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The Big Picture

'Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.' -- Vizzini from "The Princess Bride"

Sunday, December 03, 2006

This is why FOX News is not known for science

Polonium - 210. The poison that killed the Russian Spy, Alexander Litvinenko. (see most recent CNN news story here.) It seems the FOX News has put their crack science guy on the trail of polonium-210. And so now we have the "fair and balanced" reporting on this isotope:


All it took was a simple Google search — “buy polonium 210 online” – and there, right at the top of my results, was a link to United Nuclear, a nifty little mail-order company in Sandia Park, NM, which I guess makes this desert crossroads the Mail-Order Nukes Capital of the World[.]

[...]

Now, to be fair, United Nuclear’s owner, physicist Bob Lazar, goes to great lengths on the site to explain why the amounts of Polonium-210 — and other radioactive materials — are not hazardous.


“The amount of Polonium-210, as well as any of the isotopes we sell, is an ‘exempt quantity’ amount,” Lazar’s Web site says. “These quantities of radioactive material are not hazardous – this is why they are permitted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to be sold to the general public without any sort of license.”

For the record, let me just say that I am a Health Physicist and a former Radiation Safety Officer. I know a thing or two about not just radioactive materials, but their regulation as well. So please allow me to say some things about exempt quantities. First did any of you know that virtually all of you are in possession of exempt quantities of nuclear-reactor-produced radioactive materials already?

Yes, it is true. You all have a smoke detector in your homes. Those smoke detectors all operate because of an exempt quantity of Americium - 241. And yes, there is no naturally mined or occurring amounts of Americium anywhere on this planet. Every single smoke detector in existence uses a radioactive material only produced via nuclear reactions from a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator.

Second, did any of you know that all exempt quantities found in radioactive sources like those sold by United Nuclear or found in your smoke detector are also "sealed sources" This means that the material is contained in a matrix that prevents it from escaping and getting loose in the environment. The Polonium sources referred to by uber-scientist George Kindel are also sealed sources. Those sources are completely harmless and are used in many science labs in universities and high schools around the country and world to teach students about the nature of radioactive decay. They are also used in laboratories of businesses for any number of purposes, such as instrument calibration. All those medical scanners like CT, PET, PET/CT X-ray machines, flouroscopes, etc. All have to be regularly calibrated, and the are done using any number of sealed sources. In addition, any radiation detection equipment used at nuclear power plants, and anti-terrorism units around the country also are calibrated using sealed sources.

Now before I continue, I feel it is necessary to define briefly what an exempt sourse is. An exempt source is one that contains only a very small amount of a radioactive material. There are also "general license" sources which contain larger quantities of radioactive materials, but can be used by anyone with a license to possess them for the general porposes outlined in the license. Next are more powerful sources, those are "specific license" sources. And they can only be used under very strict guidance, and require special handling procedures. These are the sources that contain the most radioactive material in them. They are also the ones most likely to be found in uses like gauging pipe thickness, or calibrating medical scanners.

The complete silliness of George Kindel's article should now be plain for everyone to see. He's basically mocking smoke detectors here.

But he's not done yet, he gets even sillier...

He’s right. Polonium-210 is so common, traces of it are found in everything from cigarettes —I hear another class-action lawsuit brewing — to the stuff you use to make sure your pants don’t cling to your socks.


It also makes you wonder that if this dead former KGB spy, Victor Litvinenko, and his wife Marina, and a mysterious Italian nuclear expert named Mario Scaramella all were poisoned by it — Litvinenko fatally — then someone’s spending a lot of money on Polonium-210, or has access to a lot of nuclear materials.

I just don't know what to make of him at this point. Surely he's joking entirely. In which case, I did not know that FOX News had become the conservative Comedy Central.

I certainly am not laughing because I happen to be well-educated when it comes to radioactive materials and radiation detection, so I know just how silly he is being. But to anyone not familiar with this would easily be fooled into thinking he was serious. Making a joke out of this is not funny, especially if the rubes who believe him don't know it is a big fat joke and think he's serious.

Of course the person who poisoned Litvinenko got it from some larger stockpile of Po-210 and not by buying a million dollars worth of exempt quantity sources.

I am reminded of that line by Dan Akroyd in Spies Like Us, "We mock what we do not understand."

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