Activist group trots out tritium scare

A recent article from Physicians for Social Responsibility, a historical and sometimes hysterical anti-nuclear activist group, alleges that tritium leaking from nuclear reactors poses a “Threat to Drinking Water” and we should, therefore, get rid of those nasty nukes and replace them with wind turbines and solar panels.

So let’s see if the boogeyman is as dangerous as alleged.  First some background.  Tritium is a form of hydrogen.  Normal hydrogen consists of a proton and an electron.  Tritium has two neutrons in addition.  Tritium can replace one of the hydrogen atoms in water (H2O) to produce tritiated water (HTO).  Tritium is unstable and decays with release of a very weak beta particle and has half-life of 12.3 years.  Beta particles are rapidly neutralized in the air and cannot penetrate your skin.  However, they can cause soft tissue damage if inhaled or ingested.

Tritium is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere as a result of bombardment by cosmic rays and falls to earth in rain and enters the natural hydrological cycle.  It is also produced as a byproduct of nuclear power generation and some has leaked into the environment.  We all ingest small amounts of tritium when we drink water.  It is rapidly distributed throughout the body in about two hours (hence is not concentrated) and is eliminated in about nine days according the Idaho State University Radiation Information Network.  The Idaho folks say “While not impossible, a large enough dose to cause any significant harm to a person is unlikely.”

The Argonne National Laboratory estimates the lifetime cancer mortality risk from tritium is about 4 in 100 trillion (Link).

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission keeps track of tritium releases from nuclear reactors.  They say, “these releases either do not leave the power plant property or involve such low levels of tritium that they do not pose a threat to public health and safety.” (Link)

The NRC says also:

•The tritium dose from nuclear power plants is much lower than the exposures attributable to natural background radiation and medical administrations.

•Humans receive approximately 50% of their annual radiation dose from natural background radiation, 48% from medical procedures (e.g., x-rays), and 2% from consumer products. Doses from tritium and nuclear power plant effluents are a negligible contribution to the background radiation to which people are normally exposed, and they account for less than 0.1% of the total background dose.  As an example, assume that a residential drinking water well sample contains tritium at the level of 1,600 picocuries per liter (a comparable tritium level was identified in a drinking water well near the Braidwood Station nuclear facility). The radiation dose from drinking water at this level for a full year (using EPA assumptions) is 0.3 millirem (mrem), which is at least two thousand to five thousand times lower than the dose from a medical procedure involving a full-body computed tomography (CT) scan (e.g., 500 to 1,500 mrem from a CT scan); one thousand times lower than the approximate 300 mrem dose from natural background radiation; fifty times lower than the dose from natural radioactivity (potassium) in your body (e.g., 15 mrem from potassium); and twelve times lower than the dose from a round-trip cross-country airplane flight (e.g., 4 mrem from Washington, DC to Los Angeles and back)”

If Physicians for Social Responsibility were really socially responsible, they would not trot out these fake scares in pursuance of a political goal.  But perhaps Mencken was right when he wrote, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”



  1. I’m not much scared about tritium in my drinking water, but I will admit to being frightened by alarming headlines.  For example, I read one the other day that was really anxiety-provoking.  It read, “Hysterical activist group denies global warming”.  Can you imagine?   

    1. Yeah, sounds almost as scary as “UN implements global cap-and-trade tax to stop non-existent warming”. 

      1. Or, “The vast majority of world’s scientists are proven wrong; wide-reaching conspiracy to force lousy lightbulbs on the public and destroy personal liberty uncovered.  Black helicopters involved.”

        Hysterical activist groups are not a rare commodity.  

      2. And this is one good reason why such matters are matters for the scientific community to decide upon with minimal or no political input, and certainly no influence from “hysterical activist groups”, especially those with an anti-intellectual and anti-science agenda. 

        This issue has become politicized beyond all recognition and the truth is obscured by nonsense conspiracy theories.  It’s just plain offensive that the highest form of human endeavor, scientific investigation, has been subsumed by the lowest form of human endeavor, reactionary politics.  

      3. No, the truth was obscured by scientists and politicians whose funding sources would have otherwise dried up had they been honest about the data they took in, not “nonsense conspiracy theories”.  And that truth has become undeniable in the face of the predictions made vs. the reality. 

        For example, if the Maldives were truly sinking due to rising sea levels caused by polar ice melting, I seriously doubt they’d be building 2 new airports and resorts: Reactionary politics aside, it makes no sense to build someplace that’ll supposedly soon be underwater. Right-wingers may well be imbeciles about science, but they don’t generally piss away their business investments.

      4. Backtracking, my point is not so much to say to Mr. DuHamel, “You’re wrong and we’re right” as it is to point out that global climate-change deniers are also considered as much a “hysterical activist group” by climate change believers as well as vice-versa.   Outside of scientific circles, it has become just another battlefield in the American cultural war.


    Health risks
    Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, which allows it to readily bind to hydroxyl radicals, forming tritiated water (HTO), and to carbon atoms. Since tritium is a low energy beta emitter, it is not dangerous externally (its beta particles are unable to penetrate the skin), but it is a radiation hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin.[14][15][16][17] HTO has a short biological half-life in the human body of 7 to 14 days, which both reduces the total effects of single-incident ingestion and precludes long-term bioaccumulation of HTO from the environment[16].
    Tritium has leaked from 48 of 65 nuclear sites in the United States, detected in groundwater at levels exceeding the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards by up to 375 times.[18]

    Regulatory limits
    The legal limits for tritium in drinking water vary from country-to-country and from continent-to-continent. Some figures are given below.

    Canada: 7,000 becquerel per liter (Bq/L).
    United States: 740 Bq/L or 20,000 picocurie per liter (pCi/L) (Safe Drinking Water Act)
    World Health Organization: 10,000 Bq/L.
    European Union: “investigative” limit of 100 Bq/L.

    The American limit is calculated to yield a dose of 4.0 millirems (or 40 microsieverts in SI units) per year. This is about 1.3% of the natural background radiation (roughly 3000 microsieverts).


    Harm can come from tritium. The less the better.


    2.2.3 How People Come in Contact with Tritium

    Because the energy of electrons emitted during the decay of the tritium nucleus is insufficient to penetrate skin, this report does not address external radiation exposure, but only internal dose routes. The following exposure pathways were considered:
    � Tritiated water vapor entering the body through respiration
    � Tritium ingested with water during swimming or wading, home-grown foods, or breast-milk (in the case of infants) and absorbed into the body through the gastro-intestinal tract
    � Tritium from tritiated water vapor in air taken through the skin
    � Tritium from tritiated water in surface water taken through the skin during activities that involve dermal contact with the contaminated water, i.e., washing, swimming, and wading in surface water
    � Tritium transferred from the body water of pregnant women to the developing fetus


    I can’t help but be uncomfortable with someone claiming no harm with a substance that can be harmful. It appears very few people have truly been harmed by tritium, but yet a pregnant mother could harm her unborn baby for life, or breast feed her child tritium during their formative years.

    I disagree with the premisis of this article and tritium should truly be treated with respect. Anything less puts life forms at risk.

      1. Adults can tolerate radiation better than children due to lower cell division in our bodies. The most vulnerable part of body in adults is our stomachs due to the high cell division rate there.

        Fetuses are big time cell division for the whole way inside the womb. Much lower doses can effect for lifetime damage. What that dose is I don’t know. But for young families living near nuclear power plants this would be a serious issue. In the quad cities you have water leaking out 375 times the amount allowed by EPA. 


    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says tritium should measure no more than 20,000 picocuries per liter in drinking water.

    Here are some examples:
    —At the three-unit Browns Ferry complex in Alabama, a valve was mistakenly left open in a storage tank during modifications over the years. When the tank was filled in April 2010 about 1,000 gallons of tritium-laden water poured onto the ground at a concentration of 2 million picocuries per liter. In drinking water, that would be 100 times higher than the EPA health standard.
    —At the LaSalle site west of Chicago, tritium-laden water was accidentally released from a storage tank in July 2010 at a concentration of 715,000 picocuries per liter — 36 times the EPA standard.
    —The year before, 123,000 picocuries per liter were detected in a well near the turbine building at Peach Bottom west of Philadelphia — six times the drinking water standard.
    —And in 2008, 7.5 million picocuries per liter leaked from underground piping at Quad Cities in western Illinois — 375 times the EPA limit.


    I’m uncomfortable with these figures and all nuclear power plants are due for multiple failures due to aging. This is when we need our regulators the most and the NRC may be at its weakest. We are in an antiregulatory invironment and the NRC has experienced regulatory capture by the nuclear industry insiders.

    If the NRC cannot do its job properly with aging nuclear power plants, then yes shut down the power plants. The United States cannot afford the  poison they are putting out.

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