Eleventh Hour: It Ain't Heavy. It's My Water.

By Eric Wolff | January 23, 2009 8:05 pm

Eleventh Hour LogoIn last night’s episode of Eleventh Hour, a doe-eyed lad suffering from kidney cancer started drinking from a natural spring he discovered while fleeing a flash flood. he drank the stuff for three weeks, and during that time his advanced kidney cancer vanished, poof! Local news media told his story and soon the little Montana spring near his home was the destination for desperately sick people from all over the country.   Our hero, Jacob Hood, FBI scientist, read about the miracle water and dashed to the scene to debunk the myth, for fear that sick people would skip their treatments in favor of the magic. Along the way he discovered that some domestic terrorists were trying to make a dirty bomb in the basement of the local hospital. To process their radioactive material, they needed heavy water. It was the heavy water that cured the boy.

Heavy water is pretty much just like regular water, but instead of hydrogen atoms it has deuterium, which is to say, hydrogen atoms with an extra neutron. The resulting water is, literally, heavier than regular water, as Hood demonstrated when he made heavy water ice cubes and watched them sink to the bottom of a glass of water. The extra neutrons make it a very good tool for absorbing radiation and even reflecting it, which is why it’s used in nuclear reaction.

But making it in quantity is usually a huge process requiring industrial capabilities. But about one in every 5,000 water molecules is heavy. It has a higher boiling point than regular water, so it’s actually feasible to distill heavy water in much the same way one would distill alcohol, as they did in the show,  but it would take a quite a while to generate a usable amount with this method.

As it happens, it does have some have some application to cancer treatment. Experiments in the 1980s on cancerous mice showed that heavy water increased their lifespans.  The research into the uses of heavy water to slow the growth of cancer, kept producing  promising results, and in 2006, an Iranian official even used the medical benefits of drinking heavy water as an excuse for his country to make the stuff (they’d never use it for nuclear weapons, no no, never). But heavy water is actually toxic when drunk in quantity. Because of the deuterium, it slows down some chemical reactions, notably cell division. This makes it useful for slowing the growth of tumors, but dangerous to almost everything else in the body.  It also does not yet appear to be a total cure, but more of a very expensive delaying tactic (there are few plants in the world producing the stuff, so it’s pricey).

By the way, the show tapped  the perfectly rational human fear of a domestic terrorist blowing off a dirty bomb. But in the process of learning about heavy water, I discovered that producing, making, and moving a dirty bomb is nigh impossible. A dirty bomb is simply a conventional bomb with a lot of radioactive material strapped to it. Blow up the bomb, and the radioactive material scatters everywhere. Building the bomb isn’t especially difficult, nor is, it seems, acquiring radioactive material. But gathering together enough radioactive substance to be dangerous poses it’s own special challenges. If the bomb is going to scatter the material all over the place in sufficient quantity to really hurt people, it needs to be really radioactive. And before the bomb is set off, all that stuff is concentrated in one place: on the bomb, and in the perpetrators hands. That much material would probably kill the person before they could really do any damage. Putting enough shielding around the bomb to protect the carrier would make the bomb too heavy to move. This is why so few countries even try to build such a thing, and also probably why no such attack has ever happened.these problems may not be insurmountable, but they’re enough to make it a serious challenge.


Comments (6)

  1. Jeff

    I just watched this episode on video tape and found this blog entry while researching the science behind this episode. The part I was interested in was the role the heavy water was supposed to play in the dirty bomb. I guess we are supposed to believe they had conventional explosives that were going to spread the “radioactivity” of the heavy water? If so this is disappointingly weak as the only way heavy water is toxic is if large quantities are ingested as happened to the miracle seekers.

    I really enjoy The Eleventh Hour but I think its weak point is that more often than not the scientific mystery is caused by a criminal conspirancy rather than a natural phenomenon or, as has happened in a couple of episodes, an accident due to human ignorance.

  2. Brian Stuy

    In addition to the problem outlined above, I wondered how much heavy water the terrorists produced in order to get a large spring to spit the stuff out for weeks. Jacob’s ice cubes would need to be pure heavy water to sink as they did, and this was after three weeks of the spring flowing (since the boy had been cured already when Jacob heard of the miracle). That would mean that tens of thousands of gallons of heavy water would be needed.

  3. Quite often 11th Hour demands some suspension of disbelief. There’s really no way the crooks produced so much heavy water to feed the natural spring.

    But, to answer Jeff’s question, I think it’s possible they were using the heavy water to shield from the radioactivity of the Thallium-202 they were making.

  4. Ralf

    The same story was also depicted in the UK original Eleventh Hour starring Patrick Stewart, but there were some differences, which made the original much believable. First of all the heavy water distillery was not some improvised equipment, but a huge underground facility (actually integrated into the dam of a hydroelectric power plant) which was mentioned to be a remnant of World War II and at that time an official government project to produce heavy water faster then the Germans. Also there was no mention of a dirty bomb, but instead the crook’s plan, was to sell the heavy water to countries interested in building nuclear reactors and soon after that nuclear bombs.

    However, the major flaw of the story (at least in my opinion) was present in both versions: The heavy water that leaked the production sites was transported to the spring by water ways already actively used by normal water. If I remember correctly, in the UK version it was ground water flows, and in the US version some pipeline. This is also demonstrated in both stories, by the fact that when Hood arrives only normal water comes from the spring. In my opinion, the original leak of heavy water would have been immediatly dilluted within the normal water, and the spring could never have delivered any signifcant amount of heavy water.

  5. Stumbled upon this article from Google and just wanted to take my time to say thank you for writing it.


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