“What was tritium?” Conquering our own ignorance

Authored by: Jane Kay

Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

Print publication date:  April  2020
Online publication date:  May  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138478503
eBook ISBN: 9781351068406
Adobe ISBN:


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“The call came to me in the newsroom,” writes the author of this chapter about her time as an environmental reporter for the Arizona Daily Star. “A man’s voice, serious, anonymous, and in a hurry … He wanted to report a past accident. Seven months ago, by mistake, an untrained worker on the graveyard shift turned the wrong valve and dumped thousands of curies of radioactive tritium up the stack at American Atomics Corp. in the middle of Tucson … I asked myself at that moment, why had I only majored in journalism and English in college instead of science. What was tritium?” The author broke the story of the radioactive gas escape at the American Atomics plant in Tucson on April 15, 1979. Her coverage went on for five months and 50 stories. “I not only had to fight my own ignorance of radioactivity, I also had to fight the desk’s prejudice. Questioning the veracity of the nuclear energy industry was considered a counter-culture activity … In fact, all environmental stories were suspect,” the author explains. This investigation of American Atomics was voted the state’s top story of the year by newspaper and broadcast members of the Associated Press, and the Arizona Press Club awarded the author the Don Bolles Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting.

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