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.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Beta Radiation! It Burns!

Once again proving that the press can turn even the most innocuous nuclear event into the End Of The World As We Know It, check out this Telegraph article on the spillage of some controlled pure water from HMS Trafalgar (S 107). Excerpt:
More than 61 gallons (280 litres) of toxic coolant poured into a river from a burst hose as it was being pumped from the nuclear submarine HMS Trafalgar on November 7.
But the Navy has only now admitted to the spill of the liquid, which contained tritium, a substance which can cause burns, cancer and DNA mutations as it breaks down...
...The incident happened as the coolant was being pumped from the hunter-killer submarine into a large tank on a jetty at the Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth, Devon.
When the pipe split, the liquid, which had been used to cool the sub's nuclear reactor, poured into the River Tamar causing the worst spillage at the base for 23 years...
...Tritium is an unstable radioactive form of hydrogen which glows in the dark and is used to create the luminous glow on watch dials. Concentrated tritium is also used as the fuel to kick-start the uncontrolled reaction in a nuclear bomb, but in nuclear reactors it is a by-product of the reaction process.
It is classed as a 'soft beta emitter', giving off low-energy beta radiation as it decays into a form of helium. Beta radiation can cause burns, cancer and DNA mutations, and tritiated water can enter the body through the skin's pores.
I'm not sure how beta radiation can cause burns at anything other than the highest doses, unless they're talking about electrical burns, because that's what beta radiation is: an electron. You get more "beta radiation" from shocking your hand on a doorknob from static electricity than you would from drinking a gallon of CPW (remember Rickover drinking a glass of it in front of a Congressional panel). Plus, the "beta" from tritium comes out with a ridiculously low amount of energy -- about 5.7 keV. I'm almost amazed they didn't mention that the water spilled from the Trafalgar almost certainly contained traces of DHMO.

(Interestingly, the BBC had a completely non-hysterical report on the incident on their website.)


Blogger a_former_elt_2jv said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11/11/2008 4:19 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

And this suprises you....why?

Jeol...given the treatment CNN (that bastion of accurate and technically correct news reporting)
gave the leakage from the USS Houston...did you expect better treatment from the BBC?

11/11/2008 5:03 PM

Blogger chief torpedoman said...

Well, I would have hoped that the press could tell the difference between a hose and a pipe! First they said it was: “from a burst hose” and then later they said: “When the pipe split”

Quite a difference in my view. Depending on the pressure, I think there would be more danger from a “wild hose” than from any beta radiation. I didn’t go to nuke school so my level of knowledge only comes from experience with Polaris missiles, but as I understand it, Alpha and beta are only dangerous when ingested.

The 61 gallons that got into the river was probably far cleaner than the river water itself.

11/11/2008 7:22 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also love how tritium "kick starts" the H-bomb. Wow! That's some stuff to actually _start_ such a reaction!

Unfortunately, the real danger of tritium isn't even addressed. Though in the quantities and dilution factor from this spill, clearly inconsequential.

11/11/2008 11:10 PM

Blogger John Byron said...

Every time a media report over-reacts to a nuclear incident, a bunch of card-carrying nukes go nuts saying how stupid and uninformed are the press and the general public.

Maybe so, but these words are real: Hiroshima; Nagasaki;Three Mile Island; Chernobyl. A guy in Idaho was pinned to the overhead with a cruciform rod through his chest. And the US Air Force has dropped nuclear weapons in the US, Greenland, and off Spain; the US Navy has dropped a Polaris with a warhead from a crane, along with a raft of other Broken Arrows, Bent Spears, and Dull Swords.

The reason the public over-reacts is because the folks dealing with nuclear power in all its forms have on occasion under-performed.

The legitimate safety concerns of the general public are not and should never be a function of how well its members understand physics.

11/12/2008 5:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The press, however, are not the general public. They are the source of information from which most of that general public will form their reasoned fears. It is incumbent upon that press to research any story they report, even if it may require consulting a "card-carrying nuke." A political story full of inaccuracies would be quickly labeled partisan...

11/12/2008 5:11 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leave it to Ducky to comment about something of which he has no knowledge. Rather than Rubber Ducky, I propose "Chicken Little."

11/12/2008 6:35 AM

Blogger John Byron said...

Alas, the media are not perfect. Half in fact are below average ... just like nukes. I assume that's the group we've heard from above.

11/12/2008 6:49 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If all other industries in the world had "underperformed" to the same extent that the Navy has "underperformed", the world would be a much safer place.

Or did you miss the report about the accident at an amusement park in Charlotte, NC where a worker was killed by an operating ride? the way...Hiroshima and Nagasaki were PLANNED, not accidents.

11/12/2008 10:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason the public over-reacts is because the folks dealing with nuclear power in all its forms have on occasion under-performed.

You really think that way? I can't agree. No one was injured, much less killed, at TMI, for example. And one bizarre who-knows-what-happened fatal accident such as SL-1 doesn't create a credible trendline.

My sense is that most of the overreactions, by far, are due to ignorance, as ignorance breeds fear...not concerns over *real* past performance in the nuclear field.

It's perfectly OK for the guys here to call out the purveyors of public information -- the 'press' -- for exaggerations and overreactions. What's the alternative...staying as dumb as the average mainstream media provider?

11/12/2008 11:44 AM

Blogger wtfdnucsailor said...

We are discussing the age old conundrum. There are two sides to nuclear power and its side effects - the scientific and the emotional. Based on what I have read the Trafalgar incident was embarrassing but not dangerous. However, that is because I understand Rems, Rads, and Curies. Most folks have a very cursory knowledge of radioactivity. Since you can't see, taste, or touch (unless it is contamination) it is scary. The civilian nuclear power industry in this country has not done a good job in educating the public. That is the reason we don't have more nuclear power plants. The Navy attitude is "out of sight, out of mind" and relies on its training of operators and maintenance personnel to keep it that way. The HOUSTON incident was a definite aberation. In any case, in our small way, we can try to convince our friends and relatives of the safety of nuclear power and its side effects. I don't have much success with my spouse even after thirty six years of trying. Sometimes the "submarines are always silent and strange" comes back to bite us. We just have to keep trying.

11/12/2008 11:59 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ducky:

Three Mile Island had nothing to do with dull swords, bent spheres, or broken arrow. If anything it would be a faded giant.

The coollant discharged are also none of those. Please give me a reference for any US Navy broken arrows.

11/12/2008 1:41 PM

Blogger 630-738 said...

Ducky (or is it Chicken Little?):

I know this is hard to comprehend for a "card-carrying" conspiracy theorist like yourself, but the sky is really not falling. You should REALLY study the so-called "Underperformance" of the nuclear industry before you make yourself look bad again. As it was said before, if other industries were to raise themselves to the standard of the nuclear industry, this world would be a MUCH better place. Yes, errors have been made in the industry, but unlike most others, we share our mistakes with the entire industry so everyone can learn from them.

Of course, it makes for more interesting reading if the media sensationalizes it.

11/12/2008 2:04 PM

Blogger John Byron said...

C'mon guys, the issue isn't absolute risk but rather the relative risk perceived by the public and the media.

I've probably patted more nuclear weapons on the popo than most in this forum and 6 FBM patrols - am not a luddite on nuclear stuff. The point, though - the same point as Rickover insisted upon vehemently for all his time at NR - is that the public does not understand the physics and has a hugely overblown sense of risk/impending doom from anything that escapes the nuclear boundaries.

So if you want to be a technically correct wise-ass, poopoo the public perceptions. But if your interests lie in the direction of protecting society's ability to use peaceful nuclear power or to giving US Navy nuclear-powered ships freedom of movement and action, get serious about the little stuff too - tiny incidents have as much risk of public hue-and-cry against nuclear stuff as the serious problems.

This is not a discussion that should be necessary with intelligent nukes. That it has relevance; that guys who should know better take every opportunity to speak down on public perceptions - well, makes me wonder on the oxymoronic character of that phrase 'intelligent nuke.'

11/12/2008 3:47 PM

Blogger John Byron said...

US Navy Broken Arrows: not sure on whether this became a Broken Arrow, but too close for anyone within the potential blast zone: in the early '70s, Rota, when the topping lift let go on the HUNLEY crane and dropped a Polaris A2 to the bottom of the hole in the plug deck, it hit hard enough to destroy not only the missile but also the 1.1 megaton warhead atop it. The warhead was subsequently retired and its nuclear material salvaged.

I talked by fone with the Squadron Weps two days after the incident (he an old buddy) and he, otherwise a cool hand, was still shaken/shaky/poop-in-pants scared.

11/12/2008 4:05 PM

Blogger chief torpedoman said...

Hey Ducky:
You said ...the issue isn't absolute risk but rather the relative risk perceived by the public and the media.

I disagree. The issue is the media's failure to get even a little educated in these matters and for the media to quit trying to use "sensationalism" to put a scare into the public and boot their ratings or sell newspapers and magazines. The media are not even trying to give a balence view or to put these into perspective.

Sad thing is, it would not take much research on the media's part to get some real facts.

As to broken arrows and the dropped polaris, if you have made FBM patrols and your are any kind of weaponeer, then you know what one point safe means. While a dropped missile and the warhead may indeed be destroyed (that is rendered unusable), was there even a small nuclear detonation? If not then there was not a borken arrow. I will give you that there was a whole lot of ass whole pucker factor. Also by retiring that warhead, that speaks to making the prgram even safer.

I make no excuses for the incidents that the air force has had with their nukes, but I am a whole hearted believer that the navy has a very good program. Remember the peacetime safety rules? POSITIVE measures to prevent ...

As for the Hunley's crane giving way, well you can bet a lesson was learned there resulting in increased and better preventive maintenance and inspections.

I know for a fact that this is why the navy will not let "leased" or contractor equipment handle any ordnance (special or conventional) becasue such equipment has a "unknown" matinenance history.

I do agree that DOD needs to get more involved in educating the public on this, but at any rate who does the public believe? That's right the media.

My two cents.

11/12/2008 6:40 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Linking Hiroshima and Nagasaki to TMI and Chernobyl just points to an individual who wants to over react. The first two were not accidents. The second two were accidents.

Linking nuclear weapons accidents to nuclear power accidents just points to an individual who wants to over react. The two technologies and safeguards are entirely different.

Risk needs to be informed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki provide no insight to risks on either nuclear weapons management or nuclear power management.

Nuclear weapons management insights are entirely different from nuclear power insights. SL1 provides insights to management of nuclear power and not nuclear weapons.

Events at TMI and Chernobyl as well as events Davis Besse, Salem, Turkey Point and every other nuclear plant in the nation and the world provide valuable insights and lessons-learned for every other nuclear plant operator.

Having an uninformed public / reporter make conclusions based on being uninformed does not and will not be a value to the public or enhance public health & safety.

The article in question provided more hyperbole than insight. Thus the correct conclusion is that it was written not to inform but to inflame (the latter presumabely sells more papers).

11/12/2008 6:47 PM

Blogger John Byron said...

Again: c'mon guys. The public issue does not lie in a refined knowledge of all aspects of things nuclear. For a large (uninformed? OK) segment of the general public, nuclear is nuclear is nuclear - weapons, reactors, leaks, accidents, incidents, little invisible thingees that can hurt you.

A goodly number of Americans believe the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth. Most newspapers do not have science journalists on staff or on call. Most of the public is neutral about things nuclear ... until an incident (of whatever size) comes to public notice.

Every incident involves failure of some kind - of materials, systems, procedures, documentation, or operators. It is overall much more efficacious to prevent and eliminate incidents than it is to pray for a wise and balanced public knowledge of nuclear physics.

You say get smarter. The public says quit screwing up. I'm with them: quit screwing up ... and don't blame the messengers in the media when you do.

It drives me nuts when nukes say that incidents are OK if they're little ones. Rickover disagreed, as have every NR and submarine leader since NAUTILUS got underway. That's the culture you signed up for when you got into this business. Represent it correctly.

11/13/2008 6:59 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was stationed at FBMSTC in Charleston when TMI occurred. I still remember the editorial cartoons of TMI with a mushroom cloud over it and one hick on the news saying he could "taste the radiation in the air."

As a nation we are woefully uneducated and ill informed about a great variety of things. It is in the best interest of politicians that the populace remains ignorant and stupid - it's easier to lead sheep than informed, thinking voters (witness our last election).

11/13/2008 7:01 AM

Blogger chief torpedoman said...

Ducky, I think you are missing the point here. We all agree that the public is not informed and largely does not see a difference between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, but the duty of the press is to be accurate in their stories and to inform the public, not to panic the public. It does not take a science journalist on staff to check some basic facts publishing.
You say it is much better prevent incidents. I agree, but the record of the navy and the industry is one of doing just that. Many, many incidents are prevented. I don’t think anyone is saying that “incidents are OK if they’re little ones..” .
I do say the media should not take a minor one and blow it up into a major one. If they can’t be bothered to check some facts on their own, they can at least ask someone who is informed.

11/13/2008 7:47 AM

Blogger John Byron said...

A contraire, TMC. The duty of the press is to do whatever it damned well pleases. It's a free press, you see. Having spent a few years sworn to protect the First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution), I get sorta crotchety about folks telling the press what its duty is.

If you want to get at basics (besides zero tolerance of nuke screwups), beat the drum for better science education in this country, along with the funds to pay for that.

11/13/2008 9:27 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

rubber ducky is a troll

his mindset is akin to granite...none of you will sway is a futile endeavor

IOW ... why not stop fighting with the pig...he likes it and you just get dirty

11/13/2008 10:08 AM

Blogger Karl said...

I'm not sure how beta radiation can cause burns at anything other than the highest doses, unless they're talking about electrical burns, because that's what beta radiation is: an electron. You get more "beta radiation" from shocking your hand on a doorknob from static electricity than you would from drinking a gallon of CPW (remember Rickover drinking a glass of it in front of a Congressional panel). Plus, the "beta" from tritium comes out with a ridiculously low amount of energy -- about 5.7 keV.

Beta radiation is not the same thing as a static shock from a doorknob. In the case of a static shock, an electric field which electrons through the air. Each individual electron doesn't move very far, but they dump their energy into the surrounding air, heating it up and producing the famous spark.

Beta particles are electrons that are moving at a much higher speed. It takes a lot more work to bring them to a stop, and they do more damage to the things they run into. Granted, they still don't penetrate very far, and only really high energy beta particles make it through the dead layers of the skin. But if a radioactive material is ingested, radioactive atoms can wind up near or inside of cells, and the particles emitted can wind up tearing through vital molecules.

Beta rays are like bullets shot through your body; static electricity is like a box of ammo spilled on your foot.

11/13/2008 1:01 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting to me that no commenters on this thread picked up on bubbleheads last sentence in the original post: (Interestingly, the BBC had a completely non-hysterical report on the incident on their website.) I've not checked Bubbleheads reference, however trust his non-hysterical comment. Point being there are a variety of sources of information out there coupled with the how long the story will continue to draw interest.

My take, Telegraph has a constuency as does BBC. The journalists (?) writing for the Telegraph buy into shaping stories based on what the Telegraph for profit owners require of them. BBC, a quasi government funded entity has an approach more protective of government related issues.

I don't think there is anything new
in press reporting over the last 100 years other than there is a lot more of it for a much larger reader-viewer population.

My two cents......

Keep a zero bubble......


11/13/2008 1:21 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that TMI and Chernobyl should be compaired. It is my understanding that the safety systems at TMI worked inspite of foul ups by the reactor's operators.

Did Chernobyl even have safety systems?

11/13/2008 3:08 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm quite sure Beta can burn, as I have seen paper blackened by long exposure to alpha emitters. But how concentrated the source is and how long the exposure is are certainly issues. 'Like bullets?' Hmm.

11/13/2008 8:24 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chernobyl had safety systems and they were bypassed during the low power test that was being performed. In addition, Chernobyl had a design flaw which resulted in positive reactivity being inserted when rods were initially inserted. These two are the main two negative points that resulted in the prompt criticality that occurred.

Ducky - while the U.S. constitution does not provide for any press responsibility, I believe they have a civil responsibility to society to be as accurate as possible. A number of press outlets do not pass this civil duty test.

And, as you point out, regardless, those with the responsibility to protect the public health and safety when working in the nuclear power industry need to strive for perfection even if we'll never get there.

The two responsibilities are not mutually exclusive nor does one excuse the other. Nor is it necessary to genuflect in one's own errors when pointing out the erros of others. Humility is appropriate but the gross negligence in reporting as demonstrated by the subject article should not be excused.

11/13/2008 9:40 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really think a reasonably good job was done (by CNN? I don't really remember for certain) when the USS Houston leak first came to light.

They reported the leak. (That was GOOD, Rubber Ducky). They then did not sensationalize it. they reported that the total amount of radioactivity leaked was about the same amount that would be found in a bag of fertilizer at your local home store. (This was also GOOD.)

Yopu can report honestly, and get the point across, without assuming your reader has a degree in Nuclear Physiscs.

And, that First Ammendment right? Along with it comes a great responsibility. Some members of the press take that responsibility seriously. Others don't. All of them should.

11/14/2008 1:59 PM

Blogger John Byron said...

"And, that First Ammendment right? Along with it comes a great responsibility..."

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Strange. No mention of 'responsibility' there. You makin' this up?

It's a FREE PRESS, man. Means 'free.' I.e., not fettered in any way, even by others' notion of 'responsibility.'

Confirms again my long held belief that naval officers and senior enlisted need a good course in civics.

11/14/2008 6:33 PM

Blogger Bubblehead said...

While you're right that, in normal cases, beta radiation is not like electric current, in this particular case I have to disagree; I wouldn't have used that analogy had the beta energy been higher than the low -- almost thermal -- energies you get from tritium decay. While you're correct from a macro point of view, I think that my analogy still holds in this particular case.

11/15/2008 9:23 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tritium glows in the dark all by itself? *headshake*

11/15/2008 2:24 PM

Blogger Paul said...

I imagine the reason why the report did not mention DHMO was because the press was, as always, worried about over-reaction and panic from the public and wanted to give time for the authorities to address the issue. However, being the responsible fifth estate, I have no doubt that, should the military not proceed to fully remove all traces of DHMO from the river mentioned in this story, the press will begin an informed campaign to bring to light why it was that the military did not proceed to cleanup the DHMO spilled.

In fact, I can see how the press, fully cognizant of the dangers of DHMO, went with misreporting on the tritium as a means to begin the campaign to clear this river of all DHMO, without inciting the panic that would obviously result from the public learning about this very dangerous substance, a panic which would no doubt be far greater than uncalled for panic from made up radioactive substances.

11/15/2008 6:12 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


As a Naval Officer I appreciate the lesson in civics, however unnecessary it may have been. Agreed, the Constitution states exactly what you say. I would argue however that with any right comes responsibility. I have the right to bear arms, albeit in a responsible way. To the say the press does not have a responsibility to accurately present the news to their readers is what is exactly wrong with this country today (see most recent election). I would argue the misrepresentation by the media of so many important things is far more dangerous than anything the Nuclear Navy and civilian sectors have ever done.

11/16/2008 4:43 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, right....


Go into a movie theater, wait until the flick starts, then yell "FIRE" at the top of your lungs.

Why not? it's free speech.

Call me when you get out of jail.

11/16/2008 6:53 PM

Blogger John Byron said...

Ross Kline: Oliver Wendell Holmes settled the matter of 'fire in a crowded theater,' in Schenck vs. United States, 1919. Yes there are limits on free speech (not the topic of my comments), and on freedom of the press also (liable laws, for example). But neither aspect has been at play in the issue discussed above.

The post before yours seeks responsibility in the press. Fine, but who is to decide what is responsible?

Many of us have done operations off the coasts of nations that thought it the role of the government to determine responsibility in the press and to shelter citizens from over-zealous speech. We generally regarded such nations as enemies of America and deplored their form of government.

Perhaps you differ...

11/17/2008 5:22 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rubber Ducky:

No...I don't think we differ all that much. I never said the government was the arbiter of what was "responsible"...I said that with the freedom the press enjoys comes responsibility. The press is supposed to govern itself. The press is supposed to report the truth, without bias. The fact that they rarely do so anymore is sad.

I remember growing up and watching the six o'clock news. They used to make it a point to tell you waht was fact, and what was their opinion. They don't do that anymore.

And, lest you think I am bashing any one network, they are all guilty of this to one degree or another. This is why I try to watch equal quantities of Fox and CNN. Amazingly enough, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.

11/17/2008 7:33 PM

Blogger John Byron said...

Ross Kline: your last post illustrates how your search for responsibility in our free press is properly exercised - through actions of the individual citizen. Market pressures and reputation bear on the press, but what really matters is the search for truth that encompasses a range of viewpoints and reporting skills. Perhaps there is such a thing as objective truth. Or not - it's philosophy's classic conundrum (sold for prevention of disease only?).

Two final comments. One is that journalism is but 'the first rough draft of history' (Phillip Graham) - it's tough to get it exactly right regardless of standards and 'responsibility' - and even when the subject passes into the history realm, truth is hard to ascertain with certainty.

The second is that this is a good 20th Century discussion. Bloggers and messaging and internet instantaneity put much truth/non-truth transfer into the hands of individuals outside the scope of journalism's rules and norms and into a world much closer to the free-for-all free press of the time of our nation's founding.

Each morning I will have read 4 'paper' newspapers that land in my driveway and 5 online 'newspapers,' from which I start to get an image of the general shape of the day's news. The 6 newsweekly magazines I read each week add to that understanding, as do the myriad monthlies and semi-monthlies. Then books and lectures. Then maybe something sorta like the truth takes shape in my mind ... or at least my idea of what the truth may be.


11/18/2008 5:35 AM

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