Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

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...


Blogger PigBoatSailor said...

The original report on this didn't sound quite so alarmist or make as many mistakes, but they also failed to note a few key items, as I pointed out then, and you point out much better than I.

As for younger nukes doing better with today's youth, well, as someone slightly younger than both you and Willy, umm, no thanks. The wife says I was a grumpy old man before I was 25, and I have just gotten more curmudgeonly as time has passed. Darn kids.

However, I can think of a few RC-div'ers that might have been up for the task (too bad Rob is too busy to comment at the moment) - they were the rockstars of the nukes on my boat. Half of 'em dated strippers, the rest were masters at D&D. Ok, maybe not so much that second half of 'em, and actually, the first half were dating Groton, ah, "dancers" for the most part, so they are questionable as well. Or we could go the complete opposite way and send Bo to scare the cr@p outta them, as he is probably the crustiest guy around. Either way, just the type to wow today's youth. Right? Maybe? Bueller?

3/06/2006 6:50 AM

Blogger MT1(SS) said...

Ahhh, tritium, a favorite subject of mine on the boat due to all the 'rumors' that went around the nubs in regards to its dangers. The most popular one being that, once the AN/PDR-73 (tritium monitor) alarms, then we're all dead.

Tritium gas, being a condition for Missile Emergency on SSBNs, is what we're talking about here. Tritium gas can be inhaled by people, and standard respiration exhales over 99.7% of it. The problems start to happen when tritium oxidizes into tritiated water, or Tritium Oxide. In order to do this, we need a heat source capable of generating the amount of heat necessary to cause this effect.

Cue: CO/H2 Burner (in effect, an oxidizer), some hot water heaters, etc.

Tritium Oxide, when inhaled, is absorbed into the lungs at a rate over 97%. Here's where we start getting into issues. Tritium, being a low-end beta emitter, begins causing internal damage. But! And there's always a but. A person would have to be breathing a tritium oxide concentration of over 1x10E4 mCi per M^3 over the course of 9 hours to receive the maximum allowable dose for combating a casualty (10 rem).

Hell, the max dose might be lower than that. It's been awhile since I've looked at that SWOP.

3/06/2006 1:27 PM

Blogger jeffox said...

Tritium is still my name. :)

3/06/2006 6:30 PM

Blogger WillyShake said...

Thanks for this more thoughtful, informative coverage of the story--which I sadly lack the ability to do anymore (all of that rad con stuff having been pushed out of my brain by sonnets, et al!)

Btw, I do recall now that I DID sort of "do my bit" to combat some of the general ignorance on this while I was teaching high school English lit & grammar. The topic of radiation came up during a discussion of tanning salons and I gave the standard nuke speals about relative dosages while working in a navy nuke environment vs. skiing in the mountains or lying on the beach. Tritium in particular never came up, but I did "lecture them" a bit about time, distance, and shielding and so forth so that they could be good critical readers toward sensationlist news accounts of radiation leaks etc.

How's that? LOL

...oh, and PBS, sorry that I missed your coverage of this story!

3/07/2006 9:58 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home