The Story Behind The 19th Element by John Betcher

One of my favorite things about writing thrillers is the amazing facts I learn through in-person research. The research is truly The Story Behind the Book.

While researching my latest thriller, The 19th Element, I discovered all sorts of intriguing information by chatting with a chemist, a nuclear physicist, a city cop and a small plane pilot. I’m going to share eight interesting tidbits with you today.

1) It is perfectly legal to fly your airplane directly above a nuclear power plant, provided you remain at least 500 feet above all structures. This one blew me away. Even if an airplane is traveling as slowly as 140 knots, it would take that plane only three second to transform from legal flight to nuclear menace. I don’t know about you . . . but I’d like to see the planes a little bit higher when they’re above such a tempting terrorist target.

2) Potassium is the 8th most common element on earth, yet it cannot be found in its pure elemental form anywhere in nature. Elemental potassium – the 19th element on the Periodic Table of Elements – is a light-weight metal substance which is solid at room temperature. The reason potassium cannot be found anywhere in its elemental form is that it bonds readily with many other elements to form compounds — which are no longer pure potassium. It is commonly found in mineral fertilizers such as potash. It is possible for chemists to isolate pure potassium in a laboratory. When pure elemental potassium metal is introduced into water, the explosive effects are spectacular – and under the right circumstances – can be devastating.

3) Approximately 90% of the potential energy inside a nuclear fuel rod remains there, even after the rod is considered “spent.” Nuclear power plants swap out approximately one-third of the fuel assemblies in their reactor every year-and-a-half for fresh fuel assemblies. The “spent” assemblies are stored on the plant site in “spent fuel storage pools.” At the time the assemblies are placed in the pools, the fuel retains approximately 90% of its potential to generate heat – which is its main job while inside the reactor. In the U.S., we do not recycle “spent” fuel. We try to figure out where to put it instead.

4) Most airports are “left-handed.” This means that airplanes approach the airports by circling in a counter-clockwise direction – to the left, if you are sitting at the controls. Occasionally, it is unsafe or inconvenient for airplanes to make their final approach passes in a counter-clockwise direction. Those airports are then made into “right-handed” airports. As an aside, many smaller airports have no tower, no traffic control and no personnel who are onsite 24/7. Departures and landings at these airports are accomplished through radio communications between pilots flying in the area of the airport.

5) Security for nuclear power plants is typically a joint operation between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, and onsite security teams. Representatives from the various groups meet regularly to review safety and security issues relating to their particular nuclear plant. Tribal police are often included in such meetings when a reservation is located nearby. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) bears the responsibility for ensuring that the utility company operating the nuclear plant does so in strict compliance with numerous and complex safety regulations. Nuclear plant security strategies and capabilities are classified as Top Secret, and most are not visible to the public.

6) Nuclear radiation comes in three flavors – Alpha, Beta and Gamma. A nuclear chemist once told me that all flavors are safe if you do the right things with them. Eat one. Put one in your pocket. And throw one away.

Alpha emitters like Polonium 210 give off particles of radiation that are large but extremely low energy. They can’t even penetrate four inches of air, or the thickness of human skin. But if you eat Polonium 210, it is more toxic than cyanide by 250,000 times. The most famous case of Polonium poisoning was the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident, in 2006. Put your Polonium in your pocket and you’ll be safe.

Tritium is a beta emitter. Beta particles are more energetic than alphas – but they are tiny, and will not penetrate any solid object (like a human cell). Go ahead and eat some. The treatment for Tritium consumption is drinking ten pints of fluids to flush your system. Since many men have trouble drinking ten pints of water, they are often advised to drink beer instead.

Uranium 235 and Plutonium 240 emit potent gamma particles. Gamma particles are both highly energetic and massive (on a sub-atomic scale). They will rip right through your body’s cells without slowing down. They leave devastated tissue in their wake. Throw away your nuclear fuel please.

7) If you were to stand directly outside the fence of a U.S. nuclear power plant, you would receive a negligible amount of radiation beyond that already present in a normal earth environment. Nuclear plants are so well insulated from release of radiation, that you would get as much “extra” radiation flying in a commercial plane from New York to Los Angeles as you would standing outside that nuclear plant for a whole year. The extra radiation on the plane ride comes from the sun. At 30,000 feet of altitude, the atmosphere shields us much less than at ground level.

8) Most nuclear spent fuel storage pools have concrete walls and bottoms five feet thick and are constructed entirely above ground. The above-ground concept was intended to allow technicians to monitor the pools for leakage. Unfortunately, this design feature also makes the pools susceptible to sabotage by a crate of dynamite, or a professionally-placed chunk of C4.

John L. Betcher is a University of Minnesota Law School graduate and has practiced law for more than twenty-five years in the Mississippi River community of Red Wing, Minnesota.  He possesses substantial first-hand knowledge of the Prairie River Nuclear Plant’s real world counterpart, as well as Red Wing’s airport and the flight rules around the nuke plant.

In addition to The 19th Element, he has published a second book in the “Beck” series entitled, The Missing Element, A James Becker Mystery.  The second book is available everywhere.

The author has also been a long-time supporter and coach of youth volleyball in and around Red Wing and has authored three feature articles for Coaching Volleyball, the journal of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.  His most recent article was the cover story for the April/May, 2009 Issue.

His book on volleyball coaching philosophies entitled The Little Black Book of Volleyball Coaching is available at and at



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