$10 for 10 Days for LIVESTRONG

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In honor of LIVESTRONG Day coming up on October 2, and in preparation for the 100 miles I’ll ride in the LIVESTRONG Challenge on October 21 in Austin, Texas, I want to show you how your small change can make a big difference in the fight against cancer.  For the each of the next 10 days, until September 30, I’ll ride my bike 10 miles for every $10 donated at my fundraising link http://laf.livestrong.org/goto/pearson

Here’s the catch:  no donations over $10, please.  Why?  Most people think you have to donate a big amount to make a big difference.  What’s $10 over an average day?

  • 2 average coffees at Starbucks
  • 2 combo meals at your local fast-food joint
  • 2 magazines
  • 2 footlong Subway subs
  • 1 movie ticket
  • Less than $3 worth of gasoline
  • My favorite meal at Chipotle (burrito bowl, chips and and iced tea)

You probably have $10 in loose change laying around the house or in your car’s cup holder.  I did.

 Your small $10 donation will help LIVESTRONG continue to provide FREE cancer navigation services to those affected by cancer:

  • LIVESTRONG Guidebooks and Journals
  • Help finding a doctor
  • Bilingual services to the Spanish-speaking community
  • Referrals to clinical trials
  • Financial guidance in dealing with mounting medical bills
  • Survivorship advocacy and education

As a family that has been directly touched by cancer twice within the last 5 years, LIVESTRONG ‘s navigation services helped make our cancer journey easier.  They were the first people to reach out to us when the diagnoses came in, and they’ve continued to stand by us – at all hours, without question, expecting nothing in return – over the past 5 years.  They’ll be there for you, too, when you need them.  I’m proud to support them and give back.

If everyone getting this donates $10, I’ll shatter my stretch goal for this year’s LIVESTRONG Challenge.  I’ll be riding my bike 100 miles in Austin on October 21, and I need the cycling miles between now and then.  If you’d like to really make me suffer on the bike and donate more than $10, I’ll humbly accept.

You know you’ve been wanting an easy way to make a big difference, and here it is:  http://laf.livestrong.org/goto/pearson

Just $10 for the next 10 days to make a big difference!  Please share this message on Twitter, Facebook, and with everyone you know.  We CAN help defeat the biggest health care crisis in our time and give our children a world free of cancer.

Thank you!

P.S. Please wear yellow on 10/2!

Speaking Out Against the USADA

Below is the text of an email I sent to my elected Colorado representatives, United States Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Congressman Mike Coffman, and by copy to the rest of the Colorado Congressional Delegation, plus Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia. In it, I urge an immediate investigation be opened into the practices of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) concerning its recently announced leveling of doping charges against Lance Armstrong.

Dear Senator Udall, Senator Bennet, Congressman Coffman, Congressman Kingston,

I am a Colorado citizen residing in Aurora, and a volunteer Senior Leader with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, known as LIVESTRONG. I am writing to implore you to act immediately to halt the baseless investigation of Lance Armstrong by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and to open an investigation of that agency and its CEO, Mr. Travis Tygart, for fiduciary misconduct.

On June 13, the USADA, located in Colorado Springs, announced that it was leveling charges against Mr. Armstrong, a part-time resident of Aspen, alleging that he was at the center of a 15-year doping ring in professional cycling. This investigation is yet another waste of taxpayer dollars and appears to be nothing short of a vendetta against Mr. Armstrong.

This USADA action follows the dismissal, in February, 2012, of a 20-month long, multi-agency federal grand jury investigation of Mr. Armstrong that cost untold millions of dollars and failed to produce a single indictment. That investigation, an egrieous example of prosecutorial overreach, covered many – if not all – of the allegations the USADA now brings against Mr. Armstrong. This investigation of a retired citizen who has passed over 500 drug tests without a single positive result serves no valuable purpose and calls into question the leadership of Mr. Tygart and his misdirected priorities.

The taxpayer monies now being spent by the USADA on this witchhunt would be better directed toward reducing the well-documented shortage of life-saving cancer medicines or perhaps increasing the funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At a mimimum, the funds could go toward reducing the federal defecit! The economy is poor, and wasteful federal spending must be stopped. Instead, Mr. Tygart and his agency are spending money we don’t have rehashing unproven hearsay brought by anonymous sources thought to have received sweetheart deals from the USADA in exchange for their testimony against Mr. Armstrong.

Later this summer several hundred athletes will represent the United States at the London Olympics. Among them will be the 24 members of the U.S. Cycling Team, 5 of whom call Colorado home, all proven champions in their own right. This investigation will surely cast a pall over the honor and glory our cyclists so richly deserve and for which they have so tirelessly worked.

It is time to put these tired allegations against Mr. Armstrong to rest and move forward. I urge you to stop the USADA investigation of Lance Armstrong immediately.

Thank you.

Erik Pearson
Senior LIVESTRONG Leader

Breast Cancer In Their Own Words: 5 Women Speak

  Last year I wrote a blog post bemoaning the pinking of America in October.  I argued that the focus on breast cancer, while noble, actually diminishes the overall focus on women’s health care in terms of cancer occurrence in women.  Pinking also perpetuates the long-held objectification of breasts.  A woman is more than her boobs, especially where cancer is concerned.

I participated in a breast cancer social media forum on Twitter in early October, 2011, because of my work as a cancer survivorship advocate and LIVESTRONG volunteer leader.  The topic was the yearly pinking of America.  It was clear from that forum – where tweets were flying at a rate of 4 per second – that a backlash against pink is beginning to take root in America, and I began to wonder how deep the emotions run.

I asked 5 women I know – all breast cancer survivors in various stages of survivorship, all with very individual experiences – to share their thoughts on these 3 questions:

  1. Did / do you feel obligated to “pink up” and do you feel ostracized if you don’t?
  2. Do you wear pink and if so, why? What does it mean to you?
  3. Would you change anything about the breast cancer movement and if so, what?

We conducted our chat via Facebook Messenger over the course of one week in early October, 2011.  I hoped to use the responses as a small part of a planned article on the various colors of cancer. However, I was completely unprepared for the intensity of the responses, and I struggled with how to appropriately convey the passion and gut-wrenching, brutal honesty these women shared with me.

I am humbled to share our conversation in its unedited entirety.

Meet the women:

Carrie N. is a married mother of 2 from Beaumont, Texas.  She is a stage 4 breast cancer survivor currently in clinical trial treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

Carrie C. is a single mother of 1 and published photographer from Wichita, Kansas and Houston, Texas.  She was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the most common form of non-invasive breast cancer.

Rica M. is a single mother of 2 from South Salem, New York, and a volunteer Leader for LIVESTRONG.  She was diagnosed July 19, 2011 at age 37 with stage 1A in situ and invasive intra-ductal estrogen responsive positive cancer of the right breast with a positive BRCA 2 gene result.  She underwent a double mastectomy and is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

Stacey G. is a married mother of 2 from Katy, Texas and is a school nurse.  She was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the most common form of non-invasive breast cancer.  She underwent a double mastectomy and her cancer is currently in remission.

Kathi C. is a married mother of 1 from Richardson, Texas.  She is a 5 year breast cancer survivor and works in hospital administration for one of Texas’ largest healthcare providers.

 Carrie N.:  I was so unashamedly sick of pink that I was almost militant about it.  Everyone kept dropping stuff off at the house that had the pink ribbon on it, “hope”, pink balloons, pink this, pink that…I really thought I was going to go nuts.  The best was a pink sequined hat with a dark pink sequined “pink ribbon”…yeah, like I was going to wear that to the grocery store.  It was a constant reminder that I was sick and different from all of my friends.  Now, I wear it as a badge.  My cancer is stage 4 and I am going to have to fight like hell now, now matter what is going on this month.  I want to be the poster child for why you should get mammograms regularly and early.  I want to be the symbol of courage for my children.  I want Jonathan [Carrie’s husband] to be proud of me.  Actually, I think the majority of humans that live here in Beaumont with me are proud of me and my continued effort to make cancer history.  I head back to MD Anderson [in Houston, Texas] on Friday to start another year of treatment.  I am praying to God that He will heal me completely…no matter what color I have on.  I am glad that this community goes all out to support me and my intense battle to save my life.

Rica:  Yellow, to me, is the universal cancer color.  In my opinion, Komen has killed pink for the cause.  Personally, I associate pink with Mary Kay [Rica is a Mary Kay consultant].  Right now, I’m wearing a Think Pink t-shirt and Think Pink pants. Why? Because I bought these years ago for Mary Kay PJ parties.  I’m not sure what color is “right” anymore for breast cancer.  Maybe a BOLD pink, a DIFFERENT pink.  Anything but a shade that Komen can, or should, be able to use, market, and exploit.

Carrie N.:  Rica, I agree with you about the exploitation by Komen.  I am afraid to voice my opinion because it is not PC.  If people ask if they can donate money for breast cancer research in my name, I ask them to give locally to the Julie Rogers “Gift of Life” Program here in Beaumont, TX.  This program provides free mammograms, prostate screenings, and is a huge community educator.  I am glad I am not a cult of one with my feelings toward Komen.  I haven’t been turned off by the [American Cancer Society] and have had a good experience with their efforts so far.  I lived in Austin when Lance [Armstrong] started LIVESTRONG, so I am huge supporter of his efforts.

Erik:  There’s been no real solid local cancer care program [in Beaumont, Texas] other than Julie Rogers Gift of Life (JRGOL).  The Rogers family members are huge community philanthropists.  Most Beaumont cancer patients make the 100 mile drive to Houston and MD Anderson for their care.  JRGOL provides much needed first-line support, but it doesn’t reach everyone it needs to.  There’s still stigma in Beaumont about coming forward with cancer, paying for it, and making the long trek to Houston multiple times a week.

Rica:  For me, Komen hasn’t done much, frankly.  I’ve called them for assistance, support, etc so they’ve had their chance to convert me.  Instead, in response to requests for help, I’ve been added to their bloody marketing list, and I was sprayed with their perfume as I walked through Lord & Taylor.

Stacey:  I was diagnosed in July, 2010.  My mastectomy was in August and I had a reconstruction at the same time.  I contracted an infection and had to have several surgeries to revise the reconstruction, resulting in an eventual complete fail.  My tissue expanders were finally removed.  My ribs and sternum were visible through two enormous holes in my chest wall.  I had two wound vacs, which put constant negative pressure on the wound beds to encourage healing, and a peripherally inserted central catheter, or PICC line, through which I received antibiotics and other medication.  

By the time I knew that my breasts were completely gone and I would never have any again, it was October.  Breasts were everywhere.  Pink, which I thought would be a color that would make me feel hopeful, was EVERYWHERE.  Everyone on all social media were posting all kinds of nonsense about what your breasts look like, for instance, (o)(o), and the rubbish that was what color your bra is and not telling guys…what this did for awareness, I do not know!  Anyway, I came to DESPISE pink ribbons, and that is how I feel to this day.

We should be able to talk about our breasts without making it cutesy to make it more palatable to people who don’t have it.  I think the pink ribbon “dumbs down” breast cancer.  Years ago we couldn’t say the word “breast.”  I feel like the pink ribbon just replaces that.  Breast cancer awareness is not just about bra games on Facebook, and it certainly isn’t a pink ribbon.  Breast cancer is a gut-wrenching loss.  Breast cancer is being 36 and no longer feeling like a complete woman because I have no breasts at all.  Breast cancer is abandoning your dreams of having children with your husband because your oncologists advise against it.  Breast cancer is being 36 and lingerie shopping at wig salons.  Breast cancer is horrible neuropathy, which necessitates medication with uncomfortable side effects for the rest of my life.  Breast cancer is waiting for the next lump, or an abnormal pap, or paranoia about every freckle.

It certainly is NOT a pink ribbon.

And that is my very unpopular opinion, but I stand behind it.  People can criticize it when they wear my prosthetics for one single minute.

Kathi:  I’m 5 years out and my feelings have changed as time as marched on and I have passed the “magic” line in the sand that say my chances of recurrence have reduced.  When I was diagnosed my 3 sisters-in-law sent me a huge bouquet of pink flowers and the card said, “Pink is your new signature color.”  And every time there was a pink ribbon I was all over it.  What it means to me is that I’m not forgotten.  The HUGE October Pinkness makes me remember that paying it forward is my new job now that I’ve survived the tough part.  It reminds me that it’ll never be over and I need to keep up my self-exams and keep true to my regular appointments.  And it means that there are a lot of people pulling for me and my sisters.  It also means that Komen has GREAT marketing people.

If I could change anything about the breast cancer movement it would be to include other types of cancer.  Gavin [Kathi’s husband] is a melanoma survivor and he always jokes that they don’t throw races or rose petals at his feet, they just throw him a bottle of sunscreen and say, “Hey dumbass, put this on!”  It’s never over for us, pink reminds us of that.  I think that depending on who you are depends on how you react to it.

Erik:  Kathi, you hit the key point about paying it forward.  It’s the obligation of the cured.  Y’all being big Dallas Cowboys fans, what do you think of the NFL’s Pink Blitz?  Do you think the message reaches the right people or is it clever marketing?  Do you see there one day being a “colorless” cancer movement?

Kathi:  I like the NFL Pink blitz.  If it makes just one woman or man go get an exam because it’s top of mind then its worth it.  But, it’s clever marketing as well, I don’t fault them for that.  Interesting concept, the “colorless” cancer movement.  I don’t know.

Carrie C:  I wear pink because it compliments my skin tone.  I am a two time breast cancer chick and I’ve had a bi-lateral mastectomy with reconstruction.  I, too, endured staph infections, multiple surgeries and incredible pain with the tissue expanders.  However, I’m through all of that and live a pretty awesome life after cancer.  I don’t give any thought to October being a special month or what color it is.  I could care less at this point.  I know I can’t control what cancer cells may or may not be lurking in my body so I pay attention to what really matters in my life: my daughter, my family, my friends, the world around me and myself.  I don’t get caught up in all the Pink madness as it’s just a color.  I find it interesting other cancers sometimes express hostility toward those of us with breast cancer because we have it “easy”.  It hurts to read and see that because no one I know had it easy but I can’t control their ignorance.  I can only continue to live a life filled with hope, adventure and love sans my “real” breasts.  At the end of the day, they are just fat and tissue that tried to kill me so it’s fine with me they are gone.  I am not my breasts and no one who really love me cares if I have them or not.

Erik:  Can you expand on the perception that breast cancer is an “easy”, “good,” or “popular” cancer to get?  Because as Stacey & Carrie C. have shown, it’s not easy.

Carrie C.  I hear it quite often.  We are the privileged few who get the “popular” cancer.  In other words, our cancer has the most “press”.  Yep, someone a long time ago decided to slap a pink ribbon on our boobs and market the hell out of pink and cancer.  The pink wave just grows and grows. Others resent the attention our cancer is given and have no issue saying it either in writing or to our face.  It happens to me.  However, the research that has occurred in the breast cancer arena due to all the money and press breast cancer receives is DIRECTLY responsible for the advances in medicine and research for many other cancers.  We do not live in a vacuum.  Cancer is cancer.  It may affect different parts of the body but ALL of it will kill you if you ignore it.

Stacey:  Has anyone else noticed how other breast cancer survivors can be judgmental too?  I have been told that I shouldn’t have had a bilateral mastectomy because I “just” had DCIS, although when the pathology came back from the “unaffected” breast, they detected hypertrophy there, which, as you all know, are early cellular cancerous changes.  My oncologist said that if I hadn’t had a bilateral, I would have been back in a few years, and it could have metastasized by then.

Some of the worst criticism I have faced has been from my “sisters” in cancer.  There is a lot of one-upmanship: “mine was double negative”, “at least you didn’t need chemo”, “hey…I would kill to be able to take my implants out at night”.  I have heard it all!

Carrie C.:  Yep. I had cancer in one breast, had surgery.  Couple years later it hit the other breast and I opted for the bilateral.  I get the whole DCIS diagnosis.  That was my diagnosis and I’ve been almost bullied by a few breast cancer survivors who “had it worse” than me.  It’s really sad.

Stacey:  That is sad, Carrie.  I am sorry you went through that.  I have never gotten why women can’t just be kind to each other.  Every cancer anyone has is the worst they have ever experienced.  I must have less estrogen than the average woman.  I don’t have room in my life for that garbage.

Erik:  Carrie, I don’t remember you having it easy after the mastectomy.  I remember you telling me about all the issues with the foobs [tissue expanders], and that was after “successful” surgery and treatment.  None of that sounds “easy” to me.

Carrie C.:  Erik, it wasn’t easy.  That’s my point.  I was told by others who have “worse” cancer that mine was the easy kind.

Rica:  I gotta love how other people assume they know why you choose the treatment you did, or what you should have done.

Stacey:  The one girl who is the worst to me is the sister of a dear friend.  I was bringing her meals every week during her chemo when I was diagnosed.  Then all of a sudden, she thought she was my cancer guru.  I can’t unfriend the bitch because I don’t want to hurt my friend, so I hid her [on Facebook].  And every Friday is WEAR PINK DAY at the school where I am a nurse.  I swear to God I want to go topless one Friday.  They would all poop their pants. And maybe I would get fired.  It would stop their damn pink tirade though.

Rica:  I hear you.  The lady who came to clean [my house] decided to tell me I shouldn’t have gotten the surgery, nor the chemo, because there were these berries in the rainforest, and if I only drank their juice, they’d break up and eat the cancer, and then if I added salt, I’d never have had cancer in the first place.  She seriously wanted me to cancel my chemo.

Carrie C.:  The whole point really is we all experience our cancer differently and what choices we make are up to each of us.  No one has the right to belittle us for the path we take on our journey as we fight the cancer beast.

Rica:  You said it, sista!

Carrie C.:  :-)

Seven Hundred Ninety-Nine Days

I’ve had survivor’s guilt for the past seven hundred ninety-nine days.

Cancer killed Dad on a bright blue, cloudless Wednesday afternoon, June 24, 2009, and I’ve not been right since. I struggle each day. I wonder what I could have done better or different. Should I have gone to Beaumont and Houston more frequently from wherever I was working at the time, to sit with Dad during his treatments? Had more meaningful telephone conversations with him? Taken our son, Karl, to see him more often, so they could play trains together, as they loved to do? Done something – anything – more?

Dad always told me to take care of my job and my family, and not to worry about him, and I, the obedient son, did what he told me.  He was proud of me, he told me so many times. I told him I loved him, and him, me. Still, I can’t escape the guilt of failure or the regret of things undone.

We buried Dad on a hot, humid, Southeast Texas Saturday, June 28, 2009, in his crypt in Magnolia Cemetery, on the banks of the Neches River, where my mother’s father fished as a boy. I sweated through my dress shirt collar and would have ripped off my tie if it didn’t mean violating some unwritten principle of mourner’s decorum. In teary silence, we watched, through dark sunglasses, the Army honor guard from Fort Polk, Louisiana, execute a twenty-one gun salute and precisely fold that crisp cotton flag and present it to Mom. Thanks from a grateful nation.

I dutifully returned to work two days later. I carried on in stoic silence, as is the wont – and curse – of Pearson men.

Hindsight shows me that I did not take enough time to grieve, to get my head screwed back on straight. I plunged back into work and ratcheted up my cancer advocacy and fundraising efforts. I worked hard at doing everything well except taking care of myself and my family.

I did nothing well.

My job performance suffered. My advocacy efforts, strong at first, seem stagnant now. My relationships suffer. My ability to communicate, to emote, to share myself – already tenuous – grew weaker as I threw up the Great Wall of Erik. I hide behind that wall today. Seven hundred ninety-nine days later.

I have my good days. I allowed myself to relax for the first time in years on our ten-day family vacation to Seattle and Alaska. I unplugged – no cell phone, Twitter or Facebook. June 24 came and went while we were in Ketchikan and except for a fleeting, private observance within my mind, the significance of the date passed on by.

But days come and go where I encounter a problem and think, “Let me call Dad.” I whip out my cell phone, finger hovering over the phone book entry for “Mom and Dad Pearson.” It’s just Mom now, but I can’t bring myself to change it. I stop, my chest constricts. Icy cold fingers grip my heart and slowly squeeze. My breathing becomes agonizingly short and shallow.

My Four Horsemen – guilt, grief, failure, and regret – return to haunt me once more.

The moment passes, but any momentum I had up to that point is gone. I stumble through the remains of the day.

I take a pill each morning, my little, oval, salmon-colored happy pill. It helps keep me from getting torqued, too wound up.

I know I should turn my guilt and grief into something meaningful, to act on them with a sense of purpose and responsibility. But uncertain inertia paralyzes me. I know I must live in the now, not in the past, and the future is but a fading dream.  How do I move forward? Seven hundred ninety-nine days later I’m still trying to move beyond putting one foot in front of the other.

What would Dad say to me right now? In his firm Master Sergeant’s voice, he would tell me to get off my ass and get moving.

People ask me how I am.  “Better than I deserve to be,” is my standard answer.  Some days that’s a true statement. Some day’s it’s pure delusion. 

 I live, but am I alive?

I’ve spent the past seven hundred ninety-nine days trying to figure that out.

Dear Cancer

Dear cancer,

I hate you.  I hate the way you sneak into our lives like a cowardly thief.  You play a sick, twisted version of hide-n-seek.  “I’m heeeere, see if you can find me.  All of me,” you taunt.

You try to play a game of chicken with us, like we’re a couple of Washington politicians trying to one-up each other.  The hardest part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch, and we don’t flinch.

Who the hell do you think you are?

You are like a stubborn cockroach.  We nuke you with radiation, flood you with lethal injections, cut you out, and still you persist.  I wish you WERE a cockroach, so I could hear the satisfying “crunch-squish” under my heel and see your guts splatter out as I stomp you.

You are like a scorned jealous lover, trying to dominate our lives.  I hate your egotistical desire to be the center of attention. Get out!  Leave, depart, vamoose, amscray! Go away, we’re done with you!

You are incredibly stupid.  In your fanatical desire for world domination, you’ve messed with 28 million people.  Here’s a newsflash for you, hotshot.  Each one of those 28 million people has at least 1 person helping them kick your ass.  And you’ve successfully managed to piss off at least a couple million more.  We are uniting every day into an army that will defeat you.

Dear cancer,

I am a better person because of you.  I love the people you bring into my life, people I otherwise would have never met.  These are people I have laughed with, cried for, hugged and prayed over.  They have become an extended family.

I doubt I would have begun cycling, exercising and taking better care of myself, if you hadn’t picked a fight with my Dad.  Yellow likely would not have become one of my favorite colors.

 I have devoted my remaining days on Earth, however many the Lord has planned for me, into defeating you.  This is my passion, my cause.  Without you touching my family, I don’t think I would have found this burning desire.

My battles with you have further strengthened my faith in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and throughout Dad’s battle with you, I saw his faith strengthened.

I feel like I learned a lifetime of lessons from my Dad during the 3 years he fought you, and I also realized that I still have much to learn.

Thank you, cancer.  Because of you, I am a better person.

Now go to hell.

Congressman Mike Coffman Replies

[Note from Erik]: A few weeks ago I wrote a letter to my Congressman, Mike Coffman, who represents Colorado’s 6th congressional district, asking him to vote against any federal budget proposal that threatens to cut funding for cancer research.  Here is his reply:

Dear Mr. Pearson:

Thank you for contacting me regarding funding for cancer research.  I appreciate your thoughts on this issue and the opportunity to respond.

On February 19th, the House of Representatives passed a bill to fund the federal government for seven months through the end of the current fiscal year.  Contained in this legislation were significant cuts to federal spending.  Included in these reductions is a $755 million decrease in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a $1 billion decrease for the National Institutes of Health, which includes the National Cancer Institute.

We are in the middle of a fiscal crisis.  Our $14.1 trillion national debt, and $1.5 trillion current year deficit, is unsustainable and economically ruinous.  I adamantly believe in amending the Constitution to require balanced budgets.  In fact, last year I established the very first Congressional Caucus to advocate for passage of House Joint Resolution 1, the Balanced Budget Amendment. This is the amendment that nearly passed Congress in 1995.  I believe passage back then would have prevented many of the problems we find ourselves in now, and passage as soon as possible will help prevent the upcoming budget disaster that surely awaits us.

The Democrat controlled 111th Congress failed to pass a budget, which has led to multiple stop-gap continuing resolutions being passed.  I am hopeful that the 112th Congress will pass a budget this year.  In this current economic climate, the budget will have to be reduced and various agencies will receive less funding than they previously experienced.  No doubt these decisions will prove detrimental to some and be controversial.  I will keep your thoughts regarding funding for cancer research in mind when the House of Representatives votes on passage of our budget.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Sincerely,

Michael Coffman
Member of Congress

A Non-Technical Explanation of a Nuclear Meltdown

There is a lot of concern right now about the situation in Japan with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and the strong possibility of a nuclear catastrophe if the engineers fighting to prevent a meltdown lose control of the reactor.

A few years ago I had a client who is a major player in the nuclear industry, and I was fortunate enough to learn how nuclear power plants are constructed and operated.  I  toured a training facility that had a non-working full scale mock up of what’s called the “Nuclear Island,” the part of any nuclear facility that houses the reactor, coolant pumps and loops, and the steam generator.  I had the opportunity to descend the 160 feet into the heart of the reactor, where the fuel rods would be.

The Japanese earthquake of March 11 and the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is a scary thing, and people old enough to remember the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were no doubt chilled to see news footage of explosions and fires caused by damage the plant sustained in the quake.  We don’t know the extent of the damage yet, but it’s clear the structural integrity of the Nuclear Island has been compromised.

DISCLAIMER:  I’m not a nuclear engineer, nor do I play one on TV, and I didn’t sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but this is my attempt to share my knowledge in a non-technical way.  Errors and omissions are my own.

Nuclear facilities are designed to withstand massive earthquakes, tsunamis, and direct aircraft impacts.  There are multiple layers of redundant safety systems.

The reactor core is protected by 2 layers.  First, the nuclear fuel is encased in metal tubes made primarily of zirconium (the fuel rods  at point #1, above).

The core of the reactor is flooded with coolant water that helps regulate the temperature and steam pressure being generated (point #2).

Lastly, the whole assembly of the reactor coolant pumps, pressure vessel, and steam generators are housed in the containment building (point #3.)  The containment building is a reinforced concrete dome that has a thick steel inner liner and an outer concrete shell.  The walls can be 3 to 6 feet thick.

The basic premise of nuclear plant operation is to raise and lower the fuel rods in the core to heat up the reactor water to generate steam, which is pumped out of the Nuclear Island to the Turbine Island, the power generation part of the facility.  [Scroll to the bottom of this post for a more technical overview of nuclear power generation.] A nuclear plant is safe as long as the heating and cooling balance in the core is maintained.

While nuclear power plants generate electricity, they need electricity to run (DUH!), which comes off the main power grid.  In the event of power failure, the emergency diesel-powered generators kick on and are designed to run the plant until main power is restored, or until the reactor can be safely shut down.

At Fukushima, the power was knocked out when the quake hit, and we don’t know if the generators were able to run, and if so, for how long.  Eventually, that balance of heating and cooling at the core became disrupted, the coolant water levels dropped, and the zirconium cladding of the fuel rods heated up, producing hydrogen, which ignited.  This was likely the cause of the explosion and fire seen in news footage.

A meltdown (“core melt,” in nuclear industry parlance) happens when the nuclear reaction can’t be controlled and enough heat is generated from the core as to begin literally melting the reactor pressure vessel and even the concrete floor around the core.

We can surmise that at this point, all 3 safety layers in the Nuclear Island were breached and radiation began leaking through the breach in the containment dome.

This is a terrifying situation, but under normal circumstances an intact dome with its steel liner should be able to contain a meltdown until it burns itself out.  This, obviously,  is not a normal situation.

The Fukushima reactor appears badly damaged.  I’m sure there are brilliant minds sitting around conference tables all around the world trying to figure this thing out.  There are 50 – 180 engineers – heroes –  inside Fukushima trying to get some control of the reactor, and their dedication will most likely cost them their lives.  All we can do is wait and pray.

How A Nuclear Power Plant Works

In Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) power plants, ordinary (light) water is utilized to remove the heat produced inside the reactor core by the nuclear fission phenomenon. This water also slows down (or moderates) neutrons (the constituents of atomic nuclei that are released in the nuclear fission process). Slowing down neutrons is necessary to sustain the nuclear reaction (neutrons must be moderated to be able to break down the fissile atomic nuclei). The heat produced inside the reactor core is transferred to the turbine through the steam generators. Only heat is exchanged between the reactor cooling circuit  (primary circuit) and the steam circuit used to feed the turbine (secondary circuit). No exchange of cooling water takes place.

The primary cooling water is pumped through the reactor core and the tubes inside the steam generators, in four parallel closed loops, by coolant pumps powered by electric motors.  Each loop is equipped with a steam generator and a coolant pump.  The reactor operating pressure and temperature are such that the cooling water does not boil in the primary circuit but remains in the liquid state. A pressurizer, connected to one of the coolant loops, is used to control the pressure in the primary circuit.  Feedwater entering the secondary side of the steam generators absorbs the heat transferred from the primary side and evaporates to produce saturated steam.  The steam is mechanically dried inside the steam generators then delivered to the turbine.  After exiting the turbine, the steam is condensed and returned as feedwater to the steam
generators.  A generator, driven by the turbine, generates electricity.