By Karl Grossman
On Long Island, New York, where I live, in the late 1990s the two nuclear reactors at Brookhaven National Laboratory were shut down because they had been leaking tritium into the water table below, part of the island’s aquifer system on which more than 3 million people depend on as their sole source of potable water.
BNL was established on a former Army base in 1947 by the then U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to develop civilian uses of nuclear technology and do atomic research.
BNL scientists were upset with the U.S. Department of Energy over the closures. BNL has been a DOE facility in the wake of the AEC’s elimination by the U.S. Congress in 1974 for being in conflict of interest for having two missions, promoting and also regulating nuclear technology.
The water table below BNL flows partly into a community named Shirley.
Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir of an Atomic Town is a 2008 book by Kelly McMasters, a professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, who grew up in Shirley.
In it she tells of widespread cancer in Shirley noting how BNL was designated as a high-pollution Superfund site in 1989 “with soil and drinking water contaminated with Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, Radium 226, and Europium 154, as well as underground plumes of tritium stretching out towards my town.”
BNL scientists in the wake of the closure of its two reactors because of the tritium leaks minimized their health impacts noting that tritium is used in exit signs—begging the question of why a radioactive substance is used in exit signs.
Now, tritium has become a major international issue with the Japanese government planning to release 1.3 million tons of water containing tritium into the Pacific Ocean from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants.
It’s also been a hot issue in New York State where Holtec International has a plan to dump tritium-contaminated water from the decommissioned Indian Point nuclear power plants, which it owns, into the Hudson River. A number of communities along the Hudson River depend on the river for their potable water.
Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. As the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its “Backgrounder on Tritium” acknowledges: “Like normal hydrogen, tritium can bond with oxygen to form water. When this happens, the resulting ‘tritiated’ water is radioactive. Tritiated water…is chemically identical to normal water and the tritium cannot be filtered out of the water.”
Regarding the use of tritium in exit signs, what’s that about?
As the website of a company called Self Luminous Exit Signs, which sell signs using tritium for $202.95 each, says: “World War II created the demand for glowing emergency exits in ships, submarines, barracks and bombers where battery power was unavailable.”
Something that grew out of war was commercialized afterwards—as has nuclear technology been generally.
As to dangers, in a posting titled “Tritium in Exit Signs,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says: “Tritium is a radioactive isotope that needs special handling procedures. Tritium is most dangerous when it is inhaled or swallowed. Many exit signs contain tritium….Tritium exit signs are marked with a permanent warning label. Tritium exit signs are useful because they do not require a traditional power source such as batteries or hardwired electricity.”
“No radiation is emitted from a working, unbroken, tritium exit sign,” EPA goes on.
“Damage to tritium exit signs is most likely to occur when a sign is dropped during installation or smashed into the demolition of a building. If a tritium exit sign is damaged, the tritium could be released….If a tritium exit sign is broken, never tamper with it. Leave the area immediately and call for help.”
Adds EPA: “Unwanted tritium exit signs may not be put into ordinary trash; they require special disposal. Tritium exit signs that are illegally put in ordinary landfills can break and contaminate the site.”
Further, says the Conference of Radiation Control Programs, Inc. on its posting headed “Tritium Exit Signs Present a Challenge in Handling and Disposal,” they “must be isolated from other wastes during disposal, since they may and often do contaminate scrap metal from demolition sites. For this reason, tritium exit signs are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and proper disposal of the signs is required once they are no longer used.“
It goes on: “While many large commercial and government entities are aware of the requirements for use and disposal, many small businesses are unaware of the NRC requirements, leading to the improper disposal of tritium exit signs industrial or municipal landfills, or worse, their being sold over the internet. An estimated 2 million tritium exit signs have been sold in the U.S. The number of signs in use now and where they are located is unknown, given that there is limited tracking of the purchase, use, or disposal of the signs and that tritium exit signs have a usable life ranging from ten to twenty years.”
Also, says the organization: “Should a tritium exit sign—which contains tritium-filled glassed tubes—break, its contents could pose a risk to those located in the near vicinity. They could be exposed to tritium gas or tritiated water from the tritium that has escaped into the environment. Cleaning up tritium after an accident could be costly, especially for small businesses. Worker or public exposure to tritium also could present unwanted and unnecessary liabilities.”
So it goes regarding the very real dangers of tritium exit signs.
For a broader review of the hazards of tritium, this year a book, Tritium’s Danger, was published, authored by Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. His Ph.D. involved a specialization in nuclear fusion, on which the hydrogen bomb is based. The hydrogen bomb’s fusion process utilizes tritium. And, if fusion is ever developed as an energy source—and an enormous effort has been underway for years to do that—tritium would play a major part.
“Makhijani makes it clear that the impacts of tritium on human health, especially when it is taken inside the body, warrant much more attention and control than they have received until now,” writes Robert Alvarez in his review of Tritium’s Danger in the June 26, 2023 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, served as senior policy adviser to the Department of Energy’s secretary and was deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999.
Tritium, relates Alvarez, “is one of the most expensive, rare, and potentially harmful elements in the world.”
“Although its rarity and usefulness in some applications give it a high monetary value, tritium is also a radioactive contaminant that has been released widely to the air and water from nuclear power and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plants,” Alvarez goes on. “Makhijani points out that ‘one teaspoon of tritiated water would contaminate about 100 billion gallons of water to the U.S. drinking water limit; that is enough to supply about 1 million homes with water for a year.”
“Since the 1990s, about 70 percent of the nuclear power plant sites in the United States (43 out of 61 sites) have had significant tritium leaks that contaminated groundwater in excess of federal drinking water limits,” writes Alvarez.
“The most recent leak occurred in November 2022, involving 400,000 gallons of tritium-contaminated water from the Monticello nuclear station in Minnesota. The leak was kept from the public for several months….A good place to start limiting the negative effects of tritium contamination, Makhijani recommends, is to significantly tighten drinking water standards,” says Alvarez.
“Routine releases of airborne tritium are also not trivial,” writes Alvarez. As part of his “well-researched” book, says Alvarez, “Makhijani underscores this point by including a detailed atmospheric dispersion study that he commissioned, indicating that tritium from the Braidwood Nuclear Power Plant in Illinois has literally raining down from gaseous releases—as it incorporates with precipitation to form tritium oxide—something that occurs at water cooled reactors. Spent fuel storage pools are considered the largest source of gaseous tritium releases.”
And Alvarez, who not only has long experience as an official with the Department of Energy but for years was senior investigator for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, states: “In past decades, regulators have papered over the tritium-contamination problem by asserting, when tritium leakage becomes a matter of public concern, that the tritium doses humans might receive are too small to be of concern. Despite growing evidence that tritium is harmful in ways that fall outside the basic framework for radiation protection, agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission remain frozen in time when it comes to tritium regulation. The NRC and other regulating agencies are sticking to an outdated premise that tritium is a ‘mild’ radioactive contaminant….Overall, the NRC implies its risk of tritium ingestion causing cancer is small.”
As for the dumping of 1.3 million tons of tritium-contaminated water into the Pacific from the Fukushima site, this is being opposed in the Pacific region and is focused upon in a just-released film documentary, “The Fukushima Disaster: The Hidden Side of the Story.”
After the 2011 disaster, Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the Fukushima plants, released 300,000 tons of tritium-contaminated water into the Pacific, notes the film. A thousand tanks were eventually built for holding tritium-contaminated water which continues to leak from the plants. But now there is no room for additional tanks. So the 1.3 million tons of tritium-contaminated water are proposed to be discharged over 30 years into the Pacific.
In the documentary, Andrew Napuat, a member of the Parliament of the nation of Vanuatu, an 83-island archipelago in the Pacific, says: “We have the right to say no to the Japan solution. We can’t let them jeopardize our sustenance and livelihood.”
“China condemns Japanese plan to release Fukushima water,” was the headline of an Associated Press report. It quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying it “concerns the global marine environment and public health, which is not a private matter for the Japanese side.”
Sean Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace who has been involved in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, is quoted in the Guardian as describing as “scientifically bankrupt” the claim the tritium would not pose a health risk. “It is internal exposure to organically bound tritium that is the problem—when it gets inside fish, seafood, and then humans. When tritium gets inside cells, it can do damage. Tepco and the Japanese government are making a conscious decision to increase marine pollution with radioactivity, and they have no idea where that will lead.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency is supporting the scheme. However, the agency was established by the UN as an international version of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission with its mission, like that of the AEC, to promote nuclear technology—as the IAEA statute says “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy”—while also regulating it, a continuation of nuclear conflict interest but on the international level.
Back in the U.S.A., some 138 groups organized in a Stop Holtec Coalition have been calling on New York Governor Kathy Hochul to stop Holtec’s plan to dump a million gallons of tritium-contaminated water into the Hudson River.
A letter they sent to the governor says “we are deeply concerned about the impacts on the health and safety of local resident, the river’s ecosystem, and local economy. The Hudson Valley region is densely populated and also serves as a recreational area for millions from New York City and across the state…The Indian Point nuclear power plant was rightfully shuttered in 2021, yet the spent fuel pool wastewater remaining on the site contains radioactive contaminants, including tritium. Exposure to tritium is linked to cancer, miscarriages, genetic defects and other health effects.”
Organizations signing the letter include Food & Water Watch, Grassroots Environmental Education, Hudson Riverkeeper, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition and Promoting Health and Sustainable Energy.
There was legislation passed in the New York State Assembly last month and in the State Senate in May banning “the discharge of any radiological agent into the waters of the state.”
There have been demonstrations protesting the plan, a petition drive with more than 400,00 signatures, and resolutions passed by local governments opposing the release. The first was passed unanimously in March by the Westchester Board of Legislators. It noted how “pre-release treatment would not remove tritium” from water, that tritium is “carcinogenic” and that “there are seven communities” that “source their drinking water from the Hudson.” The Indian Point plants are in Westchester County, 25 miles north of New York City.