Sunday, January 15, 2017

Human Error and Nuclear Technology

Human Error
Humankind has created a technology we cannot control.”  Martin Rees, world-renowned cosmologist and Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

Photo © Boyd Norton

Human Error
Humankind has created a technology we cannot control.”  Martin Rees, world-renowned cosmologist and Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

Audubon magazine published my article on the Three Mile Island accident in May of 1980, a little over a year after the TMI meltdown happened. I traveled widely during that year, visiting nuclear plants, attending hearings in Washington, observing an actual test in Idaho of the loss of coolant experienced by TMI. While gathering material for the article, I visited a nuclear power plant under construction in North Carolina. I remember how I leaned over the temporary railing and stared down into a gargantuan pressure vessel at Duke Power’s McGuire Nuclear Generating Station, under construction near Charlotte, North Carolina. Blinding blue-white arcs of welding torches imparted an eerie, almost stroboscopic glow to the smooth interior of the great stainless steel container that was being put together, piece by piece. This was the crucial vessel that would restrain the nuclear fission while withstanding enormous internal pressures and searing bombardment by neutrons and gamma rays. And I wondered at the time:
How do you build the perfect machine? For it takes nearly that to contain and control the fission process safely.
How do you guard against
the hung-over welder
the foreman whose wife just left him
the stoned and careless electrician
the negligent draftsman
the engineer appeasing management
the inspector fearful of losing his job
the inexperienced designer
the alcoholic manager making decisions
the incompetent reactor operator
or the CEO whose primary concern is profits?
In the end, every nuclear accident can be traced to human error since it is humans who design, build and operate nuclear reactors.

This is an excerpt from my newest book Tickling the Dragon's Tail, being completed. For those who might be interested here is the first chapter published last fall in the literary magazine, The Kenyon Review. It's about the day I blew up a nuclear reactor - deliberately. Link

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Is Frontier the Worst Airline in America? Yes!

Is Frontier the worst airline in America?
Hmm, if not the worst it’s pretty close to the top.
Let’s see, I’d like to make a reservation on Frontier from Denver to Washington, DC. Okay, easy enough. The fare seems reasonable – not great, but okay.
Fine. Made the reservation.
Oh, wait a minute I need a seat. You mean I have to pay extra for a seat?
Let’s see. OMG, standard seats are $6, luxury seats (meaning they have padding) are $20 and up (in this case about $35).
If I don’t pay for a seat, do I have to stand and hold onto an overhead strap like in a subway?
Ah, well I paid for a seat. Standard.
What else? Oh, carry-on bag. What? I have to pay to have a bag with my laptop, camera, business papers and meds? $35. Sheesh, this is getting ridiculous.
Checked bags. Another $30 for one, additional $40 for the second.
What next, a fee to use the lavatory? No, but I imagine it’s coming.
Finally I’ve paid all the ransom money. When I total it all up I haven't really saved anything on the airfare.

My departure day has arrived. I’m on board and in my seat. But wait, where’s the tray table? Oh, they don’t tell you that in the standard seats the tray table is barely big enough to hold a smartphone. So my laptop really will be a laptop.
And the seat doesn’t recline. Moreover it’s like sitting in a straight back wooden chair with seatbelt (which I'm surprised they don't charge for). 

The 4 hour fight did arrive on time, small consolation for the discomfort.
I remember the good old days when I traveled a lot in the old Soviet Union on Aeroflot, considered then as the world’s worst airline.
Ah, but most U.S. airlines have adopted the old Aeroflot as their business model.
Except that the last time I flew on the new Aeroflot it was luxurious in economy class.
Oh, one last thing: Frontier has a frequent flier plan.
Would anyone in their right mind use it?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

In Memoriam - Martin Litton, One of America's Great Conservationists

Martin Litton, one of America’s giants of conservation, passed away November 30th. He was 97 years old and he stands alongside David Brower as one of the most influential persons in the modern-day environmental movement. Martin was an accomplished writer and photographer and he served for many years as editor of the popular Sunset magazine. He served on the board of directors of the Sierra Club for more than a decade.

In the 1960s the Bureau of Reclamation had planned to build two major dams in the Grand Canyon. The bureau was nearly ready to start pouring concrete when Litton and Brower took on the battle to stop that insane scheme - and won. In addition, Litton was largely responsible for saving the redwoods from rampant logging and to help create both a Redwoods National Park and a separate state park in northern California. There were numerous other places that Martin was influential in saving, among them Point Reyes National Seashore.

I had the privilege of making a trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon with Martin in 1968. He was an expert river runner and now holds the record of being the oldest person to row the Colorado River’s fearsome rapids. He was 87 when he did that. He was also an accomplished (and fearless) pilot and I once watched in awe as he easily and flawlessly landed his Cessna 195 on a short and dangerous airstrip in the Salmon River gorge in Idaho.

Once, when I was still a nuclear physicist, I was sitting in my office out in the desert of Idaho and had a phone call from Martin. Excitedly he told me about a new book that had just been published. For almost 40 minutes he read me excerpts from the book. The year was 1968 and the book was called Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. The book went on to become a classic in conservation and literary annals and Martin became good friends with Abbey.

David Brower, who was a passionate and uncompromising conservationist himself, once remarked that Martin Litton was even more unwavering when it came to saving wilderness. Brower called him “my conservation conscience.”

I was privileged to spend time with Martin and his equally energetic wife Esther this past April at his home in Portola Valley while doing a video interview with him. He was still as passionate about saving wilderness. His video is now an important archive of wisdom and knowledge on conservation. The world will miss him, but his legacy will live on.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In a Decade Orangutans in the Wild May Disappear

In Borneo, on both the the Malaysian and Indonesian sides, the rain forests are disappearing, being replaced by palm oil plantations. Sad, but true. It's quite possible that within a decade the only orangutans will be in confinement like this poor adult male in a so-called orangutan "sanctuary" in Sarawak, Borneo.
His only "crime"  was being raised by humans so he never learned to survive in the wild. He'll spend the rest of his life in the slammer.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

We Thought We Had Won the Serengeti Battle, But . . .

In July we had word that the East Africa Court of Justice had handed down a decision against the Tanzanian government building a paved road across the heart of Serengeti National Park. But now the TZ government has filed an appeal - evidence that they still want to destroy the greatest land mammal migration on earth.

Read here from the NY Times.

Some new photos online

Some new photos added.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Very Sad Week: My Good Friend Joe McGinniss Died.

This past week was so sad. I learned that my good friend Joe McGinniss had passed away on Monday, March 10. It was not unexpected - he had been battling an aggressive form of prostate cancer and died from complications from it. Even though we knew it was inevitable, it was still very, very sad.

Joe was one of the last of the truly honest journalists. He wrote from the heart but he also wrote the truth. And those truths made him a target of many critics. His very first book was The Selling of the President 1968, published when he was 26 years old and it was an instant best seller. It was a revealing look into the behind-the-scenes tactics used in Richard Nixon’s campaign which won him the presidency. In full disclosure, I hadn’t read the book until I met Joe many years later. The Selling of the President foretold what was to become the future pattern of all later political campaigns. It is still an appropriate look at the PR packaging of candidates.

I met Joe and his wife Nancy in 1976 when I was working on my first Alaska book, Alaska: Wilderness Frontier. Along with two national park service planners Joe and I made a 13 day backpacking across the remote and beautiful Brooks Range in northern Alaska. The area
Joe in the upper Itkillik River Valley
would become Gates of the Arctic National Park a few years afterward. We also spent time in
Approaching Oolah Pass
the soon-to-become Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as well. Joe was just finishing a two-year
Joe In McCarthy, Wrangell Mountains
stint in Alaska working on his book, Going to Extremes, published in 1980. This book is one of the finest ever written about the culture and politics of Alaska. There are parts of it that are laugh-out-loud funny and parts that are serious and insightful about the raw beauty of places like the Brooks Range.

Joe’s most famous and most controversial book was Fatal Vision, about Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children. The book, published six years after MacDonald was found guilty by a jury, was a huge success and received critical acclaim for its handling of the very complex body of evidence. Fatal Vision became an NBC miniseries which also received acclaim.

I was privy to some of what went into the book. In the summer of 1977 I invited Joe and Nancy to join me at a ranch in Wyoming where I was running one of my week-long photography workshops. Joe brought with him one of MacDonald’s lawyers. Jeff MacDonald was also supposed to attend, as a participant in my workshop (he wanted to learn more about photography), but he had just been convicted by the jury and was in prison. Somewhere I still have the check MacDonald sent for the workshop fee.

There were some private conversations that week about the case. Originally Joe had been convinced that MacDonald was wrongly accused. At the ranch he was having doubts. A year or so later I was in New York and Joe and Nancy invited me to visit and stay at their home in Flemington, New Jersey. There were a couple of evenings over a bottle of Bombay gin with Joe discussing much of the evidence in the case. He was clearly agonizing over the fact that the man he originally thought was innocent was guilty as hell. There were photos and statements that Joe read to see if I agreed with his conclusions. It was so complex that I could not see how he could possibly make all this clear in his writing. But he did. And there was no doubt that MacDonald was guilty.

I suppose it was inevitable that some journalists, perhaps hoping to ride on the tide of the book’s success, came to the defense of MacDonald. Some claimed that Joe had conned the doctor, keeping him convinced that he (Joe) believed in his innocence in order to get more information from him. But Joe later wrote that he himself had been conned by this very charismatic man into believing him innocent. Fatal Vision still remains the best and most complete evidence that Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty of the murders. The book was published in early 1983.

Near the end of 1983 I received a phone call from Joe. Excitedly he described a new book he had just received an advance to do. Entitled Forbidden City, it would be about the life and times of Los Alamos during the years of the Manhattan Project. Joe knew that I had spent nine years as a nuclear physicist studying reactor safety for the Atomic Energy Commission at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. Would I help him as a consultant on the project? I told him I’d be delighted to do just that. And so in early 1984 we traveled to Los Alamos and later to Berkeley to interview many of the key figures in the Manhattan Project who were still living. I don’t know how many notebooks Joe filled, but it was a chance to see him in action as a thorough journalist. Even though he did not have a technical background, his preliminary research was so good that he knew the right questions to ask. And he analyzed carefully the answers. Joe was always cordial and the breadth of his knowledge convinced the interviewees that he was not some hack journalist trying for a sensational story. His interest in the subject was deep and sincere.

I guess it was sometime in 1985 that Joe learned of a new book coming out within a year. It was entitled The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The author, Richard Rhodes, was a fine, well-respected writer and a good researcher. Joe realized that by the time Forbidden City would come out in a year or two the subject would have been thoroughly covered by Rhodes. The project was dropped. I was disappointed, of course. But in 1986 when it was published, and I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb, I realized it had been a good decision. Rhodes’ book is still the finest and most complete work on the Manhattan Project.

Joe published two more books on murder cases, Blind Faith (1989) and Cruel Doubt (1991). In the early 1990s I was traveling extensively into the boondocks of the world - to Borneo, Siberia, South America, and Africa - documenting threatened wildlife and places. We did not communicate much in that period. Then, in 1995 Joe told me a publisher had given a huge advance to have him do a book on the O.J. Simpson trial. He got the only permanent journalists’ seat at the trial and day after day sat through it all. At the end, when O.J. was acquitted, he paid the $1 million dollar advance back to the publisher because he was so disgusted at the outcome of the trial. He could not write the book, he said, because the man was obviously guilty and what more could he say? I wonder how many other writers would have done the same.

I think it was sometime in the mid 1990s when I got another excited call from Joe. He had been looking around for a new project and Nancy suggested me! As Joe explained on the phone, I was the only person to have blown up a nuclear reactor deliberately, as a test, and gone on to save wilderness and wildlife as a photographer and writer. I was flattered, of course. But I was fearful. Joe could be brutally honest in his writings and who of us does not have something in our background that could be embarrassing if revealed? His second book, Heroes, was brutally honest about himself. It covered, in sometimes painful-to-read detail, the breakup of his first marriage after meeting Nancy. And there were other things about his private life that I could not have written about myself. And so I suggested to him that his doing a book about me might strain our good friendship. And besides, I argued, I’m not that interesting a subject.

After that I lost track of Joe. I was still traveling a lot. I learned later, via some long and detailed emails, that he went through a very bad bout of depression. But he also produced another book, The Miracle of Castel de Sangro, about an Italian soccer team from a small town that went from the very bottom of rankings to the top of the highest rankings and beat some of those superior teams. The book was mishandled in this country by his publisher and agent. But one European reviewer called it one of the finest books written on the sport. It gained popularity in many European countries.

I learned of Joe’s cancer last year when he emailed me. At first there seemed to be hope when he met an amazing doctor at the Mayo Clinic who had had success in treating a number of cases. But Joe wasn’t so lucky. The cancer won out.

 We will miss you my friend. There are not many good, honest writers/journalists left. You were one of the best.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Come join us in Vail, CO March 11

I'm giving a multi-media presentation March 11 in Vail at the Walking Mountains Science Center. The program is on the Serengeti ecosystem and our battle to save it. Come join us:

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Our Photo Workshops for 2014 and 2015

We have a very exciting workshop schedule for this year and the beginning of next. Check them out at: We are returning once again to the Absaroka Ranch in the Yellowstone/Grand Teton region of Wyoming, with one 7 day workshop in July and another in September. Raves reviews from last years' workshop in September. And by the way, we can offer this at an incredible price - $1845 for 7 days, 6 nights including EVERYTHING: lodging, great meals with wine and beer, horseback riding, and workshop tuition. These are filling fast! Click on the photo for more information.

Also, after a hiatus of a few years we are once again returning to Peru with a very exciting program that features the Amazon Basin rain forest as well as the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.Click on the photo below for more information.

Also, we will returning to Serengeti next February. This year's photo trip was, as usual, filled with incredible photo opportunities.It just seems to get better and better each year. However, we are still actively involved in saving the Serengeti ecosystem from some proposed destructive developments.

Check out all our information at:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tribute to a Great Person - Pete Seeger

In 1972 I was privileged to take Pete on a whitewater raft trip for several days on the Snake River in Hells Canyon on the Idaho/Oregon border. We were still fighting to preserve the canyon and river from a major dam proposal. Pete was supporting us and, while there, wrote a song about Hells Canyon. I'm saddened by his death. He was one of the great humanitarians of this century and last. And a great conservationist as well. Rest well, Pete.

 Pete 'n me in a calm section of the Snake River
 Serenading the Snake River
 A duet.
 Evening songs for our gang.
With Jimmy Collier
With Jimmy Collier
 Pete at the oars in white water.
The lettering on Pete's banjo read: This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

10th World Wilderness Congress in Spain

 The 10th World Wilderness Congress was held in Salamanca, Spain October 4-10. Attended by about 1000 activists from 60 different countries, it was a pretty high energy gathering. I gave a presentation on our battle to save Serengeti.

Great networking and contacts. It is always encouraging to see some of the great conservation work being done by others.

Salamanca is a beautiful city, rich in history. The university here was chartered in 1208. In 1492 old Chris Columbus lobbied the scholars here to convince the king and queen of Spain to fund his crazy scheme to sail across the ocean. We all know what happened after that.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Travels in Siberia - The Ministry of A&I

© Boyd Norton
Travels in Siberia

The Ministry of A & I
            From my first visit in 1986, and through many subsequent trips in the 1990s, I became acutely aware that this vast country, under the Soviet system, was run by a labyrinth of ministries in Moscow. No matter where you lived, all these ministries controlled commerce and lives completely. There were some 37 of them, ranging from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ministry of Coal Industry, the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and more. There were ministries for Defense, Defense Industry, Geology, Information and Press, Shipbuilding, Oil and Gas, Metallurgy - well, it was an impressive list. And then, of course, there were agencies under these ministries, called Committees, the most noted of which was the Committee for State Security, Комитет государственной безопасности, better known by its Russian initials, KGB.
            I discovered in my travels that the most important and powerful of all these ministries was a well kept state secret for decades. It was called the Ministry of Aggravation and Irritation. Even today few people know that this agency held sway over every other ministry. Nothing could be built and no policy implemented until the Ministry of A&I had applied its rules.
            Here are some examples of the secret influence of the Ministry of A&I:
            Until the late 1990s, all Aeroflot planes were required to have carpeting that was not anchored firmly to the planes’ floors. The result? When stewardesses rolled the food service carts down the aisle, the carpeting would bunch up in front of the wheels. The resulting bumpiness caused food trays to bounce off the carts and into passengers’ laps or on the floor. Considering the quality of the food served, this actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
            It was decreed that no doorway entrance to any hotel or public building be larger than three feet wide. This made it impossible to enter a hotel while carrying a suitcase in each hand. (In fact, you could not enter even carrying one suitcase.) You had to stop, put the suitcases down, push one then the other through the doorway - and hope that no one was trying to exit at the same time. Regarding that last, it was also decreed that all entrances would be exits as well and that there was to be only one entrance/exit per building. On entering or leaving a hotel at busy times of day, you gained enormous respect for those NFL running backs who attempt to blast through a wall of massive defensive linemen.
            No restroom in any public building was allowed to have toilet seats. You either had to bring your own or do without or wait (if possible). And it was definitely forbidden to have any toilet paper in these public restrooms. For an extensive stay in the Soviet Union you had to bring one suitcase loaded with nothing but toilet paper. The shortage of bum wad all across the country was so great that you could often use a roll or two of TP as a bribe for certain services or goods. As a gift, a roll of toilet paper was on a par with a pack of Marlboros.
            All hotel elevators were required to hold no more than three small people - and with no luggage. If you had luggage, it was impossible to fit in with your bags. You then had to wait for an empty elevator, load the bags in it, push the floor button, escape before the doors closed, and then race up the stairs to your floor in order to rescue your bags when, and if, the elevator arrived. If your room happened to be on the 5th floor or above, you would be a prime candidate for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. If the elevator made a stop at some intermediate floor, your suitcases might be off loaded so that someone could enter. This, then, necessitated a floor by floor search for your bags. Checking into a hotel and getting to your room sometimes took the better part of a day. It would not have been so bad, but after the ordeal you needed a drink badly and the bar was always on the first floor. You had to use the stairs because the elevator was loaded with someone’s luggage.
            There were numerous other things that were a tribute to the success of this ministry in inflicting aggravation and irritation. For example, it was absolutely forbidden to have smooth sidewalks, especially those in the vicinity of airports, train stations or hotels. If you had a suitcase with roller wheels the irregular surface of the sidewalks made it impossible to tow it very far without it falling over.
            It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the Ministry of A&I began to lose its influence. Before that all Aeroflot planes had to have open overhead bins (the ministry did not allow overheads with closed and latched doors). Any turbulence during a flight resulted in some interesting items bouncing out of the overheads and landing in your lap or on your head - chickens, paper bags full of eggs, someone’s dirty laundry, a birthday cake, and - no lie, it actually happened to me - a box of live crayfish. In full disclosure, the owner of that box, perhaps fearful that it would fall, had taken it out of the overhead bin and set it in the aisle next to his seat. The vibration of the plane panicked the crayfish and, before the owner noticed it, a number of them escaped and dispersed under the seats - causing a mild panic among the passengers before most were rescued and returned to the box. I never learned why he had a box of live crayfish - perhaps some Siberian Étouffée recipe? Today in Russia the equivalent of our TSA now has crayfish detectors at each airport.
            Finally, the Ministry of A&I came up with a brilliant scheme to announce its existence and importance to anyone arriving in the Soviet Union: speed bumps the full length of all airport runways. On an Alaska Airlines flight in the early 1990s, we touched down on the brand new runway at Magadan and immediately the plane bounced and rattled so violently that passengers appeared to be on an amusement park ride. Heads bobbed up and down, eyes bulged wide with panic and knuckles whitened. The shaking and rattling continued until the plane had slowed considerably, at which time the pilot came on and, in a vibrating voice rich in sarcasm, said “Welcome to Russia.” The Ministry of A&I had notched yet another grand achievement.