady on their feet, scared, with pictures falling off walls (VI).  (USGS Description)
Seismic monitoring today
These felt events are researched and plotted throughout the region, using newspaper accounts, diaries and oral communications. Many are related by the person who experienced it but also sometimes recounted second, even third hand.  There were few people in the parts of the Northwest that harbored the epicenter of 1872, but its effects were felt over the entire Northwest.  One man in Olympia, a steamboat captain named Lawson, had a watch perched on his vest pocket and looked at it when he felt the first bump:
"Shock occurred precisely at 9h.40 1/2m P.M.  It commenced with a light movement, gradually increasing for 18-20 seconds.  Then came the heavy shock, lasting four or five seconds; then it gradually decreased.  In six minutes after the first shock there was another, followed by two others one minute apart."
For every seasoned observer like Lawson, there was a man like Mr. McBride, a rancher, who with a partner had a spread three miles from the mouth of the Wenatchee River.  Their narrative was reported by the Portland Herald, many weeks after the event:
"They immediately sprang from their couch and were about donning their clothes when they were thrown to the floor in a rather sudden manner ... He turned to his partner and hastily informed him of his options, advising that they should leave." 
The more McBride observed, the greater the saga.  Soon, mountains were collapsing about him, rivers rose several feet in a few minutes and a great noise in the mountains, like the "simultaneous discharge of artillery," rattled the night. 
Research on McBride also showed that he was awaiting trial in Yakima at the time of the earthquake and had several convictions in his past.  He was convicted of selling liquor to the Indians after the earthquake, put in jail in Yakima, but broke out and fled to Canada.  Whatever his veracity as a witness, researchers apparently believed he had been thrown off his feet, a characteristic of a Modified Mercalli VIII, which they set as the intensity at Wenatchee.  
Soon after Bechtel's report, a team of scientists representing the WPPSS nuclear project began picking away at the theory that the landslide at Ribbon Cliffs occurred at the same time as the earthquake. 
They presented evidence based upon ash falls from two different St.  Helen's eruptions that the slide could have occurred as much as 100 years before the 1872 quake or, within a 14 year band before and after 1872.   In addition, they asserted that the real cause of the slide was not the earthquake but erosion at the foot of the cliff.

A Native American named Wapato John reported in 1891, 19 years after the quake, that he remembers the river filling up for hours after a big slide which he attributed to the earthquake. Notwithstanding Mr.  John, the new work done on the slide cause was helpful to the arguments of UW seismologists Malone and Bor who, in 1979, moved the epicenter west again, across the Cascades, near Ross Lake, 50 miles North of Puget's project.

Enter University of Washington Professor Howard A.  Coombs.  Coombs was the emeritus Chair of the University of Washington's Geology Department and possessed vast experience working on many of the Columbia River dams as well as in Japan, where he served as the geological advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander, Douglas MacArthur.  He had just closed out his service as head of a special panel investigating the causes of the Tieton Dam disaster when he was asked once more to lead a panel of experts, this time to figure out where the 1872 earthquake was centered.
It was an artful settlement, described by Eric S.  Cheney, Emeritus Professor of the UW College of the Environment, as: 
"The utilities subsequently convened a 'blue ribbon panel' that placed the epicenter between Earthquake Point (Ribbon Cliffs) and Hope -- east of the crest but sufficiently distant from Hanford."
Just one of the nuclear plants remain, but the fascination with 1872 remains.  A group of USGS scientists had another crack at the earthquake in 2001.  They moved it north and a bit and east, about 20 miles from Entiat at the south end of the lake, near the city of Chelan.  There it slumbers, trembling, until the Chelan Chamber of Commerce hires its own geologist.


As always happens when doing research, you find a couple of gems. 

First, there is UW Professor Eric S.  Cheney's Northwest Geological Society's Field Trip Guide Book #24 called "Floods, Flows, Faults, Glaciers, Gold and Dneisses, From Quincy to Chelan to Wenatchee."  It's a gem that will allow you to follow specific roads and road miles to some of the geologic miracles that he describes.  It's loaded up on my hand held for my next trip east.  (Cheney's Field Trip)

Second, there is the General Accounting Office June, 1967 report on the Hydro-Thermal Project.  It is an amazing documentation of the thinking at the time and how wildly off the electrical industry was and how much it has improved forecasting techniques.  (1967 GAO Report on Hydro-Thermal)

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Cap" Hampson and the 150th Anniversary of the Fort Sumter Shelling

In memory of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, The Cascadia Courier will be sharing parts of an unpublished memoir written by my great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Hampson.  In this post he will describe how news of the shelling of Fort Sumter arrived on April 12, 150 years ago, and how the news affected him and his young friends attending Farmer’s College in Covington, Ohio, a few miles from Cincinnati.

We’ll read how he and his best friend volunteered and headed off by train to Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania to become members of Company D of the Fourth US Cavalry. 

His enlistment date was May 21, 1861 and we’ll pick up that story next month on that date as the boys from Farmer’s College recoil at the bad food, the hard beds and a mean sergeant at Carlisle Barracks.

Later, in the summer, we’ll follow him into western Missouri where his unit is involved in several skirmishes and then in the first major battle in the west, Wilson’s Creek, where he is seriously wounded, left for dead, captured by the confederates and imprisoned in the Greene County Courthouse in Springfield, Missouri.

Don't worry.  He escapes, an 80 pound 19-year old, recuperates and rejoins the Union Army, serving to the end of the war. 

Hampson started writing the piece in 1900 when he was 58 years of age and living in Bonanza, Colorado, 15 miles south and east of Salida, where his extended family ran a grocery store.

That's Cap in the center with the beard, Alice at his left. 
My Mom is on camera right in the second row.
“Cap” was his nickname, though it didn’t come from his military service although, after he rejoined, he was given a commission by General Halleck.  The name comes from what he did immediately after the war, running a steam tug hauling lumber and other products around Pensacola Bay.  He didn’t find much fortune in Florida, failing at his first attempt to make a go of his maritime business, but he did find his wife, Alice Elmira Knapp, with whom he had seven children.  They bumped around some – farming in Texas a couple of years, and then heading back down to Florida for another try running a tugboat.  It sank in a storm.

That led him to Colorado for the silver mining, which turned out pretty good. Good enough for him to follow current events from his porch in Bonanza, comment on them periodically in the "Salida Record," and watch his sons marry well and grow the grocery business into a fleet of Piggly Wigglys in the western United States.  Unfortunately, just like Cap's tugs, all but two of them, the Crescent City, California store and the one in Medford, Oregon sank in the hard times after World War I.  Cap Hampson died in 1930.

Unfortunately for us, when Cap rejoined the Civil War after his recuperation, he sums up the additional two years of his military career in just one paragraph, though it names battles like Memphis, Shiloh, the march across Kentucky, Howell Mountain and others.  Sounds like nothing added up to his experiences in Missouri, or perhaps the sum of it all was just too big and too ugly, even though he was wounded four other times, to tell what he liked most, an entertaining and enthusiastic story. 

Following him through the war, in August, we will get to know Missouri pretty well -- how it developed as a slave state through immigration from the south, and grew into a free state when immigrants from Germany, holding strong anti-slavery views, changed the political demographics, kicked out the south-leaning governor and put a free-stater in.  Even so, the 13th star in the Stars and Bars, the Confederate flag, was Missouri's, though never recognized by the state or the North.

Cap had a few issues as a writer. Clearly, he needed an editor when he sent along his material to the Salida Record. He misspells Fort Sumter, as in the pump, Fort Sumpter, and he has the date wrong, saying that the shelling came April 19, not, as is correct, April 12. He is thrilled to meet General John C. Fremont, but spells him as "Freemont." As a recruit, he takes the railroad to his training site in Pennsylvania, Carlisle Barracks, P.A.  All the punctuation, spelling, and grammar is his.  Nor have I edited his text.  This is what he recounted about the start of the Civil War.

"The Captain"
Thomas Jefferson Hampson

Farmer's College

The morning of April 19, 1861 arose bright and clear.  All was quiet and peaceful in our little village.  No one dreamed that before night, the peaceful calm would be turned into a scene of excitement and turmoil never before witnessed within its quiet borders.

A horseman, one of the residents of College Hill, who had gone to Cincinnati quite early, came dashing into town and gave the startling and thrilling news that Fort Sumpter had been fired upon and the shot that had been heard around the world had been fired by a traitor’s hand.

Major Anderson and his heroic band was at that moment surrounded by a fire, shot and shell was decimating the ranks of the noble defenders of our beloved flag – the Stars and Stripes; that emblem of the free and brave, was in danger of being hauled down from the place it had floated for years, and trained in the dust by our own citizens.

Among the college students, it came as a thunderclap from a clear sky – books were thrown aside and the only question that occupied our minds was the probability of a Civil war in America.  There were about fifty students at the college from the south, and they naturally sided with the South.  As the politicals say, party lines were drawn, resulting a number of knock down arguments.  All the Northern students were brimful to overflowing with patriotism, and each one imagined himself a hero with a thousand scalps of the hated rebels dangling in his belt.

I was thoroughly imbued with the war spirit and made up my mind that I would be one of the first to enlist in the defense of the flag.  Our motto was, “Our Union Must and Shall be Preserved.”

My favorite chum at that time was a student by the name of John Sheppard; he was just as enthusiastic as myself.  After a long and serious consultation, we agreed to leave the College and enlist in the Union army.

The President of the College, Professor James Tuckerman, did all in his power to persuade us to reconsider our determination.  It was of no use, as we had fully made up our mind and no argument could change our patriotic intentions.
Volunteers crossing into Cincinnati to enlist
 Arriving at home, I was up against a snag that I had not counted on, or reckoned in my calculations, my mother’s consent to my becoming a bold soldier boy.  I was yet a minor and it was necessary to gain her consent before I could enlist.  It was a long and hard struggle, but, at last, after trying to impress upon her mind that the salvation of the whole country depended upon my joining the army, she gave a very reluctant consent. 

The following day, we packed our belongings, bade all the boys “good-bye” and were off for the war.  Blow high or blow low, we were determined to fight and fight we did.  I might add here without fear of digression, we got all the fight wanted before Robert E.  Lee handed General U.S.  Grant his sword under the celebrated apple tree.

President Lincoln had issued a call for 75,000 volunteers.  Recruiting was going on in all the Northern states.  The sound of fife and drum, the tramp of armed men were familiar sounds.  Preparation for the great struggle was the scene on every hand.  The North was determined that the Union and the Constitution would be upheld.  The South was just as determined that it should be destroyed.

After persuading mother to let me enlist, John and I concluded to join a volunteer regiment.  We had a friend in the regular Cavalry Service acting as recruiting sergeant in Cincinnati and he persuaded us to join the regular Cavalry.  He gave us a glowing description of all the glories and pleasures to be met up with on the regular Cavalry and we, like a precious pair of chumps, swallowed all he sold.  If he ever gets forgiveness for the all outrageous lies he told us two suckers he will be a dandy.  He was a monumental liar as we found out before we had been in the service very long.
Drilling Infantry
After entering, we set off with about one hundred recruits were sent off to Carlisle Barracks, P.A.  Our trip to that delectable village was an ovation all along the route.  Patriotic young ladies with flowers, miniature flags, and good things for the inner man were in evidence at every station along the route, which, of course, was very pleasing to our vanity.  Each individual recruit imagined himself a hero of the first magnitude; that all this display was for his special benefit, allowing his egotistical powers full sway. 

Oh, what a lot of conceited Jack Napes we were to be sure; as we passed through all these scenes of popular demonstrations of loyalty to every mother’s son of us, pictured out in his own mind the many wonderful deeds of daring and valor we would perform when we were confronted on the battlefield by the enemies of our country.  We would mow them down!  Whole regiments at one full swoop, taking prisoners by the Brigades, ending the war in a few months.  Come home gallantly marching with a double star of a Mayor General adorning each shoulder.  Well, did we do it?  Were all of our dreams of success realized?
If I remember right, we did not.  In our high flights of fancy we never once asked ourselves this most important question.  “What would the other fellow be doing all this time?”  “Would they tamely submit to capture and slaughter, without striking back at the foe?”

A million dead men that wore the blue and the gray gave a silent and emphatic denial to this question.  We met foemen worthy of our steel; brave and gallant men they were, even though they were fighting in an unholy cause.  They thought they were right; thinking thus, fought and died for the belief.
(On May 21, this blog will publish TJ Hampson's experiences at the Carylisle Barracks, 150 years after he lived them).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

How long will it take to clean up the Chernobyl mess and put it away?

The images of the nuclear power plants in Japan keep taking me back to Chernobyl.

This month is the 25th anniversary of the steam explosion at Chernobyl early in the morning of April 26, 1986.  As the problems in Japan get worse, I wonder what will happen when CNN and the world go away, the Tokyo Electric Power Company is nationalized and we turn this over to the engineers and technocrats in Japan and in the world community.

The only real example we have is Chernobyl and a review of what has been done over the past twenty five years offers a grim picture of the years to come in Japan. 

As part of the emergency response, the Soviet government hastily completed, in October of 1986, a steel and concrete structure that entombed the still hot pile.  The pile contained 200 tons of material and close to a ton of radio-nuclides, unstable elements which emit powerful gamma rays for a long time.  Most of the radio-nuclides at Chernobyl are plutonium, among the most dangerous materials that exist.   Part of the Chernobyl plant’s mission was to supply the Soviet military with plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Around these materials are a crumbling sarcophagus, a legacy of abandoned communities, relentless expense, technical failure, amazing politics and a numbing inertia.   My last post talked about Chernobyl’s heroism.  This story is about the decades-long effort of trying to pick up Chernobyl and put it away.

According to the European Bank for Social Development, the administrator of a fund for stabilizing the Chernobyl site, the government of Ukraine, where the plant was located, was spending up to 5% of its Gross Domestic Product in the year 2000, 14 years after the incident, on the social, health and environmental consequences of the explosion.  Next door neighbor Belarus, down wind, was spending even an even higher percentage of its wealth.


The plant operators' town of Pripyat, population 45,000, closed the day after the accident and people were evacuated.  By the middle of May, a zone 18 miles wide was established that would relocate 116,000 people.  In subsequent years, another 220,000 people were relocated and the exclusion zone extended from 1680 square miles to 2600.  

In January, 2008, the Ukraine government announced a decommissioning plan that includes repopulating some of the contaminated areas.  The government sees the regional economy as driven by agriculture and forestry.  Initial infrastructure requirements will mean the refurbishment of gas, potable water and power systems.  The burning of local wood will be banned and the eating of some wild foods, like mushrooms, strongly discouraged.

More than 21,000 homes would be connected to gas networks in the period 2011-2015 while another 5600 contaminated or broken down buildings are demolished. Over 1300 kilometres of road and ten new sewage works and 15 pumping stations are planned. The feasibility of agriculture will be examined in areas where the presence of caesium-137 and strontium-90 is low, "to acquire new knowledge in the fields of radiobiology and radioecology in order to clarify the principles of safe life in the contaminated territories," says the report.

The World Health Organization has estimated that 1,000 people suffered substantial radiation exposure and 4,000 people will eventually die as a result of cancers, mainly thyroid, caused by fallout, about the same number of people who die annually in China mining coal.  Many people dispute the WHO estimates and the Internet is alive with a much more massive Chernobyl tragedy.

The Site

In the mid-90s, the international community began to pressure Ukraine to shut the three remaining units in the complex because of design flaws with the plants and concerns about the stability of the sarcophagus surrounding Unit Four.   But closing the plants was a tough sell as they created half the electricity for the country.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, a series of disputes with Russia over natural gas made it difficult to pursue natural gas plants as replacement power.  Ukraine would build three new pressurized water reactors after its Independence.

Meantime, the RBMK (reaktor bolshoy moshchnosty kanalny) or high-power channel reactor, went through numerous upgrades of its safety technologies though the design still lacks a containment vessel, the part of the plant that saved the day at Three Mile Island.  Today, 11 RBMK reactors are operating, all within the former Soviet Union.  If current schedules are kept, the last four will be decommissioned in the 2020-2025 time frame.

As part of the negotiation, the international community committed to the decommissioning of the remaining reactors.  That means stabilizing and storing the fuel rods of the now closed reactors, which have been sitting in their spent fuel pools for the better part of 15 years.   The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, working with money donated by several counties will supervise the decommissioning.

The rods are currently in water and other “wet” storage facilities, but will now be stored in dry cement casks, a technique called Dry Cask Storage.  The fuel rod assemblies will be dried and disassembled before being put in the closed casks.  Sixteen donors have contributed 320 million Euros specifically to this end.  The contract to actually build and accomplish this task was signed last month.  That’s right.  Last month.

It was supposed to be done much earlier, but a contract let in 1999 to process the 25,000 fuel assemblies in the Chernobyl complex was cancelled in 2007 because technical difficulties emerged.  Nearly all of the structures for this task were complete at the time of cancellation.  The new contract calls for an interim spent fuel facility to be completed in 2014 with permanent facilities coming later.

If all goes well, the threat of Chernobyl to the world will be nearly over by 2017, though several activities will go on for the next 100-300 years.  The vehicles for this accomplishment are called, in Europeonese, The New Self Confinement, which permanently entombs the remains of Plant Four and the Spent Fuel Storage Facility, the site where the spent fuel rods will be safely quarantined and where the structures will be disassembled and/or processed.

The remainder of the Chernobyl Safety Fund – nearly 700 million Euros – will turn the entire complex into an environmentally safe site.  It will prevent water from intruding and dust, contaminated with Cesium, from dispersing.  It will deconstruct the existing structure which will be laid down within the site or processed inside the New Safe Confinement. 

The design contract was signed in 2007 and the driving of the pilings for the foundations of the two 50 ton capacity cranes started in 2010.  Construction will start in 2012 and the facility will operate for 100 years.