Fun Science "Facts" In The News
WillyShake has some good comments up on the hilarious story that came out this weekend about radioactive leakage from Illinois nuclear plants. OK, so that's not normally a subject you see described as "hilarious", and it's not -- what's humorous is the complete lack of science knowledge the reporter demonstrates in writing the piece. (The reporter, Andrew Stern, is apparently an "environmental issues" reporter for Reuters.) Let's look for errors:
"But some scientists and at least one congressman want a conclusive investigation of the health risks. They say that while tritium is like water, if ingested some of it may remain in the body where it can damage cells, leading to cancers, birth defects and miscarriages..."
"Tritium is like water"? No, actually tritium is "like" hydrogen, which is a constituent of water. It would be more accurate to say that "tritium is like sugar", since sugar has lots more hydrogen atoms. Tritium is the heaviest normal isotope of hydrogen, having 2 neutrons in addition to the proton, and a half-life of a little over 12 years. (It's a very weak beta-emitter, for those who were interested -- this means it's about as undangerous as a radioisotope can be.) He tries to give a better explanation later:
"Exelon and the NRC say a 1998 spill of 3 million gallons of tritium -- a form of hydrogen that becomes radioactive water when it contacts air -- did contaminate ground water that breached the Braidwood plant boundary."
Three million gallons of tritium? Wow, that's a lot... although I'm confused that they measured it in gallons; tritium, a gas, would normally be measured in cubic feet. Clearly, he means (but doesn't say) that the tritium is actually in the form of Controlled Pure Water, which is primary coolant that has been processed (basically distilled) so that the only radioisotopes left are the very few hydrogen atoms that have absorbed two neutrons and become tritium. So, it's not really "3 million gallons of tritium"; it's really three million gallons of water that contains a small amount very weakly-radioactive hydrogen. Also, while the "becomes radioactive water when it contacts air" statement is moderately accurate, it's still a little misleading -- hydrogen "readily reacts" with oxygen, but it's not an instantaneous reaction; the hydrogen normally needs to be burned to react with oxygen gas.
Anyway, WillyShake proposes that Navy nukes be drafted to teach high school science classes to help the country overcome the science knowledge deficiencies revealed in this article. Sounds good in theory, but having teenagers of my own, I'm not too eager to go through what high school teachers experience with today's students -- I think I'd be telling the kids "Hey, your pants are about to fall down" more than I'd be teaching. Maybe the younger nukes would do better...