Comments: What Killed Marie Holowka

Thanks for these posts, very chilling.

It is apparently a characteristic of cathode rays (high energy electron beams) in air that they tend to produce a blue glow. (

It seems to me that the electron decay products of Kr-85 would contribute more to a localized blue glow than the gammas, since there are more of the former and their mean-free-path in air is shorter.

Posted by thundermonkey at March 17, 2011 11:03 PM

Aaron, that's pretty damn impressive analysis. I can't say whether you're right, of course, but it is impressive.

Posted by N E at March 17, 2011 11:33 PM

Sounds good to me. Industry always tries to externalize and minimize costs.

Posted by seth at March 18, 2011 02:19 AM

Aaron, you are the 21st century Hercule Poirot.

On one point, however, I would like to quote to you from Todd Rundgren's song Fair Warning - you write If you agree that this is an important contribution to the discussion about nuclear energy, please distribute it as widely as you can.

As Todd wrote:

"You know, wishing won't make it so
Hoping won't do it, praying won't do it
Religion won't do it, philosophy won't do it
The supreme court won't do it,
the president and the congress won't do it
The UN won't do it, the H-bomb won't do it,
the sun and the moon won't do it
And God won't do it,
and I certainly won't do it
That leaves you, you'll have to do it"

Next week, when you're revising this as a letter to the most appropriate professional publication (and your colleagues at DOE can certainly help you identify likely venues) you might want to add something about the topography of the situation, showing that the Holowka farm was situated in such a way that heavier-than-air gases would be likely to move to or through that location after venting from TMI.

Posted by mistah charley, ph.d. at March 18, 2011 07:29 AM

Thundermonkey, you are right. Actually, it's a bit more complicated: the high-energy betas create Brehmsstrahlung X-rays, which cause ionization in turn, etc. Basically, it's a plasma soup. The gammas do contribute as well via avalanche, but it's a guess how significant a contribution that might make.

Mistah Charley, you are right, of course. But I haven't slept in like four nights and I need a break.

Also, where was your little benediction?

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 18, 2011 07:36 AM

May the Creative Forces of the Universe be with you, Aaron, and also with me - and with us all.

see also

Posted by mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at March 18, 2011 08:53 AM

I used to joke about how the older I got the less I seemed to know...the more I realized how much there is to know...and that time is against me.

The sooner we get beyond nuclear power plants the better. I wonder how nuclear powered aircraft carriers are holding up and what their safety record actually is?

Posted by Grandpa Ken at March 18, 2011 09:08 AM


I don't know if mistah charley, of whom I am a big, big fan, is giving you the best professional advice in suggesting that colleagues at DOE can identify venues for publishing this theory about what happened at the Holowka farm. The MICFiC really won't like it even a little bit.

Posted by N E at March 18, 2011 09:40 AM

Thank you for the analysis.

Posted by rick at March 18, 2011 10:00 AM


Posted by Amandasaurus at March 18, 2011 11:31 AM

Amazing post.

Looking at the topo map here:
it does seem like Zions View and the surrounding area would have been a very likely avenue for gasses venting from the TMI plant. It is situated in a fairly narrow valley SSE of the plant; all of the surrounding land appears to be higher.

Posted by Ben at March 18, 2011 01:56 PM

This seemed implausible to me, so I tried to run the numbers. Admittedly, I've not done this kind of calculation before, but I think it's fairly straightforward.

You're hypothesizing that a visible quantity of blue light was produced by photoelectric effect of gamma radiation in the atmosphere. Just to get some numbers, I assumed that meant a 10 m, 1 steradian cone of atmosphere had a luminosity of about 1 lumen (~10^-3 W/steradian) in visible light --quite dim to see in the day. We can estimate the luminosity in gamma by noting the absorption of 100 keV gamma in air is ~2*10^-6/m, and assuming that ALL absorbed gamma energy converts to visible light (thus yielding a substantial underestimate of gamma). The transparency of tissue to 100 keV gamma is 0.16/cm, which for about 10cm of tissue means that more than half the gamma is absorbed (lets just say half).

Absorbed gamma power = 1/2 * L_gamma = 1/2 * L_visible / (2*10^-6/m * 10m)
Absorbed gamma power= 25 W / steradian
The volume of this 10cm deep, 1 steradian cone of flesh is 1/3*(10cm)^3, and the density is roughly 1 g/cm, yielding 1/3 kg
Exposure = Absorbed gamma energy / mass = 75 Sievert / sec

This is pretty much instantly lethal. Slotin was estimated to be exposed to 21 Sievert. The incident (in which blue light was observed) lasted a fraction of a second and killed him in 9 days.

On the other hand particulate, toxic or otherwise could easily appear to be blue.

Posted by Ted at March 18, 2011 02:16 PM

I have to agree with Ted, this explanation seems pretty unlikely. I mean, if her account is to be believed, the air was so thickly blue that they couldn't even see the buildings, and stayed that way for a few days. The amount of radiation required for that would almost certainly have been rapidly fatal. It's conceivable it could have been particulate, or that she was just mis-remembering, as she was interviewed several years later. Also, in a previous post you point out a dog that died, but that dog almost certainly died from bloat, from drinking all that water left out by the owners. I'm really not disputing the possible health problems that may have resulted from TMI, I just don't know much about it, but this story from Ms Holowka doesn't seem to prove or even suggest very much regarding that issue.

Posted by carykoh at March 18, 2011 03:14 PM
...I believe that the Three Mile Island disaster discharged a cloud of radioactive krypton gas, which (because it’s much heavier than air) settled on the Holowka farm seven miles away. As it settled to earth, this cloud of gas nearly asphyxiated Marie Holowka as she tried to walk from her barn to her home.

There's a substantial problem with this theory, unless I'm simply misinterpreting it, which is entirely possible.

Since krypton is chemically inert, its only plausible mechanism for inducing asphyxiation is to displace/dilute the ambient oxygen. The indicated symptoms of asphyxiation would require at least a factor ~2 (more likely ~3) reduction in available oxygen.

It's not clear what the actual dimensions of the 'asphyxiation zone' were based on this account, but it does mention two forays of 20 and 40 feet, respectively, so let's suppose very conservatively that it encompassed a pancake shaped volume 60 ft. in diameter by 6 ft. high. The amount of Kr85 required to displace half that volume (thus reducing available oxygen by a factor of 2) is ~8500 cubic ft, or roughly 1 ton of Kr85 gas.

But this exceeds the estimated total release of Kr85 from the TMI incident by a factor of ~7000! [But check my figures/math: Estimated total release was 50000 Curies*, divided by 400 Curies/gm-Kr85*, times .0022 lb/gm = ~0.3 lb Kr85] Indeed, a large commercial fission reactor would need to operate continuously for well over 1000 years to generate a ton of Kr85, so this scenario doesn't hold up even if they were flat-out lying about the magnitude of the release (let alone the issue of transporting it without dissipation to the Holowka farm).

Not to say that the asphyxiation incident wasn't somehow related to the TMI release, I just don't see how the Kr85 provides the mechanism.

*Peterson, et al, "Radiological and Chemical Fact Sheets to Support Health Risk Analyses for Contaminated Areas", Argonne National Laboratory, Mar 2007

Posted by SunMesa at March 18, 2011 03:43 PM

You gave Marie her voice back.
And her veracity.

0 casualties my left nut.



Posted by Poicephalus at March 18, 2011 09:17 PM

Policephalus: AGREED!

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 18, 2011 10:29 PM

Policephalus: AGREED!

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 18, 2011 10:29 PM

Sun Mesa

Isn't nitrogen an inert gas that could account for asphyxiation too? I read an article yesterday ( in which the author said pure nitrogen is sometimes, including by TEPCO in japan now, used in containments to prevent explosions. I don't know whether that happened at TMI, but couldn't a cloud of gas that floated over the Holowka farm area have had both more nitrogen than usual because of such venting (or for some other reason) and less K85 than you posited, and therefore caused both the blue light and asphyxiation and still involved a dose of gamma radiation that wouldn't be immediately lethal? My understanding is that both krypton and nitrogen are colorless, odorless inert gases, so either or both together (and perhaps other inert gases too) could cause asphyxiation.

Just wondering.

Posted by N E at March 19, 2011 09:16 AM

The EPA say they tracked the krypton release. I can't comment on their methodology. It's conceivable that they missed, and came up with misleading readings from their samples.

Posted by Charlie at March 19, 2011 11:42 AM


Nitrogen, while not chemically inert to the extent that krypton is, would serve equally well as an asphyxiating agent in the scenario described.

However, the atmosphere is already ~79% nitrogen, in the form of N2 gas, which is slightly less dense than air. At equal temperatures, a volume of N2 released in air would tend to rise, even more rapidly so if its temperature was higher than the surrounding air (which I should think it would be in the TMI scenario).

So, I can't see any plausible mechanism for a such a volume of N2 gas to migrate, intact, seven miles horizontally from TMI to the Holowka farm. It was already a stretch in the case of Kr85, but since the latter is denser than air one could at least imagine it hugging the ground and possibly collecting in depressions in the surrounding terrain.

Posted by SunMesa at March 19, 2011 12:39 PM

I went back and read the TMIA accounts more carefully. Maria Howolka's account is of March 28, 1979. The planned Kr85 release, tracked by the EPA, was in July 1980. I can't see why there couldn't have been unplanned releases prior to that.

Posted by Charlie at March 19, 2011 03:14 PM

Thanks SunMesa. On this stuff, I can't tell the difference between ridiculously stupid, ordinarily stupid, and good questions, but I wonder if anything else could have been present along with Kr85 in a cloud or envelope or the like to either supplant oxygen in the air or cause people to feel oxygen starved because of some physiological effect. Whether or not it's a correct explanation of what happened, I at least "get" the blue light, metallic taste, and sensation of heat, but if there wasn't nearly enough Kr85 to make people feel asphyxiated (and maybe couldn't have been without killing them), I come up with nothing to explain the widespread feeling of asphyxiation. Which isn't surprising since I know nothing about reactors.

Posted by N E at March 19, 2011 05:04 PM


I've never known your comments or questions to be any shade of stupid. On the other hand, I don't know much about reactors either.

In principle a well-mixed combination of nitrogen, krypton-85 and/or other heavy gases and particulates, radioactive or otherwise, could have a bulk density greater than air and hence flow or settle out at ground level. More information would be needed about the relative fractions of each component, as well as the total volume and temperature at release.

I reiterate my opinion that air made either noticably warm or visibly luminous by entrained gamma sources would be rapidly lethal, and that the blue 'glow' was more plausibly due to light scattering from aerosolized particulates. However, a sufficiently dense gas mixture, such as postulated above, could be warmer than ambient air but still settle out at ground level.

So, I don't (yet) rule out that the glow, warmth, and asphyxiation effects were TMI-related. I just don't think they derive directly from radiation or radioactive gases.

Posted by SunMesa at March 19, 2011 07:55 PM

SunMesa: Perhaps an inversion layer or moisture content is involved???

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 19, 2011 08:57 PM

SunMesa: Perhaps an inversion layer or moisture content is involved???

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 19, 2011 08:57 PM

I will have another post on this topic Monday evening. But, a few points before then:

1) The point about asphyxiation is a good one. I had thought about this but had not done the calculation. The answer is pretty obvious, though: ozone.

2) The math relating to the gamma doses is wrong. One has to consider how the 300keV beta goes about losing energy: by shedding X-rays, and a few eV at a time by ionization. Taking this view, I can't see why Holowka necessarily would have received a dose which was immediately lethal.

It will be possible to calculate the optical depth for different conceivable concentrations of krypton to determine the brightness of blue, which should put this conjecture on a firmer scientific footing.

I will examine what the EPA did to track Kr emissions. But I doubt they tracked emissions from an accident they did not know had happened yet.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 19, 2011 10:14 PM


A thermal inversion could certainly alter the vertical migration of the released material. I can't think of any dramatic effect that moisture content would have on transport, but it could affect the formation of fog (the blue glow?). More speculation really, I'm no more a meteorologist than a nuclear engineer. In the blog environment (if any other), trust no one.

BTW, I note that lately your posts have developed a stutter. Hope all is well. :)

Posted by SunMesa at March 19, 2011 10:51 PM


Perhaps "ignorant" would have been a better word than "stupid", because I don't want to suggest I lack confidence. I just don't have more than about a thimble full of knowledge about radioactivity, most physics, or any of the rest of the relevant science. But I do have some experience identifying where scientists are overreaching, making undisclosed or unrecognized assumptions, or even--gasp--lying even when I don't know the underlying science very well. Anyway, following up on your statement do you (or anyone) know if there is some reason blue light and warmth could not have been caused by BOTH a fog of aerosolized particulates AND gamma radiation? Sorry if that already has been explained and I just missed it.

Posted by N E at March 19, 2011 11:24 PM

SunMesa: The moderator page doesn't pull through on this computer unless its clicked twice. Like me its old and wore out.

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 19, 2011 11:37 PM

First I couldn't wait to find out about blue light, and now i can hardly wait to find out about ozone . . .

Posted by N E at March 20, 2011 01:17 AM

"It could be a coincidence, but two days prior to the accident, I had a metallic taste in my mouth." . . .
"I had said that I feel queazy and have a funny taste in my mouth. Wednesday and Thursday is when I had this weird taste. I had it here at the office. I think the taste faded when I went home." . . .
"The taste was a little bit bitter. I’m trying to find a way to describe it. Just bitterish, metallic-like. I never experienced anything like that unless there was a reason. I use tin to keep packing in place. It reminded me of a tinny taste. It was a mixture between tin and acetic acid. Ozone. I think I might have had that taste in a bad thunderstorm. Again, that’s subjective. "
-Keith Malcodi, Lewisberry [near Redland High School]
27 years old
Interviewed: January 24, 1983
tmia ( )

Posted by Some guy on the innernet at March 20, 2011 01:27 AM

Isn't ozone blue too?

I'm enjoying learning atomic physics for dummies between Aaron's posts and the learned comments.

Too bad the Howolkas didn't have one of these handy:

Sensing & Measurement

Simultaneous sensing of ozone levels and gamma radiation in a hand-held device

Khalil Arshak, Olga Korostynska, and Ger Hickey

Mixed metal oxide thin-film sensors can provide cost-effective real-time monitoring of radiation and toxic gases.

Posted by N E at March 20, 2011 02:09 PM

I want to point out again, that according to her account, the blueness was so dense that she couldn't see any buildings, or ten feet in front of her. And the blueness lasted several days. I just don't see how that could have resulted in a radiation exposure that didn't even result in immediate toxicity, at least GI symptoms. Also I think the asphyxiation theory is a stretch. Certainly it's possible a cloud of gas, even ozone, hung together for seven miles and landed on Marie, but that's pretty improbable. I think if you step back and look at it, you're really trying hard to make the physics and math fit your theory when other explanations seem more likely, namely either air particulates, or simply mis-remembering of the events years later.

Posted by carykoh at March 20, 2011 02:23 PM


Aaron has simply propounded a theory and responded to comments based on what he knows, which is what scientists should do. Memory is certainly fallible, and also changes over time, and even contemporaneous perception can be unreliable, but that doesn't mean contemporaneous perceptions and memories of them should be ignored, especially when they are consistent. Unlike Aaron, I don't even understand the math and physics, so I can't really step back from it. I haven't formed any opinion about any of the substance of this and probably won't ever have an opinion that is worth much because of my lack of scientific training. I just find the issue interesting and important, so I'm glad someone with an open mind and scientific training is looking at it, even if I fear he may misunderstand the reception such a theory will receive.

What I personally am highly interested in is why people are quick to dislike and dismiss some interesting and important theories while quickly accepting other theories that are not any more well grounded. That is commonplace, and in my opinion reflects a very strong bias against reaching certain types of conclusions. As a fairly mainstream type, I used to have that bias myself, and I can still feel its gravitational pull, so I don't underestimate it, and I don't doubt for a second that the mighty MICFiC could have kept the public in the dark for thirty years about deaths and serious health consequences of radiactive emissions from TMI.

However, that doesn't mean they did. What actually happened depends on what actually happened, not on what might have happened. The thing is, when there are open questions about what actually happened, and especially where the authorities are so reliably hostile to uncovering certain kinds of facts, considering what might have happened is worthwhile. I'll even argue that a theory disfavored by the authorities is especially important, because that's the theory that is least likely to get adequate consideration. Assuming, of course, that establishing the truth is always the goal, an assumption that all profess and far fewer really believe, especially when they have taken on the burden and privileges of responsibility.

Posted by N E at March 20, 2011 03:38 PM

Aaron, I don't know if you are thinking of pursuing this further, but by Googling I did unearth a report of a 'blue glow' at a dump at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, KY. The linked text seems to have originated in something called the RadSafe mailing list, which appears to be hosted at IIT. Excerpt:

Just for the record. The information on the "Blue Glow" at the Paducah site was taken from an ATR (Assessment and Tracking Report) that I issued in accordance with procedures and as a normal course of business. (In essence an ATR is a problem report used to raise an issue so it can be investigated.) The "Description" of the problem stated, 'In past years, beginning in the early 1980's, there have been reports of a "blue glow" that looked like "blue fire" above the ground over the southeast corner of the
C-746-F burial yard. Each time the phenomena has been observed it was just after a heavy rain with a mist or high moisture condition just above the ground. During the first reported sighting it is my understanding that personnel involved were told to stay out of the area and stay upwind. The "blue glow" was reportedly been seen a number of times after that (after a heavy rain) until an additional layer of dirt (5-9 feet) was placed over the previous elevation.

This is all a bit too close to UFO sightings material for my liking, but I suppose that's how it goes sometimes.

Posted by Charlie at March 20, 2011 05:47 PM

NE--in this case it's the physics people are arguing about. Whether or not there were deaths caused by TMI which were covered up is mostly a separate question. What's got the physics types riled up here is simply whether Aaron's theory is plausible or not.

Posted by Donald Johnson at March 21, 2011 12:51 PM

Donald Johnson:

I know people are looking at the physics and genuinely thinking about that. But whether even physics types get "riled up" depends on context. As Charlie said in the comment just before yours, Aaron's theory is perceived as "too close to UFO sightings" for some--and I'd bet most--of the scientifically oriented. My own hypothesis (not worthy of theorydom) is that this is so not because of the math but because it feels crazy and irrational to believe that the truth about a major event can be and has been effectively suppressed even though that's actually pretty routine.

Posted by N E at March 21, 2011 01:21 PM

Donald Johnson - YES. And I appreciate all of the comments in that vein, too. It has engaged me on the topic much more than I otherwise would have been.

Posted by Aaron Datesman at March 21, 2011 01:21 PM

Aaron Datesman: I don't live near one but I have family near Diablo Canyon so I would REALLY like to know what to look for on such occasions.

Posted by Mike Meyer at March 21, 2011 01:35 PM

I admire your tenacity in these matters, Mr. Datesman. The way you carefully set up your purposes in writing reminds me of Orwell's essays.

Posted by Cloud at March 21, 2011 03:06 PM

I am woefully underequipped to comment on the science in Aaron's posts. But I can comment from my experience as a journalist, and having seen how powerful industries lobby and pressure for what they want in Washington. Had TMI emitted a lethal dose of radiation that killed Mariw Holokwa, I have no doubt that it would be downplayed, sidelined and otherwise dismissed so as to not trouble the atomic energy industry. When it comes down to an industry providing for the energy needs of the thirstiest nation in the world and being less than forthright on the death of a civilian or the risks that a particular form of energy presents...well, that's a no-brainer. The industry will lie and cover up every time.

Every. Time.

Posted by Bill Coffin at March 21, 2011 03:42 PM

"My own hypothesis (not worthy of theorydom) is that this is so not because of the math but because it feels crazy and irrational to believe that the truth about a major event can be and has been effectively suppressed"

NE, you're just wrong about this. The physics types in the threads are reacting to the physics, or what we interpret as the physics of Aaron's theory. I can guarantee that we would be just as interested either in understanding how Aaron could be right or tearing his theory down if it is wrong if it had no political content whatsoever.

Posted by Donald Johnson at March 21, 2011 04:55 PM

Donald Johnson:

Well, you could be right, because I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken. (Ba-dum-chi).

Seriously, you seem to be a very conscientious thinker, as do most other physics type commenters around here--plus, blog psychoanalysis isn't my field--but in general I stick to my position that how much and how quickly people are troubled by theory doesn't just depend on the math. Even for math and physics types.

Of course, fortunately people can compensate for that with some effort, despite the hindrance of formal training, or else humanity would be doomed to an endless cycle of making the same horrific, barbaric mistakes over and over again forever. Whew.

Posted by N E at March 21, 2011 06:03 PM

As a 'physics type' I am troubled by the theory that WTC7 collapse was not a rigged demolition because of 'the math', i.e., it doesn't seem physically plausible.

N E, stop going around insinuating that the rest of us have a bias against believing in industrial cover-ups. That's pretty ridiculous here. People are just trying to work out whether Aaron's hypothesis adds up.

Posted by Cloud at March 21, 2011 07:58 PM


Not EVERYBODY has this bias, and I don't have anything against people who do. I guess I'm just a wee bit OCD and have poor impulse control.

By the way, the fact that intelligent, well-intentioned, often brilliant people so readily accept cockamamie explanations for the collapse of building 7 and take the single bullet theory seriously instead of laughing uproariously is a big part of how I started to notice this dreadful social phenomenon and thereby inadvertently sentenced myself to a psychological exile that has substituted dull blog commentary for travel to exotic locations to foment revolution, or even hanging out with Neo in a cool leather coat somewhere made up.

But alas, what does that have to do with us all being killed by invisible radiation?

Posted by N E at March 21, 2011 09:15 PM