Photo: Our own nuclear event

The cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., on March 30, 1979, two days after a partial core meltdown. Photo: AP/Barry Thumma

In the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, a mechanical failure at the Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island began a chain reaction of events that led to the worst accident in the history of U.S. nuclear power industry.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station is located on an island in the Susquehanna River, south of Harrisburg, Pa. The plant had been operating for five years, Unit 2 for only one year,  when at approximately 4 a.m., the main feed water pumps stopped running, which prevented steam generators from removing heat from the reactor. The reactor automatically shut down, but pressure in the nuclear portion of the plant began to increase. To prevent excessive pressure buildup, a pilot-operated relief valve opened, but failed to close again once the pressure decreased. Because of confusing and contradictory instruments, operators at the plant were unaware that the valve was stuck open, and as a result, radioactive cooling water drained out and caused the core of the reactor to overheat. During the early stages of the accident, the core suffered a partial meltdown as about one-half of the fuel pellets melted, but it did not breach the walls of the containment building.

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As NATO takes over in Libya, what’s the endgame?

Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, during a press briefing on Libya at the Pentagon Thursday. Photo: AP/Department of Defense, Cherie Cullen

Updated | March 25 When the United States and its allies began bombing Libya five days ago, there were plenty of easy marks to be had.

“Early on, we had many fixed sites which we knew we could target,” General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a briefing at a naval air base in Italy Thursday. “There are not so many of those left.”

The allied bombing campaign, with its hundreds of Tomahawk missiles and fighter jets, has effectively wiped out the Libyans’ air defense systems and grounded the regime’s warplanes. What are left, experts say, are so-called “dynamic” targets, such as tanks and armed infantry that are moving from one city to the next.

And those are much harder to hit.

“It’s the most difficult target that we have because they are in and around the built-up areas of Libya,” Ham said. “Our concern for not causing civilian casualties makes that a particularly difficult target set for us.”

The challenge points up a broader concern for coalition forces as they transfer command of the allied mission in Libya from the U.S. to NATO: how to balance the narrow military objectives authorized by the United Nations Security Council with the more ambitious goal of ousting Moammar Gadhafi.

As military commanders have said repeatedly in recent days, their mission is not to target the Libyan autocrat. The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizes the use of force only to protect civilians. And Arab leaders, including NATO member Turkey, have expressed opposition to expanding the bombing campaign beyond its initial scope.

Now that NATO has agreed to take full command not only of the no-fly zone but of the overall mission in Libya, a more aggressive military campaign seems unlikely. As a senior administration put it Thursday, France, Britain and the U.S. — which have all called for the Gadhafi regime to go — are no longer calling the shots. “When it comes to deciding on what will or will not happen within a NATO operation, that gets done in Brussels,” the administration official said.

Those constraints present a political dilemma for President Obama and his European allies. If recent developments on the ground are any indication, air power alone may not be enough to fundamentally shift the balance of power in Libya. By their own admission, rebel forces remain disorganized and poorly trained, and Gadhafi’s loyalists have been relentless in their attacks on opposition strongholds such as Misrata and Ajdabiya.

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‘The Wire,’ now readable as a Victorian novel

“The word I’m thinking about is ‘Dickensian.’ We want to depict the Dickensian lives of city children and then show clearly and concisely where the school system has failed them.”

These words are spoken by James Whiting, the very fictional executive editor of the very real Baltimore Sun on episode two of the fifth season of HBO’s “The Wire.” Whiting is asking his editorial staff to focus their efforts on a new investigative piece on Baltimore’s flagging education system. When certain members of the staff counter that there are many factors contributing to the turmoil of the city’s children, Whiting retorts, “What do you want? An educational project or a litany of excuses? I don’t want some amorphous series detailing society’s ills. If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.”

“The Wire” itself is sometimes thought of as a show with a Dickensian bent, investigating the social strata of one city, as opposed to one singular character. That may be true to some extent, though the show’s creator, David Simon, might balk at it.

In an interview with Vice, Simon said, “The thing that made me laugh about it with Dickens was that Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, ‘But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.’ In the end, the guy would punk out.”

This comparison shines through in an oddly brilliant new deconstruction of “The Wire” in a post on The Hooded Utilitarian by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson. “‘When It’s Not Your Turn’: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s ‘The Wire’” re-imagines the television show as a serialized Victorian novel written by Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, a fictional contemporary of Dickens. The post presents itself as an essay on the works of Ogden, complete with photocopies of pages from the “original novel.”

Delyria and Robinson note the troubles “The Wire” faced with Victorian readers, which humorously mirror the problems that the show faced with modern viewing audiences: “Though critics lauded it, the general public found the initial installments slow and difficult to get into, while later installments required intimate knowledge of all the pieces which had come before.”

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Photo: Armed support for allies

A gun was handed over to a Libyan boy during a rally in support of the allied air campaigns against the troops of Moammar Gadhafi in Benghazi, eastern Libya, on March 23. Photo: AP/Anja Niedringhaus

Photo: Penguins in peril

Three crude-oil-coated rockhopper penguins on the island chain of Tristan da Cunha in this image made available by Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on March 22, 2011. Photo: AP/Trevor Glass, RSPB

On this day in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill blanketed the area around Prince William Sound in a thick layer of destructive sludge. While no longer the record holder for the largest oil disaster in the United States — that honor goes to last year’s Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico — images of polluted marine life have come to symbolize the dangers of overdependence on crude oil. Today brings more images of sea animals in peril, this time from the South Atlantic.

The MS Olivia, a Malta-registered cargo ship carrying 66,000 tons of soya beans and 1,650 tons of crude oil, ran aground last week in a remote British South Atlantic archipelago and broke in two. The ship was traveling from Brazil to Singapore when it struck Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha chain, resulting in a 13-kilometer-wide oil slick that has since encircled the island. Nightingale Island is home to more than 200,000 endangered northern rockhopper penguins, almost half of the species’ global population. More than 20,000 penguins are estimated to have been affected, and rescue workers have already gathered about 500 oil-coated birds.

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U.S. is due for a sizable quake, but not because of Japan’s

Image adapted from U.S. Geological Survey seismic hazard map released in 2008.

Yes, a quake of at least 6.7 magnitude will likely hit the United States soon, experts say, but the disaster in Japan is not an indication that said quake will hit any sooner.

The West Coast is home to two geologic features that make it ripe for major temblors: the San Andreas fault in California and the Cascadia subduction zone in the Pacific Northwest. Both have lain silent for more than a century. Is the U.S. overdue?

Many experts think the answer is “possibly, yes.” The U.S. Geological Survey says there is a 99 percent probability that California, in particular, will experience a  6.7 or higher magnitude quake in the next 25 to 30 years. The probability of a quake of 7.5 or higher in that time frame is 46 percent.

Despite speculation to the contrary, however, the recent disasters in Japan, Chile, New Zealand and Haiti haven’t done anything to increase the odds.

During the week and a half since Japan was shaken by the 9.0-magnitude quake, many academics and science journalists have appeared on television discussing the Ring of Fire, a collection of tectonic plates under the Pacific that includes, among others, the Pacific plate, the Nazca plate (off the western coast of South America) and the Filipino plate (off the eastern coast of the Philippines). The question is frequently posed: Does increased activity in one part of the “Ring” have an affect on the other parts?

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Photo: A super-size scrub

Sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan scrubbed the external surfaces on the flight deck and island superstructure to remove potential radiation contamination on March 23, 2011. Photo: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Nicholas A. Groesch

Air operations aboard the USS Ronald Reagan were temporarily halted today so more than 300 crew members could clean the ship of potential contamination from a radioactive plume off the coast of Japan on March 13. The mast-to-deck scrubdown was conducted mainly using high-pressure sprayers, brooms and seawater.

The aircraft carrier was 100 miles from the Fukushima nuclear power plant when it encountered the low-level radiation plume emitted by the plant. The radiation levels were determined to be low enough to continue humanitarian operations aboard the ship, including serving as a floating refueling station for the Japan Self-Defense Force in Operation Tomodachi (Operation Friendship).

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Tsunami warning center submerged in budget debate

A buoy device used to help detect tsunamis. Photo: International Tsunami Information Centre

HONOLULU — When the tectonic plates under the Pacific shifted last week, the event set off a now well-documented chain of  events, ending in unprecedented disaster. But in the moments just after the quake, it was up to a small group of scientists to determine what the immediate impact would be, and to warn people around the  world.

Those scientists, from the U.S. National Weather Service’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, are now caught up in a political debate that reaches from the halls of Congress to the battered shores of northern Japan.

Just moments after the earthquake struck, the warning center’s deep ocean sensor detected it and transmitted the information to the center’s headquarters in Hawaii. Director Chip McCreery lives just 50 feet from the monitoring station, and when he heard about the quake, he rushed over. Within an hour, all 12 members of the duty staff, including nine Ph.D. scientists, were there as well.

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How much radiation is too much? A handy guide

Japan’s nuclear crisis has understandably induced a panic over leaking radiation and the potential danger it poses to human health. The Japanese government has interrupted food shipments of tainted milk and spinach, and radiation has been found in the seawater near the Fukushima plant. Although health authorities have stressed that much of this radiation poses minimal danger to human health, the idea of any radiation emanating from a nuclear accident is worrying. Some Americans have been requesting potassium iodide pills, and Geiger counters have sold out in Paris.

People safely absorb small levels of radiation every day. Plants, rocks and even human bodies give off radiation. But how much radiation is normal? Randall Munroe, the mind behind the brilliantly nerdy stick figures in the web comic XKCD, has tried to answer that question. He recently drew an extremely helpful graphic comparing the radiation levels of common activities like getting a medical scan or taking a transcontinental flight with large-scale nuclear accidents like those at Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. Although Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, takes care to mention that he is no radiation expert, he provides an open list of his sources, which includes the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering department.

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