RICHLAND - Can you save yourself by jumping in a falling elevator? Is a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building lethal? Would cockroaches survive a nuclear holocaust that killed everything else?
The final question is being tested this week at Hanford nuclear reservation by a team from the "Mythbusters" show on the Discovery Channel, which expects to air the episode in about four months.
"It's been on the original list of myths since day one," said Kari Byron, who appears on the cable television series and was in town with Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci for the tests.
The crew is using an irradiator in the basement of Hanford's 318 Building just north of Richland. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory usually uses the device to calibrate dosimeters, which measure radiation exposure to humans and animals, and to check for radiation damage of video cameras, fiber optic cables and other equipment.
Lab operators agreed to the research for purposes of science education and workers donated their time, in some cases using part of their vacation allotments.
On Thursday afternoon, Byron and Imahara were cramming their uncooperative critters into a specially built roach condo to be exposed in the irradiator.
"I had to put myself in quite the mind-set to do it," Byron said.
A scientific supply company sent 200 cockroaches for the tests, "all laboratory-grade, farm fresh," Imahara said.
A control group of 50 will get no radiation, 50 others will be exposed to 1,000 rad, a lethal load of radiation for humans, 50 will be exposed to 10,000 rad and the last 50 to 100,000 rad.
The bugs will be watched over the next couple of weeks to see how soon they die.
"Contrary to popular belief, not a significant amount of research goes into cockroach radiation," Imahara said.
Flour beetles and fruit flies, also being irradiated for comparison, were a snap compared with the cockroaches, which did not take well to being corralled within a tiny block arrangement designed to make sure each bug gets the same dosage.
"They are very fast. They are very aggressive. They want to get away," Byron said. "They are opportunists."
The surviving bugs get a chauffeured ride back to San Francisco. A "Mythbusters" employee has been detailed to drive them because airlines won't let them in the passenger cabin and they can't be placed in the baggage hold without wrecking the experiment.
"We have to maintain reasonable temperature and humidity so they don't go into shock," Imahara said.