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Nashville Scene Save the Hot Pigeons

Radioactive birds fly over England.

By Walter Jowers

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  Last week, a flock of radioactive pigeons darkened the sky near the Sellafield nuke plant in northwest England. Nobody knows how the birds turned radioactive, but the operator of the plant, BNFL, has put a team of scientists to work on the mystery. The English Environment Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are also working the case, probably just to make sure the BNFL people aren't hatching some kind of X-Files plot.

Ironically, the hot-pigeon scare sprang up just days after a satirical English television show did a sketch featuring fictional radioactive seagulls at the same site. Since the techies had their radiation testing equipment out, they checked some seagulls, just to see if life was imitating art. "Plant operators BNFL said the levels of radiation in the local seagulls were not dangerous," according to Reuters.

BNFL technicians checked a site where the pigeons congregate and found only background radiation. Agencies that regulate the Sellafield site say they want to see all the research data before they decide whether to take any action.

Pigeon sleuths, I've got a two-word hint for you: Stanley Watras.

Back in the '80s, our man Stan worked as an engineer in the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant in Pottstown, Pa. He'd been there for 11 proud, accident-free years. Then, one day in 1984, he walked through the radiation monitor at the plant's exit door, and he set the alarms to screaming.

Watras figured the machine had gone wacky, so he backed up and went through one more time. Once again, he set off the bells and whistles, like a man with a steel plate in his head trying to board an Iraqi 747 bound for New York. A technician ran a hand-held radiation-sniffing wand over Stanley's body, and it started squawking. Stanley was hot from head to toe, so he was hustled off to a cleanup area. Technicians took his clothes and threw 'em in a toxic-waste container. Stanley showered and scrubbed, but he couldn't get all the radioactive particles off his body. He had to wait in the cleanup area for four hours, until his personal radiation decayed enough to allow him to walk free among the uncontaminated.

The nuke plant was tested and retested for two weeks, and no spurious radiation turned up. So, one day, Stanley had a flash: He decided to go into the plant through the out door. And, don't you know, he set off the alarms. He was getting hot somewhere outside of the plant.

As it turned out, Stanley and his wife Diane were living in America's most radioactive house, in Boyertown, a few miles from the nuke plant. Radiation levels in the Watras living room were 700 times higher than the maximum safe level for human exposure. Technicians found that the radiation was bubbling up from underground, in the form of radon gas, a naturally occurring byproduct of uranium decay. It turned out that the Watras house was built right over the top of a uranium outcropping. If the house has been built just four feet to the left, there would have been no problem.

All this makes me think the hot English pigeons are spending their off-hours in some glowing-hot radioactive barn, surrounded by 18-teated milk cows, hogs the size of Geo Trackers, and sheep that don't have to be shaved, because their wool falls out all by itself. The barn is probably draped with camouflage netting, so prying eyes won't discover the freakish, yet extremely valuable, animals inside.

Follow the money, you English pigeon chasers. Look for a farmer who's living a little too well, has a year-round suntan, sports a few extra nipples, and sheds little clumps of hair as he walks by.

Once you've found the barn, you can cure the radon problem and save the pigeons. It's simply a matter of catching the radon before it gets into the building, then redirecting it out to the ambient air. These simple steps even worked at the Watras house, once the bulldozers had removed the uranium outcropping.

Or you could try the buckethead solution I heard about last year, which involves cranking up a leaf blower full-blast and plunging it into the radioactive ground. Three people swore to me that their uncle's cousin Bubba did this, and it rid his house of radon. I personally guarantee that this method will not work, but it does have the desirable side effect of burning up the engine in one of those dang leaf blowers.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nash-scene.com/~housesense. Or e-mail him at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com

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