Tuesday, March 31, 2015

How I Saved My Marriage


My oldest daughter, Jenna, recently said to me, "My greatest fear as a child was that you and mom would get divorced. Then, when I was twelve, I decided that you fought so much that maybe it would be better if you did." Then she added with a smile. "I'm glad you guys figured things out."
For years my wife Keri and I struggled. Looking back, I'm not exactly sure what initially drew us together, but our personalities didn't quite match up. And the longer we were married the more extreme the differences seemed. Encountering "fame and fortune" didn't make our marriage any easier. In fact, it exacerbated our problems. The tension between us got so bad that going out on book tour became a relief, though it seems we always paid for it on re-entry. Our fighting became so constant that it was difficult to even imagine a peaceful relationship. We became perpetually defensive, building emotional fortresses around our hearts. We were on the edge of divorce and more than once we discussed it.
I was on book tour when things came to a head. We had just had another big fight on the phone and Keri had hung up on me. I was alone and lonely, frustrated and angry. I had reached my limit.
That's when I turned to God. Or turned on God. I don't know if you could call it prayer -- maybe shouting at God isn't prayer, maybe it is-but whatever I was engaged in I'll never forget it. I was standing in the shower of the Buckhead, Atlanta Ritz-Carlton yelling at God that marriage was wrong and I couldn't do it anymore. As much as I hated the idea of divorce, the pain of being together was just too much. I was also confused. I couldn't figure out why marriage with Keri was so hard. Deep down I knew that Keri was a good person. And I was a good person. So why couldn't we get along? Why had I married someone so different than me? Why wouldn't she change?
Finally, hoarse and broken, I sat down in the shower and began to cry. In the depths of my despair powerful inspiration came to me. You can't change her, Rick. You can only change yourself. At that moment I began to pray. If I can't change her, God, then change me. I prayed late into the night. I prayed the next day on the flight home. I prayed as I walked in the door to a cold wife who barely even acknowledged me. That night, as we lay in our bed, inches from each other yet miles apart, the inspiration came. I knew what I had to do.
The next morning I rolled over in bed next to Keri and asked, "How can I make your day better?"
Keri looked at me angrily. "What?"
"How can I make your day better?"
"You can't," she said. "Why are you asking that?"
"Because I mean it," I said. "I just want to know what I can do to make your day better.
"She looked at me cynically.
"You want to do something? Go clean the kitchen.
"She likely expected me to get mad. Instead I just nodded. "Okay."
I got up and cleaned the kitchen.
The next day I asked the same thing. "What can I do to make your day better?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Clean the garage."
I took a deep breath. I already had a busy day and I knew she had made the request in spite. I was tempted to blow up at her.
Instead I said, "Okay." I got up and for the next two hours cleaned the garage. Keri wasn't sure what to think.The next morning came.
"What can I do to make your day better?"
"Nothing!" she said. "You can't do anything. Please stop saying that.""I'm sorry," I said. "But I can't.
I made a commitment to myself. What can I do to make your day better?""Why are you doing this?""Because I care about you," I said.
"And our marriage."The next morning I asked again. And the next. And the next. Then, during the second week, a miracle occurred. As I asked the question Keri's eyes welled up with tears. Then she broke down crying. When she could speak she said, "Please stop asking me that. You're not the problem. I am. I'm hard to live with. I don't know why you stay with me.
"I gently lifted her chin until she was looking in my eyes. "It's because I love you," I said. "What can I do to make your day better?""I should be asking you that.""You should," I said. "But not now. Right now, I need to be the change. You need to know how much you mean to me."She put her head against my chest. "I'm sorry I've been so mean.""I love you," I said."I love you," she replied."What can I do to make your day better?"She looked at me sweetly. "Can we maybe just spend some time together?"I smiled. "I'd like that."I continued asking for more than a month. And things did change. The fighting stopped. Then Keri began asking, "What do you need from me? How can I be a better wife?"
The walls between us fell. We began having meaningful discussions on what we wanted from life and how we could make each other happier. No, we didn't solve all our problems. I can't even say that we never fought again. But the nature of our fights changed. Not only were they becoming more and more rare, they lacked the energy they'd once had. We'd deprived them of oxygen. We just didn't have it in us to hurt each other anymore.
Keri and I have now been married for more than thirty years. I not only love my wife, I like her. I like being with her. I crave her. I need her. Many of our differences have become strengths and the others don't really matter. We've learned how to take care of each other and, more importantly, we've gained the desire to do so. Marriage is hard. But so is parenthood and keeping fit and writing books and everything else important and worthwhile in my life. To have a partner in life is a remarkable gift. I've also learned that the institution of marriage can help heal us of our most unlovable parts. And we all have unlovable parts.
Through time I've learned that our experience was an illustration of a much larger lesson about marriage. The question everyone in a committed relationship should ask their significant other is, "What can I do to make your life better?" That is love. Romance novels (and I've written a few) are all about desire and happily-ever-after, but happily-ever-after doesn't come from desire-at least not the kind portrayed in most pulp romances. Real love is not to desire a person, but to truly desire their happiness-sometimes, even, at the expense of our own happiness. Real love is not to make another person a carbon copy of one's self. It is to expand our own capabilities of tolerance and caring, to actively seek another's well being. All else is simply a charade of self-interest.
I'm not saying that what happened to Keri and me will work for everyone. I'm not even claiming that all marriages should be saved. But for me, I am incredibly grateful for the inspiration that came to me that day so long ago. I'm grateful that my family is still intact and that I still have my wife, my best friend, in bed next to me when I wake in the morning. And I'm grateful that even now, decades later, every now and then, one of us will still roll over and say, "What can I do to make your day better." Being on either side of that question is something worth waking up for.

Brazil minister Levy privately criticized Rousseff:

Brazil's Finance Minister Joaquim Levy reacts during a news conference in Brasilia February 27, 2015. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

 Brazilian Finance Minister Joaquim Levy mildly criticized President Dilma Rousseff, saying she does not always act in "the most effective way," in remarks at a time when investors are watching for signs of tension between the two philosophically different leaders.
Levy made the comment on Tuesday at a closed-door event in Sao Paulo with former students from his alma mater, the University of Chicago, according to newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, which reported his remarks and posted audio.
The leftist Rousseff in January appointed Levy, a former banker who is much more orthodox than she is on economic issues, to oversee a significant pro-market shift to restore investor confidence in the struggling economy.
"I think that there is a genuine desire by the president to get things right, sometimes not the easiest way, but ... not the most effective way, but there is this genuine desire," Levy said, speaking in English, according to Folha.
The finance ministry issued a statement saying that Levy "regretted the interpretation of his phrase ..."
The ministry said the statement was "not an official note, but a personal manifestation of the minister."
"Those who have the honor to find themselves ministers know that the government's political orientation is genuine," the statement said. "They recognize that the carrying out of their duties requires difficult actions, including those of her Excellency President Dilma Rousseff, and they have the humility to recognize that not all measures taken have the hoped-for effect.
The political partnership has been fruitful so far, with Rousseff giving Levy additional responsibilities including some negotiations with Congress, sources told Reuters earlier this month.
Investors say are closely monitoring their comments for any signs that their significant philosophical differences might eventually drive them apart.
Earlier this year, Levy called tax cuts Rousseff made during her first term a costly "stunt." Rousseff later publicly called his comment "unfortunate."

I’ve suffered from depression. The only life I’ve ever considered taking is my own

Depressed man head in hands

The discovery that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately sought to crash flight 4U9525 into the side of a mountain, killing 150 innocent people in the process, has been met in the media with justifiable horror and outrage.
However, while the outrage is understandable, some newspapers seem to have jumped the gun in linking depression and depressives with violence and murder. First, the information wasn’t all there at the time the newspapers went to press. And second, even when it did emerge that Lubitz had a history of depression and had been to see a doctor, does this mean all people with depression are an automatic risk to public safety? You’d think so, given some of the media output that followed.
A variety of front pages have insinuated a causal link between having depression and being a danger to the lives of others. The Mirror, for instance, screams at us that the “Killer pilot suffered from depression”, as if those five words are all we need to know. As if everything is now neatly explained and answered. No messy question marks needed. The Daily Mail does have a question mark, but the question is this: “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?”
As someone who is a depressive, this is all very frustrating. I have had depression, on and off, for 15 years. I have had it to an intense degree and, when I was 24, I very nearly took my own life. And yet it has never once, over the entire period, made me want to harm others.
Depression is a horrible, potentially life-threatening illness – but the lives it threatens are almost always those of the people who suffer from it. If it does emerge that this incident was a result of his depression then we need to be able to differentiate between types of depression. Psychotic depression is not the most common kind, or anywhere near it.
The fact that Lubitz had been hiding his depression from his employers suggests we need less stigma, not more. For instance, imagine if you were a pilot who was suddenly suffering a bout of depression and you wanted to explain this to your employers and ask for some time off to recover. I imagine that such an admission would be harder to make today than it would have been before this press coverage. So all this tabloid screaming means that more people may end up staying quiet about their illness, and that is bad for everyone.
We need, ultimately, to be able to view mental health with the same clear-headedness we show when talking about physical health. A heart attack or a stroke can be dangerous to more than the immediate sufferer when they strike, especially if the person affected is in control of a vehicle. Depression affects one in five adults, according to the official figures (and these figures may be an underestimate because of the silencing effect of stigma), and can strike at any time.
The implication that depressed people are fundamentally irresponsible is a deeply damaging and counterproductive one. Winston Churchill was a depressive. He didn’t just fly planes; he was in charge of the Royal Air Force. He was also in charge of the country and the lives of all its people during the greatest threat to this nation’s survival. Academics, including the philosopher John Gray, have cited his depression as something that made him a better leader.
Buzz Aldrin flew rockets. Abraham Lincoln was an American president. There are a million other examples. Many of the greatest, most responsible people have been depressives. Being a depressive should not imply danger any more than being a man or even a human should. Mental illness isn’t a them/us issue; we are all on the scale somewhere. So we must be very careful to resist ignorance, and combat the stigma that leads to dangerous silence.
We must keep talking, and educating. A depressed man doing a terrible thing does not mean that all or most depressed people could do terrible things. But the stigma itself is dangerous and costs lives. Three times as many men kill themselves as women, yet far fewer men seek help for depression than women, as men feel the stigma more keenly. The illness is still, in some ways, mysterious. There’s much that’s still unknown about the science of the human brain. But ignorant speculation will never make the world a safer place. This particular case was clearly not just about depression. Millions of people manage their depression and lead responsible lives without killing 149 others.

Will you work to 100?

(Credit: Mámor Chocolates High Tea Szalón/Matt O'Connor)

Six days a week, every week, Fay Morley worked in her tiny shop selling buttons, zippers and other bric-a-brac until the day before she died, just two weeks after she turned 100 in August 2013.
Sixty is the new 40.  — Howard Frederick
While Morley, whose shop was in Sydney’s seaside suburb of Manly, chose to work because it kept her happy  (“Coming to work every day is a kind of therapy for me,” she told Australia's Daily Telegraph that year), it’s likely more and more Australians will work longer than people in other parts of the world.  
Australians can currently access their age pension and, consequently, retire at 65, however legislation passed in May 2014, increases the retirement age (in gradual increments) to 70 for 2035. Those Australians born after 1965 won’t be able to get their age pension until they’re 70, which will make Australians the oldest people to be able to access retirement benefits — if they get them.
"Entitlement to the age pension in Australia is asset based. Not everyone in retirement will receive it straight away, or at all," said Anthony Rodwell-Ball, CEO of NGS Super, an Australian Industry superfund for education and community-focused organisations.
Thanks in part to a healthcare system that’s considered to be one of the best in the world and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption, Aussies are also living longer, McCrindle Research Founder Mark McCrindle said. Men born between 2010 and 2012 can expect to live to 80 and women to 84, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Kerrie Richards, 45, specifically seeks out senior employees. (Credit: Merino Country)
Kerrie Richards, 45, of Brisbane-based Merino Country, specifically seeks out senior employees. (Credit: Merino Country)
Add it up, and more Aussies are working longer. That’s led to growth in new businesses started by older workers, a rash of training programs to keep older workers employable, and government incentives to hire older workers.
A passion for working
Of course, some people simply plan to work longer for other reasons. According to a 2010 Gallup survey, more than half of American workers aged 58 to 64 expect to keep working past 65, citing the need to save more money, job fulfilment and social interaction.
Howard Frederick, 65, and his wife, Hanna, 67, moved to Melbourne from New Zealand in 2010 to expand their business, Mámor Chocolates High Tea Szalón.
“We first moved to New Zealand from Germany in 2003 and launched Mámor, and then wanting to expand we decided to move to Melbourne in 2010,” recalled Howard Frederick, whose book, Entrepreneurship Theory Process Practice, is due out  in September and focuses on enterprise start-ups for seniors.
“Hanna found her passion late in life and I was lucky enough to find a teaching job immediately as an honorary professor of entrepreneurship education at Deakin University in Melbourne,” he said. “Sixty is the new 40!”
(Credit: Mámor Chocolates High Tea Szalón/Matt O'Connor)
Howard Frederick, 65, and his wife, Hanna, 67, at Mámor Chocolates High Tea Szalón (Credit: Matt O'Connor
Steve Shepherd, an employment market analyst at human resources and recruitment specialist company Randstad, called the expectation for people to work longer in Australia a positive thing.
“This notion of having a hard stop in your career when you reach a certain age doesn’t make sense for everyone. Many people that have retired feel they have a lot to give in business,” said Melbourne-based Shepherd. “Businesses can benefit from hiring those with more experience — and at the same time create a more diverse work space.”
Changing perceptions
Improving skills and gaining new ones is necessary for some older Australians to keep a robust career into older age, according to experts.
“Maintaining appropriate skills is of critical importance to mature aged workers,” said Jon Lang, CEO of Upskilled, one of Australia’s leading registered training organisations. Training ensures employability, but also makes it easier for older workers to keep up with rapid advancements in their fields.
Industry sectors showing the highest proportion of enrolments for skills training for people age 45 and over include society and culture (19.3%), agriculture, environment and related studies (15.4%) and health (15.2%).
Kym Kitchener, 53, is one of the supervisors at Merino Country. (Credit: Merino Country)
Kym Kitchener, 53, is one of the supervisors at Merino Country. (Credit: Merino Country)
Of course, not every older worker needs training to succeed. In some cases, hiring is stymied by perception.
In 2013 the Australian Human Rights Commission found that one in 10 business respondents had an age above which they won’t recruit. “[Older workers] have experience, knowledge, can act as mentors to younger workers, and in relation to customer service roles, since Australia is ageing they will be able to connect to the bulk of the customer base,” he said. Forecasts show the number of people aged 65 to 84 in Australia will more than double by 2050.
In preparation for an older nation the Australian government has implemented a number of programs to assist both businesses and individuals with the shift, including an A$26m ($20.3m) Silver Service employment program that provides employers with financial incentives when hiring senior workers.
Kerrie Richards, 45, of Brisbane-based Merino Country, a manufacturer of Australian merino fabrics and garments, said she values older workers, citing the average age of her employees as 60. “My husband and I are in our forties and we are the youngsters,” she joked.
Merino Country specifically targets older employees for their skills and commitment (many older workers in the textiles trade have been in this industry since their teenage years), and Richards said, because they are loyal, on time and dependable.
“Although there are financial incentives available for employers like us from the government, we would employ mature age people any time,” she said.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Autism and ill health: how to spot the subtle signs that something is wrong

An image from the Books Beyond Words series

“Oh, he’s been so brave and good. He’s not made a fuss at all.” That’s what the well-meaning care worker said about my autistic older brother after he broke his nose in an epileptic seizure some years ago. Except that Timothy wasn’t being brave or good – he’s just not able to tell us when something is wrong; he doesn’t have the words for it. Like a third of people on the autistic spectrum, my 58-year-old brother has very limited verbal communication. He can speak, but usually only when prompted, and in learned, short phrases or single words. And like the majority of people with autism, he has unusual sensory responses. We suspect that he doesn’t feel pain in quite the same way we do.
There is a saying that when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism – it is notoriously hard to generalise about a condition that takes in such a wide spectrum, from the highly intelligent but socially awkward adult to the profoundly learning-disabled child who will need lifelong support. But there are certain health issues that crop up so often that all those with autism, their advocates and medical professionals need to be aware of them.
Many are hypersensitive and react excessively to even the lightest touch and smallest discomfort; others, such as Timothy, are hyposensitive and symptoms of quite major problems go unnoticed. You have to know him well, spot small behavioural changes and explore the reasons for them. Recently, the very conscientious manager of Timothy’s home got in touch because he was agitated and slapping his face. We thought he might be mimicking someone at his day centre, but asked her to take him to his GP and dentist. Sure enough, he had an infected root canal that needed treatment. A course of antibiotics, and he is happy again.
These days, Timothy lives with observant staff who know him well and pick up the subtle signs if something is not right. But, sadly, not everyone on the spectrum has people watching out for them, especially when they are adults and don’t live with their families. Poorly trained and poorly paid careworkers don’t stick around long enough to get to know the people they are supporting intimately, and neglect happens all too often
There are hardly any long-term studies of people with autism as they age, but US research has estimated that life expectancy is far shorter for them than for their unaffected siblings or cousins – especially if they have learning difficulties as well. On average, people with autism and learning disabilities die between 10 and 20 years prematurely.
Despite campaigns by Mencap and increased awareness, Dr Pauline Heslop, the lead author of a groundbreaking UK study into premature deaths, said: “The unacceptable situation remains that for every one person in the general population who dies from a cause of death amenable to good healthcare, three people with learning disabilities will do so.” Among Timothy’s peers, we know of several who have died too young when cancers have progressed unnoticed, or when their unchecked consumption of water, food or non-food items has led to catastrophic ill health. Meanwhile, epilepsy affects 20-40% of people with autism and is one of the major causes of premature death, along with respiratory, cardiac and dysphagia disorders. While articulate autistic adults can face troubling health problems too, these issues can be a particular cause of concern for people who can’t speak for themselves.
All too often, medical professionals are inexperienced around autistic non-verbal adults and don’t know that their behaviour may be a form of communication. They sometimes dismiss their actions as a quirky autism trait. Jim Blair, a consultant learning disability nurse, campaigns for better treatment of adults and children with learning disabilities in hospitals. Currently, fewer than half of hospitals in the UK have a learning disability nurse on staff. In the past, Blair has worked with doctors who see a non-verbal patient banging their head against a wall and write it off as “habitual autistic behaviour”, rather than investigating whether the patient is in pain and is trying to blot it out by head-banging.
Heslop would like to see learning disability nurse specialists working across GP practices, advising and training medical staff and carers. She believes that good-quality health checks and prevention work – not just box-ticking exercises where forms are filled in then forgotten in a drawer – could lead to far fewer people with autism needing hospital care and dying prematurely.
In recent years, some excellent resources have been created, such as the Books Beyond Words series that explain health problems in pictures. Visual pain scales(smiley to sad faces) and the videos and photo-stories on the Easyhealth site(designed by the learning disability charity Generate) can also help non-verbal communication.
Campaigners such as the National Autistic Society encourage the use of health or hospital “passports”. These are personalised documents that accompany someone with autism who can’t speak for themselves. They give vital personal history, medical information, sensory idiosyncrasies and advice on how the patient might behave if stressed by their surroundings or illness. Many health workers find the passports very useful when faced with a new patient with baffling behaviour and no speech, but there are also reports of the documents being ignored by busy professionals who think they do not have time to read them. There is no statutory obligation to take account of a health passport.
There is a very convincing argument that the main reason autism rates have risen to one in 100 in recent years is because of growing awareness of the diversity of autism, leading to many more diagnoses. But diagnosis is just the beginning – in order for people such as Timothy to have a long, happy life, we need greater awareness not just of autism, but how it can affect overall health.

Facebook Blamed for Divorces, Infidelity, Jealousy

New research blames Facebook for the breakdown of millions of marriages.
Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has played a major role in our relationships and in our lives. The social networking site has over one billion users and it has brought together people of all ages, races, and backgrounds. It has reconnected people with lost loves and created many a marriage across the globe.
However, some critics believe that Facebook impairs face-to-face interactions and prevents people from honing real-world relationships. Instead of connecting as a family, many people sit at home scrolling through Facebook for hours on end. And, now, a new study links excessive Facebook use with a higher incidence of divorce.
The study, which will be published in  the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, found that people who frequently check their Facebook page (more than once a hour) often experience relationship consequences as a result of checking the website. They are more likely to reconnect with ex-partners via the site and they are also more likely to experiencejealousy and insecurity. For example, many people who use Facebook excessively spend part of that time monitoring their partner’s page. They worry about who their partner is talking to and who they are friends with. All of this can give rise to real-world issues such as insecurity and arguments within the relationship.
It’s no surprise that Facebook “stalking” and jealousy can impact your relationship even after you log out of the site. You might find yourself checking out your partner’s Facebook friends (especially those of the opposite sex) and scrolling through their photos and statuses to look for evidence of infidelity or inappropriate behavior. Being an amateur spy can do more than rob you of valuable time, it can also keep you from being present, confident, and engaged with your own life.
It’s easy to understand where insecurities come from as Facebook can give rise to plenty of temptation. Suddenly you have access to the “one who got away” in college or your childhood sweetheart who you never quite got over. The temptation to send him a “harmless” little note is often too much for many people to resist, and if feelings still exist, it can become a very dangerous interaction indeed. Even if you never meet in person, you might still find yourself embroiled in an emotional affair in which you are channeling all of your energy and flirtation into someone who is not your partner.
However, the truth is that Facebook isn’t inherently evil or relationship-suicide. Like all things in life, you get out of Facebook what you put into it. If you simply use it to keep in touch with friends and check out photos of your family members, then Facebook likely will have no harmful impact on your life. But, if you use the site obsessively to look up ex-partners or check up on your current partner’s behavior, then Facebook will likely give you plenty of drama in return.
If you find yourself frequently falling into the latter group, it might be a good idea for you to take a Facebook vacation once in a while. Make a pact with your partner not to go on Facebook for two weeks or even a month. You might find that you suddenly have more time and energy for yourself as well as your relationship, and you also might find that you are less jealous and insecure with your mate. If Facebook gives you more pain than pleasure, then it might be time to consider logging out permanently and exploring other ways to keep in touch with family and friends.

How do you dismantle a nuclear submarine?

Nuclear submarines have long been a favourite in popular fiction. From movies such as The Hunt for Red October to long-running TV series like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, they have always been portrayed as awesome instruments of geopolitical power gliding quietly through the gloomy deep on secret, serious missions.
An aquarium of radioactive junk — The Kara Sea, a submarine graveyard
But at the end of their useful lives the subs essentially become floating nuclear hazards, fizzing with lethal, spent nuclear fuel that's extremely hard to get out. Nuclear navies have had to go to extraordinary lengths to cope with their bloated and ageing Cold War fleets of hunter-killer and ballistic missile nuclear subs.
(Credit: Science Photo Library)
(Credit: Science Photo Library)
As a result, some of the strangest industrial graveyards on the planet have been created – stretching from the US Pacific Northwest, via the Arctic Circle to Russia’s Pacific Fleet home of Vladivostok.
These submarine cemeteries take many forms. At the filthy end of the spectrum, in the Kara Sea north of Siberia, they are essentially nuclear dumping grounds, with submarine reactors and fuel strewn across the 300m-deep seabed. Here the Russians appear to have continued, until the early 1990s, disposing of their nuclear subs in the same manner as their diesel-powered compatriots: dropping them into the ocean.
Rusting remains
The diesel sub scrapyard in the inlets around Olenya Bay in north-west Russia's arctic Kola Peninsula is an arresting sight: rusted-through prows expose torpedo tubes inside, corroded conning towers keel over at bizarre angles and hulls are burst asunder, like mussels smashed on rocks by gulls.
The Soviets turned the Kara Sea into "an aquarium of radioactive junk" says Norway’s Bellona Foundation, an environmental watchdog based in Oslo. The seabed is littered with some 17,000 naval radioactive waste containers, 16 nuclear reactors and five complete nuclear submarines – one has both its reactors still fully fuelled.
(Credit: Bellona Foundation)
Russian reactors have been stored in the harbour at Vladivostok (Credit: Bellona Foundation)
The Kara Sea area is now a target for oil and gas companies – and accidental drilling into such waste could, in principle, breach reactor containments or fuel rod cladding, and release radionuclides into the fishing grounds, warns Bellona's managing director Nils Bohmer.
Official submarine graveyards are much more visible: you can even see them on Google Maps or Google Earth. Zoom in on America's biggest nuclear waste repository in Hanford, WashingtonSayda Bay in the arctic Kola Peninsula, or the shipyards near Vladivostok and you'll see them. There are row after row of massive steel canisters, each around 12m long. They are lined up in ranks in Hanford's long, earthen pits awaiting a future mass burial, sitting in regimented rows on a Sayda Bay dockside, or floating on the waters of the Sea of Japan, shackled to a pier at the Pavlovks sub base near Vladivostok.
Drained and removed
These canisters are all that remain of hundreds of nuclear subs. Known as "three-compartment units" they are the sealed, de-fuelled reactor blocks produced in a decommissioning process perfected at the US Department of Defense's Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.
It’s a meticulous process. First, the defunct sub is towed to a secure de-fuelling dock where its reactor compartment is drained of all liquids to expose its spent nuclear fuel assemblies. Each assembly is then removed and placed in spent nuclear fuel casks and put on secure trains for disposal at a long-term waste storage and reprocessing plant. In the US, this is the Naval Reactor Facility at the sprawling Idaho National Laboratory, and in Russia the Mayak plutonium production and reprocessing plant in Siberia is the final destination.
(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)
Although the reactor machinery – steam generators, pumps, valves and piping – now contains no enriched uranium, the metals in it are rendered radioactive by decades of neutron bombardment shredding their atoms. So after fuel removal, the sub is towed into dry dock where cutting tools and blowtorches are used to sever the reactor compartment, plus an emptied compartment either side of it, from the submarine's hull. Then thick steel seals are welded to either end. So the canisters are not merely receptacles: they are giant high-pressure steel segments of the nuclear submarine itself – all that remains of it, in fact, as all nonradioactive submarine sections are then recycled.
Russia also uses this technique because the West feared that its less rigorous decommissioning processes risked fissile materials getting into unfriendly hands. At Andreeva Bay, near Sayda, for instance, Russia still stores spent fuel from 90 subs from the 1960s and 1970s, for instance. So in 2002, the G8 nations started a 10-year, $20bn programme to transfer Puget Sound's decommissioning knowhow to the Russian Federation. That involved vastly improving technology and storage at their de-fuelling facility in Severodvinsk and their dismantling facility, and by building a land-based storage dock for the decommissioned reactors.
Floating menace
Safer land-based storage matters because the reactor blocks had been left afloat at Sayda Bay, as the air-filled compartments either side of the reactor compartment provide buoyancy, says Bohmer. But at Pavlovks, near Vladivostok, 54 of the canisters are still afloat and at the mercy of the weather.
Decommissioning this way is not always possible, however, says Bohmer. Some Soviet subs had liquid metal cooled reactors – using a lead-bismuth mixture to remove heat from the core – rather than the common pressurised water reactor (PWR). In a cold, defunct reactor the lead-bismuth coolant freezes, turning it into an unwieldy solid block. Bohmer says two such submarines are not yet decommissioned and have had to be moved to an extremely remote dockyard at Gremikha Bay – also on the Kola Peninsula – for safety's sake.
(Credit: Science Photo Library)
When nuclear submarines reach the end of their lives, some of their hulks remain dangerously radioactive (Credit: Science Photo Library)
Using the three-compartment-unit method, Russia has so far decommissioned 120 nuclear submarines of the Northern Fleet and 75 subs from its Pacific Fleet. In the US, meanwhile, 125 Cold War-era subs have been dismantled this way. France, too, has used the same procedure. In Britain, however, Royal Navy nuclear subs are designed so that the reactor module can be removed without having to sever compartments from the midsection. "The reactor pressure vessel can be removed in one piece, encased, transported and stored," says a spokesman for the UK Ministry of Defence.
However Britain's plans to decommission 12 defunct submarines stored at Devonport in the south of England and seven at Rosyth in Scotland won't happen any time soon as the government still has to decide which of five possible UK sites will eventually store those pressure vessels and spent fuel. This has raised community concerns as the numbers of defunct nuclear-fuelled subs is building up at Devonport and Rosyth, asBBC News reported last year.
Water fears
Environmental groups have also raised concerns about fuel storage in the US. The Idaho National Lab has been the ultimate destination for all US Navy high-level spent fuel since the first nuclear sub, USS Nautilus, was developed in 1953. "The prototype reactor for the USS Nautilus was tested at INL and since then every scrap of spent fuel from the nuclear navy has ended up in Idaho. It is stored above the upstream end of the Snake River Aquifer, the second largest unified underground body of water on the North American continent," says Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance, an environmental lobby group.
"The spent fuel is stored above ground, but the rest of the waste is buried above the aquifer and that practice may continue for another half century. It is a source of concern for many people in Idaho." It's not only the aquifer's fresh water that's at risk: the state’s signature crop, potatoes, would also be affected.
(Credit: Science Photo Library)
(Credit: Science Photo Library)
Even with high security, radioactive material can occasionally escape – sometimes in bizarre ways. For instance both INL and Hanford have suffered unusual radiation leaks from tumbleweeds blowing into waste cooling ponds, picking up contaminated water, and then being blown over the facility's perimeter by the wind.
The expensive, long-term measures that have to be taken to render a defunct nuclear sub safe don’t seem to deter military planners from building more vessels. "As far as the US is concerned there is no indication that the Navy believes nuclear submarines have been anything less than a stellar success and replacements for the major submarine classes are in the works." says Edwin Lyman, nuclear policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a pressure group, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
(Credit: Science Photo Library)
The Russian Navy is planning to launch several new submarines (Credit: Science Photo Library)
The US is not alone: Russia has four new nuclear subs under construction at Severodvinsk and may build a further eight before 2020. "Despite limited budgets Russia is committed to building up its nuclear fleet again," says Bohmer. China is doing likewise.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

After A Disaster, This Is What Flight Attendants Want You To Know

After any airline incident, flight attendants take on an even more crucial role. In the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, it is no different. Passengers want to know they are safe. As we carry on with continually-booked flights, it makes sense that we look to airlines and flight attendants to make us feel better. Here is what flight attendants everywhere would like you to know:
1. Flying is still safe.
We flight attendants know that we are all safer in the sky than in a car, and we know flying is still one of the safest modes of transportation. Do your own research and see. (If you look up car accident statistics compared with aviation accidents, you may actually become afraid of driving!) Another tool that eased my mind is Flight Aware, which allows you to view aircraft traffic around any airport. You will be amazed at how many airplanes are flying around that one airport, putting the sheer number of safe flights in perspective.
2. The media doesn't necessarily reflect our views.
One thing that needs to be addressed is that the media can sometimes compromise our security! Time and time again, more than a few reporters and news outlets disclose what is supposed to be secured information. We all need to stay vigilant. Publicizing airline security measures to boost ratings is not ok. Flight attendants would like the media to respect the boundaries of our security measures and not disclose this information to the public.
3. There are ways to calm your fear of flying.
Flight attendants are a family no matter the uniform, and any airline tragedy is devastating to us. Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters at Germanwings, and our hearts hurt too. This incident causes flight attendants anxiety just like anyone else. In the U.S. most airlines thankfully have resources like the Employee Assistant Program (EAP) to help when needed. If you have fears about an upcoming flight, then practice a news fast before an upcoming trip, meditate before travel, and look to your flight attendants for reassurance. A book I always recommend is Gavin De Becker'sThe Gift of Fear. This book does much to empower you and helps you differentiate true fear from ongoing anxiety.
4. And we're doing our best to make flights safe, too.
Flight attendants work to not become complacent. Flight attendants attend mandatory training once a year to hone and review the skills they are taught in initial training. Flight and cabin crews attend crew briefings prior to the start of any trip. This is an important safety measure to make sure the entire crew is on the same page. Passengers can help by making the flight attendants aware of any concerns that they may have. While flight attendants are the eyes and ears of the cabin, they can't possibly be everywhere at all times. If you notice something unusual, let us know.
In any aviation incident we can take solace in the fact that from most tragedies come lessons and safety improvements. Let's hope this is true as the details unfold for Germanwings Flight 9525.

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