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Investigation – Tritium Examined Pt. 1

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It is always important to revisit and investigate into human health conditions that have the ability to devastate human health, and the environment. The Fukishima plant disaster that occurred last year serves as a healthy reminder, that we must remain more vigilant of the social and environmental effects due to the actions of the energy industry. As such, the article today examines a energy related issue – that of Tritium.

Tritium

Back in November of 2009, a report titled: Tritium on Tap, was published by the Sierra Club of Canada, where they warned that radioactive emissions from various nuclear plants across the country had more than doubled over the past decade. The figures were based on statistics compiled by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission which measured pollution coming from the plants.  Although Canadian guidelines have suggested that the existing levels of tritium in the water are safe, the report cited recent peer-reviewed studies, including a recent review by the UK’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters, that suggested the opposite.

The report argued that the nuclear industry’s claims of nuclear power as a pollution-free source of energy were false. According to their report, “nuclear power plants routinely pollute the air, lakes, rivers, and the ocean with massive quantities of radioactive tritium and carbon-14. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. Carbon-14 is a radioactive form of carbon. Because hydrogen and carbon are the building blocks of life, these radioactive pollutants are easily incorporated into our bodies. Radioactive hydrogen bonds with oxygen to form water. Because humans are mostly made out of water, the tritium becomes part of us.”

The report added, “Tritium replaces ordinary non-radioactive hydrogen and travels throughout the body…it becomes part of our DNA – and that’s where it does its damage, from close range. Tritium decays within our body, ejecting high velocity beta particles that can break the chemical bonds of our DNA. It is a carcinogen and causes birth defects. New research has shown that the nuclear industry has greatly underestimated the risks of exposure to tritium and other radioactive pollutants from nuclear reactors.

The report noted that other jurisdictions such as the European Union and California that have set drinking water guidelines for tritium that are hundreds of times stronger than Canada’s guidelines. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited confirmed there was a “controlled release” of tritium into the Ottawa River from December 2008 to February 2009 but said this leak did not pose any risk to the environment because it respected the existing regulations. However, the Sierra Club said tests of the water done by a lab at the University of Waterloo revealed tritium levels that were five times higher than in water at other locations without any nearby nuclear plants.

In response to the Tritium report, the CNSC alleged the Sierra Club of Canada was misleading the public and participating in “junk science“. In their press release, the CNSC said, “[we] would not license a facility unless it was operating safely. Tritium levels found in the municipal drinking water of the communities near nuclear facilities are well below national and international standards, and below the 20 Bq/L limit recently proposed by the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council. The Sierra Club’s report contains no new information on tritium. However, it contains many misleading statements that may create unwarranted concerns and fears amoung members of the public.

This prompted Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility a nuclear watchdog, to write an email to the Ottawa Citizen, alleging the CNSC has acted opposite to the interests of whom they should serve to protect. The email read, “I have yet to see the CNSC publically correct any of the fallacious claims made routinely by the Canadian nuclear industry, yet here they are criticizing a public interest organization for daring to say that deliberate releases of radioactive carcinogens like tritium into public drinking water supplies should be stopped. In their latest press release, the CNSC has revealed itself as a defender of the industry’s right to pollute rather than a champion of the public’s right to a hygienic environment.”

The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility also added additional information on Tritium that can be found here and the Tritium Awareness Project.

The Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council (ODWAC), an agency of the government of Ontario, published a report back in 2009 titled Report and advice on the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard for Tritium.

The report outlined the following:

  •  There is a natural background level of tritium in water in Ontario, in the range of 2 to 3 Bq/L; any levels above this range imply man-made sources;
  •  in setting a drinking water standard in Ontario we are in fact saying that it is acceptable or ‘safe’ to allow that water to be consumed each day over the lifetime of 70 years;
  •  Based on these two documents [letters by Canadian Nuclear Association, and the Toronto Medical Officer of Health] , the Council concluded that an Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard for tritium of 20 Bq/L, applied as a running annual average, would meet the requirements for an appropriate level of risk and public safety, while remaining practiceable and achievable by the nuclear power industry.

And the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard stated their recommendation would be for tritium to be revised to limits of 20 Bq/L.

To deal with this situation, in 2009 NDP MP Paul Dewar tabled a motion in the House of Commons that sought to end tritium dumping into the Ottawa River and reduce the Canadian drinking water limit for tritium. Dewar stated, “I am extremely concerned about the high levels of tritium in the water we drink. There is a host of health risks posed by exposure to high levels of tritium in water.” Studies done on lab animals found higher levels of tritium exposure could cause a number of health problems from miscarriages and birth defects to permanent genetic damage and cancer.

Table 2.International Limits for Tritium in Drinking Water

Power reactors Tritium Limit (Bq/L)
CANDU Total
Canada 18 18 7,000
EU 2 126 100
Finland 0 4 30,000
Australia 0 0 76,103
Russia 0 31 7,700
Switzerland 0 5 10,000
United States 0 103 740
WHO n/a n/a 10,000

Of interest here, is the Government of Canada’s guideline of 7,000 becquerels per litre (Bq/L) limit for tritium in drinking water in comparison to the EU’s limit of 100 Bq/L. The USA has set their limits at 740 Bq/L.

There have been many Tritium leaks that have occurred in the United States as well, and separate investigations conducted by the Associated Press, and The Guardian Newspaper, revealed information to suggest the nuclear industry as a whole, engaged in collusion with government authorities to circumvent regulations, participate in misinformation, and tending to business interests.

Associated Press Investigation

The Associated Press initiated in a year-long investigation titled “Aging Nukes,” that revealed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear power industry had been working in tandem to weaken safety standards to keep aging reactors within the rules. The report also revealed radioactive tritium had leaked from three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping. Even as the number and severity of the leaks were escalating, federal regulators extended the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s records, reviewed as part of the AP’s yearlong examination of safety issues at aging power plants, Tritium leaked from atleast 48 of 65 sites. What is worrisome, is that leaks from atleast 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standards for tritium levels, sometimes hundreds of times more than the limit.

Democracy Now covered this story well in depth back in mid-June 2011 when the story broke out. The video can be seen here and a full transcript of the video can be found here.

Within the interview, Jeff Donn stated the collusion between industry and government to lax safety standards.

The nuclear industry and their government regulators have been working together to lower safety standards as aging nuclear systems and parts and plants come close to violating those standards and those rules. And that’s been a pattern for decades now, and we’re seeing a lot of it as these plants get older and older….The plants have had piping buried underneath, underground, covered underground for so long the piping can’t be properly inspected. It’s rarely looked at carefully, visually. It’s rarely dug up. And it’s been so long now that a lot of that is corroding, and you have leaks, that we’ve documented, at three-quarters of the sites. And in fact, a Government Accountability Office, the congressional investigative arm, released—had a report released a day or two ago after our series, and in that they say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal regulators say, you know what? There have been either leaks or spills—presumably many related to aging, some not, but radioactive leaks or spills—of tritium and other radionuclides at all the plants.

As Jeff Donn noted in his report, 66 of 104 reactors were granted license renewals and most of the 20-year extensions given were done with little public attention. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had yet to reject a single application to extend an original license of a reactor and the process had been so routine that many in the industry were already planning for additional license extensions that could push the plants to operate for 80 years, and then a 100. He wrote, “Regulators and industry now contend that the 40-year limit was chosen for economic reasons and to satisfy antitrust concerns, not for safety issues. They contend that a nuclear plant has no technical limit on its life.” The Associated Press review of historical records, along with interviews with engineers who helped develop nuclear power, showed opposite findings –  Reactors were made to last only 40 years.

The Associated Press report included testimony from nuclear engineers to support its findings. Contained within were, “Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to ageing were uncovered. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident. Yet despite the many problems linked to ageing, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.

To counter the criticisms and allegations of wrongdoings – the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) spokesperson Tom Kauffman stated, “There has been no adverse impact on public health or safety from the release of tritium at commercial nuclear power plants. The industry takes tritium releases seriously and voluntarily implemented an underground piping integrity initiative in 2009 to better manage issues related to the integrity of underground piping.” He added, “The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 permits nuclear plants to renew their operating licenses, and is “clear evidence that the potential for plants to stay in operation beyond the initial 40-year licensing period was recognized at the time. The decision to place a 40-year limit on initial operating licenses of commercial nuclear reactors was based on a judgment of the appropriate period to amortize the large capital investment, not the anticipated design life.”

But Donn has challenged this, asserting that in 1982, D. Clark Gibbs chairman of the licensing and safety committee of an early industry group, wrote to the NRC that “most nuclear power plants, including those operating, under construction or planned for the future, are designed for a duty cycle which corresponds to a 40-year life.” And three years later, when Illinois Power Co. sought a license for its Clinton station, utility official D.W. Wilson told the NRC on behalf of his company’s nuclear licensing department that “all safety margins were established with the understanding of the limitations that are imposed by a 40-year design life.” Richard T. Lahey Jr. in the early 1970s helped design reactors for General Electric Co. and oversaw safety research and development. Lahey dismissed claims that reactors were made with no particular life span. “These reactors were really designed for a certain lifetime,” he said. “What they’re saying is really a fabrication.

The application for relicensing was so routine, Joe Hopenfield, engineer who worked on aging-related issues at the NRC before retiring in 2008 said, “Everything I’ve seen is rubber-stamped.” He has since worked for groups challenging relicensing.

Due to the sheer nature findings on the subject matter, the report on Tritium will be completed in part 2 of this article.

Comments (2)

  1. Pingback: Analysis – Canada’s Code of SilencePrudent Press

  2. Pingback: Investigation – Tritium Examined Pt 2Prudent Press

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