Posted by: Don Bemis | March 13, 2011

Science Versus Television

My wife and I did a most unusual thing this weekend.  We watched television.  It wasn’t worth it.

We don’t have any theological reason to be so odd, but we just fell out of the habit while still in college.  When was that, you ask?  Before the days of leisure suits.  What’s a leisure suit?  Never mind, Kiddo, you wouldn’t want one.

Then Japan had an earthquake.  We were staying in a room with a TV at Turkey Run State Park, Indiana (Where’s that?  Just look for a lumpy place that doesn’t grow corn), so we thought we’d watch the news.

What a disappointment!  First we got Fox, who seemed to think it might have been Obama’s fault.  Too much rant for my taste.  We didn’t try the Big 3, who likely were still trying to pin it on George W..  The Weather Channel did a pretty decent job, although I’m not certain that earthquakes or tsunamis are meteorological phenomena.  Finally we settled on CNN.  It wasn’t that great either.

News sells soap.  It also sells cars, beer, insurance, and what have you.  Television news is not so much about imparting knowledge as it is about entertaining.  Keep those viewers around long enough to watch the next round of ads, which take a high percentage of the airtime.  That’s to be expected, I suppose, since I wasn’t paying CNN directly.  Those reporters have to get their grocery money somewhere.

Let’s start with the most egregious example.  CNN interviewed a well-known science guy who wears a bow tie and is entertaining to watch.  Unfortunately, he was completely out to lunch on the nuclear power plant situation.  Maybe he’s good at explaining other science phenomena.  I hope so.  It would be a shame if he garbled other fields as badly.  The problem is that people trust him.  He looks so geeky, how could he not know all about science?

Our scientific friend seemed appalled that anybody would use boron to protect against meltdowns.  He compared it to borax in the laundry.  Yes, they both contain the element boron, but that’s about the only similarity.  Boron stops nuclear chain reactions.  It is used as a matter of course in pressurized water reactors (which Fukushima Dai-ichi isn’t) and is used in emergency situations in boiling water reactors (which Fukushima is).  Our scientist didn’t seem to know that.

The element cesium was detected.  The science guy strongly implied that meant a meltdown was in progress, because control rods are made of cesium, so they must be melting.  Maybe, if Fukushima uses cesium control rods.  Control rods are made of many different materials (including boron, in some cases).  Many, many control rods have no cesium at all.  However, nuclear plants produce some cesium anyway as a result of radioactive decay.  The presence of cesium alone does not prove that a meltdown is occurring.

The guy was skeptical that the building explosion was caused by hydrogen, stating that nuclear plants produce helium, not hydrogen.  Au contraire.  Hydrogen is produced by several means.  A nuclear chain reaction will “radiolytically decompose” a small amount of water into its elements.   If water gets hot enough, its hydrogen and oxygen atoms may separate.  That is hotter than you would expect a reactor to get.  If a meltdown does occur, zirconium surrounding the fuel pellets will react with water in the same way as magnesium (remember that from science class?) to produce hydrogen gas.  Nuclear plants sometimes inject hydrogen into the coolant water to control corrosion.

As to helium, it does not explode.  There was an explosion.  Ergo, hydrogen is the likely culprit.  To be fair to our scientific friend, it is true that radioactive hydrogen (tritium) does decay into a rare form of helium, but it takes years to do it.

That’s enough for that so-called expert.  Another “expert” attempted to explain how the plant got into trouble when its safety systems failed, but he was pointing it all out on a diagram of the wrong type of plant!  To get technical about it, he was pointing at a picture of a pressurized water reactor (which Fukushima isn’t, etc.).  Was there not a single expert around who could point out such an obvious error?

Some other experts really did know what they were talking about, but they didn’t get as much airplay.  Maybe that’s because they didn’t seem half as excited.  They had a way of blunting leading questions, and there were plenty of leading questions to blunt.

I heard enough times that radiation levels had spiked a thousand times above normal, but I never heard what “normal” was.  When I finally got real numbers from other non-television sources, the very highest numbers were far lower than has ever been proven to cause damage to anybody.  Scientists conservatively assume that any level of radiation can cause cancer, but research so far has not corroborated the assumption.  There are too many variables to draw valid conclusions.

There also were smaller irritants, like looped videos.  I saw one wrecked train at least four times during a single audio interview, and multiple times during other interviews.  How many times did the same white van wash down the same street?

Then there was the President’s news conference.  “Mr. President, how did you feel personally about the disaster?”

It’s good I’m not the President.  I would have been tempted to say, “Do you realize just how stupid that question sounds?”



  1. Bill Nye’s misinformation is idiotic! GE BWR control rods are made of boron carbide. Cesium is a fission product and is produced in the uranium dioxide fuel pellets contained in the Zircaloy cladding in the FUEL RODS. The hydrogen is produced by an exothermic reaction between the zirconium in the cladding and water/steam at about 2700F. The fuel does not melt until 4892F. Yes, it is possible to have a cladding breach and cesium released without the fuel melting. Yes, the explosions have been due to hydrogen! Reactors do not use cesium for control rods!


    • Thank you for the additional information. I’m a PWR guy, so it’s nice to hear from somebody who’s more up to speed than I am on BWRs.
      Television experts don’t have to be right, just convincing. It’s different in the nuclear business, where an uninformed statement can land you in hot water. If you’re lucky, you’re just discredited. Sometimes it will cost you your job. Try to hide the truth, and you might be indicted. It happens.


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