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.”