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Gamma-Ray Imaging Beneath the Gulf of Mexico

Joshua Green:

Science and Tech: W]hen it comes to government disaster response, the Bush years marked a low point and right now we're experiencing a high point. For a vivid illustration of this disparity, look no further than the Gulf. During Katrina, FEMA director Michael Brown secured his place history as the poster boy for government incompetence. Now consider Chu, the Nobel Prize Winner who has been at BP headquarters in Houston with a team of government scientists.... I talked to Chu this afternoon about the government's response to the disaster. As a mental exercise, try and imagine what these answers would sound like if "Brownie" or some other top Bush officials were still overseeing disaster relief in the Gulf.

JG: I understand you just got back from Houston? What were you doing there?

SC: We went there Tuesday night, we were in Houston in the morning with BP, then visited for three or four hours with the manufacturers of the blowout preventers [the equipment that should have stopped the leak].... I was talking about a week and a half ago to some of the Department of Energy folks... There was a several hour phone call Sunday where a few of the national lab directors, I, and the people we had at the site were talking about what we can do to help BP, and we thought that we could perhaps help them specifically by imaging the state of the BOP, the blow-out-prevention valve, with high-energy gamma rays.... BP... seem to be very open to having brainstorming sessions.... The idea was to bring in very smart people who also have great connections to the larger engineering and scientific community. The national lab director who's been engaged in this from the beginning, Tom Hunter, and I and four other scientists and engineers went down there.

JG: How is it that you know enough about gamma rays and oil spill technology to be helpful? I wasn't aware that that was an area you'd worked in before you were secretary?

SC: Oil spills were not something I've worked on, but I do know about gamma rays.... I'm a physicist. And I dabble.... 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.

JG: And that's the challenge at the bottom of the ocean? To penetrate the steel and see the condition of the equipment?

SC: Yeah. Think of a dental X-ray. You have the source that can penetrate through material and you expose something on the backside. If you 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.... 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, even though 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 we do?"... [Y]ou want a set of fresh eyes, people who can propose potential out-of-the-box solutions, who might foresee what might go wrong. If you're an expert and you're used to certain things done certain ways, that limits your ability to cast a wider net, and so one of the most important things that we're doing at the national laboratories is putting together these scientific teams, many of whom would be considered non-experts. In times like this, those are many of the people you want. BP and the oil industry have the lion's share of the experts that are exactly germane to this. So this is how we think we can best add value.... [W]e know more about the blowout preventer, we know more about its condition, there are things on it that have worked. So I think there's a path forward. But as everyone knows, it ain't over till it's over, to quote the great American philosopher of the 20th century. And meanwhile oil is continuing to spill. So we are very focused on trying to stop that as quickly as possible. And the government is also focused on the downstream things to mitigate its environmental impact...

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