Sunday, March 27, 2011

Daring Bakers March 2011 Challenge: I Made a Damn Cake, But it Doesn't Matter

March is always a crazy month for me, with a bunch of meets to coach, as well as business meetings to attend as every working group and task force in the nuclear energy industry attempts to schedule their get-togethers JUST before refueling outages begin. I found a few minutes near the beginning of the month to check out the March 2011 Daring Baker’s Challenge, which was hosted by Ria of Ria’s Collection and Jamie of Life’s a Feast. Ria and Jamie challenged The Daring Bakers to bake a yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake.

YEASTED. Yes, using yeast. My nemesis. How, exactly, was I to fit this in with three weekend swim meets and a slew of meetings where I was slated to deliver talks in rooms packed with the brightest folks from the nuclear industry?

Well, as this photo shows, I did it. But it hardly seems to matter anymore. Neither did my previous level of over-scheduling. I’ll post my photos, and you can check out the instructions for making this here, but I just don’t think it matters enough for me to go over how I made this coffee cake.

It doesn't matter because on Friday, March 11, a destructive earthquake devastated northern Japan. Devastated. I was, like most of the world, troubled by the news. The reported death toll was low at first, but I think we all knew it would rise substantially.

The news outlets were all reporting that the affected nuclear reactors had shut down, meaning that control rods had been inserted in the core to greatly reduce the fission reaction rate. At least something was going well. I went about my work preparing for a talk I was to deliver at a meeting on probabilistic risk assessment at nuclear facilities the next week.

Then news outlets reported that there was no offsite power at the Fukushima Dai-ichi site, which is home to six boiling water reactors. It’s important that reactors have access to external power, as this makes it possible to keep coolant (water) flowing through the core to keep it cool, even after the fission reaction rate drops to near zero. At that point, the core is still putting off decay heat, but I was confident that the diesel generators would provide the necessary power.

Then the news outlets reported that the diesel generators failed. While this is never welcome news, I reasoned that each reactor had battery backup that could be used until offsite power was restored. It’s how we design our plants. Those of us in the business take safety seriously, and we care more about safety at nuclear reactors than anybody else.

Friends and old classmates who were watching news reports were, understandably, concerned, and since I’m the only nuclear engineer that most of them know, they asked me what I thought. I assured them that until the core was damaged, there would be no radioactive material released. And should there be core damage, the boiling water reactor designs used at Fukushima Dai-ichi site include robust containment systems to retain any radioactive material that leaves the core once it is damaged, meaning that the public won’t be exposed to radioactive material, save trace quantities of gases that might be vented to ensure that the containment pressure doesn’t get too high.

A few days later, data started to indicate core damage may have occurred in one of the reactors. No confirmation, but it was a possibility. But there was containment. Containment had worked during the partial core damage event at Three Mile Island Unit 2. OK. Breathe. Time for that meeting on probabilistic risk assessment at nuclear facilities (oh the irony…it was honestly scheduled over two years ago). I’d been tasked with delivering a few extra talks over the weekend, but a little extra work seemed like nothing now.

I delivered a talk. Went running. Went back to my room, turned on CNN to see an interview on the events. Then there was a breaking report that the pressure inside the containment at one of the reactors may have dropped.

The rest of the week was surreal. We worked to evaluate what could happen going forward while having nothing but the highest possible respect for the workers at the site.

The whole thing has been both thought-provoking and inspiring.

Thought-proviking because I, like every other worker in the nuclear energy generation sector, care deeply about operating our reactors safely and securely. We absolutely have to do this. Not just for ourselves and our coworkers, but for the public. Our operators practice drills and procedures for extreme, unlikely conditions on a routine basis. We care more than you’ll ever know.

Inspiring because, within our industry, everybody has stepped forward to offer anything and everything they can. People have been working 18-20 hour days, through weekends, with no expectation for extra compensation. Utilities have offered their top technical experts. Everybody, and I mean everybody, is willing to do anything asked of them without hesitation.

And in the meantime, we keep making electricity. Electricity that hospitals use to save lives, electricity that schools need to educate our young people, and electricity that we take for granted in our daily lives without considering the source.

Oh, and in case you care, for the filling, I spread out the meringue, then two ounces of coconut mixed with juice from four limes and a quarter cup of sugar. I topped that with eight ounces of chopped El Rey milk chocolate and six ounces of chopped macadamia nuts.

And that’s how I made the damn coffee cake. But I doubt you care at this point. I sure don’t.


  1. I love this post. I was leveled by heartbreak (and still am...) of this tragedy, and while life cannot simply stop, I certainly felt weird about continuing many things, including blogging. Even the posts I already had written seemed weird to schedule, and many times sat here in front of my laptop without a word to say.

    I am inspired by the grace and strength they handle themselves, and get on fixing roads and putting their cities back together. I can only WISH we would act with such courage and generosity.

    The cake does look good.

  2. There is so much sadness in the news today...the recent devastation in Japan is hard for me to fathom. Thank you for reminding us to think beyond ourselves...I'm keeping Japan in my prayers.

    I'm amazed you got your coffee cake completed...brava to you~

  3. Your coffee cake looks really good.

    I agree though, it's hard to even fathom everything that is going on over there. I lived for two years on Okinawa and I'm really familar with the entire mainland and for me to now see it on the news with so much devastation is so upsetting.

  4. Thank you for being a voice of information and reason through all of the confusion. It was nice to get a dumbed down but real version of what is going on rather than the news that is confusing and alarming ALL THE TIME. I can't even comprehend the devestation that continues in Japan.

  5. It has been so interesting listening to your commentary about the nuclear reactor. It is such a terrible tragedy, but hard to know what to believe from the news. Thanks for keeping us up to date.

  6. I'm a nuclear physicist so I understand totally your concerns and the wonderful effort that the industry goes to on the safety issues. My heart bleeds for the personal efforts going on in Japan.

    The cake looks smashing and the final colour is perfect well done on this challenge especially with all the other problems you are thinking about. Bravo to you.

    Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

  7. Thank you for this post, Victoria. You've actually helped explain to me a lot of what was/is going on. I really value that, because so much of the "information" lately has completely gone over my head, as all I was getting were quick comments from various newsreaders who clearly didn't understand what they were saying either!

  8. Completely understand your post! It is terrible all the tragedy in the world going on :(.

    I never realised you were part of the daring bakers, i used to be a member too but never get the time anymore, your cake looks lovely!

  9. Just echoing what Beth said...thanks. And you're right - everything seems so trivial compared to what's going on in Japan, not to mention other parts of the world.

    Your cake looks and sounds awesome. I'm amazed you were able to get it done and still post at the same rate through all of this.

  10. In the spirit of our love of food/bagels and also surviving...

    A great New York tip for getting maximum food for minimum money :)

  11. I am glad that in all of the trouble and sadness you went ahead and baked my coffee cake, yeast included! The results look so good!

    So much tragedy in the world, so much sadness around us, sometimes, sadly, we need to just go in the kitchen and bake something warm and homey for our loved ones that we are so lucky to have around us.