Tritium at Nuclear Power Plants - National Radioactive Waste Coalition

Tritium at Nuclear Power Plants

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. The nuclear power plant is located near Plymouth, MA (38 MI SE of Boston, MA) in NRC Region I. Photo courtesy of ©Entergy Nuclear.

Marilyn Elie, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition | February 25, 2024

Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope that is found in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and rarely occurs naturally on the surface of the Earth. It is produced as a byproduct of the normal operations of nuclear reactors and is found in the fuel pools of reactors where the highly radioactive rods are stored at many reactor sites once they can no longer be used to produce energy. 

Tritium has a half-life of 12 years. That means that half of it will decay in 12 years and the half left will still be fully active.

Tritium is a beta emitter. The weak radioactive emissions from tritium can be blocked  by the skin. However, if it is inhaled or ingested its emissions disrupt cell functions during the ten days it takes to be excreted from the body. Gordon Edwards, a noted Canadian scientist, explains it this way:

“Each radioactive particle is like a tiny time bomb that will eventually “explode” (the industry uses the word “disintegrate”). When an atom disintegrates, it gives off projectiles that can damage living cells, causing them to develop into cancers later.”

Reactors require regular and routine releases to the air and water to continue to operate.Tritium, along with other radioactive contaminants, has been released into the body of water wherever the plant is situated since nuclear power plants have been operating. 

The NRC has regulations that were adopted in the 70’s that govern standards for these releases. The standards are based on the limited knowledge available at the time – at least 50 years ago. The EPA also set standards but did not rely on any health studies since there were none at the time. Instead, the EPA back-calculated acceptable levels of tritium in water from the radiation exposure delivered by existing radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing in surface waters.

New scientific research now paints a different picture of this radioactive isotope.This new evaluation is likely to prove challenging, as tritium is difficult to evaluate because of its relatively short life span compared to other radioactive isotopes. On the one hand, there is evidence that the risk from tritium is negligible and current standards are more than precautionary. On the other, there is also evidence that tritium could be more harmful than originally thought.

As  health physicist, David Kocher, from the Oak Ridge Center for Risk Analysis, who has studied tritium for 30 years observes,

“It’s not a health-based standard, it’s based on what was easily achievable.” 

There is ongoing research on this topic.  Some say that the practice of dumping radioactive isotopes into the waters where the reactors are located has been going on for decades and has never done any harm. The unanswered question is, how do we know that no harm has been done?  A health study that will be done at the Pilgrim reactor site before any more radioactive isotopes can be dumped is seeking an answer to this question.

There are other options to dumping.

The water can be evaporated, which takes a lot of electricity and releases tritium to the air.  

It can be shipped off-site which means a lot of truck traffic and creates environmental justice issues that come with contaminating another community. 

It can be stored on site and allowed to naturally decay along with other radioactive waste already stored there. Japan has held large tanks of irradiated water on site at Fukushima for years, so it can be done.

The cumulative results of this kind of contamination have not been considered.  Only recently has the EPA released a Cumulative Research Impacts study that talks about the necessity of “co-exposure to determinants of health” food communities. It now suggests that individual acts of pollution need to be taken in a larger context and community voices listened too. This is what happened at Indian Point when a massive public outcry initiated a law which prohibited the dumping of the last batch of spent fuel water into the Hudson River, much to the dismay of Holtec, the corporation decommissioning the reactors.

Cumulative Impacts Research (Final Report_FINAL-EPA 600-R-22-014a.pdf. p.8, 20, 27).

Communities may differ in their approach to the best way to solve the problem of tritium disposal, which is usually comingled with other radionuclides, during the life of the reactor and also during decommissioning. Given all of the questions surrounding the disposal of this radioactive waste, the least harmful and most prudent way forward is a program of storage on site along with the high level radioactive fuel rods until the tritium can decay or new scientific treatments are discovered.

Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds is a renowned expert on this topic.  He will make a presentation to the New York Decommissioning Oversight Board on April 19th. The meeting will be held at Cortlandt Town Hall, 1 Heady Street, Cortlandt, New York. This is a hybrid meeting, so people can watch it on Zoom. Go to New York Decommissioning Oversight Board closer to the meeting date for the link to register.

In the meantime, here is a video of Arnie making a presentation about tritium at:

Here is a link to Canadian scientist Gordon Edwards on tritium:

Troubles with Tritium

by Gordon Edwards, January 11, 2024

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