I'm a physicist. And I dabble in many areas of physics. I did
experiments when I was a graduate student on weak interactions, which
are the forces of nuclear decay. And so I kept in my brain certain
nuclear sources and what their energies were and I knew what the ranges
were for how penetrating gamma rays could be. Very high-energy gamma
rays can penetrate several inches of steel.
And that's the
challenge at the bottom of the ocean? To penetrate the steel and see the
condition of the equipment?
Yeah. Think of a dental X-ray. You have the source that can
penetrate through material and you expose something on the backside. If
want to go through not flesh, but steel of a very high density, you need
higher energy, electromagnetic particles--the higher the energy, the
more penetrating it can be without being scattered or absorbed.
role can the government play in helping stop the spill? I thought BP
was taking the lead on this?
Well, of course they're taking the lead. But there are many
branches of the government that are associated with the spill,
its aftermath and containment, and all those things. DOE's major assets
are not in those areas, but we do know how to image
things. We do know about mechanical things. And so I felt our major
assets would be in things like diagnosing what the BOP would do, and
[thinking through the]
steps going forward--how do you decide whether Plan A, B, C, or D
would help? To the extent BP wants it, we can give advice on
how to think through these things. What you're doing in a situation like
this is dealing with probabilities--you don't know the exact
state of something. For example, in the final hours we were saying,
"Well, what if this thing happened?" There's a small probability, but if
it does happen,
what do you do? And if this other thing happens what do you do? You're
chasing down answer about what to do should something unforeseen happen,
it might be a very small possibility. You still want to go down those
paths. Instead of approaching it as, "Oops, this happened--now what do
That type of thinking is more in line with what we do at
the Energy Department, because DOE is part of the nuclear security
this country for the last half century, and we have nuclear reactor
expertise as well. So that type of thinking--pushing as hard as you can
to zero-accident tolerance--is something that's been in our DNA for half
Why are the national laboratories getting involved
in helping with the spill, including a weapons lab? What exactly to
they have to offer that's germane to the problem of an oil disaster?
have the high-energy gamma ray source! Let me be blunt. They were the
ones who supplied the Cobalt 60 gamma ray source that's being used. [Update: BP and the national laboratories discussed having the lab supply the Cobalt 60, but BP ultimately procured it elsewhere]. They
have a very talented number of scientists and engineers.