11 January 2007

Nuclear waste spins in its grave

Scientists love to beat the media round the head with accusations of spinning science stories. But who needs hacks to do it when the scientists' own PR folks have their own ultra-fast centrifuges?

Here are two headlines:

Cambridge scientists lay groundwork for safer nuclear waste storage

Radiation degrades nuclear waste-containing materials faster than expected

Which press release do you think will get the biggest coverage?

I agree. Number 2.

But hang on. Read below the headline and you will find that they are based on the same scientific paper.

Interestingly, the journal carrying the paper, Nature, takes a middle way in the headline on its own report of the paper. This reads "Materials Science: Displaced by radiation".

Of course, the scientists who wrote the "Letter," Nature's way of describing shorter papers, opt for the impenetrable but scientifically accurate "Quantification of actinide alpha-radiation damage in minerals and ceramics".

As Nature's own write up says "The mineral zircon suffers more structural damage from the alpha-decay of plutonium present in its crystal than was thought. That could have a knock-on effect on strategies for managing nuclear waste."

So, as you would expect, the paper supports both headlines. It is just that the folks who wrote the more "sensational" of the two have a better appreciation of which buttons to press to make a journalist jump.

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