Monday, December 8, 2008

I read it in the newspaper, so it must be true

One common way of winning points in an argument is to research your topic, and then to quote from an authoritative source. Last year Peter Rickards, a podiatrist in Twin Falls, Idaho tried this. He wrote a Reader’s View (a long letter, basically a guest editorial) that was published in the September 25, 2007 issue of the Idaho Statesman. That Boise newspaper has the largest circulation in the state of Idaho. His Reader's View was titled “Gillespie's blowing smoke about nuke plant”.

He disagreed with the proponent of a nuclear plant who had been saying that it would not emit anything harmful. Dr. Rickards quoted the physician and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott as saying that: "Tritium, another biologically significant gas, is also routinely emitted from nuclear reactors. Tritium is composed of three atoms of hydrogen, which combine with oxygen, forming radioactive water, which is absorbed through the skin, lungs and digestive system.”

Dr. Rickards got that quotation from an article that Caldicott had written in another newspaper, The Australian, back on April 13, 2005. Her statement about tritium is chemical nonsense. Actually it is a single atom, not a cluster of three. About a week after The Australian published it she was corrected by some of their readers. In her reply she agreed that actually: "Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen composed of two neutrons and one proton". You can find the UPI version of the revised article here.

That original Caldicott article confused the notations used by physicists with those used by chemists. A molecule of hydrogen gas is composed of two atoms, not three. The chemical formula for that molecule is written as a capital H followed by a subscript of 2.

The physicists notation for the isotope of hydrogen called tritium has the capital H preceded by a superscript of 3. There also is deuterium, another isotope of hydrogen composed of one neutron and one proton and denoted by a capital H preceded by a superscipt of 2. A regular hydrogen atom has one proton and is denoted by a capital H preceded by a superscript of 1. Perhaps Dr. Caldicott slept through that day of her physics or chemistry classes.

Less than an hour after Rickards’ letter was published several caustic comments were posted on one of the Statesman’s blogs pointing out the error. They came from over in eastern Idaho, which most people think of primarily as where potatoes come from. However, eastern Idaho also is home of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). INL is one of the world centers of nuclear technology and originally was called the National Reactor Test Station. Some folks out there not only know about isotopes, they also produce them in the Advanced Test Reactor.

Rickards backpedaled and replied on the blog that:
“To Bubblehead- Gillespie claims nuke plants are ‘emission free,’ and that is simply not true, as born out by the EPA fact sheet. On your point that tritium is not 3 Hydrogen atoms, as Dr Caldicott phrases it, I believe you are semantically correct, it is better to say ‘Tritium, or H-3, is actually one hydrogen atom -- one that contains one proton and two neutrons’."

As far as I know the Statesman has never printed a correction. Also, quotes of the original, uncorrected article by Caldicott still are out on the web here and there.

So, a newspaper article may be a source of ignorance rather than a source of knowledge.

Caldicott's 2006 book Nuclear Power is Not the Answer correctly refers to tritium as being an isotope of hydrogen, but then (on page 56) denotes it by a capital H followed by a subscript of 3. She also describes tritiated water by H3O, where a chemist would of course correctly call it H2O.

1 comment:

htomfields said...

You can find more information about INL’s Advanced Test Reactor National Scientific User Facility at